A sermon from this past Sunday, in which I draw together reflection on the crucifixion of Jesus with reflection on Remembrance Day here in Canada.
These are words that have been spoken by many.
Our bodies, we are reminded, are made up of 60% water – water is vital to our existence – water defines us. A person can only live several days without water. And in considerably less time than that without water, the first signs of dehydration become apparent – a dry mouth, an increased heart rate, dry eyes. As soon as our intake of water becomes less than our body requires, our body begins to communicate a message loud and clear – the body needs water. That message is translated through our brains and becomes familiar words on our lips: I’m thirsty.
Our New Testament lesson this morning is taken from John’s gospel – a passage in which we read of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a portion of narrative we may have heard many times before. It’s familiar to us. In fact this passage is almost too familiar to us – we have heard it so many times we are almost comfortable with it. The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion has lost any capacity to upset us, to shock us, or to make us squirm in our seats. It’s become almost impossible to read it again as if for the first time. But we’ll try again.
When thinking about Jesus’ death, Christians have often done so by considering what are known as the seven last words from the cross. These seven last words are a combination of things recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are words that Jesus spoke as he was dying – words that help us understand what Jesus death was all about.
From the cross, Jesus said:
Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.
He said to the criminal beside him:
Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
He offered a third word to his mother Mary and to the beloved disciple:
Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.
To God the Father he said:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
From the cross he spoke this fifth word:
From the cross he cried out:
It is finished.
On the cross he breathed his last:
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
These seven words in some sense define the death of Jesus. And there in the middle of these words from the cross are words that many of us will have spoken at one time or another. I thirst. I’m thirsty.
Why, this morning, are we exploring the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion? Why do we focus on those words – I thirst. Today is Remembrance Sunday – a day when we recall the horrors of wars past and present – a day when we acknowledge the death of many who gave their lives for the benefit of others – their loved ones, their fellow citizens.
In many ways, of course, Jesus’ death is unlike other human deaths – his death is unlike the deaths of those who have fallen in war. We confess that Jesus, in his death, bears the weight of human sin and suffering – we confess that Jesus’ death means the end of death. His death is unique.
But on the other hand we also affirm that Jesus’ death was no different from other deaths. Though he suffered a particularly cruel death – flogged and crucified as he was, his death was a human death. He died as any one of us will die.
As I was thinking this week about those very human words – “I thirst” – my mind went to the experience of many soldiers who during their time in the trenches during World War One, or during their time on the front lines during World War Two often went without water – who would write in their letters to family and friends about their thirst – there was sometimes a serous lack of water rations on the front lines. We can think also of soldiers dying in the field with no one to assuage their thirst. You can almost hear the dry, parched cry of a soldier giving his life for his family and country – I’m thirsty.
With the words of Jesus, I’m thirsty, we are reminded that Jesus’ death is like any other death. Yes – he is God with us – he is fully God yet also fully human. So it is not surprising that in the midst of his agony on the cross he speaks words that any human would speak: I’m thirsty.
As I was thinking this week about those words – “I thirst” – my mind went also to the victims of war. My mind went to the victims of the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. You may have heard those terrible stories yourself. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion of the atomic bombs, buildings and trees were flattened, people close to the explosion were incinerated. And all around there was fire – a living hell. Many whose bodies were burned wandered the streets of that living hell – in a desperate search for water. They tried to drink from rivers that were covered in oil, making themselves sicker than they already were. Powerful radiation poisoned large ashen drops of black-rain that were drunk by thousands of thirsty survivors.
Jesus hangs dying on the cross and says “I’m thirsty.” In Jesus Christ, God enters into the fullness of human experience and into the darkest place of human suffering and death. In a profound sense Jesus is with the soldier thirsty and dying on a battlefield. In a profound sense Jesus is with women and men wandering thirsty through the living hell of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jesus longs to have his thirst quenched. As he dies, he enters into the suffering that many experience.
The apostle John tells us that Jesus spoke this fifth word from the cross in order, as he puts it, that the scripture might be fulfilled. The apostle is probably making reference here to the twenty-second Psalm, in which the Psalmist declares:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus thirsts – and that he thirsts reminds us that he is human like we are human. In Christ God enters into the fullness of human experience – the good, the bad, the ugly.
But is there anything more we can say about this fifth word from the cross. When Jesus says I’m thirst – are we only reminded that he is human like us, and dies as we die? Actually, there is more that we can say. There is another way to think about this fifth word from the cross.
