Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. – John 19:25-27
Today is the third Sunday in Lent and the third installment in our Lenten series on the Seven Last Words from the Cross. I’d like to start with a quick review of where we’ve been so far, just so we’re all on the same page:
The first week the First Word was “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”. This is a good place to begin Lent because it points to the fact that none of us is perfect and we all need forgiveness. Lent is, among other things, a time to look at our lives and admit we’ve fallen short of God’s standards, and work with God on becoming the people God wants us to be.
The first word from the cross assures us God wants to forgive. Sometimes we may doubt it because we know how many times we’ve done things we shouldn’t have. But we know God wants to forgive because Jesus himself prays for our forgiveness from the cross.
The Second Word, which we heard last week, was “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This is an important word, and one we don’t hear very often. The Bible doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about heaven. But paradise is God’s promise for everyone who loves Jesus.
When Jesus talked about paradise, back in his day, his words would have called to mind a place of amazing beauty, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). The Hanging Gardens were attached to the king’s palace… it was called the King’s Garden… and Jesus is letting us know the King of Heaven has a ‘King’s Garden’ too.
Jesus’ words on the cross give us a glimpse of heaven – a place almost too beautiful to bear. Jesus’ mission on earth, and the reason for his death on the cross, is so that we can be with him in paradise. And even as he died Jesus brought the first of us – the criminal on the cross next to him – redeemed and forgiven, into paradise. That’s our second word.
The Third Word, which we look at today, is “Behold your son; behold your mother.”
As we hear this word it’s important to remember the context in which it is spoken. For the 24 hours leading up to this point, Jesus has suffered hatred and injustice. He was arrested: Roman soldiers tortured him, spat on him, and pressed a crown of thorns into his head. He was forced to stand trial: He was accused by the religious leaders of his own people, betrayed by one of his own disciples, deserted by the rest of the disciples, and judged by Pontius Pilate in what can only be generously described as a perversion of justice.
Jesus was standing alone as he spoke truth and continued to show compassion. No one else near him did. Pilate’s wife had had a dream about Jesus and begged Pilate to have nothing to do with him, but Pilate didn’t listen. Instead Pilate decided to make fun of the Jews by referring to Jesus as ‘your king’. And the religious leaders answered “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) – betraying not only Jesus but their sacred trust as priests and servants of God.
Jesus was then forced to carry his cross up a hill, where he was stripped naked, nailed to the wood, and then lifted up for all to see. Pilate put a sign over Jesus’ head, written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (so everybody could understand it) that said “This is the King of the Jews”.
The religious leaders were insulted – which was Pilate’s intention – and they asked him to change it to say “this man said he is the king of the Jews” but Pilate answered “what I have written, I have written.” (John 19:21-22) The irony is Pilate didn’t know he had finally spoken the truth.
And as Jesus is dying, the crowd shouts insults, and the soldiers at the foot of the cross gamble to divide up Jesus’ clothing.
In Jesus’ final hours we see him surrounded with betrayal, torture, perversion of justice, political power plays, mockery, and greed. He is confronted with the very worst humanity has to offer. I think if I were in his shoes I would start to wonder if dying for people like this was such a good idea.
But praise God: love is not so easily conquered.
As all this is going on, at the foot of the cross stands a handful of people who love Jesus and will not leave him: his mother, his aunt, a handful of friends, and his disciple John.
In the middle of all this ugliness, above all the jeers and insults, suddenly Jesus’ voice of love can be heard saying: “Woman – behold your son. John – behold your mother.”
And at these words, the scene changes. The mocking voices suddenly die down. John says at this point Jesus knew his work was finished. And from this point on, the tables begin to turn and we begin to see compassion in action.
Jesus dies claiming victory with the word tetelestai (translated “it is finished” but more closely meaning “paid in full”). John takes Mary home as his mother, for the rest of her days. One of the Roman soldiers, seeing how Jesus dies, says “this was indeed God’s Son.” (Matt 27:54) A rich man named Joseph takes Jesus’ body and gives him a proper burial; and Nicodemus, the Pharisee, brings 100 pounds of spices, bought at his own expense, to help at the gravesite.
And the Sabbath begins. The Sabbath – a day of rest and restoration – the day on which God’s work is finished. (How appropriate is that?) The Sabbath is also a day of rest for God’s people: the day God gives us to remind us we were created to be with God. We are human beings, not human doings. That’s why the Sabbath is so important, and why Moses commanded God’s people not to work on the Sabbath: not because God wants to limit our activities on Sundays, but because God wants to set us free to be more than just workers. The Sabbath, in Jewish understanding, is a living prophecy, that points to the day when we will have eternal rest, as Jesus said, ‘in paradise’.
