August 18, 2018 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
Verse: Hebrews 12:9–12:11
The Greeks knew how to appreciate tragedy. They could not conceive of a happy ending because they did not know God. You could, of course, stop telling the story at a happy point, but the whole society knew the stories, so they knew you weren't telling it all. Their tragedies were religious experiences. They poured into the open-air theatres at the time of the festivals each year to gain courage for the day when affliction would come into their lives, as it inevitably would. In ancient times tragedies happened to kings. Modern tragedies have changed that. The art form is popular once again, but Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman bring tragedy down to the common man. You don't have to be a king to have your world fall apart. Moreover, the ancient heroes did not fall because of weakness, but because of their strength. So in the modern tragedy the common man gets into trouble because of his integrity. The world is waiting to slap down anyone high-minded.
At first glance the story of Jesus looks tragic. We see the women weeping beside the via dolorosa and say, "That must be the chorus." But this is not at all like an ancient Greek chorus. Jesus does not ask for their pity, or ours. Indeed, He says, "Do not weep for me." He did not come into this world to be another Agamemnon, another Oedipus. He came to get involved with our sorrow and pain, to experience our contradictions and frustrations. He came to involve us in His restoration of all things.
The culture around us tries hard to affirm the world, but it cannot hide the fact that we live in a vale of tears. Our bodies are afflicted by arthritis, addictions, cancers, weakness of heart and lungs, weight that will not stay down, blood pressure that is either too high or too low. The mind is afflicted with fear, guilt, and anxiety. The will is beset by temptation. But those things do not make us tragic, just pitiful. We stumble into our afflictions instead of getting into them because of our goodness.
One natural question is, "What did I do to deserve this?" That question faces the wrong direction. When we have afflictions, God is not punishing us. He is correcting us. We tend to get those mixed up because our justice system confuses them. It wants to correct the criminal and vindicate the Law. As a result we don't do either very well. It also confuses us as to what God is doing. Our text is very important to help us understand these things. God is correcting us, not abandoning us. He calls us to believe that. We can't see how it will all end, so faith is the only way we can proceed. God is not punishing us. Ah, but what about death, isn't that a punishment? Not for us. God had our good in mind when He put the angel in front of the Tree of Life. He made our race mortal so that when He became one of us He could die. He placed a better Tree of Life on Calvary. Those of us who have climbed the hill of life are truly grateful for the discipline our natural parents gave us when we were young. Those of us who were fortunate enough to receive corporal discipline as children, according to God's Commandment and applied with common sense, have a great advantage over children today who are deprived of it. We didn't like it at the time, of course. So with our afflictions. They hurt now, but the day will come when we will look back in gratitude.
David writes in the 34th Psalm Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. The righteous do not need to be punished. Nevertheless the Righteous One was punished. Jesus was not being corrected - He had no imperfections to correct. He was punished to make us righteous. He was completely holy, thus He satisfied the Law of God. He was truly righteous, and many were His afflictions indeed. Driven by incomprehensible love, Jesus made atonement for us. We know this because of what followed, as He rose from the dead. Here we have a story with a happy ending. All of the contradictions, the suffering, the brokenness was overcome by His death and resurrection.
God did not intend for affliction to be part of His original creation. Soon after Adam brought it into the world, God launched a greater plan to restore His creation. So Jesus came to be the new, non-sinning Adam. The Tree of Life which He planted on Calvary is the only kind that could do us sinners any good. Jesus was not a tragic Hero. He was stronger than the forces that bring men down. He acted voluntarily from the purest love. Just as God opened Adam's side to make a woman who would be the mother of the human race, so He opened the side of Jesus to create His Bride, the Church, who would be the Mother of all who were born again of water and the Spirit. From Calvary the Fountain of Life flows to us.
Jesus' death lasted only a single Sabbath. The third day He was back in the sunlight. This was a happy ending. For once the Hero who died because of His goodness had the last word over all evil. Does this sound like a fairy tale? Think about that. Where do fairy tales come from? Are not all such stories with happy endings the heritage of Christendom? I'm speaking of stories where the main characters marry and live happily ever after. Such stories occur only in Christian societies, for they draw on the Gospel. The Chinese did not know such stories, nor did the Greeks. The Old Testament has stories that end happily for Hebrews, tragically for Egyptians, Assyrians, Philistines, Edomites, or whoever. At least it introduces good news, and points to God's elect people. But the Gospel is good news for the whole world. And unlike the fairy tales, this is really happening, it's happening to us. It has frightening parts, like all such tales, but when we become anxious remember the words of Isaiah, Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. The sins of all men were upon Him, so He has overcome evil for you.
Afterward these afflictions bear the peaceable fruit of righteousness. In their own way we picked such fruit from the physical correction we received from our parents. As parents we pick the same fruit when we see our children becoming responsible adults. So God intends to lead us to repentance, to seek the kingdom of God, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, so that we might drink from the Fountain of Life and be filled. Nor does death make our ending unhappy, because Jesus has combined it with the resurrection to make it the door to eternal life. Nothing tragic about that. It's the ultimate happy ending. AMEN.