Only a Suffering God

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Palm/Passion Sunday, 2012 at Messiah Lutheran Church

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Where do you look when you want to see evidence of God? If someone were to ask you to justify your faith with an experience that they could share with you, what would you show them? Where would you take them?

Perhaps you would take your inquirer out to the Sierra Nevada mountains at dawn, and show them the sun, creeping up behind you, reflected on the mountains, revealing God’s world by stages.

tree

And your inquirer would be impressed. But she may fairly ask you: what about when the sun scorches the earth, and crops and animals die? What about when storms come and wash away cars and houses? Surely that is not God!

So perhaps you would take your inquirer to the hospital nursery and show them the splotchy glory that is a newborn human–so fragile and yet so beautiful, so majestic with potential.

newborn-baby-feet-basket-161709.jpeg

 

And your inquirer would be moved at the sight. But she may fairly ask: what about the children who are born in pain and do not survive? What about those who are born to a lifetime of struggle against their bodies or minds, through no sin of their own? Surely that is not God!

 

And so you take your inquirer to the museum, and you show her your favorite painting.The_Harvesters_by_Brueghel  A simple landscape, a simple country scene, yet endowed with dignity and beauty, with life’s joy and struggle summed up all at once. This miraculous work of the human mind–surely this witnesses to a good and powerful God?

But your inquirer may well ask, how was it that we should be sitting here looking at a beautiful painting while so many in this world do not have food, or medicine, or a home, or work? Surely that is not God!

At last, in desperation, you drive out into the distant cornfields, far from the glow of the city. You point up at the night sky, where the crescent moon shines along with Jupiter, Venus, and Mars,1024px-Jorge-11_-_Night_Skies_(by) and the broad band of the Milky Way can be seen in its uncountable array. All of this, you explain, is held together most delicately and perfectly for the flourishing of life–life that may only be harbored, in this infinite night, by our little planet.

But, your inquirer asks, if the universe is made for life, why isn’t there more of it? Why is this great beauty enjoyed only by us humans? Surely this could be something other than God’s doing!

Last week I left you with a bit of a dilemma as we discussed the first article of the Apostle’s Creed. We learned that we are to understand that God created us and everything that exists and that God provides us with everything we need out of pure fatherly mercy. But what about all of those things we see that do not seem to have been made by a good and loving God? What about all those people, including us, who have not been provided for, or spared from evil? What about the suffering of children?

Now I’m not going to answer these questions. Smart people have been working on them for a long time and as far as I know there are no answers. But I want to stress this as we move on to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed: We know God as a Loving Parent because we have known Jesus Christ as a suffering servant.

The second article of the Creed goes like this:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day, he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The Small Catechism explains:

What does this mean?

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.

He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.”

This is a big chunk to bite off. I could keep us here a long time on this one. I’m going to restrain myself, however, and focus on one phrase: “He has purchased and freed me…with his innocent suffering and death.”

Today, on Palm Sunday, we see Jesus in two circumstances. At first, he rides into Jerusalem in triumph, acclaimed by the people as a sort of hero or prophet. The people shout for joy and put their palm branches down on his path as if he were a conquering king.

And then, in a moment, we will hear the rest of the story: Jesus put on trial, Jesus condemned by the crowds, Jesus flogged and mocked, Jesus crucified next to bandits, Jesus mocked by passers-by, Jesus crying out against the God who has forsaken him.

Where do you see evidence of God in this story? You might be interested to know that only two characters in the Gospel of Mark call Jesus the Son of God. One is the demons. The other is the centurion who watches Jesus die on the cross. No one else–not the crowds, not the disciples, not the religious or political leaders–speaks of Jesus this way. If you want to see God with your own eyes, the story tells us, don’t look for cheering crowds. Don’t look for devoted followers. Don’t look for power and wisdom. Don’t look for the beauty and order of the world. Look, instead, at the cross. Look at the defeat, look at the oppression, look at the darkest moment. Look at the God who bears the world’s pain as his own. Look at the God who suffers not just for us but with us, among us, as one of us. The Son of God who dies thirsty and alone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was martyred during the Second World War, found God in prison–in the midst of his own doubt and despair, in the midst of his own time of trial. Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend that “only the suffering God can help.” Because who else is there for a forsaken person? Who else is there for the person who cannot see God in his creation? The God of the sunrise, the God of the birth ward, the God of the art museum or the distant heavens is not present to that person. But the God who suffers is present, whether we know it or not. In one of his late poems, Bonhoeffer put it this way:

God goes to every man when sore bestead
Feeds body and spirit with his bread
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead
And both alike forgiving.

1024px-El_Greco_011If God shows himself to us here, God can start to show himself to us anywhere. Through the cross, we see God in both the peaceful sunrise and the terrible storm. We can see God in both the beauty and the tragedy of childbirth. We can see God not only in the wonder we create, but in the suffering world. We can see God not only in our chattering world, but in the vast silence of the universe–filled with the same silence that answers Jesus on the cross.

And we know that God is present not only when our faith is full and warm and confident, but when we are plagued by doubts. God is present to the person who asks hard questions and to the person who gives faithful answers. God is present to the sinner and the lost. In Jesus Christ, God suffers all, God forgives all. And in his hour on the cross, Jesus Christ–truly human, truly divine–reaches out to draw you near. Amen.  

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