Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23:44-49)

Jesus died in the dark.  In the middle of day, when the sun was supposed to shine, from noon to three, a deep darkness shrouded the whole land.  The sun wouldn’t shine.

Just as, “In the beginning,” when the earth was a dark, formless, chaotic mass, before God said, “Let there be light,” as Jesus hung on the cross, the earth was plunged, once again, into chaotic darkness.  Which is strange, because Jesus came to be a light in the darkness.  At Christmas, we read…

  • The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
  • The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5)

Yet, that Friday, it seemed darkness had overcome the light, overwhelmed the light, snuffed out the light.  The light of the world – the innocent, sinless, Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world – was crucified by evil men.

They’d conspired.  They’d told lies.  They’d taken advantage of the weakness and greed of one of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.  And, now, the miracle worker and so called, “King of the Jews,” was defeated.  Darkness won, or so it appeared.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            We often, rightly, associate darkness with evil.  Evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness.  But the darkness on Good Friday was NOT the darkness of evil.  Though dark deeds were done, this darkness was something else.

What was this darkness?  This was the darkness of the Father’s grief, watching his beloved son suffer and die.  This was the darkness piercing the heart of God, as the Holy Trinity experienced the separation and death of the Son.  This was creation reacting to the evil done to its creator.  The sun, itself, refused to shine on this dark day.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            Lent, and especially Holy Week, is a darker season of the Christian year.  During Lent, reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and his sacrificial death for our sins.  Lent is for repentance, confession, self-denial, and self-examination.   Compared to Christmas and Easter, Lent is meant to be darker.

But, this particular Lent, here in Coral Springs and Parkland, has been much, much darker than usual.  Some have referred to the February 14 tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School as the “Valentine’s Day” tragedy.  It was also Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.  Some will always associate the Stoneman Douglas tragedy with future Valentine’s Days.  Not me.  I’ll always remember it on Ash Wednesdays.  For me, Ash Wednesdays will never be the same.

That Ash Wednesday night, as we gathered in the immediate aftermath, we marked our foreheads with ashes, in the form of a cross, as a reminder of our sin, mortality, and absolute dependence on God.  “From ashes you have come.  To ashes you will return.”  But, that night, as the dead were still lying where they’d fallen, as the injured were being treated, and many parents were still separated from their children, and as the names of some of the dead had not yet been announced, the cross-shaped ashes we wore also represented our terrible grief and lament.

For the families and friends of the seventeen who died, for the families and friends of the seventeen who were injured, and for our whole community, these forty days of Lent have been undeniably dark.  Darkness has covered the land, here, too.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            As Jesus hung on the cross, in the darkness, he was bearing on his shoulders the darkness of sin, and the brokenness and evil of the entire history of this world.  In some way, defying comprehension, Jesus’ death, even includes the darkness of our own recent and the dark and difficult days that have followed, here, for us.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God is with us when darkness crashes over us.

Martin Luther King preached, “We must also remember that God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces…  When the lamp of hope flickers and candle of faith runs low, he restoreth our souls, giving us renewed vigor to carry on.  He is with us not only in the noontime of fulfillment but also in the midnight of despair.”

And, in his final moments Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last. 

            At last, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, his ordeal was over.  The Son of God was dead.  For the moment, darkness defeated the light.

There is a phrase used at many funeral and memorial services, that says something like, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…” adopted from the final words on Jesus’ lips.  I didn’t attend the funerals of the seventeen who died, but I’m certain some version of that phrase was said – pastors, priests, and rabbis committing the souls of the innocent to our heavenly Father, just as Jesus offered his.

            “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Undeniably, Jesus’ ordeal was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long, sleepless night– full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; the abuse and mockery of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds shouting, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, nearly killing him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders already flayed by the soldier’s whip.  All before he was nailed to the cross.

When he came to Golgotha, long nails were driven through his hands and feet, affixing him to the cross.  And, then his cross was raised, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he suffered unspeakable agony, as life slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung on his cross, his disciples abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As darkness covered the land, he may have wondered if God abandoned him too.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to be at peace.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            As Jesus died, he was in control.  The casualty of terrible human cruelty, yet Jesus was no victim.  Dying in the darkness, yet nothing could extinguish his light.  Dying because he chose to give his life for us, sacrificially.  Satisfied, that he accomplished what he came to do.

