A sermon preached on Good Friday by the Rev Aaron Kennedy
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22:1-21, Hebrews 4:14-16, John 18-19
I used a mountain metaphor in my sermon yesterday,
to make the point that Lent can be hard going,
that Jesus’ passion was unimaginably hard going,
that Lent – and life, and faith, can feel like an uphill struggle.
Many of us here, if we are honest, like many in our society,
find the whole faith in Christ thing really hard going.
It feels like an uphill struggle to believe in God at all.
And we can be so strongly influenced by our society,
which is no longer dominated by a Christian vision,
but by an anything goes sort of narrative.
Self is central, and personal fulfilment is the point of life today.
So many are giving their lives for the sake of Project Self
– and becoming the best version of themselves.
It is my sense that our Lord knows all too well the pressures we face.
Our small pebble of faith is being chipped away at relentlessly
by the world around us,
by our own animal instincts – or the flesh,
as it is called in the Bible.
And he gets it.
He sympathises with our weakness,
as the writer of Hebrews says.
In truth, while the 21st century, technologically,
may looks like a totally new world
in comparison to first century Palestine,
there is nothing new about the essentials of the reality we are facing.
So, let’s hear again in outline the story as God sees it.
The world was created by God in complete freedom,
for the joy of it,
and we are the crown of his creation.
And, he has created us to have the freedom he enjoys
– the freedom and dignity of choice.
And with that choice we can worship him as God,
or we can choose our own path.
But, as human history bears out,
and as our own life experience shows us,
our own path is not all it’s cracked up to be.
We are riven with inner conflicts,
so that we are unable to do the good we want to do.
So, we settle. We acquiesce.
We capitulate to the forces working upon us,
and over time we are shaped in a particular way,
and we suffer the consequences.
It’s called the law of return – you reap what you sow.
If we sow seeds of selfishness,
we reap an unequal society,
and broken relationships personally, societally, and internationally.
If we sow seeds of self-righteousness,
we reap a harvest of division, enmity, suspicion and fear,
with consequences that include a breakdown of useful political discourse,
the dysfunction of democracy,
hatred, bigotry, racism, social isolation, and loneliness.
If we sow seeds of lust
we reap a pandemic of pornography use,
confusion, self-consciousness, and unhappiness,
with consequences ranging from wolf whistling
and a culture of one-night stands,
to widespread convenience abortions, rape and murder.
Nothing I have just described will be foreign to you,
we only have to read the news occasionally
to see the reality we are facing
in a world lived apart from the life of God.
Enter Jesus, who the writer of the Hebrews says
has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
It is Good Friday, and Jesus is at the summit of his passion – peak pain.
Soon, the suffering he knows he must undergo, will be complete
when he is arrested, tried, sentenced, crucified and dies.
How does Jesus become eternal salvation for all?
How can Jesus really deal with the desperate mess we’re in?
There are two main aspects to this.
Firstly, God must succeed in turning our hearts back to him.
And the prophet Isaiah is our guide in this.
And he says this, of God’s “suffering servant”,
in whom we see the person of Jesus:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
How does this work?
OK, to explain this I need to briefly take you into ancient history.
Isaiah’s words here are a reference to the ancient Hebrew rite of Atonement,
in which the High Priest lays hands on a beautiful, innocent little lamb,
and symbolically transfers the sins of all the people onto it.
This lamb is then chased into the desert,
and preferably off a cliff,
as a sign that their sins have been forgiven, have been taken away.
As far as the east is from the west.
He then takes another beautiful, totally innocent little lamb,
kills – and symbolically sprinkles its blood on the people,
as a sign of forgiveness,
as a sign of its innocence and purity passing onto them.
Now this is all very foreign to us,
and it is easy to dismiss, please bear with me a moment.
The wrong way to understand the ancient Jewish Rite of Atonement
is as the paying of a penalty.
You park in a bus stop, and get caught on CCTV,
and must pay the penalty of £60, or else.
And having parted painfully with your hard-earned cash,
you are then forgiven and move on with your life.
That is not what is going on in ancient Jewish Rite of Atonement.
The High Priest is not offering the lambs to appease an angry God,
so that he will forgive the people’s sins.
No, something totally different is happening.
