You may know the last recorded words of Oscar Wilde. He was on his death bed in a badly decorated room, and suddenly said, ‘I can’t stand this wallpaper any longer. One of us will have to go.’ Or the last recorded words of Lord Palmerstone, when his doctor told him he was very close to dying. ‘Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I intend to do.’ More serious were the last recorded words of Captain Oates on Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole. Oates was sick and holding the others back, and as they sat out a storm he left the tent saying, ‘I may be gone some time.’ In fact he never came back. At the time, no-one but him understood what he really meant. But looking back, they realised he’d sacrificed himself for them.
Well in Mark’s Gospel, the last recorded words of Jesus are these: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And again, at the time, no-one but him understood what he really meant. But unlike Captain Oates’ story, Jesus’ story didn’t end in his death on that cross. Three days later his grave was minus one body and his followers were saying they’d seen him alive again from the dead. And looking back, they realized his death had been no ordinary death, but a sacrifice for the whole human race.
Something people often ask about Christianity is this: ‘What can one man’s death 2000 years ago possibly have to do with me?’ And my aim is to let Mark’s Gospel answer that question. So let’s look down to Mark chapter 15 and v21:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. (vv21-24)
Crucifixion is back in the news because of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. And some of the reaction against it is because we’ve lost touch with what crucifixion really was. It wasn’t just a way of executing people. It was how the Roman Empire executed people so that they were utterly humiliated and any cause they stood for utterly destroyed. It was used above all on those who were regarded as enemies of the empire. So if Rome then had been attacked by terrorists like Madrid has been, they would have hunted them down and crucified them - publicly - a way of saying to everyone else, ‘Don’t you try anything, or you’ll end up like them.’
So why did Jesus end up like them? So many people say he was a good man, just a good teacher, etc, that you have to ask: if that’s all he was, why did he ever end up on a cross? Look down and read on from v25:
It was the third hour when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (vv25-32)
And in those verses you can trace what led to Jesus’ death.
The people who wanted him dead are in v31 - the ‘chief priests and the teachers of the law’. If you read Mark’s Gospel, you’ll find they tracked Jesus from the start (see, eg, Mark 3.22). And they knew that he claimed to be far more than just a good teacher. Eg, on one occasion, back in Mark chapter 2 (vv1-12), Jesus claimed that he could forgive peoples’ sins – ie, their moral wrongdoing against God. And the teachers of the law said, “He’s blaspheming. [ie, saying something that only God has the right to say]. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And they’ve got a point. In the unlikely event that the person sitting next to you punches you on the nose, I can’t race up to them and say, ‘I forgive you.’ Forgiveness lies with you, the offended party. Well, sin is the offence we commit against God - of living our lives without reference to him - and yet Jesus said, ‘I forgive you your sin.’
That’s just one example of how he claimed to be God’s Son-become-human.
Now anyone can claim that kind of thing. A few years ago, David Icke claimed to be the Son of God. I don’t know if you remember him. First career: goalkeeper for Coventry City. Second career: BBC sports reporter. Third career: he suddenly says he’s the Son of God. There’s a quick flurry of publicity in the News of the World, everyone laughs him off, and he’s now in quiet and embarrassed retirement on the Isle of Wight. No-one took him seriously. Certainly not seriously enough to crucify him.
The difference with Jesus was that he not only claimed to be the Son of God, he convincingly backed up that claim. Read Mark’s Gospel and you find Jesus putting a paralysed man back on his feet (Mark 2.1-12). You find him flattening a storm at sea by telling it to be quiet – just like you might tell a puppy to sit – the difference being that the storm sat (Mark 4.35-41). You find Jesus disrupting a funeral by bringing a 12 year old girl back to life (Mark 5.21-43). That’s not just a claim. That’s a claim with credentials.
And it’s a threatening claim. Because by nature, you and I live without reference to God: consciously or subconsciously, passively or actively, we basically say to God, ‘Keep out of my life. I want to live it may own way.’ And Jesus came into the world on God his Father’s behalf to call us to stop living like that. To say that he is the rightful ruler of our lives. And that’s why these religious leaders wanted him dead. Because at the deepest level of their hearts, they didn’t want to face up to the claims of God on their lives (see Mark 7.1-8).
