The great Yogi Berra once remarked, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Would you agree with me that if you came to a fork in the road, and one direction led to saving your life and the other to endangering your life, you, being a reasonable person, would take the road to safety? No one, after all, wants to put their life in jeopardy. Saving your life is a reasonable thing to do.
Lancelot Andrewes was a Bishop in the Church of England in the 17th century who was head of the translating team that gave us “the King James Version” of the Bible. Bishop Andrewes was a brilliant scholar and a master of the English language whose sermons are some of the most elegant ever preached. And yet, he was not a very good pastor. When London was hit by a plague, many priests chose to remain in the city and minister to the residents. Bishop Andrewes chose otherwise. When he heard the news of the plague, he left the city immediately to save his life.
Who could blame him? If one direction leads to saving your life and the other leads to endangering your life, and possibly even death, what normal person would choose to put their life in jeopardy?
Look at all the refugees fleeing from Syria and the Middle East. To stay means almost certain death; to leave means the hope of a new life in a new country. Who could blame them for trying to escape violence and chaos? As I say, saving your life is a reasonable thing to do.
So why did Jesus go to Jerusalem? Surely he knew what awaited him in that city. Three times he told his disciples about the prospect of his death. In John’s Gospel his disciples begged him not to go to Jerusalem, but he insisted that he had to go to fulfill his mission. The disciples were dumbfounded why any man, even Jesus, would not want to save his life. They finally agreed to go with him, Thomas saying bluntly, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jerusalem had nothing to offer Jesus but death, and yet he went. And when he got to the city, death is what came his way. He was beaten, whipped, spit upon, and a crown of thorns placed on his head. He was so weakened by the beatings that he could hardly carry the 100 pound crossbeam on his back, falling again and again on the way to the place of execution. When he finally got the hilltop known as the Place of the Skull, he was stripped naked and crucified.
If you saw the movie Risen, the crucifixion scene in that film is one of the most accurate ever portrayed. Most prisoners would scream in agony at the ordeal, but not Jesus. Instead he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And just before he took his last breath, he prayed again, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Whatever you think about Jesus, you have to admit his death was unlike any in recorded history. No anger, no hate, and no bitterness – it’s as if his life was not taken from him, but that in some strange way he gave his life.
Why would Jesus go through all of that? Why would he suffer the horror and humiliation of the cross?
When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education at the Queen Street Mental Health Center in Toronto, one of my responsibilities was to lead a worship service for the patients. There were about thirty people in the chapel the Sunday that I led the service. I was in the middle of my sermon when all of a sudden one of the patients stood up and began to scream, “Go to hell! Go to hell!”
To put it mildly, I was flabbergasted. I had no idea how to respond to this person. There was an eerie silence in the chapel, but then the silence was broken by another patient who looked at the man who screamed and said, “He did. He came here.”
St. Paul says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Christ died for us. His life was not taken. It was given willingly, freely, without hesitation. Christ died for us even while we still were sinners. There are certain things that Jesus could do that we could not do for ourselves. He took the cross and went to his death that he might do it for us. Jesus gives us something far better than anything we could ever deserve. He gives us grace, mercy, forgiveness, and a new life when we feel burdened by our old one. Jesus dies our death, takes our place on the cross, and becomes our substitute, the innocent suffering for the guilty.
A group of prisoners were working on the Burma Road during World War II. At the end of the day, the Japanese guards counted the shovels of all those who had worked on the road. One shovel was missing. A guard said, “Return that shovel or twenty men will be shot.” No one stepped forward. And the guard said, “Alright, we will now shoot twenty of you.” One man stepped forward – and he was promptly beaten to death by the guards. When the prisoners got back to camp, they found there was no shovel missing. The man, who had done nothing wrong, saved his fellow prisoners from certain death. He was willing to die so that they might live.
That is what Christ did for us. He took our guilt upon himself as if he were guilty. He paid the punishment that our sin deserved. He died our death and took our place. And because Christ sacrificed himself for us, we now live with hope.
You and I need hope. We can’t live without it. Life becomes a bed of despair and a quick sand of frustration without hope. Hope is the one thing we need in order to face the future with courage and confidence.
Maybe you are going through a difficult time right now and you have no hope. Maybe you have done things in your past that continue to haunt you in the present. Maybe your life is oppressed by one burden after another, one sorrow after another. You get a diagnosis of terminal cancer, or your marriage falls apart, or your job ends when you had only a few years to go before retirement. It’s easy to lose hope under those circumstances but Christ came to earth to give us hope – not just hope for today or tomorrow but hope for eternity – that no matter how bad things get in our lives, the best is yet to come, because at the end of the day, there is God.
In a concentration camp during World War II, the women were taken every day to work. Their wheelbarrows were their skirts, and their shovels were their fingernails. At dawn they left with cardboard shoes walking on frozen ground to work. One such survivor was asked, “How did you ever make it? How did you ever live through that hell?” She said, “Really I don’t know. I do remember, however, on one occasion as I was walking to the place where we were to work, I noticed a house which had a flower box. I noticed in the flower box there was a tulip blooming. I thought all day long maybe on the way back to the barracks I might get to see the tulip blooming.”
Imagine – a tulip, a little flower, a tulip blooming – that was enough to give that prisoner hope. It was such a small, insignificant thing, but it gave the will to live to someone who would have otherwise died. None of us can exist without hope.
Christ died to give us hope, to give us dignity. When our lives are so crowded with frustration, anxiety and worry; when there seems to be no hope whatsoever; when the sky looks so dark and we can’t see the light at the end of the way – Christ died to give us hope, even when there seems to be no hope.
Canada’s treatment of our aboriginal people is tragic, but not nearly as tragic as what happened in the United States on the “Trail of Tears” – the forced exodus of more than 17,000 Cherokees from their southeastern homeland in Georgia and Tennessee. For many years the Cherokee Indians lived, tilled the soil, hunted the game, worshiped their god and lived according to “The Way.” The “white man” came and said we want your land. We will ask you to sign these papers, and if you sign these papers, everything will be fine. The “red man” signed the “white man’s” papers, but over the years the words on the papers changed. They didn’t mean what they meant when the “red man” first signed them, especially after they found gold on the land. So the “white man” rounded up the “red man.”
In 1838 and 1839, the Indians were rounded up and led away by soldiers on all sides, front and back, to land that the “white man” didn’t want. They called it the Trail of Tears. The “red man” walked with his head up and with his eyes focused straight ahead. He looked not to the side as people would line up along the trail and make fun and laugh at the “red man.” But the “red man” did not laugh. The “red man” kept his eyes straight ahead. They brought wagons behind them, but the wagons were empty. The “red man” refused to ride in the wagons. No, he would walk.
As he walked and walked, he began to die. The sickly, the old, and the lame began to die. About 4,000 of them would die. And for a while the soldiers let them bury their dead every-day. Then they said that’s taking too much time. We can’t piddle around with all of this. We will just bury the dead every three days. So when a child died, he was carried by his mother for days. When a wife died, she was carried by her husband for days. The people along the way stopped laughing and started crying. The “red man” never cried and he never rode in the “white man’s” wagons. He kept his chin up and his eyes straight ahead. (1)
You can take away a person’s land, but you cannot take away a person’s dignity. You cannot take away his hope, you cannot take away her soul, and you cannot take away their tears – not by force you can’t. That cannot be taken. That only comes through love.
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
March 20, 2016
Text – Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23: 1-49
Palm Sunday, C
1. Story about the Trail of Tears from Gary Carver, “An Eyewitness to Death”, First Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee in Preaching Today, March/April 1999, 41.