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“…he suffered…”: a sermon for Lent

February 25th, 2007 by isaac · 8 Comments

Another Sunday, another sermon. I think this one flopped. I’m not sure I communicated very well. Oh well.

Title: “…he suffered…”
Date: 2/25/07
Texts: Luke 4:1-12; Deut. 26:1-11

How human was Jesus? And when we say that Jesus was or is human, what are we saying? What does it mean to be human?

Soren Kierkegaard tells a story about a prince and beautiful peasant maiden. The prince leaves the palace one day to ride around and survey his father’s fields. At one field, he sees a beautiful maiden. She is hard at work gathering wheat. The prince immediately falls in love. Although he grew up a spoiled prince, with everything he wanted at his beck and call, he decides that he can’t use his power as the king’s son to coerce this young peasant to be his wife. He doesn’t want her to love him for his power—the prince wants her to love him for who he is, not just to marry into the royal family. So the prince goes back to the palace and finds some peasant clothes and puts them on over his royal purple garments. He returns to the wheat fields, this time in peasant clothes, with his princely identity disguised.

There’s no doubt that the young peasant will fall in love with the disguised prince—that’s how these stories usually end. But what we want to know is, at what point will the prince reveal his true identity? Will it be after a few months of work, side by side in the fields? Will he take her aside one day, profess his love, then wait for her to confess hers, then he will rip off his disguise and show her that he is really the prince?

Or will it be just after the wedding—they exchange their vows, the ceremony is complete, and the disguised prince whispers to his peasant wife, “I have something to tell you…” And then he tears away the dusty clothes and shows her his magnificent royal purple garment. “I am the prince, and now you are my princess.”

Is that how we think about Jesus? He’s the prince, the King’s son, disguised for a time as a lowly human, so he can woe us as one of us. But at any moment Jesus can rip away his peasant clothes, reveal his royal purple, and use his princely power to get what he wants.

But that’s not the Jesus we discover in the story of the temptation in the wilderness. This Jesus is human all the way down—there’s no divinity hidden underneath the humanity. He is fully human; not just a god with a human suit on. This Jesus doesn’t have a get-out-of-jail-free card. He doesn’t have an emergency eject button that would shoot him out of his human suit and send him back to heaven where he belongs, leaving that human body behind.

It seems that the devil, in our story from Luke 4, thinks Jesus is like that prince disguised in peasant’s clothes. The devil tempts Jesus with short cuts, with ways to get what he wants without the suffering. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the Temple.”

But Jesus doesn’t try any short cuts, and the devil’s temptation may unmask our own misunderstanding about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. I wonder if we think Jesus is something like Superman. If you were to see him walking down the streets of Jerusalem, he looks like an ordinary guy—like Clark Kent. But, at any moment he could duck out of sight, find a telephone booth, rip off his clothes and fly away to save the day in his slick outfit.

If that’s the case, then Jesus really isn’t that much like us, after all. He’s got Ace’s up his sleeve—he can cheat life, and we can’t.


It’s common for Anabaptists, Baptists, and different sorts of low-church Protestants to complain that the Apostle’s Creed forgets about the life of Jesus—it dismisses it. The usual comment is that the entire life of Jesus is shoved into a comma. The section of the Creed that deals with Jesus goes like this:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate… It goes from Jesus’ birth, to suffering under Pontius Pilate. And what happens in the middle? The Apostle’s Creed gives us a comma; that’s it. And at this point the Anabaptists get all worked up about how mainstream Christianity always forgets about the importance of Jesus’ life, about how the traditionalists always have and always will neglect the way of life Jesus’ life calls us to.

But what if it’s not the comma that encapsulates the life of Jesus, but the word that follows the comma? “He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered.” He suffered. Jesus’ life, the whole of it, is suffering. This is Karl Barth’s insight—the great Swiss theologian.  Jesus’ life occurs, as Barth puts it, “under the sign of suffering.” Let me read a short passage where Barth makes this point very powerfully (Dogmatics in Outline, 102-103):

The whole life of Jesus comes under the heading ‘suffered’… [T]he present time of His life is really suffering from the start. There is no doubt that for the Evangelists Luke and Matthew the childhood of Jesus, His Birth in the stable of Bethlehem, were already under the sign of suffering. This man is persecuted all His life, a stranger in His own family… And what a road of manifest ill-success He treads! In what utter loneliness and temptation He stands among [the masses]... The entire life of Jesus is lived in this loneliness and thus already in the shadow of the Cross. And if the light of the Resurrection lights up here and there, that is the exception that proves the rule.

He suffered. His whole life is under the sign of suffering and temptation, Barth says. A suffering that he does not escape; a way of life that he does not tear away and reveal the royal purple hidden under his humanity. Jesus is human all the way down. And it seems like what it means to be human, for Jesus to be human, is to suffer.

