Way back on Sunday, March 5, we read the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness after his baptism by John in the River Jordan. In that story, Jesus is young in adulthood, in experience, and in untested spiritual power. Jesus fasts for forty days, as some of us have done, each in our own way, throughout Lent. He abides in the parched Judean desert, a topography I never fully appreciated until I visited it a year ago. There is no water, no shade, no shelter from the scorching heat. And thus weakened, the devil appears to test Jesus’ mettle.
Jesus must be near-delirious when the devil glides up to his ear and questions, “If you really are the Son of God…” and Satan follows his snide and mocking phrase with sweet suggestions about how God’s Favored One might ease his own suffering and rally the good things of God to his aid. Three times the devil speaks, and each time Satan begins, “If you really are the Son of God…” If we read the story rightly, we pause nervously each time, praying that this untested Jesus has the strength to endure temptation.
Fast forward three years in Jesus’ life and a liturgical season in our own, and today we’ve celebrated Jesus as the One who comes in the name of the Lord with an elaborate palm procession, only to have our adulation turn to venom as we read the Passion Gospel. I must ask: Did you experience déjà vu? See, the words with which we mocked Jesus on the cross just a moment ago are identical in the biblical text, word for word, to the words of the devil in the wilderness on March 5. We said, as the devil said, “If you really are the Son of God…come down.”
Just as the devil tempted Jesus three times in the desert, three times today Jesus is mocked, as he hangs in weakness on that cross: by the bandits on either side of him (Even the others being crucified see themselves in a position to mock Jesus), by the temple leaders, and by the same crowd of people who earlier laid palms at his feet. In other words, by us. “If you really are the Son of God,” all three groups sneer, quoting the devil, “come down from that cross.”
Frederick Bruner says, “It is an insatiable rage indeed which will not be satisfied with death, but will mock even the dying.” One thing I’ve learned in my encounters as a priest is that insatiable rage is usually a smokescreen for fear. You see, fear belies weakness. No one wants to appear weak, so rage is kindled to make the fearful appear strong. The crowd rages at Jesus. It mocks a dying man. And this leads me to wonder, what are the people so afraid of? What are we so afraid of?
I think our fear is the same as the devil’s, and it is revealed in the snide words of our mockery. “If you really are the Son of God…” What if he is? That’s what we’re afraid of. What if Jesus is who the Gospels claim him to be? What if it’s not merely a wonder worker, or a healer, or a wise rabbi that we nail to that cross, but the Son of God? What if he refuses to come down from that cross not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to call upon the legions of angels waiting in the wings for his command?
It’s a terrifying prospect, because it means God isn’t who we would prefer God to be. At this point in the story, for those who’ve followed Jesus around Judea only to feel boondoggled by today’s turn of events, the God the people prefer would leap off the cross borne aloft on the wings of angels, harness our rage and serve as the symbol of our strength, and lash out against any who would dare stand against him.
But Jesus doesn’t, and he won’t. And that frightens us. We fear—rightly—that if Jesus really is the Son of God, hanging limply on that crossbeam of wood, then it means we have to rethink who God is and who we’re called to be.
It turns out that the lessons Jesus learned way back in the desert took deeper root in him than we realized. By resisting the devil’s three-fold temptation, Jesus gathered wisdom, strength, and understanding of who he is and what he must do. In the wilderness, it took greater power to resist the devil than to perform the miracles the devil requested.
Just so now: Though it would require great power for Jesus to come down from the cross and wail on his enemies, it takes far greater power not to do so. Bruner says of the cross, “The greatest miracle Jesus ever did was the one he did not do.” It is the miracle that demonstrates that God will not raise God’s hand in violence, even against violence. God will not let the venom of the mob infect him. The Son of God will demonstrate to the extreme what it means to love. He will meet ignorance with love. He will meet rage with love. He will meet hatred with love. “But how far must such love go?” we tremble. And the cross is our answer.
Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching those who would follow him that we, too, must take up the cross. The disciples always hoped the cross they’d bear could be turned upside down into the shape of a sword and become an instrument of worldly power. (One doesn’t have to go far in today’s world to find Christians who still harbor that hope.) But the cross won’t be inverted. We cannot wield it to coerce and force our way. We can only bear it as Jesus did and pray that we can bear it as far as Jesus did.
We now enter the week of the Passion, when we’ll be tested along the way, when we’ll be asked on Maundy Thursday to love one another as Jesus loves us, when we’ll be asked on Good Friday to love in Jesus’ stead while he lies in the tomb. And on Easter, we’ll see the full power of love, when it dispels fear and breaks the bonds of death. On Easter there will be no question; there will be no “if.” The Son of God will return to us restored. Outside the empty tomb we will know him for who he is, and we will be redeemed.