Isaiah 52:13 - 53-12
Hebrews 10:16-25, or
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1 - 19:42
For many years I considered it a near-mortal sin to start reading a book and not finish it. As a reader, writer, English teacher, I held that stories engage our being so thoroughly that we owed the teller a chance to finish because it is the twist at the end that gives meaning to even the banal events leading to it. I read many bad books over the years that I knew I should have put down at the end of chapter one because the character, plot, and descriptions did nothing to engage me; you cannot judge a book by its cover, but you can by chapter one. There are a handful of books that I re-read because they so capture my mind I enter that world with my entire consciousness for hours at a time. The passages in Isaiah and John have the qualities that bring me into the deep contemplation appropriate for today and the coming days.
John takes us through a stunningly rapid succession of events that climax with Christ’s death on the cross just hours after being arrested in the garden. We are challenged in every verse to consider our own response. We have the gift of nearly two centuries of hindsight to question and judge the actions of every individual involved that day. Put yourself as a dissident in the midst of a mob of illiterate faithful who only know and understand what their religious leaders tell them. The unfamiliar streets in this city where you are a visitor resemble what we call alleys. Their leaders, the teachers they have trusted for years, declare that you and your leader are the latest in a long history of heretics determined to eliminate God’s law rather than fulfill it (the truth does not matter to them as both eliminate their authority and social standing). Peter’s courage at even being in the crowd offers some mitigation to the often taught cowardice of his denial. Where were the rest of the Apostles? We cannot have a greater security barrier than the two millenia separating us from the event, but before we judge them, consider how you would have functioned as one on whom there was a bounty, jostled in a crowd of potential captors, with only rumors for news. It might be time to share some of the grace we have been extended from the events of this day.
As powerful as the John passage is, the imagery of the man in Isaiah fills my mind with a picture of a man so damaged we would struggle to know him as a man, yet so overwhelmingly powerful even the strongest are brought to utter submission in his presence. The vibrant, often violent narrative interwoven with so much peace and beauty challenges my mind to see the connection - to see both as one. Violence and calm. Disdain and adoration. Crudeness and refinement. The juxtaposition of such concepts challenges us at the core of human thought. We struggle when those things we have defined as opposites coexist. Every time I read this passage I am disturbed by injustice and buoyed by hope. To me, this is faith- asking, “What?” and declaring, “Thank you!” at the same time. We must do that with this passage or we get overwhelmed by one or the other sides of the picture he presents.
The great stories bring us back and we find something new each time. Today’s Scriptures do that. In every reading we gain a new insight. Every insight shapes our faith. Our faith sustains us.