Sermon - 11th March 2012
Lent 3 - Betrayal
Scripture - Mark 15:33-39
My feeling is that it is very easy to allow the emotional hurt that can result from being betrayed to shape us. Betrayal is something that can cut deep into our souls and significantly wound us. The resulting wound is extremely painful, and has the power, if not healed, to make us bitter, hateful and wary of letting anyone close to us. But how is it possible to stop these feelings from ‘defining’ us after being wounded so deeply?
Before we can ever get to the point of even considering how we might live well after the violence of betrayal we must first acknowledge the bad that has happened.
I was brought up to think that it was healthy to get upset, rant and have a good cry. Unfortunately, this only gets you so far. But, I think ‘getting it out’ is a good starting place - just don’t live there for the rest of your life! People express their pain in a number of different ways, and as Christians we have plenty of resources in the Scriptures to help us voice our pain.
Psalm 22 is one of the Scriptural resources that I sometimes use when I feel betrayed by others, or abandoned by God;
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our [ancestors] trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame
(Psalm 22: 1 – 3)
This always seems an odd prayer to find in Scripture, as when I read it I can hear the author’s frustration with God, and they almost seem like they are blaming God for their difficult situation. Or at the very least they are trying to get God to act, by reminding him of other people he has helped! I think that at the heart of this Psalm, and many other places in Scripture, is the question: ‘Why God, why don’t you seem to do anything when I am in pain?’ Actually, this question is at the heart of many peoples’ lives, and I hear it in the words of Jesus, which we read in today’s Scripture:
‘Eloi, Eloi lama sabacthani, or My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’
Many people have pondered the meaning of Jesus’ words; ‘Eloi, Eloi lama sabacthani’. I find it fascinating that the Scripture records them in Aramaic. This was the language that Jesus spoke; while the New Testament was written in Greek, the language that was spoken by many across the Roman Empire. So Mark, by recording Jesus’ words in Aramaic, is highlighting something. For me, when I read Jesus’ words in his own language it adds weight to them, because it makes them more personal, more immediate. This is no well-timed theological statement, but something flowing from the very heart of Jesus. I want to put it to you that these words give us a window into how Jesus was feeling.
While that may be the case, it still doesn’t answer how we should make sense of them. I think that they are difficult to understand. However, some people have come up with neat theological ways of making sense of them. They argue that God is turning from Jesus, literally abandoning him because he is taking on the sin of the world and warring with it through his death on the Cross. Jesus is becoming sinful and God can’t look on sin, therefore Jesus is separated from God at the point. This may be true, but for me, it sanitises Jesus’ cry; and anyway I feel that it is an overly simplistic understanding of what is happening, but that is a whole different conversation!
When I read his words I hear someone who is in extreme pain praying.
Jesus would have most probably memorised all the Psalms, because that is how the Jews of his day carried the Scriptures with them. He is in a situation where he has been betrayed on a number of different fronts; by his own people, by some of his closest followers, by the Roman legal system, and I think he may have been feeling abandoned by God himself, which is a little odd because he is God - more on that later. With these things in mind, it makes complete sense to me that Jesus the betrayed would draw Psalm 22 from his memory and cry out to his Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Like I said, I think he is praying; looking for help and seeking hope in a very traumatic situation.
At this point, I think he is also praying for everyone who carries the question; ‘Why God, why don’t you seem to do anything'? He is giving voice, as our Great High Priest, to that prayer. More than that, he not only prays it, he lives it. Now you may feel this is a step too far, but I believe at the moment Jesus is suffering with the pain of every person betrayed by their family, their partner, their church, their government, their friends, or even by themselves. Not only that, I think he is also experiencing that pain of being a betrayer. Betrayers might cry to God ‘Why didn’t you do anything God, why didn’t you stop me?’ Most of us, if we are honest, not only know the pain of being betrayed, but also the pain of betraying those we love.
