The Finger of God Protects Life
If you really want to show someone how much you distain them or something they want you to do, you say, "I wouldn't lift a finger" Yet we probably think it to strong to say, "We wouldn't lift a finger to protect the life of another person." Think so? Psychologists once did experiments where people were allowed to administer shocks to others. They ended up being shocked at how willing people were to do this and how readily they would up the size of the jolt.
The trouble is that in our everyday world we don't see ourselves as "Natural Born Killers." Though Jesus identifies murder as being found in the hearts of us all, we only think of criminals that way. We recognize brutal, vengeful, hateful killing as murder but killing people softly, nicely, neatly isn't.
Take the disciples in Gethsemane. Who could blame them after a night of Passover food and wine for falling asleep even though Jesus specifically told them "keep watch with Me?" But the explanation to the 5th Commandment plainly says that their failing to "help and support" Jesus when His soul "was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" was murder.
How many murders must I be guilty of then? How many times have I not cared about someone's physical need let alone helped and supported them in it? I am like that father whose child comes to him crying that he pinched his finger in the door. The father irritated because he's being interrupted while watching the news that he already knows says, "Well what do you want me to do about it?" The child replies, "You could say, "Ouch."
With all the human need, grief, and pain that I'm surrounded by the least I could say is, "Ouch." But my murderous heart doesn't lift a syllable let alone a finger to help. "Well," you say, "At least you don't lift a finger to hurt either." You don't need your fingers to commit murder. Judas used his mouth. He went to Jesus' enemies and offered to betray Him, and he didn't hand him over with hands but with a kiss of the lips. Even Jesus' enemies, the leaders of the church, didn't lift a finger to kill Jesus. No, they had others do it for them.
This is the David method of murdering. David commanded his general to withdraw support from Uriah in the midst of the battle so the Ammonites could kill him. God doesn't parse sins that way. You don't have to lift a finger or anything else to be guilty of murder. Not lifting a finger is just as bad. If you think I'm exaggerating, then you haven't read the Sermon on the Mount recently. Jesus says it's not just those who actually kill people who are guilty of murder, but those who are angry or insulting toward someone.
Actively killing or killing softly for personal reasons whether by action, inaction, or just words is murder. It's doing what Jesus specifically says not to do in our text. It's drawing the sword, and "all who draw the sword will die by the sword." Somehow we think sword-living won't bring us sword- dying. That's because we think we keep this Commandment. We think being friendly, saying, "Please, thank you, and have a nice day," are more than enough. Luther said that no man can keep from breaking this Commandment "anymore than you can prevent fire from burning because murder is in our nature." We are "Natural Born Killers."
We kill softly with our murderous looks, feelings, actions, and inactions. Jesus is killed brutally because He is killed to pay for our sins. You know how He dies. In our text, we see what He dies with and we see that He sees it. He sees the cup of God's wrath heading toward His lips filled with our black, murderous thoughts, words, and deeds. There is that time you didn't support your friend. The time you hurt or harmed your neighbor. There's the grudge you hold, the anger you feel, the rage that flares in your heart sticking up and ugly out of that cup.
It's like something out of Fear Factor. A cup brimming with ground up maggots, goat entrails, and squid juice is being borne toward Jesus in the hands of His Father, and He is saying, "Take and drink for the forgiveness of their sins." And the Son prays and begs and pleads that this cup could pass Him by. Hebrews 5 says, almost unbelievingly, that Jesus "offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save Him from death." Jesus prays and plead so loudly and tearfully that He presses great drops of blood from His holy pores and they plop on the ground like sweat. But the Father doesn't lift a finger to protect His Son from this gruesome, wrathful, judgmental cup. The One who drinks from this cup will surely die and that eternally.
God the Father allows His only beloved Son, the apple of His eye, the One He loves at least as much we do our own children, to be treated as a murderer. Wait. It's even more amazing. Jesus says that He could call upon His Father "and He will at once put at My disposal more than 12 legions of angel!" The Son prays for the cup to pass. The Father says, "No," out of love for you. And following in His Father's steps the Son won't refuse to drink it. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit agree that the Son, though innocent of murder either brutal, soft, or at all, though innocent of even a murderous thought, is to be arrested and bound as a common murderer. Why? So we can be let go. Jesus says, "If you are looking for Me, then let these men go." And they did.
