It makes a difference how you picture Jesus. I’ve discovered how you can go to “Google Image” on the internet and type in “Jesus” and instantly have before you tens of thousands of images to check out.
Since pretty early on, there has been a tendency to picture Jesus as either something of a “superhero“, with bulging biceps, or with an untouchable serenity, even placid, as though nothing ever really disturbed him.
When you read the Gospels in any depth, you can’t help but let go of these image of Jesus. Especially in Matthew, Mark and Luke, you encounter a Jesus who gets both angry and sad. You see a Jesus who in the Garden of Gethsemane is truly suffering over the death that lies before him. And in Mark’s Gospel, you even hear Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In other words, you get a Jesus who suffered not only physical pain, but severe emotional and spiritual pain as well.
When you turn to John’s Gospel, you find a Jesus with a theological overlay that can make him appear at times as though he is “above it all.” But even John seems determined to let us know that Jesus did in fact suffer in his spirit. It’s John’s Gospel that gives us the unforgettable, “Jesus wept.” And although there is no “Garden of Gethsemane” scene in John’s Gospel, in the passage we read this morning we do hear Jesus unequivocally declare, And the author of the letter to the Hebrews makes the same point when he writes,
with loud cries and tears…”
The reason, it seems to me, that it is so important to keep in mind that Jesus truly did suffer spiritually is that he provides for us the ultimate model of what faith looks like. If we think that Jesus managed somehow through the power of his faith to bypass spiritual pain, then we’re going to conclude that we simply don’t have enough faith when our hearts ache. And that’s not the case.
Back in the 70s, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross began studying an area that until then had been largely ignored (or avoided — understandably so, perhaps) — the psychological process of dying. She spent countless hours over many years listening to people who were dying with a terminal illness. She identified five stages that a person typically moves through in approaching death: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally acceptance.
She made it clear that the stages aren’t neat and tidy, and that a person can jump back and forth between the various stages. But the larger point she established is that there is no short cut to acceptance. There is a process involved in reaching acceptance that unavoidably involves pain and struggle.
Over time, it became apparent that the stages Kubler-Ross identified in the process of dying were also in play regarding other experiences of loss; the process by which a person grieves the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, a vocation, a home, or a hope. The truth of the matter is that life involves lots and lots of smaller deaths that prepare us for dying itself.
The process takes time. A person can dig in their heels in an attempt to avoid the process altogether, but generally speaking all they will manage to do is prolong the process. A person a can try as best they can to be open to the process, but that doesn’t mean the trip will become easy.
I am by nature a pretty shy guy. This was a particular problem in the years of my early adolescence, when I became aware of girls, and that powerful desire to “find somebody to love.” Through junior and senior high school, I essentially sat on the sidelines and watched as my peers went through the mating rituals involved with dating.
I was nearing the end of high school, resigned to the fact that, unlike many of my friends, I wouldn’t be going to the prom, when, just a week before the prom, I found myself talking with a girl named Kristen whom I liked and who seemed to like me, and somehow I managed to ask her to go to the prom. She was pleased to be asked. The prom night became this magically romantic evening, in the course of which Kristen and I “fell in love”, our first taste of that ecstasy in which you feel like you’re walking on clouds. Our romance happily continued through the summer.
With the arrival of the Fall, however, we both headed off for our freshman years of college — our colleges separated by about 500 miles. As the Fall progressed Kristen seemed to adjust more rapidly to the social life of college. I spent the Fall pining away for her, my days revolving around trips to the post office to see if perchance a letter had arrived, an event that occurred all too rarely. Denial, bargaining, anger, depression – in the course of the Fall I shifted back and forth through them all.
And then Christmas vacation came, and when I finally got to see Kristen, our visit was stiff, uncomfortable, with much left unsaid.
I clearly remember the time soon after that initial visit when it all came to a head. Friends are a gift from God, that’s for sure. I was over at my best friend David Turner’s house, sitting in his room, when I called Kristen on the phone, looking, I suppose for some kind of reassurance. The conversation lasted just a couple of minutes, during which she finally spelled out for me the reality I had been resisting for months: She didn’t want to be my girlfriend any more.
All right then. I got off the phone and started crying. I cried for maybe two minutes. David was there, supportive. When the tears ended, I experienced what for me was the truly surprising aspect of the whole thing. I felt light as a feather. I felt the best I’d felt in a good long time — as though this weight that I’d been carrying around had finally been lifted from my shoulders. I was ready to get on with my life, ready to open myself up to the possibilities that lay ahead of me.
Now breaking up with a high school girl friend is small potatoes compared with a lot of the losses we are called upon to experience in this life. Nonetheless, there was a lesson to be learned that day which I’ve re-experienced countless other times throughout my life, though often I’ve continued to resist the truth of the lesson.
If I were possible by some magic to go back in time to meet up with the lovesick 18 year old I once was, find him as, once more he checked his mail box without finding a letter, and get him to sit down and listen to me, what would I say?
One thing I might say is: “Hey, kid, believe me, it’s over. Accept it now — don’t draw it out till Christmas. Move on.”But I don’t think that’s quite the lesson here.
What I’d like to be able to say to my 18 year old self would be, “I know this really sucks — this having your heart broken business. There’s no way around it. But what I do want to tell you is that the pain of the heartbreak won’t last forever, and indeed, God has more ways to shower you with love than right now you can imagine. Once you get through having your heart broken, you’ll be ready to begin receiving these gifts.”God created us in such a way that if we can go ahead and let ourselves grieve when we lose something precious to us, (which is part of what is implied in the whole business of “taking up our cross” and following Jesus), the grieving doesn’t last forever. Eventually, all tears are wiped away. Real grieving prepares the soul to receive the new life God has in store for us.
There’s no magical way through this pain. But there is the assurance that new life awaits on the far side of the pain. And so the prophet Jeremiah could relay the message from God to a broken, despairing people cut off from their homeland that the day would come when God would make a new covenant with his people, writing the law upon their hearts, doing that which they could not do for themselves.
Sometimes we Christians are particularly guilty of trying to avoid bearing the cross of grief. We think we should be able to go straight to “acceptance.” Someone we care about loses somebody they love to death, and we feel desperate to say something that will take away the pain they’re in, not just for them but for ourselves as well. And so we say in so many words, “Don’t cry, your loved one is heaven with God. It’s wonderful there. Be happy.”I do believe that it is true our loved ones are safe in the arms of God when they pass from this world. (Interestingly, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross came to this same conclusion as well in the course of her work.) But trusting that this is true doesn’t keep us from enduring the pain of losing our loved ones’ presence in this world — their body to touch, their words to hear, their minds to interact with — and so there really is no way around the fact that their death really hurts.
And so it is helpful to remember that even Jesus suffered in his spirit as well. The Gospel lesson we heard this morning seems to capture the precise moment when Jesus moved from depression to acceptance.
It isn’t easy being human. Fortunately, we have a savior who knows how it feels. He will lead us through the dark valley.
said Jesus. “And what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? (How long did it take Jesus to reach the point where he could say what followed?) “No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”
(Though it does very much help having friends who support you in the process.)
“Now is my heart troubled.”