The readings for this sad day and night should stand alone, without the need of a sermon. So it is with trepidation that one approaches this sacred time, aware that the sermon writer cannot add to the tragic story, only make a feeble effort at an interpretation that may sound more personal than universal.
Written in stark prose, the gospel story tears at the heart. Writing in incomparable, grave poetry, Isaiah and the psalmist inspire, terrify, even confuse. How can a Christian read the Second Isaiah passage and the opening words of the Psalm of Dereliction without making the connection with John’s telling of the last hours of the beloved Jesus? It is impossible to separate the two; no wonder the early church saw the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah as the prophetic precursor of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the images of Isaiah find flesh in the hours of the Passion.
Listen again to the words of the prophet: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”
The gospel writer speaks of a baffled Pilate who goes in and out of his headquarters in confusion over this prisoner. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
The psalmist writes:
“All who see me laugh me to scorn;
“They curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the LORD, let him deliver him.”
The gospel writer recalls: “And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.”
After the night-long mock trial, the dragging of the innocent Jesus from Annas to Caiphas to Pilate, the story reaches its climax. Here the writing is at its simplest, allowing us to imagine the horror, to enter into the suffering without any commentary: “So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him.”
Death confronts us on this night. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly. How many of us have faced such pain? How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they too have lost a child? How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war? And how many of us have lost beloved friends? On this night let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. This night we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.
God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in supplication. Listen to the testimony of the epistle to the Hebrews writer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
It doesn’t say that he was saved from death; but it does reassure us that he was heard. For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.
This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering. Once more the epistle to the Hebrews testifies: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
Isaiah had written: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”
We are his future. How well have we continued his ministry? On this night of remembered death, let us also remember to grieve and to cry out to a God who hears us.