April 18, 2014 – Good Friday
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The world loves stories about underdogs. They become the legends that define our culture. We tell them to our children and grandchildren. We make them our own. The upstart American colonists rebel against the tyranny of the British Empire. The hard-working steel driver John Henry matches his strength and skill against a steam-powered hammer. Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa climbs into the ring to square off against the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. The small-town high-school football team takes the field in the state championship against the perennial favorite from the big city.
The bible, too, is full of underdog stories. We teach them to our children in order to give them a glimpse of how they might also serve God in extraordinary ways: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, Rahab the Harlot, David and Goliath, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the woman at the well, the man blind since birth, and, of course, Jesus himself—the carpenter’s son from Galilee who took on the political and religious establishment of his day. In 1965, the life of Jesus was made into a movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the drama and excitement of his underdog story. But the problem with falling in love with Jesus the underdog is that you miss the whole point of the cross if you’re only cheering because you know he’ll bounce back in the fourth quarter—on the third day.
Imagine trying to make a feel-good movie about the 1935 Boston Braves. For sixteen years, they only had one winning season. Then, in 1933 and 1934, things seemed to get a little bit better. Both years, they finished above .500 and in fourth place in the National League. Finally, in 1935, the team did something to end their losing ways. They hired Babe Ruth to be both player and manager, bringing back to Boston the legend who had been sold by the cross-town Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919. Everyone thought that Ruth would bring his winning ways back to Boston—that his magic touch would lead the decades-long underdog team to the pennant, but that’s not how the story ended. The team finished the season with a major-league worst record of 115 losses—61 ½ games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. Ruth retired on June 1—not even able to complete the whole season. Big hopes and terrible losses don’t make for good stories, but sometimes the underdog just gets beat.
What does it mean to cheer for the underdog who loses? What does it mean to follow a savior who is crucified? Those of us who prefer to fast-forward to what happens on the third day inadvertently make the crucifixion a mere detour on the road that leads to salvation. But the cross is more than a momentary setback. The death of our savior is an expression of God’s victory that stands alone. It is a moment of salvation all in itself.
Consider John’s account of Jesus’ arrest and interrogation. The soldiers and officers rush into the garden to take Jesus into custody, but, rather than run or hide, Jesus comes forward to meet them. He asks, “Whom are you looking for?” and, after they say his name, he declares, “I am he,” with enough force to knock them to the ground. Yet, despite his power, he submits to them willingly. Then, Simon Peter draws his sword, ready for battle. He slashes at the face of the high priest’s servant, cutting of his ear. But Jesus tells him, “Put it back in its sheath. Am I not supposed to drink the cup that my father has given me?” When he is dragged before Caiaphas the high priest, he refuses to defend himself, and, when Pilate the governor asks him if he is a king, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom “is not from this world,” but, if it were, his followers would be fighting to free him. Over and over, Jesus reminds us of his innate power, but he chooses to show it by submitting to the fate that awaits him. In the end, the one who has all the power and could triumph over his oppressors at any moment, chooses the cross because it is God’s ultimate expression of what true power is.
For Jesus, victory is shown in defeat. Power is expressed in weakness. Hope is found in darkness. What happens on the third day is not the reversal of Jesus’ fortune. It does not show that the cross was a mistake. Instead, it confirms that what happened at Calvary was a moment of God’s triumph. In our faith, the underdog does not win in the end—at least not in human terms. And that’s why it’s so hard to recognize the cross as a true moment of victory all in itself. No wonder the crowd responded to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” To look at the bloodied, humiliated figure standing before them, wearing a mock-crown of thorns, was to look at man who had lost—whose fight had been extinguished. But that is where God is to be found. God resides not in the locker room of the long-shot winner but in the defeat of the team that never had a chance in the first place.
What sort of messiah do you worship? What sort of king have you come to behold? The world wants to cheer for the unexpected winner. We like the story of the underdog because, when the underdog wins, we feel like their victory is somehow meant for us. But Jesus’ victory is far more substantial than that. He came not only to bring hope to those whose lives are filled with light and love and joy but also to give hope to those whose despair seems to have no end. The true power of God is expressed through the cross. The powerless are made powerful because that is where God is to be found. The suffering are made whole because that is where God is to be found. The cross of Christ means that our hope is not tied up in moments of worldly victory but in God’s willingness to inhabit our moments of loss.