John 12:12-16, 23-24, 27-33
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 25, 2018 – Palm/Passion Sunday
Life is a mixed bag, marked by moments of beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. It is such a mixed bag that even those of us who believe in God wonder how One who is all-powerful and all-loving could stand by and change it so little.
For most of our questions about the extent and the depth of suffering, we can find no answers. For God has chosen not to fully explain why He tolerates suffering as much as He does. Though many a philosopher and theologian have tried to get God off the hook for the problem of suffering, God doesn’t care that much about getting off that hook. In fact, God’s clear answer to the problem of suffering is not to get off the hook at all, but rather to impale Himself on the hook of suffering by being nailed to a cross. At the cross God chose to make the problem of suffering His own, in the deepest and most personal way.
On the very day He was celebrated in the streets of the holy city of David, Jesus was bearing in mind how He was being plotted against in the city’s halls of power by those who in matters of days would insure His crucifixion.
Jesus could have escaped into Galilee or the deserts, and evaded the horrors that awaited Him. But He instead strode into the jaws of the beast, willing to be swallowed down into the hell He called His “glorification”.
In what sense, could His gruesome death be deemed a “glorification”? By virtue of what it accomplished: the proving of God’s illimitable love, the bearing of the fruit of redeemed sinners rising up from earth like stalks of wheat, and the drawing of all people to Himself, God’s only Son and the world’s only Savior.
In His humiliation, there was glorification; in His death, life; and in His victimization, the liberation of all who would receive the gift of love offered at Calvary.
In His resolute march toward Calvary, Christ was moved by the hope of people’s making something of His gift – and the joyful prospect of their walking with Him in a redeeming and eternal friendship.
Most of us have heard the Passion story so often that the only way we can appreciate it anew is to hear it anew in the story of someone who followed in His footsteps and sacrificed themselves out of love. Let me then tell you the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe.
In February of 1941 Hitler’s Gestapo arrested Father Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk, and threw him into the Auschwitz concentration camp.
There Father Kolbe was assigned to Barracks 14. Though as much as anyone he struggled to survive under the brutal forced labor, meager food rations and appalling weather extremes, he spent most of his energy uplifting the spirits of his fellow prisoners. He would hear confession as men poured their hearts out to him. With a an understanding nod He’d kindly accept each in his weakness, with a warm smile proclaim the gospel of grace, and with an emaciated arm make the sign the cross over them.
Father Kolbe used to tell himself, “Christ has triumphed over every enemy in every age. In these dark days, the cross will triumph over the swastika. I must be faithful to the end.”
One night a man escaped from Barracks 14. The next morning the rail-thin prisoners trembled with fear as they lined up for the daily roll call in the yard. When Commandant Fritsch discovered Barracks 14 was one man short, he made them stand at attention, without break, all day long, in the blistering heat. At dusk, he decided to make an even more intimidating lesson of Barracks 14. He announced, “The fugitive has not been found. Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker.”
The men gasped in dismay. For anything was better than enduring the slow, increasingly horrifying torment of going without food or water until death. Strangulation or gassing was a more humane form of execution.
Ten men were randomly selected. One of them immediately broke out into uncontrollable tears and cried out in heart-rending anguish, “My poor children! What will they do?”
Just as the guard started to rifle-butt the ten condemned victims toward the death cell, a commotion arose from the ranks of prisoners still standing at attention and trying not to faint. A frail, gray-haired prisoner stepped forward and volunteered to take that crying man’s place. It was Father Kolbe. The priest said, “I would like to substitute myself for this man.” Commandant Fritsch ordered it done, and the ten were marched to Barracks 11 where they would spend the last of their days in a dreadful, drawn-out dying.
As the days passed, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening. In the past the only sounds they heard from that death cell were those of prisoners howling in misery or attacking one another in a frenzy of despair. This time, those outside would regularly hear the sounds of faint singing. For this time the prisoners had a shepherd to lead them through the shadows of the valley of death and to point them to the Great Shepherd who lay down His life to give them joyful hope.
Franciszek Gajowniczek was the crying prisoner spared from starvation. He survived Auschwitz. and for 53 years – until he died of natural causes at the age of 95 – he told people about the man who died in his place and the joyful hope the suffering Savior gave him.
Jesus Christ went to death, when He did not have to, in order to save us.
The death He died was even worse than that of Father Kolbe, for the physical torture of His crucifixion was not even the half of His suffering. On that cross Jesus bore God’s righteous wrath against all evil. There He took the punishment you’d like to see visited upon the child abuser who’d violated and degraded your darling children, or the serial killer who for the fun of it had demeaned and brutalized your precious parents. There Jesus paid in full the penalty that justice demanded for every last act of cruelty and dehumanization, inflicted upon every last human being, each of whom is boundlessly valued as a holy treasure by God.
Jesus suffered all that, says the Bible, for the joy that was set before Him – that is, for the hope He held of redeeming us from all evil, including our own, and bringing us to a blessedness infinitely disproportionate to our deserving.
Let us gasp in awe at such love, and never cease to live in stunned awareness of it. Then, basking in the bright warm light of God’s caring, let us walk with Jesus as our eternal and redeeming friend.