Cross Words: The Sign Of The Divine In A Life
The furnishings in the hospital room were arranged in a manner which served the convenience of the nurses rather than the patients. There were two beds and one window. The beds were placed in such a way that the patient in only one bed could see out of the window. Both men in that room were terminally ill. In order to help pass the time each day, the man who was able to see out of the window regularly described to the other man what he saw. Day after day, he would report about the weather, the cloud formations, the pedestrians and the traffic. He talked about how the paper boy was getting better accuracy with his tossing of the papers. He told about children walking home from school and the games they were playing and the pranks they were pulling. He vividly described the people who were coming and going about the hospital. Some of them were regulars—they were there every day—and so the two men began to discuss these people, speculating about them. For example, there was a red-headed girl who walked by at ten o’clock each morning. One morning instead of walking, she was running. Between the two of them, they decided that she had a new job and she didn’t want to be late. Then there was the nurse who met the same fellow at four o’clock each day right in front of the hospital. Suddenly one day she stopped meeting him, and they wondered what had happened to the relationship. There were dozens of such people they discussed each day. The man who could see it all out of the window reported every detail to the man who couldn’t see. In essence, he brought the outside world into that hospital room for his friend. Then, quite without warning, this man’s condition worsened and he died. The man in the bed not near the window was deeply grieved. He asked the nurses if he might then be moved to the other bed, believing that being able to see out of the window would ease his pain and loneliness. The nurses moved him. As soon as they left the room, he reached over and raised the blinds—and there just six feet from the window was a solid, gray, concrete wall!
It is deeply moving, isn’t it, when those who are suffering themselves work so hard to ease the suffering of others—when those who are hurting push aside their own pain in order to make life more liveable for someone else. That is precisely what I see in Jesus on Calvary. At a time of intense, excruciating, personal agony, Jesus kept pushing aside His own pain to ease the pain of others. To me, that has always been one more proof of His divinity, one more confirmation that He was God in human flesh—the fact that even on Calvary, He could remain so incredibly loving. And that is why I believe that the sign of the divine in any human life, the mark of which is heavenly in any man or woman is a love which is poured out in the service of others. Let me explain…
The sign of the divine in Jesus’ life is seen in His loving devotion to Mary, His mother.
The Bible says that “standing by the cross was His mother.” Think about that for a moment. It’s a hard thing for a mother to watch her child die. I don’t know how hard really. But I have sat with mothers doing it—and I have seen what it has cost them. How must Mary have felt? Those arms which once had embraced her, now were stretched out and fastened to that wooden beam. The hands she used to hold in her own hands were now crushed and broken and bleeding. He was thirsty, but she could do nothing to assuage His thirst. He was in pain, but she could do nothing to relieve it. And that crown of thorns—why it must have been like a ring of fire around her heart.
But hers was a double agony. She was in agony, not just for her son, but for herself as well. She was a widow. Joseph had been gone for many years and so Jesus, as the eldest son, was the one upon whom she depended. That was the reason He had stayed in the Nazareth home for thirty years. Every night He had come to her table, His dark hair spotted with the shavings of the new wood. And even though three years earlier He had embarked upon an itinerant ministry, she knew that she could count on Him to care for her in her old age. But now all of that was gone—and she was in agony. Yet still she was there. How is it that Kipling put it?
If I were hanged on the highest hill
I know whose love would follow me still
Mother o’ mine, O mother of mine.
If I were drowned in the deepest sea
I know whose tears would come down to me
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.
If I were damned of body and soul
I know whose prayers would make me whole
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.
Yes, Mary, His mother was there—and she was in agony!
Jesus understood that. And I find it deeply moving to see Him push aside His own pain in order to tend to her pain. He said to her: “Woman, behold your son.” When he said that, He was referring not to Himself, but to Joh. He was saying to her: “Mother, standing beside you is my beloved friend and disciple, John. Let him become a son to you. Count on him just the way you have counted on me. Live in his home and be with him.”
Now it was logical that Jesus should pick John. He was family. He was Mary’s nephew and Jesus’ cousin. Jesus’ brothers were not yet believers, so He could not entrust His mother into their hands. He couldn’t give her to the bombastic Peter or overzealous Simon or argumentative Thomas, so He gave her to John. John came from an affluent wing of the family. They owned a large home in Jerusalem. Plenty of room there for Mary. The Bible does not give us details, but tradition has it that Mary and John shared one home for twelve years, until Mary died, and that John would not leave Jerusalem even for the purpose of preaching the Gospel, as long as she was alive.
So the Master, even from His cross, thinking not of Himself, but of others, said: “Mother, I will meet your practical needs. I am going to put you in a home and family where you can not only live, but love. Woman, behold your son.”
And then the sign of divine in Jesus’ life is seen in His regard for John, His disciple.
I find it especially touching that John, the youngest of the disciples, was there on Calvary. The other disciples were not there. Apparently they were not courageous enough to stand up to that cross, not strong enough to confront Roman soldiers who made sport of things like people dying, not bold enough to run the risk of being captured themselves. It would have been risky, no question about that. No risk for Mary, not really. It was understood then even as now, that a mother wants to be near her son at such a time. In fact there was probably some sympathy for Mary among those in the crowd. But there would have been no sympathy for any disciple of Jesus. So they sort of drifted away into the shadows and were blotted up by the darkness. That is, all but one of them. John, the youngest of the disciples, hardly more than a boy really—John was there.
