Friday, April 06, 2007

The day hope died

Good Friday Sermon: John 19.38-42
I was taken by the idea, but was pretty unhappy with how I pulled it off (both in writing and delivery). It sounds too much like a history lesson and is too detached for the confusion and crushing disappointments of the day. Obviously, it also doesn't even attempt to bring out many other aspects of the occasion. If I'd started earlier, it also might have been better integrated into the rest of the service. As it was, it came after various readings (interspersed with music and prayers) covering John 18.1-19.37 and was followed by 19.38-42. Striking the right note(s) at a Good Friday service is very difficult. I don't think I've ever been to one that has felt right; it is a day of so many emotions. Apologies in advance for the length (about 10 minutes). Future posts will return to my regular length.
Today, our hopes died.

My name is Joseph. I was born not far away in the village of Arimathéa in Judea, but I’ve lived most of my life here in Jerusalem. My family were wealthy and of good standing. So you won’t be surprised to hear that before too long I became a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council here in Jerusalem. Sadly though, it’s the Romans who call the shots around here, particularly Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Though many of my compatriots on the council think it’s prudent to co-operate with our Roman ‘benefactors’, personally, I’m eagerly awaiting the time when our God Yahweh will drive them out and establish his kingdom. Yes, despite centuries of foreign occupation, I’m still convinced that the Lord Yahweh hasn’t forgotten us, but will one day send his handpicked, anointed king to lead a liberation army and establish his rule, like King David of old.

So I was more than a little excited about this man from Nazareth, this healer, preacher and miracle-worker called Joshua, (or Jesus for those of you who speak Greek). He had gathered quite a following, and had come, like everyone else, here to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach (the Passover) this week. Would this be the point at which he would unveil his royal lineage and call upon us to take up arms against the pagans? What a perfect time – just as we were all remembering how Yahweh had liberated our ancestors from their Egyptian oppressors. Would he be another Moses to free us from our Roman captors? But could this man actually be trusted? I wondered: was he truly the servant of God or was he just another rabble-rousing egomaniac, a trickster with a messiah complex? I for one was keen to observe him closely. My good friend Nicodemus met him months ago in secret and, though he didn’t understand everything this young rabbi said, he was convinced that the Nazarean was no charlatan or naïve peasant.

Predictably, however, my brethren on the council were quite cynical from the start. They paid lip-service to the kingdom of Yahweh, but were generally quite content with the prestige and limited power-sharing they enjoyed under Roman rule. They were worried that if too many Jews started thinking this Joshua was Yahweh’s Messiah, then the Romans - fearing full-blown revolution - would come down on us like a ton of clay bricks.

He certainly arrived with a bang a week ago, surrounded by his cheering disciples, riding into the city on a donkey just as Zechariah had prophesied God’s king would do – and then, within a day, he started an unholy ruckus in the Temple that really got up the noses of the Sanhedrin conservatives. But they couldn’t do anything against him directly because this Galilean was too popular with the crowds. They tried to debate him, to trick him into a false step with either the crowds or the Romans, but he was even more cunning than those old foxes. He kept coming out on top, more popular than ever. I was secretly delighted at how thoroughly he wrong-footed them all. I was starting to get really excited. From a distance, this looked like a man to whom I might gladly bend my knee and swear allegiance.

But then, suddenly, last night everything came unstuck. It was one of his closest friends that gave them their chance, inside information so that they could grab him while he was away from the crowds. I couldn’t believe it when I was summoned in the middle of the night to a hasty Sanhedrin meeting. The trial was a sham from start to finish. I certainly didn’t join in the chorus of those baying for his blood. But I couldn’t stop them. And then, off to Pilate to beg permission to execute him. For what reason? Fear. Jealousy. Impatience. For all any of us knew, this Joshua might have been God’s Messiah. But none of them cared enough to seriously investigate that possibility. He was a threat to their stable, comfortable lives and so he had to be rubbed out.

You all saw how the rest of the story unfolded earlier today: Pilate caved in to the pressure from the rent-a-mob the priests put together; the brutal flogging; the senseless mockery; the unspeakable execution itself, I won’t even use the shameful c-word. The blood; the humiliation; the mysterious darkness; and then, the end, the end of… a good man?

Who was he? He can’t have been Messiah: Surely God wouldn’t let his chosen one die in such humiliation and defeat. Was he a prophet, rejected by the people like so many of those of old? Why would God allow such a tragedy? Could I have tried harder to stop it?

What could I have done? I was one man against seventy. Do you blame me for his death? What could I do? I didn’t have the numbers in the council; I didn’t have… to be honest, I didn’t have the courage to stand up for him.

After it was all over, I did what I could. At least I gave him a proper burial. I couldn’t let him rot, hung up on a tree like a common bandit. Indeed, our scriptures forbid us to treat even a criminal so shamefully. So I had to act quickly to get him down before start of the Sabbath at nightfall a few hours ago. Why Pilate gave me permission for the body of a ‘traitor against the Emperor’, I’ll never know. Maybe he was lenient because he too knew that this man was innocent. In any case, with the help of Nicodemus and my servants, we got his official permission, we bought a shroud, took down the body and I washed it according to our customs. The flogging, the crown of thorns, the nails – there was a lot of blood to wash off, even though it means I’m now ritually unclean since I’ve been handling a corpse. I wrapped him in the shroud we’d bought. I folded his hands, hands that had lifted cripples to their feet, hands that had raised a young girl from her death-bed. I closed his eyes, the eyes of him who’d given sight to the blind. I bound up the mouth that had made the mute laugh again. His disciples or family should have done it, but where were they? I’d sent Nicodemus off to get spices – in the Jerusalem heat, you need something for the smell – he came back with enough spices to bury a king.

We buried him in my own freshly cut family tomb. I rolled the stone into place myself, just as the sun was setting.

It is dangerous, I know, publicly associating myself with this condemned rebel. Maybe it’s stupid. Maybe I’m just trying to ease my guilt over not doing more last night, not acting sooner. Maybe this is my little rebellion against the brutal Romans, against the rest of the spineless self-serving Sanhedrin, against the fears that gnaw at my own heart.

But this was all I could do. We won’t see another like him, that’s for sure. What is God up to? When will his kingdom come? When will we see his heavenly power here on earth? When will he forgive our sins? When will he deliver us from evildoers? When will he save us from ourselves?


Anthony Douglas said...

It didn't come off as badly as your rubric suggested, I thought - though the key would be how it was woven into the service as you say.

I did a first person from the centurion's POV last year; I think there's something about the occasion that demands the emotional connection of hearing from the players themselves. I don't know how you delivered it- I decided last year to orbit the lecturn, moving around a bit (without getting too far from my security blanket!), and that helped me feel more in the role.

Anyhow, I liked the subtext, placing us into the Joseph role and asking what we would have done. Thanks for sharing it.