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Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most people love success stories. We delight in the rags to riches fairytales of the pauper who rises to meet the prince, or of the Cinderella maiden who marries the monarch. It is true of business and politics as well. The American composer Irving Berlin was just such a success story. He was known for such timeless hits as, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Berlin rose from obscurity in the musical ditties in New York’s Tin Pan Alley to writing songs for the stars on Broadway. But Irving Berlin stated his own daily struggle as no other, “The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success.”
Of course, there are those who have achieved success with little effort, but perfect timing. The majority of successful men and women whom I have known, and who have made a lasting mark on our lives, have done so while also experiencing suffering. As Helen Keller once wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
The message of the cross on this Holy Cross Sunday may appear to be anything but a success story. And truthfully, even in the ancient world, the cross wasn’t a symbol of success either. Indeed, a death on the cross was a mark of disaster. So what happened that we should consider it the Christian sign of success today?
My friends, this morning, let us like meditate on the cross anew. For in the true cross of Christ, you and I have been invited to experience our own ultimate success story.
Church theologian and historian, St John Chrysostom, wrote that St. Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, longed to recover the cross of Christ. For this reason she travelled to Jerusalem in the 4th century where she organized an excavation at the hill of Calvary. According to legend, the diggers uncovered three wooden crosses. They could not tell which was the cross of Jesus and which were the crosses of the two thieves crucified with him. Finally they brought a sick woman and a dead man who was being carried to burial. The three crosses were placed one after the other on the sick woman and on the dead man. Two of the crosses had no effect, but on contact with the third cross, the sick woman was healed of her infirmity and the dead man came to life. These miracles clearly indicated which of the three was the true holy cross. News of the discovery quickly spread across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe and believers travelled on pilgrimages to see the cross and to venerate it.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation 1100 years later, theologians weren’t too keen on the worshiping the relics of the past -including wooden crosses. There were many in the Middle Ages who looked up the cross as a magical sign insuring long life and prosperity. Martin Luther once chided, “That there were enough wooden fragments of the Holy Cross lying about Europe to erect an entire forest.” The Reformer, however, did not dismiss the discovery of the Holy Cross, but like St. Paul, he believed that we should meditate on it and Christ’s suffering. Jesus himself taught his disciples that if they wanted to receive the promise of his eternal kingdom there would be suffering. Indeed, he invited his followers, “To deny themselves, to take up their cross, and follow me.” And yet, it is often difficult for faithful Christians to accept suffering as a step on the journey to success.
The pastoral sage, Gerhardt Frost wrote a little poem called “Don’t Laugh,” which captures the folly of this human pursuit of success and avoidance of suffering.
They told me today of the chain smoker who read so much
about the hazards of smoking he decided to give up reading.
They expected me to laugh. And I did.
But then I thought, “What about me?”
Our Lord says, Love one another, love your enemies, seek justice,
forgive as you have been forgiven. Something in me doesn’t like that.
So sometimes I read less and less. Don’t laugh.
Now you may be wondering, so why is the cross and suffering such an important aspect to the Christian faith? Let me offer three insights into Jesus’ cross and suffering.
First, Jesus taught his disciples that the cross and its “suffering” makes you more God-like. Let me say that again, in spite of the world’s desire for success and its rejection of pain, Jesus taught his disciples that “suffering” is divine. Jesus never offered a promise of a life free from pain. Nor did he teach that the Church would be exempt from trials and temptations. Jesus taught them that to feel pain for another was truly God-like. It is how God feels toward you.
Now how can that be? I think it is the discovery every mother or father encounters at the birth of a child. If you love someone, you give that person the power to hurt you. That isn’t always in a bad way. Of course, there is no one who can hurt you more, than the one who you love most. A loving wife who is betrayed by a faithless husband knows that suffering love. A father and mother who have lost a son or daughter know that suffering love. But a parent who has sat through the night at the bedside of a sick child also knows that suffering love. To be sure, the only way to be spared such suffering is never to love at all.
Pastor Mark Dittmannson was in town on Friday and stopped by the church. He congratulated me on being a grandfather. I thanked him, but I said it is not always easy to be in the sandwich generation taking care of parents and children, and now a grandchild as well. He laughed. “Oh, Arden, welcome to the club sandwich generation.” Suffering, you see, is divine, and it has the power to makes you more human and compassionate. But my friends, that is your comfort as well. When you are suffering, know and trust that God is suffering with you- and he is longing for a release for you from your pain.
Second, Jesus taught his disciples that in spite of the trials suffering builds confidence and an inner trust in God’s ways. After 16 years as a missionary on the continent of Africa, the famed missionary David Livingstone returned to his native Scotland to address the students at Glasgow University. His body was emaciated by the ravages of some twenty-seven fevers which had scourged his body. One arm hung loose useless at his side, the result of his being mangled by a lion. His message to the students was this: “Shall I tell you what sustained me amidst the toil, the hardship, the loneliness of my exile? It was Christ’s promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.’” In the midnight hours, when you are wrestling with the needs of your family and the world, place your trust and confidence in a loving God who longs for you to rest.
Finally, Jesus taught his disciples, that suffering brings life. That, my friends, is the great irony of suffering and the cross. Dr. Edward Judson once said, “Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding without suffering, it is because others before you have suffered: if you are suffering without succeeding, it is that others after you may succeed.”
My wife Janna will tell that where ever we travel, she will search the guidebooks for the best coffee shops. And I will search the guidebooks for the best cemeteries. This was true even as a student teacher in India. High up in the foothills of the Himalayas in eastern India there is a beautiful city called Kohima. It was there that during World War II, the Japanese were stopped in their thrust toward India. Buried in the cemetery there at Kohima are the bodies of hundreds of Indians, Brits and Americans, and those of other nationalities who made up the Allied force who halted the Japanese advance. At the entrance to the cemetery there is an engraved memorial which says, “They gave their tomorrow that you might have today.” Suffering empowered them in death to glorify God and their success meant life. But just importantly, they lived and died themselves trusting in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life offered on the cross.
That is why we lift our eyes to cross. It is there on the cross our Savior died and offered his promise that a loving God suffers with you in your loss. It is there on the cross that that a heavenly Father offered his only son for you, so that you may know that he will never abandon you and that you will never be alone. And it is there on the cross that he offers you his promise of life everlasting.
The cross, my friends, is your ultimate sign of success.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.