Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Suffering Savior

Suffering Savior
Hebrews 5:1-10[1]
When we’re looking for someone to be a leader, I would say that we want that person to have qualities like strength, integrity, and compassion. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if our leaders are good-looking. But primarily, I think, we look for someone we believe has the ability to get the job done. We want leaders who are capable, confident, and courageous. And I think we really like for our leaders to possess strength—or at least to give off the appearance of strength. Of course, there are a lot of things that masquerade as strength these days. Being blunt in one’s speech can be a sign of strength, or it can be an indication that someone is just rude. Proposing bold ideas may be a mark of courage, or it may just mean that someone is a fanatic. It’s always difficult to identify a true leader on the surface of things.
The people of Jesus’ day were looking for a leader who had strength and courage. They expected their chosen one, their Savior, their Messiah, to have the strength and courage to lead them in a battle to defeat the powers of evil in this world and to throw off the yoke of their oppressors.[2] The idea of a Savior who was vulnerable, who was humble, who was gentle, just didn’t make any sense to them. A Savior who couldn’t actually deliver them from their enemies in combat was no Savior at all. A leader who didn’t bring them victories was worse than incompetent. A Messiah who failed to live up to their expectations that he be a powerful and successful warrior was worse than a contradiction in terms. He would be viewed as outright blasphemy.[3]
And yet, the idea of a Savior that lies at the heart of the Christian faith presents us with precisely such a mystery: a Savior who is not a warrior but a servant, a Savior who is not only vulnerable but actually gives up his life for those he came to save! We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ vulnerability in our lesson from the book Hebrews for today: “while Jesus was on earth, he begged God with loud crying and tears to save him” (Heb. 5:7, CEV).  It sounds like Jesus’ experience in the garden of Gethsemane.  There, the Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed fervently, asking God to take away the suffering he about to face.  I would say he knew what lay ahead and was experiencing intense anguish about it!
Our Scripture lesson presents this experience as something that was necessary in order for him to truly become our Savior. It says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). I don’t know about you, but to me that is astonishing. If Jesus truly was God’s Son, why would he have to “learn obedience.” It’s hard to imagine Jesus ever not being obedient to God. And yet, I think there may be something else behind this, something that the scene of Jesus praying in the garden may point to. I don’t think Jesus’ anguish and death on the cross were some kind of punishment, as if Jesus had been disobedient and had to be corrected. But I think, as a fully human being, he did have to learn by experience just how hard it would be to follow through with his mission of giving up his life for us all. And through the process of feeling that terror and anguish, the Scripture says that he was “perfected” as our Savior (Heb. 5:9).[4] It was necessary for him to experience the ultimate vulnerability and suffering in order to truly become our Savior.[5]
As much as that makes sense, still the question arises as to why Jesus ever had to suffer and die in the first place. If God wanted to save us, couldn’t he just wave his arm and accomplish it?  I think part of the answer has to do with whom Jesus came to save. He came to save those who were beyond all hope. He came to save those on whom everyone else had given up. He came to save those who were the least and the lost and the left out. He came to bring freedom to captives, acceptance to outcasts, and to show God’s love to those who were considered “godless.” In other words, Jesus came to save those who are vulnerable in this world. And part of that means giving hope and comfort to those who continue to struggle in this world. I don’t think a “wave of the arm” could ever inspire as much hope and faith as Jesus’ example does for countless people like you and me every day.
Perhaps the other question we should address is why anybody would follow a Savior who was vulnerable enough to be executed.[6]  We spend our lives running after things like comfort, stability, happiness, and status.  How can a crucified Savior possibly help with that?  For my part, I would say that I follow a vulnerable Savior because he reveals to us a vulnerable God.[7]  Many of us have learned to fear a God who is so exalted as to be remote, so supreme as to be incapable of personal relationships, so all-powerful as to be untouched by our heartaches and struggles.  But in Jesus, the suffering Savior, we see the God loves us enough to enter into our suffering and whose love is powerful enough to transform that suffering into new life.[8]
Talk of a suffering Savior and a vulnerable God seems contrary to what we expect. We expect our Savior to be victorious—maybe not in battle, but victorious nevertheless. And I doubt we’re any more comfortable with the notion of a God who becomes vulnerable enough to love—and to really love someone is to make oneself vulnerable. Despite our challenges, this is the heart of the gospel. Jesus said it himself, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). As a result, he has transformed despair into hope and fear into faith.[9] In order to truly become our Savior, Jesus entered fully and completely into our suffering.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/18/25 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Introduction to the New Testament, 113: “in the Targum of Isaiah 53 the servant of God is a powerful figure who makes the enemies of God’s people suffer for their sins against Israel. Rather than interpreting the Messiah as one who suffers for the sins of others, the Targum reads the features of the royal national Messiah into the figure of the servant, so that he becomes a triumphant, conquering figure.”
[3] Cf. F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 70-71.
[4] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:63, where he says, “being God’s Son did not exempt Jesus from learning, from obedience, from suffering, so complete was his identification with all who share flesh and blood.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:158: the New Testament has so strongly emphasized that Jesus was truly human that it “has portrayed the obedience of Jesus throughout as a genuine struggle to obey, as a seeking and finding.”
[5] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 68: “Suffering is not sin, suffering is built into the human condition. Limitation and weakness are not sin; they, too, are part of what it means to be human. Jesus, as a human being, suffered and was limited and was weak, but his pain taught him obedience, not faithless despair (5:8); his frailty deepened his reverence for God rather than stiffening his rebellion (5:7).”
[6] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 65, where he says that this was the “crucial theological and pastoral” problem the “Hebrews” were facing: “They know without a doubt that Jesus was weak—anyone with eyes to see could know that—but is Jesus also genuinely strong enough to help? They are well aware that Jesus was a fellow sufferer—every passerby who looked up at the cross could see that—but the question was whether this weak and suffering Jesus is also truly the divine Son who, in ways that eyes cannot see, stands in graceful glory at the beginning and end of time, and in the middle of time is even now redeeming the creation and bringing the children of God home.”
[7] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 18: “God suffers because God is vulnerable, and God is vulnerable because God loves—and it is love, not suffering or even vulnerability, that is finally the point. God can help because God acts out of love, and love risks suffering.” Cf. also Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, 90: “God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering, sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffer. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see God’s love. God is suffering love” (quoting Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 90).
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 60: “Creative love is ultimately suffering love because it is only through suffering that it acts creatively and redemptively for the freedom of the beloved.” Cf. also Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 54, where he says that the Scriptures speak of a Lord who “loves his enemies and takes the form of a servant, allowing himself to be pushed out of the world so that he can redeem it. According to the Gospel, God exercises his power in distinctive ways. It is a power of love, not compulsion, and he triumphs through weakness.”
[9] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 68: because of what Jesus experienced through his suffering, “not only is he compassionate toward those who have lost sight of the truth that they are God's very own children, Jesus can also take them by the hand and lead them home.”

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