March 23, 2014
3rd Sunday of Lent
We began Lent with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. He is fresh off the spiritual high of his baptism where the voice proclaimed from the clouds, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” He is physically exhausted and famished from forty days and nights of desert fasting. And then the tempter shows up.
According to Matthew’s version, for the second temptation Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, / and they will lift you up in their hands, / so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus’ response was, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
There is a struggle here between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Jesus could call down the angels. Yet Jesus has accepted his own humanity in order to reconcile all of humanity to God. There is a tension between the divine and human natures of Jesus throughout the Gospels, and that tension culminates in the Passion Narrative.
The temptation faced by Jesus in the wilderness sounds a lot like the mockery faced by Jesus on the cross: “He saved others,” the chief priests and the teachers of the law and the elders mocked, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ If you are the son of God, let the angels rescue you.”
It is an interesting question, really. Could Jesus have come down from the cross? His divinity would suggest “yes.” He could have called down the angels or the lightning or the flying monkeys or whatever to get him off of that thing and execute vengeance.
But Jesus is also human, and we have seen him submit to his human nature–in the desert with the tempter and more recently in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prays, “Not my will, but yours.”
On the cross he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is it possible Jesus finally tries to summon divine help only to realize that God is indeed honoring his submission–that Jesus himself is, at that moment, as powerless against death as the rest of us?
I recently read about a 5th Century monk whose views on this divine/human tension in the nature of Jesus were ultimately labeled as heresy by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Church historian Tony Lane explains that “Eutyches was an elderly monk who was theologically out of his depth rather than willfully heretical.”
All that is to say that if an elderly monk was theologically out of his depth in commenting on the nature of Christ, then I am most definitely in over my head. So rather than go further down the path toward heresy, I will rest right here in the ambiguity. And we will all have to acknowledge that we cannot know why Jesus did not come down from the cross–whether he wanted to but couldn’t or whether he didn’t want to but could have. We do not know why Jesus stayed on the cross. We only know that Jesus stayed on the cross. And that he died there.
The crucifixion, more than any other event of Jesus’ life, highlights the his humanity. Death is a universal human experience. We remind ourselves of this at the beginning of Lent each year on Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Those are the words my mom, as pastor, spoke to my dad a week and a half before he went into the hospital last year. They are the words she remembered with tears in her eyes while she, as wife, sat by his bedside and let herself realize that he was dying.
We all know that we will die some day. And we all know people who have died already. Many of you have been with someone you love as death came to them. Maybe you can relate a bit to this picture of death that Matthew paints for us as Jesus hangs on the cross.
That darkness that comes over all the land. I distinctly remember looking out the hospice room window as we sat with Dad in his final hours. It was unbelievably beautiful outside. Sunny and bright. And it felt so wrong. I wanted the clouds and darkness and gloom. I wanted creation itself to participate in my grief. Even when the sun is shining, death is darkness.
That temple curtain torn in two. The barrier between our human selves and the Holy of Holies is destroyed. That curtain that both prevents our access to and protects us from the Presence of God is violently removed—-if only for a moment. In the midst of my deep grief as my dad died in front of me, I was also deeply aware of God’s presence–in a stunning, nearly physical way. Even millennia after the destruction of the temple, death is a torn curtain.
That shaking earth, those shattered stones. At Lola’s funeral we heard the opening lines from Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, / an ever-present help in trouble. / Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way / and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, / though its waters roar and foam / and the mountains quake with their surging.” We prayed together: “Lola’s death has shifted the earth beneath our feet.” Even rooted on solid ground, death shakes the earth on which we stand.
The death of someone we love can change our world. Yet even the death of someone we struggle to tolerate can change us, can transform at least some of our bitterness to compassion. I’ve seen that happen this week with the news of Fred Phelps’ death. Many people who received nothing but condemnation from Westboro Baptist Church are reaching out with love and compassion to the Phelps family. Because even this seemingly hard, hateful man was, in the end, a human child of God. And surely those who loved him feel the darkness and the ripping and shaking of death just like the rest of us.
