Friday, April 06, 2007

'Truly, this man was the Son of God'

The major newspapers and magazines regularly write about Jesus this time of year. More often than not, the news is scandalous, at least where Christian believers are concerned. Several years ago one paper published a story about professing Christians who believe that their faith needs a new symbol: The cross (they say) is too violent. In its first draft, the story quoted no one who might have pointed out that you'd have to move mountains of New Testament testimony to the cross to dislodge it from its central place. The cross stands out, as if in a pop-up book, on nearly every page.

In the years since that report, one of the national newsmagazines published a story about what followers of the great world religions think of Jesus. They gave him great reviews for his character and teaching -- as they understood them -- but they all had this in common, too: They stumbled over Jesus' cross. The cross was offensive, nonsensical, unthinkable. If the story did nothing else, it proved that the apostle Paul’s words still hold true: The message of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”

Mark, of course, wrote one of the first stories about the cross. His whole Gospel is about the cross. Especially from the middle of the book on, the cross throws a shadow that grows darker as the story goes on, until we finally arrive at the awful moment itself. What we have heard tonight is the climax of the story. But how does Mark begin to tell it? Here’s his first sentence, which isn’t really a sentence but something more like a title: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Already we risk tuning out. We hear the words so much -- gospel, Jesus, Christ, Son of God -- that we hardly hear them at all. But keep listening, more closely, and you may end up asking questions: What’s a gospel? What’s a Christ? Who is God? We think we’ve got the answers down pat. But if we suspend what we think we know and open ourselves to Mark’s story, we may find ourselves challenged to think afresh.

Take the gospel: What is it? Most of us have gotten in the habit of saying something like this: Jesus loves you and died for your sins. That sort of statement is true, and it’s part of the gospel, but it’s not quite how Mark puts it. Or, more to the point, it’s not quite how Jesus puts it when he himself "preaches the gospel." Listen to how Jesus begins a public ministry that is destined for the cross: He came into Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” We’re not used to putting it that way. Awhile back I polled dozens of friends and acquaintances with this simple question: What is the gospel? As I recall, none but one said anything about the reign of God, which, for Jesus, was the big headline.

But what will it look like? How will God bring his reign to bear?

Mark’s answer is full of irony and the unexpected. Not least in the confession of the centurion at the cross: "Truly this man was the Son of God." He -- the executioner, a non-Jew -- is the first human being in the Gospel to make that confession. The opening of the Gospel identifies Jesus as the Son of God, and the Father bears witness to his Sonship, at his baptism and at his transfiguration. But the centurion is the first to say, in effect, "Amen." And he says it when we least expect it: When Jesus breathes his last in shame.

On the Gospel's first page, Mark tells us that the cross-story about to unfold is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, one of whose great themes is the coming reign of God. Think back to a scene involving that prophet almost four centuries before the scene we’ve heard described tonight. In the year that Israel’s King Uzziah died, Isaiah was given a vision of the Lord in his temple. He saw the Lord enthroned, “high and lifted up.” He saw the train of his robe fill the temple. The foundations shook. Smoke filled the house. Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, borne aloft on their wings, flew around him crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The sight did not leave the prophet unmoved. Seeing the Lord of hosts in glory put him on his knees. Isaiah saw the sorry hypocrisy of his heart. “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the king!”

The centurion as well saw the Lord, “high and lifted up.” But how unlike Isaiah’s vision this is! And yet Mark is saying that this, too, is a vision of the king. Soldiers mock Jesus with acclamations of royalty. They dress him in purple. They crown him with thorns. Above his head they post the accusation against him: King of the Jews. The chief priests taunt him as he hangs on the cross: “Let the Christ [the Anointed One], the king of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”

In all this, Mark wants you to see and believe. He wants you to believe that even in mockery, the mockers speak more truth than they know. Yes, this is where the gospel of the kingdom is reaching a climax. He wants you to see -- not something other than what you see, not a fiction in which Jesus does come down from the cross -- but he wants you to see the scene in its shame and degradation and to say, with the executioner standing by: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Jesus is the king, and this cross is his throne. Here he comes with saving authority to bring God’s reign, dealing at last with what’s wrong with the world, which is to say you and I. Here is the gospel. Here is God, not “acting like he's God” as we often say of someone who's “lording it over someone or everyone else.” No. Here is God, the servant of all, giving his life as a ransom for many.

“The hopes and fears of all the years,” we sing at Christmas, “are met in thee [Bethlehem] tonight.” Maybe so. But here, in the nails of the cross, are met the human spitefulness of all the years, all your spitefulness, all your selfish ambition, all your self-centeredness, all your ugliness; here in the darkness around the cross is all the darkness of your heart. Jesus carries it there and absorbs it, suffering alienation from the Father, alone in darkness of the dreadful curse. “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” But if he saves himself, he cannot save others.

“The whole earth is full of his glory.” On this day, it was the glory of God to undergo voluntary humiliation. It was the glory of God to hang naked on a cross. Will you face that image, for the first or millionth time, and own it? St. Augustine said, "God has humbled himself, and man is still proud." Behold your God. And, beholding him, humble yourself. Cry within the dark places of your heart, “Holy, holy, holy. ... Woe is me apart from you. For I am a man, I am a woman, I am a girl, I am a boy of unclean lips." Say, with Isaiah, "My eyes have seen the king." And with the centurion, "Truly this man is the Son of God.” And embrace him, cross and all.

To him be glory and honor, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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