March 24, 2019

Mark 15:33-39

Andrew Jackson was forty-five years old when the United States and Great Britain went to war in 1812. Jackson, who in 1828 became President of the United States, already had a reputation as a popular leader in 1812. He had already held leadership positions for Tennessee as their attorney general, their Representative in Congress, and their Senator, and he also had been a major general in the state militia.

In January 1813, shortly after America declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Jackson led 2,000 plus volunteers from Tennessee on a long march to join the fighting in New Orleans. The columns braved the cold, marching some five hundred miles south until they rendezvoused with federal authorities at Natchez, Mississippi. Upon orders from the Secretary of War, the authorities instructed Jackson’s troops to disband and return to Tennessee. Jackson was enraged. He wrote to the governor: “They abandon us in a strange country… I will make every sacrifice to add to their [my soldiers’] comfort.”

By this time, 150 of his men were sick, dozens could barely sit, and the caravan had only eleven wagons for supplies and the infirmed. As the soldiers prepared to move out, the company doctor asked Jackson what he was to do with so many sick men.

Jackson promptly replied, “To do, sir? You are not to leave a [single sick] man [walking on foot].”

“But the wagons are full,” the doctor said, “and they will not convey more than half.”

“Then let some of the troops dismount and the officers must give up their horses to the sick,” Jackson answered. “Not a man, sir, must be left behind.”

The company doctor took Jackson at his word, whereupon he turned to the general and asked Andrew Jackson to offer his own horse. The soldiers were stunned to see their general dismount and eventually lead them home on foot. By the time they arrived in Nashville, the troops had gained a newfound greater admiration for their leader, whom by them they affectionately called ‘Old Hickory.’

 In proving his devotion to his troops, Jackson had acted contrary to a long honored military adage: “Rank has its privileges.” Generals rode on horseback; enlisted men walked on foot. By yielding his rightful privilege to ride on his horse, as was fitting for a senior military officer, Jackson acquired from his followers respect and affection, that lasted beyond his wartime service and culminated in his presidency.

We accept that persons with rank have special privileges. Chief executive officers fly in chartered jets. Movie stars ride in chauffeured limousines.  Sports superstars find tables in busy restaurants without making reservations. The masses may complain about such preferential treatment, but meanwhile we begrudgingly defer to their privileges. For they, and we, come to expect those holding rank above us to exercise privileges beyond ours. 

When someone, such as did Andrew Jackson, breaks with protocol, we are caught off-guard. Top ranking generals are not supposed to march like common foot soldiers. When one does, his followers are awestruck. Since rank has its privileges in the military, how much so does rank have its privileges in the deity!

Being a god is supposed to have its privileges. There should be myriads of dutiful worshippers flattering absolutely divine accomplishments. There should be heavenly vistas sheltered from eyesores and intruders. There should be endless bliss accompanied by majestic heavenly music. There should be power, power to fix anything wrong, power to do whatever the god pleases, and finally power to make everyone happy, at least make the gods happy, even if comes at the expense of the masses. Some privileges are reserved for the ranking deity. Some prerogatives belong solely to God.

But the story about Jesus we heard earlier turned out quite differently. In the next to last chapter in Mark’s story about Jesus, God incognito, turned out to behave shockingly different than how we expected divine authority figures to behave.

Instead of being flattered by adoring worshippers, Jesus is hounded to death by a lynch mob. Instead of being sheltered by angelic bodyguards, Jesus is abused by bloodthirsty military police. Instead of being accompanied by heavenly choristers, he is strung up between two hardened death row inmates. Instead of showing off his super powers, he is mocked by passers-by, who challenge Jesus to stand up and act like a god.

Instead, Jesus just hangs there. Never asserts his privileges. Never defends himself. As Mark told the story, Jesus doesn’t even say a word, until after all the abuse and brutality, when he lets out a pitiful scream (Mark 15:34): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is far from the way we expect deity to behave, certainly far from the way I expect any divinity to die. Feeling impotent, dejected, and complaining are human traits, not divine ones. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand how the Roman officer standing watch could conclude from seeing Jesus die that “this man was truly the son of God” (Mark 15:39). To my understanding, the way Jesus died seemed void of God, not akin to God. Taking Jesus at his own words, in his last moments even God had rejected him.