And this is what we are called to contemplate during the season of Lent. We remember that the human condition is dirt through and through—“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” That’s the refrain we hear repeated at the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. It’s from Genesis 3:19—“By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That’s what God tells the first human beings as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden and must now struggle and suffer. And this is the world Jesus is part of. Jesus is also human, “dust to dust,” dirt all the way down like us. There’s no way to dust away the layers of dirt and find those royal purple clothes hidden underneath. Jesus is human, “from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But, obviously, there’s a difference, an important difference between Jesus and you and me: Jesus lived as a human without sin in this inhuman world that we’ve created. We also live in this inhuman world, but the difference is that we help make it that way. And what it means for him to be sinless is that he refuses to participate in the ways of our destructive world, a world that seeks to achieve self-sufficiency no matter what the costs may be. Jesus is sinless, and sin is the stuff that holds our world together, that keeps the machine moving, that powers the way we live. It’s that evil force that has captured us, and continues to use us to feed its frenzied destruction of you and me and the people around us—sin is inhuman, it’s the anti-human.

And the devil offers Jesus a chance to take control of this sinful world and possibly set the rest of us humans free from its captivity. Luke 4:5-8:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’

Jesus is given a chance to be the Messiah, to be our savior, to take control of the sinful world, this inhuman world, this world under the spell of the devil. It’s a chance for Jesus to save us without having to suffer, without having to return to dust, without having to be killed by our anti-human world. It’s a chance for Jesus to be the Son of God like the disguised prince in the story I told earlier. It’s a chance for Jesus to rip off his human clothes and grasp that divine status, that messianic role, without having to return to dust like the rest of us.

But in Jesus’ refusal to escape the wilderness, his refusal to bypass the suffering of humanness, we come to see what it means to be fully human, to be the creature God has created us to be. “When we encounter Jesus,” writes Herbert McCabe, “he strikes a chord in us; we resonate [with] him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us—the humanity of which we are afraid. He is the human being that we dare not be” (God Matters, 93).

Instead of being like the prince who disguises himself as a peasant, we are peasants, dusty peasants, who want to be royalty and so we go around dressing the part. We put on our disguises, our postures of success, we hide behind masks of achievement—all the ways we try to control our lives, and make others think we are in control. We dress like royalty because we think that if others see who we really are, our dirty-ness—that we come from dirt—they won’t love us. We are peasants that dress up like princes or princesses so we can try to make the other peasants love us, or, maybe, so we can love ourselves as something else—we have to pretend to be someone else so we can have meaning, an identity to be proud of.

But that’s not what Jesus does. He’s a peasant all the way down; every layer is human, and Jesus refuses to be something other than human when the devil tempts him with ways of sustaining himself, of controlling his destiny, of forcing his way into his identity, his future, his meaning.

Jesus is the child of God who is born of Mary, made of the same stuff we are, dirt, the stuff of this earth, and who will return to the dust like we all will. But as he refuses to grasp at something other than what he is, human, as he embraces the suffering that comes with being completely human in our inhuman world, Jesus gives up his spirit, he gives up his life, and is killed. But the mystery of that suffering life that ends in death, is that it is guided by the Holy Spirit of God.

As it says at the beginning of the passage, Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” and is “led around by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1).  In Jesus we see what it means to be a human, what it means to be a child of God, held in the embrace of God’s loving Spirit. It means surrendering ourselves to the Holy Spirit. It means yielding our spirit to the Spirit of God who calls us into the wilderness: “We are summoned…to venture into what is unknown, to abandon what is familiar and safe, and set out on a journey we do not understand and cannot control” (McCabe, God Matters, 94).

Jesus reveals to us what it means to embrace our humanity without short cuts. And we live into that humanity as we surrender our life to Jesus and follow him into the wilderness. This is the same path Jesus’ ancestor, Abraham, took. As we read in our passage from Deuteronomy 26, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (v5). Abraham is called out of Ur, a familiar land, and wanders wherever the Spirit of God may lead.

Our life is not our own. That’s what Jesus shows us; we discover who we are as we give ourselves to God’s Spirit. And we come to see that our bodies, these chunks of matter, of earth, of dirt—this is God’s gift to us. But what sort of gift could this be? How can we call this dust that we are a good gift at all?

Well, it’s because God breathed his Spirit into dirt and created our life—that’s the story of creation. Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.”

To be human is to be like this Jesus, who gives himself over to the same Spirit of God that breathed life into the piece of dirt that he is, and receive again and again the fullness of life that comes through the Holy Spirit.

