Wednesday, March 28, 2018

At Cross Purposes: Mans Distain and God's Salvation Plan Meet at the Cross (Mark 15:1-40)

In Mark’s narrative of Jesus death, two strands work at cross purposes.

One is that Jesus death is just another dark moment in the history of the inhumanity of man to man. A good person finds themselves on the wrong side of the powers to be, Political expedience triumphs over justice, there is torture and torment, mockery and misunderstanding, and finally a humiliating and horrendous death: It is a story of man’s distain…shown at the cross.

The other deeper strand is that Jesus death is the moment of great light for the world. It is the story of costly sacrificial love, deep faith in the face of suffering, the victory of God’s grace and mercy over sin and death, the kingdom of God over the realms of this earth: It is God’s salvation plan…finished and complete at the cross.

In this deep irony, this cross-purpose, Mark shows us the purpose of the cross.

All the way through Mark’s passion narrative Jesus is acknowledged as the “King of the Jews”. He accepts the title from the lips of Pilate. It is the first question Pilate asks him,” are you the king of the Jews’  probably in response to the accusations of the chief priests, to encourage him to see Jesus as a threat to Roman rule. Itself ironic beyond marks writing as 300 years later the roman empire would be confessing that Jesus not Caesar is Lord.

It is as “King of the Jews” that he is presented to the people when Pilate asks them to choose between Jesus or Barabbas, to be freed for the Passover festival. The people of Israel are presented with which vision of the Kingdom of God they will choose, the way of radical love in obedience or violent insurrection. Love your enemies or kill you enemies. God’s reign in a new community, or Israelite nationalism. It is Jesus and his kingdom that is rejected, but not defeated.

Jesus is mockingly hailed by the Roman soldiers as King. Placed in a purple robe, the royal colour. Given a sceptre and a crown of thorns. Some commentators reflect that the thorns may have satirically been used not only as a crown but also to replicate the pictures of emperors on the back of roman coins. Where they we starting to be portrayed as god like figures with sunbeams radiating from their head. They mocked but here indeed is God’s chosen ruler.

While Jesus carrying his cross to the place of execution is part of the mockery  and humiliation, a parading of a dead man walking,  totally under the control of his roman captors, as Simon of Cyrene is told to carry the cross it is almost changed into a coronation parade, while it was designed to show complete defeat, by Simon being acknowledged as the father of Rufus and alexander who would have been people known to the church mark was writing to, we catch a subtle insight in to the fact that this is not the end. Rufus may well be a member of the Church in Rome mentioned in Romans 16. Here the man in far off Palestine who is being crucified in a short time will have followers and impact in the very centre of the roman world.

In Roman law the crime someone was convicted of was placed above their heads as they hung on the cross. Jesus is crucified as the ‘king of the Jews’. It is as the messiah and the King of the Jews that the high priest’s mock him, telling him to come down from the cross so that they may see and believe…  Mark in a very understated way presents Jesus crucifixion as a coronation. It is at the cross that the kingdom of God is established. A kingdom that needs to be believed to be seen.

Theologian and pastor Jeremy Treat puts it like this

 “Shame is transformed into glory, foolishness into wisdom, and humiliation into exaltation. The cross becomes the throne from which Christ rules the world.”

He goes on to explain it by affirming

“God’s kingdom was present in Jesus’ life, proclaimed in his preaching, glimpsed in his miracles/exorcisms, established by his death, and inaugurated through the resurrection. It is being advanced by the Holy Spirit through the church, and will be consummated in Christ’s return. The cross creates a community of ransomed people living under the reign of God.”

In these cross purposes Jesus is presented to us as saviour.

Jesus is presented to us as an innocent man. While he is bought before Pilate with many accusations, at no stage does Pilate declare him guilty of any crime or wrongdoing. In fact Pilate last recorded words are ‘what crime has he committed?” as the crowd bay for Jesus to be crucified

The incident with Barabbas is a picture of injustice and political experience shows us what Jesus is doing at the cross, while he is rejected by his people, we see Jesus an innocent man dies in the place of Barabbas, a guilty man, who goes free.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, a lamb without a blemish was to be presented and sacrificed, to atone for the peoples wrongdoing and sin. Here also Jesus is presented as a substitute for our sin. AS peter affirms in 1 peter 3:18 for Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous”.  Nicky Gumble reflects on what that means for us when he said,  “The innocent one faced the punishment of death so that I, the guilty one, could go free.”

Pilate finally has Jesus to be taken away to be killed to satisfy the crowd, to keep the fragile peace, later the Apostle Paul talking of Jew and gentile coming together as one will say. He is our peace who has broken down every wall.” Jesus death is not just to ward off conflict but to break down the barriers between us and God, as the late great billy Graham talked of to a post-world war two generation, he has made it possible for us to have peace with God.

