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3 April – The cross as throne

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 40
John 12:20-33

Many of you will know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus. It has come down to us in a number of versions, but generally runs something like this: Oedipus is born to the king and queen of Thebes. A prophecy is spoken over Oedipus, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart this, the child is left out to die but is found and is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. Once grown up, Oedipus accidentally finds his way back to Thebes were he kills his birth-father in what was perhaps the world’s first road rage incident. Oedipus does not know that it is the king or his father, and no one else knows who killed the king. Oedipus then rids the city of an ongoing burden and threat, and receives as reward the hand of the widowed queen – his birth-mother – in marriage, who bears him a number of children. Eventually, however, everyone discovers the unwitting patricide and incest. Oedipus’ mother hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and is exiled with the children (half-siblings) he had by his mother-wife.

It’s a story with something for all the family! For the Greeks it was about the unavoidability of fate, and modern depth psychology has made much of it in relation to family dynamics, but the important part of the myth for our purposes this morning is, first, that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother not knowing who they were and, second, when these things are discovered to have taken place, the whole story is revealed as a tragedy: death and destruction and exile are all that can follow.

Of course, the death we gather to recall today is the death of Jesus. Yet I suspect that this death is heard by many to be a tragedy along the lines of Oedipus: the irony that Jesus was king of Israel, and yet Israel unknowingly crucified its king. Certainly the church often “sells” the story in this way. I want this morning to unpack a different sense of what happens in the death of Jesus, and why we gather for no mere tragic or ironic memorial but for “Good” Friday.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus speaks of his approaching crucifixion as a “lifting up”: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v.32; cf. John 3.14f; 8.28). It’s easy to hear this as a euphemism – a way of referring to the impending disaster of the crucifixion without actually naming it for what it is, a way of softening the blow for Jesus’ hearers.

Yet there is much more going on here than mere euphemism. The evangelist John loves double meanings and the ironies which come with them. The Greek word behind “lifted up” can certainly apply to being lifted up on a cross. At the same time, it can just as naturally be used for that kind of elevation which is an enthronement. A king’s coronation could be said to be his “lifting up”. This double meaning is suggested again later in the gospel when Pilate nails to the cross the charge against Jesus: “the king of the Jews” (19.19-22). Here is another of John’s ironies – and he intends us to note and to understand them. Pilate seeks to mock Jesus, or mock the Jews, yet in the evangelist’s mind Pilate unknowingly declares to all the world Jesus’ true identity.

We miss the point, however, if we read this as simply telling us that Israel unknowingly crucified its king in the same kind of way that Oedipus unwittingly killed his dad and married his mum. In the crucifixion it is not so much that a king is killed in tragic and ironic circumstances but rather that a king is created, or a particular kingdom comes into being. The ambiguity of “lifted up” allows John to present Jesus to us as both being crucified and enthroned, being crucified and being made king, in this “lifting up” in the crucifixion. Not a king mistakenly or unknowingly crucified, Jesus is the king because he is crucified, he becomes king in his very being crucified. His kingship takes its character not from what he should have been recognized to be before the crucifixion but from the fact that he has been crucified. It is as if the Son of God is not the Son of God for us, not our king, until he is crucified. Why? Because we are those who would crucify our king (cf. John 19.5), such that only a crucified king – a crucified God – could be our king, our God.

So it is that, for John’s gospel, the crucifixion is much less of a catastrophe than it is for the other gospels. For the crucifixion is the point at which the nature of God as faithfulness is laid forth for all to see: here the full extent of God’s reign – God’s kingship – is revealed. This is a kingship not abstractly over “all”, but specifically over those who crucify Jesus. Jesus is only king to those who would crucify him. (We approach again themes visited a few weeks ago [March 15]).

Just to reinforce this point, we should note one other way Jesus refers to the crucifixion in this morning’s first reading: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v.23). The language of “glorification” here applies also to the cross, as it does elsewhere in John (cf. 12.16; 13.31f; 17.7). The glory of Christ is seen in the crucifixion. The glory is not the resurrection if that is understood as an event separate from the cross. In the crucifixion we see something about the nature of God which the resurrection by itself cannot show: a vision of God in which God’s very being – God’s very glory – is tied up with his relationship to a people which falls short of his covenant call. God’s tying of himself to his broken world goes to the very heart of what God can be, and must become; this God, this king, bears the marks of crucifixion, because we – the crucifiers – are his “subjects”.

[ASIDE: John would say to us, then, not merely that “God is love” or that “God so loved the world”, if by that is meant that God could otherwise stand aloof but in fact condescends to forgive. Rather, God is as God loves. God is the way in which he loves. This forces our language and our thinking to a strange place because a “thing”, God, becomes an action, love. It is as if a singer were to become the song. We have to say, then, not that God is “love”, as if these were two separate things we simply join together, but that the love of God is God – how God loves is itself God. Jesus upon the cross is truly Word-become-flesh, God meeting us at our lowest yet – and this is the critical point – remaining, even “becoming” God in that meeting.]

