About Joel Renkema

Currently lives in Visalia, CA and serves as a Pastor for Visalia Christian Reformed Church

God Cannot Be Kept Out

Easter John 1.1-14 – God Can’t Be Kept Out[1]

The worst thing that ever happened to the world, happened on a Friday afternoon in the dark on a hill named Golgotha.  This last Black/Good Friday we gathered here to remember it.  Three days after that terrible event on Golgotha the best thing that every happened to the world … happened.

Several grieving women woke up early.  In the dark of the night they packed up spices and special ointments and set off.  It was still dark, says John 20, when they arrived at their destination.  There were no street lights in those days.  I imagine they made their way through the city by torchlight.  They picked their way across the countryside to the tomb, their little torch bobbing in the darkness.

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Friday night as we gathered here to remember the death of Jesus for a moment it was pitch black.  The only light came from a flickering candle in the dark.  A suborn flame that promised that even the smallest light can chase away the shadows lurking in this world, that even in the darkest places – on a cross, in a tomb, in death and hell – even there… the little flame promised that GOD cannot be kept out.

In John 1 God chooses to describe his coming into the world as a light coming into the darkness.  Normally we think of these verses as when Jesus came into the world as a baby.  But what if we read it not in the light of Christmas?  But what if we read it in light of Easter?  Vs. 4 says, “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness…[but the darkness has not understood it.”

I’m sure you have noticed.  But light and dark don’t exactly get along.  Where light is, darkness shrinks back.  They cannot exist in the same space.  They are as opposite one another as you can get.

Madeline L’Engle once said, “Nothing is so secular that it cannot be sacred.  And that is one of the deepest messages of the incarnation.”

I think we can adjust what she said just a bit.  We can say, “Nothing is so secular that it cannot be sacred.  And that is one of the deepest messages of Easter.”

The Cross is a revolting tool of humiliation and brutality. But the cross is a thing of beauty.  It represents our freedom from sin and death.  Nothing is so secular, so that it cannot be sacred.

The tomb. A horrid dark and dank cave where bodies are laid to rot alone.  The tomb, empty and open.  Nothing is so secular, that it cannot be sacred.

In other words, to use the imagery of John, no darkness can be so dark that it cannot be changed by a light, no matter how small.

Nothing in this world can be so bad.  Nothing in this world can be so lost.  Nothing in this world can be so evil… that God is kept out.  That is the promise of John 1 – the promise of Easter.

Sometimes that is a very hard promise to believe.  Especially when six year old girls need a liver transplant.  Especially when our church had nearly a dozen funerals in the last year.  Especially when we have several members of our church struggling with cancer.  Especially when our livelihood is threatened.  Especially when we have a desperate need, a prayer deep inside us, that goes unanswered month after month.  The darkness seems so thick.

There is a rumor.  A horrible and untrue rumor.  The rumor that says that God can be chased out.  That God can be denied access.  Maybe you have heard the rumor.

you might have heard,” says Rachel Held Evans …  “that if we can’t keep God’s name in our pledge, on our money, and on our courthouse walls, then we can’t keep God in our country. … that the fight of faith is a fight for power, that we win when we see God’s name on our cash, on our statues, on our idols, and in our legislation. [We might think] that the removal of God’s name is the removal of God’s very self. [We forget] that when God showed up, God was executed by the government. 

On a cross.  Emptied of all power.  Only to rise from a borrowed grave three days later because God can’t be kept out.”

I have also heard people say every time a disaster happens, that it happened because God had been excluded.  I have heard famous Christians say that the earthquake that killed thousands in Haiti happened because the country made a deal with the devil 150 years ago.  I have heard Christians say that the Twin Towers were taken down on Sept. 11 b/c they represented greed and that made them ungodly.  I have heard it said that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because it is a wicked city devoid of faith.  I have heard it said that the shooting in Sandy Hook happened because prayer is kept out of public schools.  Just like I have read in the bible that the Pharisees taught a person born blind was because of his parent’s sin.

With all the bad things that happen.  All the darkness in this world.  You might begin to wonder if God is present anywhere.  Or if God is present he is only with the healthy and wealthy.  The safe and secure.  The holy and righteous.

But to be a Reformed Christian is to say that ALL of this world is God’s kingdom.  Even the darkest corners of it.  Especially the darkest corners of it.  No place is so secular that it cannot be made sacred.  That is what it means to have a Reformed Faith.  That is what it means to proclaim, “The Lord is Risen!”

