Via Dolorosa--the way of sorrows: a series for Lent and Easter tracing Jesus' journey to the cross

In this series prepared for the 1997 Lenten season at La Grave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, John Steigenga (the copastor who preached two of the sermons in the series) and I decided to trace Jesus’ journey to the cross using the famous idea of the Via Dolorosa. Traditionally, those words have referred to the last hours of Jesus’ life, particularly to the fourteen stations of the cross traced out on the streets of Jerusalem and enshrined in Catholic churches.

We went further back than that—back to Jesus’ birth, to the place where we hear the sound of weeping in the back streets of Bethlehem. We traveled back all the way to Isaiah 53, where the coming Messiah is given the title Man of Sorrows. In the rest of the series we studied various stories from the life of Jesus in which the theme of tears figured prominently.

First Sunday in Lent
The Via Dolorosa: The Man of Sorrows

Text: Isaiah 53:3
Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 35:1-18
New Testament Lesson: 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

We opened the series with Philip Yancey’s question in The Jesus I Never Knew:  “Does God care about the misery down here, the grief of our lives?” Yancey speaks of human life as a drama in which God, the “unseen Stage Manager,” came out from behind the curtain and got acquainted with grief in person. “In Jesus, God lay down on the dissection table, as it were, stretched out in cruciform posture for the scrutiny of all the skeptics who ever lived.”

That opening led us to an exploration of that famous and ancient title, Man of Sorrows. We dealt first of all with the why of it. Why was Jesus called that? Because he carried our sorrows. Which sorrows? Well, especially our sorrows of regret and remorse for sin.

Woody Allen (“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else”) and Tullulah Bankhead (“The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it. If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”) helped us think about our own regret. We focused on the fact that Jesus both carried the sin that causes our regret and suffered the punishment that such sin inevitably brings on us. His purpose was to erase our regrets, dry our tears, and give us peace at last.

Then we dealt with the next question: If Jesus did that, why do we still have tears of regret? Why can’t we feel the joy of forgiveness purchased by the Man of Sorrows? Here we turned to 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 for the distinction between regret and repentance, between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. We concluded that our tears will not be transformed into tears of rejoicing until we shed tears of repentance and genuinely turn to Christ. A comparison of the tears of Judas (Matt. 27:3) and Peter (Luke 22:60-62) helped to make that contrast more dramatic.

Congregational Prayer
A dual focus on the sins of our lives and the sorrows of the Savior made this prayer both preparatory to the sermon, but also, and more importantly, a pastorally sensitive way to begin our observance of Lent.

Children’s Sermon
Beginning with a little “name game” using the children’s names, we talked about the names of Jesus, focusing on “Man of Sorrows.” Though you want to be careful about inducing false guilt in children, you can help them experience joy for the sorrowful work of our Savior.

Music Suggestions
“Lift High the Cross” PsH 373, PH 371, RL 415, SFL 171, TH 263, TWC 229
“Man of Sorrows, What a Name” PsH 482, TH 246, TWC 226

Confession and Assurance
“How Blest Are They Whose Trespass” (Psalm 32) PsH 32, PH 184, RL 97, TH 551
“Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH 260, TH 461, TWC 476

“See, Christ Was Wounded for Our Sake” (Isaiah 53) PsH 196
“O Lord, Arise” (Psalm 35) PsH 35


Anthem: “Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee” Brahms (C. F. Peters)
“When Peace Like a River” PsH 489, TH 691, TWC 519

Second Sunday in Lent
The Via Dolorosa: Rachel Weeping

Text: Matthew 2:13-18
Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 30
New Testament Lesson: Revelation 21:1-5

In this sermon we explored one of the deepest sorrows known to humans, the grief of parents who have lost a child. Digging into Jeremiah’s prophecy about Rachel weeping and touching on the horrific picture of the dragon trying to devour the child of the woman in Revelation 12, we noted that the life of the Man of Sorrows began with the sound of parental weeping in the back streets of Bethlehem.

