When I was at the grocery store earlier today I overheard one customer say to another, “Have a happy Good Friday,” and it, well, brought about mixed emotions in me, to say the least. On the one hand, in a time when our culture is growing more and more secular I wanted to jump up and down excitedly and shout, “Yes! It is Good Friday! Someone knows it!” On the other hand – – happy Good Friday? Really? I’m not so sure that’s the exact emotion we’re going for here. But I think I’ll stick with my first impulse – – gratitude for the recognition that this isn’t just another day, that something happened, something important and horrific and life-changing, earth shaking, and kingdom altering even. Something happened on that Friday in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, and it wasn’t good, and it most certainly wasn’t happy, but it was something that changed the world forever, changed the world for the better.
Mark’s gospel began with a pair of mission statements. In the first verse of the first chapter Mark tells us that he has set out to tell us “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The second is Jesus’ own mission statement, when he tells us what his coming, his ministry, his life and death and resurrection are going to be all about. Jesus says this, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God has come near.
Now if you’re just a bystander, as most everyone was at this point, this sounds like a pretty gutsy or completely off the wall declaration. The kingdom? God’s kingdom? Here? Now? The only kingdom the people in Galilee could see coming anywhere close to them was Caesar’s kingdom, the Roman Empire, and that kingdom wasn’t doing a whole for them. Jesus doesn’t even say explicitly right off the bat that this kingdom of God has come near in him, but even without personalizing the message it’s a bold thing to say. “How do you know, Jesus?” the people in Galilee may have been asking. “How do you know the time is fulfilled? How do you know that kingdom of God is here? Because it sure doesn’t look like it.” At least it didn’t look like they expected it to look like.
Most of the rest of Mark’s gospel is spent showing the kingdom of God, the reign of God, God’s divinity, present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the big problem is that no one you would expect to recognize it ever really gets it. In fact, only the people and spirits you’d never expect to recognize the good news, that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus, are ever able to verbalize it. A man with an unclean spirit says “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Others cry out “You are the Son of God!” The demon named, Legion, shouts “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Even the Roman centurion who stood facing Jesus as he hung on the cross when he breathed his last could say “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Yet Jesus’ own disciples are silent most of the time, and bumbling around messing it up on the rare occasions they can make a declaration of faith.
The kingdom of God has come near, Jesus has said, but all the people who “count” are missing every single sign he gives them. They are looking for the anointed one of God to come in and topple their oppressors, set up an easier life, calmer seas, even honor, prestige, and power. They’ve got high expectations – – high and misguided expectations.
Isn’t that a perennial human problem when it comes to our relationship with God? We may not be as bold as the disciples who dare to argue out loud about who among them is the greatest, but we hope and pray that our meager faith will be rewarded, that coming to church and offering our gifts, that volunteering and doing our part will get us something, will earn us some favor, will buy us some grace or at least a ride through life that’s a little easier. We have expectations that being near the kingdom of God, being near Jesus will save us from some of the heart ache and hardship that might otherwise infiltrate our lives, and when it doesn’t quite work that way that’s when we get bold and ask of God, “Why?”
We aren’t much different than the disciples in Mark’s gospel who, God bless them, try so hard to be right there with Jesus, but again and again seem to miss the point until, finally, at the end, in his last days, they can’t even stay awake to comfort him. One betrays him into the hands of those who want to kill him. Another denies he has ever known him, and all of them, every single one of the twelve, desert him. He didn’t do what they had hoped. He didn’t bring them what they were looking for. And so they fled at his arrest in Gethsemane.
The rest of his passion – – his trials, his flogging, his mocking, the walk to the place of crucifixion, and the nailing of his hands and his feet, the death of Jesus – – he endured alone. His closest friends just can’t see, it seems, how any of this has to do with the kingdom of God. “Were you there?” the spiritual asks, and very few of his followers, at least again the ones who “counted” in the ancient culture who could answer, “Yes. Yes I was there.” I doubt many of us would be able to either.
The temptation is strong when it feels like God is absent… the pull is deep when it feels like God has died, like God has abandoned us… to just walk away from it all. If God can’t help me keep my job, if God can’t heal this cancer, if God won’t relieve this poverty, if God isn’t powerful enough to bring peace where there is violence or pain or hatred, then maybe God was never here in the first place. If God isn’t going to do what I expected God to do, what am I sticking around for? The kingdom of God has come near? Where? If Jesus was supposed to bring the kingdom of God, by any of our expectations it sure looks like he failed at his mission.
And that right there is the key to this whole day, this whole “Good” Friday. Our expectations. Our understanding of what power and strength and blessing look like. God doesn’t operate according to our expectations because our expectations lead to desertion at best and crucifixion at worse. Because if we’re not the deserters in this story, then our next option is to be the religious establishment that arrested him out of fear of his extravagant, rule-breaking love, or the crowds that shouted “Crucify him” out of discomfort for the way he turns our sense of fairness on its head, or the government that carried out his execution out of worry that allegiance to him will pull allegiance from all other authorities. God doesn’t yield to our expectations, and that’s how God ends up on a cross.
Joseph of Arimathea, we’re told, was a respected member of the council – – the same
council that bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. He had been waiting expectantly – looking for, seeking even, the kingdom of God, and he was part of the unanimous decision to send Jesus to his death. And when his death came to pass, when this rabbi who claimed to bring the kingdom of God, had been put to death by those whose fears ruled their hearts and minds, Joseph went in search for Jesus’ body. He had been seeking the kingdom of God, and now, whether he knew it or not, he would find it.
I like to imagine he did – – that like the centurion who saw in Jesus’ death the Messiah, the Son of God, Joseph saw in Jesus’ humble broken body just how far the kingdom of God really reaches. I choose to believe that as he carefully carried the lifeless body he received from Pilate he realized that this body carried the kingdom of God into the world. I have to think that as he carefully wrapped Jesus’ remains in a delicate linen cloth, he knew better than anyone else that the in Jesus who lived and breathed, and struggled and suffered, and finally died, the kingdom of God touches even our most vulnerable moments.
For in Jesus God experienced firsthand the totality of our experience, and in Jesus crucified that experience is brought to completion – every emotion, every sensation, every tragedy, every injustice we may ever know is known by our God, our Redeemer. In Jesus crucified the kingdom of God touches every last corner of creation; the kingdom of God comes as near as it ever will.
This is it! In the cross and death of Jesus the kingdom of God is truly here in the very darkest places of our lives. And in the cross and death of Jesus, we have assurance that even in our pain, in our suffering, in our loss, and in our death – – even in betrayal, even in our denial, even in our mocking and scattering, in our desertion- – God has never deserted us. This is it! On this day and in this cross, we truly see to what great lengths God has gone to be with us, how wondrous God’s love is for us, that Christ would die to know us and to save us. This is it! This is the kingdom of God.