(a sermon for March 16, 2014; the 2nd Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Luke 13:31-35, John 11:35 and Titus 3:4-7)
First off, let me just say that when it comes to preaching a sermon about the compassion of Jesus, it’s actually kind of difficult – at least for this preacher (!) – to narrow down the focus of the message to just one passage of the gospels! After all, what are the gospels but the story of that time (to quote today’s reading from Titus) “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared;” when “he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
The fact is, examples of that mercy are found abundantly all through the gospels; likewise, evidence of Jesus’ great compassion runs all through his story! It’s there in the great acts of healing the good news shared among those he encountered on the way. It’s there in the compassion Jesus had for “the multitudes;” for instance, in the miraculous feeding of the 4,000, which came about not so much out of a remarkable ability to really stretch a small amount of bread and fish, but rather out of the wellspring of compassion within Jesus’ own Spirit for the hungry people walking with him along the Sea of Galilee. And it’s there in so many of the stories Jesus told: from the “above and beyond” care of the Good Samaritan to the extravagant forgiveness shown by the father of the Prodigal Son. If you want to know what divine caring is all about, all you need do is look to Jesus as he’s portrayed in any one of dozens of passages throughout the gospels.
That having been said, it seems to me that if we really want to get to the “heart” of Jesus’ compassion, it’s to be found in a single verse in John’s gospel that’s not only one of the most profound and true-to-life descriptions of who Jesus is, but also happens to be the shortest verse in all of scripture, in which we’re told that “Jesus wept.” (11:35)
It’s been aptly observed that if you really want to know what somebody values, find out what it is that they cry over; truly, what somebody loves, what’s important to them, their hardest struggles, their deepest regrets, what it is they yearn for the most in this life: all of this and more is so often revealed in the shedding of tears! Joy and sorrow, exhilaration and fear, hurt and healing, hopelessness and hopefulness: it’s all expressed in our weeping; and for this reason alone, it’s no coincidence that for many folks this place – the church – is where the tears start to flow, and well it should be!
Of course, there are those who tend to go overboard; in one church I served, there was a man who was father of the bride on two separate occasions; and God bless him, each time when the moment came to present his daughters in marriage, the man wept. And understand that I don‘t mean “his-eyes-glistened-with-tears” wept; I mean, he “blubbered-like-a-little-baby” wept! The man was inconsolable; the bride had to tell him to calm down and pull himself together! But that was alright – and it came as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knew the man (!) – because the weeping showed forth the incredible love he had for his daughters!
To weep; to “shed the sympathizing tear,” as the hymn puts it, is to show your heart. The 19th century philosopher Maurice Blondel wrote that if you really want to understand someone don’t just listen to what they say, watch what they do; and so, in seeing Jesus weep we begin to understand the deep level of his compassion. Now, that little verse, “Jesus wept,” comes in the context of having learned of the death of his friend Lazarus, and seeing the anguish of that loss in Mary and Martha; but it’s not the only place where we see Jesus crying. It’s also there in Luke, just following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus “came near and saw the city, [and] he wept over it,” (19:41) and it’s there, albeit indirectly, in our reading this morning, in which Jesus responds to the Pharisees by crying out “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
It’s important to point out here that this amounts to more than simply the use of poetic language; in fact the Greek word used for “weeping” or crying is accurately translated in English as “sobbing audibly and convulsively.” What we’re talking about here was the kind of deep and utter sadness that you feel in the marrow of your bones; Jesus was quite literally aching for Jerusalem as he drew near to it; and his lamentation that Jerusalem’s children would not be gathered was deep and profound. But rather than reacting with anger or out of some misbegotten rush of political fervor, Jesus responds with real and intense compassion.
Of course, the question is why was Jesus weeping over Jerusalem? Jerusalem was known as the “city of peace,” and back then, as now really, it was anything but. It had become a place of violence and corruption and evil and godlessness; a city destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed once again time after time, both from within and without; all of which had come about in large part because through the ages, its people had more or less forgotten God: consistently ignoring God’s messages, continually squandering God’s graceful “second chances” at life and faith, and repeatedly putting themselves on the throne of power, rather than letting God be the Lord of their lives.
