Isn’t It Ironic?
When I was a student at Princeton, I took a course on the Gospel of Mark. Our professor, Dr. Juel made sure that by the end of the semester Mark’s was our favorite of the four gospels. It even became my favorite book of the bible.
Dr. Juel began the first session of the course with a question:
‘What would you say about a book that spent one-sixth of its story narrating
the death of the main character?’
A classmate of mine responded: ‘I’d say that it sounded like the author was a person who had not come to terms with the death of someone close.’
Dr. Juel followed with another question: ‘Isn’t it ironic that even though Jesus was only dead for two days, his followers had such incredible difficulty coming to terms with that death? Why is that, you think?’
Jesus didn’t stay dead, but his followers never could quite settle that death. I mean…here we are, two thousand years later, still observing the day the resurrected Jesus died.
For his disciples’, the cross never went away. It remained, even after Easter, not just as a sign of God’s graciousness, but as a reality against which their whole self-image and worldview shattered.
The cross remained for the disciples an unsettling reality; an unsettling reality that nonetheless had power for those first believers.
Power that drove them to change the world.
If the cross has less power for us, then I think maybe it’s because we’ve explained its power away. I think maybe it’s because we’ve turned the cross into a tidy transaction or a shallow symbol.
We’ve spent the last six weeks of Lent exploring what the theologians and church fathers have called ‘atonement theories.’ Theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians.
But Mark wasn’t a theologian.
Mark wasn’t interested in theories or explanations. Mark didn’t care about answering all your questions or giving you happy endings.
Mark didn’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you instead of challenge you to your core.
Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark, as Dr. Juel taught me to see, was an artist.
Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial and death is not theory or explanation; it’s art.
And where the theologians give you answers and explanations, Mark gives you irony.
In Mark, Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him.
He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him.
He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’
For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects.
It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’
It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.
The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.
Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies.
At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.
Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.
Where the theologians give you answers and explanation, Mark gives you irony.
And perhaps the most threatening irony of all in Mark’s Gospel is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best.
We conveniently forget-
Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.
And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.
The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst.
And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. I mean….the chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct. That’s a perfectly rational position.
The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.
But what Mark gives us is different. Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.
The theologians give us answers, but Mark just leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?
Mark doesn’t give us answers. Mark just gives us painful irony- that those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.
And I think that is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.
They make the cross seem almost reasonable.
They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin.
Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.
They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are.
That’s why, even after Easter, Mark and the other disciples still struggled with the cross. They struggled coming to terms with the fact that, given who we are, it couldn’t have been different.
That, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. And when God comes close then inevitably we have to defend ourselves. That Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.
Mark doesn’t give us answers or explanations.
Mark won’t allow us to think our way around the cross or theologize our way through it.
Mark won’t let us off the hook tonight. There’s no good news here at the foot of Mark’s cross.
There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this: a confrontation with God.
A God who wills only to be gracious.
That ends with Jesus dead.
Mark leaves us with the bitter irony that the only person who can touch us and heal us and forgive us and make us whole.
Is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.
Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.