We Believe in the God who Suffers
Augustine observed that stirring up mud or ointment with the same motion one emitted a horrible stench but the other a fragrant odor. Tonight we stir up our confession that we believe in the God who suffers to see whether it's mud or ointment to us.
Suffering in general is one of the few certain things in this age of doubt. Few deny the reality of suffering. O you have the mind over matter club and the society of you make your own reality, but by and large everyone looks at starving children, diseased bodies, or horrible loss and agrees, "That's suffering." In fact, since the reality of suffering is so pointed, there are people who pursue pain to get a sense of being alive. The 1999 movie "Fight Club" could be subtitled "Real Men Like Pain." The people whose bodies are a mosaic of tattoos or who pierce themselves all over with metal seem to me to be confessing that suffering is one true, real thing to them.
After the stream of suffering gets by the camp of those who pursue it for its own sake, it divides going by an island on either side. On one side suffering is ointment; no pain no gain. You can't get ahead in the world without suffering. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. On the other side suffering is mud; you can get ahead without suffering. Why suffer with hunger or from exercise? Take this product and the pounds will melt off. Why suffer doing memory drills or from learning by rote? Listen to this CD and you'll be able to speak a new language in 10 minutes. Why suffer from two jobs to make ends meet when you can earn thousands from your home in just minutes a day? Why suffer with childrearing problems when you can learn a few words that will make those problems go away?
Now the river of suffering gets to sin. If people recognize the reality of their sin, and that is a big if in a Postmodern world, but if they do, they all recognize that forgiveness can't happen without suffering. "Dear Abby" published a letter years ago from a woman who got so mad at another for taking her parking place that after that woman had gone inside the store she had written obscenities on her windshield in lipstick. She "confessed" her sin to "Dear Abby" and sent her 10.00 asking her to give it to charity. We all think suffering can make up for sin. The Catholic thinks that's what his penance is for. The Lutheran can think that's what his ashes, offering, church attending, or volunteering are for.
Take a deep breath. Can you smell that? You might think we've just stirred up ointment, but we've really stirred up marshy, pungent mud. How dare any of us think our suffering no matter how harsh, how undeserved, how long could be sufficient to take care of our sins. How long are the damned in hell for? Forever and ever and ever and then some, and still their sins remain unforgiven. If a man suffering an eternity in hell is not enough suffering, you're a fool if you think any amount or type of suffering by a man in time could be enough. It takes nothing less than the suffering of God.
This brings up a huge theological problem which we have to deal with without getting bogged down in it. Yet if we don't deal with it our ointment can become mud, but if we focus on it we can miss the ointment altogether. First let's deal with Judas.
Judas ran away from the suffering of God. Jesus predicts His suffering. "The Passover is two days away and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified," He says, and what does Judas do? "Then Judaswent to the chief priests to betray Jesus." Now our Passion Reading is taken from all four Gospels. We know from John that Judas' decision to betray Jesus didn't happen right after Jesus said those words but it did happen after Jesus predicted His death and rebuked Judas in particular for his greed. Mary had used expensive ointment on Jesus and Jesus said she did it for His burial. But to Judas this fragrant ointment stunk of mud because Judas was greedy.
The smells of money and of suffering don't go together. Judas ran from the latter towards the former. He wanted nothing to do with a suffering, dying, let alone dead Jesus. How about you? Do you really want to belong to a Church that preaches not just Christ but Him crucified? Do you really want to belong to a Church that gathers around the Body and Blood of Jesus on the cross rather than on Easter morning? Do you really want to belong to a Church that every time it celebrates the Holy Communion proclaims not the Lord's life but His death?
Judas didn't, and we only think we do. Judas heard the preaching of Jesus' suffering for what it was. Real suffering. Real suffering isn't successful in a fallen word. It has the stink of blood and death about it, not Channel # 5. Jesus didn't suffer like some giant at the hands of Lilliputians, Oh it hurts; my how it hurts; oh it's terrible." He really did hurt, really did bleed, really did suffer so much so that beads of sweat popped out spontaneously and He blacked out from the pain.
