Good Friday: Open Closed Open

Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2013

What exactly is good about “Good Friday”? This day is observed under many names in different places and in different languages. It is called the Great and Holy Friday, or simply Holy Friday, Sorrowful Friday, or Long Friday. Scholars can’t seem to decide whether our term “Good Friday” came from the German for “Good Friday” or “God’s Friday.”

On the face of it, there is nothing good about what we commemorate today. It is a killing, an execution, a spasm of violence against a Jewish man by a Gentile state. It is surrounded by the ordinary horrors of death. If you’ve been by the bedside of a terminally ill person as they near their crisis, you have no doubt seen many of the things we hear about in the passion of our Lord. Friends and even family may shy away from the dying person, like the fleeing disciples. Eating stops. Drinking is reduced to a little star-shaped sponge on a stick, moistening the lips of the dying. These things may be done with kindness and humanity. I have done them with kindness and humanity. Death itself may even come as a mercy to some. But it is not good.

I have had to admit that to myself this year, in a way that I don’t think I ever have before as I prepared to open the Scriptures today. It is a Long Friday and a Sorrowful Friday. It wasn’t Great and Holy, or even God’s Friday, until afterward. For the friends of Jesus, for those who had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Jerusalem from her oppressors, it was a terrible and tragic day. Terrible and tragic, but also ordinary. The hard fist of Rome had landed on Jewish rabble-rousers before, after all, and it would again. The life force of loved ones ebbed out before the eyes of all the disciples–almost everyone died at home in those days. A long hunger, a parched mouth, a few exhausted words from Jesus: I don’t blame the disciples for hiding their faces from this day. I do not blame Peter for denying Jesus in order to save himself. I do not blame the rest for running and hiding. To watch a man die is to confront your own mortality. To watch your teacher and leader die on a Roman cross is to remember that your life is in danger, too. To know that the world is going on about its business while your friend, your Lord, your hero is dying is to realize that some day, the world will go on without you.

Before this day was Good Friday, it was something else: the harsh end to a brilliant dream. In John’s Gospel we hear the famous last words of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage: “It is finished.” How does he say them, when you hear these words in your mind? With a twinge of fear in his voice? With disbelief that it had finally come to this? With exhaustion? With assurance? With relief? What did he think would happen as he closed his eyes on this world of brokenness and injustice, of pain and beauty, of fear and kindness–this world so loved by his Father that Jesus was sent to us to win our trust and our faith?

Throughout all of Lent, we have heard about Jesus’s great and good deeds among his friends. We have heard of the hope that lingers even in bad times because a community of love still exists. We have treasured the good news God brings us through family, through the fellowship of believers, through the gifts of food and forgiveness that we must all give and receive throughout our lives. We have kept our faith because we are not alone, because life goes on and God’s blessings with it.

But not today. Not on Long Friday, Sorrowful Friday. Today there is no moral to the story. There is no gentle blessing. There is no meal shared among friends throughout the ages. There is no community that endures. Today I wish to let us sit, for a moment, with the grief and fear of the disciples. Today, for a moment, let us allow it to be finished.

The Jewish Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, once wrote of human life and death:

Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.

The Word of God was once abroad in the universe. All that came to be, came through that Word. God was One, but God was not lonely. God had the Word, and the Word was near to God’s bosom, and indeed the Word was truly God. And everywhere God was–which is to say everywhere–so was the Word. Together–Father, Word, Spirit–God made the world.

Yet the world was not complete. It would not be complete until the Word became flesh and looked out at the creation with human eyes. The eyes of a frail, mortal creature, but yet a creature tasked with learning, with knowing, with loving, with changing and shaping this vast world. And the Word became flesh, and shut that whole universe of creative power up inside of itself. It flashed out, of course–in healings, in miracles, in feeding the masses, in calling and teaching disciples and in loving everyone he met. Yet for a time, the great God of the whole world walked around in that little world that is a human being.

He ate and drank, prayed and wept, thirsted and hungered, and loved. And then he died, and it was finished. Open. Closed. Open.

So pray with me, sisters and brothers, that our Lord would still guide our hearts and our hands even in this, his hour of need and desolation. Pray with me that we will have the courage to stand here with him despite our own fears and our own grief. Pray with me that our hands would not falter when we must wrap his corpse and lay it in the new tomb. Pray with me that his work would be finished in us, as Jesus falls silent and opens himself once again to be the whole world. Amen.

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