The High Priest, dressed in glorious apparel,
essentially became God for the day.
And, the innocent lambs, without spot or stain,
are not the price paid for sin
– no, they also stand-in for God.
The blood of the lamb, that is sprinkled over the people,
is therefore a symbol of the very lifeblood of God.
And the scapegoat, the lamb on which the people’s sins are laid,
a symbol that God will bear the people’s sin,
and suffer the rejection, exile, and death,
that otherwise would be borne by those who have sinned.
In the ancient Jewish Rite of Atonement
God gives up his own life for his people;
despite his unsurpassable Majesty and Glory,
his beauty and innocence,
God empties himself of all but love.
And the heart is meant to be moved to love.
Now, it’s one thing to be slightly obsessed
with videos of cute little kittens and puppies,
(mentioning no names, Jenny Scott Thompson)
you know the sort thing – which make us go all gooey inside.
Well, it is of an entirely different order
to know that a new-born lamb, without spot or stain,
itself standing as an image of God,
has been given up to death and abandoned in the wilderness,
out of love for us.
It took the people’s heart of stone,
and put a heart of flesh in them.
It softened their hearts,
it convicted them of sin,
and made them turn away from their selfish behaviour
– in what is known as repentance, or to return,
brought them alive to the sacrificial love of God,
to his tenderness and devotion,
So that the relationship between people and God was restored.
The at – one – ment – the atonement, was complete for another year.
I hope this is now starting to remind you more
of the Jesus we know and love,
who of course assumed the Old Testament title,
the Lamb of God.
For what is prefigured in the life of ancient Israel,
is fully accomplished by Jesus, once and for all,
in his death, passion, and resurrection.
Now, I said there was a second thing to get
in coming to understand how Christ becomes salvation for all.
The writer of the Hebrews tells us that he
has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Now, obedience is not in vogue these days.
Within or without the church.
As I said, in our culture self is central,
and we question all sources of authority.
Self-fulfilment or actualisation is the point of life,
at least here in the west.
Nowadays we turn to a wide variety of sources
to craft our own fluid personality and identity,
and culture is awash with an eclectic mix spiritualities,
for us to dabble in and pick and choose as we see fit.
You will have your own views on that situation,
and the sort of fruit it is bearing in our society.
Either way, it is clear that we all – regardless of who we are,
religious, non-religious, spiritual but not religious, or whatever,
we are all getting a spiritual formation of one kind of another,
and outside of a disciplined religious tradition of some kind,
that formation will be hit and miss at best,
because it is largely unconscious.
Enter Jesus, who sets himself up as our teacher.
He has left us a body of work, recorded in the Gospels,
and interpreted by the apostles in their letters to the early churches,
and the Holy Spirit,
and at the heart of this teaching is this idea of apprenticeship, or discipleship.
He calls students, and invites them to walk with him
and learn from him
how to go about this thing we call life.
And it is extremely practical, if challenging, stuff.
Turn the other cheek.
Bless when you are cursed.
Don’t think lustful thoughts.
Forgive those who sin against you.
Let your yes be your yes, and your no your no.
And among many others,
as we heard last night,
Love one another, as I have loved you.
But none of this is really possible for us on our own.
See how long you last offering blessing for curses
when you get cut up while driving down the motorway.
And of course the difficulty of Jesus’ way
is the reason, as GK Chesterton has said,
That Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting;
it has largely been found difficult and left untried.
I spoke last night about the difference between
the technical fix and the adaptive challenge.
We love technical fixes when we can get them.
It’s problem solving at its best,
and it works for a whole array of things.
And thank God for it.
Human society, however, has reached the end of its capacity
to deal with its problems through technical fixes.
As I know I myself did, on a personal level.
The problems we face are not on the technical level.
They are adaptive challenges
and as such are beyond us
in our current state.
We need a new operating system,
and an entirely different way of living.
We need appropriate spiritual formation from a master teacher,
who, as it happens, is the actual Son of God.
And that is where apprenticeship to Jesus Christ comes in,
which is so much more that what we typically call being a Christian,
or going to church.
I want to do nothing more today than lay before this need
for a new operating system.
For a transformation of character.
For an apprenticeship to Jesus the master teacher.
All I can say, as did Pilate,
is Here is the man!
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