Archives For Why the Crucifixion

imagesThis Good Friday we broke the worship service and sermon into thirds with each segment narrating a piece of Nicodemus’ story as told by John. An actor in the congregation played Nicodemus, speaking the bolded lines below. The altar table was piled with several dozen loaves of bread which Nicodemus ‘spoke’ to during the first two parts and later wrapped in linen and buried in the final segment.

You can listen to the audio here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or under the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog- however you may not be able to pick up Nicodemus’ lines.

I. Born from Above: John 3

[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, carrying a lit candle]

     The first time he met him it was Passover about three years ago.

     All that week the man from Nazareth had been performing signs and miracles. He’d even stormed through the Temple courts one day with a whip in hand, shouting that they’d turned his ‘Father’s’ house into a market.

That got people’s attention.

     The city was filled with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the Passover Feast. It was easy for the man from Nazareth to attract a crowd. Many of those who listened to him and watched him, believed in him, believed on his name, believed he was from God.

Some had quite opposite reaction. Still others stayed silent- and safe- on the sidelines.

The first time he met him it was Passover, three years ago.

It was long into the night. The streets and the sky were dark. Dried blood still marked the doorposts of the places where the feast was celebrated.

One of those who’d seen Jesus among the crowds, came knocking. At an upper room. Jesus was asleep when he heard the sound at the door- it would be a while yet before his Father’s will kept him up all night.

Nicodemus knocks on the door. The city was filled with travelers and pilgrims; he would’ve had to ask around to find the right address, or he would’ve had to follow Jesus and wait in the shadows.

Nicodemus knocks on the door and waits to step inside the threshold before he pulls his hood down. No one’s awake but why chance it.

     The first thing the man from the shadows says is: ‘Rabbi.’ 

     As in, ‘Teacher.’ 

     As in, ‘you know something I don’t.’ 

     Still standing in the entryway, he says to the groggy-eyed Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know you’re from God. You couldn’t do the signs you do were you not.’

Teacher, we know… We know. He doesn’t say ‘me.’ He doesn’t say ‘Teacher, I know.’ Jesus notices that beneath the cloak his visitor is wearing the robes of the ruling priests. He’s come by candle light, in the dead of night- not an official visit, Jesus guesses.

     ‘Teacher, we know…’

Jesus can see there must be more to it than that. This priest didn’t come all the way out here in the middle of the night just to say that.

So Jesus rubs his eyes more awake and motions to the table for Nicodemus to sit down. He lights some candles and notices how Nicodemus sits in the shadows with his back to the window.

Jesus breaks a piece of leftover bread and pours a cup of wine and offers it to him. Nicodemus says no thank you.

     And Jesus can tell by looking at Nicodemus’ anxious, edge-of-your-seat eyes that there’s something about Jesus that reveals something about Nicodemus.

     Something that is empty.

Incomplete.

Even though Nicodemus has it all.

The truth is, Jesus tells him, it’s one thing to see what I do, to listen to me teach. It’s another thing to see what I point to: the Kingdom of God.

To see that, to experience that- it’s like…being born all over again.

 Something in what Jesus says strikes a threatening chord.

Nicodemus hears the challenge in it: ‘The life I have now isn’t enough? I’ve got to be born again, a second time, from above?’

Nicodemus, he’s a teacher of the law. A Pharisee. He knows what Jesus meant. It’s not that complicated. He just doesn’t want this to be about him so he pretends to not understand. He asks questions, poses qualifications. Clergy are good at that.

How can this be? You can’t mean that… What are you saying? 

    ‘You’re not listening,’ says Jesus. And Jesus tells him that for someone to enter God’s Kingdom, you’ve got to learn how to live all over again.

All Nicodemus can think to say is: How can this be? 

     Jesus goes on to say something about how much God so loved the world and how no one will really believe until the Son is hoisted up for everyone to see.

Nicodemus goes on pretending he doesn’t understand.

Except, he really doesn’t understand. It was still night when Nicodemus went home.

He left without ever asking what he’d come to ask, without ever confessing what it was he secretly believed

II. Let Anyone Who Is Thirsty: John 7 Visit-of-Nicodemus

[Nicodemus enters from behind pulpit, carrying palm leaves and empty pitcher]

     Nicodemus didn’t see him again until later that fall.

     The leaves had turned, the air had cooled and the harvest was in. Once again thousands of pilgrims had returned to Jerusalem, this time for Sukkoth. The Festival of Booths- the holy days when Jews gave thanks for the harvest.

     For the week long festival, make-shift booths were set up all over the Temple grounds and in every nook and cranny of every side street. The pilgrims slept in the booths to remember the forty years Israel had wandered in the wilderness and how the Lord had satisfied their hunger and their thirst.

Every day during Sukkoth, bulls would be sacrificed. Every day prayers for rain offered, and even prayers for the Resurrection of the Dead.

At night, there’d be dancing around fires as worshippers waved palm branches and called upon God to send a Messiah.

‘Hosanna!’

Jesus had just fed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread. He’d just told them that he was Living Bread, Bread from Heaven.

So Jesus comes late that year for Sukkoth, about the fourth day. As soon as he arrives he starts teaching in the Temple.

     Some in the crowds, like Nicodemus, press him by asking: ‘How do we know you’re from God?’ 

     And the man from Nazareth responds bluntly that ‘if you were doing the will of God you’d see that I’m from God.’

Others in the crowd conclude that the Messiah himself could not do more than this Jesus can.

The holiest day of the week long festival is the seventh day.

Day seven comes and inside the Temple priests (priests like Nicodemus) process around the altar, carrying basins filled with water from the well at Siloam.

[Nicodemus processes around the altar table with the pitcher of water]

     Seven times they process around the altar and on the seventh turn around they pour the water over the altar to praise the God who never lets his People go thirsty.

That’s inside the Temple.

     Outside the Temple, on the seventh day, refusing to go away, Jesus declares to the crowds: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’

That gets people’s attention.

The priests and the Pharisees send the Temple police to arrest Jesus, but the police, at least for now, are afraid to touch him. They come back empty-handed, and the Pharisees go through the roof, screaming Jesus is a fraud and anyone who listens to him is accursed.

Nicodemus is there when the police come back empty-handed. Biting his lip and not meeting anyone’s eyes, he just listens to their rage.

     After a few moments, finally and hesitatingly, he speaks up and asks his fellow priests: ‘Doesn’t the Law require us to give this man from Nazareth a fair hearing?’

     All eyes pivot to Nicodemus and they snap at him: ‘Why, are you one of his disciples?’

Standing there in the light of day with all eyes on him, Nicodemus says…nothing.

Not one word.

