Notes on a sermon preached on 12.10.08
Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo!
Romeo and Juliet, a whirlwind romance, a match made in heaven, but for us, the audience, it is from the start a tragedy. We know that they are from families bitterly divided, the Montagues and Capulets. There is a horrible feeling of inevitability as their eyes meet for the first time. This love is a love doomed to tragedy and all we can do is sit and watch in horror as their family feud closes in on them, and despite their increasingly desperate actions, nothing can be done to save them. A tale of helplessness.
The collapse of the world banking system at the moment has that same sickening feeling of inevitability. Only a year or so ago and everything was rosy, but suddenly we hear of sub-prime mortgages in the US, followed by the run on Northern Rock, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, HBOS, and the banks of Iceland, one after the other. Where’s this all going to go? What’s going to happen next? Governments and banks are doing all that they can to try and rescue the market from unravelling, but they are powerless. You know how everything goes in slow motion when you can see an accident happening but there is nothing you can do about it? So it is with the financial crisis right now. Everyone can see what is happening, even if they don’t understand it, but there seems to be nothing that anyone can do. A tale of helplessness.
‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Rom 7:15-24) A tale of helplessness.
In so many ways, the human story, our story, your story is a story of helplessness. So often we can see what is wrong in the world, or in ourselves, but there is nothing we can do about it.
This tale of helplessness is played out in the life of Jesus as well.
As you read through the Gospel of Luke, there’s that same sickening feeling. The stories start off at a fair pace as we move through the early ministry of Jesus; his miracles, teaching, and parables. But then it slows…
Jesus seems to be on a collision course, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. It all starts with admiring crowds and great popularity. Everyone wants to see a miracle, to be there when he speaks. He’s the new kid on the block, the latest big name, and everyone wants a piece of him. But as so often happens, this celebrity goes sour. Those who came before him become bitter when they see him taking their place. The Jewish religious leaders become jealous and don’t get what this fresh faced rabbi is all about. Soon their private concerns become public rivalry, eventually all out hostility.
There’s talk of shady acts, plotting and murder. Eventually it ends up with an unholy alliance between the most unexpected of bedfellows, the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The events pan out before us, moving ever slower, in greater detail.
He’s dragged before Pilate who finds nothing wrong with him. Despite this, somehow he ends up before Herod, who can also find nothing that he has done that is wrong. Yet Jesus still is not allowed to go. Every attempt to release him is blocked. The stakes escalate. Eventually Pilate in desperation remembers his annual tradition of releasing a convict. Surely they’d prefer to see Jesus go than the thug Barrabas!
But no, give us Barrabas the crowd cry! Crucify Jesus!
And so somehow, on the Cross we find Jesus. He never should have been there. It should not have happened, and yet no one could stop it.
A couple of years ago, Kate and I went to Parc St. Paul, one of the top theme parks in France. Made every effort to get there early so we could get to the front of the queues and have a full day there. When we arrived, we found it was deserted. Just us in the car park! Got straight on to everything we wanted to. There was one ride where we were strapped in – that should have sounded the alarm bells! – and lifted up what seemed like miles into the air, leaving the children pulling faces at us far below. In fact when we reached the top, Rowan seemed smaller than an ant. When we eventually stopped we began to panic. What if something happened to the children while we were strapped in all these miles above them? To be honest, this was merely a cover for the real reason we were panicking. We were strapped in miles above the ground and any moment now the ride would plunge us straight back down at some ridiculous speed! Time past slowly with us dangling, suspended mid air, helpless. Just as we thought it had broken down. Wooosh!!!…
At the heart of this story about helplessness is Jesus.
He’s pleaded with his friends to stay awake and pray with him, but they all fell asleep, and then one by one deserted him. The trials are a mockery, and he knows it – there’s no point in making a fuss and so he keeps quiet. His clothes are stripped from him, and with them his dignity. On that Cross, the whole world circles him, like vultures over a dying creature. Even his Father seems to turn from him – as he calls in another Gospel, ‘My God, my god, why have you forsaken me!’ Helpless, all he can do is take it.
The sign above him reads ‘King of the Jews’ and yet this is a King with no power. The taunt of the crowd who only a few days before cried Hosanna.
Even the criminal next to him looks down upon him – hailing down curses on him, ‘Aren’t you God’s chosen one? Save yourself and us!’ The one who held the masses in the palm of his hand, indeed, the one who held the stars in his hands, now holds only a nail and the heaped disgust of those who had offered him before adulation. Helpless, all he can do is take it.
Couldn’t anyone stop this? His friends tried. Pilate tried. Even Jesus himself called out for this cup to be taken from him! How could it be that one so wise, so good and so powerful could end up this way?
Here’s the thing. When the crook on the cross by him shouted, ‘Save yourself and save us’, Jesus faced a dilemma. Jesus had always known that this moment was coming. In fact he’d chosen it. He wasn’t helpless. Yes, everything that happened was done to him, but it was his decision that had bought him here, his obedience to his Father’s will.
As far back as Luke 9:22 we read Jesus revealing this to his disciples,
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then a bit later in Luke 13:31-33,
‘At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!’
Time and time again Jesus makes similar comments. He is perfectly clear that the conclusion of his teaching and miracles is the Cross at the hands of God’s people. And yet he chooses to continue. He has every opportunity to go another way. And yet he resolutely refuses. His disciples try to stop him saying such things, try to deter him from heading to this fate, but when they do he rebukes them, (Mark 8: 33)
‘But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”’
So what’s the dilemma? When the criminal hanging next to him cried out ‘save yourself and us’, he could save himself, and he could save us, only he couldn’t do both. Either he could save himself from the anguish of the Cross, or he could save us from our sinfulness –that helplessness that we looked at a couple of weeks ago that means that although we want to do good, we can’t help but do wrong, wrong to ourselves, our neighbours and to God himself.
Hanging there above Golgotha, Jesus looked again at those around him and made his choice once more.
He looked at the woman wailing because of what he was enduring, and he was overwhelmed at their helplessness, telling them not to weep over him, but to weep for what they were about to have done to them.
He looked at those crucifying him, their helplessness in their deeds, and called out ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’
To the criminal that turned and asked to be remembered in his kingdom, overcome with love he assured, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’
Remember Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – now as then, at any point Jesus could have called upon hosts of angels to come and release him. But surveying those around them, helpless in their sin and the sins of others, he made his choice. He chose to save us.
Jesus never explains how his death saves us. In someway, through his willingly taking on himself the helplessness that we all experience, and absorbing all anger and hatred that was sent his way, the sins of the world, he took our place. Somehow, from the Cross, he calls out ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ he knows that through his sacrifice, those who place his trust in him are forgiven, are saved. He is willing to die there, to commit his spirit, his life, his breath to his Father in death, as he knows through that death he has restored our broken relationship with God.
Back to the introduction to Romeo and Juliet:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Through the sacrifice of these helpless star-crossed lovers, the two warring families are brought to peace.
Read Isaiah 53
Through Jesus choosing to be helpless, choosing to save us not himself, we are given the chance to be reconciled with our Father, if we say yes to what he has done for us.