John 19:17-37 "Explaining (without Explaining Away)"
They should have seen it coming. That's what a number of people said about the U.S. Intelligence community following the horror of September 11. The CIA, the FBI, our spies in other countries: no one saw the attack coming, but not a few critics think they should have. Claiming this is just one way by which people try deal with 9/11. It isn't the only way, however. We also deal with our shock by immersing ourselves in the details of those events. Just three or four short days after the attacks, the New York Times had already uncovered so much information about the terrorist highjackers that it took me over two hours on Saturday the 15th to read the massive articles that the Times printed that day.
When something big happens, we want explanations, and if we can't get explanations, we will take all the information we can get; we'll talk about it over and over. We want to make some sense of what seems non-sensical. We want to understand things that defy comprehension. But sometimes those efforts to explain or clarify take on a rather desperate tone. Grasping at straws, we embrace supposed explanations that are rather far-fetched.
The death of Jesus was, for the disciples, a cataclysmic event that shattered their world. Their hopes for the future deflated right along with Jesus' lungs--as he exhaled his last breath, so also the air rushed out of the balloon of their dreams. "Someone should have seen this coming," they perhaps said to each other. "Maybe we could have prevented it."
At the very least they would need to talk about this terrible tragedy, rehearsing and re-hashing that dark Friday over and over again. Whether huddled in a locked room together or wandering aimlessly to Emmaus, the confused disciples couldn't stop talking about it. How many times did you see the twin towers fall both on TV and in your mind's eye? Hundreds of times? How many times did the disciples replay Jesus on the cross? Dozens of times? Hundreds? They kept going back over their mental videotape in the hope they'd understand it better if they did.
Seen from a certain angle, John's presentation of the crucifixion could be seen as an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. It could even be deemed a rather desperate attempt at that. After all, look at how John peppers his account with quotes from the Old Testament. The soldiers cast lots for Jesus' undershirt, and John quotes Psalm 22. Jesus asks for something to wet his parched lips, and John says it fulfills Scripture. Since Jesus died more quickly than the two thieves, the soldiers skipped snapping his legs. The reason they did it to the thieves was to inflict one last piece of such searing pain that they'd finally die of shock. But Jesus was already dead, so they don't do it, slicing open his flank instead to confirm the congealing of blood in his body. But here again John sees this and reaches for passages from Exodus and Zechariah and says these events fulfill those verses.
But the quirky thing is that essentially none of those passages is a prophecy awaiting fulfillment. Psalm 22 is just a description of one man's spiritual torment from thousands of years before, but it wasn't a prediction that anyone else would feel the same way some day. The material on not breaking bones was not a prophecy but an instruction for how to eat the Passover lamb each spring. Even the line from Zechariah about looking on the one who was pierced is not obviously some prophecy referring to the Messiah. John has sewn together a pastiche of biblical quotes, but the quoted verses don't appear to point forward to anything. This looks random, in other words--an attempt to knock that square peg into a round hole.
Some while back I met with someone who had a serious foot condition that made walking nearly impossible. One day he had done a word search of the Bible, taking note of every verse that mentions the words "foot" or "feet." He then applied all of these verses to himself, saying that these verses meant God would heal his feet very soon. After all, just look at all the verses about God's guiding our feet, making level paths for our footsteps, and so forth. Clearly this was about him! I didn't say anything at the time, but that struck me as a rather loopy way to appropriate the Scriptures for yourself!
But if you wanted to be cynical, you could conclude that John did the same thing. He noted the details of the crucifixion, and then went back into his Bible to find verses that seemed to match. But if that's all John did, then it would indeed be a rather desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable. Yet we are here tonight to affirm that John was not wrong, was not desperate, was not grasping at straws. John knew that somehow, in God's grand plan, that terrible cross had a place and a purpose, and John knew that because by the time he wrote these words, he had been living for many years in the light of Easter.
As time had gone on, John realized something. He came to understand that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the whole cosmos had turned the corner from darkness into light. He sensed that the cross, far from a giant question mark sunk into the landscape of history, was actually a kind of hinge that swung the door of history wide open into the brightness of God's future. John did not need to make sense out of the cross but had only to proclaim the sense that the cross already made.
And so if John found in Scripture a reference to sacrifice, if he saw the Passover lamb as a sneak preview for the Messiah (whether or not anyone had ever noticed this before), then that was not a loopy attempt to paper over what he couldn't explain. No, it was simply noting that in the grand symphony of salvation that God had been composing since Genesis, there had been a number of key chords that had been sounding all along. Once you hear the whole symphony played, you start to detect the patterns. Your ears prick up to catch a little run of notes that had at first seemed like a minor melody being played in the background by just an oboe or two. But eventually that oboe melody grew louder, with more and more instruments coming in, until finally it was exactly that tune that predominated as the symphony's main theme. As it turns out, there had been "cross notes" sounding all along because all along God knew it would take this sacrifice to make things right again.
Sometimes we find comfort in understanding something a bit better. If we can explain it, we don't have to be shocked by it. But although helping us to understand, the final purpose of John 19 is not to cover up what Jesus suffered. John is not saying, "Listen: if I bury you with enough Bible verses that explain this, then you won't have to feel quite so bad that this happened in the first place." No, that's not the point, nor should it be.
Because ultimately what John's explanations tell us is that all along, God knew the beloved Son would have to die. For God, this did not come out of a clear blue sky. The symphony has been leading up to precisely this plangent theme from the very first note. If you want to ask, "How bad off is this world really?" the answer is the cross. It's that bad. It's important to explain the cross. It's important to understand the cross. It's important to see how God orchestrated history to lead up to that cross. But none of that erases the cross.
At Ground Zero in New York, you can clearly see, perched up above that pit of death, the iron-girder cross the workers found in the wreckage a couple of days after 9/11. These welded I-beams had fallen in just that shape from some great height as one of the towers imploded itself into oblivion. Now that steely cross stands there still symbolizing . . . what exactly? Hope? Grief? Both? The presence of God even in the midst of horror?
Whatever that cross may mean, what it does not mean is that seen from the right angle, those nearly 3,000 deaths aren't so bad after all. No, those deaths are tragic, and no cross can make it otherwise. So also Jesus' death is horrible, as raw now as ever these past two millennia. We've come here tonight to remember that. As for John when writing his gospel, so also for us in this service: it's impossible to observe Good Friday without still standing in the light of Easter. But if that resurrection light provides us with hope and a measure of clarity, it also serves to illuminate the cross like a spotlight. The cross doesn't go away. It mustn't. It reminds us this night how bad off we really are.
But it reminds us, too, that even so, we've never slipped so far that God can't still reach us. And he does. With nail-pierced hands he reaches to us tonight in the bread and the wine. And once he does, nothing in this world can snatch us out of those hands or separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And so come, take, eat, drink, remember, and believe that. Remember that our God doesn't explain away the death or the terror of this world. He doesn't say that all things considered it's not so bad after all. Instead tonight he shows us again that he has penetrated the darkness, and only so can he finally rescue us from it. If you can see that in Jesus' cross, then this Friday is a good Friday after all. Amen.