Sermon: "Hard to See," March 25, 2018

Sixth Sunday in Lent - Palm/Passion Sunday
Rev. Ryan Slifka

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
— Mark 15:1-39 (New Revised Standard Version)

 A few months ago I was walking to the grocery store. We were in the thick of our deepest, darkest, rainiest winter, but that day was different. I had to shield my eyes from the sun with my hand. The sky was bright, powder blue. The air was cold and crisp, instead of moist and freezing. Everything was shiny. And so as I was walking, I let out this deep, satisfied sigh. Because I was filled with this deep sense of gratitude. I know I’m not alone in having this feeling. I’m sure many of us, inside and outside the church, have had this feeling. I think this is what people mean when they say “I experience God the most in nature.” Or, as one woman said to me at the end of last Christmas Eve’s service: “nature is my church,” as she was trying to escape talking to the pastor as fast as she could. It makes sense. There’s something transcendent, something awe-inspiring on days like that day for me. In moments of such natural beauty and awe, there just seems to be more to life than usual. The divine seems so clear. Amen, there is a God.

At that moment for me, God was so easy to see. I was just stewing in this beautiful day. But as I kept walking, I noticed a shift inside myself. Because there it was: the junkhouse. The old Comox box, with the tarp on the roof in lieu of new shingles. The peeling paint. The muddy, weedy yard. Piles of useless junk from one end to the other. The old rusted van with flat tires. Every time I walk by that house I shake my head, asking if the people who live there have any sense of pride in what they have. Every time I go by I wonder what kind of losers would let a place go like that. And this time, I thanked them for ruining what seemed like a holy pilgrimage to Quality Foods with their carelessness and ugly yard.

You see, I went from praising God for the beauty of creation, to cursing this eyesore in the middle of it. Simply because it’s easy to see God in beautiful things. It’s easy to find God in natural beauty, in our joys and triumphs. But the painful, the violent, the suffering, or the ugliness of our world—not so much. God is easier to spot in some places than others.

God is easier to spot in some places. And not others. And this is no more true than in our scripture passage for today. The trial, torture, and death of Jesus.

It started with a triumphant parade, people waving palms, crowds cheering and welcoming him into the city. But soon enough, Jesus was betrayed by his closest friend, Judas, who handed him over to Roman authorities. Soon after, Jesus’ friends, the ones who promised to be with him through thick and thin, they abandoned him altogether. Fleeing in fear of their lives.

It’s hard to see God when your friends stab you in the back, and you’re abandoned by people who love you.

Now Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the governor. The local religious authorities want him executed for blasphemy. It’s not a crime, so they argue for sedition. It’s a tradition that Pilate frees a prisoner for Passover. So he gives the crowd the choice—free the non-violent prophet and healer Jesus, or Barabbas, the murderous, violent revolutionary. The crowd calls for Jesus’ blood. While Barabbas goes free.

It’s hard to see God in injustice. Poverty, political oppression. Crooked governments, crooked systems. Where killers walk and the innocent go without recompense.

Then, Jesus is whipped. He’s dragged to the courtyard of the governor’s mansion. Where a whole cohort—200-600 soldiers gather around. They toss a purple cloak over him, and place a crown of thorns on his head, holding a mock coronation, laughing and hissing “Hail! King of the Jews!” Before they beat him, spit on him, parade him to his place of execution. Nail him to a cross and divide his clothes amongst themselves.

It’s hard to see God in the perpetrators of unspeakable violence. In gas chambers and battlefields. Where evil and human brutality are on full display.

During his crucifixion, Jesus hangs between two criminals, showing him as an object of contempt. The crowd mocks him, saying if he’s so powerful why doesn’t he just take himself down? The religious leaders laugh, saying “he saved others but can’t even save himself! Even the criminals crucified beside him throw jabs. It’s as low as it gets!

It’s hard to see God in the worst of our physical suffering, our emotional anguish, our powerlessness. It’s hard to see God in a cancer diagnosis. It’s hard to see (or smell God) in a person whose spent the better part of the month on the street, or bodies twisted by chronic drug use. It’s hard to see God in the bodies of broken, degraded human beings.

