Summary: Jesus offers to us freedom from our suffering, if only we will accept that gift. The hour is late, but not too late.
Before I was born, my grandfather had one of his kidneys removed because of cancer. The cancer was in remission for 18 years before it returned in a bone in his arm in 1995. The doctors scrapped out a big chunk of the bone and replaced it with a metal plate. And then they waited. Not too long after that, my grandfather started having bouts of severe dizziness. The doctors thought it was an inner ear infection, but nothing they tried ended the problem. Finally, they did a brain scan, only to discover two large, inoperable tumors at the base of my grandfather’s brain. I remember my Mom saying many times that my grandfather had always hoped that when it died it would be a quick and painless death. It’s a hope I think we all have. But it did not end up being a reality for my grandfather. He lingered for another three years or so. The last year he was completely bed-ridden, and the final six months were really awful—he was barely even cognizant. Certainly my grandfather was suffering in those final years and months, but he never sought sympathy from others. Even to the very end, he was more concerned with the well-being of my grandmother and the rest of his family. He did not want to be a burden to anyone. And even on the most difficult of days, my grandfather always tried to keep his spirits up and to be positive; mostly, I’d say, for everyone else’s sake. I think it’s fair to say that he shared the sentiment of so many others who have painfully approached death, not least of them Jesus of Nazareth; “Do not weep for me.”
Today, we continue our Lenten series, exploring together Jesus’ final words in the hours before his death. Most of the phrases we will study in the coming weeks were spoken by Jesus as he hung on the cross. But the words we heard this morning were spoken by Jesus as he made his way to Golgotha and the place of his crucifixion. At this point, Jesus has already been tried and convicted. The soldiers have savagely beaten him and then mockingly placed a crown of thorns upon his head. Jesus was battered and bruised, bloodied and weakened. And now, he was carrying the crossbeam of a massive cross out of the city to the place of crucifixion. There can be no doubt that Jesus was in a lot of pain and was suffering greatly at this point. It truly would have been a sad sight to see. And the crowd confirms that. As Jesus walks along what was surely a main road out of town and toward the Place of the Skull, he is passing many, many people; and many more are following him. Luke tells us that the women were mourning and wailing for him. This is rather ironic when you consider the fact that this is the same crowd that has just condemned Jesus. I suppose the “mob mentality” had gotten the best of them, and now as they followed Jesus in his painful steps, they were beginning to understand the true depth of what was about to happen. And so they cried out it grief and sadness.
Now, I don’t think anyone would’ve batted an eye if Jesus had just ignored the mourners, or even if he had turned and jeered at them in anger for what they had done to him. But this is Jesus, and that is not what he did. Instead, “Jesus turned and spoke to them. ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me.’” It seems that Jesus did not feel the pain that was surely surging through his body in those moments. It seems that Jesus was at peace with what was about to happen. He did not need, nor even want sympathy. It had taken a hard night praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Jesus had accepted God’s will for his life, and he did not need anyone’s sympathy, he did not want to hear people mourning for him.
Still, Jesus doesn’t stop there. Not only does Jesus discourage mourning on his part, but he continues on to redirect the grief of the women. In what would become his final effort to prepare the people for the coming kingdom, Jesus went on, “Rather, cry for yourselves and your children. The time will come when they will say, ‘Happy are those who are unable to become pregnant, the wombs that never gave birth, and the breasts that never nursed a child.’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ If they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
How’s that for confusing? It’s easy enough for us to understand what Jesus means when he tells the crowds not to weep for him. But his next sentences just don’t seem to make very much sense; not at all. To get an idea of what Jesus meant as he threw out these cryptic phrases, it is somewhat helpful to have an understanding of the lumber business. After trees are chopped down, they are cut up into huge planks and sent into a shed. The boards come out sideways on a huge conveyor belt, and they have to be manhandled, in their different sizes, on to the trucks that take them to the next stage of the process. Up to this point, the planks are heavy and wet, partly because they are freshly cut, and partly because they had arrived at the lumber camp by being floated down the river. This first conveyance system is known as the “green chain”; this is where the “green” lumber arrived and was dealt with.