That thought raised the whole theme of carrying our cross. The fact is that proximity to Jesus can bring trouble and sorrow. If we are going follow this sorrowful Savior to his cross, it will mean a cross for us too. “In the world, you will have tribulation . . . ” (John 16:33).

The second half of that verse provided the turning point for this gloomy reflection—“but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Even the Herods of the world? Or the Hitlers? Or the Husseins? Yes, the Man of Sorrows has overcome them all. And that speaks to the grief of the parents of Bethlehem—and everywhere.

Jesus’ family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous designs, but after a short exile, God calls them back with the word that Herod is dead. This symbol of the world’s opposition to the Kingdom of God is dead and gone. Evil does not win. There is hope because the Man of Sorrows has overcome the world.

Even that sad prophecy of Jeremiah ends with this lovely word from God: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. . . . They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future. Your children will return to their own land.” We ended by looking at the ultimate fulfillment of that gospel word for those who grieve, Revelation 21:4. Herod is dead. Jesus has overcome the world.

Congregational Prayer
We prayed about the losses that fill our lives with tears, touching especially on the grief of parents who have lost children. We widened this focus by interceding for suffering children all over the world.

Children’s Sermon
Several examples of losses that make children weep (a pet dying, the death scene in The Lion King) led into a discussion of the comfort they get from parents. Revelation 21:4 provided the “God connection” here.

Music Suggestions
“Christ, the Life of All the Living” PsH 371
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” PsH 170, TWC 78

Confession and Assurance
Choral Anthem: “Call to Remembrance” Richard Farrant (Oxford)
“Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us” PsH 258, PH 572, TWC 821

Anthem Prayer for Illumination: “God Be in My Head” J. Engel
“I Worship You, O Lord” (Psalm 30) PsH 30

“At the Name of Jesus” PsH 467, PH 148, RL 336, TH 163, TWC 266
“Here from All Nations” PsH 235, RL 582, TWC 680
“Then I Saw a New Heaven and Earth” PsH 236

Third Sunday in Lent
The Via Dolorosa: Don’t Cry

Text: Luke 7:11-17
Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 126
New Testament Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In this sermon we explored the sorrow that comes to us when Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, when God doesn’t intervene in our problems the way we think he should. At such times we are tempted to fall away from God.

We began with those apparently hard-hearted words of Christ to the grieving mother, “Don’t cry.” Looking more carefully, we noted that those two words are really a call to believe the gospel— namely, “that God has visited his people” in this man named Jesus. But this visitation was different from what anyone expected, even John the Baptist, who in the very next verses asks, “Should we expect another?” To which Jesus finally replies, “Blessed are those who do not fall away on account of me.”

There is the issue at the heart of this sermon and our lives. How often don’t we fall away from Christ, allow distance to develop between him and us, because he doesn’t meet our expectations?

That raised the question of why Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations. Why did he take the Via Dolorosa rather than the way of power? Why didn’t he fix the world by doing more miracles like the one in Luke 7? Because he came to save the world by what Robert Farrar Capon calls “a deeper, darker, left-handed mystery, at the center of which lay his own death.”

On the way to that death, he paused here in Nain and uttered these two lovely words as a call away from a life dominated by tears. The sermon ended with Psalm 126: “He who goes out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”

Congregational Prayer
This prayer explored our disappointment with God when God doesn’t meet our expectations, when we ask and hope and believe, and still God doesn’t do what the Bible seems to promise he will do when we pray.

Children’s Sermon
A story about not getting something we wanted, but instead something our parents knew we needed, provided a simple introduction to the wisdom and love of our Father in heaven. We ended with a call to trust God because of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows.

Music Suggestions
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” PsH 488, TH 304, TWC 506
“My Faith Looks Up to Thee” PsH 262, PH 383, RL 446, TH 528, TWC 552
“Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above” PsH 465, PH 483, RL 146, TWC 50

Confession and Assurance
“O Christ, the Lamb of God” PsH 257

Psalm 126 read responsively, with “Rejoice in the Lord Always” (PsH 228, TWC 606) as a refrain at the beginning, after stanza 3, and at the end.

