The Father's "No!"

A Reflection for Holy Week

By jim Van Yperen

Holy Week is a time for embodying our Story; for remembering our Lord’s death by becoming cruciformed ourselves—by taking up the cross, as Jesus did, in submission and obedience to the Father.  We do this “in remembrance” of One who died, rehearsing no victorious life or triumphal king, but a suffering servant who died, shamed upon a cross.  

We remind ourselves, again, that Jesus did not “win,” nor do we, in this life.  Winning is not the point.  Ours is not the story of fame and fortune, despite our desire to gloss events and skip quickly from Thursday to Sunday. Holy Week urges us, even forces us, to see ourselves in the fickle crowd of Palm Sunday and again with those who scream “Crucify him” during those excruciating moments of Friday—when minutes become hours—and the mystery of those words, still ringing in our ears, come crashing down on our heads with the haunting echo of a rooster crying in the distance, “This is my Body which is for you . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  These familiar words of institution are no figure of speech.  Here is human flesh with nails run through, and crown of thorns with blood “mingling down.”  It is searing pain and agonizing separation, “My God, My God why has thou forsaken me.”

The author of Hebrews writes,

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Hebrews 5:7-10

Let’s reconstruct the scene. . .

It is the last hours of Jesus’ freedom.  Judas has already agreed to betrayal.  Jesus knows his death is near.  He calls Peter and John aside, and tells them to prepare a secret room for one last, private Passover meal.  Gathered with those He loves the most, Jesus washes the feet of each disciple, including His betrayer.  The meal is served, the Passover ritual begun.  But the words are changed.  Jesus announces a new command of love, sealed in the blood of a new covenant.  Judas is dismissed.  For an hour or more Jesus pours out the pathway before him; his death, the coming Holy Spirit and hope for the future.  The disciples are baffled, clueless.

It is late now.  The streets of Jerusalem are empty as Jesus and his small band of followers pass through the North gate of the Temple, descending into the lonely Kidron Valley.   With each step away from the city the darkness grows, a darkness deeper than night.  Across the valley, they begin the ascent up Olivet.  Behind them, festive lamps flicker in the city, voices fading.

 The disciples are singing quietly, and responsively, as Jesus leads . . .  

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    For his steadfast love endures forever! 
Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.” 
Let the house of Aaron say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.” 
Let those who fear the LORD say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.” 
Out of my distress I  called on the LORD;
    the LORD answered me and set me  free. 
The LORD is on my side;  I will not fear.
    What can man do to me? 
The LORD is on my side as my helper;
    I shall  look in triumph on those who hate me. 
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in man. 
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
    than to trust in princes.
Psalm 118:1-9

At the entrance to Gethsemane, Jesus leaves eight disciples, inviting three—Peter, James and John—to go further on.  Heaviness descends upon Jesus like a thick cloak, growing heavier and heavier, distressing his spirit, 

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  

He directs the three to sit and pray, then goes a few steps further.  Falling to his knees, Jesus cries, 

“Abba Father, everything is possible for you.”  

It is the most personal and intimate of names, “Daddy.”  Sweat pours off his brow as he pleads, 

“Father, if there is any way we can accomplish your will without the cross, without this cup of suffering, that is what I want.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 

Three times Jesus prayed to the One who could save him from death. Three times Jesus heard the Father’s, “No.”  The Father’s will was as sure as blood. The cup is removed only by drinking it.

Dwell on this truth for a moment: Jesus knows the pain of the Father’s, “No.”  

Perhaps you have experienced the death of a loved one; or felt the betrayal of a friend, or had a hope that was dashed to pieces. You prayed in faith and believed in God.  But the Father’s response was silence, or a circumstantial “No!” Was God not listening?  Did He not care? 

Like you, Jesus needed to be heard.  The author of Hebrews tells us that he was.  In Gethsemane, the Father heard His Son.  But the answer was “no.”  Our prayers are heard and answered also.  Some times the answer is “no.”  I don’t like this answer.  I don’t think Jesus liked the answer either.  This is not play acting.  Jesus was overwhelmed, just like we become, and he prayed, like we do, asking God for another way.  But the answer was no.  Will we stay in the company of Jesus, or go another way?  Can we follow, with Jesus, the Father’s will? 

Hebrews states that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”  In the midst of suffering, Jesus learned, that is, embodied what he already knew to be true: that obedience requires suffering; that the power of sin is death; and that his suffering on cross was the only way to defeat forever the powers of sin and death.  But this could only happen by Jesus submitting to the Father’s will.  

