“Jesus’ Death: What about Suffering?”
A Meditation on Isaiah 52:12–53:13 (with Luke 23:33-47) for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Year C; preached March 20, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Part of a Lent preaching series: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
Most of you know that I just returned yesterday from a week in coastal South Carolina along with students from our UCC UConn campus ministry group, where we were volunteering to assist with disaster recovery efforts there. Three Sundays from today, on April 10th, we’ll be hearing from the students themselves as part of our worship that morning, and I’ll leave it to them speak to the experience of our week.
But as we transition today into the rituals, rhythms, and remembrances of Holy Week, one of the questions that confronts us as we witness once more Jesus’ journey to his death on the cross, it is a question that also confronted us on the trip. In fact, it confronts any of us in the face of disaster or trauma or those other “worst-of-it” moments. Where is God? How was God connected to the floodwaters that rose in South Carolina last October, and how was God connected to the rebuilding and renewing of a community that we got to help with last week? Perhaps it comes in the form of the “why” questions of life: Why did I get cancer? Why did my husband leave me? Why didn’t I get a promotion? Why won’t my depression go away? Why didn’t God let her live? Why doesn’t God let me die?
Where is God?
The writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrestles with that question in his famous book Night, which is his testimony in literary form to his experience of the horrors of Auschwitz. He tells of an execution by hanging that he and all the prisoners were forced to walk by and see at close range—a warning about the high cost of resistance. There were three people hanged that day; two were dead already, but the third, a mere teenager, was still alive as he hung there on the gallows. Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the youth dies slowly.
As they file past the scene, Wiesel hears behind him a man asking “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel testifies that he “heard a voice within [him] answer… ‘Where is God? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’”
There are two ways of hearing that, right? You could take it simply as a declaration that God is dead—and, in fact, plenty of theologians and philosophers, particularly within Jewish tradition but also in Christian and secular contexts, wrestled with the idea of the death-of-God in the wake of the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust. Where is God? Perhaps God is simply dead.
But, you see, in this case, when the voice from within Wiesel spoke, the boy hanging on the gallows was not dead. If God is the one hanging on the gallows, God is not dead, but suffering. God is not absent from the worst of it, bur rather absolutely present—in fact, more present there than anywhere else. The God who hangs on the gallows is the God who stands in solidarity with us, who suffers with us, who cries with us, who endures with us.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther held this reality at the center of his theology and faith. In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, he asserts that someone only deserves to be called a theologian who “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross … It is not sufficient for anyone,” Luther says, “and it does [someone] no good[,] to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless [that one] recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. … God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”
For centuries, on this Sunday that begins Holy Week, we Christians have held together in creative tension the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the story of his passion and death on the cross. Sure, some of the Protestant groups that got rid of all festivals and holy days, including our own Puritan ancestors who even outlawed celebrating Christmas, they’ve not always held onto both stories on this day. But over the last 50 to 75 years, many (if not most) have been rejoining the predominant Christian practice among Catholics and Protestants alike of holding together the palms and the passion, the cheers and the jeers, the drama of the entry and the desolation of the cross.
In holding these together, we dwell in that age old question of “Where is God?” Such a question is held open for us on this day, as it always is, since no pat answer shall ever fully answer it. But I think we are also called this day to hold open for ourselves the question of “where am I?” and “where are we?”
In a world so broken as this one, in a world so full of suffering largely of our own making as humans, where are we? Are we with the crowds who wave palm branches but disappear by the end of the story? Are we with those who taunt and deride, the ones who look upon Jesus and all with whom he stands and “account him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted”?
Or are we in solidarity with the one who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, the one well “acquainted with [our] infirmity”? And in solidarity with the crucified One, are we willing to stand like him in solidarity with all the suffering of this world, all that is “despised and rejected by others”?
“Out of his anguish he shall see light,” says the Prophet. “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great … because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Where are we, my friends? Where are we?
 Elie Wiesel, Night; as recounted in Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 210; direct quote amended based on the English-language Wikipedia (accessed 19 March 2016 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_(book) ; emphasis added.
 Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, ¶20-21, http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php.
 Isaiah 53:4 (NRSV).
 Isaiah 53:4 and Isaiah 53:3 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 53:3 (NRSV).
 Isaiah 53:11-12 (NRSV).