For three years, Jesus carried out his ministry in Galilee, traveling the countryside and visiting the small towns and villages that dotted the landscape. He taught with a wisdom that touched people at their core, he extended healing to those in pain, he attracted men and women who became his followers and he lit a flame of hope in people's hearts.
Naturally his reputation grew, and word of this dynamic, yet humble leader began to spread. The people living in these rural communities could not whip out cell phones to call their relatives in the big city of Jerusalem to tell them about this amazing Rabbi. No emails, no text messages, no blogs. Word spread slowly, from one person to the next, but eventually it reached the upper echelon of religious and political power in the Holy City. These authorities were not enamored with the stories being circulated about Jesus, and so they dispatched delegations to investigate him and to challenge him in front of his followers. They concocted trick questions to set traps for him, but Jesus adroitly escaped each attempted ambush.
Then, one day, Jesus decided the hour had arrived. It was time to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities directly. He had no illusions that his adversaries would melt in his presence. He knew his mission was potentially explosive. Yet he had to do what he had to do. So he turned to God for strength, courage and determination, he set his face toward Jerusalem and began his dangerous journey.
When he came within a couple of miles of the Holy City, Jesus and his followers entered the small town of Bethany. He instructed his disciples to round up a donkey and bring it to him. Jesus wasn't exhausted and needing a ride to make the final two miles of the trip. His was a symbolic gesture. He would neither walk into Jerusalem nor ride on a mighty stallion as a conquering hero. Instead, he would enter on the back of a lowly donkey. And when he did, the crowds went wild because they realized what was happening. This was the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy: "Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey."1
The crowds were shouting and waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks on the ground, hailing him as their new king. Jesus was publicly defying the political authorities.
Next stop? The Temple. Jesus upended the tables of the moneychangers and drove out those who were selling animals to be sacrificed. He was not attacking Judaism, but rather the religious leaders of his day. He was forcefully demonstrating God's anger at religion gone awry. As the prophets of ancient times had said before, God is not interested in empty rituals. God wants people to act with justice and mercy.
Both the religious and political authorities maintained their seats of power by cooperating with the Romans. As long as there were no uprisings, they held onto their positions and the Romans left them alone. But Jesus threatened to disrupt the calm and incite a riot, and so the religious and political leaders believed their only choice was to quell the voice of Jesus - permanently.
Over the next few days they kept an eye out for the right opportunity and finally seized Jesus under the cover of darkness. They took him to the chief priests and council where some delivered false testimony against him. They condemned Jesus for blasphemy and declared that he deserved to die. They dragged him to Pilate who seemed reluctant to condemn Jesus. However, once the crowd screamed, "Crucify him!" Pilate granted their wish.
The one who was without deceit, the one who opened the eyes of the blind, the one who showed the path to peace, the one who came so that all may have life, was sentenced to death and was crucified.
As 21st century North Americans, it is tempting for us to leap from the Palm Sunday parade to the glory of Easter morning. It is tempting to bypass the dark and deadly days of Holy Week and run straight to the celebration of the empty tomb. However, the stunning truth of the gospel is that the path to new life is through the cross. The crucifixion declares that God loves us with such passion that God refuses to avoid the pain and suffering of the world.
If there were no cross, we might conclude that God is above it all and does not have to deal with the tragedy and the misery of this world. If there were no cross, we might believe that God is spared the cruelty and betrayal that we experience at the hands of others. If there were no cross, we might think that God is untouched by evil and suffering. But the cross disallows any such notions.
God does not reside at a comfortable distance from the world. God is present in and around us. God is as near to us as our breath. And that means that God feels all the pain of the world. Fortunately, God does not do what we often do; place buffers around us to insulate ourselves from the suffering of the world.
Retired pastor Rich Mayfield speaks for many of us when he said, "I scanned the front section of the newspaper and found that I hesitated only briefly on the stories that focused on the crucial problems facing our world today. Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia. A story of several innocents being killed in a firefight on the Gaza strip warranted only seconds of my time. A soldier is killed in Iraq and I rush by with merely a glance. More horrifying tales are met with more emotional indifference until by the seventh or eighth page it dawns on me what I have been doing. I've been trying to pretend that the world is not broken. I've been trying to protect myself from the harsh realities that most of the world's population must face everyday."2
The crucifixion reminds us that God is not insulated from the anguish and agony of our world. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki says, "If God is in Jesus, then God reveals through him that every pain is felt by God. The dreadful truth revealed in the crucifixion of Christ is that the world crucifies God. Each pain we feel and each pain we inflict crucifies God."3
World aid organizations that provided clean water, medical treatment, food and shelter for millions of Sudanese in the region of Darfur were expelled from the country recently by Sudan's president, putting the lives of millions of people at risk.4 And Christ is led to the cross once again.
"A suicide bomber brought the roof of a mosque crashing down on a crowd of worshipers in northwest Pakistan, setting off explosives as a cleric intoned the holy prayers, killing scores of people in what was the bloodiest attack this year."5 And Christ's hands and feet are nailed to the cross once again.
An armed man shot 13 people to death in an immigration services center in Binghamton, New York. And God is crucified again and again.
The cruelty of our world can make us cynical and the mindless violence can lead us to despair. But the cross reminds us that God is not detached from the world. Indeed God is in all the painful places where God is needed most.
Pastor Joanna Adams tells of meeting George Vais, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Dr. Vais had two sons, but only of them is still living. "Chris, the younger son died at the age of forty of ALS. In the journal he began to keep after his diagnosis, Chris wrote of going on a prayer retreat while he could still walk. He described strolling in the woods and coming upon a life-size sculpture of Jesus. He described how he sat for a couple of hours reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus and his own illness. He recalled how Jesus had said from the cross 'I thirst' and of how he, Chris, when he wanted something to drink, was unable to lift a cup to his own lips and had to ask others for help. Here is the prayer he composed that afternoon: 'Lord God, you know. No matter what I go through, you know. You know my pain, not from afar, but in the suffering of Jesus. You are familiar with my sorrows. Take my tears and frustrations, take my anger and my fears. Then save me and make me whole."6
God knows our pain because God has been there. And God is with us every time we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. God is with us giving us strength, infusing us with courage and inspiring us with hope. Writer Garry Wills says "Perhaps (the cross) is God's way of saying that no matter the horrors we face or the hells we descend to, God is coming with us."
The crucifixion of Christ demonstrates God's boundless love for us. God loves us not only when we are compassionate and serving the cause of justice; God loves us not only when we are generous and working for peace. God loves us even through those times when we betray, deny and crucify God.
Jesus experienced the depths of human loneliness on the cross, crying out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, his love was so inexhaustible, that he somehow forgave those who were killing him, calling out in his dying breath, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."7 Neither intense pain, nor death can extinguish the flame of God's love.
I cannot comprehend such love; it is beyond me. I can only stare at the cross, stand in awe and repeat the words of the Apostle Paul: "Neither life nor death...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."8
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