One of the more interesting aspects of crafting a sermon is called doing the Exegetical work; referring back to scripture, peeling the layers back like an onion to find what is at the center of the teachings. Done right, it can be a process that can take hours to do, not something that can be easily done for each Sunday Sermon. Tonights Old Testament lesson however caused me to spend a few hours looking at Isaiah, one of the great prophets in Hebrew Scripture. In our lesson tonight, Isaiah recounts the story of Jesus in remarkable detail, rich with details describing the life and death of Christ hundreds of years before his birth. This one lesson is rich in metaphors, that, when its placed against the passion gospels, you can match up example after example where the prophecy written so long before comes to fruition. I encourage you as perhaps part of your Holy Week journey, to place them side by side for comparison.
Isaiah, was one of the top four writers of scripture that Jesus referenced in his ministry. Isaiah was a well known, but not over liked writer in Jesus’ time. His writings were not always well received when referenced, which wouldn’t have surprised Jesus, because they weren’t very popular when Isaiah wrote them either. Isaiah continually preached about the disconnect between the people and their God. In his parables, Jesus reminded those listening, that even hundreds of years earlier, Isaiah warned of “people who’s eyes do not see, and ears do not hear.” He called out the Pharisees and scribes for their lip service to God in front of the people – “They honor God with their words, but their hearts are far from him.” And he alludes to Isaiah’s warnings in his parable about the vineyard, and the landowner who leased the land to others and went away. Referencing God who left his earthly kingdom to our care, and killed his servants who came to reap the harvest.
Today, in the mystery that is our faith, we stand at the foot of the cross, where our learning and God’s teachings intersect. God seeks to teach us here to make passage into eternity, to enter into his astonishing light, and life, and love. God calls us into a new understanding of what it means to live, recognizing that as humans, it is far beyond our capability to understand life beyond the mortal existence we cling to. We yearn to learn, yet exist in the isolation we create around ourselves in our fear. Fear that keeps us self focused instead of focusing on the other. Fear that keeps us from loving ourselves, which expands into keeping us from loving our neighbors.
Jesus hangs on the cross today because it is so hard for the flesh to let go of its insecurities and needs, of its own fears and anxieties. Jesus hangs on a cross today because we would rather reject the gift that he is offering than learn to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. How does this happen? Why does this happen? Jesus hangs on a cross today because we are so afraid to love our neighbors as ourselves because it means having to look at ourselves more deeply, more honestly, more forgivingly.
I’ve talked before about these intersections; these thin spaces -those places where the Holy and the Human meet. Tonight we stand at perhaps one of the thinnest spaces possible. We stand one foot on and past the threshold of death and before us stands a door opened by God. Holy Week is a call from Christ to die with Him sacramentally on the Cross. It is an invitation to be more demonstrative in the expression of our faith. We are called take the Cross from Golgotha and move it to a place in our hearts. to walk with it, experience it, and be changed through Its power and grace. As Christ dies for us on the Cross, so too, we are called in a way – die for Him in an act of total and unconditional surrender. In so doing we will discover our real self and truly experience the joy of the Resurrection—not only Christ’s, but also our own.
We come to the realization that God has gone as far as he can go in His love for us, and It is now up to us to see just how far we’re willing to go to meet that love!
Soon the starkness of our sanctuary will be replaced with the beauty of life displayed in fresh flowers and candles, Silver will replace the simplicity of wood and our altar shifts from bareness to layers of fabric. And the eternal life promised to us through Christ’s resurrection will enlighten the world. Out of death comes life, out of our anguish a new day begins, we again see light.
One of the most meaningful statements of our understanding of death and grief as Episcopalians I believe, can be found in our Book of Common Prayer. It is in fact in our service for the burial of the dead, an Easter Service The preface for this service reads as follows:
The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.
Tonights retelling of the passion gospel reminds us that we are an incarnational faith; We believe that God inhabits God’s creation. God’s became present among us, in the person of Jesus, and remains present in the Holy Spirit, in the imprint of God’s very image on all that is, making us and all in this world real, important and Holy. The world that we experience is not, as challenging as it may be, something we need to move beyond. The world that we experience is not a prison that we need to escape in order to experience God. We recognize that God is here, in all that is, in the world that has been given into our care, and that God is present in us, our flesh, the very stuff of which we are made. God comes among us and shows us that we are beloved, that we are made in God’s image, that we are holy and sacred – and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
And if we are to believe Jesus, and embrace the truth that he brings, we must learn to live with a sense of abundance, generosity and love. We must proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to others, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we must strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being!
Our Epistle reading reminds us tonight- “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Our day, our death will come. We cannot avoid it, we cannot delay it, despite our best attempts. Yet as followers of Christ we believe that life continues in a new way, in a new place. If we live in that understanding of grace, then we can face the pain of death, because God faces the pain with us. God will reveal His grace to us through his promise of everlasting life, through his Son Jesus.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Amen