Whatever he thought about Jesus, whatever he believed about Jesus, he kept it to himself. He kept it private.

He still didn’t understand what Jesus had said about being born again.

[Nicodemus walks away down center aisle, stops and looks back as though filled with regret]

  St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (fresco)III. I Will Not Be Silent: John 19

[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, stopping middway, just watching, cowardly, recognition gradually coming over him]

     The third and last time he sees Jesus it’s Passover again.

     The city’s filled with the same familiar strangers. This time Nicodemus doesn’t come knocking in the dead of night.

And that week when his fellow Pharisees try to trap Jesus with questions, Nicodemus doesn’t rise to his defense.

When a plot is hatched and Jesus is arrested, Nicodemus is certainly there and presumably says nothing.

When Jesus is put on trial, Nicodemus doesn’t speak up, doesn’t step out, doesn’t risk the life he has for a new one.

     I don’t know where Nicodemus was exactly when they crucified Jesus, but I wonder if he was there.

I wonder if, when they nailed Jesus to his Cross, Nicodemus remembers and suddenly understands what Jesus had meant when he told him that many will believe when the Son of Man is lifted up for all to see.

Or, when Jesus cries out in agony, I wonder if Nicodemus begins to understand what Jesus had meant that God so loved the world that he gave…

Or when the soldier spears Jesus’ side and water rushes out, I wonder if Nicodemus is there and remembers the man from Nazareth saying: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.

I wonder because when Jesus finally dies, all of his friends have fled in fear or shame. Even his mother is gone.

To do anything but leave Jesus’ body hanging there on his Cross was to out yourself: as a follower, as a believer, as an enemy.

     I wonder because it’s Nicodemus who steps from the safety of the sidelines to bury Jesus in the plain light of day.

[Nicodemus walks up boldly to the altar rail, carrying flask of holy oil] 

 The perfume he purchases to bury Jesus costs the equivalent of seventy-five years’ worth of wages.

And surely when he drained his savings account someone would’ve asked what all the money was for and Nicodemus would’ve said: ‘Jesus. It’s for Jesus the Messiah.’

And the size of the perfume, 100 pounds, would’ve been eye-catching and sensational and would’ve required help to move.

And again, someone would’ve asked ‘What’s all this for?’ and Nicodemus would’ve had to say a second time: ‘For Jesus. I’m doing it for Jesus.’

[Nicodemus starts to form loaves of bread into shape of a body and wrap the body in linen]

     Only a few hours have passed since the trial. The crowds would’ve still been angry and lingering as Nicodemus bore his awkward burden down the same streets and up the same hill that Jesus had carried his Cross.

     It would’ve taken time to bury him, and in the light of day anyone can could have found him out.

Anyone could have watched as he and Joseph pulled the twisted nails out of wood and bone.

Anyone could have seen them as they gently carried his broken body down and, with the attention of midwives, wiped his still raw wounds and cleaned his body and combed his spat upon hair.

Anyone could’ve spotted them anointing his body with a 401K’s worth of perfume and spice.

Anyone could’ve watched as they respectfully wrapped his naked body in linen and then buried him, rock by rock, all the while singing psalms of lament.

 [Nicodemus starts to sing…What Wondrous Love]

     Singing like they didn’t care who heard them or how different this would make their life now.

Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be many things but it can’t be PRIVATE.

Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be practiced in many ways and in many places but NOT IN SECRET, NOT IN YOUR HEART.

     There in the open, in the light of the fading day, anyone could’ve listened as Nicodemus, this priest, performed the funeral rites over Jesus‘ grave and then prayed, as Pharisees did, for Resurrection.

     That day, Good Friday, is the day Jesus died, but I think it’s also the day Nicodemus is born.

     Again.

[Nicodemus takes a few more minutes to ‘wrap’ the body, then in silence lays it at the foot of the cross]

IMG_0593– Matthew 27.15-26

If I could offer you a choice: between a savior who tells you to return hate with love, or a savior who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil- if I could give you a choice, which one would you choose?

If you could choose: between a savior who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a savior who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains- which one would you choose?

If you had a choice: between a savior who promises you a better life and the end of suffering, or a savior who promises you a life of cross-bearing- which one would it be?

Who would you bet on?
A savior who refuses to be a victim, or a savior who refuses to be anything but?
A savior who promises to liberate the poor or a savior who becomes poor?
Which one?
A savior who promises to turn the clock back to the time you were most happy, or a

savior who speaks of a future where everything is new and unfamiliar and turned upside down?

Which one would you choose? Which one really?

 

I have a friend; he likes to think of himself as something of a prophet, an activist, an agitator. He’s the sort of guy who can string together words like proletariat, bourgeois and globalization and do so with a straight face.

He’s the kind of guy who’s always talking about the Revolution coming.

In terms of appearance, he is equal parts Che Guevara, Rob Reiner and a leprechaun. He’s the kind of righteously angry activist that in earlier generations would’ve been called a hippie, a bohemian, a Red. Today, you’d just say he’s a coffee-shop kind of guy, MoveOn.org/Occupy Wall Street kind of guy.

He likes to hang out in eccentric coffee shops and smokey, out-of-the-way pubs, and between sips and drags- and with his balding white head wrapped up in some sort of scarf- he likes to talk about the Revolution coming.

About the poor rising up. About leaders being ousted.
About the system being taken back.
You all have friends like this too, right?
Every conversation with him is the same. At first you’re impressed by the authors he can quote, by his grasp of issues and by his diversity of knowledge. And always at some later point in the conversation you start to wonder exactly what newspapers this guy reads and exactly what’s in that cup he’s drinking from? What’s he smoking?

He’s eccentric. But once you know him his perspective is easy to understand. He does humanitarian work in the developing world. It’s the kind of vocation that has frustration and tragedy built into it. And that, I think, explains his frequent rants and bull-sessions.

Every day he sees what doesn’t work and every day he’s reminded of who doesn’t care. He works in places where the system is broken, where ideals give way to brute reality and where good intentions don’t go far enough.

One of my conversations with him, not too long ago- the smoke hung heavy in the air between us. Some kind of world music was beating in the background around us. We’d both just been lamenting the many ills in the world, and my we had been ranting about how hard it is to get people’s attention, how hard it is to get people to care.

When suddenly in a critical tone of voice my friend said to me: ‘It must be hard for you…being a pastor.”

And I thought at first he was baiting me to defend my faith or Jesus or all of Christianity but he wasn’t. He was pushing me to defend you. Christians.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

And he said something about how most Christians just want a savior who will bless them or comfort them or answer their prayers. But they don’t want a savior they have to follow very far.

“So you don’t think Jesus is relevant?” I asked.

