April 15, 2022

Luke 23:1-56

“When Everything Goes Wrong”

The other night I was watching an episode of Chicago Fire. If you don’t happen to watch it, all you need to know is that it’s one of those dramatic shows about a fire department. In addition to the drama in the relationships between the characters, there is the regular drama of crises including fires, car accidents, and other emergencies that our heroes need to respond to and solve. If you do happen to watch Chicago Fire, I’ll try not to give too many spoilers in case you haven’t watched the one from this week yet.

It was one of those episodes with one major incident – a truck driving through the front window of a grocery store, and the driver (an escaped convict) holding the people inside at gunpoint, trying to avoid arrest by the police outside. It was a tension-producing episode, in which confusion and danger was all around, and everything seemed to go wrong. Every time there was a little hope for a solution, for an escape… BOOM! There was another problem, and the situation escalated some more.

Watching the show and feeling the anxiety of the people stuck in the store, and the desperation of the heroes trying to help, I thought about Luke’s telling of the Passion story of Jesus that I had been reading and re-reading for today’s service. It’s also a story in which everything seems to go wrong.

Today we picked up the narrative after Jesus has been arrested, mocked, and beaten. He’s already been questioned by the council of the chief priests and elders, and they don’t like his answers when they ask him if he is the Messiah or the Son of God.

Just a little before that, Jesus was praying on the Mount of Olives, and rather than pray with him, his disciples fall asleep. Soon after, Judas betrays him and hands him over to the chief priests, the temple police, the elders who had come for him. And then comes Peter’s series of three denials: “I do not know him,” he says again and again, while just hours before he had said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”

Although we don’t know it yet, not all of Jesus’ friends run away. They’re all scared, but while some deny and betray, others watch and pray. As the drama unfolds, I am thinking of the anxiety, tension, and desperation they must have been feeling.

Next, the council brings Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor. He’s the one with the power to put this blaspheming man to death, and they argue that he should do so: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”

Pilate doesn’t buy it. He says, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they keep insisting that Jesus is a troublemaker, stirring up the people. So when Pilate discovers that Jesus is from Galilee, he takes the opportunity to send Jesus to King Herod instead. Galilee is Herod’s jurisdiction; let him deal with this man and his accusers.

Herod was definitely curious about Jesus. He was glad to see him, and hoped that he would perform some sign or miracle. Herod questioned Jesus for a while, but when he didn’t answer and didn’t show his powers, Herod mocked him and sent him back to Pilate.

So again, Pilate proposes that they need to let him go. He argues that Jesus has done nothing to deserve death. Why don’t I just have him flogged and then release him?

But they all shouted together, and demanded that Pilate release another man, Barrabas, instead, and crucify Jesus. Pilate wanted to release Jesus, but they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.

All the while, some of Jesus’ friends were watching, horrified by what they were seeing and hearing, but powerless to help. One man, Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the council, but he did not agree to their plan and action. Can you imagine how he felt in that position? His voice falling on deaf ears, and his vote having little effect when the vast majority were determined to get rid of Jesus?

And then there were the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee, perhaps including Mary Magdalene and Joanna, perhaps including his own mother.

As they led him away, they grabbed another man to carry his cross as Jesus walked the way of suffering up to the place where he would be put to death. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. I don’t know if Jesus’ friends and family were among those women who wailed, but I am sure that those cries expressed the anguish of the faithful disciples who were watching the horror of what was happening.

Like the most exciting TV drama or thrilling movie, the story of Jesus’ passion took his friends on an emotional roller coaster ride of hopes dashed again and again, with a final crash at the end when no one came to save him from that terrible death.

But his was not just a story. It was really happening. He was really hanging there between two criminals, dying on a cross. And his friends who had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel must have been devastated.

There are people going through real things like this in our world today. We think of refugees in many places – the ones we know, and so many others – who are trying to find a way to a safe place. We think of the communities that have been destroyed, the loved ones who have been killed, the terror of living in the midst of ongoing war, and the desperation of running away.

We think of people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic coming at us all in wave after wave after wave – those in our own community, and people in other parts of the world – who have been devastated by too many deaths in their families, who have had their lives turned upside down by losing businesses and livelihoods, or who have suffered serious mental illnesses brought on by so much isolation and the fear of simply living in the world today.

Watching the news these days does not feel so different from watching one of those thrilling disaster movies, except that these things are really happening. Like Joseph and the women disciples, many of us may feel frustrated and powerless. Everything has gone wrong, and all we can do is beat our breasts and wail.

But I think that Jesus’ friends must have kept watching as they brought Jesus to the placed that is called The Skull, where they crucified him with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. I imagine they heard him when he began to talk to God from the place where he was hanging, saying; “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

I wonder if they were still listening as Jesus comforted the repentant thief who was dying with him, saying: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I hope that they heard him cry out, just before he died, not in anguish or despair, but in confident hope that he would continue to be in God’s care, saying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

After Jesus died, the crowds who had gathered there for the spectacle returned home, beating their breasts. “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

And I can only imagine that it was Jesus’ courage, and faith, and hope in God, that strengthened them to keep going. They could do nothing to stop his execution or to reverse it once it was done, but they could follow his lead and trust God in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Perhaps they remembered what he had asked of them just one day earlier – that they wash one another’s feet and love as he had loved them first. And they began by caring for Jesus himself:

Joseph went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. They he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid… The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

This Good Friday, and in the days ahead, let us take inspiration from Joseph and the women. Although we live in a struggling world with struggling people, and sometimes it feels like everything is going wrong… our task is simply to use our gifts and our efforts to do what we can, to care for one another, to trust God, to keep on practicing our faith, and yes, even to rest.

On Friday, it feels like everything has gone wrong. But God is still with us, and Sunday is coming.