That is what vs. 5 means. “The light shines in the darkness…”

I have been blessed to see some dark places in my life.  I have spent 18 of my 34 years in Latin America.  I have been to places like Haiti and Cuba.  I have I have lived in poor villages.  As a child I played with kids who had no clothes.  I have seen hunger and distended bellies.  I have seen people die from curable diseases.  I have seen more than I wish to remember.  I have already seen more than a life-time of poverty, hunger, disease and injustice.  I do not say this to boast.  This is not something to boast about.

I say this to testify to you concerning the light so that you might believe.  Those dark places of poverty and suffering were awash in God’s light.  Those places were not abandoned by God.  God was not kept out of Haiti when I visited a lonely church I could only get to by motorcycle.   And found in the town of Ouanamenthe a Christian community of faith that dwarfed my own.  The church is growing faster in Haiti than in any other country in the Western Hemisphere.  God was not kept out of Cuba, despite Fidel Castro’s best efforts. And under Castro’s rule the Christian Reformed Church alone multiplied 30 times in size.

God goes where he wants to go.  We cannot remove God from anywhere if we tried.  Public prayer or his name on our coins or not.  Poverty and disease or not.  God cannot be kept out.

God is everywhere.  God is with the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  God is with the wealthy of Malibu.  God is with the astronauts floating about the space station.  God is with the coal miners of West Virginia.  God is in the drug dens of LA.  God is with the dictators of rogue nations.  God is with the soldier in the trenches.  God is with the climber on the highest mountain top.  God is with you in your home.  He is with you in your car.  He is with you when you cry.  He is with you when you laugh.  He is with you when you doubt, when you are angry with him.  When it is hard for you to believe.  He is with you in this room.  The light is in the darkness, even though the darkness cannot recognize it.

Christ is Risen! We know he is risen because he lives in us!  Christ is with us.

And in the manger.  And on the cross.  And in the grave.  And on his throne in heaven.

Because no amount of darkness can overcome the light.  God cannot be kept out.

But there is a problem.  The light shines in the darkness.  But the darkness doesn’t understand it, says John 1:5.  Verse 10 says that Jesus is in the world, and though world was made through him, but the world didn’t recognize him.

The world will look at the evil and the hurt swirling around us and say there is no God.  Because all they can see is darkness.  If we Christians begin to say that God is kept out of the most brutal places and the darkest corners of human experience, then we are speaking the language of the world.  We are saying, “There is no God here.”  Or we are saying, “There is a God, but he is either not powerful enough or not loving enough to be here.”

But we don’t say that.  B/c of Easter.  B/c a messiah we nailed into place.  A messiah chained by death.  A messiah trapped in a tomb by a stone so heavy no one person could move it.  A messiah whose grave was guarded by the soldiers of the best army of the world at the time.  And STILL HE could not be kept away!!

B/C we have a dead messiah who now lives(!) we say “God cannot be kept out!”

B/c the darkness did not understand the light, God sent John the Baptist ahead of Jesus.  He came to bear witness to the light.  The Pharisees asked John who he was and he answered in verse 23, “I am the voice calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.”  John came to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus.

Today as we wait for the coming of Jesus again, there will be no second John the Baptist.  Instead there is the church.  We are the ones called to bear witness to the light.  We are the voice in the desert that calls out, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

We are the ones with the story to tell.  The story of Easter.  The story that proclaims “GOD CANNOT BE KEPT OUT!”

Vs. 14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory [the TOMB IS EMPTY] the glory of the One and Only who came from the father full of grace and truth.”

Who will stand and proclaim the truth of Easter?  That, “God cannot be kept out!”?

Praise be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] A thank you to Rachel Held Evans for providing this phrase as the bones upon which this meditation was built.

The Undoing of Death: Good Friday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations on Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Black Friday

I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2.2)

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ [so that] you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2.4,13)

Good Friday or Black Friday is the day that differentiates Christianity from religion or spirituality in general.  We today are so far removed from the gruesome reality of crucifixions that we have almost completely lost any sense at all of what a horror it actually is.  We place crosses before our sanctuaries, hang them on the walls of our homes, dangle them on chains from our necks and tattoo them on our skin.

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Unlike the ancient world, we have no sense of the offensiveness, loathsomeness and disturbing grossness of using a cross as the object of our religious reverence.  If you were to walk into the Scripture House here in town or almost any other Christian book store in America you would find a quiet yet cheery atmosphere.  Paintings of majestic scenes of nature.  Pictures of tranquil lakes and sunsets over mountain peaks.  All of it untouched by litter, smog or civilization.  You can buy greeting cards and calendars stamped with the soothing verses of Scripture.  Flowery and artistic crosses for sale cover a wall.  You would never guess in walking into such a bookstore that the central symbol for Christianity is one of unspeakable ugliness.  The polls say that the great majority of Americans believe in God.  But a question Fleming Rutledge asks is the one that really matters, “What do you think of Christ crucified?”

