You’re going to have to permit me to do a tiny bit of bragging. Just a little bit, though.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m one of the assistant coaches on the track team at Marion. I coach the shot putters and discus throwers. This is something I’m really passionate about doing; I really like helping the kids out, and it’s a time for me to remember one of my favorite things I did in high school.
I was in band, did musicals, played football – I was very involved. But hands-down, track season was my favorite. Part of that was my coach, who was a great guy. But another part of it was just that, to be a really good shot putter, you have to be the best athlete on the track team.
Now, that’s probably funny to most people who picture big, burly guys who weigh over 300 pounds and can’t spell “cat” if you spot them the “c” and the “t.” But the truth is, there are a lot of big guys out there, but the really great throwers are few and far between. That’s because being really great takes strength, yes. But even more important are good technique, speed, and explosiveness.
My absolute favorite thing about track season was going to meets and watching the other throwers “size up” the competition. You could always see it – guys who were nearly a foot taller than me, who outweighed me by 40, 50, 60 pounds – sometimes more. They would be looking around, watching warm-ups; whispering to their teammates about the reputations of the other throwers, talking about how they thought they would place at the meet. You know – looking to see which guys looked like the competition.
I can promise you, there was never one single eye that looked at me and thought that I was the competition. Never. Sometimes, I threw with these guys for four years, and they wouldn’t look at me. The thing was, though, I was good. My bit of bragging that I have to do is to say that my team was known around the area as having the throwers with the best technique, and I had the best technique on my team. More than once, we had other schools film us so that they could take back film of us to study. The other thing I had going for me is that I was fast. So while I was never the biggest kid out there (usually the smallest, actually), and I definitely wasn’t the strongest, I usually placed in the top-6 at the meets I went to and scored points for my team..
And we’d get to my favorite part of track season. Just about every meet, you’d see some mountain of a kid whom we’d never thrown against before, and he’d think he was pretty special. And my absolute favorite part of the year was beating a kid like that. Just watching his jaw lower as he saw the little guy out-throw him. Oh yes; that was sweet.
But what made it sweet was that moment at the very beginning – before the warm-ups, before the first throws, before the flights were announced – the moment when you just saw people sizing each other up. And, for me, that was the moment that I saw all the other eyes look right past me, like I was made of glass – invisible because I was so small.
So now it’s time to talk about Jesus. Like I mentioned at the top of the service, if you haven’t been in church the last few weeks, we’ve been in the middle of a sermon series during Lent. We’ve been reading from the texts in Matthew that lead up to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
Today finds us awfully close to that event. Just last week, we heard Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, during which he was sentenced to death. This week, we see the logical follow-through from that – the forcible removal of Jesus to actually go to the cross, beginning by carrying the cross himself.
Some Christians may not be familiar with the start of our passage, in which Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for a while. In the traditional Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross,” this is the fifth station. There could be many reasons for this man being compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, but I don’t want to get too deep into them right now, since Matthew just gives us this short sentence to work with. Suffice it to say, Jesus hasn’t really slept in a couple of days, he’s been beaten, and a cross is two very heavy planks of wood. Roman prisoners sentenced to death were responsible for carrying their own crosses to their executions – a final act of humiliation before being publically executed. When they couldn’t carry it, it’s not like the Roman soldiers were going to do it for them. So a bystander, someone like Simon of Cyrene, would’ve been asked to do so.
Anyway, as Jesus finally arrives at Golgotha, the place where he was to be executed, some things happen. Jesus is force-fed wine-vinegar (at least, it seems to be wine vinegar, rather than actual wine, based on the Gospel accounts). And that’s just the beginning of the mockery. The guards who crucified him gamble for his clothes. They put a mocking sign over his head that says, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” They didn’t believe Jesus to be a king, mind you – they were just making light of his death, since the official charge against him was treason for claiming to be a king. He was crucified right next to actual criminals. He was derided by passers-by, some of whom remembered some of the things he said.
