Thursday, April 13, 2017

God is here, He is hanging from the gallows

Good Friday 2017

One of my all-time favourite books, though not an easy one to read, is the first volume of a trilogy by the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, entitled ‘Night.’ Though the names of the characters therein are fictitious, it is clear to the reader that the book is a thinly veiled autobiography of the horrors the author personally endured in the Nazi death camps. The story raises the ultimate and overwhelmingly difficult question with regards to faith – the presence of God in the midst of inhuman horrors, death and suffering.

I’m going to fast forward to a particular scene in the book that describes the execution of a young boy. Even though thousands are killed and incinerated on a daily basis in the human ovens and others hanged, the unspeakable hanging of a child takes cruelty to another level. The Nazi camp commanders seem to have crossed the line. Three gallows were set up. Finally, at the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. The child, too light, was still breathing and so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death.  The protagonist heard a fellow prisoner from behind, asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ After a moment of silence, a voice from within answered; ‘Where is He? This is where (He is) – hanging here from this gallows…’”

What I find most compelling about this story is how closely this scene parallels the death of Christ on Good Friday.  Although Elie Wiesel was Jewish, he has perfectly captured what Christians have been trying to say about Good Friday and the cross. The incredulous world constantly challenges us with this question in the face of human suffering, “Where is your God?” The question accuses God of abandoning this duty. And our answer is found here on Good Friday, “He is here. He is hanging on the cross.” For us, the cross is not proof of God’s absence. On the contrary, it is the sign of His redeeming presence and love.

Good Friday is the day that we must look once again to this horrific scene of execution, this terrible picture of injustice and innocent suffering. We look intentionally and deliberately at the suffering and death of Christ. We see His pain, we hear His cries. We listen to the story of His Passion. It is because we must remind ourselves of all that Christ went through and we do so believing in faith, that He did this for us.

Of course, many of us do not have the stomach for blood and gore. We want to skip ahead to Easter after the quiet sedated and sanitised meal in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday. We want to censor the inexplicable painful scenes of Good Friday and go straight to the glorious story of Easter with its stirring Alleluias. In fact, the cute Easter Bunny may be something most appropriate to distract me from all the terrible things that are going on in the world.

No, but our Journey pauses here on Good Friday. Our Journey pauses before the cross and we must take it all in. It is clear that we can never edit out the scene of Good Friday, as if it was even possible to do so with the morally questionable scenes in the movie, ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Why don’t we jump ahead to Easter? Why do we pause at the cross? What is the purpose of all this talk about the cross? Can’t we focus on something positive: the uplifting parts of the story, the loving grace of God, the mercy and forgiveness, the acceptance and the pardon? We would like to.

Of course, all Christians know how the story ends. We know that Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. It gives us hope, courage and confidence to know that death does not get the last word. But I suspect that the crowds that turn up for the services today have come for a different reason. Easter still seems far away. They feel, as you do, that there is an important lesson to be learnt from the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Deep down, most of us live with the reality that our lives don’t always make sense. Life often feels unfair. God can feel far away. Cruel things happen. Many of us experience the pain of Good Friday and the mystery of suffering or walking in the fog, more often than we care to admit.

This, is where Good Friday makes sense. In all the senseless, bloody and horrific violence of Good Friday, suffering finally makes sense. Today is the day when despair meets hope, senselessness finds meaning and suffering encounters a soul mate. The truth is that human life is inextricably bound up in paradox: ugly and beautiful; marked by hatred at times and marked by love at others; a strange and mysterious combination of birth and death, hope and fear, joy and sorrow.

That is the paradox of faith that is answered by the Cross. We are often reminded that we are an Easter People and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. But we must also accept that we are a Good Friday People and too often our experience mirrors the experience of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” God knows that struggle. He knows that life is sometimes crushing. But He offers us this answer. The death of His Son and the events of Good Friday are apparent defeats, but in reality they are moments of great victory. Sin is being borne on the cross for us. Satan is being defeated on the cross for us. Hate with love, evil with good and war with peace, is being played out on the cross for us. Paradoxically, the day that seemed to be the greatest triumph of evil was actually the deathblow in God’s gloriously good plan to redeem the world from bondage. The cross is where we see the convergence and culmination of all human suffering. But the cross is also the place where we would find the answer.

Here, then, is the paradox of faith. It is we who watch what happens on the cross to those who were dead. Christ, as he dies, brings life to us, who are already dead. As we watch this defeat, we are actually seeing a great victory. The very thing that carries the stench of death, Christ’s crucifixion, is the source of our new life. As Christ dies our sins are lifted from us. Our separation from God is removed forever. Our failures are replaced by His accomplishments. Our weakness is replaced by His strength. Our dead lives are given life by His dying. Our victory is never ‘our victory’, it is His victory given to us. We have failed but He has not. We are weak but He is not. We have often been overcome by evil; He has not. This is the reason why we must pause here on Good Friday and stand beneath that cross.

Today, we certainly want an answer to that perennial question, “Where is God in the midst of our sufferings?” And in the cross, we find the answer, “He is here hanging from the gallows.” Christ’s death means that we do not suffer alone. We will never be abandoned. We cannot be abandoned. God will raise us up precisely because He did it to His Son. And so, on this day where many would commemorate the hateful darkness of an innocent being executed, we can only see Goodness in the eyes of the Lord, and it is that very goodness which breaks the seal of our hearts and opens the floodgates of our tears and in an instant everything around us shifts and on this day of darkest sin, We see only Light, We feel only Love- for this was done for us.

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