Palm Sunday. The day to wave palm branches, to shout "Hosanna!" and to remember Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This is the day we picture Jesus riding on a donkey while followers march, dance and sing. This is the day to remember the boisterous, nearly hysterical crowd so excited to welcome Jesus into the Holy City that some threw their cloaks on the ground to provide a poor man's red carpet treatment.
Many Christians will celebrate the triumphant entry into Jerusalem today, skip Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, then return next Sunday for the grand event: the celebration of Christ's resurrection. From their experience of these two days, many North Americans will conclude that the biblical story is a story of success. I doubt that any nation embraces the ideology of success more than we do. Whether we are boasting about our nation as the world's largest economy or dominant military power; or we are dreaming about becoming the next Bill Gates or American Idol, we worship models of success. In life there are winners and losers and we Americans are winners.
However, when people leap from Palm Sunday to Easter, and equates the biblical story with a success story, their understanding of Jesus is grossly distorted. In fact, the heart of Christian faith is totally misconstrued because the cross of Christ is minimized and the denial of death is maximized.
The cross is an affront to the dogma of success, so it is natural for us to render it meaningless by spotlighting the resurrection. And doesn't that fit perfectly with the mythology of success that touts: You can't keep a good man down!
However, theologian Douglas John Hall reminds us that "when we turn the story of Jesus into a success story, we cheat ourselves out of its depth and we overlook the countless number of people whose lives do not have storybook endings."1 The beginning and ending of Holy Week may focus on triumphal celebrations, but the days in between are where most people live a good portion of their lives: sadness, fear, struggle, betrayal, suffering and death.
Today we look at one of the poignant moments in the last days of Jesus' life. The gospels tell of a final meal that Jesus shared with his twelve closest disciples. Following that last supper, Jesus walked down the hill, through the Kidron Valley, and then up the adjacent hill into the garden of Gethsemane.
Earlier in the week, Jesus had confronted the religious leaders by overturning the tables in the temple and telling parables that exposed their hypocrisy and injustice. Each day of the week, pressure mounted until a collision of forces became inevitable. Jesus knew his days were numbered and he could feel the tremendous weight of what was about to transpire.
Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives. If you wind your way up the hill through the Mount of Olives, the backside provides an escape route to Bethany, a familiar village to Jesus. Jesus may have made the one mile walk from the place of their meal to Gethsemane because he was considering an exit strategy. When he prays in the garden it certainly sounds as if he was weighing his options and struggling to discern God's guidance.
Today's text tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and he was "plunged into an agonizing sorrow."2 Jesus said to the three disciples, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me." Jesus suffered great mental anguish and said to his friends, "Don't leave me now. Hang in there with me." Jesus went a little further into the garden and threw himself onto the ground and prayed to God, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me."
At his birth, Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. And in these waning hours of his life, it becomes clear what this means: he experienced the pain and suffering of life as we do. From his words, it seems apparent that he knew fear and how it felt to suffer extreme emotional distress. He also knew the deep disappointment of friends letting him down. After praying for awhile, he went back to the three disciples who had succumbed to the effects of too much food and wine. They had fallen asleep. Jesus said to Peter, "Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?"
He walked away from them a second time and prayed. He tried desperately to discern what God wanted him to do. When he returned, the disciples were asleep again. He went to pray a third time and returning he found them asleep yet again.
Suddenly, Judas arrived with a crowd to arrest him and Jesus experienced the bitterness of betrayal. They arrested Jesus and took him to the high priest who found him guilty of blasphemy. Then, Jesus was bound and taken to Pilate who saw him as a potential threat. Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, had him tortured and nailed to a cross.
On the cross, Jesus cried out those unnerving words, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" For some, his words are embarrassing, for others, deeply disturbing. However, the brutal honesty strikes a chord within anyone who has experienced the absence of God.
Sometimes life hurts badly and we turn to God to lessen the pain, but it does not seem to help. Sometimes we suffer and there is nothing that can eliminate the pain. You may learn to live with your grief, but there is always a hole in your heart.
