A sermon on Mark 15:15-41 by Rev Richard Keith on Good Friday 2019
This morning we stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus. Here there are no sinners or saints. No rich or poor. No black or white. At the foot of the cross all these categories, all these petty differences, evaporate and disappear. At the foot of the cross, we are all just human beings, made to be like God, created to reflect his truth and grace, called to know him and love him and serve him. At the foot of the cross, we are all broken in need of mending. We are all sick in need of healing. We are all needy, lacking the riches of the glory of the kingdom of God. We are all guilty, standing in the wrong before our holy God.
What do we see? What do we hear? What do we remember here at the foot of the cross?
We see the place of execution, called Golgotha in Hebrew, called Calvary in Latin, the place of the skull. Jesus has been led here outside the walls of the holy city, like an exile deported from his country, like garbage tossed on the rubbish dump. We see the best of all people unwanted and cast away. Truly the Scripture said,
He was despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
At the foot of the cross we see the soldiers, trained in death and anaesthetised to suffering. As they whip him, force him to carry the cross beam and nail him up, they taunt him, like cats playing with a mouse. They dress him in royal purple. They twist a crown out of thorns. They pay false homage to him, “Hail, King of the Jews.” And they roll dice for his clothes. They are just doing their job.
And as they expose him to every possible humiliation, as they degrade him, they degrade themselves. They have given up their humanity to become blind cogs in the machinery of cruelty. They are no longer men, but merely beasts that rip and tear at the command of their masters. Under different circumstances, we would feel sorry for them. For in handing themselves over to the service of death, they have lost everything in life that is worth having.
From the foot of the cross we read the inscription nailed above him, spelling out the crime for which he dies. In Hebrew, Greek and Latin it reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” His crime is not just claiming to be a king. A rival to Caesar’s power. A rebel against Roman rule. But his crime, as Pilate wrote it, is being himself and is being the king that the Jews deserve. Every word is carefully scripted to mock Jesus and to mock his people, to make fun of their hopes and to dash them against the rocks of Roman imperial power. It is Pontius Pilate’s last reminder of just who exactly is in charge.
But it also reminds us that here we see Israel’s Messiah. God’s chosen king. He is the ultimate undercover boss. For his crown is made of thorns. His throne is a cross. The soldiers gamble for his royal robe. And he rules through sacrifice and suffering.
From the foot of his cross we see that he is not alone. Two other men share his fate. They are robbers, bandits, rebels against the power of Rome. And Jesus is crucified between them. Truly the Scripture said,
He was numbered among the transgressors.
For we remember that Jesus has taken the place of Barabbas. A murderer. A bandit. And a rebel. So that a good man dies in the place of the wicked. And so we remember that Jesus has taken the place of Israel which has rebelled against its Lord. For the Lord called Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. The Lord called Abraham’s children to be a light to the world. But Israel deserted the path of peace and chose the way of war. Blindly they took up the sword, believing that the Romans were their real enemies and turned the temple into a den of robbers. And so they surrendered themselves to their true enemies, to Satan and evil and death. They say they hate Rome, but secretly in their hearts they want to be Rome. They are slaves, but they want to rise up and become masters with slaves of their own. So that when the Lord himself walked among them, preaching peace, telling them to give their money to Caesar but their hearts to God, they betrayed him. They cried out, Crucify him, and left him to suffer the punishment that Rome hands out to runaway slaves and bandits. Israel were the rebels, but Jesus suffered in their place.
And we remember that in our own way we are rebels too. For although we were made by God for God, we imagine that we are self-made for ourselves. Of course, we love our family and our friends. We love our town and our country. Who doesn’t? But above all, we love ourselves with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength. We are rebels and Jesus died in our place as well. As the Scripture says,
All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has gone our own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
At the foot of the cross we see the sky turn black. The sun hides its face from this blasphemy. And creation itself turns its back against this crime against its creator.
What do we hear at the foot of the cross? We hear the religious authorities taunting him as they file past. We hear them crying out,
“So! You were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. Come down from the cross and save yourself. Let this Messiah, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we say see and believe.”
It is the last temptation of Christ: to prove himself by denying himself, to fulfil his mission of calling Israel to faith by forsaking his mission. The irony does not escape his tormentors. “He saved others,” they said, “but he cannot save himself.” Well, he could save himself, but he didn’t so that he could save others. Because this is what happens when you practice what you preach, when you turn the other cheek, when you walk the extra mile, when you give to those from whom you cannot expect to get anything back. This is what happens when you preach peace and live peace among people addicted to war and conflict. That way of life leads to the cross. It is the way of the man who used his power to help others but not to help himself.
From the foot of the cross we hear Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a direct quote from Psalm 22. A song of David that sings of Jesus, the great son of David.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. A pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
It is a song that prophesies Jesus’ pain and humiliation, and yet which dares to celebrate that he has a future and that through his suffering blessing will come not only to the people of Israel, but to the people of every nation, both the living and the dead. Jesus is forsaken by his God, his Father, handed over to suffering and death. He suffers Israel’s exile. He pays for Israel’s sins and in Israel’s place. But only so that Israel may be spared and may be forgiven, so that Israel’s exile might strike him and not them, and so that he can fulfil Israel’s mission to bring blessing to the nations. To bring blessing even to us. In the darkness of the cross, Jesus is the true light of the world.
At the foot of the cross, we hear his last loud cry, and he breathes his last. And later the people learn that the temple curtain has torn in two from top to bottom as if large hands have reached down from heaven to rip it apart. The temple has reached its use by date. The time for shadows and symbols is over in the light of the reality of the death of Christ. He himself is the true temple, the meeting place between God and human beings. His death is the true sacrifice in the place of rebels and for their forgiveness. The power of evil has broken against him. Death dies with him. Judgment is judged and hell is thrown into hell. And his suffering opens the way to true fellowship with God, bringing peace and love and joy.
At the foot of the cross we stand with the mockers and the mourners, with Jesus’ friends and enemies, and we hear the word of the centurion, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” Does he understand what he says? Does he know what his words mean? We are told no more about what is going on in his head and in his heart.
Finally, what do we remember at the foot of the cross? We remember that here there are no sinners or saints. No rich or poor. No black or white. No masters or slaves. Here there are no self-made men. Here we stand broken in need of mending, sick in need of healing, rebels called to surrender to the peace of the kingdom of God.
At the cross, we remember the true and living God, taking responsibility for our sin and rebellion. He will right the wrong even at the cost of his own pain and suffering. He will suffer the curse. He will endure the judgment.
At the cross, we all remember the one true human being, suffering in the place of others. Taking their sin so that sin will no longer have any power over them.
And we remember our true value, our lives purchased at the price of Jesus.
At the foot of the cross we are invited to see what the centurion sees and to hear what he hears and to repeat his words after him. Surely this man was the Son of God.