This is not a day to spend contemplating the physical suffering of an innocent man and hero.  All four gospels spend remarkably little time describing or discussing Jesus’ suffering during His passion.  For this we can be glad.  It was not His suffering alone that makes Jesus a worthy savior.  Indeed we can easily imagine someone suffering even more gruesome torture, a longer death and greater humiliation than Jesus did.  Instead the gospel writers were more concerned with the MEANING of the events surrounding Jesus crucifixion.  Mark pictures Jesus as rejected by God but precisely in that moment proclaims for the first time that he is the only-begotten son of God.  Matthew also shows the abandonment of Christ but focuses on Jesus as the son of David and messiah of Israel taking care to connect Jesus to the Old Testament and fulfillment of it.  Luke shows Jesus as a reigning King, even from the cross where he has power to determine all our destinies (“Today you shall be with me in paradise.”)  And John reveals the Passion and death of Jesus as a triumph of the lamb and the hour of glory when death and Satan are defeated (“Now is the judgment of the world, now shall the ruler of the world be cast out; and I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross] will draw all humanity to myself” John 12.31,32).  These are the themes and messages that the gospel writers care about.

The suffering and death of Jesus in all the gospels is compared to the behavior of Jesus disciples, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate.  While Jesus goes through trial, torture and death everyone else is working hard to protect themselves.  Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate, the religious rulers all are thinking of themselves and not Jesus.  This is the biggest difference Black Friday shows between us and Jesus.  Self-Help is America’s gospel.  We love ideals such as “God helps those who help themselves.”  Or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “make your own luck” or “you reap what you sow” or “you get what you deserve.”  Even the mockery Jesus received on the cross was like this.  “If you are really God’s son, the messiah, you would save yourself!”

But self-help was crucified with Jesus.  Listen to what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5.6 “While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.

Black Friday/Good Friday is not a day to focus on Jesus’ suffering.  It is a day to focus on our own helplessness.  It is a day to thank God for his mercy and gather at the foot of his grotesque cross and praise him for his help when we could not help ourselves.

The Undoing of Death: Maundy Thursday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations for Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Maundy Thursday

The term Maundy Thursday comes from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”  In Latin, “new commandment” is mandatum novumMaundy is a middle English version of mandatum used by the church in England many centuries ago.  So Maundy Thursday is the day Jesus gave us a “new commandment” or a “mandatum novum.”  This is one biblical account of what Jesus did that first Maundy Thursday…

Crux-Sola_35-Site-975Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. (John 13.3-4)

I have been involved in several foot-washing ceremonies over the years.  All of them were equally awkward yet oddly rewarding.  In the Dominican Republic, where I served as a missionary, most Reformed churches would not imagine celebrating the Lord’s Supper without first washing one another’s feet.  They read the gospel of John and see that in the same room on the same night as when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine of the first Supper, he washed his disciples’ feet.  So, common sense dictates, they argue, that foot-washing is actually PART of celebrating Communion.  In fact, the mandatum novum or new commandment to love one another as yourself is symbolized in the act of foot-washing just as the Lord’s Supper symbolizes God’s love for us

It is no mistake the gospel of John puts foot-washing together with the Lord’s Supper.  Just like today, where you sit at a meal matters.  Are you at the head table?  Do you sit next to the host? Are you assigned to the ‘children’s table?’  Two disciples approached Jesus and wanted the places of honor, at his right and his left.  Jesus responds by washing everyone’s feet.  That is the awkward thing about foot-washing.  When you are bent before someone, scrubbing their sweaty feet and then toweling them dry in your hands, you cannot feel superior to them.  This is a sign, says Jesus about how we should treat one another.  Life should not be game of King-of-the-hill.

That said, how we treat one another is the SECONDARY meaning of Jesus action of washing his disciples’ feet.  The PRIMARY meaning is an interpretation of his death coming just 24 hours later.  Jesus gets up from the table, puts on the loin cloth of a slave and kneels before his followers first and foremost to teach them about the meaning of death.  Consider the image described by Fleming Rutledge, “the Son of God is stooping down from his heavenly throne to wash us clean of our transgressions.”  The primary meaning is that the Lord of Creation undergoes awkward humiliation in order to purify us from sin.  The primary meaning of Jesus foot-washing is the Word which was in the beginning with God, became flesh not only to be among us but also to love us and serve us to the utmost, even to death on the Cross… the greatest of all humiliations.