John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            And, Jesus said these words in a “loud voice” – not an embarrassed whisper, or pathetic whimper, or mumbled in weakness.  He wasn’t a scared child, calling out in the dark.  In his strongest voice, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; spoken in strength and confidence in the one who would receive his Spirit.  Even as his physical strength faded, his faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, HE KNEW he could entrust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, into the faithful hands of his Heavenly Father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Most images of Jesus on the cross, depict him with head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the majority of the time Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold up his head.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him, as he hung in the darkness.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

In the darkness of Good Friday, his eyes were focused and clear.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            I wonder when the sun shined again.  Did the sun return that day, after Jesus was taken down from his cross, or did the darkness remain, as afternoon passed into the night?  Was it dark, when they laid Jesus in his tomb?  Did the sun rise with the dawn on Saturday morning, or did dark clouds linger that day too?  Whether the sun literally shined, or not, until the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, while Jesus lay dead in his grave, the world was dark a place.

But, Easter morning, the darkness lifted.

Dr. Martin Luther King also said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

For a dark moment in history, darkness appeared to win.  And, undeniably, for some, the darkness of this year’s Ash Wednesday will never pass, not in this life.  The darkness of grief will always be with them, in this life.  And, that is tragic.  This life, this world, as we know, can be filled with terrible darkness.

But, light has overcome the dark.  Death was confronted in the darkness, and was defeated.  We may endure too many dark Good Fridays, in this life.  But, the dawn of Easter is coming.

 

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.

 

 

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Among the ancient cultures referenced in the Christian Old Testament, a mythical sea monster, called “leviathan,” was believed to exist.

Leviathan were believed to be great sea serpents, living in the depths of the oceans, having fearsome teeth, impenetrable skin, and fiery breath.  Nothing conceivable could defeat the Leviathan; neither harpoons, spears, hooks, swords, arrows, or clubs.

“Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear.”  (Job 41:33)

Leviathan falls in the same category of dragons, kraken, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Big Foot; powerful, frightful creatures that never existed, but people have sincerely believed in at different times and places throughout human history.  I can imagine Hagrid, from the Harry Potter novels, keeping a pet leviathan in the lake outside of Hogwarts!  I can imagine a special leviathan episode of the old TV show, “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

In biblical times, the leviathan represented the most fearsome creature imaginable on the earth, and a good reason to keep your feet on dry land!  Whether or not leviathan literally existed is irrelevant to Scripture.  In biblical times, leviathan were believed to be real, and thus had significance.

The longest description of leviathan in Scripture is found in Job 41.  The book of Job describes the life of a man named Job, who experienced terrible tragedy, and questioned God’s fairness.  Most believe the book of Job was written to wrestle with the theological question of theodicy – why evil things happen to innocent people.

The Book of Job does NOT tell us why bad things happen to good people.  Instead, Job reveals the error and weaknesses of many of our pathetic theological explanations and rationalizations for why tragedies occur.  In the end, the book of Job simply describes a God that is beyond our ability to define, explain, predict, or control.

Today, I discovered a line in Job I’ve never noticed before.  God asks Job, “Will (a leviathan) make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?  Can you make a pet of (a leviathan) like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” (Job 41:4-5)

In essence, God asks, Who can make the most fearsome creature known to man a house pet?  Who can train a leviathan to walk on a leash?  Who can teach it to sit on your shoulder, like a pet parrot?”  God’s implied answer, “I can.  Only, I can.”

Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been wrestling, a lot, with the question of why God allows evil and suffering the in the world.  Frankly, the comfortable theological explanations I’ve believed and preached in the past, have felt a bit thin, as of late.  Though I haven’t discovered any new explanations I like any better than the old ones, somehow the image of a tamed leviathan sitting on God’s shoulder provides some perspective.

Though leviathan are mythical – especially tamed ones – and the real-life tragedies of this world are definitely not, this image – literal or not – reminds me that God is not defined by my simplistic definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.  Though I still want to believe God is good, right, just and fair, who am I to call “foul” when God doesn’t act on my terms or schedule?

Thomas G. Long, in his book, What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, asks, “Do we ultimately want to offer our own scheme of moral order, the very one we employ to determine that some human suffering is unjust, as a replacement for God?  Do we want in other words, to be God, or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the One who is God?”

