In The Absence of God.

19 Apr
Three of the Survivors of The Sandakan-Ranau Death March.
Writing a Good Friday sermon is difficult. The violence, injustice and incredible cruelty of the incident is overpowering. The machinations of those involved to maintain power and control, to manipulate those in charge to do their bidding and the fear-full failure of those who followed Jesus is almost impossible to accept. We struggle with the pain of this event and, perhaps most of all, the sense of abandonment experienced by Jesus – by both God and those whom he had lived amongst.
 
John presents Jesus as assured and confident throughout both his Gospel and this event. He is the symbol of one who has unbreakable faith in God. Jesus is depicted by John as an icon to be grasped as the standard of faith for all within the Johnannine community in their battle with tradition and society. On the cross there is none of the brokenness of Gethsemane and the cry of despair we find in Mark.
Even the words ‘It is finished’ (19:30) signify Jesus has confidently completed the task given to him, to make the Father known[1]. While it is often linked to the atoning for sins as if Jesus is saying: I have made the sacrifice of my body which I came to make on behalf of creation, this is not John’s point. This would certainly be the way the author of Hebrews would read it[2], but it is not John’s emphasis, nor is it mine. Instead the focus is Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father’s commission revealed even in the face of suffering which despite the confidence is real[3]. The effect is to reveal love and expose hate and so offer a new beginning. [4]
What a challenging mission this was and is. It cost Jesus his life. It cost the one who was there at the beginning of creation his being in this world, and revealed that being as the Christ of the Cosmos.  It cost beyond measure, the cruelty was beyond pain and was achieved in great silence and deep stillness.
It was the silence of being laid bare without the comfort of the felt presence of God or those who were close to him. Even if people were there, there is a deep silence in suffering separating the one suffering from all who attempt to be present. It is deep, private, harrowing and uncommunicable. There is no way anyone else can understand the depth of our personal suffering, what ever it is and how ever it manifests itself.
 
The danger is we may try and emulate the response of John’s Jesus and find ourselves unable to be as iconic, stoic or faithful as John portrays it. I doubt that that was the reality.
In 2010 I walked the Ranau to Sandakan death march for the first time. This was the march at the very end of the Second World War the Japanese army forced 2,434 prisoners of war to undertake. Only 6 survived and they men who escaped. When we walked the track we did so for a soldier who died. Mine was Padre Harold Wardle-Greenwood. He was a brave and compassionate man who cared for the dying in his group of 50 on the March. Yet, Lynette Silver writes “Harold Wardle-Greenwood had comforted the dying and disconsolate for so long that he was now broken physically and spiritually. He had lost his faith in a God who, he believed had forsaken them. Indeed,” Silver continues, “it would have taken a man of superhuman faith to have believed such death and suffering was God’s will”.
In 2012 I walked for Padre Thompson. As I sat on the top of the hill where Thompson died, I had little doubt that if it had been me that I too would have felt completely abandoned by God. The hill, even for a well fed well rested reasonably fit person was a challenge, coming after several days of walking through the intense heat, the suffocating humidity, the rain and the unceasing red gluggy mud sticking to your boots. For men who had had no nourishment, were sick with a range of debilitating illnesses and lugging twice their body weight in equipment, it must have been hell only punctuated by the sounds of shots as the guards shot another soldier and rolled them over the edge.
This was suffering that could have been avoided if appropriate action had been taken when it was planned. It was suffering that was covered up and forgotten about for over 40 years. This was suffering that was real and needless. This was suffering of the deep silence only Jesus could share for only the suffering of Jesus on the cross is able to replicate the abandonment these men felt. Keith Botterill, a survivor, comments they kept going in the hope that someone would survive to tell their story. 6 men fulfilled that hope.
John portrays Jesus as confident in God to glorify him for his faithfulness unto death, yet I wonder if that is exactly how Jesus felt? Would Jesus have been disappointed if the situation had been resolved and he had continued to live and be in the world? Would it have been a failure if the Jews and the Romans had recognised the mission of Jesus and changed their way of being?
For us who may find ourselves in the midst of the silence of an absent God, are we expected to be as iconic as Jesus and plough on with unbruised hope? Is this a realistic ask of people facing a diagnosis of cancer for themselves or someone they love; for someone who has lost their livelihood and home; for someone who despite all their efforts are unable to work or get work; for those who are burying families due to the insanity of war; or those unable to be with their family because of incarceration?
Yes, John, you can hold Jesus up as a model but remember Jesus was human as well as divine and felt every abandonment by his friends, every lash of tongue and whip, and every hammer blow, just like those others who were crucified at the same time. He too would have felt submerged in the abyss of a silent God. 
Where does that leave us? Do we join with John and see Jesus the icon of suffering we are to emulate or do we to look beneath the story and see the struggle of a human being deeply broken by a death he would rather have avoided? How do we make sense of his and our suffering? How do we hang on when we are dying, in whatever form that particular death takes, and hope in hope itself.
We can appeal to the resurrection as the evidence of hope but is that always possible, or do we lose sight of Sunday while we are alone in Friday?

There are no quick answers. Yes, John’s Jesus shows how to grasp the hope but be not disappointed if you find yourself incapable of doing so. Jesus has already done it on your behalf for he is the only one who knows the depth of God’s silence you feel. Hang onto him.

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