The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
On his 39th birthday, poet Christian Wiman, a rising star in the literary world, learned he had an incurable and brutally painful form of cancer.
After he had endured months of the awful effects of the illness and its treatments, Wiman wrote, “I have had bones die and bowels fail; and joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat and could not walk….I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting in the ashes, alone.”
Further down the line in the progression of the disease, however, Wiman – who says he’d lost his Christian faith years before – felt his battle against cancer lead him on a journey that ultimately brought him back to God. His long struggle did not so much occasion his finding a truth he hadn’t known before but his finding a friend he hadn’t really known before: Jesus the Christ who suffered for him at Calvary and with him in his fight for his life.
Wiman bears this witness: “I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”…The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the solitary…nature of extreme human pain is an illusion…that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around an individual’s isolated and lonely suffering.”
Because Christ suffered in His God-forsakenness on the cross the worst suffering of all, we are spared the worst suffering because none of our suffering, unlike His, is suffered alone. The Christ who suffered abandoned and alone suffers with us in all our suffering.
In our harshest pain, we don’t so much need answers as we need presence, the presence of someone who cares about us, enters into our pain, shares it, and helps carry the weight of it. Jesus, who came down to suffer for our sake, is that Someone. And He has enough love, strength and endurance to bear all our infirmities, carry all our diseases, and see us through all evil to a perfect end in God’s grace.
Jesus bent down from high heaven to be with us and to serve us. Though He always stood tall in character, He did not always stand tall in other ways. In fact, that first Maundy Thursday, just after He presided over the Last Supper, just before he permitted the arrest leading to His crucifixion, He got down on His knees before His disciples and washed their stinking, filthy feet like one of the nobodies slaves were back then. He humbly took care of them like that to show them how He wanted them to act, but also to show them how His loving concern for them was so great that no act was too self-abasing for Him to carry out for their sake. In washing their feet, He was giving them a preview of an even more humiliating self-abasement that would begin before the night was out.
Truly, as the old Filipino proverb says, it is the tallest bamboo that bends the lowest. At Calvary Jesus bent down the lowest, into God-forsakenness and hell itself.
Jesus left the Upper Room in order to die as awfully as a migrant worker dying from heat stroke in a freight container, a garbage-picker dying from suffocation under an avalanche of a mound of trash, a political prisoner dying from slow torture with a blow torch. But worse still Jesus left the Upper Room in order to die as the sacrificial lamb who takes the full penalty for all the evil ever committed in this benighted, sin-sick world.
Becoming sin itself on the cross, as one scripture puts it, Jesus absorbed into His person every ounce of righteous wrath there is, and descended into the depths of all darkness, distant from and forsaken by God, the God whose love had meant everything to Him from before time began.
The tallest bamboo bends the lowest. Jesus, the One who stands taller than all others, bent all the way down to hell for our sake.
Let us this night behold with awe the reality of who Jesus is and what He chose to do. The bread before us now is the sacrament of His body broken for us; and the cup, the sacrament of His blood poured out for us. It is all a symbol of His bending infinitely low because of His infinite love. Let us pray.