“The Troubled Soul of Jesus”

  1. Heb5.5-10/Jn12.20-33

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Does God really care?

Children are fitted with suicide bombs. Drug gangs shoot innocent bystanders. Airplanes crash.

All this happens in a world that “the Lord hath made.” However sure we are of our faith, we find the many apparent imperfections of God’s world disturbing.

But so did the Son of God! As his ministry became more popular, Jesus found himself threatened by both religious and secular authorities. For when he travelled around the Judean countryside, preaching and healing, Jesus attracted large crowds of the curious.

Some people joined his movement who used be practicing Jews. Because they left the synagogues, their rabbis got angry at the loss of members. And since Jesus taught that God is higher than the Roman Emperor, Roman authorities found him to be threatening to their rule over Israel.

So The First Lesson tells of Christ’s “loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death…” The Son of God, the Anointed One reaches out in prayer, fearful that he and his movement will soon be crushed. Events in his Father’s world seem to be going terribly wrong.

The anguish becomes even more explicit in today’s Second Lesson. St. John records these words of Jesus: “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. Father, glorify your name.”

“Now my soul is troubled.” The Gospel of John was written later than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And it has long passages where the writer often seems to have elaborated and expanded the quotations of Jesus; today’s Gospel text is an example.

But the anguish of Jesus is also noted in the other three Gospels. Christ’s Passion–his suffering at the hands of the Roman soldiers and his death on the Cross—His passion unquestionably took place. Jesus shared our human sorrows. Like all of us when we are faced with extreme stress, he was “deeply troubled.”

So what did Christ do? How did he endure his all-too-human suffering?

The Letter to the Hebrews says that he “learned obedience through what he suffered.” Another English translation says that he “learned obedience in the school of suffering.”

That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Suffering for Christ was a kind of school. And while it wasn’t like a university that you try hard to get into, still it was a place of learning and growth.

Jesus didn’t let his inner turmoil undermine his resolve to obey God. Instead, he saw that if he endured persecution, he could discover how to do God’s will in a dangerous world.

Notice, too, that Christ found a place to direct his pain. He could offer his suffering not to the clouds in the sky but to the true and living God.

I don’t think many of us take seriously the implications of this fact that Christ suffered. For if Christ suffered, and he was divine, then God must have a sense of what Christ felt. And that means that in some intimate way, God can sense our pain, too.

So even if we can’t see a point to our suffering, we always have some place to go for relief for our troubled souls.

And when we offer our complaints to God, we follow the example of Jesus himself. As we heard in the First Lesson: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications…”

If Christ’s wishes sometimes were not granted, his soul was ultimately comforted, and he received the strength he needed to face his final test at the Place of the Skull.

On February 6, a member of our parish, Deborah Berthel died at the age of 65. She spent years in medical institutions. Many people who are now members of our congregation never met her because she had been gone from church for so long.

Deb suffered from several chronic illnesses including bleeding on her brain. By the time she reached her early 50’s, she found it harder and harder to walk. Deb was a cause of great worry to us on Sundays; she didn’t like to accept help, so we would all stand by as she would struggle to circulate around the Coffee Hour.

Deb eventually became too disabled to work, and she lacked the strength to maintain her apartment on 35th Street. Following several more episodes of bleeding in her brain, she was placed in a nursing home.

Then followed the worst series of medical misfortunes that I have ever witnessed. She needed numerous operations; sometimes she had tubes inserted that kept her from talking at all. Her eyesight declined to the point that she had to give up her lifelong habit of reading. She had no immediately family, and most of her friends drifted away. She was eventually moved out of Manhattan to a nursing home at the northern tip of the Bronx, an hour subway ride away from her beloved Murray Hill; she also required frequent stays in the hospital.

Deb’s speech became so slurred that I couldn’t make out what she was saying, so I asked our assistant ministers to visit her.

I can’t imagine what Deb went through over these years and years. I know that she never gave up hope that one day she would be well enough to move back into her apartment. She always dreamed of getting her old life back.

So if Deb Berthel learned nothing else in the school of suffering, she learned to find comfort in her faith. She loved to receive communion, though in the end, she could swallow only a few drops of wine. God gave her hope. And faith. And love.

While Deb was an extreme example of misfortune, terrible moments are part of the life we all live in a fallen world.

But some Christians argue that since God seemed to have permitted Jesus to die, he must have wanted it to happen. The reality, though, is that God didn’t kill Jesus–bad men killed Jesus. There’s no doubt about that.

By the same token, God doesn’t give us tests to build our characters. Rather, the challenges of life are part of our existence in a fallen world.

What’s most important is that we remember where to direct our troubles. I spoke last week about Jesus’s prediction that he must be “lifted up”—a foretelling of his crucifixion.

Jesus also refers to his death in today’s readings. It is worth reminding ourselves just before Holy Week that Christ’s offering of himself not only led to his own ultimate peace—but to ours as well.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”


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