What is Easter about? What comes to your mind when you think of Easter? I never really celebrated Easter growing up, so what comes to my mind are the traditional Christian images, the traditional Christian symbols. Is that what comes to your mind or do you think of other things such as what we see in many shops? I want to take this opportunity to focus us on the real meaning of Easter. The message of Easter is the most important aspect of Christianity. If I can explain it clearly, hopefully you'll understand that what you do with this information is the most important decision you'll ever make. I never really celebrated Easter, not because it's not important but because it's so important it effects every single day. It's something I try to be aware of every day, something I try to live in the reality of every day.
Easter is the celebration of a real historical event that took place nearly 2000 years ago, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus, called the Messiah. This event was no small random event but is the centre of the Christian faith. So at Easter, particularly on Good Friday, what we're remembering, and even celebrating, is a crucifixion. Easter = The cross of Jesus Christ.
So let's look at what actually happened according to those who witnessed it to see why Jesus was crucified.
If you have your own Bible you'll find it helpful to find Mark's Gospel, chapter 15. Before looking at what Mark wrote, it's probably a good idea to mention who Mark was. Mark was a young man at the time who saw some of the things he wrote about and who was a friend of Jesus' disciples who would have filled him in on the things he didn't see. This was the first of the four 'Gospels' to be written and it's also the shortest so we could think of it as a kind of first century newsflash. Mark has researched what happened by speaking to those who were there and here he writes the whole thing together. It's helpful not to think of this as a piece of religious writing but a straightforward report of what happened. Mark certainly wouldn't have had in mind that he was writing part of the Bible! The bit I want to focus on first is the climax of his report. Having skimmed over the three years of Jesus' public ministry Mark goes into ever increasing detail in the week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" (which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
What happened is clear on first reading; Jesus was crucified and died. But to understand what really is going on here and what it all means we need to look at the details.
It was midday and it turns dark. In fact we're told that darkness came over the whole land 3 whole hours. To the Jews, to those standing around seeing this, darkness was a clear sign of God's judgement. There's certainly no natural way that darkness would cover the land for 3 hours! They knew from their history that darkness meant God's judgement. But for those of us who don't know Jewish history it should be clear nonetheless when we read what Jesus cried out.
Jesus was being judged and he felt it. He cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" If Jesus really was so special and he was being crucified then we'd expect this judgement to be on the people crucifying him, surely! But Jesus' cry means that actually he was the one being judged there. If we read the whole of Mark's account then we should notice that not only has Jesus done nothing wrong but everyone else has. Judas, one of those closest to Jesus, had betrayed him for not a lot of money; the other disciples had all deserted him in order to save themselves; the Jewish leaders had arrested him out of jealousy and given him an unjust trial; Pilate could have intervened but was more concerned about keeping peace among the people; finally, the soldiers had mocked and spat on him before crucifying him. Everyone was guilty except Jesus. Was the judgement really on his shoulders?
Mark writes that at the moment Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple was torn in half. Well, what is this curtain and where is the temple? The Temple stood in the middle of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and God had ordered for it to be built. It was to the Temple that the people would go to have their sins forgiven. They would have to bring an animal to the priests and the priests would do their thing. God had ordered this to be done saying that blood is what takes away sins. But the most significant thing about the Temple was that God was there. It was God's house. Now, the more important you were the further inside the Temple you could go. The innermost room was the most holy place, where the Ark of the Covenant was, which you'll know all about if you've seen Indiana Jones, and the very presence of God was in that room which was separated by a huge thick curtain reaching from the high ceiling to the floor. The people of Israel were proud of their Temple because it meant God's presence with his chosen people
But, at the same time, God's presence behind the curtain symbolised God's separation from his people. No one was allowed to go behind the curtain into God's presence - again, because of sin. Once a year, however, on the Day of Atonement, the 'high priest' could go in, but he would have to bring a sacrifice, an animal sacrifice, which he would offer outside and bring the blood with him into the holy place. When the High Priest would go in he would have a rope tied around his ankle, and this would be so that the other priests could pull him out if God decided to strike him dead when he went in there. If he hadn't done the sacrifice properly, if his sins hadn't been properly dealt with with an animal sacrifice then God wouldn't consider him holy enough to come into his presence and might strike him dead. The others would pull him out with the rope. God does not tolerate sin.
Mark tells us that at the moment Jesus dies, the curtain separating God from his people is torn in half, from the top, as if by God himself. The barrier is gone. You see, Jesus' death on the cross was just like one of those animal sacrifices that the people would make at the temple. By putting these things together in the story Mark is telling us that Jesus' death was a sacrifice that takes away our sins, it takes away our separation from God and we can finally come to him.
No sooner has this happened then someone does indeed come to God in what might be considered the first conversion in Mark's report. The Roman centurion who saw Jesus die, says 'This man really was the Son of God!' That's exactly what Mark wants us to know and this Roman has finally seen it. Other people have seen Jesus do some amazing things, like heal the blind and the sick, feed thousands of people and walk on water, but they still didn't know who Jesus is. Finally, because of the way Jesus died, this Roman soldier (he's not even Jewish!) understands that Jesus is the Son of God.
Mark puts these details together on purpose. The juxtaposition is intended to make the meaning clear. The punishment that Jesus receives, takes away our guilt and therefore our separation from God if only we accept that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
So, I've tried to explain that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary to deal with our sin. But let's not miss the fact that Jesus did not have to save anyone. Jesus chose to rescue his people because he loves us. Jesus is not a distant, remote, dictatorial King but one who deeply cares for the people who belong to his Kingdom. For this reason he chose to suffer for us.
Let's go back a bit in Mark's account.
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."
Jesus starts on his way to Jerusalem and he's leading the way, partly because he's determined to get there, and partly because the others are afraid; they knew that Jesus was a wanted man and that the Jewish leaders were looking for a way to kill him.
Jesus also knew what was coming. Verse 33, "'We are going up to Jerusalem,' he said, 'and the Son of Man will be betrayed... They will condemn him to death... mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.'" Jesus is heading to Jerusalem knowing exactly what is going to happen. It is the reason he came.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."
As Jesus considers his imminent arrival in Jerusalem his thoughts are of the city full of his people. In this verse we see one motivation of Jesus as he walks the road to his crucifixion, namely the cares and worries he has for them. He speaks about his people the same way I speak about my son.
Not everyone rejected Jesus; his disciples followed him nearly until the end. Speaking to them the night he was betrayed, he says in John 15:12-13:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Jesus is telling them how deeply and completely they should love one another and he leads by example. Jesus laid down his life for his friends and it was the greatest expression of love the world has ever seen and will ever see. We can see that this is his motivation in the fact that he gives this as a command - a pattern to be continued by those who follow him. Jesus practises what he preaches.
Finally, after all the atrocious things they did to him, Jesus hangs dying on the cross and among his final words he says in Luke 23:34:
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
I lack the words to express how much love that must require.
Jesus died for two reasons. Firstly, because we need rescuing from our guilt before God. Secondly, because Jesus wanted to rescue us.
There's just one thing missing now: our response to Jesus. How do you respond to such a God who dies to rescue his people? There are two obvious responses and they've already been mentioned.
The people Jesus came to save "were not willing" (Luke 13:34) to come to him. Jesus is deeply worried for them because God's judgement remains on them and is not transfered to him.
The other response is that of the Roman centurion. "Surely this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39) What is your response? What is your decision? It is the most important decision that you will ever make.
Jesus died, but that wasn't the end; only the end of the beginning. The story truly began two days later when he rose from the dead. We look forward to hearing more about that on Sunday...