The Cross (Mark 15:33-41)
Were it possible that for William Shakespeare to be transported to any English-speaking city in the world today - Truro, London, New York say - he would be practically illiterate, for 5/9 words have changed their usage and meaning since he spoke his mother tongue.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a similar change in understanding within the Church has occurred regarding the Cross and the saving work of Christ, our Lord and only Saviour.
Here we are in holy ground this morning. Jesus has been taken to Golgotha, or “Skull-Face”, and there he has to endure great shame and embarrassment. He has been treated with the vilest scorn, beaten black and blue, spat upon, stripped naked and he was crucified between two thieves and troublemakers. There among criminals the dear spotless Son of God is mocked yet further, not only by one of those hanging with him, but also by the crowd gathered like vultures to watch him die. We have some inadequate understandings about crucifixion: it was more likely done just above eye level; the nails for the feet were hammered through the ankle bones; and the nails for the hands and feet were kept in place by what may be called a wooden washer. Usually, crosses would have a tiny seat between the legs, on which the crucified would seek to rest ... trouble was when that happened, his lungs would constrict and he wouldn’t be able to breathe and so he
2 would hoist himself up onto the nails once more, and his weight
would tear muscle and tendon. Most victims of crucifixion died of asphyxiation - a long and slow death. Jesus’ death was confirmed as a soldier pierced his side and out came blood and water, indicating death had taken place with the blood separating into clot and serum.
Mark describes three hours of darkness. The darkness stands for total abandonment. It marks the end of the Old Testament era and the beginning of the new covenant. Isaiah 13:10 and Amos 8:9 both refer to darkness as being the major event on the day of the Lord. But of course Mark wants us to see the events of the Passover in this darkness. In Egypt, the plague of darkness had been God’s last word before the Angel of Death visited all the firstborn. Thereafter only those protected by the blood of the Passover lamb would be protected and delivered from the visitation of God’s wrath. Now the Exodus is reaching its perfect fulfilment as Jesus the Lamb of God delivers his propel once and for all from the darkness. This time the darkness covered the earth because it was time for God’s own firstborn to be slain. It is as if the very universe is frowning at Jesus as he experiences the withdrawn fellowship of the Father.
And now do you see why the terrible cry of dereliction and desolation came from Jesus’ lips, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (NB, the only time we have in Scripture where Jesus doesn’t call God ‘Father’.)
In his gracious desire to communicate with us, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity decided to become human and he entered all the darkness, the loneliness, the fear, the brokenness and estrangement, the frustration, the anger, the bitterness, the depression, the envy, the jealousy, the strife, the lust, the slander, the isolation, the guilt, the sorrow, the sadness, and even the murder of our human condition. Into this non-being and extinction (as Athanasius saw it) Christ entered, crossing all possible worlds, to lift us up out of the miry pit, and place us next to him, with a new song in our hearts - a song of praise and deliverance to our God. He is both our representative and our substitute. As our high priest he brought no sacrifice but himself. The priest has become the victim.
Human existence, broken and estranged from God as it is, must be radically recreated, utterly transformed, and put back together again, whole and healed - what the Bible calls “reconciled.”
And Jesus died on the cross so all this could be accomplished. He died there because the Father could not and would not forsake us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He died not to change God, but to change us. He died that awful abandonment to do away with our alienation and estrangement. His life for ours. In TF Torrance’s memorable phrase, Christ hammered fallen Adamic
existence back into real relationship with the Father - with every nail smashed into his body and every sin held to his account.
And that terrible cry wrung from his cracked and bloody lips was mine and yours: this is nothing less than the cry of the human heart separated from the God of all grace.
Mark then records how what was happening was misunderstood by those watching. Mark is careful to record Jesus used in the very Aramaic he spoke. But there was a popular belief at the time in Israel that Elijah acted as kind of patron of saint for sufferers. They were looking at the most momentous event in the whole of history, and yet their understandings were darkened and dull. Their minds were clouded with superstition. Had they recalled their Scriptures, or known them better, they’d have remembered that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22.
Then Mark records two miracles at the cross.
First, the holy of holies was opened up for all time: God was no longer distant or separate form his people. It looked like God himself had torn the veil, for it was ripped and rent by the Lord himself, eager to establish relationship, eager to be reconciled once again to his creation. God had desecrated his own Temple. Jesus’ death had blasted a new way into God’s presence.
Second, a Roman soldier immediately comes to faith at the cross. How many others must he have helped crucify! Through blood, and sweat and hard graft had worked his way up to the rank of Centurion - think Sergeant Major. Centurions were the most hardened of soldiers, who had fought across Germany, Spain and North Africa, and here he is in Jerusalem on death squad duty. There isn’t much horror he hasn’t seen, or even personally inflicted. The smell and sight of blood was a common thing to him. This pagan soldier came to faith recognising Jesus as the Son of God - he had seen what was unique in his experience - a crucified man, crying out with a loud voice (as John records it), “It is finished!” And What’s finished, what’s been done? Well consider these at the very least:
• The sinner represented before God
• The substitution of the Saviour for the sinner
• The identification of the sinner with his/her Saviour
• The revelation of the Saviour to the sinner
Quite how much of this the centurion understood we are not told, but Mark wants us to see that though many were blind to the truth of what is gong on, there is one (and that an unlikely one) who has come to instant faith. Amid all the blood, excrement and cursing he usually saw, he heard one say instead, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. And he thought to himself, ‘here is love like no other, here is courage the like I have never seen; and here is the Son of God.’ Let that encourage us.
Mark ends by mentioning that there were witnesses to this astonishing event. The women were watching and would know where the body was buried: Mark is preparing his readers for the events of that first Easter morning and resurrection. Then there’s Joseph of Arimathea in the next verses - Mark delights in showing us that Jesus has supporters in the most unexpected of places.
On the cross death died
On the Cross the gallows became the gate to eternal life
On the Cross Christ reigns while powerful men cower and the sun hides its face
On the Cross the guilty are declared forgiven
On the Cross a criminal and a soldier find life and hope.
In The Life of Brian those arch cynics of Monty Python thought they were being so clever in getting Brian sing form the cross, “Always look on the bright side of life” as if that would mock the central tenet of the Christian faith.
BUT it is precisely because of Christ’s death on the cross that we can look in the bright side of life! The darkness makes way for the rising Son of Eternal Morning - or what our Celtic Christian saints were fond of calling Christ, “the Youth of 1000 summers.” Killing the
Lord of life is impossible. But how grateful we are, how adoring of our Lord and Saviour are we that on the Cross he made for us “by his once and for all offering of himself, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” and through him we have been freed from the slavery of sin. Alleluia!