GOD SAYS “NO” – GOOD FRIDAY 2012

When I was in college back in the 1980s I was the proud possessor of a mug that read “Ulster says No”. Lots of saying “No” on Good Friday. Pilate says No to Jewish troublemaker. Chief priests say No to temple critic. Pharisees say No to disreputable law-breaker. Crowd says No to failed Messiah, Disciples say No – if this cross is where Jesus leads them.

What about God? Does he say No to Jesus? Most of those involved would say Yes. “He trusted in God, let him deliver him, if he will have him”. Stands to reason. No-one who ends up rejected by priests and people alike, put to death in this cruel and shameful way, can have God on their side. Even the disciples fear that this is true. “We had hoped that he was the one, but…” How could they have got it so wrong? Or, if Jesus really was the man they thought he was, what is God up to? What sort of God would do this to his friend? Good Friday is profoundly disconcerting.

What did Jesus think? Matthew and Mark report that haunting cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Did Jesus feel himself abandoned by God? We cannot know what went on in his mind, but there is a strand of interpretation that has wanted to explore this depth. Now we must affirm, I think, our mature Christian belief that God was saying Yes to Jesus all the time, just as Jesus was saying Yes to God, even when he felt alone and without hope. It is possible to feel abandoned and to understand nothing and to see no light and yet to trust in God. There is a prayer from the concentration camps that begins, “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining..  I believe in God, even when he is absent.” One of our modern hymns has the line “The Father turns his face away”. The darkening of the earth and the cry of desolation suggest Paul’s comment, “He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us”. Or again, “Anyone who hangs on a tree is accursed”. We can only comment on this with reticence and reverence, that Jesus, bearing the sin of the world, comes under God’s curse, God’s wrath.

I use that phrase reluctantly, because it is likely to mislead. I don’t want to suggest the angry touchy offended God who cannot forgive sinners unless he takes it out on someone first. I don’t want to suggest that God thinks each one of us is fit for nothing but death, but graciously kills his own innocent Son in our place. Those caricatures of the Cross are morally repugnant, and hardly fit what we see in Jesus. What do I mean by the wrath of God? I start from the basic premise that God is love, and loves his creation without limit: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” has to be our starting point. Now if you love someone, you get very protective of them, and you absolutely hate anything that might hurt or harm them, whether something they do themselves or something someone else does to them. A love that doesn’t care, that is indifferent, is hardly love. Of course you might choose to restrain your response, because love also allows others their freedom; but that’s not the same as indifference. Anyone bringing up teenagers will recognise the conflict between wanting to give a salutary clip in the ear and patiently allowing them to make stupid mistakes.

God’s wrath is the effect of his love, when it meets anything that hurts or harms his beloved creation, whether that is the destructive desire of the devil or our own foolish disobedience. So the Cross which reveals to us the limitless love of God must also reveal something of his wrath against sin: his definite “No” to all that hurts and harms. In this sense, “the Father turns his face away”; in Jesus’ spiritual agony as well as his physical pain, we see sin for what it is. The Cross is judgement.

And so those who say No to Jesus find themselves under judgement and have God say No to them. This is a constant theme in John’s gospel, where people pass judgement on themselves as they accept Jesus or reject him. In the Passion, Jesus appears at PIlate’s judgement-seat, but it is Pilate who is being judged by the truth. God says No to expediency and injustice and the quest for power. God says No to exploitation and spiritual pride. God says No to the unthinking selfish fickleness of the crowd. No to the cowardice that leads Judas to betray and Peter to deny.

We stand tonight before the Cross of Jesus, and we see with awe and thankfulness the love of God. Do we also hear God say No? What is there in your life or heart to which God says No? What is there that hurts and harms you? Have you let evil find its way into your heart and will? Looking at the Cross, seeing God’s unlimited love, let us repent and come back to him. Let us say Yes to God.

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