And so here’s Jesus, who’s now entering this mighty city which was meant to be quite literally the “center-place” of their shared faith and recognizing how far they had fallen as God’s people. But rather than reacting to this with the inclination to wholly rebuke and reject the city and its people, he responds with great love. Jesus showed compassion, compassion filled both with pain and the deepest kind of love. I want so much to bring you together, to welcome you home to the God who loves you so much and will do almost anything to bring you home, “but you refused and turned away!” (The Message) But still – and always – I love you and I want you to come home.
It’s actually not unlike the love that a parent has for a child; which in all honesty is sometimes a love that makes you incredibly happy, and sometimes a love that makes you incredibly sad, but which in either event is a love deep and profound. I’m put in mind of a scene in the Dustin Hoffman movie from many years back, Kramer vs. Kramer, when a little boy falls off the jungle gym in the park, and his father, played by Hoffman, is running through the streets of New York, child in his arms, racing to find an emergency room. Then you see the doctor cleaning the wound and giving the boy stitches, and every time the boy jumps and starts to cry because of the pain of it, his father, still clinging to his son, is jumping and crying right along with him (!); going through the agony of it as though that pain were his own, which in so many ways it was! But that’s what you do when you love somebody that much!
Well, multiply that image about a 1,000 times over, friends, and you begin to discover the depth of Jesus’ compassion. The love that lies at the heart of Jesus is the highest form of love; that which the Greeks referred to as agape: love that is full and deep and sacrificial; love that assumes a commitment to the other person, even if that other person is not lovely, or loveable or loving; love that is always accepting and endures the hardships of life and the changes in people’s lives, but also refuses to accept the fact that healing and positive growth is not possible. It’s love that transforms the pain, shame and failure of human lives into forgiveness and new beginnings!
It’s this kind of love that moved Jesus to weeping, and it was the driving force that sent him to the cross. What is it that he said to his disciples? “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) This is the compassionate love of Jesus, and it is compassion that runs just as deeply for you and me today. The question is – it always is – whether we’re willing to truly receive Jesus’ compassionate care; or if, like Jerusalem before us, we refuse to budge from old ways and needless patterns of living.
For make no mistake about this, friends; Jesus is still weeping, and he weeps for us.
I’m very fond of a painting by the late 19th century French artist Paul Hippolyte Flandrin entitled “Christ Mourning for the City.” As its title suggests, the painting depicts Jesus standing on a hillside weeping over the city below; upon closer examination, however, what you find is that the “city” is not Jerusalem, but Paris: a Paris which at the time was contemporary; with dark, dirty dingy streets and an unlit church in the distance. What you immediately realize that this city for which Jesus is weeping could just as well have been London, or New York, or Kiev, or Washington, or …Concord, New Hampshire! Such is the love that Jesus has for this world; such is the compassionate desire for Jesus not only to bring each one of us closer to him, but to gather us all into his loving embrace, that he still weeps for us! The tragedy is that so many of us, as persons and people and as nations, are still unwilling to be gathered! So even now, Jesus weeps, aching to show us what life can truly be, both now and eternally.
There’s another film I’d recommend to you today, and it’s entitled “Winged Migration.” This is a beautifully done documentary made a few years ago about the migratory habits of geese and ducks and other birds all over the world, shot against just about every kind of landscape you can think of; and it’s an amazing thing to watch. And there’s this one shot of a snowy white goose; who, after a long and dangerous journey, has finally reached its nesting area, and who now, finally, is lying still in her nest, silent and serene. Or at least you think so; because all of a sudden, POP! There’s the head of a tiny chick popping out through her tail feathers; and then, POP (!), there’s another and another! And immediately, you know that this mother goose – the real mother goose (!) – is giving her babies life and warmth and love; and before long, she’s going to be preparing her offspring for all the dangers that will await them as inevitably they make their own journeys south. That’s what they do, these geese; that’s their nature; it’s what’s imprinted on them to protect and to teach their children well.
In a very real way, beloved, this is how Jesus is in relationship to us. Jesus wants us to be ready for all that will come to us in this life, and wants us to know that we will always be in the company of God now and forever. And so every moment – even in this moment – he’s calling to us to come near; to asking us to let him bear our burdens as our own; he wants to move us along good pathways, better ones than the ones we so often make for ourselves; and he’s promising to love us, wholly and fully, every step along the way.
This is the heart of Jesus, friends; and it’s a heart filled with compassion. But the question remains: are we willing to let his heart become ours. I hope and pray this morning that we are.
Thanks be to God for what a compassionate friend we have in Jesus.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry