What About Suffering? – video and manuscript sermon for Passion Sunday 2016

The crucified God fully enters human suffering and works to redeem us in that suffering.  On Passion Sunday, we speak about the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ.

This post contains the sermon preaching on March 20, 2016, at The Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.  The sermon is titled:  “What About Suffering? and is based on Matthew 27:27-31.  This is the sermon preached on Passion Sunday during Lent and part of the series of sermons titled:  “Life’s Essential Questions”

You can see the video read the manuscript below.

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What About Suffering?

What About Suffering?

Matthew 27:27-31 (NIV)



Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him.


Then they led him away to crucify him.


In some Christian traditions, today is called Palm Sunday.  It marks the day of revelry that accompanied Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem.


Imagine the parade like atmosphere that accompanied Jesus and his disciples as they made their way into Jerusalem, through the city, arriving at the temple.  That’s the focus on Palm Sunday.


In other traditions, today is called Passion Sunday.  The focus away from the palms to the Passion.  The attention is not on the triumphal entry, but on Jesus death march toward Golgotha.


When we focus on the “Passion of Christ,” we are brought face to face with life’s most difficult question:  “What about suffering?”


The question has been stated in numerous ways.

“Why did I lose my job?” 

“Why am I facing immense financial stress?”

“Why do I feel pain, sorrow, and grief?” 

“Why am I always so sick?” 

“Why do I have cancer?”

“Why do I have heart disease?”

“Why am I depressed?” 

Maybe it not even our own personal pain.  Maybe the questions come when see the suffering of others.


We see a young child diagnosed with  cancer.


We see the innocent victims of terrorism and war.


We read about another mass shooting.


We hear about a police officer shot dead, her second day on the job, gunned down as she responded to a domestic disturbance call.


We see all this and wonder:  “Why does God allow something like that to happen?”


“What about suffering?”


“Where is God when we are suffering?”


To answer that question, we need to reflect back to that more basic question:  “Who is Jesus?”


Reflecting on scriptures, we have identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  We’ve also identified him as the Word become flesh, to dwell among us.  Using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1:14, we’ve said that Jesus is God becoming flesh and blood and moving into our neighborhood.   Jesus is God with us as one of us.


Jesus reveals the nature, character, grace, love, and kindness of the God who he called Papa.  This is a God who comes to us because we refuse to come to Him.  This is a God who takes on our humanity so that we can see the true nature of the Divinity.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ comes to us, abiding with us in the mire, muck, and mess of our broken humanity, so that we might be redeemed and restored – in, by, and through him.


This is so hard to accept because we usually think that suffering, sorrow, brokenness, and pain are things DONE TO US – unduly, unfairly, unjustly.  We do not see ourselves complicit in our brokenness.  We do not see ourselves responsible for our sinfulness and rebellion.  It’s somebody else’s fault – and we think that an all-powerful God should put a bubble around us to protect us from such heartache and pain.
That’s why we prefer the tradition of Palm Sunday over Passion Sunday.  Palm Sunday allows the liturgical option to hop, skip, and jump from the joy of the parade to the celebration of the empty tomb.  We prefer the triumphal entry to the Via Delarosa.  We prefer the song of “hosanna in the highest” to the cries of the crowd shouting crucify him.  We don’t have to talk about things like Judas betrayal and the disciple deserting him.  We don’t have to talk about mock trials, beating, or abuse.  We do not have to talk about the religious establishment jumping in bed with the politicians to sanction Jesus death.  We prefer the good over the bad.  But the bad happens.  Suffering is a reality.

Passion Sunday makes us ask:  “What about suffering?”


Here’s something else we do.  We pass the buck and blame others for the bad that befalls us.  You see if we do not see ourselves complicit in our own brokenness – then it is easy scapegoat the problem.  History is replete with such approaches to human struggle and difficulty.


Scapegoating is the practice of singling out some individual or group for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat.


Adam scapegoated Eve with the responsibility for his own sinful rebellion and brokenness.


Hitler blamed the Jews for all that was wrong in Germany, Europe, and the world.


The poor blame the rich, while the rich cast blame and aspersion against the poor.


White blame blacks.  Blacks blame whites.


Born-heres blame come-heres.  Come-heres blame born-heres.


Illegal immigrants are at fault.  Or those who hire them are at fault.  Or those who won’t welcome them into the country are at fault.


Republicans blame democrats.  Democrats blame republicans.


Progressive and Conservative blame one another except when them join together to blame the establishment.


The insider blames the outsider.  The outsiders blame the insiders.


When a marriage falters, wives blame their husbands and husband blame their wives.


Old folks blame them kids with their baggy pants and loud music.  Youth tells us that their parents and grand-parents are out of touch, old-fashion, and need to catch up with the times.


In nearly every human experience, when something bad happens, we look for a way to scapegoat blame and responsibility.


Scapegoating is pinning the blame on somebody else so that we feel justified passing judgment, and if possible, declaring punishment. There are even folks that do that with uncomfortable texts like the one we’ve read this morning.   Who is to blame for the suffering of Jesus Christ?  We blame Pilate.  We blame the Jews.  We blame Rome.  We blame Caiaphas.