The Undoing of Death: Holy Wednesday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations on Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Holy Wednesday

Have you ever noticed that the gospel of Matthew puts Jesus’ clearing of the temple right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but John places the event at the beginning of Jesus ministry?  Some people claim they were separate events, not so.  The gospel writers never intended their accounts of Jesus ministry to be historical documents.  They instead used real historical events, such as Jesus temple cleansing, to reveal theological truth, a truth they were more concerned with than historical fact.  For both Matthew and John the temple cleansing has supreme importance.  For John it was the perfect event to illustrate what Jesus’ ministry was about and so it was a good place to start the story.  For Matthew, who focused a lot on Jesus passion, it was the perfect cap to a ministry that led to the cross.  But, for BOTH Matthew and John and for ALL the Jews in the first Century this event would have reminded them of the words of some of their Old Testament Prophets.

Crux-Sola_36-Site-975Isaiah 1.11ff “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of your burnt offerings…”

Amos 5.21ff “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs…”

Micah 3.11 “Its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.”

God is most displeased by how Israel became more concerned with the form and practice of worship than what they were actually worshipping.  The prophets not only condemned the attitude of Israel in worship, but they also talked about how God was going to do something about it.  In Jeremiah 7.14-15 God says that he will tear down the Jerusalem temple and cast the people from his sight.

And then there is the Old Testament Prophet Malachi.  He tells of a time when God himself would ACTUALLY come to his temple and set things straight.

Malachi 3.1-2 “The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.  But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appears? For he IS like a refiners fire … and he shall sit AS a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord and offering in righteousness.”

And then that day comes.  AD 33, Passover week.  Jesus steps into the Temple with a whip and begins over turning tables shouting, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade!”

Sometimes we think of this story and focus on Jesus temper.  We say, “See he is human just like us!”  But the religious leaders of the day heard only, “I AM the messenger of the covenant of whom Malachi prophesied.  I have come to purify the worship of my Father.”

This is why they plotted to kill him just days later.  They refused to believe that maybe they had the wrong idea of what it meant to be a follower, worshipper and disciple of God.

Today the overturning of the Temple tables makes us ask ourselves the question before we crucify Jesus in a few days time, “What are some wrong ideas I have about following God?”  We all have the wrong idea about worship.  This is why you, all of us, killed Jesus.  Why did you shout crucify him?  What tables is Jesus overturning in your temple?

The Undoing of Death: Holy Tuesday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations on Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Holy Tuesday

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John 1.29 “The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Genesis 22.8 “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Hebrews 9.22 “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

I grew up in Latin America, a land conquered by Spanish Conquistadors many centuries ago.  These conquistadors have left one particular mark upon the lands they subdued.  It is the mark of the Catholic Church.  They came and converted the native population to Catholicism by force.  All over Latin America in museums, historical landmarks and Conquistador forts I have seen one symbol repeated from country to country.  It is the symbol of a lamb lying meekly with the Christian flag nestled in the crook of its front legs.  It is rather disgusting to me that the Conquistadors brought this image of Lamb of God in to the New World in such a violent way.  They completely subverted the symbol of the Lamb of God for their own purposes.  But it does make me wonder, what would the symbol of the Lamb of God have meant to Christians in the first century?

First, the book of Enoch tells a story any Jew of the first century would have known.  In this story God’s people are described as sheep.  Lambs are born to the sheep but they are threatened by wild beasts.  The lambs cry desperately for the sheep to protect them, but of course they cannot.  But then one of the lambs grew horns. (horns in the Bible mean power and dominion).  This lamb is given a sword and it defeats all the enemies of God’s sheep.  A conquering lamb.

Second, the book of Revelations tells us that the Lamb of God bears on it the marks of being slaughtered.  And the book of Hebrews tells us that without blood, there is no forgiveness for sins.  For thousands of years God’s people offered sacrifices as means of atonement for their sins.  The idea of a lamb being slaughtered for the forgiveness of sins would have been as common an idea to the first century Jews as mixing chocolate and peanut-butter is to us today.  “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” would have needed no interpretation.

Third, the blood of a lamb painted over doors in Egypt delivered the Israelite’s eldest child from death.  The blood of the lamb DELIVERED them.  Everyone within earshot of John the Baptist would have known that the Passover Lamb was sacrificed for their deliverance.