Anthem: “Blessed They” Brahms (Boosey & Hawkes)
“Abide with Me” PsH 442, PH 543, RL 440, TH 402
“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” PsH 573,
PH 357, RL 428, TWC 651

Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Via Dolorosa:Feet Wet with Tears

Text: Luke 7:36-50
Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 51
New Testament Lesson: Galatians 2:15-21

A different kind of tears was the focus of this sermon—tears of gratitude and joy springing from the wonderful gift of forgiveness given by a loving Savior.

A simple tracing of this wonderful narrative focusing on who this woman was and who Simon was led to the confrontation between Jesus and Simon. Here Jesus teaches him a lesson not only in hospitality, but even more in the basics of the gospel. In the eyes of God the “righteous” person who thinks he doesn’t need to repent is much worse off than the outright “sinner” who comes humbly and trustingly to Christ for forgiveness. Simon stands dry-eyed and unsaved before Jesus, while the woman kneels and wets Jesus’ feet with her tears of joy and gratitude for her many sins, now forgiven.  The story thus provides an opportunity for us to look in the mirror. Do we see a Simon or a sinful person? This briefer meditation provided a fitting invitation to the Lord’s Supper, which was celebrated with all the sinners in the congregation.

Congregational Prayer
This prayer of gratitude for salvation traced the contours of our salvation (forgiveness, acceptance, new lease on life, eternal life). We tried to express the joy of salvation in this nonpetitionary prayer.

Children’s Sermon
Though it is difficult to explain tears of joy to children, that’s what we tried to do, referring to Michael Jordan’s tears upon winning the NBA title, the tears of an older sibling at graduation, or the tears of parents at a wedding. Our purpose was to help children experience the joy of the surprise of forgiveness.

Music Suggestions
“I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord” PsH 311, PH 507, RL 534 , TWC 768
“Lift High the Cross” PsH 373, PH 371, RL 415, TH 263
Anthem: “This Is the Day” Albert P. Smith
Confession and Assurance
“Ah, Holy Jesus” PsH 386, PH 93, RL 285, TH 248, TWC 231
Anthem: “O Vos Omnes” Pablo Casals


“Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Psalm 51)
Renew 181, 182

Anthem: “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee”

T. Dubois
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464, TH 529, TWC 558

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PsH 384, PH 100, RL 292, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213

Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Via Dolorosa: Jesus Wept

Text: John 11:35
Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 22:1-11, 22-24
New Testament Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

In this sermon we plumbed the depths of the littlest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” We began with the echoed complaints of the sisters, “Lord, if you had been here . . . ” That is often the feeling of a disappointed believer: Lord, if only you had used your power, this loss would not have brought sorrow to my life. In this story God responds to our “Why?” with a picture of God weeping.

We spent a good deal of time exploring Jesus’ tears. Why did he weep? Love? Compassion? Yes, but more profoundly because of his anger at death. His were tears of rage at the enemy he had come to defeat.

Then why did he allow Lazarus to die when he could have prevented it? We found the answer in Jesus’ frequent reference in this story to faith.

“He who believes in me shall never die. . . .”

“Do you believe this?”

“I said this so that those who hear might believe.”

Jesus “lets us down” because the most important thing to him is our eternal life. And to get that, we have to believe.

So, because Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus and his disciples and the crowd so much, he allowed this deep pain, in order that the demonstration of his love and power in the raising of Lazarus might move them and us to faith.

Sound cruel and heartless? Only when we forget that Jesus stood with Mary and Martha in their pain and wept with them.

No, that is not an intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of pain, but it speaks to the sorrow of our souls. The intellectual answer will come later, maybe. For now, it is good to know that Jesus weeps with us.

Congregational Prayer
Our focus on death widened to include all the principalities and powers that ruin human life. Using the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we asked God to overcome all of them finally, so that our anger, grief, and pain will finally be swallowed up in his love.

Children’s Sermon
We talked about enemies and how angry they make us. We expanded this “enemy” talk to a focus on death and sin and Satan. We wondered if God ever got angry at these “worst enemies.” That led to an explanation of God sending Jesus to defeat all of these enemies, so that we don’t need to fear them.

