April 3, 2105
Why did Jesus die on the cross? That question has perplexed and troubled people throughout history… though not all people. For some understanding why the Son of God died on the cross has come relatively easy. It is, perhaps, to them we need to listen on this night.
Ever since my early twenties I’ve been interested in gathering family history.
It’s a very powerful experience to learn about and reflect on the lifetimes of family members through many generations. It really puts your own life in an interesting perspective. You think about how the tragedies and decisions and joys and achievements of past generations have shaped your own. You understand that you are a part of a chain of connected lives and that things you decide and do will shape the lives of people that will come after you… people that you will never know.
One thing that has absolutely astounded me in my family history research has been realizing just how hard… how painful and tragic and unfair life has been for so many generations of my family. It’s just incredible what they had to face and endure.
Going back over 3 centuries in Norway, I’ve learned how desperate their lives were. They struggled so hard on their little farms to feed their families and stay out of debt. Subsistence living, bad crop years, heavy taxation, corrupt government officials, non-existent medical care, and so on.
As I go through the records, I see about half of all children died before the age of 15. They died of sickness, disease or accidents. There were 4 children who died in two different accidental fires. Think of witnessing all those people you love, dying in their youth and being helpless to protect them.
In 1803, times were so hard, with drought, crop failures and taxes that my family, because of debt, lost the little farm that had been in their family for 150 years.
There were three brothers who were called out to fight in the Napoleonic Wars in 1807. A year later, all three of them died somewhere along the border with Sweden.
One of those brothers left behind a wife and 4 young children on a small tenant farm. A few years later, an outbreak of disease hit the farm and one, by one, over the course of three weeks, all died except the oldest child, a 16-year old boy. He was left to face a very cruel world alone.
There was hardship and shame as children were born into terrible poverty to unmarried mothers. My Swedish great grandfather remembered, as a small child, being outside with his mother as she worked all day as a laborer on a farm. He would listen to her sing as she worked. At the age of 14, he had to leave his mother and find his own way. He remembered working for cruel farmers who treated him badly, worked him too hard and fed him too little.
There was poverty and hardship that forced people to leave forever the land and the people they loved and travel far away… to this country… to a land that was unknown and where everything was strange and uncertain.
I have often wondered how these people endured their hard lives. But the truth is, I know something about that too, because I’ve found that as well in their stories.
I have learned that they found strength in the love of a God they believed knew and cared about their suffering. They rested on that strength whenever the storms of life overwhelmed them.
They found courage and hope in a savior who suffered pain and forsakenness, just as they did. And they drew on that courage and hope whenever they faced life’s darkness.
My Swedish great grandfather wrote poetry. Nearly all of his poems make reference, in one way or another, to the rock that anchored his life… his faith in God’s love and care. One goes:
At times, I try to pray, and on my knees I go,
I Lift my eyes up to the wounds of Jesus,
But then the words sit like stone,
Halting they come, hardly resembling a prayer.
When will this end? When will I be free
From all the misery that now plagues me?
In times of pain and difficulty, he looked to Christ; and seeing the wounds of Jesus, he knew Christ was with him in his woundedness. His poem ends with an expression of trust in Jesus’ presence with him, and hope in the life Jesus gives.
Therefore, Lord Jesus, take, oh, take my hand.
Lead and preserve me until I draw near,
To heaven’s kingdom where sorrow does not reach,
Where earth’s grief is ended, and joy is ours.
My great grandmother, who grew up in Norway, had to leave forever the family and community she loved so deeply. When she left, her sister and a friend gave her a little square piece of paper. On it, each wrote a verse of comfort for her.
Her sister wrote: Jesus, he is always at your side. Listen to his loving voice. “For you I was willing to suffer. Rest now in my arms.”
On the back of the card, the lyrics to a hymn were written. It begins like this: “Fear Not, I Am with You…” beautiful words of promise, like a star that lights my path. Through the clouds of midnight, this promise stands: “I am always with you. You are never alone.”
She kept that piece of paper her whole life. It was bent and stained and torn and taped. It too bears witness to the rock that anchored her life: faith in the loving presence of Christ with her.
For these people it was easy to understand why Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died on the cross in order to draw near to them. Christ entered the terrible darkness of human suffering so that he could share the full pain of being broken, forsaken… filled with grief… so that he could be with them… so they would never be alone.
From the desperation of their lives, they knew… that is what a loving God would do. And they knew that is what Christ did for them.
It’s no coincidence that the words of many of tonight’s hymns have come from people who have lived lives full of pain and suffering. “They Crucified My Lord” and “Were You There” come from African American slaves of this country.
Denied fundamental freedom and dignity, these people sang in their songs about the suffering of Jesus, because they knew suffering in their own lives like few in our history have. They knew that Jesus’ suffering was connected to their suffering… and their suffering was connected to his.
So they sang, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord…” knowing that Christ on the cross erases geography and time in order to be always present with us, wherever we are. As Jesus says, in the Gospel of John: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
The slave singers of these song understood what Jesus meant. They understood why Jesus died. They can help us who struggle to understand finally see.
The hymns “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” come from Europe during dark times of poverty and war. They too come from people whose lives have been filled with grief.
I’ve always wondered at the heart-breaking imagery in the words of the 2nd verse of “O Sacred Head:” How art thou pale with anguish; with sore abuse and scorn? How does that visage languish that once was bright as morn?
I’ve always felt certain that those words were written by one who had known the greatest grief of life. They were written by one who had seen a loved one… someone whose face to them was “bright as morn…” be wracked with pain and drained of life. And here in these words, Christ, on the cross… in dying… joins their loved one.
Many people like these saints of the church have understood why Jesus died on the cross. It was to be with them… to give them strength and healing… to help them face death and loss and terror. It was to claim people who had no one to help them. It was to bear them through life… through death… and to life once again.
On this darkest of all nights of the church year, we remember that there is no darkness greater than the love and power of God. We remember that Christ entered the darkness in order to meet us in our darkness.
That’s why he died on the cross…. so that he can draw us to himself and be with us always… everywhere… to the end of the age… and beyond.