Someone mentions Jesus’ earlier proclamation that the Temple would be torn down and rebuilt in three days. They say that, if Jesus thinks he can do that, why not save himself? Well, obviously, that lesson went right over their heads, because they didn’t understand what Jesus meant by that at all. Others take the mocking even further, not just going after Jesus for his political statements, but for his religious ones, too.
For example, it’s pointed out how many people Jesus saved, and that if he’s so great at saving, maybe he should save himself. And another onlooker chimes in with a phrase that finds a way to mock God, as well, saying that if Jesus is so close to God, why doesn’t God save him?
See, my friends, this is the classic moment for me at the beginning of the track meet. People look at Jesus, they see him in this state, and they can’t help but pile on. How could he possibly be God? How could this man, in this state, possibly have anything to do with the creator of the universe? He’s beaten, he’s mocked, he’s… he’s nothing.
That’s the thing, though, friends. These people were seeing with the eyes of the world, and not with the eyes of God. These were people who were deciding that God was going to show up in the way that they expected, in the way that they even might have wanted.
But our experience of God is really different. Sometimes, God shows up exactly as we need or want. More often, though, God shows up in surprising, even confusing, ways. We’d often like God to be straightforward, but alas God is not always so.
These folks thought they had the upper hand. They looked around and saw the kid who was smaller and looked beaten before the game even started. So they didn’t worry about him. They ignored him at best, and actively mistreated him at worst.
God surprises them in the end, though. While we are supposed to acknowledge the pain of Lent, we do so today in remembering the difficult things Jesus had to endure. Even so, we must also remember that the story doesn’t end with wine-vinegar and mockery. The story ends with God doing exactly what Jesus said – tearing down and rebuilding the Temple in three days. Only, while the person who mocked Jesus thought he meant the actual stone Temple in Jerusalem, God shows us that what’s actually destroyed and rebuilt is Jesus himself, the Son of God and Son of Man, who saves us all and shows us who God is.
God is the fan of the underdog. God is there to love us, even when we feel unloved. Even when we are rejected by everyone around us, God is still there to help us out of the direst of situations. Jesus own situation was literal death; and yet even that could not hold God’s love back. And while I started with a story about myself and the 80-some track meets I went to in high school, there’s a really important difference between those and this story today. While I was pretty successful, I have a few second-place finishes and quite a few thirds to show for my hard work. But God is different, because God doesn’t just do “well,” God wins, every time – even when it’s not how we expect.
Rarely does God respond to situations in exactly the way we would like. Rarely are we granted the exact miracle of healing we’re looking for, or the second chance, or the apology we seek from someone who’s hurt us. Instead, we are treated to healings that are different from what we ask, but better than we can imagine. Perhaps we don’t stave off death, but God gives us people around us to comfort and cheer us. We can’t prevent being sick forever, but God wraps us in comfort and love even when we are. When we feel alone, as alone as anyone can be, God has already shown us Jesus completely abandoned, and promised us that, no matter how we feel, that same Jesus will be right by our sides. Jesus is the epitome of vulnerability here. He is physically weak, and his friends have abandoned him. Yet, even in that moment, we remember that Jesus goes to the cross with God.
Friends, we may not always find it possible to show love to God. Sometimes, our hearts are too broken. Sometimes, we’re just too angry. But at the end of the day, even when we fail to show love to God, God will continually show love to us. Remember those people who mocked Jesus, who overlooked him and made fun of him and hurt him and probably laughed while they did it? Well, Jesus went to the cross for them. But not just for them, but for me and you, too.
Christ’s love for us is overflowing, infinite, and deeper than we can imagine. Don’t overlook Jesus – even when he seems distant, or helpless, or just absent. He is there, and he wants to help. He has already gone as far as anyone can go for you; he will not hesitate to do it again. Jesus loves you, even when you don’t know how to love him back. Amen.