An audio recording of this sermon is available.
We must not treat the Bible the way we treat our Netflix account (or our DVD player / VHS). When you are watching a movie or a series on Netflix, it is so easy to fastforward through the bits you don’t like and press pause when it suits you. I wonder how many people here have fastforwarded through the darker bits of a programme so that they can get to the heartwarming happy ending a bit more quickly? Well believe it or not, there are also people out there who seem to revel in feeling really bad – they don’t press fast-forward to get to a nice bit, they are quite happy to press stop even when things are at their most disturbing.
Mark 15 is not a Netflix series, it is not a DVD to be treated in whatever way you feel like treating it. Instead it treats the cross of Christ the way we should treat it; in a gospel that has always been in a rush, significant time is taken to allow us to stand in front of the cross as broken rebels who should be the ones pinned to it. We are not to fastforward through Mark 15 looking for the parts that will make us happy. But also, we are not to push the stop button at the end of verse 37 because we like the feeling of rolling around in our guilt. We are to stand and stare at the cross but we are never to despair there because Mark 15 is not a crushing defeat but rather a great victory. It is a victory that changes life and eternity for Christians.
Let us begin by standing and staring at the cross of Christ and let us do that wearing the right shoes, Barabbas’ shoes. Last week we were Peter in Mark 14 but this week we are Barabbas, the rebel, who, as Jesus was being led to Pilate in verse 1, was locked up in a cell waiting to be crucified for the terrible things he had done. I wonder was Barabbas praying as the fear of what lay ahead gripped him – the only thing worse than waiting for the extreme torture of crucifixion was the horror of crucifixion itself. I think I would have been praying! Little does Barabbas know that something outside of his control is happening, something he has nothing to do with, something that will win this rebel undeserved freedom at someone else’s great expense.
V1 “They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” Pilate was the Roman governor and the Jewish leaders, desperate to have Jesus torn to pieces, needed to convince him to condemn Jesus to death. Pilate had a reputation for doing whatever it took to maintain peace and order and so the leaders’ strategy of causing uproar was exactly the right one. But it is not plain sailing as Pilate seems strangely reluctant to do the easy thing and give them what they want. He is wise to their motives, v10 “knowing that it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.” He is convinced of Jesus’ innocence v14 “what crime has he committed?”
And he is amazed by Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews? Asked Pilate. You have said so, Jesus replied.” And that was it, those are the last words of Jesus that Mark records before his final cry on the cross. When the leaders throw their false accusations at him, Jesus just won’t respond. And so of course Pilate was amazed – he was used to people cowering in front of him, pleading for their lives, begging for pity. But Jesus had already won this battle, he won it in Gethsemane, he had already surrendered to His Father’s will, and scripture would be fulfilled – there was no need for Jesus to defend himself at all because he knows he is going to the cross.
Pilate wants to release Jesus but the sad thing is what he wants more than this is to pacify the crowds. Perhaps he can do both. After all, at this feast time it is customary to release a prisoner at the people’s request (This was a political move designed to protect the status quo – by releasing a political prisoner the Romans hoped to keep the Jews quiet, especially when there are so many in the city and the potential for chaos was so great). “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews? Asked Pilate. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to get Pilate to release Barabbas instead.”
Pilate faces the most awesome, serious, important question he will ever face. What will he do with Jesus? It is the question Mark’s gospel has been asking each one of us all the way along. What will I do with Jesus? Have you decided yet? It’s like that bit in Gladiator, there is no middle ground – thumb up or thumb down? Will Jesus get your allegiance or your rejection?
The answer of sin-ruined humanity is shouted back to Pilate; Crucify Him. ‘He hasn’t done anything wrong’. Crucify Him. And here is a verse that sums up the natural state of our hearts ever since Genesis 3 and the fall of man; V15 “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” From our perspective this can only be evil at work – wrong has triumphed over right, injustice over justice, darkness over light. A murderous, thieving rebel has been released and the completely righteous, loving, blameless Jesus is being tortured and killed. We are Barabbas. Stand in his shoes and stare at the cross of Christ where he took our condemnation.
And stand in those shoes and stare as Jesus took our shame v16-20. Purple robe, crown of thorns, shouts of “Hail, King of the Jews”, beatings, spitting, mocking. Jesus is getting what Barabbas deserved, Jesus is getting what we deserve to get if we were unmasked for the sinners we are. I have often thought just how terrible it must be to do that walk of shame from the court to the Police Van after the verdict has come back ‘Guilty’. Or that terrifying walk into the Prison in front of all the other prisoners. Jesus suffered the walk that was due to each of us, he took our shame.
Stand in Barabbas’ shoes and stare as Jesus took our punishment v21-32. As Simon of Cyrene gets a taste of carrying the cross I am sure he was barely controlling his panic. ‘I’ll carry it but please don’t put me on it’.
But it is Jesus who is stripped and nailed to the cross, Jesus who is hung up in the middle of rebels, Jesus who is mocked by passers-by, by the corrupt schemers who put him there and even by the criminals dying alongside him (That always gets me the most in this account – it shows the condition of the human heart so starkly that even men dying would pour their venom out on Jesus who is dying too rather than on the ones that put them there). Jesus took our punishment.