And the mystery of the good news is that when Jesus surrendered his life to God, he died, he returned to the dust from which he came, but something else happened. The Spirit who sustained him during a life of suffering is the same Spirit who raised him from the dead.

That’s why we gather here, week after week. We come together to offer up our lives, to offer up our bodies, to the God who breathed life into our nostrils, who created us from the dust of the earth. Our worship is nothing other than the way we surrender our breath to the God who filled us with his breath, and receive together the Holy Spirit.

Our lives take place in the midst of a wilderness. And it’s a wilderness where the devil tempts us to sustain ourselves, to escape our fragile and vulnerable humanity, to take hold of our dreams and work towards them without bothering to listen to other voices.

But Jesus offers us another way, a humble way, a way that waits patiently despite the suffering for the Spirit of God to lead him along the low road, the road to the cross. And at the cross, where it feels like everything we wanted ends, where dreams and hopes die, the Holy Spirit breathes life into the dust again. The season of Lent is about waiting, maybe even suffering the loss of hopes and dreams, because we know that our life is dust anyway—but it’s dust that is given life through the Holy Spirit.

Luke 4:1—“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, withdrew from the Jordan and was lead around in the wilderness by the Spirit, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

Tags: sermons

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Mar 6, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Well it might not have been presented well, but it’s one of the best I’ve read of yours. The quote from McCabe “He is the human being that we dare not be” is right on.

    The question that the post raised for me was what to make of Jesus being “under the sign of suffering.” I wonder what you think about our part in following Jesus down that road? Are our lives to be “under the sign of suffering” (I realize for some they already are…)? It seems to me Jesus didn’t suffer for the sake of suffering but because he opposed the hostile powers of death and sin and thus was made to suffer. Thoughts?

  • 2 isaac // Mar 12, 2007 at 4:08 am

    Jason, thanks for reading my sermon and for your very kind words. That McCabe quote is also one of my favorites. McCabe insists that Jesus died of being human in our inhuman world. He even goes as far as to say that all these theories of atonement are silly—it’s all about this Jesus who was obedient to the Father, who shows that what it means to be human is to live in obedience to the Father, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s great. My sermon is completely McCabian.

    It’s interesting that you brought up the suffering bit: “It seems to me that Jesus didn’t suffer for the sake of suffering.” That turned out to be a big deal during the ‘discernment of the word’ time in our service. A few people wanted to make sure that we don’t understand suffering as good in and of itself. One woman insisted that this was an important point to make because women who are involved in abusive relationships stay with their abusers because they somehow think suffering is good for them. And I surely agreed with the woman’s concern: Jesus’ journey of suffering in no way calls us to let others hurt us when we have a chance to escape.

    What I was trying to say is that Jesus shows us what it means to be human. And what that means is that we live a life of complete surrender to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And that means that we may be rendered defenseless, like Jesus was. Here’s a quote from my sermon where I try to say some of this: “In Jesus we see what it means to be a human, what it means to be a child of God, held in the embrace of God’s loving Spirit. It means surrendering ourselves to the Holy Spirit. It means yielding our spirit to the Spirit of God who calls us into the wilderness: ‘We are summoned…to venture into what is unknown, to abandon what is familiar and safe, and set out on a journey we do not understand and cannot control’“.

    And that’s why I let my last words be the beginning of the passage from Luke 4: Jesus was full of the Spirit and led around in the wilderness by the Spirit. The Christian life is about learning to surrender our lives to the Spirit who moves like the unpredictable wind, who moves Jesus on a long journey to the cross—that same faithful Spirit of God who breathed life into our earthy bodies, and breathed resurrected life into Jesus’ dead corpse.

  • 3 Michael // Mar 14, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I discovered your site a few days ago. I can’t remember how I did that. I think I might have googled Herbert McCabe. I am not smart enough to really share anything that would give insight or encourage. I do want to thank all of you for your wonderful thoughts. I will keep coming back often.

    Years ago I heard that Jesus came among us to tell us about the much needed messages of human weakness, human vulnerability, and human solidarity. Jesus didn’t come to us just to share our humanity. It came to us as a human being. Jesus teaches us what it means to be a human being and he teaches us what it means to have a relationship with God.

    I strongly do not believe in atonement theories. I do think that suffering may accompany redemption but this does not mean suffering is redemtive.

    I want to thank you for this wonderful sermon.

