March 18, 2018

Famous Last Words, VI: What Is Finished?

Passage: John 19:25–30

Click here to listen to this sermon.


 

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, It is finished.  —John 19:30

 

“It is finished” is always the sixth of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross.  It’s important to finish well.  In Connecticut, Mary Fike was my next-door neighbor.  At the time Mary was the beloved, longtime music teacher at Old Greenwich School where my daughter Taylor did K–5.

Mary had these two large chocolate dogs named Gigi and Carolina.  Gigi and Carolina were dumb as a box of rocks, but they were very sweet dogs and they both had a crush on Dudley, so several mornings a week Mary and her brown dogs were our walking companions.  Gigi and Carolina are gone now.

Friday night, when a sixteen-seed in the NCAA tournament beat a number-one seed, for the first time in 33 years and 136 tries, I genuflected to the deceased brown dogs Gigi and Carolina, because Gigi and Carolina were Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.

What was supposed to happen to the UMBC Retrievers was what happened to St. Francis, the sixteenth seed in the Women’s tournament, against the invincible Connecticut Huskies: 94 points IN THE FIRST HALF!! Final score 140–52.

Before Friday night, the University of Maryland Baltimore County was most famous for its chess team, which has won 16 national championships, but chess is not an NCAA sport.[1]

Before Friday night, when a kid from a Baltimore high school decided to matriculate at UMBC, his classmates would tell him that UMBC stands for “U Made a Bad Choice.”[2]

Students at the main University of Maryland campus, College Park, say that UMBC stands for “University of Maryland Backup College.”

No more.  This is one of those miracles when you are reminded that a game is not just a game.  Did you drill down into the story of UMBC?  This college was born in 1966; it’s 52 years old. It was created for the middle and lower classes.  Two of the players on that team have 4.0 GPA’s.  A sizable minority of the graduates go on to Ph.D. programs, many at Ivy League institutions.

Freeman Hrabowski, the President of UMBC for 26 years, is, despite his Polish-sounding name, an African American.  He was born and raised in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and in 1963 participated in the Children’s Crusade.  He was 12 years old.  Bull Connor threw this adolescent into prison for five days.  Later, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois.[3]  This game was more than a game.

One TV analyst said, “Sometimes you can just pick a bad day to have a bad day.”[4]  Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said, “When we needed a key stop or a key bucket, it just wasn’t there.  We had trouble finishing.”[5]  Virginia is a great, great, great, basketball program, but it does not finish well.

It’s important to finish well.  According to St. John, the last thing Jesus speaks from the cross before he has no breath left to speak with is “It is finished.’ It’s a short word, just three words in English, just one word in Greek.  Τετελεσται (tetelestai).  One word.

What does St. John mean for us to hear in this terse word from the cross?  Is it a cry of despair? "I'm finished.  I'm dying.  My life is over."

Or maybe a prayer of relief.  "It's over.  Finally, the pain and agony and grief will be no more."

Or, a prayer of victory.  "It is accomplished.  My mission is complete.  I have done what I came to do, and I have been successful."  It is this last nuance which I think John means for us to hear.  This is a prayer of victory.

τετελεσται—one word. The last scene of a film—"The end." The last word of a prayer—“Amen." The ancient Greeks ended their prayers with this word—τετελεσται.   The word can also mean goal or finish line. "I have run the race, and I have won."

If you are in business, you have “sales objectives” or “annual targets.”  They are what you are aiming for all year long.  They’re “ends,” something you aim for.

τετελεσται—"It is finished."  Well, what is finished? What is it?  The simplest answer to that question is that Jesus' life is finished.  He’s dying. His breath is gone and his blood is spattered all over Golgotha's rocks and he isn't going to be around anymore.  He has come to the end of his earthly days.

But then, if this is the last dying gasp of a beaten man, dying young at 33 and a convicted criminal, how is it a cry of victory?

Well, you know that that question is answered almost before it is asked.  When you have lived like Jesus lived, then you can die like Jesus' died—a convicted criminal, an executed slave—and still be able to say—“I have run the race, I have crossed the finish line, and I have won."  Not "My life is over," but "My life is complete."

So it seems to me that in Jesus' death there is a lesson for life, a reminder that we are all rushing headlong to the end of our days.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but whether the end be imminent or distant, it is coming fast—and it is up to us whether we sum it up at the last hour with the despairing cry of "It is over," or the triumphant cry of "It is complete."

When, like Jesus, you have turned water into wine, and made lame beggars walk and blind men see, when you have fed the hungry from your own meager store, when you have faced your demons in the wilderness and your betrayer in the Garden and have never turned aside, then you can die saying not "It is over," but "It is complete."

What are you doing? It seems to me that we can watch TV or make a difference.  What are you doing? Do something, for God's sake!  For God's sake, do something!  Have you turned any water into wine?  I don't mean literally. But have you taken the ordinary stuff of life and made anything extraordinary out of it? Life slips away. Do something!

Learn Chinese.
Climb the Matterhorn, or at least Warren Dunes.
Hike the Appalachian Trail, or at least go around the block.
Buy a puppy.
See some Rodin sculptures at the Institute, or some orchids at the Garden.
Plant a garden, but not yet!
Find out how to play chess, or squash.
Play an accordion, or a harmonica.
Read War and Peace.
Eat squid.
Go to South Dakota, or Madagascar.
Do something.

