2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:31-35;
Jer 26:8-15; Phil 3:17-4:1
THE ROAD TO THE CROSS: A GOD WHO SUFFERS
“How often I have longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me!” Jesus speaks for God here. And that’s one of the great gifts that Jesus brought us: he helped us experience God as a parent — like a hen gathering her brood under her wings. God is like a mother caring for her lost and straying children, trying to protect them. And Jesus tells us elsewhere, too, that God is like a father. In fact, Jesus tells us that we can call God “Daddy.” “Abba,” the Aramaic word we sometimes hear, can better be translated as a term of endearment: “Daddy,” rather than simply “Father.” “Our ‘Daddy,’ who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” God is like a loving parent. Jesus helped make this clear to us.
What is your image of God? Have you thought of God as a stern, punishing parent, rather than a loving, nurturing parent? Is your God cold and distant, or warm and intimate? The problem with a remote god is that such a god cannot get close enough to creatures to suffer with them. Can an all-powerful, all-controlling god be too ‘big’ to worry about so puny a creature as you and I? How big do we make God? Too big to be a loving parent anymore? How about when we make God the one who has the reasons for everything that happens in this universe? God had a reason for letting six million Jews die at the hands of the Nazis. God has a reason for such things as flooding, and earthquakes, and storms that wipe out lives. God has a reason for the good friend who died in a car crash. We very often think as if God has a reason for everything.
But is this what a loving parent is like, one who controls everything? Is this what God is like? I might want to say instead that God has a reason for everyone, not everything. God has a purpose for you and for me. No matter what happens, the Lord still has a purpose for us. But I’m not so sure God controls everything that happens in our lives. We said a couple weeks ago that true love must come with freedom. God is always with us, to offer the power of life, yes. But does that power control us? A loving parent learns to let go rather than to control. Is that what God does? I’m not sure.
Yet Jesus definitely shows us a picture of a God who suffers — a God who suffers because of us, and a God who suffers with us. Like the loving parent who learns to let go, God watches God’s children turn away and fall into sin. God suffers because of our constant rejection. Over and over again, God tries to gather us under her wings. God tries to warn us of what will happen if we stray from her side, to warn us of the consequences. But, when we inevitably do stray, God’s love never ceases, either. As a faithful parent, God remains at our side, for better and for worse, and the worst always comes with our death. So God also suffers with us, right to the death … and beyond.
In Jesus Christ, we say that God suffered with us in a special way. Jesus embodied God’s presence with us. We also would say that Jesus suffered because of us. Jesus embodied God’s Word, God’s hope and purpose for our lives. But we painfully frustrate those hopes. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, speaks those hopes of God. Zechariah looks at his newborn son and says, “You, my child, are the prophet of the most high, for you go before the Lord to prepare his way. You lead our feet into the way of peace.” You lead our feet into the way of peace. God’s hope for our lives.
In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus lament over the sacred city of God’s chosen people: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her!” He cries out his Father’s pain of rejection. And, a short time later, he simply cries. Before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we read, “And when Jesus drew near Jerusalem he wept over it.” God’s plans for the people of Israel were for them to lead the world into the way of peace. But, as a loving parent, God would not force them to do so. And they didn’t. Jesus knew, as he overlooked Jerusalem, that it would eventually go the way of all violence. It would be destroyed by Roman armies. And Jesus cried God’s tears of suffering, suffering with God’s people. And ultimately, of course, Jesus’ suffering with would take him to the cross. Jesus suffered our death, death as a victim of our violent ways; and Jesus, as God, died God’s death.
So what kind of God is this, one who suffers with people? Can this God turn us around and set us on a road to salvation? Why the cross? How can a God who suffers with us to the point of the cross possibly set us on the road to salvation? I’d like to suggest an answer with a story, one of my favorite stories, from one of my favorite story-tellers. Walter Wangerin tells this story about his son Matthew. It would probably be easiest if you simply let me tell his story as he does, in the first person:
Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects…in the thousands!The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, “Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic book which he stole from you. Would you please kind of…chastise him?” I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comic in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, “Matthew, Matthew.” (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) “Do you know what you have done,” she said, steel-eyeing him. “You’ll never do that again, right?”
The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books…one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. “He’ll never steal comic books again,” I thought. “Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?”
The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!
So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.
The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, People, but it was that stiffening that shot me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid smacks on his butt after that. ‘Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is…in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room to hug Matthew.
Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of years later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, “Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?” (And he had stopped!) I said, “Yea, I finally spanked you.” He said, “What!” And he looked at me. He said, “No….It’s because you cried….”
On a Good Friday long ago, God felt the consequences of our sin. Jesus hung on the cross dead, with the rain coming down on him. Do you suppose that was God’s tears? God cried. Is God crying still? After two thousand years, have we been able to live by God’s hopes and dreams for us yet? We once again walk that Lenten journey to the cross, to witness the pain of our God, our loving Father, our mother hen who longs to gather us under her wings and lead us into the way of peace. Will we, like little Matthew, finally know God’s tears and have our hearts changed forever?
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 11-12, 1995