Here's the sermon I preached in yesterday's 8.00am Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:
In his great book The Gulag Archipelago Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote of the way the Siberian labour camps to which the Soviet government consigned those they deemed enemies of the state robbed him of everything that makes life meaningful: “He is robbed of his name – he is known only by a number. He is robbed of books and pen and paper – a dreadful deprivation for a writer of his stature. He is robbed of work he can do with dignity. Instead he must labour as a slave. He is deprived of sufficient food and sleep. He gets no letters. He hears no news of his family or of the outside world. He is stripped of his own clothes and dressed in verminous rags. He is robbed of his health – he succumbs to cancer.
Solzhenitsyn, robbed of everything, sinks as it were to the bottom, to the very base of being. And then he says something extraordinary. He writes of the day, ‘when I deliberately let myself sink to the bottom and felt it firm under my feet – the hard rocky bottom which is the same for all.’
On the Friday that we call ‘good’, Jesus too descends to rock bottom. He is betrayed by a friend, arrested, deserted and denied by his friends, falsely accused, wrongly condemned, beaten and mocked, before being killed by extreme torture. More than this even, scripture implies that in death Jesus descends to hell and, if hell is separation of God and the absence of all that is good, then, because Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” we can understand that he enters hell.
As a result, we can say that however low you go Jesus has already been there and that it is Jesus that we find when we, like Solzhenitsyn, reach rock bottom. He is the rock that we find when we have lost everything that is ours or have reached the outer limits of who we understand ourselves to be. He is the firm foundation on which a different way of life can then be built because when you do reach rock bottom and find there a firm foundation on which to stand, then the only way to go is up.
Some of you will remember these lines from Yazz’s No. 1 song:
“We've been broken down / To the lowest turn / Being on the bottom line /
Sure ain't no fun ... / I wanna thank you / For loving me this way / Things may be a little hard now / But we'll find a brighter day
Hold on, hold on / Hold on, Won't be long
The only way is up, baby / For you and me now / The only way is up, baby /
For you and me now”
That is what we celebrate today and that is why this is an Easter Day sermon and not the Good Friday sermon that it has appeared to be so far. Jesus reached rock bottom on Good Friday but that was not where the story ends. For Jesus, the resurrection meant that the only way for him, following Good Friday, was up. And because Jesus dies and is resurrected as the forerunner for each one of us, this can be our experience too. Jesus went into the depths of human sin and suffering to save us, to bring us up and out from our depths of sin and suffering into new life together with him; a life in which resurrection has begun to be our experience and will become our eternal experience.
This change was brilliantly captured in a sermon that the American preacher and sociologist, Tony Campolo has made famous. A sermon based on the repeated line; “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming”:
“It was Friday, and my Jesus is dead on a tree. But that’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.
Friday, Mary’s crying her eyes out, the disciples are running in every direction like sheep without a shepherd. But that’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.
Friday, some are looking at the world and saying, “As things have been, so they shall be. You can’t change nothing in this world! You can’t change nothing in this world!” But they didn’t know that it was only Friday, and Sunday’s coming.
Friday, them forces that oppress the poor and keep people down, them forces that destroy people, the forces in control now, them forces that are gonna rule, they don’t know it’s only Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
Friday, people are saying, “Darkness is gonna rule the world, sadness is gonna be everywhere,” but they don’t know it’s only Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
Even though this world is rotten, as it is right now, we know it’s only Friday. But Sunday’s coming!”
St John in his Revelation prophesies: “I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They're his people, he's their God. He'll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone." The Enthroned continued, "Look! I'm making everything new.” (Revelation 21. 1-5, The Message)
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Ain’t no valley low enough to keep us from Jesus, even the valley of the shadow of death. A change is gonna come. The times, they are a’changin’. We can move on up to our destination. We will rise from the ruins. The only way is up. The songs and the clichés find their truth in Jesus and his resurrection which is the promise of our own personal resurrection and the resurrection of our world itself.
Yazz & The Plastic Population - The Only Way Is Up.