I was very interested to read an excerpt from a 2010 interview with Phelps. The interviewer, Joshua Kors, asked: “Have you thought about what will happen when you die?”
Phelps replied, chuckling, “I’m not planning on dying.”
Kors said, “Well, everybody’s going to die at some point. I’m wondering about your thoughts on going to heaven.”
Phleps said, “The Lord himself should descend for me with the angels. I’m not looking for an undertaker — I’m looking for an uppertaker.”
We know now, of course, that Fred Phelps did die, and he died like so many people. He got old and sick and went on Hospice and finally his body just quit working. The Lord himself did not descend. Not even a puny angel–as far as we know. Just Phelps’ failing body–alive one minute and dead the next.
Like Jesus’ body on the cross. Alive one minute, and the next–“when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit”–dead.
As the story continues, of course, we will learn that Jesus is not dead in the way that all people die. We will hear news of the resurrection; we will hear testimony that confirms the divinity of Jesus over and against and in addition to and all mixed up with the humanity that is so evident here, as his lifeless, bloody body hangs from the cross with the mocking sign above his bowed head: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.”
Yes, we will know of Jesus’ divinity soon. But not soon enough for Matthew. Matthew in particular, of all the Gospel writers, seeks to reveal Jesus’ divinity right along side his humanity in the death event itself. John does not include any natural or supernatural phenomena to accompany the crucifixion. Mark and Luke, who probably shared at least one source with Matthew, include the darkness and the torn curtain in the temple.
But only Matthew gives us this dramatic apocalyptic scene, these extraordinary signs and wonders to accompany the otherwise relatively ordinary death of Jesus–an itinerant rabbi from Galilee.
There is darkness, yes. And the tearing of the temple curtain, yes. There is also an earthquake–apparently one that registered pretty high on the Richter scale since it split rocks. And, the most bizarre part of all, tombs broke open and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Then Matthew goes ahead and gives us a sneak peek–getting his narrative all out of sequence, he says that after Jesus’ resurrection these undead holy ones went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
I was tempted to title this sermon “The Zombies are Coming”–what with zombies being so hip these days. Really though, it’s all so odd. Just bizarre.
As you might imagine, scholars and pseudo-scholars have had a heyday with this stuff. Trying to figure out if there was an eclipse and an earthquake that could have corresponded to the timing of the crucifixion. Debating about which of the temple curtains was torn and whether or not the centurion and guards could have seen the curtain tearing from their perch on Golgotha. Discussing which holy people might have been raised and how they could be raised before Jesus and what the Greek verb forms mean in terms of the no-longer-dead people just hanging out in their tombs until the resurrection or hanging out hidden somewhere else and how the holy city might be heaven or Jerusalem. Fascinating. (If you like reading about Greek verb tenses.)
In the end, though, I think I have to go along with Raymond Brown’s assessment that “[a]ll such speculation is unnecessary, for this popular, poetic description [of the fallen-asleep Holy Ones raised] is deliberately vague–its forte is atmosphere, not details.” 
Atmosphere, not details. For Greco-Roman readers, the atmosphere conjured up here matches the atmosphere surrounding the death of Caesar. For Jewish readers, it brings to mind Scriptural portents of God’s divine judgment–both positive and negative.
Atmosphere, not details. For contemporary Christian readers, the atmosphere Matthew creates can lead us to a sense of horror and hope. The darkness and torn curtain, the earthquake and split stones, the broken tombs and holy undead–the atmosphere of this story leaves no question about the frailty of humanity, no question about the power of God. The atmosphere of this story leaves us in awe of the One who somehow held both that frail humanity and powerful divinity fully within himself even as he hung in that horrifying, hopeful space between death and resurrection.
 From Death of the Messiah by Raymond Brown.