This is what it takes to be the Lord of sinners. This is what happens if you're going to claim sinners as brothers and sisters. The judgment that belongs to them will fall upon you. What they owe will be paid by you. If you really are their Lord, then you are responsible for them.
Judas didn't want such a Lord as this because Judas didn't believe He needed a suffering, bleeding, dying Lord. He needed a Lord who would keep the money flowing into the coffers that he stole form. He needed a Lord who was successful in the world. He needed a Lord who would make others suffer? How about you? Only a person who knows what a great sinner they are, only one who knows they deserve temporal an eternal punishment, only a person who knows every ache, pain, tragedy, hardship, or disease they suffer is rightly owed by them for their sins wants a suffering Lord. But if you think of your sins lightly and don't rightly estimate their guilt, if you think your casual lusting, your nonchalant greed, and your neglect of God's Word and Sacraments are no big deal, you don't see your suffering as a preaching of the law, so why do you need the Gospel of a suffering God?
Judas ran away from suffering for these reasons; Jesus, however, ran toward it. On the night He was betrayed, He said, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." He couldn't wait to get to this night when His eternally intense suffering for sinners would begin. In fact He memorializes, the event. Our Confessions say, The Lord's Supper "was to be an abiding memorial of His bitter suffering and death" (FC, SD, VII, 44). We set up memorials where loved ones our buried because they're sites of future resurrections. We don't set them up in hospitals where they suffered and died. Yet, Jesus institutes a weekly reminder of His suffering and death.
Why? Hebrews 12 tells you. "For the joy set before Jesus, He endured the cross despising the shame." Jesus eagerness and His memorializing His suffering have to do with you. You miss the point if you think the joy set before Him was heaven. Jesus had heaven from all eternity. He didn't need to suffer, to die, to go to the cross to get to heaven. He needed to do those things so you could get to heaven. The joy set before Jesus which enabled Him to endure the cross and despise its shame was your redemption, your forgiveness, your salvation.
"We need Thee O Jesus of the scars" is a line from a poem that came out of the horror of World War I where high power explosives first met with flesh and blood and produced terrible suffering. A God above all this dust, mud, and suffering is a pagan god. Zeus, Hera, all the gods and goddesses, remain above the blood, sweat, and tears of suffering. To them suffering is mud, not ointment. In fact, what is proof positive to Muslims, Jews, and others that Jesus isn't God is that He suffers.
Here's the theology that I referred to earlier which you need to know but not drown in. It's true; deity cannot suffer, neither can it bleed or much less die. But when the Bible speaks of the suffering of Jesus, it speaks not of the human nature or of the divine nature suffering but the person. The Person of Jesus is 100% True God and 100% True Man, so in Jesus God suffers. It's not just the Man Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane, whipped to shreds by the State, and slapped by Church leaders; it's the holy, eternal, all powerful God.
Human instinct is right; even fallen, benighted, befouled human instinct knows that in all wrongs, crimes, and sins someone is guilty and someone ought to suffer for it. Our case comes before the bar of Divine Justice. The Devil, the world, and our conscience lay out the case: Here's our misspent youth; here's our lustful heart; here's the pain we've caused; here's our self-centered head; here's our soul blackened by misbelief; and here's our mind content with knowing what we know not wishing to be taught any more not even by the Word of God. Who's guilty? Who should pay? Who should suffer asks every human heart that sees and knows their sins?
When we see our loved one, particularly our child suffering, we say, "If only I could bear it instead." What if God allowed that? How many of us would dare follow through? How many of us could follow through? I'm ashamed to think of what I would do, and that makes me all the more amazed and comforted by what Jesus did. I stir my feeble, yet noble hope about suffering in place of a loved one, and I smell the mud of I cannot, and I dare not. I stir the Passion History and I hear no less than God the Son saying to sinners, "I dared and I did suffer in your place," and then I smell sweet ointment as He applies His Body and Blood, His sweat and His tears, His death, life and forgiveness to the open wounds of my sins. I need Thee of Jesus of the scars. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20090225); Passion Reading 1; First Article