Matthew 11:2-6 & Hebrews 12:1-2
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 2, 2017
Jesus paid terrible costs in His effort to overcome our alienation from God and to strike up an everlasting friendship with us. He left the perfect joy of heaven, and on earth endured heart-wrenching abandonment.
John the Baptist had been the best friend in ministry Jesus ever had. When, however, King Herod locked John up in prison and left him to stew there, John must have struggled against discouragement, depression and doubt about what he once had been sure of.
From prison John sent a delegation of his followers to determine whether the disappointment he felt with Jesus was warranted. They put this hurtful question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” John wondered whether Jesus was not the One for whom he had been sent to prepare the way – and the Bible never tells us whether Jesus’ answer settled John’s doubts.
Even if it was temporary, John’s abandonment of his once solid support of Jesus foreshadowed the abandonment Jesus would later experience from His disciples. And that abandonment foreshadowed the abandonment Jesus would experience from God at His crucifixion, an abandonment which caused Him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We can hardly imagine the horror of that ultimate abandonment. In his book King’s Cross Tim Keller helps us come closer to understanding its terrible pain. Keller notes that if a member of his church were to come up to him and spit out, “I never want to talk to you or see you again,” it would be devastating; but the pain from that could not compare to what he would feel if his wife or his lifelong best friend said the same. The principle is: The longer the love, the deeper the love, the greater the pain at the loss of the relationship.
The abandonment Christ experienced at Calvary involved the separation of two Persons, Jesus the divine Son and God the divine Father, who had loved each other with infinitely deep caring from all eternity.
In His crucifixion Jesus suffered the Judgment Day we had coming. He reaped what we had sown in our rebellion against God: separation from the One who is in Himself the Supreme Good and who is also the source of all other good. Jesus stood in for the worst people you know in order to take the penalty, the punishment, that ought to befall child molesters, rapists, war criminals, politicians who abuse their people, liars who ruin innocent lives. Jesus, the Bible says, became sin on that cross, the object of God’s righteous rejection.
When Jesus bellowed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, it wasn’t a rhetorical question or a pious quotation of scripture – but a cry of excruciating, devastating pain, pain from being disowned by the One around whom His life had revolved forever in fervent adoration and devoted dedication.
From the very beginning, Jesus knew this God-forsakenness was coming. Yet, from the beginning, Jesus precipitated its coming – out of love for us. For Jesus knew His being abandoned by God was what He had to endure in order to spare us the same fate.
In His undaunted love for us, in His resolute determination to pay the price to save us, Jesus held to His steady march toward Calvary and the incomprehensible suffering that awaited Him there.
What sustained His resolve to go through with it? The prospect of having the company of you and me for eternity!
Hebrews says, “For the sake of the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.” You and I are the joy that was set before Him. Our presence with Him forever is the joy for which He underwent being cast out from God’s presence. You and I are in His eyes worth that incalculable cost!
It is amazing what a person is willing to endure when the result of doing so matters enough to them. Tim Keller again, this time in his book Making Sense of God, explains how a hope for the future expands a person’s capacity to endure awful things in the present.
Keller asks us to imagine two women of the same age, same educational level, same socio-economic status, and even the same temperament. They are on the same day hired to exactly the same intensely boring job. On an assembly line they, over and over again, for eight hours a day, insert one part into one slot of a gadget before it passes down the line for the insertion of its next part. The two women labor in identical environments with identical lighting, temperature and ventilation. They have the same number of breaks. Their work conditions are the same in every way—except in one respect. The first woman is promised that at the end of the year she will be paid $30,000 dollars for her labors; the second one, that she will be paid $30 million.
A couple of weeks into the job, the two women talk. The first complains to the second, “This job is totally unreasonable and driving me insane! I’ll bet you’re thinking of quitting just as I am.” The second woman replies, “Not at all! I am in fact grateful for falling into this job. In fact, I whistle while I work.”
What’s going on? Here you have two human beings who are undergoing the same grinding experience, but in radically dissimilar ways. What makes the difference? It is their expectation about their reward in the end. One sees a payoff that more than compensates for the difficulties of the job. The other sees herself as having gotten into a bad deal. What we believe about the results of our labors and sacrifices determines how we feel in carrying them out. Great hope can make something terrible bearable.
Jesus has a great hope. He longs for a lasting friendship with you and me. To have us with Him is worth the cost of the worst suffering. Though at Calvary He only created the possibility of the friendship, just having the chance of enjoying it more than compensates for the purchase price of the chance. He loves us that much, and that love made Him undaunted in the pursuit of our friendship, even in the face of God-forsakenness.
We must never fail to appreciate that – unlike the woman in Keller’s parable who was guaranteed her $30 million if she saw her work through to the end – Jesus had no such guarantee. Because everyone for whom He died has freedom of choice and can decide to make nothing of His sacrifice, He took a terrible risk: the risk of enduring hell itself and having nothing to show for it, the risk of buying with His blood a hope for a friendship with me and having me never get around to taking Him up on His offer of it.
Let us not, at least in our own case, allow the price He paid to be for naught. Let us choose to return the embrace of Him who reached out to us at the cost of such suffering. You and I can be His joy, the fulfillment of His hope, the reward of His undaunted love. All it takes is our receiving Him as our Savior and Lord. Let us pray.