I love the contrast of Job 41:8, If you lay a hand on (a leviathan), you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” versus the image of God taming a leviathan to be a house pet.  Though it doesn’t explain “unfair” human suffering to my satisfaction, and though I can’t comprehend why a leviathan-training-God can’t or won’t intervene in human tragedies, and though leviathan aren’t even real, I sense that God is saying, “I’ve got this.  Even when evil things happen, even when the darkness seems to rule the day, even when you doubt me, I’ve got this.  You can trust me.”

Perhaps we aren’t suppose to trust God AFTER we understand why bad things happen, which we likely never will.  Perhaps, we have to trust God first, to find peace in our inability to understand.  Of course, that doesn’t make tragedy “ok.”  Perhaps it helps me to be more “ok” with God, even when I’m devastated, and can’t begin to understand.

If God can tame the one who, makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment…” (Job 41:31), perhaps he is greater than the sum of our real world tragedies too.

 

Coddling Evil

Coddling Evil

Yesterday, in a brief conversation with a colleague, reflecting on the recent tragedy in our community, she asked, “Why do we coddle evil?”  

She wasn’t only talking about the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  She was talking about the myriad evils in our world – in our own communities – that we are either blind to, or just consider insignificant.

She was also talking about personified evil – the spiritual forces of wickedness at work in our world; undermining good, turning people away from God and their neighbor, and seeking out opportunities to cause death and destruction.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

I wonder if it’s because we blame evil on people.  We see people.  We see what they do.

Surely, people do evil things.  Surely, people are complicit for their evil acts.  Surely, people are responsible – and must be held responsible – for their choices.  But, what about the evil that shapes and forms the people who do evil things?

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 6:12

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

I wonder if it’s easier to dismiss evil, blaming it on the bad choices of bad people?  We fear evil, of course.  But, we think we can avoid it by living in nice neighborhoods, sending our kids to “good” schools, avoiding certain parts of town, not associating with certain types of people, putting “bad” people in prison, protecting our borders, and certainly not participating in anything “too” bad ourselves.

Yes – evil exists in bad neighborhoods, bad schools, and in bad people.  Evil also exists in gated communities, private schools, and in “model” citizens.  Evil exists in our work places, in our government, on our TVs, and in our social media.  Evil, sometimes, exists in us.

Evil isn’t only a troubled young man with an assault-style weapon – though evil was clearly at work in him.  Evil is greed.  Evil is racism.  Evil is materialism.  Evil is sexism.  Evil is addiction, in all of it’s varieties.  Evil is lust.  Evil is judging others as inferior.  Evil is careless, thoughtless, hurtful words.  Evil is idolatry, in all of it’s myriad forms.  Evil is selfishness.  Evil is division.  Evil is power used abusively.  Evil is apathy.  Evil is hate.  Evil is injustice.  Evil is violence.  Evil is complacency.  Evil is pride.  Evil is worldliness.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

In moments like these, we inevitably ask questions about how to protect ourselves from future evil.  “Shouldn’t we have tougher gun laws?  Shouldn’t we have better mental health screenings?  Shouldn’t we have better security in our schools?”  Security and the protection of the innocent is undeniably prudent.  But, evil always finds a way in.  Evil always finds a chink in one’s armor.   Evil always finds a willing partner.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking, as people of faith are, “How do we name evil, resist evil, and do battle with evil, before evil wreaks such havoc and destruction?  How do we acknowledge and name the evil we complacently accept and minimize in our world, our communities, and even in our own homes?  How do we stop coddling evil, and start confronting evil?”

I’m not talking about Hollywood-style spiritual warfare and exorcisms – though there certainly may be times, people, and places that is needed.  I’m talking about donning the “armor of God” and confronting the forces of darkness in their tangible forms – racism, poverty, injustice, and the pervasive acceptance of myriad worldly values contrary to the will of God.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it!”

The Church of Jesus is not called to avoid evil, to accept evil, or to pander to evil.  The Church of Jesus is called to be a bright, piercing, billion-kilowatt light in the darkest darkness.  And, where the light shines brightest, the darkness flees.

Rob Bell writes, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

One of my favorite quotes is from a missionary named C.T. Studd…

“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”

Christian friends, “Why do we coddle evil?”