by Pastor Cherie Johnson
Today’s Scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has been arrested, been falsely accused, convicted, and condemned. He is now going through the process leading up to his execution.
Matthew 27:27-31 NIV
27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
The scene we just heard is not unlike something that might happen on a playground anywhere around the world. Even with the best supervision, someone’s back might be turned, a child may be singled out for ridicule, perhaps even struck or beat up. I know it happened to me. Maybe it happened to you or your child. The child comes home after school. Maybe he hides in his room. Maybe she doesn’t want to go to school the next day. Your child is suffering from the trauma. You are suffering as the parent. The problem may be resolved, but that does not undo the suffering.
Children injured and abused. All sorts of people are diagnosed with a terminal illness, are in auto accidents. Then, there are terrorist incidents, hurricanes, or floods that destroy everything in their path. The people who lose their homes are considered the lucky ones, and we hear about the people who have died. Maybe we knew them, and we asked the question. Why? Why did God allow this to happen? How can a loving God permit it? If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God hit the pause button and fix it?
We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some. One has to do with sin. God has given us free will. We are not robots. We are not marionettes with God pulling all the strings. It gives us the free choice to love God and be in relationship with God, as opposed to being forced. We have the capacity to make choices, good and bad. When bad choices are made, people are hurt and suffering occurs. We can injure ourselves through smoking, drinking, substance abuse, and a myriad of other ways. We suffer, of course, but so do the people around us, the people who love us. We can have the American mantra of, “I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody,” but inevitably it hurts someone if only ourselves and the people around us, so that one really doesn’t fly.
Our actions can have further effects. The drunk driver that gets in a car crash, and people are killed. The effects that ripple outward and affect more people than we realize. The dictator who starts a war to increase their wealth. Robbers, rapists, gossips, the list goes on. All of these are caused by someone exercising their free will and making a simple choice, one that will injure someone.
Some things are caused by what we don’t do. Where we didn’t help, the problem we ignored. We didn’t intervene when we saw a bully. We didn’t help someone who needed food. If all the money that was spent on Super Bowl ads were spent on world hunger, possibly everyone would be fed.
Have you heard of John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules? 1) Do no harm; 2) Do good; 3) Attended to the ordinances of God, in other words pray, read your Bible, go to worship, help people, and so on… They help us make good choices, but free will is not exclusively about our choices. It is about everyone in the whole world. Some we have control over, but many we do not. We are in a car, we can obey all the rules, use good judgment, but we can still be hit by someone else. We still suffer even if it isn’t our fault. Sin as a result of free will is one cause of suffering.
The Laws of Nature are another cause of suffering. The very things that allow life on Earth can often kill us. We need weather for rain and snow, distributing oxygen and other elements in the atmosphere. The lightning strikes that start forest fires also put nitrogen in the ground that allows us to grow food. The sun provides light for life, but it also has radiation that can cause cancer. The same things that cause volcanoes and bring up minerals from the lower parts of the earth and form new land are dangerous in themselves, spewing ash clouds, causing earthquakes, killing thousands, but without them, there would not be life on this planet at all. We can say, “Okay, fine, but why did God set it up that way?” That’s where it gets a little fuzzy.
The book of Job is renowned for its consideration of suffering but in the end it never gives an explanation that is satisfying, at least to humans. Mostly it ends with God saying, “When you can do what I can do, you will know what I know, and you will understand.” And Job accepts the greatness of God.
It comes down to what God says in Isaiah 55: 8-9, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.'” In short, the reasons are beyond our comprehension.
The Apostle Paul puts it another way in 1st Corinthians 13: 12. The New Revised Standard Version starts, “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” The NIV, your Pew Bibles say, “For now we see a reflection as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will fully know, even as I have been fully known.”
Both these versions can be confusing, largely because our mirrors are so good now. They are very clear and bright. Mirrors in Paul’s time were not so good, like polished metal, not perfectly reflective, wavy, indistinct. In short you couldn’t see well.
The Message Bible translation gives a much more accurate impression that completely changes the words and uses an entirely different illustration. “We don’t yet see clearly. We’re squinting in the fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him as directly as he knows us.”
We don’t know. We can’t know right now, but we will.
Near the end of Revelation, we are reassured by the thought. “[God] will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21: 4).
