GOOD FRIDAY REFLECTIONS
led by Rev Andrew and Jill Baker
THEME: Jerusalem the Holy City: a special place
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: Jerusalem – a City of Peace
As I walk through the sanctuary here at St John’s, it becomes for us the city of Jerusalem . . . I am coming through the Lion Gate, the gate through which modern pilgrims enter as they come into the city from the Mount of Olives. On my right are the Pools of Bethesda, the setting for a remarkable healing in John’s gospel. On my left is the temple precinct – with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Golden Dome. We are walking along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, down to our left we could take the road to the Western Wall, but we climb on into the courtyard and enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. This is the Holy City. When David was crowned king of the united kingdom of the Hebrew tribes he looked for a new capital which would unite God’s people. He defeats the Jebusites and establishes this city on a hill as the focus for the life of the nation.
Jesus, the Son of David, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is leading us to the city too. His story reaches its climax here. We walk gently with him.
READING 2 SAMUEL 5:4-10
David chooses Jerusalem as his capital
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore, it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.
King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house. David then perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.
In Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron, David took more concubines and wives; and more sons and daughters were born to David. These are the names of those who were born to him in Jerusalem: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet.
When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, all the Philistines went up in search of David; but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold. Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the valley of Rephaim. David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?” The Lord said to David, “Go up; for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand.” So, David came to Baal-Perazim, and David defeated them there. He said, “The Lord has burst forth against my enemies before me, like a bursting flood.” Therefore, that place is called Baal-Perazim. The Philistines abandoned their idols there, and David and his men carried them away.
Once again, the Philistines came up, and were spread out in the valley of Rephaim. When David inquired of the Lord, he said, “You shall not go up; go around to their rear, and come upon them opposite the balsam trees. When you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then be on the alert; for then the Lord has gone out before you to strike down the army of the Philistines.” David did just as the Lord had commanded him; and he struck down the Philistines from Geba all the way to Gezer.
Jesus makes for Jerusalem for the climax of his ministry
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
The city is steeped in violence – from its early days as conquered by David, the siege by Sennacherib, destruction by Nebuchadnezzar to invasion by the Greeks and the Romans. After Jesus came the destruction of the temple in AD70, and the bloodshed has continued with the Crusades; and now there is tension in the city between East and West Jerusalem, Jew and Arab, Muslim, Israeli and Christian. It is the most fascinating city in the world. It draws you. Its sense of the Holy. Its significance in the history of humanity. I had my wallet stolen – and stole it back – but that is another story. While we were there, there was a stabbing on a tram. Jerusalem – city of peace – we pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . .
It’s a perennial, universal question – how will ‘the North’ be received in ‘the South’?
The accent is different, customs are different, priorities may be different.
Travelling on this road to Jerusalem with Jesus is exciting, but it’s nerve-wracking too.
Jerusalem is wonderful, special, vibrant, sacred – but it’s different, different from Galilee…
…to be honest, it’s frightening – and I’m not sure Jesus really understands that.
But then he talks so calmly about opposition, mockery, flogging and even death – for this ‘Son of Man’.
Does he mean himself? I suspect he does – it doesn’t really make sense to me.
We’re not far away now – I can see the city walls.
Jesus is on a young colt, a skittish beast with not a lot of sense, but bursting with energy – to be honest, that just about describes us too…
It seems word has got out that Jesus is coming – there are crowds coming out to meet us, shouting, waving palm branches, throwing down their cloaks in front of Jesus.
I hear cries of ‘Hosanna – Save us!’
Some are calling Jesus the son of David – I’m not sure how that will go down with the leaders of the temple or with the Romans… but I think we’ve reached the point of no return.
What will they do with him here in Jerusalem?
We have come down with Jesus from the Mount of Olives and we find ourselves here in St John’s; and this is the site of our Jerusalem this afternoon. The teacher/preacher/healer comes into Dumfries and challenges our way of life, our way of worship, our priorities. This Jesus finds a way under the skin of the church and asks questions about our use of resources, how we are ensuring those who are poorer than us are being vaccinated, those who are more vulnerable than us are being protected from rising sea levels. He challenges us about our relationships with others – whether we have learnt to forgive, learnt to show a generous spirit. He disturbs those of us who have power and authority and demands that we look at our motives for what we are doing and saying. How hard is your heart?
What will we do with him? Blot him out? Leave him for the institution to deal with?