The reality that we do not want to own up to in that THEY are US.  God in Christ was crucified by folks not much different any of us.


Well, that’s how we respond to suffering.  We try to ignore it, but we can’t.  It keeps rearing its ugly head.  So, when possible, we try to pin the blame on somebody or something else.  We are doing whatever we can to push suffering and sorrow as far away from us as possible.  But that doesn’t work.  Stuff still happens.


So, with all that out of the way, we are back to the core question.  “What about suffering?”  Or “Where is God when we are suffering?”


Elie Wiesel is a favorite author who was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in the Auschwitz camp. In the book Gates of the Forest, Wiesel recounts a hanging that he and other  prisoners were forced to witness.


Three were hung that day, two adults and one child.   The prisoners were forced to march passed the spectacle.  When Wiesel passed by, only the young child was still living.  Somebody in the line cried out,  “Where is God now? Where is God?’


Wiesel writes that he heard another voice respond: “Where is God? He is there, hanging on the gallows.”


That’s the scandal of Passion Sunday, the scandal of Good Friday and the cross.  That’s the answer of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh and blood and moving into our neighborhood.  Where is God? Where is God when I deal with this pain, suffering, and sorrow?  Where is God in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death?   Where is God when my heart is broken?   Where is God when we suffer? This is not simply an academic, theoretical, philosophical question.  You’ve asked that question.  We’ve asked that question.  We’ve asked it because suffering has touched our mind, our emotions, our body, and our relationships.


“What about suffering?”  “Where is God when we suffering?”


Here’s the incarnation answer.  God is WITH US and ONE OF US in the middle of that mire, muck, and mess.  Want proof?  Look at the cross.  The cross is the picture of a suffering God.


Jesus is the incarnation of the Father.  He is the word become flesh.  He is God among us as one of us.  That means  it was God who was betrayed; God who was deserted by his dearest friends; God who was beaten, humiliated, and abused; God who was led to Golgotha to be crucified. God carried the cross. God was nailed to the cross. God was mocked by the onlooker.  God was ridicule by the soldiers.   God was scoffed by the religious leaders. God was sacrificed.   The gospel is not simply that God suffered for us.  The gospel is that God suffers with us.  God is not unaccustomed with suffering.  God suffers. In his book, The Crucified God, theologian Jurgon Moltmann writes of this, saying:  “When the crucified Jesus is called (in scripture) ‘the image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS.”


God suffers with us. But that is not enough.  It’s not enough to say that we all suffer and that God suffers with us.  There has to be some redemption to be had in and through that suffering.  There had to be some hope beyond that suffering.  There has to be something on the other side of the pain, sorrow, and grief.  There has to be something on the other side of the grave.


Listen to Moltmann again:  “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”


That’s the hope we look forward to as a part of our worship next week. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. The true meaning of the resurrection will be lost if we do not rest a bit in the reality of God’s crucifixion at the cross. But we can’t just stay at the cross without pointing toward the hope of resurrection.


I found these words in my sermon preparation notes.  They are not mine. Sadly, I lost the reference.  But these words are so powerful.  Listen:


Without hope, suffering is nothing more than suffering. With the hope of the cross… with the miracle of a crucified God who defeated death, suffering can be endured, and hope undergirds us in every way. That is the way of God. Out of defeat comes victory. This is the crux of faith when faced with suffering. The cross says nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Here’s how the Apostle Paul said it in Romans 5 says:


“We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:3,4).


Suffering happens. The reality?  God knows this.


Today is Passion Sunday.  This morning we affirm that God enters human suffering; God suffer with us as one of us; God even redeems that suffering with the hope and promise of Easter.  That’s the witness of the cross.  When we suffer, God is with us.


Many here have been experiencing the sorrowful side of life: ill health, intense grief, financial stress, difficulty and strife.  It’s all been very real for many of us the last few years.  We are not alone.  God is with us in the middle of it all.


Here’s one more statement from that unknown source:


In Jesus Christ we find hope in our suffering… because we know God’s love has been poured into us from the cross. In Jesus Christ, God knows what suffering is. In Christ, God entered into our human condition and suffered the frailty of human behavior that betrayed him. God suffered the excruciating death on the cross… and out of that human experience Easter’s resurrection hope was signed, sealed and delivered and death lost its power. With that Good News we know God is in the midst of suffering… and he’s there because he loves us. That’s what we learn from the cross. That’s why the cross is at the center of our faith.

The Problem of Pain
by: C. S. Lewis
publisher: HarperOne, published: 2015-04-28
ASIN: 0060652969
EAN: 9780060652968
sales rank: 2654
price: $7.48 (new), $2.26 (used)

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, one of the most renowned Christian authors and thinkers, examines a universally applicable question within the human condition: “If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?” With his signature wealth of compassion and insight, C.S. Lewis offers answers to these crucial questions and shares his hope and wisdom to help heal a world hungering for a true understanding of human nature.

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