Jesus has spoken other words from the cross – words like ‘father forgive them’ and ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’ – and next to them this third word (“behold your son, behold your mother”) might seem a little less spiritual, a little more everyday and practical. But in reality this word is the pivot-point of the scene John is describing in his gospel. It is the point at which human sinfulness ends and God’s compassion begins – in the love of Jesus for his mother and for his disciple John.
Love is the pivot point of the story. And love is the pivot-point of all human history.
It would be easy to get sentimental about the love between Jesus and his mother but I’m going to ask us to resist that temptation. This is not a Hallmark moment. Jesus’ relationship with his mother had its ups and downs, and was not without conflict. Matthew describes a scene in which Jesus’
“mother and his brothers were… wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But… Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:46-50, edited)
I’m sure this did not go over well with Jesus’ family! But Jesus and Mary loved each other, and in his dying moments Jesus saw to it that she would be cared for and provided for by his best friend. There was nobody better in the world he could entrust her to. Jesus knew in the days ahead Mary would need someone by her side who was a believer, who would honor her memories of Jesus and Joseph and the angel Gabriel. Jesus provided exactly what she needed.
Jesus also gives us a picture of the kind of love God asks us to have for all God’s children. As believers, as Christians, we are God’s children: we are brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to each other. And as family we care for each other and look after each other.
Not all of us are able to adopt each other quite the way Mary and John did, but some people have. I’m reminded of a married couple I know who were friends with another married couple in their church. When the second couple was killed in a car crash the first couple immediately adopted their friends’ daughter and raised her as their own. My friends saw this couple as their brother and sister in Christ, and they couldn’t imagine doing anything differently. You and I may not be in a position to adopt a child but one way or another all of us can be family for each other.
So what can we take with us from Jesus’ words today? There’s a lot but for now three things:
First, Jesus honors his mother. In our Protestant traditions we don’t always pay as much attention to Mary as our Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters do. So let’s take this opportunity today to remember her. Mary was a woman of great courage and deep love. She was, as our Orthodox siblings would say, the Theotokos or the God-bearer: through her God came into our world in the person of Jesus. Mary is the one who was promised to Eve in the Book of Genesis when God said to the serpent:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
Mary paid a high price for our salvation: she lived through the agony of losing a child. And through it all, she held on to her faith in her son, and encouraged the disciples and the family of believers in their faith, for as long as she lived. So remember Mary because she sets an example for all of us.
Second, God places us in families and God intends families for our good. The picture we see of the love between Mary and Jesus is what family is meant to be. But in a fallen world that’s not always how things are. And God is honest with us about that in scripture. All through the Bible we see examples of how not to be family: we see Cain murdering his brother Abel; we see Jacob cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance; we see Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery. And even Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him until after the resurrection!
So for those of us who have less-than-ideal families, God does not call us to hide the truth and just keep on smiling. We are commanded to honor our family members, but that does not mean we have to agree with them or that we have to approve of everything they do. Some families, sadly, are dangerous and need to be kept at a distance. Whatever our circumstances, we can always honor our family by praying for them, by speaking well of them when we can do so honestly, and by living in the hope that, by the power of the cross, God can bring good even out of difficult circumstances.
Third, the love between Jesus’ mother and John shows us how to be the church. As children of God, we care for each other. We pray for each other. We support each other. We bear each other’s burdens. When someone is sick, we visit. When someone is shut in, we send a card or bring a meal. We have each other’s backs. That’s what it means to be God’s family.
Today’s word – “behold your son, behold your mother” – is the pivot-point of John’s story. God’s love puts an end to the noise and the politics of the world and makes new lives and new relationships possible.
In every life, in every person’s life, the pivot point is always God’s love. It is our greatest joy when we can be used by God to bring God’s love into the lives of others, to be that pivot-point of love. Let’s pray for opportunities to do this. Pray with me:
Lord Jesus, thank you for your love. Thank you for your loving care for John and your mother Mary, and thank you for taking care of us. Where we see healthy relationships, we pray for your blessing and protection; where we see broken relationships, we pray for your healing. Use us, Lord, to bring your love into the lives of others, and thank you for including us in your plans. We pray all this to your honor and glory, AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/27/16