Holy Week Wednesday Sermon

08 April 2009 09:30 Eucharist

"So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night."
It was about 8.45 pm on Good Friday 1986; it had been a long day, starting with Morning Prayer and meditation with the vicar at 7.30 am, followed by the Procession of Witness through the town of Biggleswade where I had been curate for nearly 4 years; then a united service in the Baptist Church at which I preached, followed at 2 pm by the Service in St Andrews until 3 pm. Evensong with the vicar at 6 pm was followed by the Choir singing "Olivet to Calvary". After than I felt in need of coffee and was glad to accept the offer of Roger the Warden and his wife Sue to call in for that at about 8 pm. Then about 45 minutes later I got on my bike to cycle the short distance to our home. I was at a T junction not far into my journey when I was hit by a car cutting the corner. I was thrown in the air and sat down with a thump on my rear end and felt intense pain. I had been hit by a car driven by a driving instructor, the brother of my then own driving instructor.
Before I knew it I was in an ambulance on the way to Bedford South Wing Hospital, undergoing X-rays and hearing the doctor announce that I would have to stay in for " few days" (a euphemism for three weeks!) - apparently I had a compression fracture of one of my vertebrae (T12 for the medically curious among you!). And from being intensely busy I was suddenly unable to do anything much at all. I was in the hands of nurses, doctors; visited and prayed over as never before! There was a sense of helplessness as well as of anger and frustration. I was in the hands of others and could do nothing about it!
And that was what was about to happen to Jesus shortly after the gospel we heard just now. Judas has left the upper room - gone on his deed of betrayal. And as he goes the passage has four seemingly innocuous, yet in fact very significant, words: "and it was night".
Many have interpreted them as a commentary of the act of Judas.. But those four words "and it was night" have a far deeper significance. To grasp that significance we must go back three chapters and read what Jesus said at the beginning of chapter 9 before he healed the man born blind. Jesus says there:
"We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work".
Right up to that point in the Upper room when Judas left, Jesus had worked, healed, taught, doing the works of the one who had sent him. But from now on Jesus does almost nothing. He says things in John's gospel (unlike the other three), but he does almost nothing. He goes to Gethsemane, is arrested, and from being the one who does things to and for others, he becomes the one to whom others do things. He becomes passive - which comes from the same root as passion - and the root meaning is to suffer (but not necessarily pain). Night has come, and Jesus can work no longer.
These words "and it was night" are a turning point in the story of Jesus and in the story of that first Holy Week. They are a hinge, if you like, around which the action of Holy Week moves; they mark an important transition. From now on Jesus will no longer work; he will be the passive, suffering one. In the Garden of Gethsemane, after Judas had betrayed him, his hands are bound; and from then on what he does and where he goes is subject to the direction of others.
Many have suggested that what Judas did was motivated not by monetary gain but by a desperate desire to push Jesus into a corner and force him to act - to rise up and lead a revolt that would overthrow the hated Roman domination of Judea. (and we know from the remark of one of the men Jesus spoke with on the road to Emmaus the first Easter day that some of his followers did understand him in this way "We had hoped that he would be the one to set Israel free" the man said to the as yet unrecognised Jesus).
But it didn't turn out like that - and hence maybe there is some truth behind the stories of Judas' despair and suicide. Jesus did not act as maybe Judas had hoped he would. He does nothing.
To act as Judas and probably others would have wanted would be merely to respond to violence and brutality with violence and brutality, only continuing the endless cycle of sin and evil that had been the story of humankind ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel. From generation to generation that story of hatred, violence and sin had continued.
And it is precisely here that the inaction of Jesus becomes so significant. In not acting with violence to the unjust brutality meted out to him, Jesus is refusing to allow that cycle to be repeated, that cycle of violence and counter-violence. The hate is absorbed in Christ's forgiveness, not passed on; it is neutralised. The wasting disease of our sin and evil spent itself upon Christ and was absorbed, or, as the New Testament puts it "swallowed up."
Seen in this way the story of the Passion of Jesus can be read as God intervening in the person of Jesus to break this age old cycle and for us to be free from it. Put in another way, you can say that in Jesus God accepts the responsibility for all that has gone wrong in his creation and acts decisively to put it right.
Once in the Old Testament a brave writer had penned the words, which he put into the mouth of God:
I bring prosperity and create disaster
I the Lord do all these things. (Isa 45:7)
He makes God accept the responsibility for all that goes wrong in his creation - for all that his creatures had done with his world and to each other. Those were brave words which no other Old Testament writer had the courage to repeat. It was left to Jesus to act out in his life and death the reality that underlay those brave words.
In the inaction of Jesus we can see God accepting the responsibility for all the mess that we have made of his world. Here is no angry God demanding the death of his Son as the only sacrifice that will appease him. Here, rather, is a God of love who loves his creation so intensely that he will go to any lengths - even death itself - in order to set things right and put an end to the cycle of sin, violence and hate. That is a God I can believe in - not the caricature of Calvin who demands the death of his Son as the price for removing sin, but a loving God who, literally, puts himself in the firing line to put right what has gone wrong in the creation his hands have made.
Judas goes out. "And it was night." And Jesus is in the hands of others. That is the weakness... and the power of God. Paradoxically, God in Christ saves us not by doing things, but by allowing others to do things to him. For the activists among us, that should give pause for thought!

Rev. Gordon Plumb (web page by Adrian Worsfold)