And with a philosopher’s air he said: “No, the problem’s not with Jesus. The problem’s that so many Christians choose something else.”

 

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, the raw reality of Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could turn within and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either criminals or freedom fighters. At least one of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Zealot, Simon.

 

The Zealots believed a time was coming when God would break into history and rid the Promised Land of the Roman invaders. And they believed their violence was in harmony with the violence God was about to wreak very soon.

Barabbas is a Zealot, and the fact that his crimes were famous probably means he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover. It’s likely too that Barabbas’ name and deeds were better known in Jerusalem than Jesus’ own. It’s even possible that Barabbas had a larger following than did Jesus of Nazareth.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices available to him. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Alternatively, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds. Usually, Pilate did both.

That Pilate even offers to release Barabbas, a known revolutionary, shows that Pilate doesn’t actually expect the chief priests to push the charges against Jesus any further. Zealots like Barabbas wanted to assassinate the Jewish elites too.

Pilate expects the chief priests’ jealousy of Jesus to be outweighed by their fear of violent radicals like Barabbas. That the chief priests refuse to relent on Jesus shows that they understand how Jesus poses a different kind of threat.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

They’re both named “Jesus,” which means ‘God saves’ or ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means ‘son of the Father.’ The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be free. Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two ‘Jesus-es.’
‘Which would you choose?’ Pilate asks them.
Which ‘Savior’ do you want?
Barabbas promises he can change the world by changing who’s in charge of it. Barabbas promises everything will be better if only we get rid of Pilate and the

Priests and Rome.
Barabbas asks his people to take up arms.

Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The reality is that they probably didn’t have to try very hard.

 

One morning we were sitting down drinking coffee together. My friend was only half paying attention. He was rattling off his litany of the world’s ills while doing some kind of Tai Chi in his chair to music that was playing only in his head.

You all have friends like this, right?

Distracted, he was talking about the need for Revolution, about the need to change the System- to get rid of the people at the Top, to throw out the people in charge. Sensing that we were heading down a familiar rabbit hole- one I didn’t want to venture down that particular morning- I asked him, something that for some reason I hadn’t asked him before.

“Then why do you choose to do what you do?”

His arms didn’t stop their Tai Chi movements back and forth, but he cocked his head to the side, like he didn’t follow my meaning.

“If you’re all about Revolution and changing the System, then why do you do what you do? Small business development, advocacy, community organizing: these things take time. They’re small steps. You spend all your time with people on the bottom.”

And he smiled, like I had just outed the man behind the mask.
And he said: “Because just changing who’s at the top doesn’t really change anything.

If you really want to change the world, people need to be transformed.”

 

If I gave you a choice…

Would you choose a savior who butts in on your marriage and your money, who forces you to look into the mirror and own up to your own brokenness, who says you have to try and understand those you don’t like, who says you’ve got to love those who don’t like you, who says you’ve got to forgive and forgive and forgive.

Or, would you choose a savior who promises to leave the rest of your life alone and just answer the one prayer you have in your life?

Which would you choose?

A savior who will change only the pain in your life and leave the “good” alone, or a savior determined to change everything?

Which?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesus-es. Pick one, Pilate says.

Barabbas says ‘I can give you the life you want.’
But Jesus says ‘I can show you the life God wants.’
Barabbas believes governments and their armies are the tiller of history.
But Jesus believes the future can be moved by a Cross and the hearts that are

changed by it.

Had Pilate known the crowds would choose Barabbas, he probably never would have given them a choice.

But the choice is with us all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lord says it is too light a thing that you should be my servant.  You will be a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end, reach to the end, reach to the end of the earth.  I have labored in vain.

The Lord says kings shall see and stand because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel.  Sing for joy, 

O heaven and earth for the Lord has comforted his people, has comforted his people.

Bring Jacob back, bring Jacob back.  Bring Jacob back.  I have labored in vain.

Bring Jacob back.  My Lord has forsaken me.  Bring Jacob back.  My Lord has forgotten me.

Isaiah 49:  1-13

Thursday night of Holy Week ends where Jesus’ last week began: at the Mt of Olives, where the prophets promised the Messiah would appear. The story of salvation begins where the story of creation began: in a garden.

Peter- and probably the other disciples too- brings a sword with him to the garden. Even now Peter expects Jesus to turn out to be the sort of Messiah they’d all wanted. A Messiah worthy of palm branches. A Messiah who provokes and leads a war. A Messiah who deposes Caesar as handily as God disposed of Pharaoh.

Peter wants to sing a victory song as badly as the Israelites had wanted to sing.

Peter brings a sword and Jesus rebukes him: ‘Do you think I couldn’t appeal to the Father and he will at once send me twelve armies of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled?’

In the garden Jesus prays: ‘Let this cup pass from me.’

John Howard Yoder says this is Jesus wrestling with his final temptation. This is Jesus struggling to believe that the only way to defeat the power Sin is to suffer the very worst it can do.

“I have labored in vain” Isaiah foreshadows.

Here’s a question for tonight: 

Does Isaiah imagine Jesus speaking those words, as the darkness creeps all around him and defeat seems certain. 

     “I have labored in vain” is this Jesus speaking?

     Or does Isaiah imagine those words spoken by you and me? 

     Those of us who’ve given years to Jesus and brought swords with us only to discover he’s not the sort of Messiah we had wanted. 

 

Jesus’ Mandate

Jason Micheli —  March 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He had no form or majesty.

Nowhere did we see that we should desire him; He was despised and rejected by others.

He had no form or majesty.

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  He was despised and rejected by others.

He had no form or majesty.  He had no form or majesty.

– Isaiah 53:  1-3

Today is known as Maundy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ from the Latin for ‘mandate’ refers to the scene where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and then mandates that they ‘love one another as I have loved you.‘ images

     The Foot-Washing is found only in the Gospel of John.

     In John’s Gospel Jesus always means more than the obvious. In John’s Gospel Jesus never leaves a miracle or a teaching moment at its literal level. Rather, they are always occasions to reveal more about his identity.

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus feeds the multitudes he announces that he’s the ‘Bread of Heaven’ and tells the confused crowds: ‘feed on me.’

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus meets the woman at Jacob’s well and she asks about water, Jesus tells her he’s ‘Living Water’ that can quench her thirst forever.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus heals the man born blind he turns the conversation to the blindness of those who can see and declares that he’s the ‘Light of the World’ that no darkness can overcome.