In one of Garrison Keillor’s stories, a man moves away from Lake Wobegon and disappears for many, many years.  Nobody ever hears from him again, and nobody knows what happened to him.  Twenty years later the good townfolk get a telegram notifying them that the man had died, and Keillor writes “When he died, his death caught many by surprise.  They hadn't known he was alive."  Will your death catch many by surprise because they hadn’t known you were alive?

Some last words are not so sad.  Some deaths are not so pitiful.  In 1963, Stephen Hawking’s doctors told him he was sick with ALS and had two years to live; he actually lasted 55, till he died the other day at the age of 76.

If you saw the film Theory of Everything with Eddie Redmayne, you know that Dr. Hawking’s first response to the news of his illness was a long and severe depression.  He knew that someday he would lose the ability to walk and talk and care for himself.

But soon he regained a new sense of purpose.  He says, “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are a lot of things that you want to do.”

In 1974, Dr. Hawking wrote a paper for the journal Nature in which he argued that black holes are not really black. Actually, they emit radiation and particles before exploding and disappearing forever.

That paper for Nature was one of the turning points of modern physics.  It was the first step toward the elusive and gigantic goal in physics of the TOE—T. O. E.—a Theory Of Everything.

Dr. Hawking’s adviser at Oxford called that article “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”  He can’t have meant that, right?  That paper could not have been more beautiful than Albert Einstein’s papers on special and general relativity.  Maybe he meant that it was the most beautiful physics paper in English.

Black holes are not really black.  They release radiation.  Do you know what they call this radiation?  They call it Hawking radiation.  Do you know what Dr. Hawking’s last words will be?  Do you know what he wants them to carve on his tombstone?  He wants them to carve in stone the equation describing Hawking radiation.[6]

What is finished?  Jesus' life is finished.  That's the simplest answer.  But also Jesus’ purpose is finished, accomplished. God’s purpose of redeeming lost humanity was completed at Golgotha that dark Friday afternoon so long ago.

Just one last thing and then I’ll quit.  The best novel I have ever read is Frederick Buechner's account of a monk from the Dark Ages named Godric.

One of the most beautiful things about this novel is that there is barely a word of more than one syllable.  Somehow Mr. Buechner was able to capture what people from the eleventh century sounded like, before Latin contaminated the English language with all those polysyllabic words.

By the way, do you know George Carlin’s famous conundrum: Why is monosyllabic such a long word?

Anyway, at one point in the novel, on their way to Rome to catch a glimpse of the Pope, Christ’s vicar, Godric sits with his mother by the bank of the River Wear. They fall contemplative watching the water run inexorably to the sea.

The mother says to her son, "There's two things that charm the eyes like wizardry.  One's flames, but flames I've seen enough to last my life.  The other's water.  I watch that river till I think I hear him sing.  He sings that all things pass.  He sings that winter passes.  Then comes spring.  The old king dies, they crown a new.  Pink-cheeked lads and lasses shrivel up like apples on a shelf.  There's not a man alive today but time, like the River, will carry him off too."

But after watching the river for a while, she says to her son, “Come. let's be off.  Hitch on your pack.  Who knows what dangers lie ahead, but in such goodly company as this, we've nought to fear."[7]

What do you fear, friend?  What do you fear?  Loneliness?  He knows what it is to be alone.  He's gone before, it is defeated.  You can never be alone.

Failure?  He's been there.  Failure has no power over the children of God, because it had no power over the Son of God.

Your own scarred history or disfigured past?  Some hasty word you can’t take back or reckless decision that derailed your life or fractured relationship you can’t put back together?  He died for all that. Sin is finished.

Death?  Is it Death you’re afraid of, that stranger with the yellow face knocking on the door?  But one day, death shall die.  He has gone before.

Come, let’s be off.  Hitch on your pack.  Who knows what dangers lie ahead, but in such goodly company as this, we’ve nought to fear.

It is finished.  Praise him.  Amen.  Or, to put it another way: The End.  Tetelestai.

 

[1]Thomas O’Toole, “Chess Team No Longer the Most Famous Program at UMBC after NCAA Tournament Stunner,” USA Today, March 17, 2018.
[2]Jacob Bogage, “What Is UMBC? ‘We’re for Real.’ For One graduate, Victory, Validation, and Natty Boh, The Washington Post, March 17, 2018.
[3]Erica Green, “Cinderella Story?  It’s True for UMBC in Academics Too,” The New York Times, March 17, 2018.
[4]ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, quoted by Mark Tracy, “Virginia Loses in a Way No One Will Ever Forget,” The New York Times, March 17, 2018, p. S4.
[5]Slightly adapted from Tony Bennett, quoted by Mark Tracy, ibid.
[6]All the facts about Dr. Hawking’s life and death are from Dennis Overbye, in Dr. Hawking’s obituary in The New York Times, “Stephen Hawking, Explorer of the Universe, Dies at 76,” March 14, 2018, p. A1.
[7]Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), pp. 147, 151.