Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What does this mean? On a hillside near Jerusalem, there is a deep, round hole in the ground. Actually, there are three holes. Planted in them are three large trees. Sturdy branches stretch from their sturdy trunks, but they are devoid of leaves. The only motion upon them a scrap of papyrus, a handbill in three tongues, wavering mildly in the breeze, the middle tree’s bill of lading.
Two trees bear no fruit. They are decorated with criminals, rotten men condemned for acts unspeakable—robbery and murder, treason and rebellion. But the third tree…Ah, the third! It bears a fruit with juice so strong, it dissolves Hell’s claim on you.
But it is not merely a tree of cruelty, an instrument of death. It is a trellis, too. A support, a ladder embracing life, lifting a Vine up from the earth. And the Fruit of that Vine, so caustic to the devil’s tongue, brings joy to the hearts of men. A thief is remembered in the coming of the Kingdom. He harvests… no, he steals, without labor, life from the Trellis. Once teetering over the edge of the abyss of Hell, now he enters into paradise, a saint of God.
So, too, Barabbas the terrorist—guilty as sin—goes free. He does not pay for his crimes. He does not die this day. He lives yet a while, and strangely, this pleases God. On this hillside, King David finds relief. He quenches his thirst in cool, still waters, he lies down in the angular shade of that middle tree, and grazes upon sweet, green grasses in a pasture fertilized with Blood. Abraham sees the day and rejoices.
Joseph of Arimathea gives his tomb as an offering. But don’t feel sorry for him. It is no hardship, no gift of painful choice. Upon the death of Jesus, worldly possessions lose all value. Joseph won’t need it for his bones to dwell; he’ll have a different resting place for eternity. Eve’s Seed is taking root outside Jerusalem. Sprouting from that tree, that trellis, a new fruit is blossoming. A new wine is poured. A new song rings out from the heavenly host.
What does this mean? Beneath the earth, Hell’s fires still burn. But then, a tremor rumbles; fear ripples through the demons and their slaves. Foundations shake and weaken, walls crumble. The gate itself rattles and is rent asunder; it cannot hold. The prisoners escape.
And at the same time, all creation shakes, too. It shakes its head at the injustice. Why does the innocent Man pay? Why do the guilty go free? The sun protests; it hides and will not shine. But look closely, O star of the morning: Hell gives up the fight, and is emptied of its ill-gained loot. Creation is restored. And here is the mystery of all mysteries: God loves men, and has since before He created them, male and female, in His own image.
The devil knew that God always keeps His promises. But he had hoped somehow to work his tricks again. Having overcome Adam in the garden by a tree, he thought to use a Tree once more, a vile pole of tortuous design to string up God. He’d hoped that as a Man, God would become like other men: Too stupid to know that men did not love Him, that men would always choose Barabbas or a thief, or would betray Him with a kiss or flee in fear. Or worse still, that His patience would be met with indifference, that His gifts would be ungratefully abused, that His love would be ignored or spurned. The devil sought to teach God a lesson about men.
But what the devil refused to own was this: God loves men. He bears no grudge. He lays down His life for Barabbas, and for the thief, for David and Bathsheba, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for Sarah and Rebekah, and Leah and Rachel, and for Adam and for Eve.
But also for Royce and Clarence, for Nancy and Tim, for Clayton and for Ken and for Carl. For Stephanie and Lucy, Evan and Hannah, Thelma and Travis, Frieda and Carolyn. For Reece and for Olaf, for Norine and Jane Anne, for Camille and Shannon, Natasha and Juanita. For Philip and for Matt, Daniel and Jason, Gabi and Sarah and Kirsten, Jeff and Kristi and Paul and Harvey. He has laid down His life for every rotten man ever to live, for every man ever to sin.
And this what the devil does not get: God loves men. He loves each of them, no matter how bad, how ugly, how dumb they might be. And in this is the devil undone. He is overcome by the Tree, the trellis of redemption. He can not hold us to our sins. God in Jesus Christ has forgiven us. The devil cannot bind us! God in Jesus Christ has paid for us, for God loves men.
What does this mean? The devil still will not quit. He looses all his fury on the Vine. “Love is strict,” he says, “Jealous.” “Keep your Word, O God. Justice must be met. If you will have men, then give the Son to me, look away from Him, and let me have my prize.” And God does.
What does this mean? The Father forsakes the Son! He hands Him over to the devil and to destruction. How can this be? How far will God go to pay the price for hateful men? The Son is cut off. He is alone. He is punished for crimes He did not commit. He heart melts like wax, His bowels spill upon the ground, His heart breaks, His bones are all out of joint, and His tongue sticks to the roof of His mouth, dry in the dust of death. Was there ever grief like this?
But what does this mean? It gets worse. For through it all, He must endure the stupid, wagging tongues of cruel men who prove true the devil’s accusations against them. His patience is met with ingratitude. His gifts are abused. His love, to this very day, is ignored. It seems to make no change in men. Wars rage on. We tell lies and betray friends. Vices are celebrated and truth is mocked. And so it is; our sins hurt Him the most. Was there ever sin like ours?
But what does this mean? He makes no complaint. He goes as a Lamb to the slaughter, and offers His back to the whip, His Body and His Blood a Sacrifice and a Meal for men. He pours out His blood and His Life like water on the earth. He loves us to the end.
And nothing…nothing in all creation, not the devil and his demons, not the government, not synods, not bullies, not terrorists, not unfaithful spouses, not mean bosses, not liars, not thieves, not weak moments, not evil thoughts, not even our own sins…Nothing will stop Him. He loves us to the end.
The devil never learns. He is snared in his own trap, and falls in his own pit. The Tree, that vile pole of torturous design, is his defeat. The Tree is the victory of men, the gift of God. It is the Tree of Life. Hell’s flames are quenched by wood; the devil’s teeth are knocked out with a stick. His strength is spent, wasted in a futile attack. The yapping dogs of his accusations are scattered before the great roaring lion of Judah.
And here is what the devil still could not believe: God loves men. He welcomes them to paradise again, to eat of the tree of Life, to have fellowship with Him.
What is this then outside Jerusalem? A Trellis? A Tree? A wooden Lance that stops the devil’s fierce threats, and foils death’s design? Perhaps it is. But it’s more. It is a Vine that Bleeds New Wine to cleanse and comfort the hearts of men.
And what of that other hole? You know, the one cut in stone where they buried Him? Where devil and man conspired to guard and keep Him? It is empty. Miracle of miracles: He lives. And He bears no grudge against Caiaphas, or Pilate, or Barabbas, or even Judas. He loves even them. God loves men! So, nothing could be more true than to say: God loves you.
And what is this? He is the Victor over death, Champion and Captain of the Blessed, the Lover of men. Death has come to its end. The grave has lost its sting. Now is the end of the darkness, the end of our long night. A sweet dawn shines anew, for Jesus lives. Hell’s fiery fury is quenched, the flames drenched with blood, that angry smoke of the devil’s rage dissipated, burned away like mist in the new morning’s light. It is no more. And the shameful acts of guilty men, even you, are forgotten, forgiven, gone.
And out of death He gives Himself, Living Bread to feed the souls of men. He is Manna, Bread from Heaven, Jesus our Savior. And so we eat and drink His Body and His Blood, and thus proclaim His death until He comes.
For Jesus lives, and God loves men.
He is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.