So when Jesus washes his friends’ feet in John’s Gospel we should read it as more than an obvious object lesson about our love and service to others. In fact, in the years following Christ’s death and resurrection, the first Christians recalled the Foot-Washing and they interpreted it as a parable of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

When Jesus removes his outer robe, he’s emptying himself of his divinity. And when Jesus lays his robe down, he’s laying down his life. When he puts on a loincloth, a slave’s garment, he’s putting on our sinful nature. When he kneels down at his friends’ feet, its God stooping down from his throne as the incarnate Son. And when Jesus washes their feet it’s him washing us of our transgressions. 

     “I’ve given you an example,” Jesus says. 

And because this is John’s Gospel, Jesus means more than the obvious.

He’s given them an example of the meaning of his death; so that, they will know:

even though has no form or majesty,

even though there’s nothing about him others might desire,

even though in less than a day he will be despised and rejected,

in his suffering and humiliation is the power to annul the wages of Sin.

 

Jesus: A Holy Waste

Jason Micheli —  March 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

Jesus: A Holy Waste

  images   I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice.  He won’t cry or lift up his voice, he will not cry. I have put my spirit upon him, he will not grow faint until there is justice in all of the earth. – Isaiah 42

     According to Matthew’s Gospel, on Wednesday night Jesus steals away to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, to eat dinner at the house of Simon the Leper.

While Jesus sits at the table, a woman enters, carrying an alabaster jar filled with $30,000 worth of perfumed oil.

To have so much of something so costly, this woman must be rich. She succeeds where the rich young man failed. She gives up her treasure for Jesus’ sake.

She pours the oil onto and all over Jesus’ head and hair.

The disciples watch her, silently, watch as the oil runs down Jesus’ body, and all they can think of is how such wealth could be put to better use.

When she’s done Jesus praises her and tells his disciples: ‘You always have a chance to serve the poor, but you will not always have me.‘

Its one of the most intimate scenes in the Gospels, I think, and not because she’s a woman and he’s a man. It’s intimate because, all his predictions of the Cross notwithstanding, there is a secret about Jesus and his fate. This woman with the oil is the only one in the Gospels who seems to know it.

If we were to write the script, we would have more than a few ideas for how God’s justice might be accomplished. Yet Isaiah envisions a Servant who won’t act in ways that satisfy our definitions of justice. Isaiah’s promised Servant will insist on a way that makes no sense to those in power, to those who hunger for power or even to those victimized by it.

While all those Passover pilgrims back in Jerusalem have been humming the Song of Moses and waiting for Jesus to seize his moment, she’s the only one who seems to know her scripture. She’s the only one who knows a different song. Isaiah’s song.

The song of a Servant for whom kingly power and deliverance and justice and suffering and death are all wound together in a mysterious way.

     In the Hebrew Bible, kings aren’t crowned they’re anointed with oil. 

     But so are the dead.

Watching her on Wednesday night, perhaps the disciples wondered which this woman meant.

     Only she and Jesus knew it was for both.

 

Pharoah and his army he cast into the sea, they went down, down, down like a stone. By your right hand, by your mighty right hand they were shattered; Lord, you shattered them all. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.  Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.

– Exodus 15

Moses is referred to as a servant thirty-six times in the scripture Jesus learned on Mary’s lap.

Only, there’s another understanding of servant that courses through the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a memory of one God has sent to his People. It’s the promise of a servant God will send to rescue his People.

The prophet Isaiah was called after the Chosen People had been invaded, defeated and plundered by Babylon. Israel’s best and brightest were exiled into captivity. Those not exiled had it worse; they had to live among ruins, the promises of God reduced to ash and rubble. images

Isaiah looked for a day when God would restore his People by way of another Servant.

And maybe because of all the violence Isaiah had witnessed, maybe because Isaiah knew firsthand that violence doesn’t always end in victory songs, Isaiah anticipated a servant unlike Moses. Isaiah envisioned a deliverance different than the Exodus.

After Jesus enters Jerusalem, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus goes to the Temple as though he’d been deputized and it’s his jurisdiction.

     Not content to ‘teach’ he drives them out:

The merchants who’ve set up shop in the narthex.

The money changers, looking to make a buck off atonement. The venders who sold doves to those too poor (like Mary and Joseph) to purchase a proper animal for sacrificing.

Jesus drives them out along with all the thousands of sheep and oxen waiting to be sold to the holiday travelers.

Tradition refers to this as Jesus ‘cleansing’ the Temple, but it’s really a stampede. In a city already filled with 200,000 pilgrims and the 20,000 lambs required for their Passover meals Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple creates chaos in the streets. It leaves the crowds spellbound.

     It puts Jesus firmly in control of events.

If he truly is a Messiah like they expect then his coup d’etat is nearly complete: the Temple’s been taken, the crowds are on his side and the Roman fortress is literally just next door.

But Jesus doesn’t take up arms.

Instead, Matthew says that after he’s driven out the merchants and money changers, Jesus welcomes the blind and the lame and the children to come up to him in the Temple, a place where they were forbidden.

     Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple becomes yet another example of how he’s taught all along.  

As though God had sent this messiah to teach.

     As if deliverance could be accomplished with just words.

     Or with the Word.

 

IMG_0593The Satisfaction or Substitutionary theory of the atonement is what many Christians take to be the only understanding. It’s the perspective you hear before altar calls or read in religious tracts.

This metaphor is rooted in biblical passages that suggest vicarious suffering as the way in which human sin is redeemed (Isaiah 53); that is, Jesus suffers in our place and we benefit from it. 

Paul writes using this metaphor, especially in 2 Corinthians and Romans. This theory, despite its omnipresence today, wasn’t that widespread in Christianity until it was popularized by St Anselm in his book, Why Did God Become Human? 

     Though many Christians assume this is the only biblical model for atonement, it’s critical to note that Anselm bases his understanding in the vassal-lord relationship of Medieval feudalism. Anselm draws a parallel between judicial and legal imagery used by Paul to the relationship of serfs and lords.

Sin, according to Anselm, is like the social disobedience shown to a lord. Just as satisfaction for the ‘debt of honor’ must be a paid to a serf’s lord, so too does God demand satisfaction for our sin. Like a Medieval lord, Anselm believes our sin offends God and God’s honor.

We’re guilty of offending God.

Sin is a debt that needs to be forgiven.

As Paul says, the punishment our offense merits is death.

     This theory focuses on Jesus’ suffering on the way to and on the Cross. In this understanding, Good Friday is the day that changes history.

It’s called the substitution theory for reasons that will be obvious.

Substitution imagines salvation as a law court in which you and me and all of humanity stand in the dock as the accused, on trial for the evil we do to one another and to God’s creation.

     God is the Judge.

The angry, wrathful Judge.

These are charges that we’re guilty of and our guilt is so severe that there’s no recompense we could ever make. What we deserve is eternal punishment, for God to just wipe his hands of us and be done with this thing called creation.