PRAYER- JERUSALEM CITY OF PEACE
Jesus, Prince of Peace, this is your city, the City of Peace, the shadow of heaven, the mystical doorway to eternity. Meet us here today as we, in heart and mind, go to Jerusalem. Like the disciples, we travel with a mixture of hope and fear, excitement and apprehension, for we know we are entering sacred space today, space where we both feel at home and feel like outsiders.
As we enter Jerusalem, we hear the ancient whisper reverberating through our spirits; ‘Peace be within your walls’. Thanks be to God. Amen.
THEME: The Jerusalem Temple: the place where God dwells and can be encountered
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: The Jerusalem Temple
As we enter the city of Jerusalem with Jesus 2,000 years ago, our eyes are drawn to the magnificent Temple which dominates the skyline. This is the Second Temple, rebuilt after Solomon’s Temple – of which we hear in the reading from First Kings – was destroyed at the exile. The building is vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring… but more importantly, this is the dwelling place of God – this is holy ground and we venture there with Jesus as he too is drawn to the heart of worship…
READING 1 Kings 8:1-1, 6-13
Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God.
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion.
Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. The poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place in front of the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon said,
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
I have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in forever.”
READING Mark 11:11
Jesus goes to the Temple and looks around at everything
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
‘Jesus went into the temple… and…looked around at everything’. Such an intriguing little sentence in Mark’s Gospel; somehow these few words help us to go to the Temple with Jesus and, with his eyes, to look around at everything. What does Jesus think about as he climbs the hill to this most holy ground?
Perhaps he recalls the story of Abraham taking his son, his agapetos/beloved son to this site, to Mount Moriah, and, in obedience to God’s command, binding him to be offered as a sacrifice. Perhaps he wonders whether once again God has an alternative plan in mind? Or is it too late for that?
Perhaps he recalls the story of Solomon building the first temple on this site; all the gold and crimson, all the wealth and wisdom, all the awe and mystery of the stone tablets, the cloud, the smoke… the offering of the blood of animals to secure atonement… is it now too late for that?
Perhaps he pictures the dereliction of the Temple after exile, the ruins, the danger, the birds nesting and the foxes finding holes to sleep until Nehemiah and Ezra return and organize the restoration which has led to this building… but can this last? Can Judaism win over the world, or is it too late for that?
Perhaps he thought back to the time when he was twelve and his parents left him behind here – here where he felt so at home, his Father’s house. The place above all places where his Spirit was at one with God… Could the intervening years have led to any other climax? Or was it too late to ask that?
‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’
What is happening in the darkness? Is it the darkness of those moments before creation… and God said…? Is it the ending of an old chapter and the beginning of a new one? Remember the Sinai experience – when God was in the darkness on the mountain? God is present in this darkest of hours – as they – or we – have crucified the complete expression of God in a human being. The Temple of Jesus’ body is being destroyed, crushed in the agony of a cross. The Presence of God among us in the man from Nazareth is being snuffed out on the tree at Golgotha. Or is it? In the darkness a new temple will be formed . . . there will be healing for a broken humanity, God taking responsibility for the world which is corrupted by humans abusing their freewill. Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.
Central to the temple of old was the Ark of the Covenant – a sealed wooden box in which God was believed to dwell. Beautifully burnished in gold on the outside, but inside… darkness. Solomon notes this, amidst the dazzling splendour of the dedication of the temple he notes, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness’.
Now, as Jesus is dying on the cross, the skies have gone dark again. This is the ultimate moment of ‘God with us’ as God shares with humanity the pain of death, the disappointment of death, the finality of death, the ending of hope and potential which is death. The skies go dark not because evil is triumphing over goodness, but because at those extreme moments of self-revelation, God chooses darkness. The Spirit brooding on the waters, the Ark of the Covenant, the womb of a young woman, the complete offering of self in love to the world. God dwells in the shadows of our lives as much as in the sunshine.
Jesus, Prince of Peace. This is your city, the city of peace. This is your church, the people of peace. What have they done to you? What have we done to you? So much good ness poured out into the world – and we have chosen rebellion, pride, self-centredness. Yet you stay with us. You do not abandon us, even as we abandon you. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the peace of all Jerusalems. The peace of Syria and Yemen; the peace of Sudan and Ethiopia; the peace of Myanmar and Hong Kong. The peace of Dumfries and St John’s. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Amen.
