A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on April 1, 2012.
Mark 11:1-11; 14:32-42, 66-72; 15:33-39
How comfortable are you with passion? I don’t just mean sexual passion. I’m talking about strong emotion of any kind. For example, when somebody begins to cry in your presence, how do you react?
Most personality inventory tests label me an “introverted thinker.” As a rule, introverted thinkers are uncomfortable around expressions of emotion. That’s why it was quite a challenge for me as a student chaplain at Baptist Hospital 36 years ago to be with a family who lost a loved one in the emergency room. This grieving family melted down, and as they heaved and sobbed, I remember looking for a hole in the floor I could crawl into. Since then I’ve become more comfortable with passion because my job demands it.
For that matter, so does my faith. Did you know that Palm Sunday is also called “Passion Sunday?” And the coming week is not just called Holy Week, but the “Week of Passion,” commemorating this last week of Jesus’ earthly life. It’s interesting to note that the “Passion Narrative” makes up over one-third of the Gospel of Mark. And it’s no surprise to learn that Passion Week is packed with plenty of passion.
The word “passion” literally means suffering. But in the Passion Narrative, passion refers to a wide array of raw emotions that erupt from one moment to the next. Frankly, we can overlook this element of the story if we’re not careful. Why? For one thing, we’re so familiar with this story that we’ve become numb to its passion. For another, we’re more comfortable focusing on theological ideas like atonement than fixating on Jesus’ anguished psyche. That’s why the movie, The Passion of the Christ, was too raw for many Christians when it was released in 2004.
Let’s take a moment to review the many passions of Passion Week. In the space of seven days we hear shouts of joy from Palm Sunday paraders, and see tears of sorrow shed by Jesus over Jerusalem. We observe the fury of Jesus as he cleans house in the temple, the deceit of the scribes and Pharisees as they try to verbally trap Jesus, and the treachery of Judas as he conspires to betray Jesus. We watch Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane, and Peter courageously cut off the ear of a soldier who’s helping to arrest Jesus.
Then we listen in as that same Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crows, and retreats into the shadows to weep bitterly. We observe the scorn of the soldiers as they beat and mock Jesus and the cowardice of Pilate and Herod as they hand over an innocent man to a bloodthirsty lynch mob. We notice the women who sob as Jesus is marched to the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. We hear Jesus shout a final prayer to God before he breathes his last on the cross, and watch bystanders beat their breasts when he is gone. It is finished, and we are exhausted. Then, very unexpectedly, Jesus is raised from the dead, and we are exhilarated.
Add the underlying theological meaning, and the story becomes even more gripping. The God of the universe goes to the mat for you and for me. He conquers sin, Satan, and death, but at no small price. The victory costs him his only Son. Only parents who have lost a child can begin to understand God’s grief. Then, God arranges for his dead son to live again, and joy fills the universe once more.
This story throbs with passion, which may be hard for us to absorb since many of us grew up thinking that the outward expression of emotion is inappropriate. Somehow we got it in our heads that big boys–and even big girls–don’t cry. Our role models were people who were tough as nails and cool as ice–always smiling, never ruffled.
In one of the early episodes of television’s “ER,” the young daughter of the chief resident looks on as the emergency room team works frantically to save a critically ill patient. Despite their best efforts, the patient dies. As usual, the team members put on their best clinical faces so they can move on to the next emergency. But the little girl stops her daddy and the attending surgeon before they tackle their next case. She asks her daddy what happened to the patient they were just working on. As tenderly as he can, the doctor explains to his little girl that not even doctors can always save their patients, and this patient had died. Then the little girl turns to the surgeon and asks, “If that man died, then why aren’t you crying?” At first the normally implacable surgeon is speechless. Finally, he looks in to the little girl’s eyes, points to his heart, and says, “I am crying–in here.”
I wonder how many of us are like that stoic surgeon. We are brokenhearted about something or someone. But we haven’t given ourselves permission to cry outwardly because that wouldn’t be cool. So we are crying “in here.”
Which is terribly ironic for us Christians, because if Jesus is any measure, it’s okay to cry–on the outside.
Ernest Campbell once preached a sermon entitled, “Did Jesus Cry?” In the sermon he takes issue with the lovely Christmas lullaby, “Away in a Manger.” Most of us know the first verse well (“Away in the manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head”). But do you remember the second verse? “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes. But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” Campbell takes issue with that verse, because Jesus was a baby, and babies cry. “It would be strange,” says Campbell, “if Jesus did not cry as a child… (since) He did as a man!”
If you don’t believe it, check out the record. In John 11, Jesus weeps over the death of his good friend Lazarus. In Luke 19 Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.
Why? After all, Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the sound of Hosannas. It should have been the happiest day of his life. Why did he burst into tears?
Because Jesus knew “Hosanna” would turn into “Crucify him” by the end of the week. He knew God’s chosen people would reject God’s son. It broke his heart to be rejected by his own people. And he sobbed over Jerusalem.