I don’t know why God says “no.”  Frankly, in some matters of great personal disappointment, I can see no good will or positive outcome.  But then, this is not the point of faith, or obedience and submission.  Instead, faith asks, “Can you believe in the absence of proof or reason that makes sense?  Can you trust that God is sovereign and that His will is good, even when all signs say the worst is about to happen?”  

Will I submit and learn in the school of obedience?  When I encounter disappointment or grief, and pray for harm to go away, will I wait in confident submission to the Father’s will?  True discipleship is learning through suffering.  Obedience is not a sure bet based upon knowledge, but deep seated faith in the soul, often amidst great uncertainty and sorrow.  Indeed, obedience, like faith is trusting God when the worst is unfolding all around.  Obedience trusts that God’s will is grace, and His grace is sufficient when nothing else is.  This is the hope of Holy Week.  All history, every promise of Scripture, hinges on Jesus’ submission to “Thy will be done.”

But, you might say, “All this is fine and good for Jesus.  He knew what was going to happen!”  

Ah, but you are skipping ahead from Thursday to Sunday.   Have you forgotten the events of Friday and Saturday?  Before the cock first crowed on Friday morning through mid afternoon, Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, mocked, marched through the streets of Jerusalem and shoved outside the city to Golgotha, where he was nailed on a cross.   He hung there for hours.  When the sky darkened, the earth trembled and the curtain was torn in two, the Father’s “no” became reality. The unity of Father, Son and Spirit was broken.  Jesus was forsaken.

“My God, my God, 
        why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, 
        so far from the words of my groaning?”

He who knew no sin became “sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Sin broke fellowship between Son and Father that we might have fellowship with God.  Only a forsaken Son could destroy and defeat the power of death.  This is the price of your redemption and mine.   No easy cost.  So, the Apostle’s Creed affirms, 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
       the Maker of heaven and earth,
       and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
       born of the virgin Mary,
       suffered under Pontius Pilate,
       was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell. 
The third day He arose again from the dead . . .”

What does “the third day” mean except that there had to be a Second Day?

As Saturday dawned, the Second Day, Jesus’ dead body lay cold in a tomb.  This was certain.   Mary and her friends were traumatized, overcome with grief and sorrow.  Peter and the disciples were devastated, confused and utterly defeated.  In Jerusalem, another Sabbath day began.  Money-changers set up their tables, selling doves and sheep for sacrifice.  Caiaphas was in the Temple.  Pilate was in his palace, drinking Starbucks and reading The New York Times.  No one expected resurrection.  No one was looking for Jesus to re-appear, to become un-dead.  On Saturday, that Second Day, the world went on as if nothing happened the day before. 

I am coming to understand that following Jesus, really deciding to take up my cross, means living with gratitude by faith through the ambiguity and brokenness of the Second Day—the day between death and resurrection.  Yes, I know the story, as you do.  We know Jesus was raised and conquered death.  Joy does come in the morning.  Some days our hearts burst with joy, and soar with the confidence that “This is my Father’s world.”  Yet, there are many Second Days; days when the loss of friends and family makes you want to wail; days when the deep pain of betrayal—in a friend or spouse—gnaws like a demon in your heart; days when the real consequences of failure, disappointment and sin overwhelm; days when you know in your heart that Jesus is coming, but your mind says, “Yeah, where is He?”   To place your faith in Jesus is to trust what only the Holy Spirit can shape in your soul: that the character of God is greater than circumstance.   

Holy Week reminds us that faith endures through the Second Day, though “oft the wrong seems oh so strong, God is the Ruler Yet.”  

Many years ago, when I was just a boy, a pastor quoted a line from Elizabeth Elliot that touched me, and has stayed with me all these years. 

“Sometimes the worst has to happen in order for the best to happen.  We hold a high hope.  We lose it, and something infinitely better happens as a result.” 

The gospel of Holy Week comes down to this: the worst happened so that the best could happen.  New life springs from death, a new covenant sealed in the priceless blood of the Lamb.  The Father said “no” to His beloved Son, in order to say “yes” to you and me.  

Death is not the end, but a new beginning; a birth into a life unseen where one day there will be no more tears, darkness or mourning; a day where every “no” becomes “yes.”  The story is not complete, but the Amen is sure, and this is worthy of daily gratitude and praise.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No”, but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.  2Co 1:19, 20