“Behold, the Lamb of God…” say John the Baptist.  This does not mean “look” at the Lamb of God.  It means more than that.  It means “See and believe” the Lamb of God.  Isaac reached the top of the mountain with his Father to make a sacrifice.  And seeing nothing to sacrifice he asked his Dad what they would do.  Abraham answered his son, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”  In other words, “Look and believe, my son, God will provide a lamb.”

Behold, upon another mountain, stretched out on an altar of crossed wood God provided his own sacrifice.  The Lamb of God.  Jesus Christ, his son.

The Undoing of Death: Holy Monday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations for Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Holy Monday

Mark 10.45 “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

1 Corinthians 6.20 “You were bought with a price.”

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The passage from the gospel of Mark must have had an eerie effect upon the disciples when Jesus spoke those words.  I mean, who talks about their own death?  Jesus was, of course, speaking of himself.  The ‘Son of Man’ title in the New Testament carried the nuance of a long-awaited person with divine power and privilege.  So here Jesus is pretty much saying “the Messiah has come” in me.  The title “Son of Man” appears in the book of Daniel and describes a messiah coming “with the clouds of heaven” and with all power and dominion.  Yet here Jesus suggests that the Messiah, full of power and dominion, comes as a servant to offer a ransom.

When I think of ransom today I immediately think of a hostage situation.  A person who can’t free himself or herself and is under the control of another person needs someone from the outside to save them, like a Hostage Rescue Team.  And Jesus in Mark 10 is saying he has come from the outside.

It helps to think of Europe during WWII.  There were many partisan and resistance groups that fought the Nazi’s tooth and nail all throughout Europe.  But all their efforts would have been in vain without an invasion from outside to help them.  C.S.Lewis based his Narnia books in England during WWII and uses the same premise.  The citizens of Narnia find themselves in a struggle against the wicked White Witch, but they

cannot free themselves without an invasion from outside.  It isn’t until the news arrives that Aslan has landed that the Narnians know they will be freed.  In the same way, Europeans immediately had hope when news of D-Day reached them.  Creation is not in any way free.  It is enslaved, held hostage by evil.  We are in thrall to Death and Sin.  Only an invasion by the Creator himself can free it.  And the Son of Man, says Jesus in Mark 10, has ‘landed.’

But the gospel of Mark does not only tell us that Jesus has come from outside as the Son of Man.  But also that he has come as a ransom.  So, somehow Jesus is both the one-man Hostage Rescue Team AND the hostage who comes forward and volunteers to be killed so the others might be freed.

If you say this doesn’t make any earthly sense, you are right.  It isn’t that God came just to set us free.  He has also substituted himself for us.  As Fleming Rutledge put it, “We escaped; he was immolated. The size of the ‘ransom’ is equivalent to the size of our enslavement. That is the payment of equivalent value.  That is what we are worth to him.”

The Undoing of Death: Palm Sunday

The Undoing of Death

Meditations on Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a difficult day to figure out.  The crowds in the Bible are euphoric, waving palm branches and running round chanting “Hosanna, Hosanna.”  It is a party that breaks out on the road to Jerusalem.  But I find it hard to celebrate.  I know what comes on Friday … torture and murder.

Fleming Rutledge says Palm Sunday is the “Trojan Horse of the Christian Year.”  We get drawn in by the festivity but it isn’t long before we are attacked by the reality of the Passion of Christ.  Palm Sunday isn’t a day that can exist by itself.  It just introduces the Holy Week.  Today is the day we are invited to follow Christ in his last steps up to the cross on Friday.  We are invited to accompany him with shouts of “Hosanna!” today and curses of “Crucify Him!” on Friday.

As Jesus rode near to the city, surrounded by a delirious mob, he wept and the gospel of Luke tells us he said,

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Would that even today you knew the things that make for you peace! But now they are hid from your eyes.  For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will … hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you and they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

This is the reason for Palm Sunday.  It is for us [the church] to know what makes for our peace, to know the time of [our] visitation.  And mysteriously within the agony of Calvary and the crucified Jesus is where the Church finds its peace.

This is only the second time the gospels tell us Jesus wept.  And he does not weep for himself.  He weeps for the city.  He weeps for those who will soon shout “crucify him!”   In other words, he weeps for us.  Who has ever wept for you?  Have you ever wept for anyone?  All those tears are rolled up into the tears of Jesus.  And he weeps for us.

You will not want to miss “the time of your visitation” this week.  Peace you will find not in denial or false hope but in the Cross.  This week, collect your jar of bottled up tears.  Grab that load you bear.  Carry them to Calvary on Friday and give them up to the one who wept for you… who bears your sins for you.  He knows. He understands.