  • 4 Jason // Mar 14, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    That does clear it up, for me, Isaac. We suffer because we surrender our lives and defense mechanisms to the Spirit. Even in that strange suffering verse by Paul in Colossians 1:24 (Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.) Paul suffers for you or for the sake of his body, but not just for the sake of suffering. But what he means by “what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions,” remains a mystery to me…

  • 5 steve // Dec 28, 2007 at 9:33 am

    I appreciate the excellent job you did at portraying the humanity of Jesus and how he is the perfect example for us of what it means to be courageously human, but what my question is what are your views about His divinity? Sure He did not use His divine nature for His own benefit, but He did use it for the benefit of others. Phil. 2:6ff tells us how He did not cling to His rights as God but emptied Himself and made Himself a servant but the gospels reveal that He did use His divine power to heal and perform miracles in order to point others to the reality of the Kingdom of God breaking into human history. Are you intending to say Christ was not divine while also being human? That when he “emptied Himself” He completely gave up all of His divinity? Then what did the angel mean when he said to Mary, “that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God”? And what does Paul mean when he writes in Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God”? And what did Jesus mean when He said, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father?” What does the title, “Son of God” mean that John used repeatedly of Jesus in his gospel (e.g., 3:16-18, 35-36; 5:17-30)?

  • 6 isaac // Jan 10, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Steve, those are great questions. And I appreciate that you posted them so I can think through them as well.

    I want to make sure that I say up front that Jesus is God. As Jesus puts it, “I and the Father are one.” And I don’t think it’s possible for Jesus to give up his divinity. That’s just who Jesus is. Divinity isn’t just a part of Jesus that he can leave behind. God is who Jesus is.

    And that means that Jesus, in his humanity (since that’s who Jesus is), shows us what God is like. The connection is even stronger than that. Jesus is human and that humanity is God. There’s no such thing as this transcendent God who is different from the very earthly Jesus. Jesus is that transcendent God.

    Does that clarify anything?

  • 7 steve // Jan 17, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I like your answer! Yes, that helps, a lot. I agree totally about Jesus not being able to leave behind his divinity. Your last statements are puzzling, though. “There’s no such thing as this transcendent God who is different from the very earthly Jesus. Jesus is that transcendent God.” That’s what’s puzzling me. I am drawn to it in some ways but wondering where it leads. It brings out the idea that there is no division, no separation between the Father and Son. But it’s curious because most of the times Christians have expressed the idea that when Christ became flesh, he “left the glories of heaven” to come into this world. So in some sense it seems that he “separated” from the Father even though we know he was still “one with the Father” Maybe that’s just the way we (those in the evangelical tradition) have mistakenly thought about the incarnation. But didn’t Jesus in the upper room speak of leaving the world to “return to the Father”. And wasn’t the Father in some sense transcendent while the Son was “infleshed” dwelling among us (John 1:14). Which brings up other questions about the nature of the Trinity. Do you believe in the Trinity? Or do you hold to a “oneness” theology? If you do hold to the trinitarian view, how do you talk about it? I’m curious. . .

  • 8 isaac // Jan 25, 2008 at 11:06 am


    You’ve got some really good questions. And I admit that I don’t have really good answers. Let me offer some possible ways toward the mystery that is God.

    I am completely trinitarian in how I think about God. I think “oneness theology” isn’t faithful to the Scriptures, nor to the guidance of the history of the church. But what do we make of the real distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit? That’s a good question.

    All I know is that Karl Barth is right on when he tells us that Jesus is the face of God, that Jesus is the only way we know how to speak about God. As Colossians puts it, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. So, we have to start with Jesus if we want to talk about God.

    But there is distinction between Jesus and the Father, and, of course, the Spirit. And as soon as we say there is distinction, we have to also say in the same breath that there is unity. Trinitarian theologians put it this way, Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. Which means something like, the works of the trinity toward creation are indivisible (check out Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit). Or, to put it more simply, with one person of the Trinity comes all three. They arrive as a package, a unity. Maybe one way to put it is that each one takes turns leading—or, better, each one submits to the other… and the submission is the love which is what makes God God (as I John puts it).

    What it comes down to is that our very language of God points us to worship. The unity and distinction shows us how our very language breaks down when we try to master God with our naming and philosophical systems. We have to stutter when we talk about God—we try to say two things at the same time. So, we are driven to worship where we come to know the God who is love, and invites us to participate in the relationship of love that is God.

    Lewis Ayres taught me this: “The doctrine of inseparability of operation sets bounds to or shapes how we envisage the diversity of the persons by shaping habits of speech that keep us attentive to the mystery of God’s unity and diversity. Learning to speak of Father, Son, and Spirit as inseparably operating does not so much lead us to an easy imagining as it defers our comprehension and draws our minds to the constantly failing even as constantly growing character of our interpretation… The text of Scripture is understood to shape a movement of the intellect and imagination beyond (or into) its language and towards the divine mystery” (Nicaea and Its Legacy, p. 297).

    That’s the best I can do for now. I also have another sermon on the Trinity that gets at some of these issues: “A Dancing God.”