REFLECTION 1.00-1:30 pm
THEME: The Walls of Jerusalem: a (precarious) sign of the security of Jerusalem
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: The Walls of Jerusalem
The walls around Jerusalem today are very impressive – with their six entrance gates, controlling access to the old city. I have memories of ugly scenes of people being fleeced at the Damascus Gate as Israeli police must have been given a suspicious tip-off. These walls are relatively modern, built by one of the great Muslim leaders. Walls are defensive, to keep out those who are not welcome, to offer security to those inside. To Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem from Persia the broken-down walls of the city were a sign of disgrace, of defeat, of being vulnerable. The dignity of the Lord’s people needed to be restored after the wretchedness of exile.
As Jesus entered the city and came to the temple, built by Herod the Great, it was indeed an impressive building. The Galilean disciples are certainly impressed by its size and stability. The security of the establishment was rooted in the great stones of the city.
READING Nehemiah 2:11-18
Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem
So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. Then I got up during the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the animal I rode. I went out by night by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool; but there was no place for the animal I was riding to continue. So I went up by way of the valley by night and inspected the wall. Then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.
READING Mark 13:1-2
Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The taking of the people of God into exile was a crisis in the life of faith. This was the promised land. This was the city which was the focus for their identity. This was the evidence that they were the chosen people of the Living God. Now they were defeated by a foreigner, a Babylonian army. Such disgrace. Can they trust God now? Perhaps the words of the prophet Jeremiah came to them: the futility of saying “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord” as if such words would ward off the consequences of their rebellion against the reality of God’s ways in their community life. The people were brought back to Jerusalem – and they needed to build a new temple under the priest Ezra; this was rebuilt by Herod the Great -and took 46 years to complete. An impressive sight for the disciples on their visit to Jerusalem with their Teacher. This Temple would be destroyed too – in 70AD – and has never been rebuilt. That is why there is mourning to this day at the only surviving part of that temple – the Western Wall. The temple was the place of Presence. Its destruction tore at the heart of who God is.
Jesus is identified as the New Temple: the Presence of God in the midst of God’s people. Today we remember that this Temple too was destroyed in Jerusalem on Mount Calvary. Such disgrace. Such despair. What have we done?
‘You see the trouble we are in…’ Nehemiah felt shame and disgrace as he rode around the ruins of walls which were once so beautiful, so impressive, so majestic. There was a time when he could hold his head up high as a Jew and be proud, perhaps that was the problem – it is said that ‘all greatness is precarious’, for now it all lies in ruins around his feet.
Do you see the trouble we are in today? Do we remember a time when we were proud to belong to the Church? Or did our parents tell us it was like that? Our grandparents? Did we grow up in the days of church buildings packed to capacity and Sunday Schools overflowing with young lives? Did we once feel the church had clout in the community, status in society, privilege in politics even… was that the problem? Does it now lie in ruins around our feet?
Or is it that Good Friday teaches us the way the story has to unfold – the popular preacher has to become the pilloried prisoner, the generous provider is stripped of everything, the compassionate healer suffers pain and ultimately death. Because there has to be a dying.
There has to be a dying; it is not that all greatness is precarious, rather it is that true greatness is humble, true power is in vulnerability, true healing is in suffering.
‘You see the trouble we are in’ – Covid, poverty, injustice, racism, homophobia, oppression – and you, Jesus, see the trouble we are in and turn to us with no blame or condemnation, but with an invitation, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’.
Stop trying to build walls to keep people out. Take down that wall in Berlin. Take down that wall on the Mexico border. Take down the fearful walls – which divide the “us” and the “them”. Take down the curtain in the temple; don’t try and shut God up in a building. In Jesus we meet “God without walls”, a human being without fear. In the time of exile God’s people discovered that God was on the move, that God met them in Babylon and Persia. In Jesus we meet God in the man from Nazareth, the carpenter’s son. In the pandemic we have discovered God in our kitchens, studies, gardens, along the banks of the Nith, in the face of the stranger. The exile has changed us – and we cannot be the same again. We will not retreat behind walls, we will connect with the God who is on the move.
Save us from building walls! Save us from fear and retreat. Are there walls which still need dismantling in our lives. Are there people before whom we have raised barriers which need breaking down? In Christ God has broken down the wall of hostility. It happened in this hostile city of Jerusalem and its consequences echo down the centuries to us here.
Jesus of the cross, Jesus outside the city walls, Jesus on the scrap heap; we look to you. From our world of injustice and grief we look up in our despair to see your body hanging on the tree, and, deep within our souls, something begins to make sense.
Break down within us the walls of pride and discrimination; tear down within us the stones of self-importance and privilege; throw down within us every pretension and delusion of superiority, that we may hear your voice inviting us on the path to Golgotha. Give us grace and courage to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you. Amen.
