Getting down and dirty

Text: 1 Peter 3:18
Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God.

In 1993 Bette Midler recorded and popularised a song called, ‘From a Distance’. When it first came out there was a buzz of excitement because there was a song about God on the radio. Each verse starts “From a distance’ and the words express the need for harmony and peace in the land and no guns, no hungry people and no disease. And then follows the chorus,
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

But is that really what God is like? God doesn’t watch. We watch. We watch TV. We watch children playing in a playground. We watch circus performers do all kinds of amazing things as they balance, tumble, juggle and perform high above our heads. Watching is a kind of aloof activity; in fact, it can hardly be called an activity. It is passive. When you watch a group of children playing cricket, you aren’t actively participating in the game. You are watching them from a distance.

God doesn’t just watch. He gets in there where the action is. He bats, he bowls, when a kid falls and grazes a knee, he picks them up and dusts them off, wipes a tear from their eye, and with a word of encouragement sends them back into the game. God doesn’t just watch what is happening here on earth from a distance. He comes right down into the thick of things; born in stable, living in a war torn country ruled by unjust and unkind rulers, experienced pain, hunger, thirst, even tempted just as we are, as we heard in the gospel reading today when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

As we begin this Lenten season again we become aware once again that God isn’t watching us from a distance, in his Son Jesus he gets down and gets dirty. The reading today from Peter’s First Letter highlights this when the apostle says,

“Christ died for sins once for all”, and then a few verses later says, “Christ suffered physically” (4:1) and a bit earlier we hear “Christ suffered for you” (2:21). Peter is saying what the New Testament states again and again, as in Romans 5:8, “While we were still sinners that Christ died for us!”

We have heard words like “Christ suffered” and “Jesus died” so many times that I wonder whether we have lost the true impact of what these simple, yet very complex words, are saying to us. It’s only when we look at other words connected with Jesus suffering that we start to get an idea of what is being talked about. Words like ‘abused’, ‘rejected’, ‘beaten’, ‘whipped’, ‘mocked’, ‘pain’, ‘agony’, ‘wounds’, ‘crown of thorns’, ‘nails’, ‘put to death’. When we hear these words we realise that the word ‘suffer’ is a very intense word. We talk about the pain that a paper cut sends through our finger to our brain or the suffering that a backache causes us or a twisted ankle. But this kind of suffering pales into insignificance when we talk about the extreme suffering that Jesus experienced. It’s true some people have suffered extreme pain to a similar degree as Christ suffered and maybe it’s these people who have a sense of something of the suffering that Jesus went through.

But here is the dilemma with which the New Testament confronts us. When we say that Jesus suffered, we are saying, God suffers, God feels pain. To our human mind this is not possible. When we think of God we think of him being so different to us. We are mortal, God is immortal. We are weak, God is strong. We have limited knowledge, God knows everything. We are sinners, God is holy and perfect. It would be natural to follow on and say, “We suffer, God doesn’t suffer”.

But that’s precisely the point that the New Testament is making. God does suffer. There are those who say that God is just a creation of over active imaginations. But if God is just made up by the human imagination, I’m certain that the God we would create would not be a suffering God. Paul backs this up by saying to the Corinthians that the whole idea of God suffering on a cross is utter foolishness to our human way of thinking – ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:18-31).

Some Christians don’t like to focus too much on the suffering and death of Jesus. Some prefer to talk of him being Lord and King and that’s okay but let’s not forget that he is also a suffering God, a servant God. Suffering God and Servant God might seem like a contradiction in terms but that’s they way God is.

The New Testament doesn’t avoid talk about God suffering because this is central to God’s plan to save all people. Already in the Old Testament there is a connection between the saviour, the Messiah and suffering. In Isaiah we read,
“He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering ….
He was despised, and we esteemed him not;….
he was pierced for our transgressions …
and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-6)

We have a God who suffered. When we see God in pain on the cross, we know that this God understands my pain. You see God knows and understands what it’s like to lose a child, to be abused, rejected, humiliated, a social outcast because he hasn’t just watched from a distance, he hasn’t even saved humanity from a distance.
He came to earth and was hated, tortured, made a laughing stock, abused, humiliated, and suffered to the point of death, even death on a cross. As we go through Lent which includes the events that happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we need to remember, more than ever, that our God is a suffering God.

That’s the reason why a cross is so central to a Christian place of worship. We can sandpaper and smooth down the cross. We can make it into a nice piece of jewellery. Whether the cross is plain empty cross, or a crucifix with the image of Jesus on it, it doesn’t matter. No matter how much we pretty up the cross, it is always in instrument of suffering; a reminder of excruciating agony and death. In Jesus’ case, the cross is a symbol of an innocent man suffering because of the wickedness of others. The cross can never be anything else but a symbol of suffering and death.

When we see Jesus on the cross, blood dripping down his face, his naked body bleeding from the cruel whipping, hands and feet nailed to its beams, it’s hard to imagine that this is God. In faith we can see beyond all that and realise that this is God’s love at work on the cross bringing us salvation and eternal life. Through the vulnerability and weakness displayed on the cross, God brings his love, power and grace to us. We may think that this is a strange thing for God to do but it’s all about God’s love for us.

Peter goes on and reminds us of another strange way that God comes to us when he says, “baptism now saves you”. Again this is a very strange thing for God to do. Very unimpressive. Very boring. Very ordinary. But very God!

Water, very ordinary water renews, cleanses, brings us under God’s grace and claims us as his children. When we look at water it’s hard to see how God can do anything fantastic through something so plain, so uninteresting. But that’s the way God often chooses to work in our lives. He calls ordinary people like you and me. In baptism God calls people who have ordinary jobs, ordinary lives, and live amongst ordinary people and joins their name with his name. In this way we are joined with the powerful God who empowers and enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

There is a message here for our lives as Christians. The question that confronts us then is this: Are we Christians ‘from a distance’? Just as Jesus didn’t deal with humanity’s problems from a distance neither are we called to deal with the hurts, troubles and pains that afflict the people around us from a distance. Often it means getting down to be with them and understand them and getting dirty to help them. Is this what Jesus was getting at when he washed his disciples feet on the night before he suffered and died? He was a true servant, getting down on his knees, taking dirty feet into his hands and washing them. This was a foreshadowing of the kind of servant role that he will take up as he suffers on the cross. Doesn’t he also say, “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you”?

This is what discipleship is all about.
It might be risky.
It might mean being a friend to someone whom everyone else ignores.
It might mean giving others time, money and help that you can’t really afford.
It might even mean putting your comfort and reputation on the line.
But in the end it’s the only way that we can be true disciples of Jesus. Up close and personal, understanding and full of compassion for where the person is at, ready to do whatever is necessary to provide relief and comfort. End goal of discipleship does not include ‘watching from a distance’.

As we move through this Lenten season we ask that the Holy Spirit would prepare us for the suffering God, the God who mixes it with the muck of our lives, who mixes with our pain, who suffers alongside us. Let’s thank God that he was prepared to do more than watch us from a distance but was prepared to get up close and personal for us. We pray that we might do the same for others.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

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