But Jesus suffers in our place.

      This is also called the objective theory because Jesus’ suffering changes how God sees us whether we believe or not.

The Protestant Reformers used the term ‘double imputation’ in reference to this theory of the atonement.

Human sin is ‘imputed’ to Christ, who had no sin himself, and Christ’s righteousness in turn is imputed to us, who have no righteousness on our own. Double Imputation recalls Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he writes that ‘God made Jesus to be sin.’ Christ’s death objectively imputes Jesus’ righteousness to it. It objectively, once for all time, how God regards us. It reconciles, literally it sets things right.

This theory takes seriously the sin in the world. After all, who could look at the newspaper or travel to a third world country and not think God has ample reason to be ticked off at us. 

This theory also takes seriously the nature of Jesus’ death. Why is it, after all, that Jesus dies on a cross and seems to foreshadow from the beginning that this is what would happen to him? According to this theory, Jesus dies on a cross because its the lowliest, more forsaken death we can experience. Jesus dies the sort of death we deserve. It’s not the extent of suffering Jesus endures, it’s the lowly, abandoned nature of his death.

On the other hand, this theory can focus so much on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and the severity of his suffering that God can seem more determined by his wrath than by his grace.

Does God, for example, really need to have his wrath satisfied?

The notion that our sin can offend God seems to put our sin in the driver’s seat. 

Most importantly, this theory seems to put God in contradiction with God’s self. God’s mercy is at odds with God’s righteousness. Grace seems conditional on Christ’s act of sacrifice. It seems to imply that incarnation is a last ditch effort to save humanity, that prior to Christmas and Cross God was not inclined to forgive humanity.

     What emerges therefore is a depiction of God that is at times distasteful. It presents a God who seems to need to be reconciled with us rather than a God we need to be reconciled to.

Think again of the tracts passed out by evangelists, the ones that describe God’s wrath, how death is what we deserve in God’s eyes, how God made Jesus die in our place. To someone with no other knowledge of Christianity, do you really this rendering would lead them to think God is a God of infinite love and peace?

 

 Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, addressed some of these troubles while trying to recover the power of the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Primarily Barth did it by more explicitly grounding the atonement in an act of the Trinity. It’s not, therefore, that God makes Jesus in our place; it’s that God-in-Christ suffers in our place.

     To say God is a wrathful Judge is not incorrect but it is incomplete. God, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the Judge Judged in Our Place. Whatever wrath God feels towards us for our sin, God assumes and suffers for us. In this way, God has always been, eternally, the God ready to die for us. God’s wrath is subordinate, even on the cross, to God’s love and mercy. 

     The cross, the sign of abject humiliation, is actually exaltation. It’s the complete and final disclosure of who this God really is. 

 

      Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.

For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.

The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death. IMG_0593

For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.

In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.

Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.

The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.

According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.

Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.

Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.

The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.

There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love. 

The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.

Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.

Sin has been defeated by Jesus.

We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.

It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.

 

IMG_0593     The biblical concept of ‘salvation’ spans past, present and future.

     Salvation isn’t just what Jesus did; it’s what God does.

When it comes to Christ specifically, salvation, meaning ‘healing’ or ‘rescue,’ is a word that functions with two complementary but different meanings.

Understood against a large canvas, ‘salvation’ refers to what Jesus does (or did) through his life, death and resurrection. More particularly, ‘salvation’ also refers to what God does today to heal us of Sin; that is, ‘salvation’ refers to how God extends the benefits of Christ’s work to us in the present.

I would argue the only way to avoid such confusion is construing salvation as a work, not of God or Jesus in isolation from one another, of the entire Trinity.

     As Trinity, God worked salvation for us through incarnation, cross and resurrection.

     As Trinity, God works salvation (healing, rescue) for us through the Holy Spirit. 

 

Put in trinitarian terms, salvation is both past and present. It’s a work of both the Son and the Spirit.

As a work of the Son, salvation can be defined in terms of Christ’s act of atonement and refers to the way in which Jesus‘ birth, life, death and resurrection reconciles a sinful humanity to God.

While this work of the Son properly encompasses the breadth of Jesus‘ story, oftentimes atonement more narrowly refers exclusively to the Cross.

When Christians say ‘Jesus saves,‘ for instance, they usually mean ‘Jesus atoned.‘

Atonement is a sacrificial term owing to the Levitical holiness codes in the Old Testament. In Christian terms, it denotes the way in which Jesus (his life or death or both) is an expiation, an expungement, for humanity’s sin. As I tell the confirmation students each year, atonement refers to how Jesus makes us ‘at-one‘ with God, a God we’d estranged through our sin.

Christ achieves this at-onement irrespective of the rest of the course of human history. As the darkening skies, the torn temple veil and the quaking earth in the Gospels‘ Good Friday scenes suggest, there is an objective status to Christ’s work on the Cross. In some real way, the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus all the way to the Cross determines how God henceforth regards humanity.

     That the penalty of humanity’s sin is reconciled, however, does not mean that humanity is fully restored to the life God originally intended.

     It may be the 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4-giveness

but that does not mean you are a transformed person.

Forgiveness alone does not make you who God made you to be. Forgiveness instead makes it possible- it frees you- for the work of the Spirit (grace) to restore you so that, over time, you may resemble Christ.

The work of the Son is objective, true, and perfect. It is continued and perfected in us by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes available in the present the work of the Son in the past.

You can see this Trinitarian flow in the chronology of the Gospels themselves. After Good Friday and Easter, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples (to whom all is clearly forgiven) and breathes his Spirit upon them.

Soon, having received the Spirit, the disciples, heretofore dim-witted, sinful and cowardly, bear a striking resemblance to Jesus himself.

Having been reconciled they’ve been restored to lead Jesus‘ life for themselves.

As a present work of the Spirit, salvation can be defined in the very terms Jesus used the word: as healing, rescue, restoration from sin. This is the way Jesus speaks in Luke 19 when Christ invites himself to Zaccheus‘ house. Jesus‘ hospitality and welcome of a dreaded tax collector and Roman collaborator changes Zaccheus‘ heart such that Zaccheus willingly gives up his ill-gotten fortune. In response, Jesus declares ‘salvation has come to this house today.‘ In other words, Zaccheus right then and there has experienced healing.

Salvation as a work of the Son refers to what Jesus says ‘is accomplished’ on his cross. It’s the work that is true regardless of my own belief or faith. Salvation as a work of the Spirit refers to how I access and appropriate the Son’s work in my present life. If the work of the Son is what is objective about salvation then the work of the Spirit is that part of salvation that requires my response.