REFLECTION 1:30- 2.00pm
THEME: The Worship of Jerusalem: the focus of pilgrimage, but always open to corruption
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: The Worship of Jerusalem
We have travelled today to Jerusalem, an ancient pilgrim destination. We travel there as pilgrims; as we ascend the hill to the holy city we hear around us the songs of other pilgrims, those psalms of ascent which extol the wonder of the dwelling place of God. Our hearts respond, for we too have come to worship, we too have come to offer our songs of praise in this sacred centre. What will we find? Will we meet with God? Will we experience disappointment, even anger, as we see the worst of humanity co-existing with the beauty of our God?
READING Psalm 122
The Psalmist summons Israel to Jerusalem to worship
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
READING Mark 11:15-19
Jesus clears the money changers from the Temple, which is a place of worship
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
If we were to believe the media with which we are surrounded today – a big ‘if’ perhaps – we might be led to believe that for many in our society, the worst thing about living under a pandemic is that they might not be able to have a foreign holiday this year! When such stories are pedalled to us, we may wonder who is in league with whom?
Nevertheless, holidays are important and have, at their root, the idea of holy-days, of the celebration not of sun, sand and sea, but of grace, goodness and God.
So it was for the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus; holy-days, holidays, were the pilgrim festivals for which all who could would go up to Jerusalem. Tabernacles, Weeks and Passover were the Bank holidays of the annual calendar and were big events.
We can hear the excitement of the psalmist in those words from psalm 122; ‘I was glad’, ‘Let us go’, ‘Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem’ – this is a wow moment, to be there, really to be there.
Andrew and I served for 8 years with the Methodist Church in the Caribbean where, for some reason, our families were always keen to visit us! The first time my parents came my father stepped off the plane and very nearly kissed the ground he was standing on, as a life-long cricket enthusiast he could hardly believe he was standing on West Indian soil!
Jerusalem is all that and a lot more too… the 1st Century pilgrim has read the psalms and knows what Jerusalem offers, that pilgrim comes with joy, with praise, with hope – hope of peace and security, hope of justice and goodness… and finds that in the very heart of the pilgrim city, there is corruption, exploitation and greed. What has gone wrong?
The President of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and Americas was preaching the covenant sermon to 1200 people at the Methodist Church in St Vincent. His theme “Bamboo Christians”. The sermon was remembered for years afterwards. The bamboo plant grew wild in St Vincent, swaying in the Caribbean breeze. It looks so grand, so stately, so shiny, waving its delicate leaves. Yet it is hollow. It has no substance other than its outer case. Oh, religious people: priests, scribes, pharisees, pilgrims, pastors, preachers, elders, rectors, ministers, organists, choir leaders, stewards, deacons, we look so good and pious on the outside. We know how to hide the inside.
When faced with the reality of God in Jesus, the hollowness was exposed in the religious people who encountered him. When faced with the reality of faith in the Moravian Christians on the boat to the Americas, the young, pious John Wesley realised all his words were vain. Outward shows of piety have been shown up as religious sham. Bamboo. Impressive for a while, but exposed under pressure. Be very careful if you intend to build a house out of bamboo!
The cross invites us into a faith in the God who is real. The God of the warmed heart. The God who is love, pure love, through and through. Today is an opportunity to connect with the God who has connected with us in the stuff of life: including the suffering and dying.
The song of Christian worship is a song with many verses.
It first finds its voice in the psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures with their exuberant praise of God, calling pilgrims to join in, to tell of the wonders of God’s saving grace through every age, from slavery to freedom, from fear to faith.
Soon the songs of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and the angels add their notes to the stave and the music grows and swells; the night before death, Jesus sings a hymn with his disciples.
Early Christians add their counterpoint – Paul unearths a song of Christ’s humility, in Ephesus and Colossae, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are sung, the cheerful are exhorted to sing songs of praise.
From every corner of the world new notes of grace and lament arise; monks chant and poets praise, John of Damascus and Saint Caedmon, Johan Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel, George Matheson and Charles Wesley, Graham Kendrick and John Bell…
Even when the songs of our lips are silenced by a virus, the songs of our hearts sing out; songs of beauty and betrayal, happiness and hope, justice and judgement, love and loss, songs without end.
God, who lived Truth in Jesus, we come to offer our worship today; worship in Spirit and in Truth. Take from us any froth and pretense and fill us with presence and peace. We worship you with hearts warmed by your love, we worship you at the foot of the cross, where that love is proved. We worship you as those who are forgiven and free.