To put it differently, we might say that the gospel is the impossible proclamation that the greater the distance we place between ourselves and God, the more strained our relationship is with God, the more clearly we see God’s freedom to be God for us through all obstacles, even such a death as the cross. It is as if God becomes more “God” as we become less godly, as God overcomes the distance – overcomes the cross – that he might again be life and love for us.

Here we move within the theme of the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness takes its meaning from God’s response to the unfaithfulness of God’s people. That God is faithful, and that this faithfulness concerns keeping a promise of good things for God’s people, is at the heart of the biblical witness. That Jesus can be both crucified and enthroned in a single act is the meeting of our unfaithfulness with God’s faithfulness.

The God with whom the church deals is always the crucified God, because the church is composed of those who crucify, even God. And yet because God still wills to be our God, the crucifixion becomes an enthronement: the kingdom of the crucified God is a kingdom over crucifiers.

This is good news. We are those who lift Jesus up upon the cross, but not with the tragic consequences of Oedipus: exile in horror unto death. For the death of Jesus is as much God’s act as ours: the enthronement of Jesus as king over those who crucified him, that we might not be lost; even with that as part of our history, we remain his.

We cannot fall outside of God’s desire to be God for us, to heal and to restore even us. In the crucifixion we are named and judged, and forgiven and owned. And so we remember not the tragic fate of a good man, but a goodness which subverts and overcomes the ironies and tragedies of human existence: the very faithfulness of God who will not let us go.

And so, we call this not Tragic Friday, as if it were the symbol of human weakness and the dark necessities of fate. It is Good Friday because, unlike what was tragically inevitable for Oedipus and his family, here the tragic is swallowed up. Any choice we might make for death in our lives or in others’ is put behind us in the one death which really matters: the death in which death ceases to be only our end and becomes a new beginning in a relationship to a new kind of king, a new kind of God.

For this surprising, life-giving end to the tragic human story, all thanks and praise be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.

14 March – Jesus, the dark light of the world

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Lent 4

Job 24:1-17
Psalm 107
John 3:14-21

In a sentence
Moral righteousness can only limit and deny; God’s righteousness heals and creates.

The news has lately been filled with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse even within the highest house in the land. These reports are sad additions to the many horrific stories we have heard over the last few years. Victims – typically victims of powerful men – have begun to find their voice and, in the main, these voices are surely to be believed.

In all of this, we hear an echo of Job’s complaint about the way of the unjust in the world: the thief, the murderer, the abuser and the powerful act under cover of darkness: ‘deep darkness is morning to all of them; for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness’ (24.17). The darkness, of course, extends beyond the dark of night. It can be behind the locked door of the school counsellor’s office or beyond the barbed wire of the concentration camp. It can be a detention centre on a distant island or mere social convention: the darkness which is our hesitation to talk openly about certain things.

The more recent voicing of Job’s complaint has led to increasingly loud calls for inquiries and commissions and investigations, has led to the demand for light. Strong and bright daylight is to be brought to bear to reveal what has been done in the dark, and by whom.

Such a seeking of light is not new to us. In the last generation, we have sought light via a significant inquiry into the separation of indigenous children from their families, royal commissions into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, into trade union governance and corruption, into child protection and youth detention, into banking and financial service, into aged care quality and safety, and into the exploitation of people with disability. And an inquiry into wrongs against Aboriginal people in Victoria is about to begin.

Not to put too fine a point on all this, we are experiencing a radical disruption: an exposure of works wrought in darkness which challenges assumptions about how the world does or should work. And many of us find ourselves blinking against the sudden light.

In our reading from John this morning, Jesus uses light and darkness to characterise the contexts within which people live and act:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Yet John’s account of light and darkness in his Gospel goes beyond the necessary but merely moral illumination of our formal investigations and commissions into the dark places in our midst. For the Gospel, light is not quite the ‘answer’ to darkness, not its moral opposite.

In the opening verses of John’s Gospel, we hear of the coming into the world of a light which the darkness does not overcome, extinguish or comprehend (1.4f). Yet, it not as straightforward as might first seem, to say that the light is not overcome.

We are to understand, of course, that the light is Jesus, which becomes more explicit later in the gospel (John 8.12; cf. also John 9 and the theme of blindness). But what are we make of the crucifixion? Does the darkness – if ever so briefly – overcome the light at this point? The easy answer is, Yes. We might imagine Jesus to be like one of those trick candles which, once blown out, flickers back after a couple of seconds. The darkness pulls Jesus under, so to speak, but he holds his breath and wriggles free and resurfaces. The overcoming of the light here is only fleeting and so, perhaps, doesn’t count.

