At the spring meeting of the House of Bishops, Bishop George Councell of New Jersey reflected on the devastation and suffering wrought in his state by Hurricane Sandy. His reflections took shape around a billboard he passes on his way to work.
The sign reads, “Don’t make me come down there.–God.” Bishop Councell’s response speaks for me and spoke for all the bishops gathered. “What a slur!” he said. “What a slur!”
As if an angry God would swoop down and wreak havoc on what is otherwise our serene and comfortable existence just because we’ve been stepping out of line.
No, the truth is something very different, and on the Sunday of the Passion we are set to mind about that truth with brutal clarity. God has already come down. Yearning to be with us, he has already come down to join us exactly as he would find us.
And what God has found is not serenity and contentment, comfort and fulfillment. He has found the cross. The cross, you see, is not something that happened to Jesus at the end of his ministry. The cross is the very essence of our mortal condition. When God came down, he came down to a cross. Our cross. A place of suffering, futility, and ruin.
Sandy Hook and Aurora and Hurricane Sandy and the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq and all the killings fields and famine zones and crime scenes that pass in and out of the news cycle are easily recognizable places of suffering and ruin. We gasp about them as if they were disruptions of what is otherwise a calm sea of comfort and contentment. Only bad luck or the odd bad apple spoils what we assume will be, or believe by all rights should be, uninterrupted ease and success.
In fact, events like this simply magnify the truth of even the most serene moment. Even as the bud opens into a glorious and fragrant flower it is moving toward decay. It all goes to the grave, to the ash heap of forgotten lives and loves and struggles and victories.
Our loves, our sacrifices, our triumphs mean the world to us. In fact, we build our world upon them. What we accomplish and whom we love and the legacy we leave make it all worthwhile. And it is all vanity.
That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes says. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Or, “Futility, futility, it all comes to nothing.” The world we inhabit and invest with such significance passes away. Inevitably.
That is the cross.
Even if someone is still telling your story centuries from now, you will not be present to hear it. Even if you could somehow be there for the telling, imagine how horrified you would be by the fictional device your character has become.
Lincoln and Achilles, Moses and Cleopatra would see the richness of their personal lives reduced to a celluloid image devoid of what they know to be themselves, their own experience of the moment, their hidden hopes and tender affections, the connectedness to people and things and events that really made them who they were.
They have become a device in a story that some filmmaker is actually telling about herself or her age or her viewers. These historical characters are not even really remembered. They’ve become a cartoon figure, a literary device, the invention of a writer or a producer or a director. It’s all boiled down to this. As James says, we are but a vapor. (James 4:14)
God has come down here. And what he has found is the cross. Our failure and futility, our suffering and our sorrow.
There is nothing remarkable about this really. You may dismiss it as dreadfully depressing or unnecessarily negative. You might even grow irritated by hearing such a stark diagnosis of the human condition when you come to church. Some of us come to church to be uplifted, to catch a spiritual buzz to carry us through the week. This kind of bleak assessment is a buzz kill.
Or at least, that’s what it might seem. But do you remember that Jesus said that he is the Truth? Jesus is all about reality. And only by facing this appalling truth do we begin to grasp the breath-taking Good News that is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
The stark prognosis of all things mortal is not the news here. The news is what God decides to do about it. In his son Jesus, God embraces the cross. He enters the twisted, broken, dark, grimy, putrid places of our lives. He takes hold of our futility and turns it on its head. In our hands life becomes a cross. The Galilean carpenter takes the cross into his hands and repurposes it.
As mere mortals, the cross marks our terminus, our final destination. In Jesus’ hands that cross becomes the path to the empty tomb. He turns everything upside down. Futility into eternal significance, sorrow into unadulterated joy, suffering into eternal life.
Jesus is the true Good Samaritan. That’s what Bishop Laura Ahrens suggested as she reflected on the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, where she serves as Bishop Suffragan. Jesus the Good Samaritan sees the the injured man, sees us, on the side of the road. And Jesus does more than feel empathy or dial 911 or even give the battered man a lift to the ER.
He leaves his ride on the shoulder, wades through the weeds and the underbrush, and kneels at the wounded man’s side. He sees up close and personal the cuts and bruises, the mangled body and ruined face.
He gently cuts away the torn clothes and pulls them free of the wounds, tenderly cleans away the dirt and the drying blood, and applies a soothing, healing balm. And the balm that Jesus gives is the blood of his very own life.
God has already come down here. He came down and embraced our death, our nothingness, our futility and ruin, and he turned it into life eternal.