Sermon: “The Sun’s Light Failed” (March 20, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Sun’s Light Failed” (Luke 23:44-46)
March 20, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The passion reading on Palm Sunday is a heavy reading, and so this sermon is a heavy sermon.

Jesus suffered for sinners, and Jesus suffered with sinners.

He suffered for the very ones who yelled, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”—and he suffered with the two thieves between whom he was crucified—as Isaiah prophesied many centuries earlier, Jesus was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

This year we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion and death, and today I am preaching on Jesus’ final moment on the cross as Luke recorded it:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23:44-46).

In the 2005 film Walk the Line Joachin Phoenix, in an Oscar-winning role, plays Johnny Cash.  Johnny wanted to do a live concert at Folsom Prison in California and record it for a live album.  While discussing this, a record executive objects, “Your fans are church folk, Johnny, Christians.  They don’t want to hear you singing to a bunch of murderers and rapists” to which Johnny replies, “Well, they’re not Christians then.”

Nonetheless, he went on to do it anyway—and on January 13, 1968 Johnny Cash performed two concerts for the transgressors at Folsom Prison—one at 9:40AM and the other at 12:40PM.  In both sets the penultimate song was “Green, Green Grass of Home,” written by Curly Putman, Jr.  It proved especially poignant because it is about a prisoner on death row who dreams of returning home:

The old home town looks the same
As I step down from the train
And there to meet me is my Mama and my Papa

Down the road I look and there runs Mary
Hair of gold and lips like cherries
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home

The old house is still standing
Though the paint is cracked and dry
And there’s that old oak tree that I used to play on

Down the lane I walk with my sweet Mary
Hair of gold and lips like cherries
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home

Yes, they’ll all come to see me
Arms reaching, smiling sweetly
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home

But the prisoner awakens and realizes it was just a dream, and that not only is he still on death row, but that it is the morning of his execution.  The song concludes:

Then I awake and look around me
To the cold gray walls that surround me
And then I realize I was only dreaming

For there’s a guard and a sad old padre
Arm and arm I walk at daybreak
Again I touch the green, green grass of home

Yes, they’ll all come to see me
In the shade of the old oak tree
As they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home

When Jesus was betrayed and arrested, it was his worst nightmare—and Jesus did not sleep at all that night.  He was kept up all night long.

One of the aspects of Jesus’ passion that always moves me is the restraint of God the Father, who at any moment could have taken vengeance on those who so mistreated his only begotten Son—the restraint of God the Father as Jesus, who had never sinned or done anything wrong to anybody ever, was betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, laughed at, ridiculed, and the next morning sentenced to death.  Any of you who have seen your child bullied or made fun of or mistreated in any way know how difficult such restraint can be—and perhaps it was infinitely more difficult for our infinitely loving Heavenly Father—but God the Father did just that.

In the powerful 1980 film Ordinary People, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore play Calvin and Beth Jarrett, an affluent Chicago suburban couple who lost their oldest son, Buck, in a boating accident and whose younger son, Conrad has serious emotional and psychological issues.  They are holding on to their sanity by a thread.  In one seen Calvin arrives home and pulls into the garage, but after turning off the car he sits there for a while.  Beth is standing in the doorway:

Calvin, what’s the matter? she asks.  He replies, “This will sound strange, what I’m gonna say will sound strange.”  What happened?  Come inside.  “Could we talk about Buck’s funeral?”  What?  “I know it’ll seem trivial but it’s on my mind, or has been, and I’d just like to talk about it.”  Why?  “When I was getting dressed for Buck’s funeral, I was…” Calvin, what’s the matter with you?  “Just let me get this off my chest, okay?”

What could getting dressed for Buck’s funeral possibly have to do with anything right now?  “I was wearing a blue shirt, and you said, ‘Wear the white shirt and the other shoes.’  It was nothing at the time, but it’s always seemed to stay with me.  And I, for some reason, have been thinking about it and it suddenly occurred to me what difference did it make what I wore at Buck’s funeral?”  Beth shakes her head and walks into the kitchen.

“Just hear me out, Beth.  It won’t hurt you to listen.”  I won’t listen to that.  No one in their right mind would listen to that.  “I just want to talk about something I always remembered.”  Why do you want to remind me of it?  “Because I’ve always wondered, in some needling way, what it mattered what I wore.  I was crazy that day.  We were going to our son’s funeral.  And you were worried about what I wore on my feet.  I’m sure it sounds like nothing to you, but it sticks with me and I just wanted to tell you about it.”  She walks over to him and takes him into her arms and says—It’s all right. 

But it wasn’t all right, not at all.  Calvin had not gotten over it—“I was crazy that day.  We were going to our son’s funeral.”  Can you imagine how God the Father felt during Jesus’ passion and death?  Can you fathom that?

And yet God the Father, rather than taking vengeance on those who were killing his Son, maintained his restraint, and instead demonstrated grief in a unique way.  Luke tells us that “the sun’s light failed.”

“The sun’s light failed”—or as John Donne (1572-1631) put it in the very last sermon he ever preached—on the cross “those glorious eyes grew faint in their light: so as the Sun ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too” (The Sermons of John Donne, Volume X, 247-248).

Luke records Jesus’ final words as “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”—and God the Father, Jesus’ papa, was there to meet him—with unrestrained love.

Although while Jesus was dying on the cross “the sun’s light failed”—S, U, N— even death could not stop the light of a different Son—S, O, N—because Jesus identified himself as the Light of the World (John 8:12) and scripture assures us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Jesus suffered for you—was executed in your place—for all the times you have mistreated others and mistreated yourself.  And Jesus suffers with you, when you are mistreated by others and in the places in your life that are not all right.

And on this Palm Sunday all of us transgressors are invited to meet again under the shade of a different tree, the cross—and because of what we will celebrate next Sunday, all of us transgressors will meet yet again in heaven—“arms reaching, smiling sweetly” to “touch the green, green grass of home.”  And that will not be just a dream.

Amen.