Summary: In today’s psalm, first lesson and gospel, the theme of innocent suffering gives us the opportunity to ponder what this means for us today.
Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C
Based on Ps. 31:9-16; Isa. 50:4-9a; Lk. 23:1-49
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Preaching on Palm/Passion Sunday is like trying to see and appreciate the details of a beautiful landscape, while, at the same time, you’re traveling 500 miles an hour past it. It’s just not possible because there’s so much in our biblical passages. Most of us are unable to absorb all of the details at once—if we try, we’ll end up with a classic case of information overload!
So, instead of this, we’ll focus on two themes, which leaped out at me as I pondered today’s texts: Suffering and innocence, innocent suffering.
In our passages from Psalm 31, Isaiah 50, and Luke 23, innocence and suffering loom large-as-life. It was Mohandas K. Gandhi, the non-Christian and great spiritual leader of India who once said: “Freely accepted suffering is the greatest force the world has ever known.” In many respects, Gandhi himself emulated his own words by choosing to live and work with all people in India, regardless of caste, race or creed. Indeed, he willingly suffered many things for the just cause of his nation’s independence from British rule.
Here in Canada, most of us are familiar with legal cases involving innocent suffering. One example of this was the Peter Marshall case, where he was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned several years for a crime that he didn’t commit. Such cases raise the larger question of: How many others have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned like Peter Marshall?
Then, there are people who suffer innocently because they are victims of aggressive bullies, tyrants and abusers. A lot of this suffering is silenced because the ones who suffer either fear even worse reprisals from those who inflict the suffering or they simply don’t have the resources and support to seek justice—or they are skeptical that the legal system will rule in their favour. Others become innocent sufferers because of: the colour of their skin or their gender or the social class they’re born into or a disease they’ve inherited from their biological parents or being born in a poor nation.
In our psalm today, the writer has endured a lot of suffering. It seems that some sort of illness has inflicted the psalmist and everyone has judged, scorned and abandoned the psalmist. Even worse than that, the psalmist says: “they plot to take my life.” When feeling the most vulnerable, the most down-and-out, people seek the psalmist’s destruction. God is the only one the psalmist can trust and turn to in times of suffering. We too often find ourselves trusting in and turning to God when we’re feeling most vulnerable and everyone else has abandoned us. God is the only one who accepts us; who really understands and cares for us in times of greatest need.
Our passage from Isaiah presents us with the picture of the Suffering Servant, who suffers willingly and innocently. He faced physical torment and verbal abuse without running away from it. Moreover, through it all he is vindicated because God is his helper; God gave him the strength to endure all of his suffering.
The questions he asks of his enemies and those who persecute him are cast in courtroom language. The tables have turned, it is not the Suffering Servant who is on trial—rather, it’s his opponents who are now on trial. The questions serve to convict them of their guilt and underscore the Servant’s innocence. He is basically saying: “I know God is on my side. Therefore, everything you try to find me guilty of or plot to do away with me will be in vain.” No one is able to escape the just judgment of God. In the end, if God’s help is with the innocent sufferer, the truth will win out. So it is with us too; whenever we suffer innocently and God is helping us; we are given the strength and all other resources to endure our sufferings. If God is helping us, then we too can cope with even our worst-case scenario sufferings.
For us Christians, Jesus epitomizes innocent suffering. One of the chief concerns of Luke’s passion story is his emphasis on Christ’s innocence. For Luke, Jesus was tried and convicted of false charges; Pilate and even Herod—elsewhere a treacherous man—both are at pains to find adequate evidence that would warrant the death by crucifixion penalty. The Daughters of Jerusalem weep for Jesus, believing him to be innocent. The words of forgiveness that Jesus speaks from the cross emphasize his innocence. The words of the one criminal to the other: “This man has done nothing wrong,” serve as a defense of Christ’s innocence. Jesus’ last spoken words from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” emphasize that he died, not guilty or condemned, but rather, peacefully, trusting in God. After Jesus dies, even an enemy soldier testifies that: “Certainly this man was innocent.”