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The Last Day
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

APRIL 1, 2012

The Last Day
Psalm 31:9-16
Mark 15:16-39

My father used to call the little town in which we grew up, Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, "the parade-ingest town in the world." Every year on Memorial Day and the 4th of July we would gather for a parade. (Beth Vorhaus, a member of this church, tells me even she marched in the Bridgeville parades!) Everyone in town, it seemed, would come out to be a part of the parade. Every police car and every fire truck was washed until it shined, and put in the parade. Every Scout Troup – Cubs, Boys, Brownies and Girls – was in uniform to march in the parade. And if you were not a Scout, but played little league baseball, you wore your uniform, joined your teammates, and marched in the parade. The mayor was always in the parade, and so were the local drum and bugle corps and the local high school marching band. (One year my brother Luther marched in the Memorial Day Parade, as a member of our high school marching band, and afterwards my Dad said, "It wasn't Luther, but all the others, who were out of step!") Semi-attractive girls would sit on the backs of open convertibles and wave. Whether I was in my scouting or baseball uniform, I marched every year, and always carried a flag. We would march down Washington Avenue all the way out of town and end up on every Memorial Day and 4th of July in Melrose Cemetery, each year to honor the dead who gave their lives in service to their country, complete with a twenty-one gun salute.

I have been thinking about those parades this week as we recall the first parade into the city that we have come to call Palm Sunday, marking Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was the high-water mark of Jesus' public popularity, and drew thousands of emotionally charged would-be followers of Jesus. John tells us they waved palm branches and laid them before Him. Yet in the end, Jesus' great parade ended just like every parade in my hometown. It was a parade that ended in a cemetery. It was a parade that ended in Jesus' death.

So on this day when we celebrate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, let us take a moment to remember where it was headed. This is why the Church has always called this Sunday not only Palm Sunday, but also Passion Sunday. Jesus' death on the cross for the writers of the New Testament is the turning point in human history. Dorothy Sayers used to say "it was the most important thing that ever happened."

Crucifixion was reserved for only the worst criminals in Rome. It was done publically and was meant to be humiliating and degrading. It was bloody and aimed at dehumanizing its victims. Jesus' crucifixion seems even more abusive as Mark describes it. Jesus was ridiculed, spat upon, a crown of thorns was pressed upon His head, and a sign placed above him that said derisively, "The King of the Jews." Twice they bid Jesus to "save himself" if He was the Christ. Of course, we know that if Jesus was the Christ, this was the one thing He could not ever do.

At noon, we are told "darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon." All four Gospels report that darkness covered the death of Jesus on the cross. And at three o'clock, Jesus cries out with a loud cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mark and Matthew are so sure of Jesus' words drawn from the opening of Psalm 22, that they preserve the Aramaic words spoken by Jesus: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" It is a piercing question, and a painful cry from Jesus. And any of us who have ever felt forsaken by God can know that we are not alone in this feeling. Jesus has been there as well. And Mark goes to the greatest lengths to let us know that Jesus died utterly alone, forsaken by everyone He ever loved, feeling forsaken even by God.

Here in Jesus' cry, which has never been fully plumbed or understood, is the proving ground of our faith. If there is one thing certain today, it is this: We do not proclaim a God who has remained aloof and remote from the agony of His creatures. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In these words we hear and see the deepest identification of Jesus, the Son of God, with the outermost limits of human suffering.

But Jesus' cry of dereliction is not just the heartbreaking cry of an utterly abandoned man, though it is that. And it is not just Jesus' identification with the suffering and agony that this life can hold, though it is surely that. What we see and hear in Jesus' cry and death is the decisive intervention of God to deliver His children from the unspeakable fate of utter abandonment. In this event, in this god-forsaken death of Jesus, the cosmic scale has been tipped forever in God's direction, so that sin and evil and death do not have the last word, and never will again.

We call this moment, this event, the Passion of Jesus, and passion means both suffering and love. God acts in the death of Jesus out of love to save and to redeem us from the power of sin and death and darkness.

Two things happen when "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed His last" that make us know that this death is decisive and "the most important thing that ever happened." First, the Temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. That is to say, this was something only God could do. A new and living way to God was offered for all humankind. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are invited "to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He has opened for us through the curtain" (Hebrews 10:19, 20).

But secondly, the Centurion, the Roman executioner closest to the action, the one who saw and heard everything that Jesus did, turns out to be first to enter through this "new and living way" to God. He proclaims, "Truly this man was God's Son." Mark's Gospel begins with this statement: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." And irony runs through Mark's Gospel like the Cumberland River runs through the heart of Nashville. It is not Jesus' closest followers who see and proclaim who He is. It is surely not the leaders of His own Jewish people. It is not even one of His own Jewish people who see it. Rather, it is a Roman Centurion, an executioner standing at the foot of the cross, who sees and proclaims who Jesus is, who becomes the charter member in the universal Church.

The Centurion heard Jesus' cry. He saw up close something about Jesus' death that was unlike any other he had ever seen. (Death, after all, was his business, and he had seen so many men die on crosses.) But there was something about the beauty of Jesus' death that must have flooded his darkness with an eternal light.

And until we enter into the Gospels, we will never see how all-important, and how very good, the death of Jesus was. My friend, retired Presbyterian minister Laird Stuart said, "The primary reason so many people have a casual relationship with Jesus Christ is because they have a casual relationship, or no relationship at all, to His death, to the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday."

"My God, my God," Jesus cries, "why hast Thou forsaken me?" "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" And of course, if you can see what the Centurion saw, and hear what the Centurion heard, you know why God forsook Jesus on the cross. It was for you. And for me. And for us. Jesus was utterly forsaken by God so we would never have to be. Jesus was utterly forsaken by God so that in our darkest, loneliest, most utterly forsaken moments, we would know that Jesus, the Son of God, is with us, and will never, ever forsake us.

In Michael Korda's compelling biography of Dwight David Eisenhower, a book called, Ike, An American Hero, he tells of Eisenhower the evening before the launch of the Normandy invasion we call D-Day. Ike went to visit the pilots who would soon be flying across the Channel and into enemy territory to bomb the enemy and prepare the way. Ike knew they would meet a fuselage of enemy fire, and that many of these brave young men would not return. He walked by the men, standing in line, looked them in the eye, and offered words of thanks for what they were about to do. Then he returned to his car, and as they drove away, the General began to weep. Korda says, "It would never be easy for Eisenhower to send soldiers to their death."

Well it would never be easy for this God of Love to see people perish, which is why this God, with tears in His eyes, went to such great lengths to save you.


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