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The series finale of a television show is a very special thing. These days, with more and more people “cutting the cord,” so to speak and not having television in the home (and I’m one of those people), it’s a little different, but to most of us, finales still mean something.
See, a good television show is different from a movie or a book. Yes, those are “high art,” while a TV show is supposed to be low-brow entertainment – disposable, in one ear and out the other, so to speak. But the truth of the matter is, if you watch a show from its beginning to its end, you live with those characters for years. They’re a part of your life.
Of course, the M*A*S*H finale is probably television’s most famous, as it is still, by some measures, the most-watched program in American history – so many Americans have that connection with Hawkeye waving to his friends as he leaves the 4077th. But we may all have our favorites. It’s tough to beat the ending to the Mary Tyler Moore show, with the lights getting clicked off one last time. The Newhart finale, which is one I personally haven’t seen, is great because of how it ties into The Bob Newhart Show – I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know what I’m talking about. But I’ll count some of the shows of my own generation – Scrubs, The Office, Parks and Recreation, The West Wing, House, Boy Meets World, and scores of others, leave their mark (and for those of you thinking it, yes – I have watched a lot of TV in my life). These people – who aren’t even really people – make their way into our hearts. And when we watch the credits roll one last time, we feel that hint of sadness, and of nostalgia – that we’ve just lost a friend. And it’s a reliable friend, too, one whom we counted on for our weekly appointment for years.
I’m thinking about finales for a couple of reasons – one is that I watched a series finale of a show this week – Bones, if you’re curious – so it’s right there in my life. But the other reason is that we get here to the “big goodbye,” as it were, for this sermon series (a “series finale” of a different kind), and more importantly, we have the goodbye to Jesus in today’s passage.
Now, TV finales can go one of two ways – they can go saccharine-sweet and hit you with nostalgia – all your favorite characters coming back, satisfactorily wrapping up all their storylines – people getting married or having babies, hugs and moving away. But the other way, the bittersweet one, is the one that really gets you. Once in a while, a show decides to remind you of the relentless passage of time. That even though the episode of TV you’re watching is fiction, it’s only about “today,” and “tomorrow” comes, too.
And that’s how Jesus’ “finale,” as it were, operates here – in the bittersweet, second type of ending. Particularly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark I find that to be the case, and since we’re reading in Matthew’s Gospel, I think it’s the appropriate way to look at the crucifixion.
Permit me one more media reference – I don’t know how much any of you know about the techniques used by playwrights or screenwriters, but most stories we tell – including jokes, including the stories you tell the people around you about your day – can be divided into something called “three act structure.” Three-act structure is something that divides a story into:
Act one – the Setup
Act two – the Confrontation
Act three – the Resolution
We do this automatically when we tell people a story or joke. Think about it. When you tell someone about your day, you start by giving the details they need to know to understand the ending – that’s Act One, the setup.
As the story goes on, it moves to Act Two, the confrontation. This is where the story gets to the funny incident, or the fight, or the gossip, or whatever. And finally, in Act Three, the resolution, we hear what the fallout of the Confrontation was. Conveniently, our sermon series has been this way all along.
We’ve seen our Act One, in which Jesus is praying for what he knows is coming. We’ve had our Act Two, in which Jesus is confronted in the Garden of Gethsemane and put on trial; even last week, we saw him actually nailed to the cross. Today, we read our Act Three, our Resolution. We finally get to see the result of everything we’ve been building to.
So let’s hop right to it. When our passage for the day opens, we see Jesus on the cross, crying out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Eli,” is the word in Aramaic (Jesus’ spoken language) for “my God.” However, it is also a common part of Jewish names. For example, as we see in the passage, there’s some confusion by the people looking on that Jesus may be calling for Elijah (pronounced “ell-ee-YAH” in Aramaic). That’s because “Eli” would be a common nickname for him. So we actually have a crowd in confusion over to whom Jesus is actually even speaking.
But in this moment, we actually witness Jesus not just calling out from the depths of his soul, but quoting Psalm 22. Jesus is calling out in this moment from words that mean a great deal to him, and they’re words that reflect feeling forgotten by God.
I’ve met and counseled many people in many difficult times of life. Over and over again, one of the things that people of faith consistently struggle with is how to talk to God when they feel like God has let them down. In this moment, Jesus talks to God by praying a prayer of complaint. Jesus chooses to ask God why he’s been abandoned and left alone at this time of need. It’s very understandable – very human.
