But then, God's plan so often makes no sense, at least while it is playing out. God sets Adam and Eve in the garden as part of his creation, and right off they get themselves expelled because they will not keep the forbidden fruit out of their gullets. He picks, for his new nation, an ancient couple who can no longer bear children; their grandson cheats his brother and proceeds to bear a pack of sons who sell one of their own into slavery. That act in turn leads the whole “nation” into Egypt and slavery, and when the LORD God brings them out of bondage in a display of mighty wonders, their response is to gripe constantly about the rest of the trip, when they aren't raising up an idol of a false god. Skip forward to the kingdom, and they get as far Solomon—three kings in all—before the whole thing falls apart: the northerners are dispersed by the Assyrians, while Judah and Benjamin hold on for another two hundred years before going into exile. The prophets go with them, and mourn the lost kingdom while proclaiming a messiah who will come and set all things right.
Does this make any sense? Our sacred history tells us that the LORD, the Almighty, the king of creation time after time picks such weakness in men in which to manifest Himself. And then, in Roman Judaea, he puts Himself in humanity, the promised messiah; and heaven announces this to shepherds in a field and to foreigners who, having brought their gifts, disappear back into their own country. This God incarnate, this Jesus, then picks twelve followers who are apparently among the thickest of men. The chief, whom he could just as well have named Peter for his rockheadedness, is throughout a weak reed, prone to fits of enthusiastic faith followed by abject cowardice. Thus, on this Friday, we find the disciples dispersed, Peter's bluster betrayed in his three denials; of the lot, only John makes it to Calvary, to stand among the women.
And Jesus? There he hangs, nailed to the rood, tortured, bound in his humanity to mankind's death, expiring as we all shall. Is this any way to run a creation? Many rebel, and say, “no God could run things this badly.” But who are they to say? Where were they when the world began?
When the world ended, the old world before the temple's curtain was torn in half, it is easy to see where we all were. There is the God-and-man, hanging on the cross, and there is mankind: one with a hammer, another with a nail. One taking silver pieces, another handing them to the betrayer. One swearing lies about the messiah, another having at him with a whip. One dressing him and robes and mocking him, another washing his hands. A few helpless faithful stand watching; a multitude jeer. We stood moments ago in the midst of his passion, our hearts with the faithful, our lips with the spitting. And is that not our way in all things?
Perhaps it is unfair to lay upon us all the various outrages and neglects committed in Jesus' name. And certainly the godless have tortured and stolen and murdered with the best of us. And yet, the hymn puts in our mouths the truth: “Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.” Who among us can deny it? In a myriad of offenses, we hammer away at the cross, while we gaze upon it in sorrow.
And God presided over it all, enthroned in pain. Where is God when we suffer? He is in our humanity, for he joined the divine to the human in Bethlehem, and carried it to its end on the cross. And yet, we know, that is not the end. On the cross is laid all our sin, from the beginning until that latter day when all passes away. The world sees this all as foolishness: how fitting that the God whom they do not heed finds His end here! Yes, they say, how proper it is that this religion for idiots be put to rest in a rocky tomb! In a just world, they say, things would have happened differently; and there is the proof that justice is what men make it to be. And on another continent, the followers of another god fall upon Christians, and slay them, ostentatiously. Twenty-one are martyred in Libya; a hundred and fifty more are killed in Kenya. Islam cannot accept Jesus on the cross. He was replaced there by another, they say, or in any case he did not die. We, his true followers, know differently; the holy women, and after them, the disciples, testify that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day....
But for now, in our weakness, we kneel before the cross, watching as the plan is worked out. And to what purpose is this plan accomplished? Because God so loved the world. He gave his only Son, and that son is how we see love, suffering and dying for us. God's love of itself we do not understand; or rather, we cannot see how it is carried out as the days roll onward. But his love in Jesus: that we can understand. It is a love in weakness, not in power; it is a love in sacrifice, not in trade. The paradox of divine purpose is in its revelation through the small, the scorned, the futile, even the perverse and evil: a man and his aged wife, a trickster father and his scheming sons, a nation of whiners and a pair of contending kingdoms, and finally, the god-made-man dying in public scorn, abandoned by his followers. Those same frightened disciples became the apostles who endured abuse and finally death or exile to spread the faith, joined by one of their chief persecutors.
And we live under the same commission: to spread the kingdom, not through worldly power, but in testimony. We speak the word of God as it has been delivered to us from of old; we baptize as we have been told; but most of all we make known our discipleship through love, to those we know and those who, unknown to us, are our neighbors. We cannot make sense of the love of God, but we can see it here, on the tree which is both the instrument of shame and the sign of triumph. Therefore contemplate the cross, for there is found our salvation: not in the reasonable plan of the world, but in the sacrifice of God's only son.