Thursday, April 13, 2017

Good Friday... Good Grief (Mark 15:21-47)

The term ‘good grief’ seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, how can that keen mental suffering or distress caused by affliction and loss, be Good?  Yes, it is the natural process we go through when we lose someone or something that we love, it’s a natural reaction, a hard one to go through, with sharp sorrow, full of regret, anger, dark fields of depression, watered with tears where we feel alone and abandoned. It’s the process we must go through to come to terms with the fact that someone has gone, that things have changed, and it will never be the same, but we must go on. It can be a healthy process, as we make that adjustment well, as well as we can, or an unhealthy one, where you can find yourselves stuck at some point in the grief cycle, unable to break free; break through. I don’t think you can call it Good.

‘Good grief’ has stuck in the shared psyche of my generation because of its use by Charles Shultz’s beloved cartoon character ‘Charlie Brown’… ‘Good grief, Charlie Brown’.  In the urban Dictionary, it is defined as an expression of dismay, of surprise and shock, disbelief even.  “good grief, I can’t believe he just did that.”

‘Good grief’ comes to my mind as I focus on the events that we remember on Good Friday, that we had read to us from the gospel of Mark: the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. As a child the first sermon I was ever aware of listening to was a good Friday sermon, where the preacher talked of Jesus death as an example of Good Grief…and it’s always stuck in my mind.  At a deeper level, some say that the phrase ‘Good Grief’ comes from a time when there was still a sensitivity of using religious language in every day usage, particularly as an expletive or reaction. Good grief they said was the polite way of saying Good God or Good Lord, and that came from a shortening of the liturgical response ‘Good Lord, deliver us’, ‘Good God, save us!’ At the Cross we do indeed meet Good Grief: A good God who saves us.

At the Cross we encounter Good Grief…

As we had it read out from Mark’s gospel today we see the cross as a scene full of pain, suffering and sorrow. Simon the Cyrene is forced to carry the cross beam to which Jesus is to be nailed presumably because he is too weak from the beatings he has taken to do it himself. He is taken up onto a hill called Golgotha or the scull, a description of a round hill with no vegetation on top, that would have been beside the road into Jerusalem. He is nailed to that cross and it is lifted upright and put in place. So he can be displayed to all  by the Roman’s as a show of what this regime does to anyone who breaks the law or is even accused of standing against them. Rome has won again.

We often talk of insults and criticism as giving someone grief, and Mark’s account of the crucifixion focuses on Jesus being given grief. Passers-by, the chief priests and teachers of the law, and those crucified with him mock him. ‘he said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days’, ‘he said he could save others, he can’t even save himself’, come down, conform to our understanding of God’s messiah, then we will see and believe’. Pilate's taunt to the religious leaders who had bought him into this whole sordid affair… nailed above Jesus the Words ‘King of the Jews’ this is what will happen to anyone who considers rising against Roman rule.

The Grief of those who had been with him as they stand at a distance and see what is happening. Mark notes it is the women who had been with Jesus in Galilee, the disciples are nowhere to be seen, we know from John’s account that he was there as was Jesus mother, but mark and his source may only have noticed the women standing at a distance. Women who in Israel’s history in world history are  the ones who carry the brunt of grief and sorrow in the face of our inhumanity.

There is the grief and anguish in the only words that Mark records Jesus saying on the cross. Spoken in Jesus native Aramaic ‘Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani”  which means ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’. In this hour in this place of pain and death Jesus identifies with the depth of human suffering.  It’s not a   statement of doubt, it is the first words of Psalm 22 which is a messianic psalm which is full of verses that point to the cross, a psalm that is also one of deep trust and faith. Jesus cry is still to ‘My God’ an acknowledgement of faith and trust and relationship. R Alan Cole helps us to unpack one possibility of what is happening here when he wrote:

“if there was a barrier between the Father and the Son at that moment, it could only be because of sin, the son knew no sin, so it could only be our sin that cost him such agony. Here is the heart of the cross here is the mystery which no painting or sculpture, with distorted face, can ever begin to show, because we fail to realise the true nature of punishment for sin, as separation from God, and therefore the true nature and depth of the agony borne by him.”

This agony this sense of abandonment is reflected in the sky turning dark for three hours.

Finally, there is grief because of death. Jesus dies, and as this is the day of preparation for the sabbath and Passover the authorities allow Jesus to be taken down and buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. The women follow along and they see where Jesus is laid as they will want to come back and make sure he receives the correct treatment in death that he did no receive in life.