And who knows what dark night of the soul Jesus endured in the Garden of Gethsemane, much less on the cross? He not only stared death in the face–he looked squarely into the face of the Devil and the accumulated sin of all humanity. No wonder the Son of God sweat drops of blood in the Garden, and cried tears of anguish on the cross. Whoever said, “Real men don’t cry” must have overlooked the best man who ever lived.
And yet, we do our best to keep our crying on the inside, don’t we? Even at church, we often prefer to do our crying “in here.”
Charles Poole has written a book entitled, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday. In the book Poole tells of visiting a Catholic church. As he approaches the entrance of the great cathedral, he notices a small sign that reads, “Cry Room”. Intrigued he learns that Cry Room is another name for nursery, where young families in the church can go and observe the service without disturbing anyone with their crying babies.
Poole concludes that every church ought to have a Cry Room, not just for babies but for big people. After all, he says, big people need a cry room most of all: a place to grieve their greatest heartache, confess their deepest guilt, and tell their darkest stories in the presence of Jesus.
So is the point of this sermon that any and all expressions of emotion are good? Can this sermon be reduced to psychobabble that says, “When in doubt, gush”; or “Don’t hesitate to ventilate?”
No. In fact, the unbridled or misdirected expression of emotion can lead to major mistakes or even great tragedy. Look at the treachery of the scribes and Pharisees, the betrayal of Judas, and the denial of Peter. Each of these sorry cases represents emotion gone awry. Even the women who cry their eyes out as Jesus carries his cross to Calvary are gently advised by Jesus to cry not for him, but for their own children who one day will live through the horror of the downfall of Jerusalem.
On the other hand, properly directed emotion can lead to positive results. Ironically, Peter is an example of this principle as well. The scriptures say that after he denied Jesus Peter wept bitterly. God only knows how bitter those tears were. But someone has written that the tears of this strong man “washed his soul back to God” because despite his wretched failure, Peter was the first apostle to see the resurrected Lord.
Of course, Jesus is the best example of emotion gone right. Jesus poured all his passion–his hopes and fears of all the years–into that wretched tree called the cross. And his suffering 2,000 years ago means life abundant and eternal for us today.
It’s okay to cry on the outside. It’s okay to express even your deepest emotions in appropriate ways as long as you seek to channel that emotion to positive ends. And as long as you remember one other thing–there’s no need to cry past Saturday.
In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole writes of the death of a man named J. W. Spruce. One April morning over 50 years ago, Spruce woke up with an awful heaviness in his chest. Immediately, he knew he was dying of a heart attack.
Spruce’s daughter was there, and she wept as she knelt by her daddy’s side. J. W. Spruce looked into her tear-streaked face and offered her this unforgettable piece of advice:
“I can’t tell you not to weep,” he said. “I’d cry too, if it was you who was dying. I know you need to cry. But this is Friday morning. So, whatever you do, don’t cry past Tuesday.”
Charles Poole observes that all of us need to give ourselves permission to grieve freely over the loss of loved ones, and that may mean consuming lots of Kleenex. But sooner or later, Tuesday comes, and we have to move on and start living life again.
Friends, hear the good news of the gospel: Jesus died a terrible death on Friday. But on Sunday, God raised Jesus from the dead. Today, Jesus lives in our hearts. And one day, he will reign in all his fullness at the right hand of God. And on that day, he will wipe every tear from (our) eyes, forever. (Revelation 21:4)
In the meantime, we still have our problems, and we still shed our tears. But ultimately, we need not cry past Saturday, because after Saturday’s gone, Easter Sunday’s coming. Then our mourning will turn to dancing.
Twenty-two years ago this month my Granny Hughes died. Her death broke my heart. She was the first of my four grandparents to go. I loved her dearly. And I don’t mind telling you her death shook me to the core.
Granny’s last request was that I conduct her funeral. Otherwise, I would have never done it. But I (literally) swallowed my grief and somehow managed to do her funeral.
In the weeks that followed I noticed a tight knot in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. Some days I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. I engaged in the usual stress reducers. I cut down on caffeine. I exercised. I tried deep breathing. Nothing worked.
Finally, in July of that year, I asked a good friend if I could borrow her mountain cabin so I could get away by myself. I was confident that solitude would do the trick. But it didn’t. Then I took a long walk up the side of a mountain and I literally screamed at God and ventilated for all I was worth. That helped temporarily. But soon the knot in my stomach returned.
Then I began to panic. I remember pacing through that mountain cabin and wondering which doctor I needed to call to get medication to reduce my stress before I came unglued.
Finally, in desperation, I grabbed my Bible and began to read the Psalms. I was thunderstruck by how open and honest the Psalmist was with his pain before God, and the hope he expressed for God’s healing. Suddenly, without any warning, I found myself sobbing with tears of grief that had been accumulating since April. And just as suddenly, it began to rain outside, as though God was crying with me.
Then the shower ended. And so did my tears. The four-month-old knot in my stomach was gone. You see, I had discovered the Crying Room on the mountain, and I was a new man.
Since then, I’ve shed more tears over the deaths of other grandparents, my mother, and many members of this church. But it makes all the difference in the world to know that Easter means I’ll see them again. And that means I won’t need to cry past Saturday.
And neither will you.
Thanks be to God!