GOLGOTHA

TEXT: Philippians 2:5-11; John 19:16-22

Today's location is not really a mountain, per se. It is a hill, across from Jerusalem's Damascus gate, probably once a stone quarry. At some point someone noticed that the rocks in the side of the hill looked like a skull, and so it was named in Hebrew, Golgotha, which means the place of the skull, or in Latin, Calvary. It is, of course, the place where Jesus was crucified.

Millions of sermons have been written about this event across thousands of years, and in many ways it remains as much of a mystery as ever. I've read books about it, studied it in seminary, and have thought long and hard about it. What exactly does the crucifixion of Jesus have to do with me...or with any of us...here and now, 2000 years later? The traditional answer goes, "Well, Jesus died to save us from our sins. Sin is so bad that it requires death as a punishment and Jesus took the punishment for us, so we could live. That's called the "Substitutionary theory of the atonement." It's not the only theory of what the Cross is about, but it is a primary one in our day and age.

When I teach a Disciple class, we usually get around to that question at some point or another. And while it's easy to state the theory...or any of the other theories out there...it is much more difficult when people want to know the mechanics of exactly how that works, or why a loving God would be demanding death in the first place. At that point it's not so easy anymore, even for those of us who have studied it closely and thought about it all of our lives.

So I'm not going to stand up here and perfectly explain it to you. But something did happen to me last week that gave me one small picture of what Jesus' life and death might be about.

I was out at my new little cabin. I had been out on the porch, enjoying the sound of the river, and at about 9 pm I blew out the citronella candle and came back inside. The main living space of the cabin is really only two rooms...a bedroom, and one larger room that serves as kitchen, dining, and living room. Across the far wall is the kitchen, with smaller versions of your usual appliances. Above the little gas stove is a hood and above the hood is a shelf where the microwave sits. Beside the microwave is the place where I keep the little gas candlelighter, and as I came in from the porch, I went to put it back. Something moved.

On the shelf, just in front of the microwave, something small was moving around. I came to look closer, and as I looked, I saw a baby mouse. Baby mouse maybe gives you the wrong image. This was an infant mouse. A no-fur-yet mouse. It was about an inch long with dark spots where there would be eyes in a few days. It's skin was a translucent pink, so that you could see it's little organs inside. It was rolling around, trying to right itself, and very close to falling about five feet down.

I looked for others, but could find none. I saw only a hole up in the corner, where I guessed this little fellow had a nest from which he had fallen. I picked him up and put him in the palm of my hand. Very tiny. Ten of him could easily have fit in my one hand. He rolled and crawled around my hand a bit, sticking his tiny nose into the crevices of my fingers, trying to find a place to nurse. I became a mouse mother.

I will spare you most of the details of the next 36 hours as I made it a bed, and experimented with ways to feed my new charge and to keep him warm. I took the microwave down and he spent his first night up on the shelf in his bed...a piece of cheese beside him, in the hopes that his real mother would come to fetch him. She didn't.

The next day, I was sitting in the rocking chair with the little mouse resting quietly in the palm of my hand after another exasperating round of trying to feed a creature that can't see and who wants to suck on something but must learn to sip instead. Some of it got in, because I could see it's stomach and I could see it was full of white stuff. But still, it was not the kind of milk it should have been getting. It may have been fortified with vitamin D, but it wasn't mouse milk, and I doubted it would be the same.

As I rocked with my little mouse curled up in my hand, I prayed. It was sort of like the prayer I pray over the communion elements..."God make this milk be for this baby the milk of its mother." And I prayed for wisdom on how to help this little mouse. And as I rocked and I prayed, a wave of understanding did come over me. "To save this baby," said God, "You would have to become a mouse." And the hill of Calvary flashed across my mind.

I thought about that more. I at least like to think that as a human being, I am superior to a mouse. I have opposing thumbs, after all. I have reasoning powers well beyond that of a mouse, and am created in the very image of God. Surely a human being, with all my wisdom and understanding and ability, could save a mouse. But the mouse did not need all of my greatness. The mouse did not need my computer skills or my language ability; the mouse did not need my opposing thumbs or my superior strength. The mouse needed its mother's milk. Only a mouse could save that mouse.

God pushed the analogy a bit further as I rocked. "So," said God. "Are you ready to become a mouse?" Well, in truth, I wasn't. I had come to love that little blind, pink blob. I probably would have been willing to become a mouse for a few minutes each hour for the sake of feeding it. But was I ready to give up all that I was as a human being to become a simple mouse, just to save this newborn mouse? Was I ready to live as a mouse for good...to live and die a rodent, just for the sake of this little one? I wasn't. Being human was more important to me than saving the mouse. And, as a human being, I couldn't save the mouse. It died the next morning.

My experience with the baby mouse made Calvary all the more amazing. The amazing thing about what God did in Jesus was not dying a painful death. It was incredibly awful...don't get me wrong...but other human beings have endured terrible tortuous deaths with dignity as well. The amazing thing about what God did in Jesus is described by Paul in Philippians. Jesus gave up being God in order to live and die as a human being.

Jesus did what I was unwilling to do. Jesus became a mouse, because that's what we mice needed. Being human was a far cry from being God. Jesus had to take on all sorts of limitations and give up all kinds of abilities in order to become a human being. But he did. He gave it all up. As Paul put it, he "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." God is infinitely superior to us in every way, just as we are infinitely more complex and able creatures than mice. But sometimes that's not what is needed. The baby needed a mother mouse. People needed a God in the flesh.

I don't know the mechanics of the salvation process; but I suspect that the substitutionary theory of the atonement is just a tiny little piece of what was really going on. I suspect that Jesus' life and death had less to do with the paying of debts than it did with the expression of a love so great that it would give up all advantage to become what the beloved needed most.

We needed God in the flesh. The food we were getting before that was good food, it just wasn't in the right form for us to thrive. It didn't have the protections that we needed and we didn't know how to drink it properly. When Jesus became a little baby, God became both approachable and understandable. We could hear the voice of God in our own language. We could see the actions of God in a way that we could process and understand. We could be fed with a food that our human bodies could tolerate.

When Jesus died a terrible death, it started to dawn on people just how deep the love of Jesus truly was. Yes, being willing to die was an act of love, but being willing to give up life as God in order to live and die a terrible human death is an even greater, almost unbelievable act of love. It is like if God, last week, truly made it possible for me to become a mouse...for the rest of my life.

Anne Robertson would have suddenly disappeared and a mother mouse would have appeared and nursed the little one to health. My brain would be limited to what a mouse brain could feel and understand. I would have all the physical limitations of a mouse. I would go through the rest of my life labeled as a pest, and then I would be caught and put in a laboratory where they would test me with terrible diseases until I finally convulsed and died. The Christ event is like me actually volunteering to go through all of that, just so that I could save the little mice that needed a mother. That degree of love is almost beyond my ability to understand.

I don't know what Pilate thought in his heart of hearts as he ordered Jesus' crucifixion. But I think he knew that he was dealing with greatness. "King of the Jews," he had written in three languages above Jesus' head. The religious leaders objected..."No!" they said. "Put that he SAYS he's king of the Jews." "What I have written, I have written," said Pilate. It was the truth. Amen.

2003, Anne Robertson


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