In his dying words, Jesus sounded much more like one of us than he sounded like the next of kin to God. Usually Jesus began his prayers by addressing God as next of kin. Usually Jesus began his prayers by saying, “My Father,” as for example he did a day earlier when he prayed, “My father, if there is any way I can get out of going to the gallows, I’d be much relieved.”  Here, for his last and final remarks directed at the Lord, Jesus drops the intimate family connection. Instead he calls out with the form of address so common to us that we use it more often as an exclamation, “My God!” than as a polite way of speaking to the Almighty in prayer, “My God.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a statement we might expect to hear from one of our human kind, not from one of God’s kind. For all of recorded history, God has enjoyed constant company. Heaven is full of angels and saints, fancy seraphim and flying cherubim. In contrast, feeling alone is a distinctively human experience, compounded when we are in pain. Pain isolates, as we often lament: “I am the only one feeling this way.” Somehow the more we are in pain, the less we sense friends understand, the less we sense family empathizes, and the less we sense God is close.

Pain can fill us so completely that we sense God has left the room. Although we sense God has gone away, we berate God in absentia by asking God that plaguing question: “Why?” “Why did this happen to me? To my child? To my lover?” The uniquely human knee-jerk reaction to pain is to demand an explanation from God, for we expect God to have all the answers and to keep us happy.

When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he sounded just like one of us: utterly confused, totally human. Instead of having all the answers, Jesus raises a question, indeed an accusation which sounds like one of our frequent charges against God. In striking contrast to what we expect God to be like—powerful, grandiose, admired by an entourage—Jesus sounds unmistakably like one of us—pained, bewildered, and alone.

The contrast prompts me to question if we have confused the real God with our imaginary one. I am not questioning if Jesus is less than really divine. The testimony of the New Testament and the experience of the church convince me that Jesus was utterly divine. I am lead to question if we have accurately portrayed who God is or what God is like. I am lead to question if Jesus cancels out our caricature of God, if Jesus redefines God. Maybe, if we want to define God, we should start with Jesus. Take God off the pedestal, where it gathers dust in storage, and see God on a blood soaked cross.

We want God to show off those divine powers, do something good for us, fix all our problems, but Jesus just hung there. Hecklers railed at him for being a failure. On-lookers accused him of being impotent. No one thought God would be caught dead on a cross. Rank, especially when someone ranks up there with the deity, that kind of rank is supposed to have its privileges.

Which is true, rank has its privileges unless someone with privileges gives them up to join with the rank and file. Then they can look just like the rest of us. When both are marching in columns through the plains of Georgia, even a general looks as pitiful as a foot soldier. Andrew Jackson resolved to bring his troops home alive, even if it meant getting off his high horse and marching in step with the militia. On a far, far grander scale, Jesus resolved to bring us back home, even if it meant humiliating himself and bearing his cross.

Under such circumstances, vulnerability becomes, not a sign of impotence, but a sign of greatness—great leadership and great character and great compassion. In stooping to join ranks with the likes of us—pained, bewildered, and alone—Jesus went beyond showing that God is for us. Beyond saying, “I am concerned for you going through such pain,” Jesus said, “I am one with you.” Beyond saying, “I feel bad for what you are going through,” Jesus said, “I am going through it with you, same as you do.” Mysteriously, through Jesus sharing our miserable life, somehow Jesus arranged for us to share his divine life. Somehow by becoming one with us, Jesus paved the way for us to become one with him.

I see a dynamic occur often. When I see someone hurt like I do, when I sense that we are alike, my heart goes out to them. Maybe we and God are alike in that way. Maybe when Jesus learned how miserable we can be, how God-forsaken we sometimes feel, he learned empathy to look at us in a different way. Maybe when we learn how miserable Jesus became for us, we can look at God a different way. Instead of being at odds with one another, our heart can go out to one another and we can be close again.  Since God wants to much to be close to us, may we take heart.