In her great book, Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge tells a story about what happened on Palm Sunday 1994 at the Goshen Methodist Church in Piedmont Alabama.
Over 140 people had shown up to worship God, and because it was Palm Sunday they were doing a Palm Sunday pageant before the Reverend Kelly Clem went up to preach.
While the older kids were performing the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in the Triumphal entry, Reverend Kelly’s 4 year-old daughter looked up at her and said, “I want to be in the story mommy.”
That is the hardest part of this story for me personally, because my wife and I have a 4 year-old named Hannah, and right after Kelly’s daughter said this an F4 Tornado ripped that church apart and killed 20 people, including Hannah.
Since it was right in the middle of the pageantry of it all, the whole thing was caught on video, and because it was so tragic, Hard Copy offered the woman who was filming $50,000 for it. Of course she said no, because she knew that there was no amount of money that was worth making that kind of personal pain and tragedy public.
Reverend Kelly, who herself had lost a child, and had her pelvis broken, said of the moments later, that after this happened, the whole world joined in with them trying to make sense of this tragedy, and Rev. Kelly couldn’t answer their burning question of Why. But she did say maybe that is part of the point of this whole week, and days like Palm Sunday.
“Holy week doesn’t make sense.”
The Meaning In Meaninglessness
That is the most difficult thing in all of this. The point of the Cross is that there is no point of the Cross.
People crucified the Son of God in the most cruel inhumane way, they stripped him naked and beat him, and strung him up to die in the most humiliating, public, and shame-filled way.
It is important for those of us inside the Christian faith to remember that when people left the Hill where Jesus died, there were no silver linings, there was no looking on the bright side.
The only lesson that people took away that day, was that people who have the most swords and spears, the people who are well connected, and savvy with strategy, are the ones who can get what they want.
The Cross, for being the most meaningful thing that has ever happened in Human history, was on the day that it happened, incredibly meaningless. We forget that for the first few centuries of Christianity, there were no Christian paintings of Jesus on the Cross. The people who had seen a crucifixion never wanted to memorialize that. For those who had seen them, the cross was not reverent, it was the opposite of that.
Jesus was killed a slave’s death, his body was to be disposed of, and outside of a handful of people no one even knew or cared.
And, here is the point I would like to make, Jesus not only allowed this… Jesus chose this.
Obedient To Death
I’m preaching through the Gospel of John right now, and John tells the story differently than all the other Gospels. In John, Jesus is clearly in charge. Having done all that he chose to do, Jesus gives up his spirit. It is an absolutely different way to tell the story. It is one of the great things about the Gospels: they all give different slants on the story.
From John’s point of view, the one thing he wants disciples to understand is this: Jesus died the shameful death of the cross because Jesus the Messiah wanted to die the shameful death of the cross. He decided to. He willingly laid down his life for the world. Nobody kills Jesus. Nobody arrests Jesus. Nobody puts him on trial. Nobody beats Jesus without his express permission. He is not a victim. Jesus is telling a story with his life. When you look at me, he says, don’t see a cross or execution. See a throne. See my glory.
Several years ago, Charles Taylor wrote an 800 page book called A Secular Age where he explained why modern people are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than those in times past.
He says it is because, culturally, our confidence in the power of our intellect has changed. In the past, people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment of an infinite God, and what God might be up to.
Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.
Here’s how Tim Keller applies Taylor’s point:
There is, then, a significant amount of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. It is assumed, not proved, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist…but it wasn’t true that their reasoning had undermined their faith. Instead it was that a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and ability to comprehend the depths of things, had displaced an older, more self-effacing kind of faith.
When we struggle with doubt when life hits the fan, when everything goes south, it is only human to begin to look for it somehow to make sense, we begin to try and help others make sense of it.
And sometimes that’s okay, but other times we say really dumb stuff like God needed another angel, as if we have any idea about what God was up to, or the inventory level of God’s angels.
But the flip side of the “God needed another angel” line of thinking is actually very common too. It goes like this, if we can’t think of a reason, there must not be one.
Knowing Our Limits
We have tremendous confidence that we can make sense of God, even though God’s answer to suffering was not to explain it, but to enter into the very worst of it. We assume that if there were a reason to the way the world is, that we would be able to understand it. And since we can’t there must not be an explanation, and therefore there must not be a God.
We never quite realize how much God may be doing that we just have no idea about.
There are times in everyone’s life when we go through something and we can’t make sense of it. There are times for all of us when God seems impossible, or a million miles away. But don’t let pride fool you, we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do.
We are not the masters of the universe we thought we were, and in those moments when it feels like God is a million miles away, these just might be the moments when God is the closest.
So, going back to that church in Alabama, the pastor never sold the copy of that tape to Hard Copy. She did something much better.
On the day of the tornado, one of the people who died was Diane Molock, She knelt over her 3-year-old nephew, Tyler, and was cuddling him in the safety of her arms just as the walls came down. She died, but Tyler escaped with only scratches, because of her sacrifice.
There were so many more stories like that and as this little church went through Hell, they went through it together. Little by little, Reverend Kelly invited every member of that church to her home to watch the video. They said that it helped them to heal, because even though it was the worst day of their lives, in hindsight they said they could see God was right there.
This is what Reverend Kelly said on CNN:
“But — here and there — in spite of the “why?” there would be a gleam of hope. ‘Where was God?’ people ask. But a hundred little gifts reminded us that God is here, that it’s God’s story we’re living; that, as Jesus promised his disciples, he will not leave us orphans in this storm.”
Where is God? I don’t know. I’m only human, but I have a hunch…Closer than we think.