When I decided to preach through the Gospel of Mark, I didn’t really think much about what it would be like to preach through the end of it. We usually just tell the story – I’ve never preached on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. It’s been a really good challenge for me, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t considering preaching at some point next year during Holy Week. There’s a lot going on in this passage – my sermon barely scrapes the surface! I talked about the role of the centurion and what this means for us as we see Jesus for who he is and then proclaim that message to the world.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
June 23, 2019
Seeing Jesus For Who He Was
Bruce and I were at the driving range on Thursday night discussing this week’s sermon (welcome to life married to a preacher) and the, sort of, complicated nature of preaching through the story of Jesus’ death. SO much is happening in a very short amount of time and I almost think, as a preacher, I have to decide whether I want to speak broadly to the whole narrative (knowing that, while I am touching on everything, I am not really digging deep into anything) OR find one obscure part of the story that is intriguing to me and focus on that (knowing that, while I can dig a little bit deeper into one thing, I am missing other parts of the story).
The thing is, I do not think there is a right or wrong way to approach preaching this text; in fact, there was actually a fleeting moment last night where I thought to myself, “well maybe one day I’ll preach through the Passion Narrative again so I can get another crack at this story and take another approach.”
But it was fleeting.
Regardless, instead of speaking more broadly about how I feel about the crucifixion and what I think it means in my own life, I am just going to focus on one thing this morning. Now, this does mean that there are going to be parts of this story that I do not really get into – and in focusing on one thing, I am not saying that the other parts are not important, it just means that this is what jumped out at me this week.
But so much is happening in this morning’s text; if I dug into everything, we would probably be here until 5:00 tonight.
I could talk about the very public mocking of Jesus, and the contemptuous way the soldiers dressed him in royal garb.
I could talk about the way Mark intricately wove two of the Passion Psalms into this narrative. Mark talks about people passing by Jesus and deriding him in verse 29, which references Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.” Mark mentions the offering of sour wine to Jesus in verse 36, which gives nod to Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Mark records Jesus’ last words as a direct quote from the book of psalms. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1.
And what about those last words of Jesus? I could also talk about the four different Gospels and three different accounts of those last words. Mark and Matthew both record Jesus’ final words to be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but Luke records Jesus as saying, “Father into your hand I commend my spirit” and in the Gospel of John Jesus simply says, “It is finished.”
I could also talk about this three-hour solar eclipse that apparently happened between the time that Jesus was crucified and the time that Jesus actually died, something that – in the Old Testament – signified a heavenly sign of God’s judgment (although had I know we were going to have that crazy storm we had yesterday, I might have been tempted to go down the road).
I do feel badly for the other patrons of the Atlantic Golf Center because I have a feeling they just wanted hit their golf balls in peace and not have to listen to me yammer on about the details of Jesus’ death.
But what I want to talk about today is actually the very end of this story. Because I think sometimes when we are reading this story during Holy Week, we get to this point and just keep our eyes on that resurrection prize; because we know that Easter is coming.
And so it is admittedly harder to read it in this context, where we get to the end of the story and Jesus is dead and we cannot keep reading.
I kind of have the same feeling today that I do every time I see Jesus Christ Superstar and the performance ends with Jesus dying and the lights fade to black on stage then the curtain goes up and the cast cheerfully runs onstage for their curtain call. Because that is not actually how the story ends; and the person inside of me that is living on this side of the resurrection very much wants to tell the wholestory.
And yet here we are. And the thing is, it is almost more authentic to read it like this, because this is how the very first followers of Jesus experienced the story. When Jesus died, they did not know what was going to happen next. They, like we have to today, had to sit with the grief and the discomfort and the agony of what it meant to watch Jesus suffer and die and not know that in three days he would rise.
I have to be honest, I am really glad we do not have a baptism today.
The end of this morning’s scripture reading is really dramatic. You have the darkness coming over the land, Jesus screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, someone shoving a sour-wine-filled sponge into Jesus’ mouth and the curtain of the temple ripping into two pieces.
And then the centurion comes into the picture.
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!’(Mark 15:39, NRSV)
Centurions were commanders in the Roman army; we would understand them today as company commanders. There were six grades – or ranks – among the centurion, with the highest level reaching a position similar to a knight.
There are two things that are really important to understand about the centurion here. First of all, he is the first personto identify Jesusas God’s Son. Up until this point, only beings have identified Jesus as the Son of God – 1) the heavenly voice of God at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration and 2) the demons in the healing stories.
But now a person has made that identification. Now a personhas seen what Jesus knew to be true all along. Now a person has realized what, precisely, God has been up to this whole time. Now a person has experienced the redeeming work of God in his life and in this world and by saying it out loud, “Truly this man was God’s son!” he was proclaiming the truth that, even though they did not know how the story was going to end, that God was not finished yet.
His world changed when he saw Jesus for who he really was.
The second thing that is important to understand about the centurion is that he was a Gentile. So not only did a person see Jesus for who he really was, but a Gentile nonetheless; which confirms that Gentiles now had the same access to God’s redeeming love that Jews did.
The world was turned upside down; no one knew what was going to happen next. But despite the uncertainties, despite the agony they had just witnessed, despite the brokenness of that moment, the centurion’s eyes were opened to who Jesus was and he was not afraid to proclaim that Good News.
And I think this is one of the life-changing messages of this story; that even when we are in the midst of strive, even when our future may be uncertain, even when we are surrounded by grief and chaos – in these moments we can all still see Jesus for who he is, no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life. It does not matter if we have been coming to church our entire life or we are just meeting Jesus for the first time.
And we can proclaim this message with awe and confidence and hope.
We are coming up on the end of the Year of Mark. And this year has done a lot of amazing things for me; there has been something about doing nothing but preach about Jesus that has renewed my focus as a preacher and convicted me as a Christian. And the strange part is that I am reading Rachel Held Evan’s first book, Faith Unraveled, where she talked about her journey of challenging her conservative evangelical upbringing and then coming back into the faith. And she said in her book that during her period of intense questioning one of her mentors told her to go back to the basics, to just spend time in the Gospels and read about Jesus. And she said that made all the difference.
And it has for me, too.
Because this is the heart of what it means to be Christian; to, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he really was, to read the Gospels and recognize what Jesus was doing and try to emulate that in our own lives and then to proclaim that message to a world that needs to hear it.
I have two things I want you to do for me. The first is to take your bulletin home and re-read this morning’s scripture. Because, like I said at the beginning of my sermon, there is a lot going on and I can only barely scrape the surface. But, like the centurion, we have to face the cross and bear witness to the whole story. So I would encourage you at some point this week to re-read the scripture and see what else jumps out at you, see what else might be speaking to you where you are on your journey right now.
And then the second thing I want you to do is more of a long-term thing; I want you to keep spending time with Jesus when the Year of Mark is over. I am not sure what is next (other than a sermon series on hospitality that will take us through the end of the summer). But I know we will find ourselves back in the Old Testament and also further along in the New Testament wondering what the heck Paul meant in some of his letters. We likely will not, for awhile anyway, spend this much time in one Gospel.
But no matter where we are, I hope you regularly spend time reading the Gospels and learning about Jesus. I hope you will see Jesus for who he is, not just in the world but in your own life. And I hope you will be changed. I hope you, like the centurion, will testify to this Good News with awe and confidence and hope, no matter what the journey ahead might look like.
Friends, may we leave this place today and, like the centurion, see Jesus for who he was and boldly proclaim this truth to a world that so desperately needs to feel the redeeming love of God.
And may the world be changed.
Thanks be to God!