Those that mocked Jesus at the cross also do not understand what Jesus is doing as a saviour, they mockingly say he saved other but he could not save himself!  Or call for him to come down from the cross and save himself’. They do not see the purpose of the Cross, that by not coming down by not saving himself, rather giving himself as a sacrifice for all, Jesus made the way for those who look to the cross to have their sins forgiven and be reconciled with God.

They throw Jesus words back in his face ‘that he said he could destroy the temple in three days and rebuild it, as the sky goes dark and Christ dies the curtain in the temple is ripped in two. The most holy of places, where the Jews believed God dwelt is now open to all, Jesus death has made it possible for all to come and dwell in the very presence of God.

Christians have found the words of the servant song in Isaiah 53 bring these things together and prophetically declare what happened here… 

 ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.’

While Mark’s narrative of that first good Friday finishes with Jesus death and his hasty burial. There are threads in this story that point us to beyond that, hints that this is not the end, not a defeat an ignominious defeat of just a good teacher.

Mark does not play up Jesus physical suffering, he does point us to Jesus spiritual and emotional anguish. We see that in Jesus cry of Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? Which means my God my God why have you forsaken me?”   and the people gathered by the cross think he is calling out for Elijah to come and save him. So they go and get some cheap wine to wet his lips.  But he is expressing the anguish and pain of carrying our sin on the cross. Also, while mark does not acknowledge it anywhere narrative it is the opening line of Psalm 22. A Psalm 22 also foretells the soldiers gambling for his clothes, and that he would be mocked and graphically outlines the suffering of a person in the midst of the crucifixion process. A messianic psalm that starts with this cry of distress, but finishes with trust and faith in God to save the psalmist and the affirmation that because of God’s intervention future generations will be told about the Lord and it will be proclaimed to those not yet born that (click for words) ‘He has done it!’ the last words recorded on Jesus lips in John’s gospel. We see the testimony of scripture to God sovereignty even in this horrific situation, and Jesus faith in God that even though he is dying God will fulfil his salvation plans. Three times in Mark’s gospel Jesus affirms he will die and will be raised to life again on the third day. The very thing that his mockers threw at him at the cross.

The other hope is the words of the roman centurion, his affirmation is the climax of Mark’s gospel.  There had been a similar one in Mark 9 with Peter’s affirmation that ‘you are the messiah” in answer to Jesus question, who do you say I am? Here, an old professional soldier a non-commissioned officer in the roman army sees what has gone on and with the eyes of faith says “surely this is the Son of God.” While the high priests and religious leadership and the crowds who had come for the Passover festival had missed it, this gentile affirms who Jesus is. There is some conjecture to what he meant by that comment, it would be hard for a gentile with no theological training to make a statement of Jesus as the Son of God in the way we would understand it, as God’s divine son, totally human and totally man, but he is given insight into the very nature of Jesus.

It is an almost cinematic moment, you could imagine the centurion looking down the lens of the camera, breaking what film makers call the forth wall, to lock eyes with us the readers, and audience to the gospel, and invite us to respond to what we have read and seen… surely this is the ‘son of God’. Marks gospel had started by us being told that this is the start of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God and know at his death Mark invites us to make our response. Which of the two thread at cross purpose are we going to accept, that this was a sad ending to the life of a good teacher and a good person, or are we going to acknowledge that the one who died on the cross is the son of God, and put our faith in him. Here is God’s chosen ruler, who invites us to believe in him, to confess him as our king and saviour.  To know his forgiveness and grace and live in and live out the kingdom of God, the rule of god in our lives. Its at the cross, in Christ’s death that you and I can know new life, we can go free because Christ died for us, we can enter the very presence of God, and know God as our loving Father, because Jesus has made the way. We can live a life of sacrificial love and service to others because Jesus showed us that in giving his life up for us.

Mark leaves us at the cross not simply with the decision to make as to who we believe Jesus is. He leaves us at the cross with the beginning of the story of Jesus resurrection. He finishes by telling us about the faithful women who remained with Jesus through the suffering of the cross his death and his burial.  Again we could see these women like so many women in the face of mans inhumanity, left distraught and grieving for those who have died, the wail of a new widow in a war or the numb and grief pitted face of a mother who is wondering what has happened to a son who was taken by so called security forces and disappeared, a women crying over a son killed in gun violence in On A US city street, or school room.  But now in his gospel we are to follow them, as they go with Joseph of Arimathea and bury Jesus in a tomb, as they rest on the sabbath, filled with grief and as they make their journey to finish preparing Jesus body for burial on the first day of the week, and hear the good news and see it for themselves.  They are Mark’s “it’s Friday but Sunday is Coming”.

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