Behold the Lamb of God

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Good Friday
March 29, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: There's a looking-glass quality to the arrest and mock trial of Jesus, with its "sentence first -- verdict afterward," by the religious and civil authorities in Judea. The arresting party has both authority and the weaponry to put Jesus in custody, but they are blown over like a pack of cards by two little words. There is nothing, however, amusing about the horrifying death inflicted upon Jesus, although -- spoiler alert -- we know in advance that it's more than a matter of life and death -- it's death first, and abundant, eternal life for all of us afterwards.

When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published his two most famous books, "Alice in Wonderland" in 1865 (in which Alice falls down a rabbit hole into Wonderland) and "Through the Looking Glass" in 1871 (in which Alice walks through a mirror into Looking Glass World where everything is backward) they were marketed as children's books. And why not? They were developed out of stories he told aloud to three very special children, and children have certainly continued to enjoy them over the decades.

But many people continue to read them when they grow up because they are not only great fun, they also ask serious questions about life, death, justice and the mystery of existence. One man said that each time he rereads them, he sees deeper into and thinks longer about life, the universe and everything.

Toward the end of the first book Alice finds herself a spectator in a courtroom. The Jack of Hearts is on trial for his life on the ridiculous charge of stealing some tarts. The evidence is paper-thin, the jurors are manipulated by the prosecutor, and the Queen of Hearts, impatient at how long this is taking, demands that the Jack be executed immediately. She's told by her husband, the King of Hearts, that it's customary to have the trial and the sentence first, and then the verdict.

"'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first--verdict afterwards.' 'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!' 'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple. 'I won't!' said Alice. 'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved. 'Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'"

And with that all the creatures rise up and assault Alice, but it comes to nothing, because the Queen's court truly is only a pack of cards.

There's a looking-glass quality to the story of the arrest of Jesus. An act of treachery takes place in a garden spot meant to be a sanctuary amid the hustle and bustle of the big city, filled with pilgrims for the Passover Festival. The betrayer led a Roman cohort and some of the temple police to arrest Jesus. There are hundreds -- hundreds -- of Roman soldiers, reinforcing the ragtag temple police.1 The number of soldiers underscores the might of Rome. They are carrying lanterns and torches and weapons. But Jesus is the light of the world. Torches and lanterns are weak in comparison to the sun. Faint lights, worldly weapons, swords and clubs, these are brought to bear by the Romans and Judeans.

A pack of cards

Clearly the powers of the world appear to be in charge. But Jesus is the one who asks the questions, displays power and directs the action. "Whom are you looking for?" he asks. When they say "Jesus of Nazareth," he replies with two words: "I AM."2

And with those two words the Roman soldiers and the temple police with their lanterns and their torches and their weapons, like Humpty Dumpty (who, by the way, makes an appearance in Through the Looking Glass) all fall down. "I AM" is the name of God in the Hebrew Bible. This is audacious beyond measure. Before this, moment, Jesus has identified himself as the Light of the World; the Bread of Life; the Gate for the Sheepfold; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and the True Vine.3

But what happens when Jesus says I AM is typical of what happens when people encounter the presence of God. Ezekiel saw the wheel, and he fell down on his face. Daniel heard the sound of God speaking and he fell down. Paul was riding furiously to arrest and kill the people of God and in the presence of God when he fell stunned and blind. And when the Revelator looked into heaven and saw the Divine, he fell down as if he were dead. The Roman soldiers who conquered the western world were left powerless, stunned, or as 18:6 renders it, "they stepped back and fell to the ground."

Is it any wonder, then, that when Jesus asked them again who they sought and when they said again, perhaps still lying down, struggling to get up, dazed, confused, Jesus simply commanded them "let these men go,"4 referring to the disciples. And the soldiers did so. Jesus placed himself between the cohort and his friends to protect them. He decided who was going to be arrested. As the good shepherd, as the gate to the sheepfold, he ensured as it is written "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me." Or as Jesus had just said, minutes earlier, as they shared the meal, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. ... I have called you friends."5

John then tells us that Peter drew his sword and cut off the right ear of Malchus, the slave of the high priest. This is astounding -- Peter should have been cut down by the Romans for drawing a sword in their presence, for taking aggressive action -- but because Jesus is truly in charge, they do nothing.

Malchus is a slave. He has no say about being there. He's caught up in this reign of darkness through no fault of his own. Once the momentary shock wears off, he's likely down on his knees, or his back, writhing in pain. And as is so often the case, the innocent who have no say in what the powerful propose are the ones who are harmed. In this we see in small what will be writ large in the suffering of Jesus.

Only when Jesus says, "Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"6 does the arrest take place, and does the trial, verdict and execution follow. And like the Red Queen in the Alice book, the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We know this when, chapters earlier, Caiaphas the High Priest said, "You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish."7

The die has been cast

What is Jesus doing? The clue comes from John the Baptist, who earlier said "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."8 That word is singular -- sin, not sins. The problem is not just us. Oh, we're sinners all right. But the sin of the world is the institutional original sin that's got us all in a net tangled up together so we can't move without elbowing somebody in the eye. And Jesus has come to change the rules of the game, making it possible for us to live together and become children of the light.

Stand with Jesus

We know the rest of this story -- the sentence first ("Crucify him!"9), the verdict later ("I find no guilt in him"10).

In 1792 Thomas Haweis wrote the hymn "Dark was the night, and cold the ground." This hymn is one of the 27 songs inscribed on the Golden Record sent with the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1979 and now hurtling through interstellar space. There's a version recorded by the matchless African-American musician, songwriter and singer, Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945). His version reflects the deep, gut-wrenching agony of our Lord, as well as the plight of blacks in Jim Crow America, and indeed all who suffer like Christ.

Johnson was blinded at the age of seven when his stepmother threw lye in his face because he tried to shame her for her adulterous behavior. His unique, gravel-deep voice and hard-headed gospel lyrics were combined with the voice-like melodies of his slide guitar technique, created by the penknife he used because he had no bottleneck. Johnson lived in dire poverty, playing music on the streets of Dallas for spare change. He died of pneumonia in 1945, when he was refused medical assistance because of his race.

According to Timothy Ferris, charged by NASA with selecting the music for the Golden Record carried into space, "Johnson's song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight."11

Today we make a choice -- which side are we on? That of the rulers and their minions, who will fall like a pack of cards when confronted with the Great I AM, or with the One who allows himself to be crushed, destroyed, eradicated -- and resurrected.

Let us stand by the cross, stand with Jesus, stand with those who are suffering now and struggling now -- we're still here.

Behold the Lamb of God. Be children of the light. Be at peace with the Great I AM.