But under Roman occupation they had no right to carry out a death-sentence themselves. So they took him to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate - not to accuse him of blasphemy ( about which Pilate couldn’t have cared less), but to accuse him of treason. Of setting himself up as ‘the King of the Jews’, as an enemy of the empire. Because they knew what Rome did to enemies of the empire.
And Pilate let it happen.
That’s why Jesus was crucified. For his claim to be God’s Son become human - a claim that none of us, by nature, wants to hear.
But that’s the first thing you see as you look at Jesus on the cross: what we by nature do to God.
The shocking truth is that the cross exposes the attitude of our hearts to God.
I don’t know if you remember Chemistry lessons. You obviously survived them – which was always ‘touch and go’ in our practicals. I wonder if you remember litmus paper? Litmus paper is that stuff you dip into liquids to work out if they’re acid or not. It starts out blue and if you dip it in something and it turns red, it shows up that there’s been a reaction against the paper; it shows up that you’re dealing with an acid.
And when God sent his Son among us and he was rejected, it showed up the true nature of human hearts, It showed up our natural reaction against God – that we don’t want him our lives. The first thing you see as you look at Jesus on the cross is what we by nature do to God. I believe that to be true of myself before I believe it of anyone else. And some of us will admit that; and some of us will deny it.
Some of us will admit that. Admit that we know what it is to go against a God-given conscience. Or maybe that we know what it is to rebel against our knowledge of the Christian faith - to kick it all over for years; to hold God at arm’s length. Some of us will admit that underneath our polite (or maybe not so polite) excuses or objections to the gospel is a heart that by nature wants rid of God.
But some of us will deny that. Not least because of our own goodness. Goodness is such a confusing thing. But the Bible says we can be ‘good’ (as we see goodness, in our relative way) and reject God at the same time. You can be a nice, decent-living rebel against God or a nasty terrorist rebel. But you’re still a rebel. Still failing to treat God properly.
Eg, imagine a husband and wife. On their wedding day, they promise to love one another, to give one another their all. Now move on 15 years. They’ve got 3 children. The husband’s working hard for them so they can live in their palatial house and have their nice holidays and go to nice schools. There’s a constant supply of presents for his wife – flowers, chocolates and jewellery - and most recently one of those modest little town run-abouts – one of those BMW tanks with bull-bars and 4x4. He takes her away for weekend breaks, he fixes up baby-sitters for surprise romantic dinners… How does he sound to you? (Apart from unreal – all the women, at least, have worked that out.)
There’s one detail I haven’t mentioned. He’s having an affair with his 22 year old secretary. But he’s a ‘good’ husband, isn’t he…? No. He’s betrayed a relationship. He’s not treating a wife as he ought to, and in the light of that, his ‘goodness’ (in inverted commas) really isn’t. And the Bible is simply saying we have betrayed a relationship; we have not treated God as we ought to, and in the light of that, our ‘goodness’ (in inverted commas) really isn’t. Not in God’s eyes.
That’s the first thing you see as you look at Jesus on the cross: what we by nature do to God
But the far greater thing you see as you look at Jesus on the cross is: what God did for us.
Have a look back to v31:
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can't save himself!”
But if you read Mark’s Gospel through, you’ll find that nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that Jesus went to his death voluntarily. So on that first Easter Friday, it wasn’t a question of ‘can’t save himself’, but ‘won’t save himself’.
Back in Mark chapter 8, it says this:
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [which was one of his names for himself] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (Mark 8.31)
And from then on Jesus controls all the events that take him to the cross. In Mark chapter 10 it says this:
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.
‘ Astonished’ and ‘afraid’ because they knew he was walking right into the hands of those who wanted rid of him. But who’s in control? Jesus. Mark chapter 14 – the night before Jesus died on the cross - Jesus triggers his betrayal by the very disciple whom he had chosen knowing he’d do it (Mark 14.17f, 3.19) So who’s in control? Jesus. He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, shrinking from the prospect of what’s he’s about to go through for us. But he prays, ‘Father… not what I will, but what you will.’ And he sets off to meet Judas (Mark 14.35-42) So who’s in control? Jesus faces an illegal trial before the Jewish leaders. They can’t find false accusations that agree, so they ask Jesus outright:
“ Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One [ie, of God]?” “ I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [Ie, the time will come when I will sit as Judge beside my Father in heaven, and you will be in the dock.] The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. (Mark 14.61-64)
So Jesus gives them all they need to condemn him. So who’s in control? They lead him off to Pilate - who basically knows Jesus is innocent (see Mark 15.10). Mark 15 says this:
The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him [ie, Jesus], “Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
‘ Amazed’ because all Jesus has to do is open his mouth and defend himself and stop this thing…. But he’s a man determined to die. So who’s in control? The prisoner! And so, back to Mark 15.31:
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can't save himself!”
