Matthew 27:27-37, 45-50
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 9, 2017 – Palm/Passion Sunday

For some of us it may be an “Of course!” For others of us, such as me, it came as a major revelation: I did not have to exist. I am not necessary to this world. I am alive only because God gave me life as a gift of grace.

Likewise, for some of us this also may be an “Of course!” For others of us, such as me, it came as a major revelation: I did not have to be loved by God. I am not necessary to God. I don’t add anything to His life that He did not have in the first place. I am loved by God only because He chose to give me the gift of His love.

God chose to love us all – and chose to go to a lot of trouble and pain to show us how great is His love.

The greatness of any love is shown by the greatness of the suffering and sacrifice the lover is willing to endure for the sake of whom or what they love. Consider, for example, the greatness of some actor’s love of their craft – and the troubles and pains they take for it.

For his role in My Left Foot, a film in which he played a spastic quadriplegic who is almost entirely paralyzed, Daniel Day-Lewis confined himself to a wheelchair between shots, remaining for hours dependent on others for being spoon-fed his meals and for taken to the restroom. For his role in The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio plunged in and out of icy rivers, ate raw buffalo meat, gave up bathing for weeks, and slept out in the open in a simulated horse carcass. To better imitate Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx not only lost thirty pounds to look like Charles but also wore, most of each filming day, prosthetic eyelids to experience what it is like to be blind. As a result, when at first crew members would forget about his disability and leave him behind on the set, Foxx would find himself stranded because without a sighted guide he could not safely negotiate around constantly rearranged furniture and equipment. For his role in The Pianist, Adrien Brody lived for months on next to nothing and at the edge of starvation, in order to familiarize himself with the despair that aching, long-term hunger brings. Brody said, “There is an emptiness that comes with real starving that I hadn’t before experienced. I couldn’t have acted the part without knowing it. I’ve experienced loss and sadness in my life, but I hadn’t known that particularly sharp desperation that comes with hunger.”

The principle here is: The voluntary suffering a person endures proves the depth and strength of their love for what or whom they love. By that standard, Christ’s love for us is extraordinary. In leaving the perfect happiness of heaven, suffering in horrendous ways for our sake, and undergoing death and God-forsakenness in our place, Jesus proved the greatness of His love for even His enemies.

Jesus did not begrudge us the pain and agony He had to endure in order to bring home to our hearts the reality of His immense love. For the great prices He paid only made His demonstration of His love more powerful and convincing.

It reminds me of what a little African orphan did to show his love for a devoted missionary. After disappearing for several days, the boy approached the missionary and gave him a long string of big fish he’d caught. The missionary admired the fish closely and noticed they could only come from a certain lake many miles away and reachable only by a difficult journey through thick jungle and over rugged hills. He said to the boy, “Thank you! But you didn’t have to take such a long hard walk to bless me with a gift.” The boy’s smile only grew wider, as he answered with a shrug, “Long hard walk, part of the gift.”

God took an infinitely long walk in traveling from heaven to earth, an infinitely hard walk in carrying that cross up Calvary, a walk of nightmarish horror in descending into the hell of God-forsakenness.

Jesus may have done it with dread, but He did it with no regret. He gladly endured it all, the Bible says, “for the sake of the joy that was set before Him” – the joy of enjoying an everlasting friendship with us. In order to make the demonstration of His love all the more credible, He willingly put up with all that shame, humiliation, suffering of body and anguish of soul. His long hard walk was part of the gift.

This week takes us through His long hard walk. What then is to be our response?

First, we can hold on to the awed gratitude we feel when we see the love behind the cross, and overflow with ardent appreciation, passionate praise and everlasting thanksgiving!

Second, we can repay the gift forward. We can for someone else be the demonstration of God’s great love by going to the trouble and pain of showing them such love in our own conduct and character…like a certain Jerusalem woman of the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect called the Haredi. Though Bella Freund is not a follower of Jesus, she demonstrated something of the love we see at Calvary in her choice to sacrifice herself for an “enemy”.

One day at the Mahane Yehuda, the Jerusalem street market, an Arab terrorist drew a knife among the throng of Jewish shoppers and plunged it into two young men before fleeing for his life. Chased by an angry crowd, the man darted across the street, running in the direction of this Haredi woman of 40, who was waiting at a bus stop.
Bella quickly sized up what was happening. She jumped in front of the man as he dashed by, and tackled him to the ground. Then, as the irate crowd charged toward him carrying guns and rocks, she did the most amazing thing. Though in her upbringing she had been taught to have no physical contact with any man but her husband, and though so many of her friends hated terrorists for what they had done to their innocent neighbors, she threw herself on top of the assassin in order to cover him up against his would-be assailants and keep him safe from a mob bent on venting their outrage. To get at him, people pulled at her arms and legs, kicked her, spat on her, and waved their guns in her face; but they could not get her to loosen her grip on the terrorist. She endured a pummeling to protect him from a lynching and kept taking the punishment until the police arrived to take him into custody. Bella, at great pain to herself, saved the life of a guilty man. Bella demonstrated what God’s love for even His enemies looks like.

While we lived as God’s enemies, Christ suffered, even unto death, to show us God’s great love. Let us give God our thanks and praise for what He did, and return the favor for whomever we can. Maybe we will not have the occasion to do anything as heroic as Bella Freund, but we can minimize our self-indulgence in order to be more generous to those in need, we can go out of our way to welcome those who feel unwanted, we can take up the cause of those who cannot protect themselves from abuse and injustice. We can love as Jesus loved us. Let us pray.

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