March 29, 2013 – Good Friday – Carl Rabbe

Good Friday 2013 Sermon
by Carl P. Rabbe
for Circle of Faith Parish

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, John 18:1-19:42

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Even now, people of God, assembled here at the foot of the cross, grace to you and peace from the One who said, “It is finished!”

It happened in Pittsburgh, in the late autumn of 2012. A young couple was out for what promised to be an enjoyable visit to the zoo there, taking their two-year-old son with them. In true toddler fashion, he was enjoying himself by climbing and clambering on everything. It all seemed innocent until he tried that from the shoulders of his mother, who was standing immediately alongside the edge of a cage. No one knows for sure what happened next, but somehow this little boy vaulted from his mother’s shoulders, over the edge of the fence, and slid down the safety net, to the bottom, where he was met by eleven fully-grown African wild dogs.

“Heartbreaking…senseless…tragic…so sad.” These were all words that flew through the comments sections on the news in the days that followed. I remember reading some comments calling for his family to be put on trial for child endangerment. Others were screaming for the dogs to be shot, for the zoo directors to be fired, for better fencing to be installed, and many other things. Some of these words were helpful, some hurtful, most downright ridiculous. The most tragic piece of it all was that there was no clear perpetrator here. There was no single person or entity that our society could make a target, and whom we could punish. We couldn’t rightly say that one person had been totally in the wrong for this unspeakable horror. Therefore, it seemed, there could be no justice in this little boy’s death.

Tears fell from my eyes in those days, hot, bitter, biting tears. They fell for this young child, for his family, for those who saw what happened, or claimed they did, and those who longed to know. Tears fell from my eyes and those of many others as we all cried with the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Why?” Tears, too, cloud our eyes and stain our sacred pages tonight. For here, too, it seems, there is death without justice, exile without a return.

We glimpse that in Isaiah’s words, in the lyrics of the suffering servant song. Who this servant is, biblical scholars disagree – some say the servant is the nation of Israel, others the prophet himself, still others that it is a foresight of Jesus Christ. None of these are invalid interpretations, for all of them certainly faced suffering, bloodshed and persecution. All of them faced death at the hands of evildoers. All of them feared, in the midst of what they faced, that God had left them behind, discarded them, cast them beyond memory.

Even Christ knows this feeling, or so the writers of John’s Gospel portray. Betrayed by one of his own, tried in kangaroo courts, condemned without a defense, and led to the cross – that’s the image of Jesus with which we have to live. His death cry of “It is finished!” is the cry of one without hope, one who has exhausted every chance, and who is being dragged away to a shameful, hideous end. Or is it?

If that really were so, why would we receive these glimmers of hope, words of grace glowing in the midst of so much darkness? “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his wounds we are healed…out of his anguish he shall see light…I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the Lord!” Why would the Gospel of John not end here? There are several pages yet to go. Maybe there is more here than meets the eye. Maybe the story goes on. Maybe death for these stories is but part of a journey, a journey that does not end here.

Tonight, we must confront the cross, and the injustice it pounds home like steel nails. If Christ is without sin, then what’s he doing in the talons of death? If we are the sinners, then how is it that the Sinless One hangs up there for us? As the folks in Pittsburgh knew that dark day, there is no clear-cut answer, no easy settlement here. We can’t wave a magic wand and banish the pain and shame of unjust death. Tonight we confront that stark reality in the presence of the cross and the altar stripped bare. In the cross, there is death, and there is no justice for it, no single perpetrator, no scapegoat at whom we can legitimately point the finger, not if it was all human sin that put Jesus there. Coming before the cross, like that grieving family, we can do nothing but pray. And so we have prayed and will pray, our voices rasping with grief, our tongues parched in our anguish. We pray with bitter tears streaming down our faces like the women at the foot of the cross. In our tears, we plead, as that family did, and as we all did upon reading that story, “My God, my God, why? Why? Where are you?”

And even now, in the darkness and loss of Good Friday, in the shadows and pain and flowing tears, we feel the merciful touch of God’s wounded hand, and hear the whisper of a divine voice, saying, “I’m right here, my beloved ones. I am here at the cross with you. I, too, had to watch my Son die. I am here in loss, holding you as you weep. I am here in your fear and suffering, waiting with you for a ray of hope to come. I am here in death, going through it with you, bringing you beyond it to the real end of the tale. I will be here as they lower you into your grave, just as I was when they raised you from baptism’s waters, where I promised I’d be with you from beginning to the end. I am here. And I am here with the promise that an unjust cross, an agonizing death, is a dark part of the journey, but the journey does not end here.

“You’ve gotten this far, my friends,” says our crucified Lord. “But there is more to tell. The tale hasn’t ended here. Stick around a little longer. In fact, come back on Sunday morning. Then you will find out. In new flames and Easter flowers, in ancient stories proclaimed and the gospel preached, in holy exultations and joyful songs of resurrection, in an altar restored and a sacred feast of everlasting life, you will find out how the story really ends, for me and for you, once and for all.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Carl Rabbe is a senior seminarian at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and is a member of Waverly Lutheran, and Circle of Faith Parish.