 Already you may be asking: If the work of the Son (on the Cross) is definitive, perfect and objective once for all, then what of those who don’t believe? Who never come to the faith or who do not take it with sincerity?

That specific question is best answered later but understanding salvation as a work of the Spirit allows you to answer part of the question now.

Namely, if one does not appropriate salvation in their present life then- no matter the question of how God will ultimately judge them- they are living an impoverished life. They are living (settling for) a life less than what God desires for them.

 

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This weekend for my sermon I answered questions people submitted about the Cross, the Atonement and the Passion Story.

I pulled the questions at random from a bingo tumbler and answered as many as possible.

Dennis Perry, my assistant pastor, joined me at 3 of the services and a friend and divinity student, Andrew DiAntonio joined me at 2 of the services. 

You can listen and/or download them by clicking here or going to ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes store.

I will add them to the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog by the end of this week.

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I hate Palm-Passion Sunday sermons. Hate. Them.

I know most everyone will never come to Holy Thursday or Good Friday so I feel this pressure to condense a week’s worth of holy week time and what is an easy third of the Gospel into one sermon, which is recipe for bad writing, which I know, which eventuates in bad writing. Argh.

Here’s a Palm Sunday sermon, “The Recipe for Peace,” from 2 years ago. It’s not terribly awful.

Scot McKnight has it posted it over at his Jesus Creed blog.

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At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

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Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

     And establish peace.

     The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

 

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

 

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

     ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

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     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

 

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

photo-1IMG_0593There’s a sense in which the Gospels are extended Passion stories. That’s certainly true of Mark and John’s Gospels. And yet for all the attention given to the cross, the Gospel writers do not make anything about the cross self-evident. There’s no neon footnotes shouting ‘This is what IT means.’

The confusion gets compounded by the fact that the Passion stories are layered with biblical allusions and imagery.

So it’s not surprising that the cross would provoke questions.

This weekend as part of my sermon I want to tackle some of questions people have about the cross, Jesus’ last week, Christ’s passion and the atonement.

If you have a question email by 5:00 PM EST at jamicheli@mac.com.

Just like we did at Christmas I’ll throw it in the bingo tumbler and give it a go.

 

IMG_0593I’ve posted a few times this week about the Church’s historic theories about how Jesus saves us on the cross. Atonement theories. None of these theories are perfect. Some are problematic.

The chief problem with all of them is how incidental they make Jesus’ Jewishness.

Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh not a generic concept of God. That should matter and govern how we understand his life, death and resurrection.

After all, the New Testament is replete with parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ life:

The Genesis Creation Story – Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus and Jesus’ Virgin Birth 

Joseph Going Egypt – Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt

Death of the Firstborn in Exodus – Herod Killing Newborns in Matthew

Deliverance through Red Sea – Jesus’ baptism in Jordan

Wilderness Wandering – Jesus’ Temptation in Wilderness

Moses Giving the Law – Sermon on the Mount

Manna – Feeding of the Multitude 

Passover – Last Supper 

Garden of Eden – Garden of Gethsemane 

Tree of Knowledge – Cross

NT Wright says that “Jesus is Israel in person.” Jesus doesn’t just re-enact, in a general way, our human story. Jesus re-enacts the particular story of Israel.

Jesus goes down to Egypt with Joseph like Israel did. He begins his vocation at the Jordan River like Israel did. He’s tested in the wilderness for forty days just as Israel was tested for forty years. Jesus calls twelve followers like Israel had twelve tribes. Jesus echoes the prophets by calling attention to those who’ve been forgotten and marginalized.

Jesus is the Second Adam. He’s the one righteous man like Noah. He forms a new people like Abraham. He’s the new Israel like Jacob. He despairs and nevertheless saves his people like Joseph. He leads his people to freedom like Moses. He’s God’s chosen King like David. Like David facing Goliath, he does for his people what they cannot do for themselves. He’s a healer and trouble-maker like Elijah.

     And by following the way of the Cross, Jesus goes into Exile among his own people to bring them home and change the ending of their story. The rejection Jesus faces puts God to the ultimate test, but on Easter God turns that rejection into a display of his grace.

Jesus is the entire story of Israel in the flesh. Redone. Recapitulated. Repeated. Perfectly this time.

By living perfectly the life God originally intended for all of us, by doing what Israel could never do, Jesus unwinds the story of Sin. He shows Sin to be a false narrative, a corruption, devoid of power or ultimacy. He starts creation again. Resurrection is a reset. In him, is a new creation.

So salvation doesn’t just begin with Christmas or on the Cross. It begins when God calls Abraham to be a blessing to the world. And it’s embodied by the whole life of Jesus. It’s living this whole story that saves us and continues to heal the world.

In other words, there is something fundamentally askew with human existence- we’re imperfect, corruptible and prone to sin despite our best intentions.

So, in Christ, God takes flesh to set right what is wrong with our fleshly lives. Just as Adam disobeyed God by eating from a tree, Christ obeys God even if it leads him to be nailed to a tree. Christ thus perfects every part of our human lives.

We’re saved because, by becoming one of us, God joins our imperfect character to his perfect character. God became one of us so that we might be freed to become more like God.

In this perspective, the Cross is an image of Christ’s obedience (not God’s wrath). Christ doesn’t suffer for us, in our place. He suffers because of us. In other words, sinful humanity’s reaction to the life of someone who bears God’s image is to see him as a criminal and kill him. Think of Martin Luther King.

He didn’t come to die, but its easy to see how death was the likely outcome of a life lived as he lived it.

God’s wrath didn’t require his death; his vocation did. 

The cross is a sign of Christ’s obedient life. Even when threatened with suffering and death, he doesn’t waver from the form of life God desires. Easter then is vindication. It’s God saying with an empty tomb: ‘this is the life I desire.’

The cross is a sign of obedience and Easter is vindication, but salvation begins happening with incarnation, in Mary’s womb.

Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Moral Exemplar- these traditional atonement theories all have scriptural support. They’re all right, in a sense.

The problem, though, is that each of them focuses on only one part of the story: Good Friday or Easter or Christmas Day; Jesus’ suffering or the Sermon on the Mount or the Resurrection. None of them focuses on the whole of the story. They all see Jesus fulfilling a part of the Hebrew Bible but they fail to put Jesus in continuity with the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. 

     They really are theories in that they’re abstracted explanations.

     They’re abstracted from the detail and the context of Jesus’ life.

They all forget that the context of Jesus’ life isn’t a courtroom or a battlefield or our hearts. Sin isn’t just a matter of guilt. Sin isn’t just a matter of metaphysical corruption. Sin isn’t just ignorance.