Can we take one moment to consider all this? Would you mind if we were silent, and in our minds eye conjure up our picture of Jesus the betrayed on the Cross experiencing his pain, and our pain?
[30 seconds silence]
Then he dies.
His betrayers won. They killed him, destroyed him, wiped him off the face of the earth, let him down, didn’t come to his aid, turned a blind eye to his suffering, let injustice win out, were silent and watched, didn’t raise a finger to help, were powerless, and so on and so forth. You know the rest because we have all experienced these things done to us, and we have probably done most of them to others.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last breath.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
Hope for us?
Not the most hopeful story when we look at it that way.
The wound of betrayal killed Jesus, and it doesn’t even seem that God actually helped him, even though Jesus was God, which as I have said before is odd. Odd as it may be, it is also very important. Because I think that it is in the ‘godness’ and ‘humanness’ of Jesus that our hope of not being shaped by the wounds of betrayal are. I want to try and explain what I mean in a simple way, but to do that I need to take us back to the Scripture reading.
Jesus dies and a curtain rips.
Now, if you are like me, you may think that it is probably not the best thing for curtain to rip but surely it is not as significant as Jesus dying? Although I do have a friend and if you stand on his new rug with your shoes on, he would probably treat that event as similar to someone dying! But, we will put that aside for one moment. As I am sure you are aware, this was no ordinary curtain.
It was the curtain that was in front of the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the Jewish Temple. This was the place that contained the ‘Ark of the Covenant’, and was where God was said to ‘show up’, so to speak. Only priests were allowed in here, and only at certain times and after certain preparations. Jesus the betrayed dies, and the curtain rips. Jesus dies and God becomes accessible in a new way.
So, God who has been betrayed by humans doesn’t allow that betrayal to destroy him, or destroy his connection to those who betrayed him. In the ultimate theatrical twist, he uses it to become more intimate with his creation. As our brother Paul reminds the Corinthians:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3: 16).
This is where the hope comes in. I think that impact of betrayal can cause our humanity to shrink with hatefulness and bitterness. Jesus could have come back and destroyed everyone who betrayed him, but he doesn’t allow his wound to define him in that way. Even if some Christians tell a story where everyone, but them, end up in Hell! Jesus is not defined by the sin of others, but is shaped by his humanity and his divinity, which means he responds in forgiveness, wholeness and a deeper connection to others.
People say that humans have a natural inclination towards evil, and there is plenty of evidence for that, but I also think that we have a natural inclination toward good - towards forgiveness and wholeness and connection. That is what it means to be human. Jesus was the perfect human, and he provides an example that gives us permission to voice our sense of betrayal, but at the same time encourages us to not to remain in that place. But to live as forgiving, wholesome people, who can love others.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘that is fine for you to say Adam, but you don’t know what I have gone through’. And you are right in saying that. But please don’t hear me saying that you need to put away your feelings. Surely if our story teaches us anything, it is that Jesus felt pain, and voiced his pain and confusion in prayer. But he moved beyond that. I am not saying that ‘moving forward’ won’t be painful. It probably will, but you have access to God, a God who will make you his temple and live within you if you want him to. If you are a follower of Jesus, then God dwells in the midst of your betrayed and betraying heart. He will help you move towards wholeness.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, God says to us
"Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you.
I've called your name. You're mine.
When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you.
When you're in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you're between a rock and a hard place,
it won't be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
The Holy of Israel, your Saviour.
(Isaiah 43: 1b – 3)
That is why every time I ask ‘Why God, why did you let this happen?’ Or am asked by someone, ‘So you believe in God, well why did he let this happen to me?’ All I hear is a prayer asking God for help. Jesus on the Cross knew betrayal; he has shared our sufferings; he has made his home in us; and while he has not promised a life free from suffering, he has promised that we will overcome.
God is inviting you to be shaped by the overcoming power of Jesus; not a festering wound of betrayal. So which will you choose?