And stand in Barabbas’ shoes and stare as Jesus took our judgement v33-37. As Jesus hangs dying, darkness comes over the land. Darkness throughout scripture is a sign of God’s judgement – back in Exodus 10 the plague of darkness was the last one to come over the land of Egypt before that terrible night when God judged the Egyptians and the firstborn in every family was put to death. What was it then that saved God’s people then? It was the blood of a lamb spread on the doorposts that allowed the judge to pass over. In the midst of that dreadful darkness of judgement, Jesus cries out in a loud voice “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The truth is, there is something even worse than death. Death is offensive and horrendous but what is so much worse than simply dying is to face the judgement of the Holy God, to be exposed to His raw anger and righteous vengeance over sin.
As Jesus dies in the dark he experiences the judgment we deserve, he faces God’s unfiltered, unshaded wrath and he goes through the incomparable suffering and torment of being forsaken by His Father.
As Jesus dies in the dark it is only his blood, the blood of the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world, that can offers sinners safety from the righteous judgement of the Holy God. “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”. Jesus took our judgement.
Do we really need to stand and stare at the cross? (After all, we know the story so well). We do. We need to spend time pondering this well-known chapter of God’s word because, although we all deserve condemnation and shame and punishment and judgement, and although every single human being will stand in front of the Holy God one day to be judged, we don’t feel like we deserve it (Good people – “haven’t murdered anyone!). We don’t feel like we deserve God’s judgement because of the very sin that means we are going to face it. Sin blinds us to the truth. But God’s word is clear that without the forgiveness and righteousness offered via the blood of Christ shed on the cross, this is our destiny. We are headed for eternal judgment where God will turn his face away from us. Where we will be condemned to hell with the words “Away from me I never knew you”. Frightening and chilling and it is reality for everyone.
We must stand and stare at the cross of Christ, wearing Barabbas’ shoes, realising that as rebels our only hope and our certain hope is our substitute Jesus. He took our condemnation, our shame, our punishment and our judgement and we can only be free because of Him. What are you going to do with Jesus?
As the stone is rolled against the entrance of the tomb at the end of our passage today it should be the worst ever ending to any story. The sort of ending that makes you want to throw the TV remote on the ground because you feel cheated. I don’t want a story to end with defeat. But it isn’t defeat is it? Evil is at work and the results are disgusting, but through it all God is working and good is triumphing at the most costly of all prices. The scriptures are being fulfilled, Jesus is submitting to His Father’s will. The Messiah, the Son of God, is going to the cross in Barabbas’ place, in our place. So stand and stare at the cross of Jesus Christ, but do not despair. Instead of pushing the pause button on the remote at verse 37 we are going to rewind quickly and then play to the end.
The details mean we need not despair. The gambling in verse 24, the criminals in verse 27, the mockery in verse 29, and the vinegar in verse 36 all seem pretty insignificant to us, but that is only because we don’t know our Old Testament the way a Jew eagerly waiting for the Messiah would know it. In Psalm 22, a Psalm that starts with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” we read this about the Messiah “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” In Isaiah 53, a chapter all about the suffering servant who would save Israel we read “he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.”
Back in Psalm 22 again we read this; “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” And in Psalm 69, another Psalm that points to the day when God will save his people we hear this; “I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” As Jesus is put to death, evil is not winning but rather the grace-filled love-driven salvation plan of God from before the beginning of time is what is being executed.
And now play on through verses 38-47. The Temple curtain is ripped from top to bottom. The separation from God caused by our sin and so apparent throughout the whole of scripture is, at the moment of Christ’s death, dealt with once and for all and forever. Yes your sin and shame should separate you from God for eternity, but bring it to the cross and it is dealt with. Christians are united with Christ. We belong to God and He belongs to us. No more distance.
And it is no more distance for anyone who comes to Jesus rather than just for the Jewish people. “When the centurion saw how he died he said “Surely this man was the Son of God.” A Gentile soldier is the first one to see clearly following the crucifixion. The promise given to Abraham all the way back in Genesis regarding the whole world being blessed kicks off with this man and soon in the book of Acts starts its spread across the planet.
And where the disciples ran, many faithful women remain in Mark 15. And they were right to remain. Yes, they were at a distance, but they show us that while our sin and shame should mean utter despair, the cross means hope always remains. It is the women who are going to get the first glimpse of the wild excitement of Easter Sunday.
And Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the council, turns out to be a bold convert for Jesus. He is the one that goes to Pilate and asks for the body, he is the one who pays good money for linen (turns out it won’t be used for very long), it is his tomb where Jesus’ body is laid and the stone rolled across. Our sin and shame that caused the rest of the leaders to hate Jesus is changed into love at the cross of Christ.
We know that stone won’t stay there for long. We know that Jesus is only temporarily there. But that tomb does mark the end of something forever – Jesus will be coming out but there are other things that won’t. For every believer in Jesus, for every person who has come to him in sorrow and helplessness over their sin and asked him to forgive them and to be their King, that stone marks the final resting place for their condemnation, shame, punishment and judgement. Stand and stare at the cross of Jesus Christ and be full of sorrow over your sin that put him there, but certainly do not despair, because it is this incredible Divine act of love-driven salvation that means our sin is buried, buried forever, thrown into a sea without bottom or shore. Praise His glorious name, Amen.
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