+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier this morning we blessed and distributed palms, remembering Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. The first part of our service resounded with triumph as we sang, “All glory, laud, and honor to thee redeemer king!” It would have been tempting at that point simply to say a few more prayers, to sing a few more hymns, and to go home. It would be equally tempting not to come back to church until next Sunday’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. We might wonder why we have to read the passion today and why we have to listen to what sounds like bad news when we know that the good news of the resurrection is just around the corner.
It would be tempting to skip everything that comes between the blessing of the palms and the joy of the resurrection, but that’s not what we’re going to do. We’ve just read Jesus’ passion from Mark and we’ll observe all of Holy Week, not just the Feast of the Resurrection. It’s not going to be easy. There’s no getting around it, but Holy Week is hard. It can be sad, it can seem depressing, and at times it even seems outrageous. After all, Jesus, an innocent man, has been sentenced to and undergone a horrible, shameful, death. In our reading of the passion, we’ve just acknowledged that not only did we not try to save him, we were part of the crowd that shouted, “Crucify him.”
Sentencing an innocent man to a cruel and humiliating death on a cross sounds not just like bad news. It sounds like news of the worst possible kind. Enough of shame, suffering, and death. Bring on the resurrection, bring on the power and the glory, and bring on everlasting life. Yes, but not yet.
Why not? Well, here’s why not. As hard as it seems to believe, if we skimmed over Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, we’d actually be missing out on some very good news indeed. If we were to omit the walk with Jesus to the cross, if we were to omit staying with him as he hung there, we’d miss out on God’s saving work in Jesus in the most painful and sorrowful parts of life. By focusing only on power and glory, by focusing only on the parts of the story that look like good news to our eyes, we’d miss out on the work that God does in Jesus in the most painful and sorrowful parts of our lives.
Last year I learned exactly how important this particular work of God in Jesus can be. I was serving as a chaplain intern at the state mental hospital in Butner. The hospital was a house of pain, the pain of the patients themselves and the pain of their families and communities outside its walls. It was hard for me at first to understand how most patients managed to keep going at all, so great were the difficulties in their lives.
One patient, Tom, told me how he’d been a Latin teacher at a prep school for a few years after college. Those years were happy for him. He enjoyed his work, he made friends, and he became engaged to another teacher at the school. His future looked bright indeed. But then Tom’s life started to go horribly wrong. He began to hear voices and to believe that he’d had a recording device implanted in a dental filling. His behavior became increasingly disturbing. Tom lost his job, his friends deserted him, and his fiancée broke off their engagement. By the time I met him, Tom had had twenty years of misery—no meaningful work and no companionship save for his family. Since he’d been confined to the hospital, he felt like even his family had abandoned him.
Tom’s story was heartbreaking by itself, but his chart told the saddest and most recent chapter. The chart contained a letter from Tom’s sister to Tom’s doctors. She wrote that she’d tried her best to support Tom in independent living, but Tom had a tendency to stop taking his medication, and without medication he became unruly and even violent. She’d try to manage these episodes, but the week before he’d tried to rape and strangle her. Tom’s sister wrote that she felt that she no longer had any choice but to ask that Tom be confined in a supervised setting.
I don’t know what sustained Tom’s sister in her sadness, but I do know what kept Tom from utter despair. Tom went to the worship service in his unit faithfully every Sunday and always had his Bible close by. Tom truly had a friend in Jesus. He was so eager to share this friendship that he’d often raise his hand when I’d preach so that he could fill in something about Jesus that he thought I’d left out. Tom would talk about how Jesus felt Tom’s own pain, how Jesus knew how he, Tom, felt because Jesus too had been abandoned by friends, and at the very end Jesus had even felt abandoned by God. Tom told me that whenever he felt especially sorry for himself and his situation, he’d think about Jesus nailed to the cross for him and then he’d feel less alone. While Tom wholeheartedly believed in God’s resurrection of Jesus, Tom felt his Jesus more in darkness and sorrow than in power and glory.
If we were to omit the reading of the passion today we would miss God’s saving work in Jesus at humankind’s darkest hours. The passion narrative tells us vividly that there is no place in our lives so dark that God in Jesus has not gone with us. If we are unfairly judged, so is Jesus unfairly judged and condemned to great suffering and death. If we feel abandoned by our communities, our friends, and even our families, so Jesus too knows what is like to be deserted. Jesus is excluded from respectable society at the time of his birth, Jesus is deserted by his friends in his time of greatest need, and at the last, Jesus too even feels deserted by God. As Sam Wells has observed, “Part of what it means for Christ to be savior is that he puts himself in the position of the one who needs to be saved.” Jesus on the cross is truly Emmanuel, God with us, and God for us. Amen.