Sin is a corruption of Israel’s destiny.

     And the context of Jesus’ life is Israel.

Because Jesus effects a re-inaugeration of the creation story, we are now free (through the Spirit’s work) to live Jesus’ life. Jesus’ earthly teaching is not extraneous nor is it simply something that can change our hearts. It’s the true story of creation. It’s, as John Howard Yoder says, ‘the grain of the universe.’

The recapitulation perspective sees Jesus’ work not only as living Israel’s life perfectly so that Sin can be defeated. It sees Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection as the first act of God’s New Creation.

In the Book of Revelation, for example, ‘heaven’ is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ otherworldly realm. Rather, heaven is a New Earth. Heaven comes down to earth. Our destiny is a New Jerusalem in which God dwells in peace and love with his creatures- just as things had begun in the Garden in Genesis.

The Gospels, however, emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ life because it’s that life that leads to New Creation.

The proper trajectory of salvation, then, is not that we go to be with God, but that, because of the reversal made possible by Christ, God will come down and be with us forever.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week and the day that begins with glad shouts of Hosanna and ends at Golgotha. This time of year the cross necessarily begs the questions:

‘Why does Jesus have to die?

What does Jesus accomplish on the Cross?’

It’s also a time of year that non-Christians scratch their heads at many of our conventional explanations for the Cross.

I remember going to an evangelical church with a friend when I was boy and singing the hymn ‘There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.’ I recall being completely confused and grossed out by the imagery not to mention the apparent glee everyone in the congregation felt over this bathtub filled with someone named Emmanuel’s blood.

Seriously, if you were to describe a cult, could you find a better illustration than people singing lustfully about buckets-of-blood?

Our historical atonement theories that calmly explain how Christ had to die on the Cross to satisfy the demands of God’s eternal justice and quell the Almighty’s wrath and anger over the sin of the finite, fallible creatures whom God made to be…ahem…finite and fallible don’t seem so self-evident if you’ve not already given your heart to Jesus.

Our tidy, transactional theories that unthinkingly assert that God can’t forgive humanity’s sin until someone pays the ultimate price for it seem just that to the average outsider- too tidy.

Affirming that God shows his ‘love’ for us by making his only begotten son die in his stead doesn’t appear to abide by most people’s notion of love.

Oh, we like to add, it’s okay because that only begotten Son is actually God incarnate. So, don’t worry, it’s not divine child abuse.

No, but then it’s divine masochism. God’s not a child abuser. God just has a pathology. Nice.

My point is that our usual, casual explanations for the central event of the Gospels:

A) don’t appear in the Gospels themselves and

B) only beget more questions, especially for unbelievers: 

 

What do you mean God can’t do something?

Is God a prisoner his own inner logic?

Is love just an attribute among many for God or is it who God fundamentally is in God’s nature?

I’m no saint but does Jesus deserve to be tortured to death because of my small-time narcissistic sins? The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.

Why does God sound like someone with multiple personality disorder?

Tracking with this line of critique and skewering the gaping, sinkhole gaps in Penal Substitution Atonement is a great 2 minute film: Mr Deity and the Really Big Favor. In case satire is not your strong suit: The Jay Leno look alike (‘El as in Elohim) is God, the Young Guy (Jesse) is Jesus and Larry is, yes, the Holy Spirit.

 

IMG_0593The angel Gabriel in Matthew’s Gospel tells the sleeping Joseph to name ‘his’ boy ‘Jesus’ for that boy will ‘save’ his people from their sin. This is as explicit as the nativity story gets. How Jesus will save his people Gabriel doesn’t mention.

     How Jesus saves…how Jesus saves from Sin is a question the Gospels, the New Testament for that matter, never answers in a singular, definitive, clear, logical or rational way.

      The reticence of the New Testament to explain the mechanics of salvation leaves us with questions. Questions with which the Church has wrestled for centuries under the heading ‘atonement theories’:

     Does Jesus die for us? 

     As in, does Jesus die in our place? 

     As a substitute for you and me?

 

     Or does Jesus die because of us? 

     As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life?

 

     Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? 

     As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it? 

 

     Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin? 

     As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?  

 

    Does Jesus die with us? 

    As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? 

 

    Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh? 

 

    Was it necessary for Jesus to die? 

    Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself? 

 

    Did Jesus have to die on a cross? 

    If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

 

     And how does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

      And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

Such questions are possible, indeed they get asked all the time, because the New Testament never singles an answer to how Mary and Joseph’s son lives up to his name.

 

God Made Jesus Sin?

Jason Micheli —  March 19, 2013 — 2 Comments

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Holy Week is coming up next week and this Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday; consequently, I’ve got the atonement running through my head.

The atonement is the theological term for thinking through how Jesus saves us through his suffering and death on the cross. Some may not realize it but the atonement has always been a debated topic in theology. Scripture uses a variety of images and metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplishes on the cross and why, and scripture never singles out any one of those as the normative, authoritative teaching. The creeds as well are silent when it comes to the atonement.

Nonetheless, in many evangelical circles ‘penal substitutionary’ atonement is one of the fundamentals and is requisite for orthodox belief. Lay people may not realize it but substitutionary atonement is a white-hot topic in the evangelical and emergence parts of the Church- it’s the official position, for example, of Christianity Today while Emergence Christians are making intentional strides to rethink the atonement.

Penal Substitution in a Nut Shell: Jesus suffers on the cross God’s wrath towards our sin.

God made Jesus to be Sin.

Our Sin.

While I think evangelicals are wrong to privilege this substitutionary atonement over all other understandings of the cross, as an historic, robust part of the Christian tradition does it deserve a hearing?

Here’s an attempt on my part to think constructively on Jesus’ agony in the Garden using the substitutionary perspective.

I spent a year after seminary serving as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital in Charlottesville. On one of my first nights spent there, my pager called me to the room of young girl. She was maybe in the fifth grade. She’d been in a car accident earlier that evening. I don’t remember the girl’s name, and I can only barely recall what she or her family or the doctors and nurses looked like.

What I do remember is the sound. I remember the sound the girl’s mother made when the doctor told her that her little girl would most likely die during the night.

It was a deep wail from somewhere in her gut, a cry that sounded like it cut her throat, followed by desperate pleading: with God, with the doctors, with me.

And almost as much as the sound, what I remember is how uncomfortable she, the mother, made the rest of us feel- how uneasy we felt to be that close to someone so fragile, how embarrassed we were to be confronted by another’s fear and grief and horror, how disarming it felt when there was nothing for any of us to do.

Mark’s Gospel gives us this uncomfortable picture of Jesus:

“Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’”

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, after a long life spent contemplating the ubiquity of suffering, died a serene death.

Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, puts the brakes on Jesus when it comes to Christ’s agony and suffering. Jesus can only be an enlightened teacher, they say, if- before death- he slipped into a peaceful and contemplative state.

According to the Koran, Christ must be something less than who our creeds say he is- true God from true God- because the almighty God would never and could never suffer the indignity of fear and suffering.

To the average Roman of Jesus’ day, Socrates’ death was the ideal. The goal of every person’s life was to live heroically and die serenely. Apathy and detachment towards one’s death were virtues to be honored.

But, Mark’s Gospel tells us something that couldn’t be more jarringly different:  “Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’” 

In the Greek text, Mark puts it even stronger and more embarrassing:

“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and deeply depressed.” 

Speaking of this very same passage, the Letter to the Hebrews says:

“Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save him from death…”  

Uncomfortable, embarrassing stuff.

All along Jesus has acted as though he’s known all along what was to happen to him. Ever since he was baptized by John and called the disciples and began preaching and healing and offending convention- ever since Jesus has boldly and presciently spoken of himself as a dead man:

  • ‘One of you will betray me’ Jesus had told them.
  • ‘You all will become deserters’ Jesus had predicted.
  • ‘You will deny me three times’ he had warned Peter.

In Caesarea Philippi, just before the Transfiguration, just after Peter had confessed ‘You are the Messiah’’ in Caesarea Philippi Jesus had told them that “the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes; and be killed.” 

And back in chapter ten, after Jesus had blessed the little children, he’d taken the disciples aside and pointed out towards Jerusalem and said: “See, we are going there, and the Son of Man will be handed over…and they will mock him and spit upon him and flog him and kill him.” 

In Mark, there’s never been any mystery where this was headed, where Jesus’ path would end.

But to our embarrassment, Mark tells us that “Jesus was shaking with horror and depressed.” 

That night, Passover Night, after the sacred meal Jesus and his disciples had left the upper room and walked down the western hill of Jerusalem. On the way, they walked past the place of King David’s tomb- the place where Yahweh’s promises lay buried and dormant. They walked past the Temple- the place of God’s presence.

The city that night was filled with people, perhaps as many as 2 million, but the streets were empty. Everyone was inside celebrating the feast. The city was quiet for the first time that week. No more was anyone shouting ‘Hosanna.’ The 200,000 Passover lambs that had been bleating all week were silent now.

Jesus led them through the city to a plot of land, Gethsemane, and to a garden there. To pray. He left the nine near the garden entrance and, as he’d done before, took Peter and James and John further in with him. But even those three, Jesus left back a bit, behind him; as if where he was going they could not follow.

Earlier that afternoon, Peter had promised Jesus that he would follow him anywhere, no matter what. But in the garden that night, those promises seem far off as Peter can’t even stay awake. While the disciples sleep, Judas steals away.

Just a week ago, Jesus had dared James and John to drink from the cup that Christ would be made to drink from.  And just that night, Jesus had blessed a cup and said that the wine in it was blood from his broken body poured out for the world.

But now, in the garden, if any of the disciples were still awake, they would have heard something deeply embarrassing: Jesus crying and quivering with horror and pleading:

“Father, take this cup away from me.” 

     One of only two times Mark records Jesus speaking in his own language, Aramaic. The other time being from the cross: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  

And Peter and James and John- those who’d been on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured and God had shouted from the sky ‘This is my Beloved Son’– if any of those three were still awake in the garden they would have noticed something else about Jesus’ pleading.

This time, God doesn’t answer back.

This picture of Christ, shuddering with grief and fear, makes uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it. Has Jesus lost his nerve?

Mark’s Jesus embarrasses the other evangelists too.

  • Matthew softens the language so that Jesus is just “sorrowful.”
  • Luke removes the language all together.
  • And John cuts out the whole scene from his Gospel.

One of the reasons I believe the Bible to be true is passages like this one. Tonight’s passage is hardly the creation of religious wishful thinking. This moment in the garden flatters no one.

“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.” Mark tells us. And the question Mark raises is as obvious as it is troubling: Why?

In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: ‘How could someone claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?’

The question need not be so pointed. As one of you emailed me this week about this passage: ‘Why did Christ become agitated and ask that the cup be removed from him? If he knew what would come, why ask?’

So, what’s going on tonight? In the garden?

St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

If sin is separation from God, then I believe what Jesus experiences here in the garden- in his horror and agony and abandonment- is sin.

Not his own, but the burden of ours. The deafening silence from God that meets his pleading prayer is the echo of our own unrighteousness.

His agony is the separation we put between ourselves and God.

It’s not simply the dread of death that Jesus experiences this night; it’s the dread of our self-imposed Godforsakeness.

Up until then, Jesus has lived our life. He’s celebrated and laughed. He’s scolded and condemned. He’s hungered and feasted with friends. He’s wept and lamented.

He’s experienced our life, but he’s never experienced Sin.

He’s judged Sin. He’s preached against it. He’s bemoaned it and forgiven it. But he’s never experienced it. Felt its weight and pain. Not until now.

Tonight, in the garden, Jesus is submitting himself to total abandonment.

As embarrassed and uncomfortable as it might make us feel to be up so close to someone so fragile, in those moments in the garden Christ experiences what we experience our whole lives when we try to live without Him.

When Jesus gets up from his knees, he’s committed to giving up everything that is his and shouldering everything that is ours.

When his prayer is finished, Jesus stands and wakes up the sleeping “twelve.” Mark doesn’t call them disciples again until after Easter.

Maybe it’s because where Jesus goes next, we can’t follow.

There’s nothing for us to do.

He alone can make things right.

 

 

54Crucifixion    It’s Lent, in case you didn’t know. We’re beginning our journey to the Cross. As part of Lent, Tony Jones this morning issued another of his ProgGod Challenges. I’ve responded to them in the past so I’ve got to keep up.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’ What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough (and I would, preachable) as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory.

Unless I missed it, Tony didn’t issue a maximum number of allowable entries. So, here is stab #1, a textually-based look that unintentionally has some affinity with Rene Girard.

If the cross has less power for us today, 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.

The theologians and church fathers have their ‘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 what if instead of the predictable preferential option for our favorite theologian- and what if instead of trying to harmonize the kaleidoscopic array of imagery in the two testaments- we simply zero in on a specific text of scripture?

     What if we pretended we had only one scripture text to make sense of the cross? Would our ‘atonement theories’ still seem so self-evident? Or would the text suggest a different impression intended by the cross?

What if, for example, we just looked at our prototype Gospel, Mark?

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 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.

     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.

Or, at least rationally necessary.

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 make us whole is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.

Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.