Making sense of Jesus' death
Passion Sunday 2012 (April 1 - The Sunday before Easter)
The reading for this Sunday is Mark chapters 14 and 15. How do we preach on "the whole story, rather than a few verses? Here is one attempt.
Somewhere, growing up, you and I had to face The Big Question. Something made us ask, “What is this all about? What does life mean?”
Now, my brother-in-law is so relaxed that we have to prop him up; he snores while he’s awake. But even he has to deal with the big question of what it all means. I’m at the other end of the scale. It’s been bugging me since I was eight years old. The question is always there. “What is this about?” We all face it.
It’s a big question for at least three reasons, and probably lots more.
The first reason is that the question won’t leave us alone. It doesn’t seem to matter how rich we are, how fortunate, how loved; we all wonder why we are here, what we should do with ourselves, and what the point is. People party hard, they buy fine things, they get involved in a cause. It might be as simple as the Port Adelaide Football Club, or as costly as spending their life working in community development in the poorest countries of the world, but it doesn’t matter. In the quiet times, when we are on our own, even in our dreams, it comes back. “Why? What for?”
The second reason is that we can’t find the answer to the big question written in a book. Understand me; there are plenty of books! There are many answers written down. They might work for the people who wrote them, and even give us some answers. But when we stop, when we are too tired to be diverted any longer, when we give ourselves time to reflect, and especially, when we are honest with ourselves, the little voice is still there. “Why? What for?”
We may rarely hear it. Then there will be a death, a car accident, a sickness, or a sacking; some pure chance, unfair, meaningless event. All our sense of order and meaning will be ripped into, and we will be left with “Why? What for?”
We can say, “It’s because the other bloke didn’t stop at the lights.” Or, “Bad luck... luck of the draw.” Or even, “God willed it.” But these things are rationalisations, not adequate answers. “Why?” and “What for?” remain... unanswered.
And that brings us to the third reason. We do not have a lot of time. As a cyclist, you know you could get knocked off on your next ride; we ride very close to the bitumen, as it were. But we all know the next routine trip to the doctor, the next set of lights, or even slipping over in the shower at home, could be the last time. We are all going to die.
What is the point of it all, if we are going to die anyway? Why even bother? I wonder how much depression and destructive behaviour is caused simply because we can’t answer the Big Question.
One way to think about Easter, as we come up to Good Friday and Easter Day, is that it is an answer to the Big Question. And yes, it is written in a book—except there is no answer written down. There is no neat formula, only an empty, questioning grave, a challenge, and a promise.
Let me explain, because I want you to be thinking about this, next weekend.
In our country, whether we are relaxed about the big questions, or constantly bugged by them, we are at the comfortable end of the scale. We have plenty to eat, we’re mostly fairly safe, and we’re warm at night. In Jesus’ country, in Galilee, most people were very poor and often on the edge of starvation. They never knew when the brigands, or the Romans, would come riding over the hills, and take what little they had, or burn the place down. “What for?” and “Why?” were questions with a sharp edge we can barely imagine!
Jesus had a solution. It was not a new solution, on the surface. It was, simply, “Do what God wants. Live life God’s way.” It was in the two great commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:28) It was in the Golden Rule: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Matt 7:12) Be compassionate. Have mercy.
A great deal of the Gospels is spent trying to get across the point that this doesn’t just apply to the people we like; our friends, or just to the people in our country, but to everyone. The whole world is our neighbour. This is not easy to live out, but most of us can see that the whole world would be a lot better off, if we all were fair and just to everyone. It would be a much happier place.
From the gospel stories, we can infer that Jesus actually did live this out, day to day. That’s what made his answer different. People flocked to him. They recognised a goodness and holiness that was unlike anything they had met before. They saw something of God in him. They were given a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. The pain and the urgency of The Big Question faded in his presence. They had some peace.
Then we see the most appalling failure. As we read Mark, we see Jesus foretelling his own death... three times, in fact. And in chapter 14 and 15 there is growing sense of doom. He is lost. The whole thing falls apart. Judas, with whom he eats at table, betrays him. The disciples flee. Peter denies him. The powers-that-be put him through a show trial, and he is crucified. Crucifixion is the death of the wannabe’s and the traitors. It is the mark of shame, naivety and stupidity, and failure.
“Why? What for? What can this possibly mean?”
If we ever want to have a real answer to those questions, whether they are applied to the disaster that was the end of Jesus’ ministry, or whether they are the questions we ask ourselves when we can’t make sense of life, we need to be clear on one thing: there is no happy ending in Mark.
Forget Matthew and Luke, forget John’s gospel. Wipe the Emmaus Road, and breakfast on the beach, from your memory. You will hear crucifixion on Friday morning. And on Sunday you will hear only that there is an empty tomb, and great fear.
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were afraid. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were very afraid.
Understand carefully: despite the hymns we will sing on Sunday morning, there is no Easter morning resurrection in the Gospel of Mark. There is only an empty tomb. In Mark, the disaster of the Friday continues. Death is total. The loss is complete.
Yes, the curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom, and yes, the tomb is empty, but there is no Jesus with whom to meet and rejoice. There is no happy ending to the movie, where it all works out in the end. At best, it’s like one of those marvellous, joyful, uplifting funerals where we celebrate the goodness and fullness of the life of a dear friend, or loved one, and then, on the way home, the grief hits us— he is still dead.
If we want the answer to The Big Question, it begins here: Jesus is dead.
There is a paradox here. The loss is total. Jesus’ mission failed. The powers-that-be, the powers of sin, and death, and evil, crushed it completely. He is gone. Even the women flee, telling no one.
That should have been the end of it all. Indeed, we hear nothing for 15 years.
But then the letters from Paul begin to surface. Jesus has been raised. We can only wonder, and imagine, what was happening.
Somebody we call Mark, was infected by whatever was happening. He met something, some sense of God, something of the spirit of Jesus. Forty years after the death of Jesus, he writes about it.
Something has been bothering him about what the People of the Way were saying, or doing. Maybe they were full of enthusiasm, and thought they had all the answers to life. But somewhere, Mark thought they were missing the point—because he wrote down a radical understanding of the ministry of Jesus.
If you want to meet this Jesus who is risen, he says, don’t look for a vision of the risen Jesus. Don’t believe those who say, “Just believe in him and you will be saved.” Instead, he says...
Go to the sick and suffering. Go to the oppressed. Do Justice. Put yourself in harm’s way, for their sake, as Jesus did. Put yourself at risk of death, for them, as Jesus did. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35) You will find resurrection, and you will find the answers to the Big Question of “Why,” when you walk into the arms of death—whether it be in the smaller dyings of costly compassion, or the final death of the body.
We see the language of resurrection all through Mark, but not at the end. People are raised up by Jesus. The Big Question of Why is answered all the way through.
Why? For doing love, for being compassion, for bring healing, for giving life!
But you will only gain that answer by living it.
I can point you to it. But I can’t answer it for you. I can’t write it down. I can’t give it to you.
It is only something we can have by dying. We can only have it by going back to Galilee to meet Jesus, back to where he works, and by doing the very things that killed him, and may kill us. We can live the answer by giving up our lives, by letting go of all our own hopes and dreams, and by living for the gospel. (...who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel... Mark 8:38)
That’s the promise.
Doing that... we will find our lives, we will save our lives.
Easter this Sunday, is not finally about Jesus being raised from the dead.
It is about whether we will follow where he has gone. It is then that we will find resurrection, and know the answers to the Big Question.
That is a promise from Mark. But it is NOT the answer. It is only challenge. The answer will only come if we will trust Jesus enough to risk it. Nothing else I have ever done has satisfied me.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.