Good Friday: The Simplest Things


Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2015

“Meditations,” by R.S. Thomas:

And to one God says: Come
to me by numbers and
figures; see my beauty
in the angles between
stars, in the equations
of my kingdom. Bring
your lenses to the worship
of my dimensions: far
out and far in, there
is always more of me
in proportion. And to another:
I am the bush burning
at the centre of
your existence; you must put
your knowledge off and come
to me with your mind
bare. And to this one
he says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.

I love this poem because it’s about how people find God. Not everyone, after all, sees God in the same way. God speaks to different people in different ways.

Some people find God in the stars—they see God in the nearly impossible beauty of the universe, they see a world saturated by God, built and squared and finished by God from the distant galaxies to the flutter of the hummingbird. And they say, yes, this is Good, and yes, this tells the glory of God. Yes, surely all of this comes from love, and asks me to love it back. Amen and amen.

And some people find God in their hearts, in that burning center of their existence. What is it that my heart yearns for? What power within me remembers, and seeks, and desires, and loves? It is God, some of us hear. And God beckons us deeper into ourselves, deeper into that fire that burns off our understanding and our knowledge and draws us ever toward himself, himself within us. For God alone my soul in silence waits, and the waiting is the beauty and the power. Amen and amen.

But these things can pass. When we stop looking at the stars or the hummingbird and confront our fellow human who is in pain, God can suddenly be less visible. God can even sneak away from us. And when your mind is ready to turn back from the fellow human who is in pain—from the dying person or the natural disaster—maybe God won’t be back there in the stars anymore.

And when we stop looking inside ourselves and look instead at our messy lives or the messy world, God might not be very present to us. And when your mind is ready again to contemplate that burning bush in your heart, it might not be there any more.

God is strange. You can glimpse him once, in a flash. You can sense his presence for a season of your life, and then spend years chasing after him. You can feel him, almost see him plain as day. But then, while everything looks the same, you can’t see God any more. The living room is exactly the way it was, but dad is gone. I’ve met burned-out veterans of this chase for God. They wanted to see what they believed in, or had been told to believe in. And they tried. They tried hard. They tried to guess the password that would open the door, they tried to push the right buttons in the right order, they tried to find the missing clue that would solve the puzzle. But the door never swung back open, the lock never unbuckled, the puzzle never snapped back into focus. A lot of them give up. I don’t blame them.

There is something terrible about Jesus’ words from the cross: “I am thirsty.” It is not surprising. Dehydration was part of the process that kills you when you are crucified. But it is agonizing. Thirst, real thirst, is unbearable. And yet here is the one who told the woman at the well that he could give her living water, needing to be served by the people who are killing him. Where is the God of the stars, the God who gathered the oceans and sets the springs in the deeps of the earth, who waters the earth and orders all things beautifully—where is God now?

And for that matter, where is the God of the heart? Where is the God who strengthens us to bear all things, who burns within us, assuring us no matter what the he is near, that the world can’t harm us, that hunger and thirst and pain are only the passing illusions of our mortal bodies? Why couldn’t Jesus reach the end of his horrible race without that last tremble of physical frailty? Where is God now?

Well, God is right there. It’s like the poet writes:

“And to this one,
[God] says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.”

That poet, a man named R.S. Thomas, was an Anglican priest in Wales. And he wasn’t lying—he had bleak emotions and he did not walk around feeling the presence of God all the time. He was also apparently a pretty sour fellow—his son reports that he would drone on in his sermons about the evils of refrigerators, mostly to parishioners who couldn’t afford them anyway.

But he was right about this: our faith is about the simplest things. A human body—a thirsty, beaten, betrayed, forsaken body on a cross—is how God wishes to be seen, even by people who are tired of chasing him in the stars or in their hearts. God is always there on the cross.

It’s the simplest thing, and it’s offered up to us as a place of reverence. A child in swaddling clothes, sleeping in a manger; a man’s hand washing the feet of his friends; a lonely, thirsty death—here is where we are invited to look with holy awe. And if the sky is dark and your heart is cold, there is still God revealing himself in this perfect, suffering simplicity. In this moment he pleads and bursts through our deepest exhaustion, our sourest disillusionment, our hardest faithlessness and asks only to be seen. See these wounds. See this thirst. See this dying love of a man for his mother and his friends. See the earth tremble. See the sun blotted out. That is, for today, faith enough. For in that simplest of things comes all grace, all forgiveness, and all love.

Amen and amen.

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