“It is finished,” Jesus said, and then (according to old King James) he gave up the ghost.
I know I’m getting ahead of myself, as far as Lent goes, but unfinished things have been on my mind and I find myself looking at that sentence once again. Like any pronoun that begins a sentence, it begs for an antecedent. What, exactly, is finished? Did he mean his life was over? That’s about all that actually ended in that moment. Perhaps he meant he was finished with what he came to do, though he didn’t exactly tie up all the loose ends on his way out. Those who write commentaries and such often look for a more abstract antecedent and some grander theological theme. Bill Gaither wrote a rather moving gospel song, putting the quote to music:
it is finished the battle is over
it is finished there’ll be no more war
it is finished the end of all conflict
it is finished and Jesus is lord
The song builds to a glorious crescendo yet, for all the song’s certainty, the antecedent still lies unexplained, or at least not explained enough. If Jesus was speaking in some cosmic sense, as the song suggests, he was leaning into the future. Even now, two thousand years later, what was supposed to be finished ain’t done just yet. As we walk this Lenten road to the Cross once again, part of the reason is we are living out an unfinished faith: everything was not completed at Calvary, or even at Easter. Such is the nature of our faith, which thrives more in its questions than it’s answers, which takes root in relationships rather than in concrete certainty.
Last week, Elvis Costello wrote a review of Paul Simon’s upcoming record, So Beautiful or So What. The essay is actually going to be the liner notes for the album. He says of Simon’s songwriting:
These days it might court shallow mockery to sing so openly of our humanity, mortality and divinity but not with music to make these themes fly or words containing such wit, grace and humility.
The musical shapes and shades arrive from all over the world and back in time to illuminate the heartfelt intelligence of the writer.
Central to the picture is Paul’s vivid singing and own beautiful guitar playing – which doesn’t always get full measure in the shadow of his writing.
Throughout the record, I kept coming up against what I can only call, rock and roll surprises; not some orthodox formula but indelible, hypnotic guitar motifs and swinging, off-center rhythms tipping your expectations into a new kind of thrill.
After over fifty years of songwriting, Paul Simon is unfinished, and doing some of his best work. Costello provides a link to a song off the new record called “Waiting for Christmas Day” (now I am getting ahead of myself) that I am willing to predict will show up as a part of Advent in many churches. But it’s Costello’s description that grabs me tonight and how he spoke of “rock and roll surprises:” not some orthodox formula but indelible . . . off-center rhythms tipping your expectations into a new kind of thrill.
Into the unfinished.
Every so often in Christian circles, someone writes a book that becomes a lightning rod and a litmus test and the best new thing and the reason God is going to destroy the earth all in one volume. This week, it’s Rob Bell and his new book that questions the reality of Hell and whether or not God is going to send anyone there even if there is one. First of all, I’m not trying to critique the book here because I haven’t read it. Second, I’m not sure I understand why it would be so terrible for God to throw open the doors and yell, “All ye, all ye, oxen free.” Third, neither of those is my point. I wish we could work out our faith and theology together with the same mind that is in Elvis Costello, willing to be surprised, to have our expectations tipped, to be thrilled by the off-center riffs of the rhythm of our God.
The story of God we have so far is one of God showing up in unexpected places from making Sarah laugh to singeing Moses’ expectations in the burning bush, to meeting Elijah in the silence and the Israelites in the manna, to being born in a barn, to lighting Paul up on the road to Damascus, to letting Tom Waits write songs, to speaking through Rob Bell and Elvis Costello.
And God is not finished.
God is not finished breaking down barriers, calling us to new understanding, breaking out hearts and healing them, opening our eyes, blowing the doors off of our theological cages, or letting us get comfortable thinking we’re finished working out our faith and can coast from here on in. There is more light yet to break forth.
It is not finished. And that’s good news.
P. S. — Here’s a little Simon for your soul.