True Night

A sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The lectionary readings are here.

Are you familiar with Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Starry Night is an imaginative composition of the narrow scene of a cypress tree against a backdrop of hills out his window and all of the other aspects he knew of the town and countryside around him. He painted it in a single sitting and he considered it “a more spontaneous drawing” than his other works; Van Gogh declared Starry Night to be more realistic than the new fangled technology of his day referred to as photography. He sought to capture more than just the details of a scene, going deeper into the essence, the emotions, the feeling and tenor of the night sky. Vincent dismissed more realistic representational paintings as “delusive precision”.

Vincent thought that too much emphasis on precision can distract us from the truth, the pure nature of a scene or story. With Starry Night he sought to evoke the essence of what it actually feels like to look into a night sky. He wasn’t distracted by the delusive precision of the details; he painted to evoke a fully dimensional human experience.

Vincent wrote to his sister “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored in the most intense violets, blues, and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. It’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”

I think the writers of the Good News wrote with the same frame of thought as Vincent painted. Each gospel writer chose the details they included intentionally, to offer an experience, THE fully dimensional human experience of Jesus’ death. Remember that they weren’t taking notes as events happened as a newspaper reporter of our day would do. Most of them had run away to hide or at best watched from a great distance denying any connection with Jesus. But we still take their stories as truth, even though they weren’t written down until decades later. What matters is what the story points to, the story’s deeper meaning, the essence of the truth that evokes in us something more real than any historically accurate fact could possibly provide.

If we let ourselves get bogged down into trying to prove the factual details we will miss what the gospel writers are doing – evoking in us the experience of these events, the emotions, the impact, the deeper meaning of how these events shape and form our identity with the understanding that it’s not just “white spots on blue-black” but a richly colored story of Whose and who we are.

We have 4 eyewitness accounts of the same event recalling and focusing on different details, much like we tell family stories of Aunt Gertrude or Grandpa Fred. Each person telling different details from a different point of view, and each point of view coming together in composite to add to the complete experience.

We don’t necessarily consider any version of our family stories as incorrect or incomplete; we understand that together they give a more complete picture of a story, going deeper than just a focus on the factual details but how we perceive what happened and the impact on us. Our family stories shape and form our identity. They paint a picture of our lives in motion, the fully dimensional experience.

Luke tells us that as they lifted and set the cross Jesus was nailed to, he prays: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” a statement of preemptive forgiveness, God’s grace bestowed on us in our ignorance.

Then Luke tells us abut the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals who here hanging with him. Three men found guilty of not conforming to the oppressive standards of their day, threats to the Roman way. And as we see the three of them hanging together we cannot forget about the fourth who was set free in exchange for Jesus because of the narrow view of the temple leadership. Imagine what Barabas might be saying to his companions as they watched these three die. One of the men with Jesus mocks him as the crowd does, his view of life distorted by his own anger. And one has the eyes to see and ears to hear the truth and as he humbly acknowledges Jesus is given the reassurance that: “You will be with me today in paradise,” an offer of hope that is given no matter what stage of life we are in.

Then, turning over to John, we hear of Jesus’ concern for his mother and beloved disciple: “Woman, behold your son; Son, this is your mother.” A God-created relationship bound together through the death of another, the re-creation of God’s people knit together into a holy family.

Matthew and Mark tell of the desperate plea made by Jesus as God turns his eyes away from the world, causing the sky to darken and the curtain of the temple be ripped in two: “My God, why have you forsaken me.” A desperate cry of the deep anguish experienced by Jesus so that none of us – no one ever – would have to know life without God’s loving presence.

And then again, John brings us to the human side of things when Jesus says, “I am thirsty.” And although some mock his request with sour wine, some remember Jesus promising to give us all living water so we would never thirst for compassion and mercy and love again.

With John’s telling we witness Jesus saying “It is finished” and then giving up his spirit with Luke telling us the words “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” as Jesus breaths his last.

And, for now, this is where our story pauses: in the despair of death. A death that in the reality of the moment seems intolerable, unforgivable, unredeemable. The sky is dark and we cannot see beyond the blackness of it.

We have the blessing of knowing Sunday is coming; those who witnessed this day first hand, had already forgotten what Jesus had told them, that he would die but they could not find the light of hope he promised in the darkness. They were stuck in the delusive precision that death is death.

They had forgotten the promises of God from the beginning of time. They had forgotten Jesus’ words, “soon you will not see me but soon after that, you will see me and you will find joy.” They had forgotten that he told them that he would be handed over and condemned to death and killed AND would rise up again. They had forgotten that he had told them about their own betrayal and abandonment of him and he did not condemn them but served them.

They could not, as Vincent did in his painting, bring in what they knew of the whole Story of God to complete their picture. Despite all they had learned from Jesus, despite all they had done and witnessed with him, they could only see death.

From our perspective, our vantage point some 2000 years later, what do we bring into our composition painting? As we stand in the pain and anguish of Friday, and live with the tension of the now and not yet of Saturday, what is the true essence, the fully dimensional experience of God’s story? Can we look for the beauty of the night sky or do we close our eyes and wish for Sunday morning? Can we participate in the story or do we rush past what makes us uncomfortable?

Our participation in the crucifixion is to remember that the cross is not simply a ghastly sight of a naked man dying in agony, but the full disclosure of what God is up to in this world, the revelation of who God is and who we truly and fully are in relationship with God.

The cross defeats all of our attempts to climb our way to God through good works and righteousness and reveals the God who comes to us redeeming our attempts to be our own Creator by enabling us to participate in God’s new creation here and now. The cross teaches us that the only way to God is the way from God.

What happens on Sunday makes no sense without Friday and Friday is just a real downer without Sunday. The two together reveal the truth of who God is. If you look closely, you’ll see the true essence of God. Amen.

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