But John would push us deeper here. At the beginning of our Gospel reading today, Jesus invokes an old story from Israel’s history about a bronze serpent lifted high on a pole as a sign by which people might be saved. The details needn’t bother us here today except that Jesus now likens himself to that serpent and its saving powers. The ‘lifting up’ of Jesus now, however, refers to the crucifixion and yet not only the crucifixion. Several times in John’s Gospel, the phrase ‘lifted up’ is used to denote both the cross and a flag-waving social, political and religious elevation – a kind of enthronement (cf. 8.28, 12.31ff). These two types of ‘lifting up’ coincide in the one moment: Jesus is ‘enthroned’ on the cross.

To jump a couple of steps and to compress into a single statement what this means for Jesus as the light, we might say that Jesus becomes the light in the crucifixion. The light which is Jesus and the darkness of the cross cannot be simply – morally – separated. The light which is Jesus is not merely ‘against’ the darkness. It is a ‘dark’ light, a light shining out of the dark cross. The darkness does not – even in the crucifixion – extinguish the light because the crucifixion is the light claiming the darkness, not so much washing it away as ‘un-darking’ it, putting it to work now not as darkness but as light.

Contrast this now with the necessary but merely moral work unfolding in the – entirely justifiable – outrage around us. Our exposés and inquiries and investigative commissions are in defence of those who, we might say, have been crucified by powers exercised in darkness. It doesn’t go too far to characterise the sexual harassment of a subordinate in this way, or the bloody backblock decimation of indigenous communities. Crucifixion was no mere execution. It was precisely about dislodging someone from their own self-perception into our own perception of them and does not require wood or nails to be effected.

But, as important as it is that we illuminate the dynamics of power and the real abuse which happens in our midst, identifying the crucified Jesus as the light of the world reveals something quite different from what can be revealed by the floodlights of moral outrage.

The moral light will reveal fault. It will reveal where power lies, who has it, how they have abused it. The moral light, however, can only condemn, demand restitution and regulate the lighting of more lamps so that the dark can’t provide cover again, at least in that place.

The dark light of the gospel doesn’t do this. The bright light of our justice brings condemnation but the dark light of the gospel does not: ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3.17). The dark light of the gospel is concerned not with the dark but with what people do in it. It is concerned with the reality that we find the dark ‘useful,’ and with our capacity to seek out and create dark places. The light of the world ends up on the cross, and this is the judgement of the world: that darkness prevails among us. Moral indignation will not overcome this, whatever real good it might do for those subject to the darkness of others.

The light on the cross never leaves the darkness of the cross behind. The saviour – even risen from the dead – is always the Crucified One, always a dark light: a light which shines from dark things. God does not banish the darkness but works it into light. Like the bush in the old story, the cross burns with brilliant light but is not consumed; this light is always ‘crosslight’.

And so, crucified and risen, Jesus is the light of the world, not as a threat to dark places but their hope. The promise is not of a world morally erased, of persons morally cancelled, but of hearts transformed.

Put differently, we could say that, whatever else heaven might be, it is populated with agile cripples, the seeing blind, the rich poor, forgiving victims, forgiven perpetrators, holy blasphemers: all, in their own particular way, illuminated darkness, the risen dead. What is dark, debilitating, discriminatory, diseased and deathly – whatever marks us as victims or perpetrators – these things are the nothingness out which God creates, the grave out of which God resurrects.

This is the word of the cross, its foolish wisdom, its strong weakness, its scandal – its moral scandal. Our developing culture of cancellation is the sign that we cannot create out of nothing, bring life out of death. The light which is the cross is the sign that God can.

And more than can; God will create us.

For if the darkness of the cross is our own darkness – if it is, as we considered last time, we-in-Job who are crucified – then so also is the light of the cross our own: the light which God will make us to be.

It is in this light that we are to work, to live and to love: eyes being opened to the darkness, and looking to see it transformed by the grace of God.

23 February – Jonah, the sign of Jesus

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Luke 11:29-32
Psalm 99
Matthew 17:1-9

In a sentence
The ‘sign of Jonah’ points to the same thing as does the Transfiguration: that God infuses the world with God’s own presence; this is God’s gift and call.

Over the last month we’ve been splashing around in Jonah, all without much direct reference to Jesus.

One of the obvious ways in which Jesus might seem to be connected to Jonah is the ‘three days and nights’ which Jonah is said to have spent inside the great fish, which beg to be compared to the ‘three days’ by which the New Testament counts the time between the death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, at least according to St Matthew, Jesus himself seems to make this link (Matthew 12.40):

For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.

As obvious as that connection is, we must also say that it is not very interesting, as it makes the link only in the coincidence of the number days and nights (despite problems with Easter’s ‘three’ days and nights) and, perhaps, in that the both the fish and the tomb are things ‘cavernous’.