Fifty years ago, German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote a book entitled, Theology of Hope. Many in North America misunderstood it. They used it to promote their theology of success, trumpeting the virtues of optimism and positive thinking. They elevated the resurrection to such heights that it all but obliterated the cross. When Moltmann "discovered how Christians were misusing his theology of hope to bolster the cheap hope of religious answers that knew nothing of the questions - answers that in fact repressed the real questions,"3 Moltmann responded with another book. This one, with the haunting title, The Crucified God, he wrote as a corrective to the naÃ¯ve declarations that the triumph of the resurrection erased the suffering of the crucifixion.
The writers of the New Testament did not pretend that suffering was vanquished and darkness dispelled by the resurrection. In writing the Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (1 Cor. 1:22-23). Although Paul firmly believed in Christ's resurrection, he did not say, "We proclaim Christ triumphant!" He said, "We proclaim Christ crucified" because Paul knew that Christ had not succeeded as many expected. He suffered and was put to death. While the resurrection means that God is at work transforming the world, it does not declare that all is beautiful or that suffering has vanished.
The cross is a powerful reminder that the resurrection did not erase the anguish that many experience. Just ask the victim of a malicious crime. Ask a Haitian who lost what little he had in last year's earthquake or a resident of Japan whose family was swept out to sea by the tsunami. Ask an Israeli Jew whose daughter died in a suicide bombing or a Palestinian Christian whose daughter was shot by Israeli soldiers. Ask a gay or lesbian who lives in fear of a homophobic neighbor. Ask the parents of a child lost to drugs or a drunk driver. Ask any of the millions who have little food and unsafe drinking water. Ask someone tormented by mental illness.
An American woman spent time in Northern Ireland listening to Protestant and Roman Catholic women whose husbands and sons had been imprisoned or killed. After they poured out their grief, the woman remarked, "So this is the cross you carry." It was as if she had switched on the light in a dark room. These women had never made the connection between their suffering and the suffering of Christ.3 This realization helped them to understand that they were not alone in their pain. Christ's suffering is testimony that God is with us in our suffering.
Homiletics professor Tom Long was leading a workshop on the theme of testimony. The congregation has a large number of Cambodian members, and one of them, Vera, came up to him and said, "I'm so glad to be here. I am a new Christian and I want you to know my testimony." She handed him a booklet she had created that spelled out her story.
She was not raised in a Christian home, but she had married a very loving man. In the 1970s, during the killing fields of Cambodia, the couple was separated. He was taken miles away from their home and placed in a work camp. One day, word reached him that his wife was gravely ill, and so he did something daring. She wrote, "It is the most loving thing that has ever happened to me."
At midnight, he stole his commander's bicycle and rode 3 hours in the darkness to be at his wife's side and to comfort her for a few moments, to let her know she was not alone and not forgotten. However, he could not stay with her long, he had to ride three hours back to the work camp to get the bicycle in place before dawn. She said that when he came to her his face was swollen with bee stings. He had stopped along the way at a beehive to collect some honey to give to her as a gift.
"My husband died in that camp," she wrote, "and while I was grieving his death, someone told me the story of Jesus. When they told me about the cross and his resurrection and I recognized it. There he was with his body swollen with the stings of death; his hands filled with honey."4
The resurrection does not erase the cross. In fact, when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he showed them his hands and feet that still displayed the signs of his suffering. The cross revealed Christ as the suffering servant who demonstrated his power through his love - not a love that simply adores success, but a daring love that willingly shares our burden when life takes us through the darkest valleys.
In her book, A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tells of the sudden death of her husband, and then her only daughter having a brain aneurism. She flew to California to be with her daughter in the ICU where she whispered to her: "You're safe...I'm here...Everything's fine." After a few days, her daughter was able to utter a few words. She mumbled, "When do you have to leave?"
Her mother responded, "I'm not leaving until we can leave together."5
The cross declares that God remains steadfast by our side through whatever trials we encounter. In life and in death, we are embraced by God's everlasting love.
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