I know I make a lot of jokes about spoilers this time of year—do we know what’s going to happen on Friday afternoon? Do we know what’s going to happen early Sunday morning? Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, let them be surprised! It’s silly because we all know. New life is coming, resurrection and alleluias and plants bursting into flower and gosh if we don’t need it. It’s dark in the corners of our lives, the fire and cruelty of the world is getting to us. And even with all the tree pollen, we want that beauty and possibility springing forth, of course we do. And it’s still here, even in the darkness of Gethsemane, even in Jesus’ own doubt that this is the next good thing, even in our senses of abandonment and betrayal—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
It is Good Friday. It is the day of death and darkness and gloom and suffering. This is the day that you will hear sermons about how God needed and wanted Jesus’ suffering, about how the blood of the crucifixion somehow washes us clean. About how our sin makes God so very angry and it’s only Jesus, who is like God, who can stand between us and the wrath to come.
I know this is scripture. I know it’s in the book. But I’m not sure this is what God’s like. “It was God’s will to crush him with pain,” says Isaiah. Was it? or was he crushed with pain and our way of understanding it is to say God wanted it. And then if God wants it, if God needs sacrifice and blood, then it makes sense that we would keep doing it. As much as Jesus was sacrificing himself for others—selfless, beautifully tragic—it’s still a sacrifice, still about a bloodthirsty God.
The reading from Isaiah is one of many readings which say flat out that God desires suffering. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” and “Through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.” Now, I am troubled by this. Troubled doesn’t even cover it. Disgusted. Mostly because humans have used lines like this forever to justify the cruelties we inflict on each other and as excuses not to be compassionate. It’s God’s will. I’m not even talking about the platitudes we offer when someone’s in the hospital. Literally, the good Christian men who came from Europe to America in those early days saw it as a sign of divine favor and of God’s glory that the native peoples succumbed to disease so quickly and that the Europeans were able to kill the rest and take control of the land so quickly. I’m not making this up—we have countless primary sources in their own hands and with the blessing of the Church attesting to it. Pain and suffering were justified by a God who desires them.
This reading and the other Suffering Servant passages from Isaiah are part of the Christian story about Jesus the Christ—we say that they’re foreshadowing him. Obviously he is the lamb led to the slaughter, obviously it is by Jesus’ bruises we are healed. There are a year’s worth of sermons on the complexity of Isaiah, but let me just say this: it’s not necessarily bad that we see Jesus here, but it wasn’t written about him. It’s most likely the suffering servant is the people of Israel as a whole. Their history is one of suffering and crying out to God, Isaiah was writing to the people who were just returned from Exile in Babylon. The temple was destroyed, the exiles were returning, and the whole culture and landscape was in shambles. What to make of the last 75 years? Why, why had God allowed this? Why were their children and parents dead and the house of Adonai a rubble? Where was God?
Isaiah says, “We the people of Israel have not suffered pointlessly—there is meaning here. Our suffering will create new life. We will not suffer forever.” This is beautiful and this is necessary. We need meaning-making to survive and this is the job of religion. This is what Isaiah is doing for Israel and partly what we’re doing gathered here to bear witness to the death of an innocent man. We are trying to answer the question “why”: why did Jesus have to die? Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening to my son or my neighbor? Why?
Suffering…exists. Sometimes it’s because of one person’s actions, sometimes its institutionalized, sometimes it just is and seeing it is enough. It’s just…a part of existence.
But we are adept at not seeing suffering, of scrolling past, of justifying our own pain as not worth paying attention to or justifying another’s pain as their fault or they should have known better or they’re not as human as we are. This kind of scapegoating and even willful ignorance is not confined to the distant past, it’s not confined to Jesus’ sacrifice.
It’s children in cages at the border, miserable, sick, and even dying literally of thirst. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.
It’s young people bullied for their looks or gender or ability who can’t stand to face another day. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.
It’s a whole generation of gay men wiped out of existence because our politicians and indeed the whole country ignored the HIV epidemic. We even mocked them publicly, like those who mocked Jesus on the cross. Their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.
I’ve started going weekly to the Hamilton County Jail with my colleague Daniel Hughes. He’s pastor of Incline Missional Church in Price Hill. We’re part of a group working to help incarcerated men be less likely to reoffend, but more than that, we’re trying to help them thrive, to have life abundant. Some of these guys have done really hurtful things. Others have been dumb or have trusted the wrong people. Some just can’t pay a speeding ticket, but also can’t pay bail, so they’re in jail for months until their hearing. And some, some are there because the justice system has to have somebody. Daniel said that thing yesterday as we were talking about the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus, he said it about Jesus, but he also said it about the guys in the room. The system needed a victim. All the guys in that room nodded sadly. They know. It’s not just Jesus, it wasn’t just that once.
Don’t get me wrong, It’s true that we have within us the power to destroy ourselves and each other and all of Creation, it’s true we need to turn from these ways. It’s even true that God gets angry. And there’s something powerful and transformative and unnameable that happened on Good Friday, and there is something powerful and transformative and unnameable about Jesus. But he didn’t stop suffering with his own. And I don’t think he meant to. He showed us what our self-interest does to people. He showed us how all our systems are built on violence, every one of them. He showed us what our lust and greed and sloth do to the whole of Creation—he was mirroring back to us the way we find someone to blame, someone to mock, someone to drive to despair so that we will see them as he does. All of them. In the crucifixion narratives, the crowd is asked what to do with this Jesus of Nazareth, and they shout back “crucify him, crucify him!” Friends, sometimes we are the crucified, punished by our sins or for no reason at all, but just as often, we are the ones doing the crucifying.
For now, the light is departing this world. Jesus, our brother, is betrayed into the hands of us poor sinners.