Tuesday, March 22, 2016
The Hope of the Gospel Is in the Pit of Despair
Palm Sunday, Year C
March 20, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
The Hope of the Gospel Is in the Pit of Despair
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has got to be the most disappointing political campaign rally in history. Today, we got to hear the good part about him riding in on a donkey and the people putting palm branches down for him and shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” The people all had their “Jesus for President 033” signs. The place was littered with “Make Israel Great Again” posters, and the crowd was in a frenzy, waiting to hear what Jesus would say on this last stop on his campaign before taking over Jerusalem and then marching on Rome and kicking those guys out.
It seemed to be glory upon glory as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and yet the people’s hopes were disappointed. What we didn’t hear in the story today is that Jesus rides a little further and begins weeping for Jerusalem. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.”
Jesus gave no victory speech. He did not thank his supporters. Other than a weeping lament, Jesus didn’t respond at all to the huge campaign rally. Once he got to Jerusalem, Jesus went into the temple and made people upset by driving out the money changers and the animals. The crowd who had gathered to hear Jesus speak to them looked at one another and said, “That was weird.” “Yeah, and kinda lame.” They were disappointed. The great hope they had in Jesus had not been realized. Their disillusionment in Jesus began. Their hearts began to turn against Jesus even as Jesus’ life began careening headlong toward the cross.
The hope of the Gospel was not to be found in the in the glory of Jesus’ march on Jerusalem. His ride into town did not lead to glory but to the cross.
It’s ironic today that the cross is so prevalent as a symbol of our faith. We’ve got it on jewelry, on our hand, around our necks; people have crosses tattooed to them; crosses adorn our houses, some of our businesses. We see crosses everywhere. We see crosses as a symbol of hope, and yet we often forget why the cross is a symbol of hope.
We remember Jesus when we see a cross, I know, but at the same time, we are a society that is rather pain and suffering averse. There are huge industries of anti-aging products and procedures as we try to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re not going to die. The stories we tell of ourselves via Facebook and selfies are carefully curated to present glowing, positive images. After hard days, we often self medicate, even with just one or two drinks to take the edge off, and who can blame us?
No one likes suffering and death, which is why our cross adorned lives are so ironic. The cross is a symbol of suffering and death. The empty cross has come to be a symbol of resurrection, but it is first a symbol of suffering and death. Our faith in Jesus doesn’t let us avoid suffering and death. Resurrection only comes after suffering and death. Carrying crosses around reminds us that the hope of the Gospel is found in the pit of despair.
The hope of the Gospel is found in the pit of despair, and that is very good news, because as much as our society is averse to suffering and death, we’ve pretty much struck out in avoiding suffering and death. Any preacher who says you can avoid suffering by following Jesus, wasn’t listening to Jesus. Jesus promised his disciples that suffering would happen. It’s something of a relief to realize we’re not supposed to avoid suffering. We’re not going to avoid suffering. We haven’t failed as a disciple of Jesus because we suffer. Suffering and sadness has happened and will happen to every one of us, and it is not because we’re following Jesus wrong or because our faith isn’t strong enough. We can’t avoid suffering. We move through suffering. We can’t avoid the cross. Jesus tells us to take up our cross. For the hope of the Gospel is found in the pit of despair.
Only in the pit of despair are we truly able to let ourselves die. “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33) There are parts of us which we need to let die, in order for God to give us new life. Often our carefully constructed and cultivated identities, the very parts of us which we’ve formed to try to avoid suffering, are the very parts of us which we need to let die so that God can work his resurrection within us.
We don’t get to that point through the glory of accolades and praise. We only come to resurrection through the agony of the cross. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” Paul said, “were baptized into his death?... if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3, 5)
Our hope is in resurrection, in new life, but we can’t bring about new life. Not even Jesus made himself resurrected. He didn’t snap his fingers and skip over death into new life. Jesus marched toward the cross. He did not avoid suffering. Jesus climbed down into the pit of despair with us. He didn’t give us a way out. He gave us a way through.
The suffering of the cross is where our hope is to be found. No one wants suffering. We’d be fools to pray for suffering, but suffering will find us. That is where we will find the hope of the Gospel, not in our own strength, but when our strength has failed us. In the darkness of the pit of despair is where we see the light of Jesus most clearly. In the darkness of the pit of despair, we see the light of Jesus, leading us onward through the darkness, through the death of our selves, and into the light of his resurrection. Amen.