Music Suggestions
“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” PsH 481,
PH 462, RL 463, TH 398, TWC 562
“Come, You Disconsolate” PsH 538, TH 615, TWC 613
Anthem: “Now Let Us All Praise God and Sing” Gordon Young (Galaxy)
Confession and Assurance
“O Christ, the Lamb of God” PsH 257
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” PsH 579, PH 403, RL 507, TH 629, TWC 622


“When Jesus Wept” PH 312
Anthem: “When Jesus Wept” Clarence Dickenson (Mercury Music)


“Come, You Disconsolate” PsH 538, TH 615, TWC 613
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (repeated from previous week)

Palm Sunday
The Via Dolorosa: If Only You Had Known What Would Bring
You Peace

Text: Luke 19:41-44

Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 24

New Testament Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-18

When Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the Sunday before his death, his tears sprang from the deep longing he felt for the welfare of the Holy City. “If you had only known what would bring you peace,” he sobbed.

In this message, we explored the various reasons “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” lacking contentment and peace. Chief among those reasons is what Patrick Morley calls “cultural Christianity,” which he defines as “seeking the God we want instead of the God who is.” We showed how that was exactly the problem with the crowd on Palm Sunday. They wanted a miracle-working Messiah.

Jesus wept over their misplaced and misguided “Hosannas,” knowing that they would soon say, “We do not want this man to be our king” (Luke 19:14). The way of peace was hidden from these people, because they were not willing to come to the Christ. We talked about the two reasons for such unwillingness—an arrogant certainty about their own ideas of God’s way and a fear that Jesus might cost them their place in the world.

We concluded with a call to stop seeking the God we want and to seek the God who is—the donkey king, the crucified Savior. Peace settles into our lives when we recognize the time of God’s coming to us—that is, when we recognize that it is God in Christ visiting us in those times when God seems most absent.

Congregational Prayer
The theme of this prayer was peace of all sorts. We interceded for our world, for our nation, and for those who have not come to Christ out of fear and pride.
Children’s Sermon

We compared the palm branches the children were holding with the olive branch, a symbol of peace, as a way of telling the children that Jesus came to bring peace to earth. As his followers, we must help by being peacemakers.

Music Suggestions

“All Glory, Laud, and Honor” PsH 375, PH 88, RL 279, TH 235, TWC 204
“Filled with Excitement”/“Mantos y palmas” SFL 158 (see p. 30)
“Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” PsH 378, PH 89, RL 282, TWC 203
“Trotting, Trotting, Through Jerusalem” SFL 159


“The King of Glory Comes” PsH 370, PH 177, TH 240, TWC 134


“Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” PsH 382, PH 90, RL 280, TH 237, TWC 205
“Softly and Tenderly” TH 479, TWC 441

Easter Sunday
The End of the Via Dolorosa: Why Are You Crying?


Text: John 20:15
Auxiliary Scripture: A litany of Mark 16:1-5, “Low in the Grave He Lay,” and Matthew 28:7-10, helped us move experientially from the doubt and confusion of early Easter to the celebration of later that day, and today.

This sermon tried to show how the resurrection of Jesus brought Mary, and all like her, to the end of their personal Via Dolorosa. The risen Christ asks all of us the same question the angels asked her, “Why are you crying?”

We spent some time reflecting on her grief, which is really the heart of the world’s grief—“They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” The absence of God in a world of pain fills millions with deep sorrow. On Easter, Christ comes into such a world with this penetrating question: “Why are you crying?”

Like Mary, however, the world doesn’t recognize Jesus. We asked why Mary didn’t know her Master and concluded that the bottom- line reason was that she hadn’t expected to see him there. So it is with a grief-stricken world. Jesus is there behind us all the time, but we keep staring into the empty tomb, at the losses and disappointments of life. And even when we do see him, we don’t recognize him.

We never will until we respond to his personal call (“Mary!”) and turn toward him as she did. Only then can we turn toward others and say, “I have seen the Lord.” And only then will our Via Dolorosa come to an end.

