THE DARKEST HOUR
Isaiah 53:1-9 Hymns: **115
Mark 15:16-39 **116
Secrets of Heaven 1690 120
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."
We do seem to like to have things neat and simple, black and white. It gives us a sense of knowing where we are at, who is on our side, and who is against us. it relieves is of the difficulties of looking for what is best in those who disagree with us, and of looking for the worst in ourselves. It allows us to disregard beliefs or opinions that challenge our own and to seize on every scrap of evidence that we ourselves are right.
We pay a high price for this convenience, though. We pay the price of blindness to a great deal that is happening in and around us. To a truly alarming extent, we cut ourselves off from the world as it is, suspended halfway between heaven and hell. The English mystic William Law said it about as vividly as it can be said:
Selfishness and partiality are very inhuman and base qualities even in the things of this world; but in the doctrines of religion they are of a baser nature. Now, this is the greatest evil that the division of the church has brought forth; it raises in every communion a selfish, partial orthodoxy, which consists in courageously defending all that it has , and condemning all that it has not. And thus every champion is trained up in defense of their own truth, their own learning and their own church, and he has the most merit, the most honour, who likes everything, defends everything, among themselves, and leaves nothing uncensored in those that are of a different communion. Now, how can truth and goodness and union and religion be more struck at than by such defenders of it?
The founders of our own church, in order to justify their own desire for a separate organization, seized on all the major criticisms of "the old church" and essentially ignored the basic doctrine that the Lord is present in all religions and ensures that everyone has access to the means of salvation. If we turn to the records of the conference that resolved to establish a separate church, we search in vain for a reference to Divine Providence 258:3:
. . . divine providence is constantly at work to save people for whom faith separated from charity has become a theological principle. Under divine providence, even though this kind of faith has become a theological tenet, everyone knows that this kind of faith does not bring salvation. That requires a caring life in which faith participates. All the churches where some theology is accepted teach that there is no salvation unless we examine ourselves, see our sins, admit them, repent, and refrain from the sins and begin a new life.
Instead, we find "That it is the opinion of this Conference, that the Faith of the Old Church ought to be abolished from the mind of every individual, in order that the Faith of the new Church may gain admission, and be established."
There is of course some truth to this. The problem comes when it is taken to be "the whole truth," so exclusively true that the presence of the Lord, or the working of providence, is effectively denied. It does indeed lead to the establishment of " a selfish, partial orthodoxy, which consists in courageously defending all that it has , and condemning all that it has not."
It is the clear and central teaching of this church that there is only one truly and perfectly good being, namely the Lord. It is the message of Maundy Thursday that we resist this claim. For centuries, Christians identified themselves and the faithful, as loyal to the Lord, and identified the Jews as the enemy, the crucifiers. The profound evil of this self-righteousness is inescapable when we look at the Inquisition or the Holocaust.
No, if we would truly understand the significance of the crucifixion, we must see our own part in it. In each of our hearts there is the inclination to deny any fault--in essence, to deify ourselves. This surfaces in our own defenses of all that we have and our condemnations of all that we have not. It surfaces in the excuses we make for ourselves. It surfaces in various forms of community and national pride, and in such apparently harmless forms as team loyalty-not so harmless at all, when someone can be killed in a dispute about a children's hockey game. It surfaces in every abuse of power, whether within the confines of the home, in the market place, or in the church.
Surely, too, William Law was right when he saw this attitude as "of a baser nature" when it infects the church. Here, where we are presumably most open to the presence of the Lord, we should feel closest to all whom he loves. If we cannot feel love for our enemies here, if we cannot pray for those who persecute us here, then where on earth can we? It came as a shock not too many years ago to realize what was clearly implied in the closing words of our doctrinal reading: "On the cross, he prayed for his enemies, and therefore for everyone in the whole world." Whatever else I may be, I am certainly included in that "everyone in the whole world."
But if we would truly understand the significance of the crucifixion, we cannot stop there. the voice of self-righteousness is only one of many within us. If we listen, we can also hear the voices of the disciples who loved and followed the Lord, of Peter who was grieved beyond measure to discover that his very effort to follow the Lord into the jaws of danger had led him to utter words of denial.
There are indeed clear statements to the effect that apart from the Lord we are nothing but evil; but we are never "apart from the Lord." The one who prayed on the cross for the forgiveness of those who had crucified him will not desert us even when we are at our very worst.
Especially in times of uncertainty, we are drawn to simplistic statements. We need something to hang on to in the midst of chaos and confusion. This can be a real need, one that we cannot afford to ignore. In a sense, the only thing wrong about it is our tendency to regard it as a sign not of weakness but of strength. We pride ourselves in our certainty as though it showed us to be better than those who are in doubt. Is it really that we have all the answers, or simply that we are not yet ready for some of the questions?
Perhaps the most striking thing about the crucifixion, though, is its setting-between the Last Supper and the resurrection. The crucifixion not the Lord condemning us, but the Lord giving us his life. His giving of his life is not the end of his life, but its fulfillment. It is the ultimate demonstration that to cling to life is to lose it and to let go of it is to find it.
We may be profoundly grateful that we are so rarely asked for great and dramatic sacrifices, though history would seem to tell us that when such occasions do arise, very ordinary people like you and me do tend to rise to meet them. Most of the time, though, what is asked of us is far less. It is simply to give each other our attention. It is to lay aside our defensiveness and try to see clearly and lovingly what is at issue in our dealings with each other, and with ourselves.
In some ways, it may be harder for us to do this than it would be to meet some great and dramatic challenge. There is no rush of adrenalin. There are no cheering crowds, with their mesmerizing oversimplifications. We are told that the more we look at the details of anything, the more complex we find those details to be, and this certainly applies to human behavior. As individuals we can wrestle endlessly with the complexities of, say, environmental issues. In crowds, we reduce these complexities to slogans that will fit on a single placard, in large print. It was not the individual Pilate who called for crucifixion. He seems to have been a bit bewildered. The certainty was in the crowds, and in the crowd mentality.
Perhaps, then, the best possible effect of this evening's service might be to help us be a little less sure of ourselves and a little more sure of the Lord. We do know that we are not physically self-sufficient. We need constant nourishment. May the Holy Supper remind us that this is true of our souls as well. We need constant spiritual nourishment, and our very presence here testifies to the fact that the Lord gives it to us unfailingly.
Secrets of Heaven 1690
"The rest of them fled to the mountain" means that not all of them [were killed]. This needs no explanation, because it was the ones who were left that fled. In its inner meaning, this is talking about the temptations that the Lord underwent in his childhood. There is nothing about these temptations in the Word of the New Testament, only about the temptation in the wilderness or just after he left the wilderness, and then about his last temptation in Gesthemane and thereafter. Many passages in the Old Testament show us that the Lord's life was one constant temptation from his earliest childhood to the last hour of his life in the world. These words in Luke show that the temptation did not stop with the temptation in the wilderness: "After the devil finished the whole temptation, he left him for a while" (Luke 4:13). There is also the fact that he was tempted all the way to his death on the cross and therefore to the last hour of his life in the world. We can therefore see that the Lord's whole life in the world, from earliest childhood, was a constant temptation and a constant victory. The final event was when, on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, and therefore for everyone in the whole world.