Lectionary blog for March 18
The fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12;
Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. – Hebrews 5:7

A Unitarian friend of mine continually reminds me that there is danger in thinking of Jesus as divine. He says that if we think that Jesus was divine, we may begin to excuse ourselves from the call to follow him to the cross. We think, “Well, Jesus was God, so he could do those things and it didn’t really hurt him. At least it didn’t hurt him the way it would hurt me. So really, I’ll worship him, but following him is a bit too dangerous.”

Unless we take the human pain and suffering of Jesus seriously, we may fail to take seriously our own call to face pain and suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that our calling as Christians is to follow him and that following him includes following him to the cross, not as spectators but as participants in suffering for the sake of the world.

Hebrews Chapter 5 gives us an intensely human portrait of Jesus, one filled with mental anguish, the dread of anticipated suffering, pleading for mercy and, finally, resignation to his fate. Verse 7 begins, “In the days of his flesh.” The Greek word here is “sarx.” It means meat—bones and blood and muscle. It is a declaration of Jesus’ very real humanity. The text continues, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Many rabbis taught that there were three levels of prayer: 1) “prayers”—verbal or silent, thought out and controlled, 2) “loud cries”—shouting at God in anger or anguish, and 3)”tears”—pure emotion and pain. This text portrays Jesus as engaging in all three but most especially in loud cries and tears—pouring out his fear and pain to God. One who feels no pain and no fear, one who is not “human,” does not weep and cry before God.

The verse concludes, “to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard.” Jesus knew that the path he was on led to death, to the cross. Jesus also knew that God was “the one who was able” to save him from this end. And Jesus was not afraid to let his fears and feelings be known, to God and to others. This verse says that, when Jesus cried out to be saved from death, he was heard—and yet he died. Died in agony upon the cross. What kind of hearing is that?

Jesus knew that the path he was on led to death, to the cross. … And Jesus was not afraid to let his fears and feelings be known, to God and to others.

When I was about 12 or 13, I was in the Boy Scouts. One night at Scouts we were running a race and I tripped. I fell face down in the dirt road. I lodged a piece of gravel under the skin on my forehead. The rural health clinic was a mile or so down the road from our meeting place. The doctor who ran the clinic and my father were both assistant scoutmasters and they took me to the clinic. He was a good doctor, but his bedside manner was a bit on the brusque side. As I shivered on that cold, hard, metal table, he came at me with a huge needle to numb my forehead. I was deathly afraid of needles. I looked over at my father and began to cry out, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, please Daddy! Don’t let him hurt me, please Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

The doctor threw a leg over me to hold me down, put his left arm down on my chest and proceeded to inject the needle just above my right eye. All the while I continued to cry and beg and plead for Daddy to make him stop. Just as the needle entered I saw Daddy’s rough, farmer hands with the knuckles turning white as he clutched my jacket. I looked up and saw a tear in the corner of his eye. It was the only time I ever, ever saw him cry. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” I was heard. Oh yes, I was heard. And I was denied.

Hebrews 5:8 – “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Throughout this Lent, we have been looking at Jesus’ struggle with the call to the cross. The temptations in the wilderness were temptations to find other ways to be the Messiah, the Son of God. The reason he yelled “Get behind me, Satan!” at Peter was that Peter was luring him away from the cross. Jesus’ call to follow has always involved a call to suffering, death and a cross. The writer of Hebrews is meditating on a very human Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying, “if it be your will let this cup pass.” Jesus was heard; he was denied. As our Gospel from John puts it, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” In the end, Jesus obeyed, and, as Hebrews says, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Here is a great mystery of the faith. Wherever we are, God in Christ has been—fully, completely, totally. Think about the most scared, lonely and troubled you have ever been. Jesus has been there. Think about the moments when you have felt ignored and abandoned by God. Jesus has been there. Think about all the times when you just did not know if you could make it. Jesus has been there.

The promise of the gospel is not “If you are a Christian, life will be easy.” The gospel is not about ways to make your life, your marriage, your career, your children or anything else work out in a way pleasing to yourself. The gospel is the call to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond. To follow Jesus in serving the poor and needy. To follow Jesus in reaching out to the despised and rejected. To follow Jesus in standing up for those who are oppressed and ill-served by the world. To follow Jesus in fighting against illness and evil wherever they may be found.

And sometimes following Jesus to the cross means we will suffer for our commitments, that we too will be rejected and scorned as much as those with whom we take our stand. Christ calls us to follow him. It is not an easy way. It is not a painless path. It is not likely to be smooth sailing. It is the Way of the Cross. And the sign and promise of the cross is that where God calls us to go, Jesus has already been, and as we go, Jesus is going with us.

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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