Finally, at 3 o’clock, the moment of Jesus’ death, he cries out to God. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, the Messiah, the one sent by God. The one who says “the Father and I are One.” A few people suggest he’s calling out for the prophet Elijah, who could come and rescue him. But it never happens. He’s left alone. He gives out a loud cry. Then breathes his last.

It’s hard, maybe even hardest of all, to see God in death. Because even Jesus himself can’t see God now.

God’s easier, far easier to see in some places, God’s easier to see in some people, God’s easier to see at some times. It’s easy to see God in the good stuff. But to see God in the worst, ugliest, most challenging parts of our existence. That’s harder. Much harder. If not impossible.

God’s easy to see in some places. But not others.

And yet… according to today’s scripture passage, it’s the bad place. The suffering hurt place. That’s exactly where God is.

In our scripture passage it says that at the moment of Jesus’s death, the curtain of the temple is torn in two. And then, it says, there’s a Roman centurion, a captain of the guard standing by “Truly!” he shouts. “Truly this man was God’s Son.” This is the first time in Mark’s gospel that anyone directly says this about Jesus. So at the moment of Jesus’ death, in the temple God’s most concentrated presence, the veil between God and creation is ruptured. And a Roman soldier—an enemy of Jesus and his people—is given a divine revelation, that this isn’t any old execution. This is God’s Messiah. In this moment on the cross, the presence of God is poured out into creation. In this moment on the cross, the veil is lifted on God, who God is. And what God’s up to in the world.

In Jesus’ trial, his torture, his crucifixion and death, God is nowhere to be seen. Off the map. Missing in action. It’s precisely this moment, this moment of injustice. This moment of suffering, humiliation, abandonment, betrayal, and death. It’s precisely this moment, the curtain is torn in two, and Jesus is shown as “Truly God’s Son.” The great Reformer, Martin Luther called this the deus abscondits—the hidden God. That we go looking for God in all the most obvious places. It’s easy to see God in things like a baby’s smile. It’s easy to see God in our great achievements, and in our triumphs. It’s easy to see God in a narrow, zigzagging path down to the ocean. And in a crisp, sunny winter day. And it’s even easy to see God in someone who dies with friends and family gathered around at the ripe old age of 90.

But it’s precisely this moment on the cross, the scriptures tell us, this God-forsaken moment is where God is most present, God’s power most supreme. The cross is not a piece of jewelry, or a religious brand. The cross is the core symbol of Christianity because it’s there where God’s work is fully on display. Even though it’s hidden to the naked eye.

And it means if we’re able to see God there—see God on the cross—then we can see God anywhere, especially where we need to.

If we can see God on the cross… It means we can see God in the midst of our betrayal, and abandonment, and our loss. Knowing we’re never alone. Nor left to our own devices. On Good Friday there is hope for Easter Sunday.

If we can see God on the cross… It means we can see God in the midst of oppression and injustice. It means we can work for social justice even when it seems like there’s no difference to be made. Knowing that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice—we can trust that God’s eternal kingdom of peace and justice is not only possible—it’s on it’s way. Not even the empires, the powers of sin and death can hold it back.

If we can see God on the cross… It means we can see God in our suffering, and the suffering of others. It means that we can no longer look at the junky whose body has been twisted from months on the street and see a problem to be solved. Rather, we can see the broken body of our Lord. And embrace them as a fellow sinner, a beloved child of God. A brother or sister in Christ.

And if we can see God on the cross… it means we can see God in ourselves. In our sadness, in our worst humiliations. In our most broken, most ugly places that we hide from everyone else. In our places of deepest guilt and shame. If we can see God on the cross… we can see ourselves as God sees us. Broken, yet beloved. Worth dying for. And worth going to hell and back.

It’s easy to see God in some places. And not others. But the promise of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ is more than being able to see God in the true, the beautiful, and the good. The Good News is that it’s where we can’t see God. In the dark places of our world. The hurting, suffering places in our lives, and ugly place of our hearts. Where we can’t see God… that’s where God is most at work. Planting seeds of resurrection.

It’s easy to see God in some places, and not others. May we… may you… look upon the broken, the hurt, and the ugly in our world, and see the beauty of the work of the hidden God. A God whose arms, stretched out on the cross, are able to embrace it all. And make everything new.

And for this, thanks be to God.