Sermon - Good Friday
As the sky over Jerusalem darkened, a fire was being fuelled in Egypt at the top of the Pharos, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria. For three hundred years, this beacon had guided ships into the busiest harbour of the ancient world. If you asked an Alexandrine, he would have told you it towered 600 feet. The Romans recorded it at a more modest 200 which says more about the politics of the time than the engineering. In fact, it stood about 300 feet and was just as impressive as the similar sized Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. Lady Liberty is similar in another important way, as well. She holds aloft a blazing torch, a beacon of light, the symbol of civilization.
Anthropologists say that the control of fire, and hence light, is a mark of civilization and progress. The ancient legends tell that Prometheus incurred the wrath of the gods because of his gift of fire to mankind. The Olympic flame is a symbol of peace and international cooperation. In modern times, Paris boasted of its cultural pre-eminence through its nickname "The City of Lights", and Broadway claims the title of "The Great White Way." The point is that no place calls itself a city of darkness. On the contrary, dark streets and boarded up windows are signs of failure and decay. We fear nothing so much as a power outage. It disrupts every aspect of life and makes us feel very insecure. It is a threat to our concept of civilization.
The civilizing of humans, however, does not guarantee the humanity of civilization. Stone Age fossils tell us that the early man Pithecanthropus could cook with fire. Very advanced; very civilized. A pity that these same fossils tell us Pithecanthropus was also a cannibal. And when Mankind had evolved from splitting wood to make cooking fires to splitting atoms to make nuclear fire, the warning was sounded that we could, indeed, bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age. A warning which led more thoughtful people to consider that the control of fire civilizes only to the extent that humans understand the meaning of light.
Reading the Gospels, you find that the image of light slips into Jesus' conversation with some frequency. No great surprise when you consider the first recorded words of the Father, "Let there be light." Creation is an act which derives from love. God created because he loved. The physical light of creation then depends on a light-giver whose first principle is love. Small wonder then that He who said of Creation "It is good" is also the only source of goodness, of moral light.
Before the Passover, Christ used darkness as a parable for his approaching Passion: "The light is with you a little longer.” he said, referring to himself, “Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; for he who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going."
Physical light guides bodies; moral light guides bodies and souls. Physical blindness is a condition. Moral blindness is a choice. Jesus said of the man blind from birth, "It is not because he sinned, or his parents...", but, of the moralists, who debated whether one was permitted to heal on the Sabbath, he said, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt. But, you say you see."
The events of Good Friday show us four ways men who claim to see can choose darkness over light and reject the Love which creates moral light.
First, like Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, we can choose darkness out of prejudice. They were the religious elite of their time. They were the exemplars of lives dedicated to God. They saw Jesus' works. They heard Jesus' words. And they chose to reject him. After all, he was just a carpenter's son, a friend of tax collectors, a Galilean, a nobody. They said he must be possessed by a demon. Their prejudice darkened the evidence of their eyes and in that condition they could not see - they could not see their God.
Second, like Pontius Pilate, we can choose darkness while appearing sophisticated and intellectual. Pilate's gods were logic and good order. His light was the cold light of reason. He despised the priests as superstitious fanatics. He despised Jesus as just another kind of fanatic. Surely, religion is nothing to fight about or certainly die for. And when he failed to resolve the situation through compromise, by having Jesus flogged, he handed him over and poured contempt on both Chief Priest and High Priest. "What is truth", he asked? He stared Truth Itself in the face and decided it was beneath him. Love, after all, is not cold.
Third, like Judas Iscariot, we can choose darkness through selfishness. Judas is really typical of those today who boast, "Well, the Bible may say that, but, that's not what I think." Judas imagined he knew what the Messiah would be like and he could not accept the kind of Messiah Jesus was turning out to be. So, he had to preserve his selfish fantasies by destroying the reality. I have my own light, thank you very much. The light of self-love.
And finally, like Herod Antipas, we can choose darkness not because of hot prejudice or cold reason or self-centred ideals, but, out of plain boredom. Herod didn't want salvation; he just wanted gratification. He wanted Jesus to perform. Today, we see that acted out as people hop from church to church seeking the best in entertainment value. And if the light of the Gospel shines a bit too brightly into the dark corners of their lives, they quickly move on because church isn't "fun" anymore. Herod rejected Christ because Christ failed to be amusing. The only light he wanted to see was a spotlight. He was too jaded and lazy to love anything.
Without the light of love, then, Man chooses darkness more often than not. Jesus spoke once about setting a light up on a stand where it could give light to the whole house. The prophecy of these words is revealed on Calvary. The Cross is the lampstand and Christ gives light to the whole world. There is no other source.
The Pharos was a physical light. Christ is a spiritual light. Civilization needs both. Society cannot be brightened by itself. Europe's Age of Enlightenment culminated in the French Revolution whose new moral order required that crucifixes be torn down and the Crucified One's priests sent to the guillotine, thus proving what the Prince of Darkness already knows, that to truly throw Mankind into the dark you do not turn off a switch, you turn off the Cross.
The sky grew darker over Calvary because Christ, who in becoming man had emptied himself of his glory, was absorbing all the physical light around him. With each painful breath he takes, the sky itself is drained to support him who was the light of the world. Creation responds, uncomprehendingly, to the Creator in his hour of need even at the moment those created in His image turn away.
As the light in the Pharos grew brighter, crowds gathered to welcome ships home. As the light in the eyes of Christ grew dimmer, the crowds thinned out and headed for home. Then, having completed his sufferings, and summoning up all his waning strength, he let out a cry that opened tombs and ripped the veil of the Temple, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." And breathed his last.
Perhaps, it is only fitting that the last words spoken about the Christ in his life came not from a Pharisee or a Sadducee, a ruler or a theologian, or even from a relative, disciple, or a friend, but, from a soldier, a man who had seen other men die a thousand ways in a hundred places in a dozen wars. "Truly this man was the Son of God." Perhaps, it takes a soldier to recognize a soldier and identify his rank.
You and I view these things from a special vantage point. The light of Alexandria could be seen for 35 miles, but, the Light of Calvary is shining through two thousand years down to this very moment.
Of the Great Lighthouse only its foundations remain, its stones long ago torn down and changed into newer structures. The Eternal Light-Giver, by contrast, has never changed and his words have become the foundation of an ever-new and far more imposing structure which gives light and life to the world.
His are words which will always conquer darkness wherever and whenever it appears. His are words that guide our bodies and our souls to that eternal harbour where we find true liberty and rest. His are the words of Divine Love.
May we hear them and repeat them.
Father, into thy hands we commend our spirits.