And we must understand that we will experience those times, too, and that having them does not make us bad Christians or bad people. Questioning where God is when we’re in pain is completely normal. In fact, it’s so natural that Jesus, God in human flesh, actually questions what it all means at this moment when he feels lost and hopeless.
Now, I could tell you how much hope and comfort this passage gives me – the understanding that, wherever we’ve been, God knows, because God has been there, too. And I hope that does comfort you. Or I could tell you about how wonderful it is that the Christian faith never lies to us and tells us that faith in God will somehow make us immune to pain. But the truth is, I say those things all the time, so I’m not going to talk about those things today. Instead, I feel compelled to remind you that it is an act of deep faith to allow God so deep in our hearts that we’re willing to expose our rawest nerves in prayer – even when that means yelling at God. But nonetheless, there’s still so much more going on here, that I don’t just want to stay on that one topic, and that’s what’s happening in Act Three of our story this Lent.
So I want us to consider what’s happening here in the world around Jesus. There are distinct, physical signs of his crucifixion that we can read about in Matthew. The curtain of the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn in two – a nice manifestation of the bringing-together of God and humanity in Jesus, as the veil between human and divine is ripped apart. The earth shook, and rocks split. All sorts of things about the world were breaking. The dead were even raised, albeit briefly, as Jesus’ death truly causes the world to turn upside-down for a little while. But while these physical signs are really interesting, there’s something else going on in this aftermath of the crucifixion, and it’s really what I want to talk about. Because it’s not just things that respond to the death of Jesus – it’s also people who respond, and they guide us in how we should respond.
So we are right to ask ourselves, “how are the people reacting?” Well, there are a number of different responses. Some are continuing to mock. Some are awed. Still others are “terrified.”
Perhaps the most surprising reaction of all comes from one of the centurions who put Jesus to death. The centurions were commanders in the Roman army – usually, according to Wikipedia, anyway – in charge of 80 men. One of these men, these loyal leaders of Rome who had just put Jesus to death, speaks, “Truly, this man is God’s son.” You probably haven’t thought about this, but this is arguably the first Christian confession of faith! This centurion has been awed by what he’s seen in the world around him, and he recognizes Jesus for who he is.
At the end of the day, this is the choice we’re forced into making – we can mock, we can choose to do whatever we want and we can disregard what God is doing right in front of our faces. God never forces us into love or obedience or even recognition. We see it here in Jesus’ last moments. But just because we’re not forced into faith in God doesn’t mean we aren’t presented with a great opportunity to let our faith in Jesus shine through.
In this series of sermons, we’ve seen, over and over again, people build up walls – not literally, but figuratively. People put their self-interest ahead of God. They mock and tease because that’s easier than being genuine. Yet in this moment, as Jesus is crucified, we see that God is not about building up walls that divide – God is about tearing down the things that separate us. The “Holy of Holies” that was created to divide humanity from God? That’s torn down. The barriers between Jews and Roman soldiers that prevented religious dialogue and faith? Torn down, too, when Jesus is crucified. Jesus’ crucifixion means many, many things. But today the one I want you to think about is this: Up on that cross, Jesus wasn’t crucified alone, but so, too, were all the things that divide us from one another.
God intends for us to live a life fully enriched by and engrained with our Savior Jesus. We put up walls. We create a “Holy of Holies” within our own lives – places where we can safely “hide” God away, and so we can’t interfere with God, and God can’t interfere with us. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be; we’re supposed to have God as a part of everything – even when those things are ugly, because perhaps we’re lacking faith. Even when we’re feeling broken. Even when we’re feeling strong because we just got to prove how much better we were than someone else by beating and crucifying them. In all those moments, God wants us to see with clarity some basic truths – Jesus has come to show us that we are God’s, and that we are loved, and that we are forgiven, and that we are saved. We are not trapped by the walls we build up; we are saved by the Christ who tears them down.
Allow me to end on one final note. Next week is Palm Sunday, so we’re going to be rewinding this story a loooong way and going back to before this series started – before the Garden and the betrayal and the trials and the crucifixion – to a time when Jesus was adored. But after that, on Easter Sunday, we pick up this story again, right where we left off. So while I talked about today’s story as an “ending,” it’s obviously not that. I talked about it that way because that’s how it appeared to the disciples at the time. But the truth is much greater: God’s story doesn’t end, and God’s story with us can never end, because God’s love for us is unending. We see that when Jesus goes to the cross and dies, all out of love for us. May we remember that love always, and be ready for whatever endings life has in store for us next. Amen.