Sermon - Good Friday
Fifty miles south of Baghdad lie the ruins of the city of Babylon - Babylon the great. Six hundred years before Christ, the rulers of Babylon held sway over an empire which extended across the modern day countries of Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, the Lebanon and Israel and, perhaps, no ruler of Babylon is as well-known as the mighty Nebuchadnezzar.
Inscriptions of the period testify that Nebuchadnezzar was not only a celebrated warrior, feared by millions; he was also renowned for the ambitious building projects he commissioned to adorn and beautify his magnificent capital.
Scholars can list dozens of these constructions, but, in the popular mind, none can compare with the legendary Hanging Gardens. Rising in terraces to almost 100 feet above the city, in a time and place where buildings of fifty feet were veritable skyscrapers, these gardens, with their massive foundations and elaborate irrigation systems using 8,000 gallons of water a day, were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
And well they were. By combining engineering and cultivation, two of the activities which differentiate man from the beasts, they not only symbolized the power of the king who could command such a creation, but, the power of Mankind who could impose a lush, green mountain in the midst of an arid plain. And since the Babylonian word for garden is "paradise", the Hanging Gardens represent yet another phase of man's quest to literally create Paradise on earth.
History and Scripture record a curious fact, however. That shortly after having completed this grandiose edifice, Nebuchadnezzar had a nervous breakdown. For seven years, he was confined to his palace where he roamed his gardens like a beast - unshaven, unclothed, unkempt.
The lesson we may draw is that there is a price to be paid whenever mortal man presumes to stand in the place of God. Certainly, that was the case in another garden.
In fact, we are here today because of gardens, specifically, because of what happened in three gardens - The Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Garden of Calvary. Paradise lost, paradise gained, paradise restored.
Eden, we know all too well. Adam, the first man, succumbed to the temptation of limitless knowledge and power which has been the Achilles heel of everyone created in the image and likeness of an unlimited and all-powerful God. And when that heady fantasy was exposed, as, indeed, he was, he pathetically grabbed for the nearest fig leaf to hide his shame. He then blames God for creating the woman and thus creates his own version of reality.
And that has been our story ever since. Every attempt of Mankind to make life happier, healthier, easier, more comfortable, more advanced, ultimately can be summed up as escapism - an attempt to escape from this world and back into the Garden from which we fell. The tragic irony is that Eden was a state of being on this Earth, not a distant planet, and to those who would justify violence, greed, injustice, and corruption by saying, "Thus is the world made", the truth of Scripture rudely reminds us, "Thus have we made the world".
But, Christ saves Man by entering the man-made garden of the world represented by Gethsemane. There, in a place whose name means "olive press", the Christ experiences what we call the Agony in the Garden. In Greek, the "agonia", the place of agony, was the term used for a wrestling arena and Gethsemane was where Christ wrestled for our salvation.
It would have been so easy for him to back out. He clearly wanted to. He didn't want to die horribly. Who would? He could have still been the king of the Jews in the way everybody wanted and led his Father's chosen people to a new era of glory and empire. Why bother to be the Saviour of the whole world? Why go so far as to be the atoning sacrifice for Sin?
The agony, the struggle, is internal. God is wrestling with God. "Let this cup pass." Blood, not merely sweat, drips from Jesus' pores. It's almost indecent, the extent to which we are permitted to gaze upon this intimate scene, but, it is necessary for us to understand what it is that he has given up when he yields to the Father and says, "Your will, not mine, be done."
For with those words, the new Adam repairs the havoc wrought by the old. It's not that Jesus thinks less of himself than Adam did of himself. It's just that Jesus thinks of himself less than he thinks of us. He will do it. He will die - for us.
Satan, by the way, doesn't want Jesus to die on the Cross. A Crucified Christ is the last thing he wants. He knows that Christ crucified as the atonement of creation, the reconciliation of heaven and earth, will be his downfall and end. That's why he did everything he could to prevent it.