At the Cross we encounter Good Grief, and we’ve looked at the grief but how can this be Good?

There is the grief of a Roman execution using a most torturous and violent vile method, but all the way through this there is another narrative being written, another reality playing out. Unlike in Matthew and Luke, it is not pointed out to us so blatantly.  It’s is God’s plan and purpose, Jesus use of the open line of Psalm 22 invites us to see what is happening through its prophetic lens. The guards we are told sitting down and gambling over his clothes foretold. The jar of wine being offered to him foretold, the mockery and taunting, foretold. Scripture witnesses to the fact that God not Caesar, God not the religious authorities and their plans and scheme is in control. This is not a ignominious end to a good teacher, rather it is God at work. Instead of a defeat Mark paints it as a coronation, Pilate's words more true than he could imagine, here is Jesus the king of the Jews… It is a Roman centurion who provides Mark’s narrative with its high point. When by some divine revelation he sees what is going on and realises ‘surely this man was God’s son’.

In a deep irony, the grief that was thrown at Jesus tells the story of what is happening here. They meant is as mockery, but rather in it is deep truth. This is how Jesus planned to tear down the temple and build it again in three days.  Relationship with God was no longer going to be though a building and sacrificial system, but was going to be made possible by the person of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. By not coming down from the cross, by not saving himself, rather trusting in God, Jesus was going to save many others. It was his death taking the punishment for what we had done wrong, that would enable us to be forgiven and set free. Jesus was God’s messiah and king and this is the way he was going usher in God’s kingdom. Not by some superhuman act but by as Philippians 2 puts it being obedient unto death, even death on a cross, because of that God would raise him up. It was not going to be that we may see and then believe that the high priests demanded rather it is by grace, and faith in Jesus that we will be able to see.

The women who stand off at a distance and weep, who follow to see where Jesus is buried are not left in their grief and sorrow, rather they are changed into witnesses, able to tell of what they have seen and spoiler alert they are the ones who have the great privilege of being the first to witness Jesus resurrection and to bear witness to the fact “he is risen, he is risen indeed’.

It is Good because ‘God has not abandoned us’, Jesus took on the pain we encounter and the deep separation from God, so that we may come to know God intimately as our loving father. So many people wrestle with understanding what Jesus did on the Cross, the various theories of atonement, but in Marks gospel there is one symbolic act which shows the reality of what Jesus achieved. As he died mark tells us the curtain in the temple was torn in two. The curtain in the temple was hung in front of the holy of holy’s the place where Jewish people believed held the very presence of God. It was only entered once a year by a high priest and only after many sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. It symbolised the very real chasm between sinful broken humans and a holy God. But now God was no longer going to be with his people in this special place. The barrier between us and God is removed. The temple and sacrificial system was no longer needed, as in his death and resurrection, Jesus had made the way for us to come to know God. It is putting our trust in Jesus that we can come to know God, that we are able to have a clean and fresh start and be reconciled with God and with one another.

Finally, it is good grief because the Story does not end as the stone is rolled across the mouth of a borrowed tomb. It does not finish with the women and Joseph marking where Jesus is laid so they can make it the focus for memory, future mourning or even veneration. … it is Friday but Sunday is coming. We have Good grief because at the Cross we meet the Good God, who raised Jesus to life again. We can have new and abundant life lived in relationship with God because Jesus is raised from the dead. Death and sin are defeated. It is the wondrous truth that Jesus death and resurrection makes new life possible. We started our exploration of good grief by talking of Simon the Cyrene being forced into service to carry Jesus Cross, and even in that small detail we see how these events can change people’s lives, as we are told that Simon's sons Rufus and Alexander are known to the church. If Mark was written in Rome then this could be Rufus who is talked of as a leader in that church in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

It is Good Grief because it is the starting point of lives down through the last two thousand years that have been changed and transformed. This year we are marking the 500th year of the reformation, the re-centering of the Christian faith on the wonderful truth that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. It is the hope that you and I have, the new life we share.
The term Good Grief may seem an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But I would pray this Easter you may know the reality of Good grief in your life. Grief is the process by which we deal with the loss of a loved one or a significant part of our life.  The Good Grief of the Cross, is the process by which we allow Jesus death to change how we live. We come to him aware of all we have done wrong, we thank him for dying in our place, and ask him to forgive us, and acknowledge him as our Lord and saviour. That is Good grief that leads to new life. We can know Good Grief.. A good God who Saves us. 

No comments:

Post a Comment