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Splendid Sorrow
a sermon on the Passion of Christ
engaging Mel Gibson's "Passion..."
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I know a minister who rented out his local cinema and purchased all the tickets for the first eight showings of Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ. He anticipated that the film could be an extraordinary evangelism tool and so purchased the tickets to give them away to people in his community. (Caution: don’t try this at home; a $10,000 withdrawal from your missions budget on short notice may create a passion not of the Christ that could result in a pastoral change.)

After every showing my friend would hand out Bibles to those who didn’t have one and invite anyone who wished to discuss further what they had seen to join one of their small groups. I asked this very weary pastor after the eighth showing how well the outreach had gone. "Was it successful?" I asked. "Well, we gave two hundred Bibles away by the first three showings and a lot of people have signed up for our small group discussions. Not only that, but I can now speak Aramaic and read a phrase or two in Greek and Latin."

Can you imagine watching that film for eight times? The violence forced many viewers to glance down to avoid the lashings. So front and center was the violence and suffering in the film that one viewing was more than enough for me-perhaps more than I had bargained for. As one viewer commented, "In other portrayals of Jesus, the director usually shows you a few seconds of Jesus being whipped, a hammer being lifted, the clinking sounds of hammer and nail, and then the cross is hoisted up for the drop. The director figures, ‘You know the story, you get the idea, let’s move on.’"

"We’re not moving on," Gibson says. "I’m going to make you watch this." And so we watch as if we’re sitting ring side near the guard who monitors the scourging that the two seasoned thugs give to Jesus. We feel the splatter of blood and sweat, feel the exhaustion of the soldiers who can barely lift their cat-of-nine tails so tired are they from doing the dirty work. So we watch and then think, "I get it, Jesus suffered horribly; Jesus suffered tissue-tearing, nerve-ripping pain. Now for the love of God, let’s move on!" "No," says the director, "You have to watch it all."

So we come to this day-Palm/Passion Sunday. This is the day that we revere as the week of our Lord’s passion and specifically the terrible final hours that Jesus suffered and agony. We have to watch it all. This is no day for Easter Christians. Today Good Friday Christians come out in mourning. People who have their own stories of anguish and deep sorrow identify on this day with Jesus more than at any other time in the year. People who have felt abandoned by parents-or their children-recognize the Jesus that we meet on this Sunday.

As one writer has said, "the power of the gospel is that it calls us to tarry at the cross and then return home beating our breasts with those whose hopes seemed to have died there." [1]

Today we stand with those whose hopes seemed to have died there. This is the Jesus that Isaac Watts’ Jesus, wrote about in 1707:

Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?

Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?

Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut its glories in,

When God, the mighty maker, died for his own creatures sin.

What is interesting with this hymn is the "why" question that we sing out. Why the death? Why me? Why suffering? So difficult was it for later "Easter" Christians to warm up to the sufferings of Christ that a refrain was finally tacked on-nearly two hundred years later in 1885-to bring "resolution" to the suffering theology that Watts had raised:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away;

It was there by faith I received my sight,

And now I am happy all the day.

Happy all the day? Not for Passion Sunday Christians.

Notice the remarkable, bold shift in focus? We go from reflections on the sufferings of Christ to confident "outputs"-us! Watts had been transfixed by the unutterable suffering and wanted to ask why. His only conclusion at the end of his words was to give his life to Christ . . .

But drops of tears can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe.

Here, Lord, I give myself away; ‘tis all that I can do.

The other lyricist skips right pass the MelGibsonThePassionoftheChrist thing and jumps right into the benefits, instead of the suffering.

Nevertheless, only those who have experienced profound pain and suffering own this Sunday. Only those who have experienced loneliness or abandonment or shame or humiliation can most intimately stand with the Jesus of this Sunday-a man full of suffering and acquainted with grief.

"It is said of God," said Nicholas Wolterstorff, who knew the pain of losing a son, "that no one can behold God’s face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it means that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is his splendor." [2]

His sorrow is his splendor. That brings us back to Isaac Watts and the questions of why. Stupid suffering-suffering for no purpose-turns to redemptive suffering-purposeful suffering-when we hear the good news. Not that we have the suffering resolved, nor the questions replaced by hallelujahs. But interlaced in Passion Sunday is also a dim light in the darkness. Without this shaft of light, life doesn’t make sense. Suffering can only be stupid, not redemptive. Without the gospel, a mindless Good Friday in varying degrees of complexity will be condemned to be repeated in every human life that has ever or will ever be born.

Early Christians understood-even on and especially on this day-that in some way, Jesus’ suffering-the real thing; off-screen and in real life and time-grounded their brokenness and rebellion and abandonment in himself.


Christ carried all of our sins in his body . . . [3]

That’s what Max Lucado writes about as he thinks about this day . . .

See Christ on the cross? That’s a gossiper hanging there. See Jesus? Embezzler. Liar. Bigot. See the crucifried carpenter? He’s a wife beater. Porn addict and murderer. See Bethlehem’s boy? Call him by his other names-Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Hold it Max. Don’t you lump Christ with those evildoers. Don’t you place his name in the same sentence with theirs!

I didn’t. He did. Indeed he did more. More than place his name in the same sentence, he placed himself in their place. And yours.

With hands nailed open, he invited God, "Treat me as you would treat them!" And God did. [4]

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Why did Christ scream those words? That’s the splendid sorrow. It is the deepest sorrow. But it is also splendid-for that scream gathers up all of our sorrows and abandonment and grounds them in Christ. And so we wait with him in splendid sorrow.

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Only by witnessing the darkness of his death and the despair of the loss of hope can we fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection. God’s purposes for Jesus will not be defeated by the power of darkness. Nor will darkness be our defeat. So we join with that faith which can see the light-even though but a dim and flickering glimmer-in the darkness. Though we beat our breasts in grief and abandonment on this day, we will later join others as we bear witness to God’s saving and redeeming love. Amen.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), page 463.
[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son.  (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), page 81.
[3] 1 Peter 2:24; but see also Isaiah 53:1-9.
[4] Max Lucado, Next Door Savior (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), page 142.