So they take those holy fingers that haven't ever been lifted with murder in the heart and they nail them to a tree. These fingers curl into a claw because that's what happened to the fingers of the crucified and blood drips out of them and off them. Plop, plop, drip, drip, spat, spat the blood falls till the fingers that we haven't lifted to help and support our neighbor but to hurt and harm him are forgiven, cleansed, even under the nails. How much blood of the holy God does that take? Not much. A thimble full, a drip, a drop, a droplet, but God sheds the blood of His Son so that you and I might know we are totally and certainly forgiven.
Forgiveness it what quenches the rage, the hatred, the grudges, the murder that smolders in the fallen heart, but I don't think it's gotten through to you just how thoroughly you are forgiven. Go back to the text. Jesus takes His inner circle of disciples: Peter, James, and John. These are the only ones Jesus took with Him when He raised Jairus' daughter. These are the only ones He took up on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here He doesn't just take them as witnesses, but for support, for help in praying in this most difficult hour. And what do they do? They sleep. Even after being awoken, they fall asleep again. By their sleeping peacefully at the worst moment of His life, they were killing Jesus softly. Yet still, Jesus willingly goes to the cross to suffer and die to forgive them.
Do you think your failures are worse than theirs? Even if someone cannot or will not forgive you for killing them softly, do you think that means Jesus can't or hasn't? Do you think before God that anyone's lack of forgiveness counts more than the forgiveness Jesus won? Do you think their "I won't /can't forgive you," or your, "I can't/won't forgive myself," counts more than Jesus', "I forgive you?"
"O but you don't know my heart. It's slimier, uglier, and more disgusting than the Fear Factor cup. There is always anger if not rage, a grudge if not murder simmering, steaming, brimming in there." And you think that's news to Jesus who is the One who first told you that all these things were in every fallen heart?
Look how he handles Judas who is described by Jesus through the mouth of the prophet David, as his "old, familiar friend," the one He trusted and enjoyed meals with. Judas betrays Him with a kiss of peace, and what does Jesus do? Slap Him? Turn away from Him? Call Him a murderous, betraying fiend? No, He calls him, "Friend." At this murderous moment, when all the wickedness of hell and sin had to be bubbling in Judas' heart Jesus calls Him "friend." Now don't think Jesus is a hypocrite. Don't think that at this holy moment in His Passion Jesus spoke with sarcasm or irony.
Therefore, if Jesus can call him "friend" at Judas' most wretched, murderous moment when do you not have a friend in Jesus? When you're temper flares, when your fingers remained clenched in anger, when they are open to lash out in rage, hear Jesus' speaking in your Baptism, in your Absolution, in the Holy Communion calling you, "Friend."
From Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, to the befriended man in Places in the Heart, to an episode of Grey's Anatomy, novelist, screenwriters, and poets have captured the power of being forgiven when you don't, can't, shouldn't expect it. If being forgiven by Jesus for your soft sins, your hard sins, your secret sins against the 5th Commandment, makes sense to you then you haven't really been touched by it. This sort of unimaginable, unexpected, undeserved forgiveness is too powerful not to change you.
Peter, James, and John are touched by it and go on to be apostles of forgiveness. David is touched by it in the Uriah case and bears up under the insults and mockery of others. Paul is touched by it and goes on with the love of Christ through all manner of abuse. Such powerful changes didn't come from within these men. We know what they were at heart. The same as we: murderers, haters, ragers, sinners. The full forgiveness of Jesus created in them a new person empowered by God's love in Christ to be forgiving, to be understanding, to be different. It's a miracle. You can't make your own miracle, contrary to many TV preachers, you can only receive one.
You don't receive the miracle of a changed life, a different person, one who helps and supports his neighbor in every physical need by focusing on the need to change or how to change. You become a more forgiving, patient person by focusing on Jesus forgiving and being patient with you. The finger of God protects life around you by plunging your fingers, your hand, your life into the hands, feet, and side of Him who was pierced for you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers II (20080213); Fifth Commandment, Passion Reading II