As if hands that had multiplied five loaves and two fishes to feed 5000 (Mark 6.30-44) couldn’t deal with two Roman nails. As if feet which had walked across the Sea of Galilee (Mark 6.45-52) couldn’t free themselves. He was there on the cross because he intended to be there. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can't save himself!” And ironically they were closer to the truth than they could have imagined: Jesus was saving others at that very moment – which is why he refused to save himself. Not ‘can’t save himself’, but ‘won’t save himself’.
Back in Mark 10, Jesus had said this:
“For even the Son of Man [one of Jesus’ names for himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And a ‘ransom’ is something you pay to save others – in this case, saving others from the consequences of living without reference to God. Because if the cross is like the ‘litmus test’ which shows up our natural reaction to God (‘Get rid of him’), then what must be God’s reaction to us? If during this life we’ve said to God, ‘Keep out; I want to live it my own way,’ what should he say to us at the end of the day of our lives?
700 years before the death of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote about it, pointing ahead and explaining in advance why it had to happen. Isaiah said this:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53.5-6)
According to Isaiah, what we’ve done is to live without reference to God: ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.’ And that deserves its punishment, its judgment. Imagine there’s a book for each of our lives – a book containing the record of our life’s rejection of God, and all the wrong thoughts, words and actions to which that rejection has led. That is the book which should be ‘thrown at me’ at the end of the day of my life – that’s the judgment I deserve to have held against me.
And the question is: How can God forgive me? If he decides not to hold all those things against me, what is he going to do about them? He can’t just ‘put that book on the shelf’ and forget about it and let me in to his heaven – otherwise someone could say, ‘But what about all the wrong Ian Garrett has done? Letting him in like that just condones it all. God, don’t you care about justice?’ God must have an answer to that question.
And his answer is the cross of Jesus. What was needed was a way for our wrongdoing to be judged without us getting the judgement. What was needed was a willing substitute with no wrongdoing of his own to answer for who was prepared to take responsibility for yours and mine. And according to the Bible, that’s why God gave his one and only Son – to become human alongside us, then to die under our judgment instead of us – so we might be forgiven: ‘And the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ said Isaiah, 700 years before it happened.
And as Jesus died, three signs pointed to the reality of what was going on. Look down to Mark 15.33 for the first sign: At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And that ‘darkness’ was to symbolise judgement, to symbolise separation from God who, according to the Bible, is ‘Light’ (1 John 1.5). Jesus had talked about ‘outer darkness’ when he spoke of hell – and that’s what he was going through at that moment.
And then v34, the second sign, his cry:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” - which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He was quoting a prayer from the Old Testament (OT) part of the Bible – the prayer of someone who felt that God had abandoned him (Psalm 22). With the original writer of that prayer, it was just a feeling. It wasn’t true that God had forsaken him. But with Jesus on the cross, it was. With Jesus it was not just felt, but fact. And he was quoting those words from the OT to let us know exactly what was happening at that moment. Because look at the cross of Jesus and you see not only what we by nature do to God; and you see not only what God did for us. Look at the cross of Jesus and you also see what God by nature has to do to sin. Jesus was being treated as a sinner so that we might be treated as if we’d never sinned. Jesus was being excluded so we might be included. Which is what the third sign points to, if you look down to v37:
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The temple centred on a room which represented God’s presence. That room was separated off by a huge curtain. It was like a ‘No entry’ sign that said ‘Keep out. Sinful human beings cannot come in here as they are.’ And as Jesus died, God tore that curtain down as a gigantic sign that says, ‘Welcome. Come back and be forgiven.’
