That’s What I Call Awesome!
Passion Sunday (C)
Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9,17-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
“I promise you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
In a recent magazine cartoon, a mother peers over her teenager’s shoulder. The teen is intently working at her laptop, apparently writing a paper. In the caption, the mother suggests to her daughter, “You might want to keep your words-to-exclamation-points ratio higher than one to one.”
I think we can all relate to that. Have you noticed how email messages and texts are so often prone to such excessive use of over-the-top emphasis?
It’s hard to figure out exactly when it started, but in like fashion, the word “awesome,” highjacked by popular culture, has undergone a radical change in meaning. Once reserved for the loftiest descriptions, the term has been dumbed down to a mere expression of approval — nothing more than a thumbs up or smiley face. Indeed, how often do we hear “awesome” in answer to questions like “how was your macaroni and cheese,” or “what do you think of your new sneakers?” Let’s not forget that “awesome” was once a term reserved for something inducing awe, as its root tells us. It was a word used to describe an inspiring or overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear.
Today’s text of the Passion story — the “long” reading assigned for this Sunday consists of 114 verses. And may I suggest that it should be highlighted, underscored, and bracketed with exclamation points in our bibles. And because it is a story that evokes an overwhelming feeling of reverence, we can sum it in the margin of our bibles with the singular word: AWESOME.
Once, when he was eighty-eight years old, the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes found himself alone on a train in a state of confusion. When the conductor came by, Justice Holmes couldn’t find his ticket, and he seemed terribly upset. He searched all his pockets and fumbled through his wallet without success. The conductor was sympathetic. “Don’t worry, Mr. Holmes,” he said. “The Pennsylvania Railroad will be happy to trust you. After you reach your destination, you’ll probably find the ticket, and you can mail it to us.” But the conductor’s kindness failed to put Mr. Holmes at ease. Still very much upset, he said, “My dear man, my problem is not ‘Where is my ticket?’ The problem is, ‘Where am I going?'”
As we journey today with Jesus on the road to Calvary’s hill, the problem is, “Where are we going?” The truth is that Jesus is guiding us to a meeting place with God where we can experience His Presence most intensely. The awesome truth is that the only way to Easter and Resurrection and New Life is through the Cross.
In the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, we have God’s supreme expression of His love for us. This is the very heart of the Christian Gospel. It was what Paul meant when he said, “Brothers, when I came to you, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy, but simply to tell you what God had guaranteed. During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him as the crucified Christ” (1 Cor. 2:1-2).
People’s reactions to Jesus’ life and ministry were mixed as the end approached. There was Judas, the betrayer, and there was John the beloved, standing at the foot of the Cross, faithful to the end. Some were impressed with Jesus’ teachings and spellbound with His preaching. And some saw Him as a threat to their authority and lofty status as religious leaders.
On the hill called Calvary, some people stared and watched passively, perhaps uncaringly. Some may have exhibited nothing more than the idle curiosity of onlookers witnessing a dramatic event. Others jeered and mocked Jesus. One of the two criminals hanging next to Jesus reacts angrily, cynically: Why doesn’t He save all three of us from this terrible death? The other criminal’s reaction is one of great faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said to Jesus.
To this day, the reaction to Jesus’ life and ministry is mixed. Some react with fear and apprehension. Some with cowardice. Some with cynicism. Some with mocking and jeering. Some with Why? Why? Why? And then there are those who are impressed. Those who are spellbound. Those who are faithful. Those who not only have seen Jesus but also have come to know Him. Those who not only are familiar with the actions of Jesus but also have opted to be in on the mission of Jesus. It is those who not only have a religion but alsohave a relationship with Jesus.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul prays to God that “Out of His infinite glory, may He give you the power through His Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and, then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, and the height and the depth; until, knowing the Love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).
In 1940, an American missionary in China was arrested and then expelled by the Chinese authorities. On leaving China, he journeyed to India to arrange his return home. Passing through a coastal area of India, he encountered a network of Jewish refugees, most of them living in attics, barns, and tents, and some still looking for shelter. The refugees had fled from Nazi persecution in Germany, and they desperately needed help. Conditions were such that the missionary was powerless to do much.
Nevertheless, he felt that he couldn’t leave without doing something. So, he cashed the check he had received for passage home and gave it to one of the refugee families. In due course, his passage was again provided for by his Missionary Society, and he returned home. On his return, he was interviewed by a reporter from a religion magazine. During the interview, the reporter’s questions led to the details of the missionary’s expulsion from China and the trip home, including his contacts with the Jewish refugees in India. “Why did you, a Christian missionary, give your passage money to them?” the reporter asked. “After all, it was all you had, and they don’t believe in Jesus!” “But I do!” the missionary replied. -1 What a profoundly beautiful expression of loyalty to the Cause of Christ!
“Jesus, remember me when you enter into Your Reign,” pleaded the thief hanging next to Jesus on Calvary’s hill. Jesus has entered His Reign! Christ is King, and He has not forgotten even one of us, not for a single moment! Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, knows who we are and loves us for who we are: God’s beloved children. And should the question ever come up, “Who believes in you,” your Loyal King will be the first to answer: “I do!” And that’s What I Call Awesome!
1- Adapted from “Good News,” the story of Oswald Goldry.