Mr President, has it been a good visit?
Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for and our special relationship is still very special.
I love that word "relationship". Covers all manner of sins, doesn't it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger.And the President should be prepared for that. (Love Actually, Hugh Grant & Billy Bob Thornton)
The breakdown of relationship is a problem. Our hurting world knows that acutely. We expect marriages to fail. “Until death us do part” seems little more than sentiment. And in many communities it's now a status symbol among teenagers to have an ASBO – to celebrate the breakdown of relationship. And if we can't relate to one another it's then no surprise that we can't relate to our Maker. The reality is that all those other relationships fail because our relationship with our Maker is fatally fractured...
The cross is the focus of each of the gospel accounts. They're often described as “passion narratives with extended introductions”. Strange biographies. Where most major on life and minor on death, Jesus' biographies work the other way around. One event captivates the writers attention. We're aware of the gore thanks to Mel Gibson and yet to many the whole thing is very offensive. Polly Toynbee wrote in The Guardian last Christmas that the idea of someone dying for her sin was repugnant. Others are more subtle and simply try to clean it up, make it cleverer, less primitive and more impressive. But the cross is what it is.
Yet, what God did at the cross matters more than anything else, as he opens the way to relationship with him. That event is central to our existence and ongoing life as Christians and a Christian Union. It cannot be allowed to be marginalised or left on the fringes.
Ryan Jones speaks with great insight about the life of his church...
When we come to the cross we're on holy ground, and should approach appropriately.
We're also on historic ground. No fairy tale or fantasy. Notice, v40-47: v40, the women who stand at a distance, witnessing it. Local politician Joseph of Arimathea witnesses it. Pilate witnesses it – surprised at how fast Jesus dies, he accepts the empirical evidence of his soldiers.
The local religious authorities at the time couldn't deny the event, they tried to suppress it but this good news resounded through the known world. They could not stop talk of it. We're going to listen in to this holy event. Hear Jesus' cry and discover it's meaning. The events Mark records tell us exactly what we need to know. Hear Jesus' cry:
why - have - you - forsaken - me?”
1. Forsaken in wrath
The first thing it means is that Jesus was forsaken in judgement. The darkest day.
Cheryl begins: "I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in this world - spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley - is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins. Even those of us who try to live a good and true life remain as far away from grace as the Hillside Strangler or any demon who ever tried to poison the village well. What happened that morning only confirms this.”And so she reflects upon a high school killing in Douglas Coupland's book Hey Nostradamus! She sees the defining mark of humanity in our darkness. And the events of one particularly dark day confirm that. Are we defined by our darkness? Is that all there is to us? What we find in Mark 15 is an honest admission of human darkness and a vile expression of it – but we also find hope... but before the light, we must see the darkness:
a. The Mockery
We see Jesus' forsaken in the mockery he endures - v20, 29, 31, 32... Soldiers, Passers by, Priests and Scribes and Thieves all deride him. Blaspheme him. The good, the bad and the ugly united in mockery of Jesus.
Often people will say, If I'd met Jesus, if I'd been there I'd have believed. Those people want Jesus on their own terms – just as the mocking crowds did. The religious who had been so opposed to Jesus now offer him their devotion, v32, if he will come down and save himself to convince them. The testimony of history unanimous. Everyone was opposed to him. Offended that the Saviour would hang on a roman cross. He was forsaken by man. And we would have joined in their mockery had we been there...
But Jesus' cry was that he was forsaken by God... but mockery isn't just human rejection. In the Old Testament when God judged his people he sent the nations to mock them for their folly. And so it went with Jesus.
b. The Cloud.
The second way we see Jesus forsaken in wrath is through the cloud of v33. Darkness comes over the whole land, or perhaps even, the whole earth. Darkness preceded the creation of the world... and a new creation is coming. These events precede the birth of the new creation. Everything stands in expectation of the resurrection. One thing is sure, this is not just an event of a man dying on a tree, it has cosmic implications.
The darkness of curse
More importantly we need to know what clouds represent. In Exodus 10v21-22 darkness overshadows the land in judgement from God. At Gethsemane Jesus had wrestled with the cup of God's wrath, pleading for it to be removed from him. Now he drinks that cup dry. He is forsaken in wrath. Mocked by men, abandoned by his Father, shrouded in darkness. These events that happen before Jesus' cry and go half of the way to explaining what is happening in this sacred event. The wrath that I deserve is being turned from me, and onto Jesus.
Wrath deserved for the evil of my heart – as Mark told us in chapter 7 – the human heart, meant to be a place to taste and see the wonders of divine glory has become a sewer of sin, overflowing all kinds of evil. Rightfully requiring punishment from God. Being forsaken was what I deserve... yet he hangs in my place: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
2. Forsaken to bring God close
Before the cry Jesus is abandoned to mockery and darkness, forsaken in wrath. Afterwards we see the curtain torn, and an unexpected confession. This will complete the picture. Forsaken in wrath... and forsaken to bring God close.
a. The Curtain
Mark moves his camera for just a moment from Jesus' cross outside Jerusalem to the temple courts. And Mark tells us, v38, that the thick curtain that kept people out of The Most Holy Place is torn apart. Jesus' cry resounds far beyond what is audible.
