Have you ever felt like the biggest loser: an utter failure? Four years ago I packed up a box of books to send to our daughter in Seattle. But these were not just any old books. They were books that she needed for her CPA exams, books that cost hundreds of dollars each.
Wanting to save a few dollars, I trustingly and unthinkingly sent them through the United States Postal Service via book rate and without insurance. They said it would take up to nine days, which was fine. However, nine days later the books hadn’t arrived. After three weeks the books still hadn’t showed up. I contacted the Postal Service, and they said to just wait a little bit longer. Two months later the books still hadn’t arrived, and my daughter had to postpone her exams.
We both went to our respective post offices to investigate, explaining that the books were packaged very well, with clearly addressed labels. We received the same answer, “Because you did not insure the books there is nothing we can do. When you use book rate, it’s a big risk, especially if the books are not insured. The boxes are thrown around, and they occasionally rip apart. The remains of your box are likely in a huge warehouse somewhere, and there’s no way we can find the books. Sorry.” I ended up spending $1,700 to replace the books and still have the original $8.28 receipt to remind me what a loser I am.
Have you ever felt like the stupidest, lowest, most incompetent person of all time? Have you ever been reduced to a puddle of tears by being ridiculed, devalued, and rejected by those you value most highly? Have you ever experienced the anger and frustration of helplessness when the decisions of others render you powerless?
Welcome to Holy Week. This is the one week of the year when the humiliation and pure agony of Jesus’ humanity is on full display. It’s on the Monday of Holy Week that the cleansing of the temple was thought to have taken place. Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the adulation of an adoring but fickle crowd. The prophet from Nazareth in Galilee makes his grand entrance. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Yet Jesus doesn’t arrive on a stallion but sits on a donkey. As he enters the city, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” (Luke 19:41)
His stomach churns, only to be calmed by spending the night in Bethany with his dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. On Monday Jesus wakes with an attitude, enters the temple in Jerusalem and loses it. He overturns the tables of the money changers, drives out everyone who is buying and selling and accuses them of turning the temple into a den of robbers. Jesus’ anger is a sight to behold.
Could Jesus have been acting out just a tad because he knew what was coming and didn’t like it? Jesus had a vision of bringing in the kingdom of his Father in heaven. He preached about not returning evil for evil, turning the other cheek and forgiving one’s enemies. He taught about loving God and others with heart, soul, mind and strength. He championed the poor, the outcast, the persecuted and the rejected. Yet Jesus reluctantly came to the conclusion that his ministry would never be fulfilled unless he allowed himself to become biggest loser, the sacrificial lamb of God. It’s the only way we humans could be saved. That’s when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.
During this last week of his life, there’s an edge to Jesus that we haven’t seen before. He curses a fig tree, which then withers and dies. He takes on the chief priests and elders and does not mince words, “But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (Mt. 23:13) Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and prophesies about war, lawlessness, famines, earthquakes and judgment. He talks about the coming of the Son of Man and urges watchfulness.
Most unsettling is the wrestling that I sense in Jesus. His call to usher in the kingdom is not going to happen through his life but only through his death. Jesus is being asked to take upon himself the pain of the entire world, and it’s agonizing, even for God’s son. Lying awake at night, rehearsing over and over the three years of his ministry, taking long walks alone at dawn, Jesus asks God, “Is this to be my fate?”
Holy sadness. That’s what it is. Jesus isn’t ready to die. He is not at peace. Just like you and me, Jesus doesn’t want to be taunted, humiliated, and shamed: the biggest loser ever. He gathers his disciples for a last meal, his heart bursting with pain as well as intense love for the friends who will soon desert him. Jesus hardly touches his food. He openly talks about the one who will betray him and bites his tongue as the disciples dissolve into pettiness and play out their anxiety by arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus reminds them, “Better to be the biggest loser than the biggest winner,” but in his heart, he’s still wrestling.
Stomach in knots, heart pounding, mind wondering where God is, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. He admits to the disciples that he is deeply grieved and asks them to stay with him, but they cannot keep their eyes open. Jesus’ sweat becomes like great drops of blood falling to the ground, his prayer gut-wrenching, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” Luke says, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” (Luke 22:42-44)
Filled with resolve, Jesus gets up and is arrested, flogged, taunted and spat upon. He does not resist. Made to carry his own cross, Jesus goes to his death, the biggest loser in human history. But did you notice? When Jesus is offered wine on a sponge to anesthetize the pain, he refuses (Matthew 27:34). Jesus will not numb himself to his suffering but allows himself to feel intensely. With everything stripped away, Jesus, fully divine yet also fully human, takes upon himself the pain of the entire world. Offering grace to the thieves crucified next to him and forgiveness to those who did not know what they were doing, Jesus breathes his last. It wasn’t glamorous.
Why do the gospel writers focus so most attention on one week of Jesus’ life? What nuggets of truth could we have gleaned from the dozens of weeks of Jesus’ ministry about which we know nothing? What other stories, parables, and teachings did we miss? Or could it be that Jesus lived out everything that he ever taught through the cross? Could Jesus have modeled for us what it means to truly alive if he insulated himself from the suffering and shame of being the biggest loser?
Can you and I know the glory of the cross if we don’t allow ourselves to experience pain and great loss as well? Does being faithful inevitably lead to the cross?
- The way of the cross is in losing, not winning.
- The way of the cross is in going down, not up.
- The way of the cross is in taking the high road, not seeking revenge.
- The way is of the cross is in stripping ourselves of pride and ego and becoming a servant.
- The way of the cross is shaking a fist at evil by standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed and trampled upon, thus breaking the stranglehold of the principalities and powers of this world.
In the popular NBC reality show The Biggest Loser, which just completed its seventeenth season, teams are pitted against each other to see who loses the largest percentage of weight. It’s a very biblical show because the winners are the ones who lose the most. Not surprisingly, a key component of the show features temptations, which are designed to test the self-discipline of competitors. Most interesting is the fact that whether contestants succumb to temptation or not, they invariably report an increase in confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to make good decisions about their physical health.
How much are you willing to lose? Athletic teams move to the next level when they learn how to lose well. Children and youth gain maturity when they learn how to cope with not getting what they want. Adults grow strong when their character is refined in the cauldron of disappointment, despair, unemployment, underemployment, health issues, family concerns, addiction, broken relationships, and poor choices.
When our dreams are dashed and we think our lives are over, Jesus offers the hope of resurrection and new life in Christ. When we kick and scream that life is unfair, Jesus embraces us tightly. When we are hanging on crosses of our own making or those that are fashioned for us, Jesus offers words of compassion. When all we seem to do is lose, Jesus surrounds us with grace upon grace and offers a different lens with which to view ourselves and the world. God is with us in our pain, uses every loss for ultimate gain, and simply asks us to trust what we do not yet know.
You have a chance to be the biggest loser this week, right along with Jesus. Any takers? Are you willing to embrace your deepest pain and thus identify with the agony of our world, or are you going to skip right from Palm Sunday to Easter and avoid the messy stuff? Will you allow yourself to be stripped bare naked, your sins and flaws exposed, or will you snuff out your tears of loss, ignore your holy sadness, and break out the Easter baskets ahead of time?
The biggest loser? That would be Jesus – and me – and you. And the angels from heaven will appear to you, too. They will give you strength and lead you to resurrection.
P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be posted on Monday, April 4.