Somehow that compels me to say something about our young people today. I find many young people today giving themselves more to the general and not so much to the specific. Here’s what I mean. Young people today seem quite ready to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and reform our society. Those are valuable goals and causes. But so many young people do not seem to grasp that one dimension of feeding the hungry means feeding the hungry heart of a mother who would like to see them at home for dinner sometimes and who would like to hear an occasional word of love and affection—that clothing the naked can also mean refraining from wearing clothes which might offend their parents who buy the clothes they wear—that the basis of every society is the home and that they as young people cannot be indifferent to their own homes and what goes on there or doesn’t go on there. What is it that causes our young people to say: “I want to be loved and heard and respected and trusted”—while at the same time they say: “But do not ask me to love or listen or respect or trust”?
I think young people today could learn something from John. He was young. He was caught up in a great cause. In fact, within a matter of a few years, he would be turning the world upside down. But still he had the time to stand by a friend who was dying, still he could take under his care one who was older and love her like a mother, still he could be kind and tender and understanding and supportive.
Jesus understood that, and I find it deeply moving to see Him push aside His own pain in order to make life more livable and lovable for John. He said to him: “Behold your mother.” He wanted John to be with Mary. Remember, please, that Jesus grew up in a home where Mary was the center—Joseph was not there. Jesus learned of God from Mary. He learned of reverence from Mary. He learned of gentleness from Mary. And He knew that John needed to learn those things, too.
Isn’t that beautiful? Jesus gave Mary to John and John to Mary. He gave them to one another. In a sense, it was His last will and testament. He did not leave them property or possessions. He left them each other. And He charged them to take care of each other. He was saying: “Remember, the sign of the divine in your life is your love for each other.”
That means that the sign of the divine in our lives is the loving, devoted service we offer to others.
Oh, I know, it is not easy for us to give ourselves away in costly, loving service to others. It is not easy for us to push aside our own pains or our own concerns in order to be a blessing to someone else. I am not talking about the kind of service we render when we send a check or a get-well card or a bouquet of flowers or a casserole. Those are admirable expressions of love, to be sure. But I am talking today about something much deeper. I am talking about so giving yourself away to others that the cost of it is extracted from your heart and soul.
It is told of Abraham Lincoln that he stopped at the bedside of a dying young soldier in a military hospital. The young man did not recognize the President. Lincoln said to him: “Is there anything I can do for you?” The young man replied: “Yes, I would be grateful if you would help me to write a letter to my mother.” So as the young soldier painfully dictated the letter, Lincoln wrote it down. The young man said: “Would you please sign your name along with mine so that my mother will know that you were so kind.” Lincoln signed his name. When the young soldier saw the signature, he was overcome with emotion. Lincoln spoke tenderly: “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The young man answered: “Would it be asking too much, sir? It won’t be long now. And it would be easier for me to die if you would stay and see me through.” And so President Lincoln sat down by the bed. Night came. One…two…three o’clock in the morning. Then just as the dawn began to break, the spirit of that young soldier took its silent flight. The President got up, closed the now sightless eyes, folded the young man’s hands upon his breast, whispered a prayer and left the room. He had stayed by that young man. He had given himself in loving, costly service. He had seen him through.
You see, there are only two things in life that you have to have more than yourself to do. One is to get married. The other is to be a Christian. You cannot be a Christian by yourself. Christians live for others. Christians push aside the concerns of their own lives and open themselves up to the concerns of others. Christians have the sign of the divine in their lives—they so identify with the needs of others that they give themselves away in loving service, no matter the cost.
I learned that best from my daughter, Meg, some twelve years ago now. She was seven years old at the time, and she went with me to take communion to a lady who was dying of cancer. When we arrived at her house, Meg watched as the nurse and I engaged in the painful process of transferring the lady from a wheelchair to the sofa in the living room. And she watched as I served communion to the lady. When we finished, Meg got up and walked over and hugged the lady. The lady was deeply moved by the love of a little girl, infinitely more so than by the words of the preacher. When we got back in the car to leave, Meg’s face was toward the window, looking back at the house. I saw her hand go up and wipe her eye. I said: “Meg, are you crying?” She turned around. Her eyes were filled with tears. She said: “Daddy, that lady feels bad being so sick and that makes me sad. Can we ask Jesus to help her?” The warmth, the love, the sensitivity, the caring, the compassion of a child—I think that’s what it means to be a Christian. So tuck this away in your heart and let it season a while before you decide if it is true. It is a beautiful thing to laugh with someone, but it is far more magnificent thing to cry with them.
Jesus said: “Woman, behold your son…John, behold your mother.” He pushed aside His own pain in order to express His love for Mary and for John. He gave them to each other—and He called them to take care of each other. Let us be remembering how He loved them and how He loves us and how we ought to love and care for one another and how we ought to love the whole world for His sake. For we are agreed, aren’t we, that it is a lovely thing when people push aside their pain to make life more livable and lovable for others—and to do it all in the name of Jesus.