God Grief

a sermon for Good Friday

We are grieving. That is the explanation I’ve read in several places now for the general feeling of malaise, anxiety, and irritability that many of us have or have had over the course of the past year. Unable to gather like we want to, unable to work and play and do school like we’re used to, and constantly bombarded with loss and death and bad news we are dealing, many experts say, with a big whopping and prolonged case of grief. Lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost learning, lost gatherings. The loss has been intense, and the darkness we sit in tonight as the candles are extinguished, is symbolic of the darkness we’ve been sitting in all year, a darkness that has only intensified after the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia and the death of Lucia Bremer here in Henrico County. You probably don’t need another sermon that lists all the heavy things that we’ve been dealing with, but it still is worth remembering that the fog many of us are walking around in is actually grief.

Tonight, we see that God takes on the grief of the world. On this holy day, we hear that God confronts suffering, confronts hardship, confronts the unfair, inexplicable violence and torture that visit us all too often and hangs there with us. On Good Friday, we remember that God did not hold back in offering his own Son into a world darkened by human sin. The temptation is always there to skip ahead to Easter, to leapfrog to the bright lights and happy morning, but Good Friday always comes first, and that is a good thing. We need Good Friday to come first because the griefs of this world needs to be named and seen, and Jesus on the cross lets us do that. God intends Good Friday to come first so that we may see that God wants to meet us where we are, no matter the cost to him.

Unfortunately, religion can so often go off on a tangent. That is, religion can get overly complicated about things, waxing poetic at best, getting manipulative at worst. It can form in-groups and out-groups, it can make us feel that there are easy answers and explanations for everything if we just search hard enough. Religion can make us think if we’re not happy and joyful all the time or not all put together then we’re not doing things right. Good Friday comes to stop that nonsense, if we’ll let it. Good Friday says life’s problems often doesn’t have easy answers or secret short cuts. Good Friday says it’s OK not to feel happy and joyful all the time. Good Friday prevents us from going off on a tangent to figure God out so we can instead realize God is just one of us, God gets scared like us, gets wounded like us, bleeds like us.

And to notice that, to notice how plain and open and vulnerable God is for us, we take special note of what we hear from God’s Son tonight. You know, the core of most religions and self-help programs consists of deep and profound sayings that convey some rarified knowledge, usually spoken by some old man or woman who seems really intelligent and wants to dazzle you with their experience. But none of the words Jesus says from the cross is really philosophical in any way. Rather, their power is in their brutal humanity. Their meaning is in their simplicity. These are not phrases you would want embroidered and framed, drawn in calligraphy and placed on a card. Jesus does say those kinds of things, plenty of times. He says “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” He says, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” Jesus says so many things that are beautiful and enlightening but tonight, in his supposed finest hour, when he is being glorified, he is succinct, he is earthy, he is inarticulate. He coughs out very basic, very short sentences and questions:

“I’m thirsty.”
“Mom, disciples, take care of each other.”
“God, where are you right now?”
“Father, forgive these people.”
“It’s over.”

These are words uttered in grief, in pain, which, if we’re honest, also often leaves us unable to form profound thoughts. Here is God as a human, in a moment of total weakness, just struggling to get words out, but still wanting us to hear something. Yet for centuries we have found life in these words. Is there wisdom, too? As soon as his first followers could collect themselves and remember who Jesus was these words and this death formed the backbone of their understanding of God.

Why? Because we realize there is love behind it all. Love doesn’t try to offer some witty or wise saying to package the pain or explain it away. Love doesn’t ignore the realities of suffering. Love, at least the wonderful kind of love we hear tonight, says, I will sit in the darkness with you. Love says I will go through all the horrible loss for you, I’ll take the brunt of it on your behalf. The love we encounter in Jesus says I will suffer in your place so that you may be forever free. This love dies in order to release us from our constant efforts to reach God on our own terms. This love says weakness is where God will make his home.

I bet if you look over the events of the past year and think of the people who have helped you the most, the people who have offered you the most hope or the best comfort, the people who have shined the brightest light, it is the people who were strong enough to let you voice your pain. They are the people who were vulnerable enough themselves to listen your frustration, to validate it, who sat down and commiserated with you from time to time rather than offering some profound wisdom or solution to deal with it.

That, my friends, is the God of the cross who has been present for you. That is the saving action of the crucified One still meeting you in the darkness and knowing what it means to grieve. Those voices were the echoes of the one who spoke bare, human phrases from the cross.

So tonight, we let those final words echo again—we let them echo into a world that still grieves even if it can’t come to terms with it. Let them echo through our faith into a world that needs to be reminded it has a Creator that loves it, a Savior who loves it so much it will be thirsty for it, bleed for it, be weak for it, cry for it, offer up its spirit for it.

And then, in the darkness we can safely wait for the brightness of Easter. Because that will come next. Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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