If not very interesting, it’s also odd that Jesus seems to link the fish with his death and resurrection. His reference to the ‘sign of Jonah’ comes in response to a demand for a miracle to prove his authority. Having just denied the request for such a miracle, he then seems to promise an extraordinary miracle – that he will be raised from the dead. This self-contradiction – if that is what it is – is strange indeed. The only thing which would make it not odd is if what Jesus means is that his three days in the heart of the earth, and his resurrection, will be a hidden thing – just as Jonah’s time in the fish was something no one else witnessed.

Such hiddenness as the link between Jesus and Jonah is much more interesting than a simple correspondence between the days in the fish and the days in the tomb, for if Jesus’ time ‘in the heart of the earth’ – and his coming out of that time – are hidden, then he says that the miracle his opponents can expect will not look like a miracle. The miracle you get you will not recognise. We noted a couple of weeks ago that the sin of the people of God is often that we do not recognise a miracle when it happens.

This un-spectacular nature of the ‘sign of Jonah’ is reflected in Luke’s version of what Jesus says about Jonah, as we have heard today. In Luke the ‘sign of Jonah’ is not the three days in the fish or the tomb but rather the seemingly more mundane and even very troubling conversion of Nineveh. Nineveh heard what Jesus’ opponents do not: the word of the great God in the words of little Jonah.

Jesus effectively says to his opponents, of himself: ‘Can you not see what you are looking at? All miracles are a distraction; the word of God comes to you in this very ordinary exchange, here and now. Believe, as did Nineveh.’

We have seen this right through the story of petulant little Jonah, the necessary vessel by which God would claim – and does claim – the Gentiles.

And we see it also in the seemingly quite contradictory story of the Transfiguration. It seems to contradict the ordinariness of day-to-day Jesus because it looks as if the veil is pulled back for a moment for us to see the ‘real’ Son of God, shining bright with divine glory, under the veneer of flesh and blood. We might hear this reading of the Transfiguration confirmed in the booming voice from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased…’

But…perhaps the voice did not ‘boom’ – the text doesn’t say. Perhaps the voice whispered those words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved…’, with a shift of emphasis reflecting the different tone. Perhaps the disciples fell to the ground not for fear of the voice of God, overwhelming in its thunderous majesty, but for fear of what it said: ‘Here is the sign of Jonah, and yet greater than Jonah; here is Word-in-Flesh. I, God, ‘look like’ this.’

The sign of Jonah points towards the God who has being by joining to the flesh of the world, who is ‘incarnate’. Suddenly Jonah is a Christmas story, and the fish a manger. Jonah himself was not ‘accidental’ flesh; God persisted with stubborn Jonah not for Jonah’s sake but for God’s own sake – Jonah is integral to God’s work being done.

That God might need the world in this way – that God ‘looks like this’, like flesh-and-blood Jesus – is harder to believe than any miracle of the magic-trick variety. To put it in the starkest terms of the New Testament, the sign of Jonah and the Transfiguration – the incarnation of God – reveals Jesus’ descent to the Deep of the cross to be the glory of God. (This is a theme of John’s gospel, for which the being ‘lifted up’ to the cross is both crucifixion and enthronement).

Matthew’s saying that the Son of Man will spend three days and nights in the ‘heart of the earth’ (Matthew 12.40) then comes to be less about time in the tomb and more about God in our very midst: we and our world are the ‘heart of the earth’ within which Jesus spends ‘three days and nights’. Risen and dying and preaching and teaching, Jesus is God’s presence in the heart of us.

This is the content of our hope: that, in the belly of Nineveh, in the midst of death, in our lives just as they are, God might be found. And God is not merely found in this ‘heart of the earth’ but it realised as God’s own home. The Peters of the world need make no ‘dwelling’ for God in holy places (Matthew 17.4); God is doing that Godself in all places.

That is the thing for which we hope, and it is the thing to which we are called: to become what we are, God’s true dwelling place, to hear the word directed to those disciples on the mountain, and to us – listen! – and to respond with joy.

Let us, then, become what we have been created to be – the very dwelling place of God, Christ’s own body, that we and those whose lives we touch might know the rich humanity God intends us to be.

A Prayer of Confession in response to the sermon

We bless you, O God, for out of desire to love and enjoy us you have created and sustained us and all things.

And yet we confess that, in thought, word and deed, we have fallen short of the glory for which we were made.

Forgive us when we postpone obeying your call to life as we await some satisfying proof that how we already are is not better.

Forgive us when the next thing you ask of us is not spectacular enough for our sense of our own importance.

Forgive us, then, those things large and small which go undone: the time not spared for one who needs it, the gift we do not give, the anger which we could have checked, the effort we could have made.

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain:  Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.

Just so, gracious God, have mercy on us…