The Apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest companions, begins his telling of Jesus’ life with profound words. John describes Jesus as the ‘Word of God’ – that perfect wisdom and revelation of God – who “was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1, 2). He says Jesus was “the true light” shining “in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome” that light (1:5, 9). John even goes so far as to say that Jesus surpasses Moses in His authority as a teacher because Jesus is “the One and Only Son, who is Himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father” (1:17, 18). These rich words show us how highly John thought about Jesus and exactly who we are dealing with when we come to the Gospels: Jesus’ timelessness, Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ wisdom, and Jesus’ divinity.
If we had never encountered the story of Jesus, it may strike us as odd when we read the following words from John nestled amidst those earlier descriptions:
“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory.” (1:14)
The lofty One comes into our midst in human flesh, John says, and that is a revelation of His glory. Certainly, it could be a slight surprise to hear this. The glorious Word – unstained and pure – steps into rough and tumble human experience – right where we live.
Yet that slight surprise is nothing compared to what we encounter later in John’s story: that Jesus would suffer the brutality of violent execution by human hands. This is exactly what we have heard from another early Jesus follower, Matthew, in his record of Jesus’ life read throughout the service today. It is a litany of broken human experience: Jesus’ isolated and suffering alone in prayer while His disciples fall asleep; Jesus’ betrayed by one of His own followers named Judas; Jesus arrested by Temple guards without clear accusation; Jesus facing authorities who bend justice to match their own aims, even as they stand as representatives of God; Jesus’ utter rejection by a close friend, Simon Peter; Jesus’ life exchanged for the freedom of a known murderer, Barabbas, at the request of the crowds; Jesus humiliatingly mocked as a broken king by the Roman soldiers, complete with a robe, a staff, and a crown of thorns; the voices of cynics shouting insults as Jesus is heaved up on a cross to slowly die of asphyxiation or heart failure.
How could this be part of the story we were set up to hear about Jesus? How could this be the experience of the Word – that timeless, pure, wise figure of authority? Why would Jesus find His way into the throbbing heart of humanity’s brokenness like this? God seems too good for that!
So many divine beings we’ve heard about in the religions of the world seem to coast above human hardship. But this: this just seems ugly and demeaning.
Isn’t it shocking – and also captivating – that Jesus finds Himself in the same place where we live? The place of bruises and wounds, of broken bones and cracked dreams, the place of deflated spirits who have slowly lost hope and the shattered trust of ruptured relationships, the place of long loneliness and lost loves, the place where homelands are carved up by self-willed authorities and refugees scurry for cover like fear-filled prey, the place of chronic disease and terror-filled attacks.
This place where too many times we are left shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering what has happened.
Isn’t it shocking that when “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us,” that when “we have seen His glory” (John 1:14), it is in the midst of this litany of human brokenness we wade through every day?
There – in His journey to the Cross – Jesus brings into sharpest focus just how truly broken and lost we are as human beings. He brings into focus just how much we need something else we cannot attain given by someone else we cannot be. There at the Cross, Jesus unmasks just how deep run the veins of evil and sin that grip human life. And we stand staring at the scene, like gawkers at a roadside accident, unsure of what has just happened and unable to look away.
I remember once weaving my way through the Old City of Jerusalem with some friends who work there. We turned corners and ducked past tourist groups until we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional spot of both Jesus’ death and burial. There, crowds of people gather to remember Jesus’ death. They cry, they kneel, they kiss certain stones, they light candles, and they pause to reflect on it all. People from Poland and Brazil, from Nigeria and Canada, from the Philippines and Milwaukee, and more all face together toward the Cross of Christ. It’s a sight for the eyes that is hard to take in, let alone describe.
As I stood there watching and participating, I could not help but think, “What a thing to celebrate: the brutal death of a Messiah! This is either completely ridiculous or the most meaningful act of human history.” Then, outside the church, a group of people raised their voices in a language I didn’t understand to sing a song whose melody continues moves me:
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.’
Jesus enters into the throbbing heart of human brokenness to expose it and to heal it. Jesus experiences the depth of human forsakenness – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – so that He can bring us home to God.
He heads to Jerusalem during Passover and is killed as the perfect sacrifice “once for all by His blood…obtaining eternal redemption…dying as a ransom to set [us] free from the sins [we] committed” (Hebrews 9:12, 15).
He walks within the deep wounds we experience and have caused by our sin-soaked actions and words, and it is “by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Like a prisoner stepping into a dark dungeon, Jesus is broken down and left for dead, but, in truth, “by His death He…broke the power…of death…[and] the devil – and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14, 15). It’s a jail break from the domain of darkness by the Prince of Light.
He faces the foe and appears overcome, but instead He “disarmed the powers and authorities…[making] a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross” (Colossians 2:16). He is the champion, my friends.
And in the face of the rejection and self-loathing that holds humanity in its grasp, He becomes the epicenter of the love of God. For “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
Stepping within our real lives, Jesus does something for us no one else could do. He heals us – He redeems us – He forgives us – He frees us – He wins the spiritual victory – and He gives us life. Under the pressure of the Cross and in the hands of God, the deep veins of evil and sin running through the rock of human life are converted into rich treasure veins for God’s glory. Rightly so Jesus could cry out from the Cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30).
And so, we, by faith – that active decision of the will motivated from the heart and mind – reach out to that broken Messiah, Jesus, at the crossroads of human need and God’s provision. We say, “Yes. Yes for humanity, and yes for me.” And grasping Him in His death, we know that we too will be raised up with Him in resurrection life.
(c) 2015 by Matthew Erickson