At the Incarnation, he tried to use old and paranoid Herod to snuff out the life before it could reach maturity. In the harshness of the Judean desert, he tried to reason with Jesus by exposing Mankind's selfish desires for food, safety, and entertainment. In the restful environment of Caesarea Philippi, he tried to use Peter to persuade Jesus that all this talk of dying was not what people wanted to hear. His hope with Judas was that the betrayal would so disgust Jesus that he would decide we weren't worth saving. Satan would try to use Pilate to release Jesus and make him into a broken figure of ridicule - disgraced, ignored, irrelevant. He would even try to use the weakness of Jesus' own body and kill him of natural causes as he collapsed three times on the Via Dolorosa before reaching his destination.
But, Satan fails in all his attempts. Herod is too late. Pilate too weak. Jesus too strong.
All he can hope for now is that, nailed to the cross, Jesus will do or say something to capitulate to the weak side of his human nature. Perhaps he will swear at his crucifiers or the thieves with whom he is condemned; make some snide remark about his situation; or better still, curse his Father. As Satan watches the crucifixion, though, it's his turn to sweat as the hours go by. It seems like Jesus will go through with it, after and despite all. Then suddenly a gleam of hope, for Satan, that is. It seems that Jesus is about to lash out in selfish rage.
He says something. But, what was that? Eli, eloi? What?
The voice is so weak that some among the spectators misunderstand and think he is calling upon the prophet Elijah of old. But, Satan hears it clearly and it crushes him. This is no wail of self-pity, bitterness, or anger. This is the voice of self-abandonment, sacrifice, holiness. With these words, he who declared himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life reveals that the Way has chosen to lose its own way so that we might find it; that the Truth can imitate a lie so that we might discover honesty; and that the Life can lay his own aside so that we can celebrate how death no longer has the last word over our existence.
These words shake the universe for they remind us that the Fatherlessness of the Son is matched only by the Sonlessness of the Father. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched only by the Sonlessness of the Father. Both cry out to each other. One with words, the other with an earthquake and, in the imagery of a popular hymn, at that moment Hell's foundations quiver and Satan's hosts doth flee. Christ will not yield to the temptation of Job's wife who counselled "Curse God and die." His carefully chosen words, "Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani" - “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me", are the first line of the 22nd Psalm, a song of triumph and ultimate victory. These words, spoken at this time, and by God himself, are God's definitive promise of hope. God cannot abandon God and God will not abandon Man.
The Garden of Calvary is the third reason we are here today. As Eden was paradise lost, and Gethsemane where paradise was gained, so Calvary is where paradise is restored.
On the morning of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene makes a simple mistake. She meets a man and identifies him as the gardener. He reveals himself as the Risen Lord. It's a curious detail that Scripture records. Why tell us of Mary's error, unless we are being led to consider it not as an error, but as an insight.
Gardeners protect their gardens by setting up scarecrows. The Paradise of God is protected by the scarecrow on the Cross. The Hanging Gardener stands as counterpoise to the Hanging Gardens and all the artificial paradises we make for ourselves.
Filled with flowers of false hopes, perfumed with scents of self-indulgence, they can appear as lush and green as Babylon's man-made mountain, but, when the Erector Set machinery which maintains them breaks down, they dry up, wither, and crumble into ruins. And their makers can go mad.
The Hanging Gardener is more than a wonder of the world. He is the wonder of the universe, and he has won for us a more perfect garden than we can ever imagine. He knows the cost and pain of separation. He knows the immensity of divine love. He knows the price of Paradise lost, gained, and restored. The question is, do we? Or do we still build mountains in the desert? Wonders to behold, monuments to our own greatness, but, which cannot help us, cannot heal us, cannot save us.
There is only One who can help, heal and save, and it is to him we must turn for he has watered his garden with the blood of his Passion, the blood of the Cross, and, nourished by that Blood, we find our life in His.
Babylon has fallen. Christ is risen.