March 28, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: THE CROSS
Mark 15: 33-39
The sixth in a series of seven.
If this candle on the altar looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same candle we lit on Christmas Eve. It was surrounded by the four colored candles in our Advent wreath. We waited until Christmas Eve to light this one because this is the Christ candle. It symbolizes the light that came into the world with the birth of Jesus. This week that light goes out.
This is Palm Sunday. A week from today is Easter. Easter is our day to celebrate the resurrection. The light of Jesus shines brightly on Easter. But we don’t appreciate the light unless we experience the darkness. This is the week we experience the darkness. This is the week the light goes out.
Jesus is on center stage in the closing chapters of Mark. Starting with Palm Sunday, it’s all about him. But it’s really amazing that even though it’s all about him, Jesus has very little to say. It’s other people who do most of the talking. It’s other people who do most of the acting.
On Palm Sunday, the crowd shouts, “Hosanna!” and they wave their palm branches. By Maundy Thursday, the voices of praise have gone silent. Judas betrays Jesus, soldiers arrest him, the disciples desert him, Peter denies him. The drama continues into the wee hours of Friday morning. The Sanhedrin tries Jesus. He is spit upon, beaten, and sentenced to die. He is taken to Pontius Pilate who washes his hands of the whole thing and lets the death sentence stand. The crowd shouts, “Crucify him!” The Roman soldiers nail him to the cross. They gamble for his clothing. The crowd hurls insults. There is a thief, also being crucified, who hurls insults and continues until Jesus breathes his last.
This ancient story is all about Jesus. Jesus is on center stage. But there are many other players. They do most of the talking and most of the acting. We read this like we are reading about a bunch of bad people who did horrible things a long time ago. But I wonder if Mark may have had something else in mind. We are supposed to see ourselves in this story. It’s not just about them. It’s about us.
We are Judas the betrayer. We are the disciples who run away. We are Peter the denier. We are Pilate, afraid to do the right thing. We are the Sanhedrin, religious people, good people, God’s people, blind to how far they have strayed from God’s ways.
What’s wrong with these people? What’s wrong with these people is what’s wrong with us. Because we are these people. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we all were there.
An old man from the old south told his grandson a true story. It was a painful story that it was hard for him to tell. When he was a boy he had witnessed a lynching. A young African-American man was being strung up on a tree. Pretty much all the town people were them. He recognized some of them. Some of them were from his church. He waited for someone to say something. No one did. He knew he needed to shout, “Stop! This is wrong! You can’t do this!” But he was silent like everyone else. He was afraid of what others might think of him.
Would you or I have at least tried to stop the crucifixion of Jesus? What do you think? I think at best, no. We just watched like everyone else. And at worst, we pounded the nails.
We are not the first generation since Jesus was crucified who has crucified him again. In the Crusades, it was Christians who went to the Holy Land and slaughtered Muslims and Jews. In the Spanish Inquisition, it was Christians who invented the most horrible imaginable instruments of torture to be used on the infidels.
The Ku Klux Klan started after the Civil War. They were fading out of existence at the end of the 1800’s, but then there was a resurgence in the 1900’s, not in the south but in the north. Their terror did not target freed slaves but Jewish and Catholic immigrants who were moving to the Midwest in great numbers. Here is a picture from 1921 in Chicago. (See Featured Image 1) You can’t see their faces, but we know who they are. They are Protestant Christians, just like us.
What’s wrong with them? No, the question is, what’s wrong with us? It’s not just long ago. Every day on the news we hear about people doing horrible things. In Atlanta. In Boulder. Both times it was a 21-year-old man who was responsible. Eight dead in the first. Ten dead in the second. In Rochester, New York two boys, age 14 and 16 murdered a man by dousing him with a flammable liquid and setting him on fire. Here in Boise we recently had that murder on the campus of Boise State. And horrific things happen right here in Nampa every day. Most we never hear about.
Of course we would never do things like that, but we do a lot of things that don’t make the news that aren’t very nice. I don’t know about you, but whenever I review my day with God in prayer, there are a lot of things I’m not very proud of. I know better. Still I do the things I shouldn’t and leave undone the things I should. I crucify Jesus again and again. My guess is you probably do too.
The story of this Holy Week is a story of darkness. It’s not just about others who did horrible things. It’s about us. It’s God’s indictment on all of us. There is something wrong with us. We need to be forgiven. We need to be healed. The cross points us to our problem and then it offers us our solution.
You see, until we know that we need help, we can’t be helped. Until we know that we need salvation, we can’t be saved. And so we read this story, we read about other people and their sins, and we are actually reading about ourselves and our sins. We were there when they crucified our Lord. We crucified him. Which means we need him.
Jesus says and does very little. Most of what Mark tells us is about others. But Jesus is of course the main actor in the drama of this week. So let’s follow him now, first in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This is an amazing moment. Jesus, who we know was fully God and fully human, seems entirely human at this moment. We are told that he was “filled with anxiety and despair.” He prayed to God, “Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:33,36). That does not sound like God, but I love Jesus for praying this. Because it means it’s OK for me to pray like this. It’s OK for me to tell God exactly how I feel. It’s OK to feel anxiety and despair.
