Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2012
Let me not, to the marriage of true minds,
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Today we see what it means to say that Jesus loves us. We have seen him heal the sick and even raise the dead. We have heard him forgive sins and restore people in the eyes of their communities. We have heard of the multitudes he fed and the crowds he taught. We know those people who came to him one at a time, in the dead of night or at a Samaritan well, to hear words of truth and blessing. We know that he gently corrected his disciples and we know that he washed their feet. We know that he told them to love each other, because he had loved them so dearly. But today we see what it means to say that Jesus loves us.
Today we see what it means to say that Jesus suffered. We know that he was born in dangerous circumstances. We hear that he was given myrrh, the perfume of burial, at his birth, and that he lived as a refugee with his parents in Egypt. We hear also that prophecies of his sacrificial death would follow him from his earliest days. We know that he was threatened by crowds and schemed against by the authorities. We know that he lived on the road, and we know that he had nowhere to lay his head. But we see what it means to say that Jesus suffered.
Today we have seen the dreadful journey of our Lord through his last, longest day of life. He is questioned by the Roman and Jewish officials. He is mocked by the soldiers and condemned by the crowds. He is beaten, sentenced to die, and burdened with a cross. An innocent bystander is swept along, forced to help him carry the cross. He faces the weeping of his supporters and the abandonment of his closest disciples. He is stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. He is given vinegar to drink. He gives his suffering mother into the care of his last loyal friend. And at last, when his arms are too fatigued to hold his body up, he sinks down, and his breath–his spirit, as they called it in those days–is strangled out of his body.
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Indeed, the love of Jesus is put to a terrible test this day, and his love does not alter, even when it finds alteration in others. Even as Jesus sees the crowds flee from his side, even as Jesus sees his disciples betray and deny and abandon him, even as he sees the darkest side of humanity, his love does not alter. The love of Jesus for his friends and for the sin and suffering of all humanity does not shake, even when though the tempest of violence and fear whirls around him. Jesus wandered long and far, but his great love for God’s people, and his great desire that we should all be brought close to the God he called Father was the ever-fixed star that guides him to this awful moment, to this final test of dedication. Jesus could have fled, he could have struggled, he could have pleaded with Pilate and Herod. He could have called out for help. He could have tried to live to teach and preach and struggle another day. But that would not have answered the call placed on him even before his birth: the call to be faithful all the way to the end; the call to give his life as a ransom for many; the call to lay down his life for his friends. Today we see what it means to say that Jesus loves us.
Today Jesus walks fully and finally into the human desire for death and destruction. There is, after all, nothing so unusual about this story on the face of it. There is nothing unusual about the oppression of an empire. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in a mob screaming for blood. Jesus was not the first person to be betrayed, denied, and abandoned. He was not the first person to be flogged and mocked and broken. He was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to hang from a tree as a sign that no one was safe from the powers that rule the world. The sin that crushed Jesus was not new, and it has not yet grown old. Human beings still love death and destruction. We crave it. We’re doing it all over the world right now–for gods or nations, for security or pride. Jesus was just one of the countless victims we humans have created.
And yet God’s loving purpose for human life has never altered. God’s desire that we should be at peace with each other and with him has never swerved. So with Jesus, through Jesus, God finally says, enough. No more blood shed to appease ourselves or our gods. No more scapegoats. No more victims. God poured himself out into our human existence for this: that God’s own blood might remove all cause for bloodshed; that God’s own cries might stop the mouth of human rage; that God’s own suffering might stir the pity in our own hard hearts; that God’s self-giving love would thwart our envy; that God’s own death might free us, at last and forever, from the sin and death that we cannot remove; that the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, the faithfulness that endured all things unto death on the cross, would overcome our faithlessness.
Today we see what it means to say that Jesus loves us, enduring all things for the sake of worlds that were not yet born. For the sake of all of us, who could not have even been imagined on that day. This is what it means that Jesus loves with a love that is stronger than the passage of time, stronger than our own stubborn sins, stronger than death. Love alters not with time’s hours and weeks–the hours on the cross, or the hours of our own lives–but bears it out even to the edge of doom. Amen.