We pray for the family of the church worldwide, wounded, bruised, finding possibilities for service in discovering the power of love. We pray for the church here in Dumfries in these days of re-orientation, that we may re-discover your heart of love for the world. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
REFLECTION 2:00-2.30 pm
THEME: Lament over Jerusalem
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: Lament over Jerusalem
This is not a fairy story, mistakes are made, sorrows come
READING -JEREMIAH 6:6-9
Jeremiah weeps for the city of Jerusalem which has missed its way
For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Cut down her trees;
cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
This is the city that must be punished;
there is nothing but oppression within her.
As a well keeps its water fresh,
so she keeps fresh her wickedness;
violence and destruction are heard within her;
sickness and wounds are ever before me.
Take warning, O Jerusalem,
or I shall turn from you in disgust,
and make you a desolation,
an uninhabited land.
Thus, says the Lord of hosts:
Glean thoroughly as a vine
the remnant of Israel;
like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again
over its branches.
READING Mark 11:12-14 & 20
On the way to Jerusalem the fig tree is cursed and withers
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
Come with me to the Western Wall at the beginning of sabbath. People from all over the city are making their way there. There is an urgency. They have an appointment at the wall. There are prayers written on paper stuffed into all the cracks on the wall. Men and women – separated – have their hands on the wall, swaying backwards and forwards. Some are praying aloud. Some are weeping. The Temple is in ruins. They are longing for Messiah to restore the Glory of the Lord. The separation barrier is visible form the Mount of Olives; the security fence. The wall that divides Israeli and Palestinian. We stand on the Mount of Olives and weep for a divided Jerusalem. Will these people recognize the Prince of Peace in their midst and dare to find reconciliation and peace? The church known as Dominus Flevit – the Lord wept – is halfway down the Mount of Olives with a view over the city, looking over the Kidron Valley, which is covered in tombs. Are we weeping for those who have died or for what we are doing to the living?
Let us return to the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows, which takes us to Calvary.
Gardening is something of a passion of mine – if nothing else it keeps alive my sense of hope. Surely a plant which has not done well this year will, with some additional attention, thrive next year? Or the year after?
One of my most treasured plants is a small acer, bought as a very feeble specimen in an end-of-season half-price sale and affectionately known as our ‘special-needs tree’. In Slough, where we first took it to our hearts, it made very slow progress, and was almost left behind when Methodist stationing invited us to uproot ourselves and move 400 miles north to Glasgow. Somehow it made the journey too, and here, in the cool, damp, acid soil of the west of Scotland, it is beginning to fulfill its potential.
To a nomadic people, gardening is a distant dream; during wilderness wanderings there is not time to grow crops, but as the Promised Land comes into view it is clearly to be a land of the vine and the fig, the olive and the citrus, the briar and the myrtle and the people are to become gardeners, tending their crops with diligence. Before too long these visions merge and Israel itself is seen as a plant, a tender vine nurtured by God; ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill’ sings the prophet Isaiah.
Israel too appears to be a special-needs plant; its loving gardener lavishes upon this vine everything it could require – removing the stones from the soil and keeping a careful watch lest the plant be damaged. Oh, the disappointment of the gardener when the grapes are sour, or when the fig tree bears all leaves and no fruit.
What about me, what about us? Are there times when my life has been all leaves, but no fruit? Plenty to look at but nothing which could be transformative for my neighbour or demonstrate the power of my Creator. Lord have mercy.
As churches, have we put all our energies into the wrong things? Created wonderful strategies and preserved beautiful traditions but not provided anything to nourish a starving world or bring refreshment to the jaded palate of self-centred living? All leaves and no fruit? Lord have mercy.
Here hangs a man discarded. Weep for the religious leaders who could not tolerate the truth, who feared for the disruption of the status quo, who agonized over their positions. Who handed him over to Pilate. Weep for the politicians who felt compelled by the crowd to compromise what they knew to be the truth; for Pilate who wanted to appease the people; who washed his hands, but whose name is spat out week by week in the creeds. Weep for Peter who said he never knew him – three times. Weep for Judas who betrayed him with a kiss. Weep for the crowd who bayed “Crucify”. Weep for Mary who stood at the cross and watched her son die. Weep for the soldiers who cast dice for his clothes. Weep for all who do not notice that Love was stretched on a cross. Weep for the world caught up in self-interest – that God’s heart continues to be pierced. Weep for ourselves when we choose self-pity.