But notice how the prayer ends. “Nevertheless, not my will but thy will be done.” He does not want to die on the cross. But if it has to be, it has to be. He would be obedient to the will of God. Here’s how Paul put it, “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
As this prayer ends, Judas approaches. From this point on Jesus says hardly anything.
He does speak from the cross. You may know of his seven last words. It’s not just seven words, but seven short sentences that he speaks from the cross. But we get those seven by combining what we get from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In Mark we find only one of the seven. He is on the cross for six hours. It’s an agonizingly long, slow method of death. In all this time, all he says is this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
We can understand this in one of two ways. It could be just a cry of despair. Like what we are told when he was in Gethsemane. He felt anxiety and despair. Also at that moment, horrific physical pain. So it makes sense that he would have cried out like that.
But it’s also possible that he was remembering a verse of scripture. One he had probably memorized as a child. It’s the first verse in the 22nd Psalm. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” It’s a psalm with 31 verses. Maybe he wanted to recite all 31, but he couldn’t get past verse 1. It’s a psalm that describes in graphic detail what happens when one is crucified. But you keep reading and this psalm ends with praise and with hope.
Whenever we feel forsaken and abandoned, we can know Jesus did too. Jesus understands. There is nothing we will ever have to face that is harder than what he had to face. He felt alone, but he wasn’t. We may feel alone, but we aren’t.
The meaning of the cross is something Christians have pondered ever since that awful day. Some have said that God needed the cross. He couldn’t forgive our sins without it. I think we are the ones who need the cross. I need the cross. Jesus died for me.
When I look at the cross I see these five things:
1) I see my sin and my brokenness.
2) I see how much pain my sin and my brokenness causes God.
3) I see God’s grace. One of the seven last words of Christ from the cross is, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If Jesus could forgive his executioners, God can forgive me.
4) I see the depth of God’s love. I think of the outstretched arms of Jesus. God loves me this much.
5) I see how God wants me to love. God wants me to love this much. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
A while back I heard an interview National Public Radio. It’s something called “Story Corps.” It was a ten-year-old child named Dezmond and his mom. They were talking about the active shooter drills that take place now in elementary schools. Can you imagine being ten years old or younger, and having to think about the possibility that someone might barge into your classroom and start shooting? (See featured image 2)
Dezmond explained what happens in these drills. The teacher locks the door, turns the lights out, and pushes a big desk in front of the door. He said his teacher was having a hard time moving that big desk, so he helped her. He explained that “if she doesn’t get the desk in the door in time, the intruder can open it.” His mom asked what happens next. Here is what ten-year-old Desmond said:
“The class is supposed to stand in the back on the wall, but I decided to stand in the front of the class because I wanted to take the bullet and save my friends.”
His mom asked if the teacher told him to stand in front of the class. He said:
“No, she doesn’t ask me to do that. My life matters, but it’s kind of like there’s one person who can come home to the family or there can be 22 people who can come home to a family, and if I stand in front of my class maybe all 22 of them get to go home, even if I have to die.”
Dezmond’s choice doesn’t sit well with his mom. She asks if he understands why she is having such a hard time hearing him say that. He says:
“Because I’m such a young age, I really shouldn’t be giving my life up, like you shouldn’t have to worry about that. I know Mom. I guess you would want me to come home, and I understand that, but it’s really not a choice you can make. It’s a choice that I have to make.”
A ten-year-old boy, willing to lay down his life for his friends!
I have no idea if Dezmond is a Christian. But where does this idea come from? This idea that that’s what we’re meant to do, that we stand up for others, we save them, even if it means we have to die? It comes from Jesus. Jesus died on a cross. Jesus showed us what love looks like.
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).
I like to think it wasn’t a cry of anguish. I like to think it was a shout of victory. No one else gathered there had any idea that this was a moment of victory. But it was.
The Romans carried out the execution. The Romans had all the power. We talked about this early in our series. Jesus was a threat to their power. The Roman emperor was actually called the Son of God. So when Jesus was called the Son of God, this could not be tolerated. He was a threat to the empire. Something had to be done. The Roman way was crucifixion. Now Jesus was gone. He was no longer a theat. His followers would not be heard from again. That is what they thought.
But Mark knew better. And Peter knew better. So here at the end of the story about how the light that was Jesus was extinguished, we are given a hint that there is more to this story. Because we are told that a Roman centurion was there. He had witnessed the whole thing. And he said something that could have had him put to death. He looked at the lifeless body of Jesus. We are told he heard that shout of victory, he saw how Jesus died, and he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
He was. He is. Thank you God for Jesus. We think of what he went through for us, and we tremble. We see ourselves among those who were responsible, and we shudder. We look at his cross, we look at his lifeless body, and we see your love. May we never be the same again. In his name, Amen.