So, those are intellectual answers, and they may help a bit, especially when we consider someone else’s hurt or tragedy, when we consider something half a world away. Why would God let that happen? These explanations don’t help so much when we are the ones suffering. Having the answers to “why” doesn’t really change anything. In Job’s case, his children are still dead. He’s still covered with open sores. When we are suffering, understanding that this broken world works this way right now, is not particularly helpful.
A question that might be helpful is “Where is God in the midst of our suffering? Where is God when it hurts?”
When our hearts are broken, when a child is lost, when there is a tornado, an earthquake, or a tsunami that causes incredible loss of life. In war where there is needless death even in the most worthwhile cause of protecting others, where is God?
Does God look away, not caring what happens? There is no academic exercises or quibbling here. There is no having to wait to see God face to face. We can see it on the face of Jesus on the cross.
I have a question for you. How many crosses are there here in the sanctuary? What about in the stained glass windows? On the hymnals? Are there places where they may be hidden in the architecture? I do not have an exact number. I think I stopped counting after 75.
Some devout Christians I know don’t like to see the cross because it makes them feel the pain, the agony that Jesus endures on the cross. They also would like to focus more on the resurrection, and that is certainly a vital part of the Christian faith, perhaps a part we don’t focus on enough.
Yet the cross remains the symbol of our faith, the sacrifice that Jesus made for us, what he was willing to do. Jesus the man could have escaped. He didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. Jesus the Son of God could have produced a different outcome, but he did not. He allowed it to happen for our benefit, for our salvation. It demonstrates God’s profound love for us. There is not a resurrection without the sacrifice. There is no Easter without Good Friday.
There is no question that Jesus suffered all through the events that led to his execution, his crucifixion. The scripture that Lynn read is just one aspect of it. The execution itself was one of the most extreme brutality.
Our God is one that understands suffering, personal individual suffering. Jesus comes to the point where he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46b)
Our God is one understands grief, the Son of God died. God’s beloved, the one in whom he was well pleased was murdered.
When we suffer, when we despair, the one who said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” goes through it with us (Matthew 28: 20b).
We don’t have to wait for Jesus’ trial and execution to see his compassion and appreciation for suffering. We see it all over the Gospels.
We see it in the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 in the Gospel of Mark where it says, “When Jesus landed [from his boat] and saw the large crowd, he had compassion on them” (Mark 6: 34).
Last week, I mentioned Jesus touching the leper before Jesus healed him, a man who may not have experienced a human touch in years (Luke 5: 12-13). There was the widow and her son in Luke 7. Jesus sees a mother burying her son, has compassion on her, and raises her son (Luke 7: 11 – 17). Later with Lazarus, Jesus knows he has died, yet after he sees his sister, Mary, in her grief, “Jesus wept” (Luke 11: 35).
Even on the cross, hanging there in agony, Jesus has compassion and can pray, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34 a).
As Martin Thielen says, “The cross of Jesus Christ tells us that even in suffering – especially in suffering – God is present.”
This is the same God who in Isaiah 43: 2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” The God about whom the psalmist says in the 23rd Psalm, “Even though, [or Yea, though] I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
These crosses all around tell us that through Jesus our God is a crucified God. God does not take away our pain, but enters into our suffering with us and ultimately redeems it or helps us through it. That is through the second half of this experience, the resurrection, that we will focus on next week.
Yet, when we suffer, God suffers with us.
There’s a story that Martin Thielen tells in his book about a man named David. Twelve years before, David’s fourteen year old son Rob died in a tragic accident. Several days after the funeral, David, in agonizing grief, drove to a Roman Catholic bookstore. There he purchased a wooden crucifix, depicting Jesus suffering on the cross. David drove home, opened his toolbox, and grabbed a hammer and nail. He then walked to the kitchen and hammered the crucifix to the wall, right above his son’s empty chair at the dinner table. Every evening when he stared at Rob’s empty chair, David lifted his eyes to the crucifix and remember that God, like him, had suffered great grief. The crucifix did not explain his son’s death. Nor did it take away the pain of that death. But knowing that God suffered with him allow David to survive that horrible time of pain and grief. Twelve years later that crucifix still hung on David wall. It reminded him that the God of the cross is always with him, even in his deepest suffering.
God was with David. God is with us in our suffering. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Next week, we conclude our series as we talk about hope of Jesus’s resurrection. So a man came back to life. We’ve got a machine in the next room that will restart your heart … though I don’t want any of you to have to test it. But what is the big deal? Why is it significant, perhaps the most significant thing to understand about being a Christian?