I remember hearing the story of a boy who ran away from home. It was the kind of thing you do (at least, I did) when you’re 9. And he left a note saying he couldn’t stand them, hated them all, and was never coming back – the usual rhetoric – and off he went with a packet of biscuits and the contents of his piggy bank. That was in the morning. In the evening, they got a phone call. Could he come home? ‘Yes!’ Pause. Would they do anything to him if he did? ‘No! Just come home!’ Just to make sure, could they arrange a signal? If they really wanted him back, could they tie one of his white handkerchiefs in his bedroom window?
He walked down the street half an hour later and there was a white sheet flying from every window of the house.
And the temple curtain hanging ripped apart is God’s way of saying exactly the same to us: ‘Come home. Come home to a heavenly Father who’s never stopped loving you for a moment while you’ve had your back turned on him. Come home to a heavenly Father whose had you on his mind every moment that you’ve been pushing him out of yours. Come home to a heavenly Father who knows everything you’ve already done wrong and everything you will ever do wrong, and has paid the price for the forgiveness of the lot at the cross.
Because the cross wasn’t about a loving Son trying to make an angry Father change his mind towards us. The cross was about a loving Father, with a loving Son co-operating, making a way that we could be forgiven and at the same time justice could be done.
That’s Mark’s Gospel’s answer to that question: ‘What could one man’s death 2000 years ago possibly have to do with me?’ And I believe Mark’s answer because of the very end of his Gospel. What makes me think all this is true is that Jesus rose from the dead. God raised him to reverse our verdict and say, ‘No, this really is my Son.’ And then you work back to the cross and say, ‘So what was he doing there if he had no sins of his own to pay for?’ And the answer is: paying for ours. Paying for mine. Paying for yours.
So coming back to 2004, where does all this leave us? The answer is: divided. Everyone in this building is divided around the cross of Jesus.
There are some of us who look at the cross and we don’t see Jesus as the Son of God, and we don’t see in the cross what we by nature do to God. We deny that. Well, if that’s you, hear these words of Jesus:
“ It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2.17)
Ie, Jesus is saying he’s like a doctor, and he wouldn’t have come (like a doctor being called out to a patient) if there hadn’t been anything wrong with the human race, or if we could have put things right ourselves. He’s saying we’re sick – and he can’t do anything for people who think they’re OK. And if in relation to God, you really think you are OK, the Christian message has absolutely nothing to offer you. But I want to ask, do you really think that? In the secrecy of your own heart? Up against your own conscience?
But others of us here look at the cross and we do see our own rejection of God exposed there. And we know God is offended. Well then where do you go from there? Maybe your instinct is to stay away from God and from church and from Christians - because, after all, what guilty person wants to get closer to the Judge, or come to court (which is how it can feel, I know!)? Or maybe your instinct is to try to make up for your past, to try to put yourself right with God. But it can’t be done. A good thing done doesn’t wipe out a bad thing. And in trying to be good, if we’re honest, we fail and keep adding to the bad.
What we each need above all is to look at the cross and see what God did for us there. To see that he is far more than a Judge. To see that he is above all a loving Father who suffered his own judgement to get us back And the cross says loud and clear that God will have you back, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.
That’s what God wants. The outstanding question is what you want. Are you willing to have Jesus as King of your life, where he belongs, and God as your heavenly Father? And willing to line up with him publicly as your King in a world that rejects him - which means there’ll also be some rejection for you, too?
If you are willing for that, you’re only a prayer away from becoming a Christian. So I’m going to end by leading in a prayer. It’s a prayer that asks the Risen Lord Jesus to bring us back into relationship with him and enable us to start life over again. Here is the prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, I confess that I have so far rejected you as my King, and I want this to change. I trust that in your death there is forgiveness for everything. Please forgive me and come into my life by your Spirit to enable me to live for you from now on. Amen.
That may not be appropriate for you. You may be much further back than that, with many questions still to answer. Or you may already have taken that step. But if you’re ready to take it now and you want to, you could use that prayer to respond to what the Crucified and risen Lord Jesus has done for you.
If you’ve prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that God has heard and answered it. And in order to get some help with where to go from here, can I encourage you to let another Christian know you’ve taken that step? They can then make some suggestions about the next step as you start this new life with Christ