Passion Sunday.  April 7, 2019.  Saint Timothy’s, Charleston, SC

St. John viii, verse 59 – Then took they up stones to cast at him:  but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

As I have long passed three decades as a preacher and am within hailing distance of four, one thing I find is that now I increasingly consider not only the lessons for individual Sundays, but also the patterns they form over groups of Sundays.  The epistle and gospel for each Sunday is important.  But it also is important to think about the context given to each Sunday by the surrounding Sundays and season.

This is particularly so in Lent.  A few years ago I noticed for the first time something that should be obvious:  the first three Sundays in Lent all concern the devil and the demonic.  The gospel for Lent I is about the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness.  On Lent II we read about our Lord healing a girl who is ‘grievously vexed with a devil’.  And on Lent III our Lord casts out a devil, he is accused of being in league with the devil, and he tells a saying about devils and their victims.  How strange.  Devils, devils, devils.  Why?  Well, I think the reason is that Lent is about spiritual renewal.  And spiritual renewal presupposes what spiritual writers call purgation:  that we have to cast out bad habits and spiritual obstacles that stand in the way of God’s positive work in us.  Just as you must clear a building site before you can construct something, so God needs to purify us and cast out from us the works of darkness before he can begin in us the positive work of grace.  Conversion involves not only turning towards God, but also turning away from the things we renounce at baptism:  the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The first half of Lent, then, is devoted to this negative side of the Christian life.  After those three somewhat grim Sundays, we came last week to Refreshment Sunday, with its more positive theme of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the Eucharist, which the multiplying bread foreshadows.  After we cast away the works of darkness, we begin to put upon ourselves the armor of light, which is the sacraments and the grace of the sacraments, particularly baptism and the Eucharist.  This refreshing reminder, coming as it does at the mid-point in Lent, let’s us catch our breath before the rigors of Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week.

Thus strengthened, we come today to the conflict in the temple between our Lord and his antagonists.  This lesson ends with the Jews taking ‘up stones to cast at him’.  In the verse just before my text, our Lord has claimed divinity by applying to himself the name God revealed for himself in Exodus 3:  ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.’  The Jews understand that by these worlds our Lord claims to be divine, and by taking up stones, they seek to impose the Old Testament penalty for blasphemy:  death by stoning.  In this case, the conflict does not end with our Lord’s death, because his time has not yet come:  for the moment he evades his enemies.  We are told that ‘he hid himself’, but this hiding is, I believe, supernatural:  we are also told that he ‘went out of the temple, going through the midst of them’.  I am reminded here of the Genesis story of Sodom, when the wicked men of the city press upon the door of Lot’s house and God intervenes to save his servant by smiting ‘the men that were at the door of the house with blindness…so that they wearied themselves to find the door.’ (Genesis 19:10)  Then Lot also went out of the city, as it were, ‘through the midst of them, and so passed by’.  In any case, today’s lesson ends with an intention of the people to kill our Lord, though their intention is frustrated, again for the moment.  Next Sunday, of course, Palm Sunday, our Lord will not hide himself, he will not go through the midst of his enemies, and he will not pass by.  Next week the intention to kill our Lord will be enacted.

‘Then took they up stones to cast at him’.  Let us think for a moment about these stones.  On Lent I, in his temptations of Christ, Satan spoke of stones, urging that Christ turn stones into bread and that he cast himself from the temple in confidence that angels would rescue him lest he ‘dash [his] foot against a stone’ (Matthew 4:6).  Now Satan, having failed in tempting our Lord at the temple, wishes to convert those same temple stones into instruments of the Lord’s death.  Earlier in chapter 8 of John’s gospel, the same chapter from which comes today’s lesson, men were going to stone a woman taken in adultery.  Our Lord turned aside their merciless intention saying, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ (8:7)  On that occasion shame and self-knowledge turned aside wrath, and the stones were not cast at Abraham’s daughter, but rather fell harmlessly from the hands of her self-convicted judges.  Next week, however, self-knowledge will fail, mercy will flee away, and the Lord who forgives the sinner will himself be killed by sinners.  Again, our Lord once asked, ‘Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?’ (Matthew 7:9)  So our loving Father sent to his children manna in the old covenant and the Messiah in the new, the Living Bread of heaven.  But the foolish children, old and new, rather than accepting the Father’s Bread and Son, would stone to death the Gift.

The stones in today’s lesson do no harm, because our Lord hides himself and passes through the midst of his would-be assassins.  Next Sunday will end otherwise, with our Lord dead upon a cross.  In Holy Week we read each day that our Lord saves others by not saving himself, by dying for others, by forgoing for himself the mercy he extended to the adulterous woman, the hungry children crying for bread, and the wayward Israelites in Sinai.

And so in Holy Week another stone enters the story:  a great stone rolled to seal up a tomb, to keep God safely away, to remove the offence of his convicting mercy, to take away the Giver of bread to heedless children.  But the love of God is greater than the hatred of man, and that great stone at the holy sepulchre, meant to hide God in death, will itself be taken away to show the death of death by the Lord’s death.  Pay attention to the stones in Scripture.

          Public was Death; but Power, but Might,

          But Life again, but Victory,

          Were hushed into the dead of night,

          The shuttered dark, the secrecy,

          And all alone, alone, alone,

          He rose again behind the stone.  [Alice Meynell]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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