We closed the sermon and the series with an invitation to leave the Via Dolorosa and enter the Via Gaudeam, the way of joy, because, by faith, we have seen the Lord.

Congregational Prayer
This prayer of praise and thanksgiving was a celebration of the victory of Christ, which transforms human life from a trail of tears in the darkness to a journey through the dappled territories of human existence into the unbroken sunshine of heaven.

Children’s Sermon
We used an empty plastic egg (an old L’Eggs pantyhose container) to illustrate the empty tomb. “What do you think is in this egg?” “Nothing!” Just like Jesus’ grave. “He is not here, he is risen.” So we can rejoice.       

Music Suggestions

“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” PsH 388, PH 113,
RL 325, SFL 172, TH 277, TWC 234
Anthem: “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” arr. C. J. Favreau
Anthem: “This Is the Day” Jacobus Gallus (Concordia)
“The Strife Is O’er” PsH 391, PH 119, RL 319, TH 275, TWC 233


“Give Thanks to God” (Psalm 118) PsH 118


Anthem: “Alleluia! Christ Is Risen” W.
Mathias (Oxford)
“Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain” PsH 389, PH 114, RL 315, TH 26
“I Serve a Risen Savior” PsH 405

Homelink Devotion

Don’t miss the opportunity to order one set of daily devotions for each household in your congregation. These warm and challenging devotions are based on Scripture and on themes introduced in this service planning series and provide a way of linking what happens on Sunday with home devotions during the season of Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday).

The following example will give you an idea of what to expect in HomeLink. For order information, see the inside back cover of this issue.

Ash Wednesday, February 17

Read Hebrews 2:10-18

Because Jesus suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Suffering is really hard for us to understand. And it’s hard on our faith too, because the Bible clearly tells us that God is all-powerful and all-loving. That means we cannot explain away our suffering by saying that God can’t do anything about it.The Bible teaches us that God can. So why doesn’t he? Doesn’t God care? We can quickly start to wonder if God really is an all-loving God. Why would a loving God leave us in all this pain? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

But the Bible keeps right on telling us that God is both all-powerful and all-loving. And so we stumble over tragedy in our own lives, and over the terrible disasters that strike people in the world around us. We could easily end up saying to ourselves: “I can’t believe in a God who doesn’t seem to care about the misery down here, a God who could do something about this pain, but chooses not to do it.”

Believers have responded to this problem of suffering in different ways. But whatever else they’ve said about suffering, they always insist that God does care about the misery down here. The tears of sorrow we shed because someone we love has died matter to God. God does care when we’re really frustrated because we can’t get good grades even though we tried so hard. And when we cry buckets because we can’t stand the pain anymore, we have God’s full attention, because he hurts along with us.

How do we know that? I like the way Philip Yancey answers that in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew. Yancey says that we are like characters in a play. We act out our lives of small triumph and great tragedy onstage, now and then calling out to an unseen Stage Manager, “You don’t know what it’s like out here!” Every so often in the Bible we hear a booming voice from far offstage, behind the curtain, “Yeah, and you don’t know what it’s like back here either!

In this season of Lent, we focus on an astonishing fact. Once upon a time, the Voice from offstage came onstage. By becoming a baby, then a child, then a teenager, and finally an adult, God found out what life is like here on planet earth. He was “made like his brothers in every way.” Jesus found out what it’s like to suffer.

In Jesus, God laid aside his power. In an act of unparalleled love, Jesus suffered with us and for us. That’s how much God cares. You may still wonder why God lets you suffer. But don’t ever think that God doesn’t care. The suffering of Jesus proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he really, really does.

Something to Think About

Have you ever suffered so much that it shook your faith in God? How does it help you to know that Jesus understands your suffering?

Kids’ Link

Use your imagination to picture Jesus crying about something that makes you sad—it’s a comforting picture to keep in your mind every day! With your whole family, think about the past day (or week or year). What was the saddest thing that happened in your life? Together thank Jesus for suffering that pain or sadness with you.

Stanley R. Mast is minister of preaching at La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 50 © December 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.