Good Friday Sermon: Roberta Berke | Good Friday Sermon: Roberta Berke

Turning to Face the Cross. An address given on Good Friday 29th March 2013 by Roberta Berke

 

“[He was] as one from whom others hide their faces.”[1]

Last year, during a short pause in the Good Friday service, I looked out through the glass doors at the back of the church. Outside the church seemed to be a completely different world from our sombre mourning inside. Traffic was speeding past, and laughing people were strolling to Primrose Hill to enjoy the spring sunshine. That morning, I had walked past noisy construction sites, where builders were busy, despite the regulations against working on Good Friday. Their hammering didn’t seem to remind anyone of those terrible nails driven right through Jesus’ flesh and bones. I remembered Auden’s poem. “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;”[2] Today while we confront Jesus’ suffering on the cross, most people couldn’t care less. As Isaiah prophesied of the Suffering Servant, “[He was] as one from whom others hide their faces.”[3]

Why do so many people ignore the significance of Good Friday? Why do they turn away from the message of the cross? In this service we pray for those who follow other faiths or none. We remember those who lose their faith when overwhelmed by pain. We pray for those who reject Christ because of the failings of his church. And we pray for those who are contemptuous and scornful, and who mislead less sophisticated minds. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”[4] Even one of the thieves who was crucified with Jesus mocked him, despite his own agony. Yet today’s challenge for Christians is not so much hostility as indifference. Even those who describe themselves as, “kind of Christian”, are rather indifferent.

What about us? We’re not indifferent. Here we are in church. But why are we sitting here now? I doubt that there’s a single person in this room who’s actually looking forward to these next three hours with pleasure. Are we better people than those outside? Certainly not. We have often turned away from the cross, and from the way of Christ. Why do we hide our faces from Christ on the cross? We try to avoid facing any suffering. If pictures of mass suffering appear on television, we switch off. Even something so trivial as having an injection, instinctively makes us wince and look away. We turn away from the cross because we fear our own pain. The cross confronts us with the certainty of our own death. Today we come face to face with Jesus’ pain and death as we stand before a crucifix.

The worst part of Jesus’ crucifixion was not just his terrible physical pain, but his agonised cry that God had abandoned him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[5] His cry was so seared into the memory of witnesses that his words that they were recorded in their original Aramaic, not in Greek. Bystanders mocked Jesus with words from the same Psalm as his cry: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.”[6] Many of us have experienced times when God seemed to hide His face. Even people who have devoted their lives to the church have had moments of despair. “There have been times when…the Lord seemed to sleep.”[7] Not the words of an atheist, but of Pope Benedict when he retired. Sometimes we may feel that God is absent, or even that He does not exist. But that does not mean that God is not present with us. In daylight we cannot see the stars. But that does not mean that the stars are not there. God does not turn away from us, even when we turn away from him.

Many times we have turned away from the cross. We turn away from facing Christ because often we have not followed the way of life he showed us. We have not followed the painful way of the cross. Today we are not here in church because we’re better people than those outside, but only by God’s grace. We are only here because God has forgiven all our failings. He has forgiven all the times we have not be able to face the cross. So now we will wait and watch by the cross for three long hours. Three hours is not long if you’re at a good party, you never once glance at your watch. But today we spend the longest three hours in the entire year. Something strange seems to happen to time during this death watch. Under the shadow of the cross time not only seems to stretch out, but also time seems to dissolve. Gradually, our petty worries seem to dissolve. We do not feel compelled to check our emails, to text or to phone. Our frantic fretfulness becomes stilled.

Most of the time, we’re too preoccupied with our own tasks to notice anything out of the ordinary. We’re like the people in Brueghel’s painting, The Death of Icarus. In this painting, everyone is too busy to notice the amazing sight of a boy falling out of the sky. The plowman’s head is down, following his furrow. The shepherd and his dog do look up at the sky, but they look in the wrong direction. A fisherman on the shore sits quite close by as the boy plunges into the sea, but he notices nothing because he’s bent over, preoccupied with hauling in his small net. The sailor up aloft on the rigging of the ship does notice the boy falling from the sky, yet he doesn’t shout, stop! The ship continues on under full sail, intent on its voyage to the distant town. Looking at this painting, Auden remarked on people’s indifference to this extraordinary event. He wrote: “…the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”[8]

In Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, most people would have been indifferent to his death. Crucifixions were an everyday occurrence, and everyone had to rush to get their shopping in before Passover started. Most of Jesus’ disciples fled like rabbits from his gruesome death. Yet a few disciples did wait for hours by the cross and they watched Jesus’ slow agony. They did not turn their faces away from him. Only these disciples who stood at the foot of the cross saw Jesus’ death throes through their own tears. Only those who had remained through those hours of agony know where he was buried. Only those who went to his tomb to anoint his mutilated corpse heard the angels’ amazing news: “He is not here….He has been raised from the dead.”[9]

Jesus’ agonised cry of abandonment was the opening words of Psalm 22. Bystanders used this same psalm to mock Jesus. Yet the triumphant conclusion of this psalm praises God’s saving power. “He did not hide his face from me, but heard me when I cried to him.”[10] Amen.

Copyright © 2013 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.



[1] Isaiah 53.3

[2] Auden, W.H., “Musée des Beaux Arts” in Wain, J. ed., The Oxford Library of British Poetry (Oxford: OUP 1988) vol. III p.401-2.

[3] Isaiah 53.3

[4] I Corinthians 1.18

[5] Matthew 27.46 ; Mark 15.34

[6] Psalm 22.8; Matthew 27.43

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in The Times, February 27, 2013, p33.  Also quoted in The Tablet online, Final Address of Pope Benedict XVI, 27 Feb. www.thetablet.co.uk viewed 04/03/13. ‘there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep.’

 

[8] Auden, op. cit.

[9] Matthew 28.6-7

[10] Psalm 22.4