Genesis 20:1-11 & Mark 14:53-54, 66-72
(Click on the MP3 player so that the music will be playing while you read the sermon.)
It’s been called the saddest music ever written. Written in 1936 as a movement in a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, has been the musical outlet for many occasions of great sadness! In 1945 it was performed to help the nation grieve the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Within hours after the President’s death, WGN in Chicago and ABC and NBC in New York were all cueing up Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Shortly after the Twin Towers fell in 2001, Leonard Slatkin conducted the Adagio in London at the Royal Albert Hall as a tribute to the victims. And it has been heard in numerous movies…always sad, always tragic.
The Adagio is the perfect soundtrack for today’s text. The week had started with a parade. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The whispers of “Hosanna” had been going on for years–that Aramaic phrase that means “Lord, save us.” On Palm Sunday it had turned to shouts of joy, still in Aramaic so that the Romans couldn’t understand their cries for deliverance. Then a symbol of freedom is added–the people cover the street with palm branches. And the whole city is thrown into turmoil.
But in just a few days, everything will change. The martial music of that joyful Sunday will sound like this. Hopeful cries will turn into cries of accusation. Shouts of “Save us!” will become shouts of “Crucify Him!” And Jesus’ own disciples…yes, they too will all desert Him.
Peter, driven by his idealism and the pride he had in his faith, very comfortable in his innocence, Peter had protested with all the confidence in his own faith, “No, I won’t. Not me! Never.” “Yes, you will,” Jesus replies. “In fact, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” “Never,” says Peter. “I would die first.” And the music is there…but Peter cannot hear it.
You know the story…Jesus is arrested and put on trial. Peter witnesses it all…from a safe distance. But he is recognized because his Galilean accent gives him away. And despite his noble intentions, despite his brave declarations, despite his faith, Peter denies that he even knows who Jesus is. He fails as a disciple. He weeps bitterly.
It is one of the saddest moments in the Passion story. Peter realizes he has failed. His sense of loss is withering. Not only is Jesus going to be crucified, but there is nothing Peter can do about it. And the music of Samuel Barber cuts right through the heart.
One music historian suggested three possible reasons for the profound sadness in this music: It’s about Barber’s own struggle with depression. It’s about the absolute aloneness we feel when a loved one dies. It’s about the shattering sound of our fallen dreams, dreams that have been dreamt big…and the shattering emptiness we feel when we realize we are not, nor ever will be that big.
That third option fits so well. Peter was dreaming big for three years with Jesus. But now those dreams have fallen. Indeed, all of humanity holds on to the dream of being like God, of being self-sufficient, of being able to handle all the complexities of life on our own. It’s part of the naïve innocence of being human.
In Peter’s story, human innocence is shattered…lost. With Peter we also realize that despite our best intentions as people of faith we have a way of denying Jesus. We think we can handle life. That if we have enough faith, we can handle it all. We can handle faith and sin and grace and all of it on our own. But we cannot. We cannot.
Peter’s moment in the courtyard was the moment of his redemption. In that moment of denying Jesus, in that moment of the shattering sound of everything he had naively claimed in faith…precisely then, in that fall, Peter was born anew. It is as Martin Luther had said of his own dark night when the Gospel burst in upon his troubled mind. “How could I be anything but powerless? Am I God? I had lived my life like a willful child. But that night I understood. I had been afraid of falling. But that night I fell into the hands of the living God. ‘Father, into Your hands…’”
Peter, desperately alone in that courtyard. Luther, desperately alone with his sin and his condemning conscience…for them, for us, Jesus was going to the cross.
Where cross the crowded ways of life—on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, where faith has crumbled—we catch the vision of Thy tears, O Son of man. And we hear, like the music of Barber’s Adagio, so sad, yet sweet, we hear Thy voice, “Father, forgive them…for they know not what they do.”