The temple is closed for business. The dividing barrier between man and God is removed. The one way that humanity knew of to bring them to God is gone. Why? For the same reason we throw anything away. Because we don't need it any more! The cross makes that old system, history. What had been a great Technicolor illustration of how to approach God is now superceded. The gap has been removed!
John Piper says that the essence of the gospel is that: God is the Gospel. The ultimate good news of the gospel we proclaim as Christians is that we can know and enjoy God forever.
Nothing or no-one else could bring God close. No man could invoke God's presence. No-one could see God without dying. God alone can bring us to God. And that's what makes the cross so necessary, wonderful and so utterly central for us.
At the cross God did what could be done no other way.
He invited us in. He welcomed us in to his courts. Where? To the place of which we say “better is one day in your courts, than a thousand elsewhere” Into the place where there are pleasures evermore is found! Into the very presence of God forever. All those great promises and hungerings of the Psalm realised. At the cross we take hold of those great promises.
b. The Confession.
Then comes the confession, v39. Mark's camera returns to the cross and he zooms in on the man who stands watch over this death. Mark proves that God has come close to a sinful world. His terrifying wrath turned aside and now favour is unleashed... This man is responsible for ensuring the execution of Jesus is completed. And as that happens he cries out:
“Surely, this man was the Son of God”.
For the first time, someone sees who Jesus is. His Father has already declared it at Jesus' baptism. And many demons have said it. But no human has previously said - in faith - that Jesus is - the Son of God. It feels like horribly bad timing, why couldn't he have seen while Jesus was alive? But, the reality is that it was perfect timing. This - is why Jesus was forsaken.
But how? This is the man who hammered in the nails to Jesus hands...
Mark tells us, v39, that “when he saw how Jesus died” he made his confession.
Now, that makes sense at first, but think about it...
The cross was vile to Jews – God's servant doesn't die under a curse.
The cross was appalling to Gentiles - no-one important dies on a cross, particularly those worthy of the royal title Son of God. Only low-life's and criminals die on crosses, but this Centurion sees differently.
Miraculous! Throughout Mark we've seen the total breakdown of communication between God and man. Jesus has spoken with perfect clarity and wonderful simplicity. And yet disciples and pharisees alike were blind to his identity. A few sinners have seen and heard... a leper, a paralytic, a tax collector... Most who encountered Jesus rejected him, taking offense, branding him a demonic, a law-breaker or just insane. Judged by God for their hardness to God.
Now that barrier is shattered into a million pieces. Now this man who executed Jesus... who should above all have remained at a distance cries out: Surely this man was the Son of God!
Everything changes. Previously no one could see, and God was terrifyingly wrathful towards us. Now, the first two things that happen after Jesus dies open the way to relationship, opening eyes to see that this Jesus is – the - Son - of - God.
Will the way we relate to God make the cross look big? Will we set our compass in life to make the cross look big? Not because the cross is small and you need to be a “microscope”... but rather to be a “telescope”, bringing into sight that which is vast... Because the cross is the BIG event, the BIG story – paired with the resurrection - and yet like a star in the night sky it often look small and insignificant from a distance. (Illustration from Sam Storms)
How do we make much of it?
By praying. Believing it's promise of relationship with God.
By rejoicing in it as we come to God's promises in the Bible.
We might imagine this is all revising the basics but David Prior is spot on when he notes that:
“we never move on from the cross,
only into a more profound
understanding of it”.
Everything starts and ends at the cross. This isn't just about an intellectual appreciation of the cross. Charles Simeon once wrote that:
but the true Christian
delights in the cross,
rejoices in it,
glories in it
and shudders at the thought
of glorying in anything else...”
(cited from John Piper, The Roots of Endurance)
How deeply does the cross cut into your affections and desires? The Cross of Christ is the good news that our wretched hurting souls need to hear each and every day. It is where we hear the loudest broadcast of God's wrath and justice and love. It is the centre of history... bringing out the worst of humanity... and completing the very best of God's salvation plan. Are you besotted with what God did on the cross?
What will it look like in your life? Will it be marginalised? Or will it stand at the centre of your thinking, your affections and your actions? The cross is the basis of our relationship with God. This is good news. And not just for individuals but to create a people for himself – to gather the church. God comes close to us! And so this will be the source and sound of our celebrations together, as we glory in our Redeemer: Sober celebrations, seeing our sin through the cross. Joyful celebrations because God has come close!
Resources used: Peter Bolt - The Cross from a Distance; James Edwards - Pillar Mark Commentary; The editing skills of Becci Brown though any remaining lack of good editing is entirely my fault.