We pray in the words of a poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti, Good Friday.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
REFLECTION 2.30-3:00 pm
THEME: Death in Jerusalem
Jerusalem is the city where death, and life, occur
BRIEF INTRODUCTION to the theme & readings: Death in Jerusalem
In this final half hour of the life of Jesus, as he struggles for his last breaths, as the weight of his body crushes his own rib cage and causes him to suffocate, we reflect on Jerusalem as a place of death. Outside the city walls, at the place of the skull, Golgotha, the city executes those who offend its laws. Here Jesus seems to become the Suffering Servant of the later chapters of Isaiah, the one who is despised and rejected and who, in death, bears the iniquity of us all.
READING Isaiah 53:1-6
Isaiah (of Jerusalem?) sings a Servant Song
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely, he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
READING Mark 15:33-41
Jesus is crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
Did it really have to come to this, Lord? Did it really have to end here, a cursed death hanging on a tree?
All the dreams I had when I first decided to follow you, when I left home, risking the loss of friends and family, security and reputation by becoming a hanger-on-disciple… did all those dreams have to die here?
I look at you now, here, bleeding and gasping, crushed and dying, but that’s not what I see… I see those long days on the road, all of us fired up by your energy, your zeal to visit every village, to preach on every hillside, to ask questions in every synagogue. I see the crowds at the lakeside, in the wilderness, on the plains, climbing the hill – hungry for a crumb from your hands, a word from your lips, a touch from your fingers… And I see your compassion for every small child wanting a closer look, for every man desperate for release, for every woman, yes, even for every woman, like me, just needing to be forgiven and loved.
So we followed you, Salome, Joanna, Susanna, all the Marys, and me – like Peter and Andrew, James and John, we too left everything and followed you. Was that our sacrifice? Was that the price we had to pay to be part of this story? It never felt like that; how could it? Whatever we gave, you gave more, however much we cared, you cared more, whenever we found ways to show our love, you loved us back in ways we could never have imagined. Your kind of living made us whole, your kind of loving healed our bruises and every one of us would do it all again.
Does it really have to end here, a cursed death hanging on a tree?
Another day. Another criminal. Another three criminals. Two thieves and another King of the Jews. Routine crucifixions. Blood. Pain. Indignity. It is the job. It put bread on the table for the family. It scores points with the Governor when there are no problems. He seems to think I do a good job. No fuss. No mess. Then the young man cried out. The cry went right through me. It seemed to strike me in the heart of my being. This was a death like none other. This was a life like no other. His eyes looked at me – and he seemed to know . . . everything about me. All the hopes and dreams. All the bad choices I have made. All the light and dark in my life. He knew about my loss in my family and my anger. He knew of my fears and the long nights I stay awake. The words came tumbling out of a heart that had been warmed by the cry of a man who was a man in a way I wanted to be a man. Truly, this was the Son of God.
Jerusalem or Dumfries?
2,000 years ago or today?
The burning sun of a middle eastern afternoon or the damp freshness of a Scottish day in early Spring?
‘Who has believed what we have heard and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’
As we have made our journey to Jerusalem today, we have travelled with so many others – men and women, boys and girls like us, with triumphs and tragedies in their lives, joy and pain in their faces, laughter and lament in their hearts.
We have ended up at the foot of a cross, for that is where the story has to end – for now.
To that cross we have brought every look which despised or rejected another, and Christ has borne it.
To that cross we have brought every selfish act which struck down another, and Christ has borne it.
To that cross we have brough every weak impulse which made us turn away from suffering, and Christ has borne it.
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
In this moment of anguish, when we can hardly bear to watch, our ears are sensitive to the sounds around us…
We hear the voice of Jesus crying out in puzzlement, and our own sense of abandonment finds its rest.
We hear the crowd misunderstanding what is going on, and our own sense of failure fades to nothing.
We hear the rattling breaths of Jesus falter and halt… and we feel our hearts beating loudly at such love.
Then faintly, as from a great distance, we hear the fabric of the temple curtain being torn in two from top to bottom and we hold our breath for perhaps, just perhaps, that was the sound of the Kingdom of God breaking in…
O God, with a cross in your heart, is it nothing to us? We cannot pass by. We cannot turn away and continue life as before. We have come to Jerusalem, come to Calvary and witnessed Love crucified. We have stopped awhile and tasted of the depth of that love – and discovered there is healing here. There is a depth of meaning which goes beyond words.
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!