William Willimon, formerly a professor at Duke Divinity School and now a bishop in the United Methodist Church, wonders aloud about the fifth word from the cross. He writes:
Maybe Jesus wasn’t even thirsty for water. Maybe he was thirsty for his righteousness’ sake. Maybe he was thirsty for us. Is not that a fair summary of much of scripture – God’s got this thing for us? God is determined – through Creation, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, the birth of the Christ – to get close to us. God has this unquenchable thirst for us. Even us.
God has this desire for us, this longing to be with us. God has this unquenchable thirst for us. Maybe Jesus wasn’t even thirsty for water. Maybe Jesus was thirsty for us.
In Luke’s gospel, chapter 15, Jesus tells parables to explain how much God longs for fellowship with us – parables that explain God’s unquenchable thirst for us.
Jesus asks: “What woman having ten coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it.” God is a woman with broom in hand – an image more than appropriate to Jesus cultural context – a woman with broom in hand who sweeps diligently, intensely, eagerly even, to find that lost coin. It is precious. She must find it.
Jesus asks: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” God is a shepherd who cares for the sheep, who longs to see each one gathered into the safety of the fold. The sheep is precious. He must find it.
How about a more contemporary parable of God’s pursuit of those he loves.*
Bill Adams, who is CEO of a large hospital in the US, down in Virginia, once received an anxious call from a woman who explained that her mother had come into that hospital wearing her wedding ring, but that it could not now be found. The woman explained that her mother had just passed away from cancer – she added, can I come see you about the ring?
The daughter came and met with him and with moist eyes described how her father and mother had been married for 50 years and what a wonderful loving couple and caring parents they had been together. Then she told Bill Adams how the day before, her dad, with tears in his eyes, had said to her, “It would mean so much for me to be able to slip that ring back on her finger before we bury her.”
“So,” the woman continued, “I was hoping that there was some way you could help me fulfill his dream of putting that ring back on my mother’s finger. Is there anyone you can think of who may be able to help us find that ring?”
Bill Adams was deeply moved by the woman’s story and her sad, but calm, manner, and he promised to do all he could to locate the ring. Reflecting on the event he says: “In my heart, I yearned for a way to help them. I left my office and stopped by the ward where the lady had spent her final days. The staff told me how the woman had lost so much weight during the time she was there that they suspected her ring might have fallen off her finger. … They had looked on the floor underneath the bed, around the room, and in the bathroom. They had searched everywhere they could think of, but it was all to no avail. I went back to my office disappointed. But I was restless and not ready to give up. I just had this strong sense that there was something more I needed to do. Then I got an idea. I went into the basement of the hospital and located the laundry chute. I climbed into the bin and tumbled amidst the wet, dirty laundry. To my great surprise, I found the ring in the laundry bin. I almost cried right there and then. I will never forget the look on that woman’s face or on her father’s face when I handed them the ring the next day.”
These parables, ancient and modern, point to God’s desire for us – these parables remind us that God will seek us by any means available until we are found. Each of us knows what it is to long for something – and how much more does God long to live in relationship with us.
Yes, Jesus words from the cross remind us that Jesus was human like us – he became thirsty like we become thirsty. He died as we will die. And yet, maybe Jesus fifth word from the cross also points to God’s intense longing for us. Maybe Jesus wasn’t even thirsty for water. Maybe Jesus was thirsty for us.
As we turn toward a conclusion, we should see that there is an important link between these two ways of interpreting Jesus words.
Yes – Jesus is human. He is thirsty.
Yes – Jesus words of thirst express the longing of God to be close to the human.
But there is an important link between these to things.
it is because of God’s unquenchable thirst for us, that God comes to us in Jesus;
it is because of God intense, personal desire for us, that Jesus enters our suffering;
it is because of God’s unquenchable thirst for us, that Jesus thirsts on the cross.
In many ways we can’t understand why God came among us in Jesus Christ. In many ways we can’t understand why it was that Jesus the messiah had to suffer, to thirst, to die.
Yet the witness of the New Testament is clear – if the Son of God did not enter into the reality of death with us and for us, then there is no resurrection life for us either. But God’s love for us is so great, God’s thirsting for fellowship with us is so great, that God in Christ has gone even to the cross, has gone even to the point of crying out “I thirst”. And because he has done so – there is new life for us – resurrection life in the presence of God – abundant life through fellowship with Christ and his Spirit.
In Philippians chapter two we read:
Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
From that cross Jesus cried out ‘I thirst’. But maybe Jesus wasn’t only thirsty for water…Maybe he was thirsty for us.
*This story of Bill Adams is from the book, Are You Fascinated, by management consultant Ken Tucker.