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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10)

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdelene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This week, many of you read an article http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/04/20/2226219/brush-with-death-revealed-his.html#storylink=misearch in The Charlotte Observer about St. Paul – the growth, the transformation, the resurrection that is taking place here and that all of you – every single one of you – are participating in. Part of that article told about an incident that occurred 11 years ago in my life; when, at 20 years of age, I was held up at gunpoint in the backroom of the food store where I was assistant manager. It was a moment that changed my life. “Brush with death reveals true calling” said the headline. A more accurate title might have been “Kid freaks out, nearly soils himself, and has a crisis of identity.”

That night set into motion a series of events that would forever change the direction of my life. For one thing, I do believe that the shock I experienced on that night is what caused my hair to start falling out. If I were to meet that gunman today, perhaps I would sue him for what might have been a very lucrative career as a shampoo model.

But, in all seriousness, that night did begin a process deep within me that caused me to rethink my life’s direction. That night serves as a clear and distinct marker between two very different trajectories in my life – one in which my talent, energies, and efforts would be devoted to climbing the ladder in the corporate world, looking out for me and my own interests. But after that night, I found my life aimed in a very different trajectory – one in which I dedicated myself and all that is within me to doing what God would have me do, which, I suppose, is why I’m standing here right now.

The article described that day as life-changing; no kidding! Life-changing, that’s the understatement of the century. It might be better to say that was a day that rocked my world, a day that was literally earth-shattering for me. But friends, here is the good news: my world was rocked, yes, but in that very rocking, my eyes were opened to a new possibility, and my feet were set on a new path. Yes, the day was life-changing, but even moreso, it was life-giving.

In the church, we have a name for an experience and a moment like that. It’s called “Easter,” it’s called “resurrection,” and as it’s told to us in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s the ground-shaking, world-rocking story of an empty tomb, some startled women, and a new beginning. You’re here today because it’s Easter, it’s the day to celebrate resurrection, it’s the day for new beginnings and fresh starts, it’s the day God says, “From this day forward, everything shall be different.”

So, I hope you have come today expecting to get your world rocked. Now, I realize that for many here today, you didn’t come to get your world rocked. That’s not what you signed up for! Perhaps today is an excuse to wear new pastel clothes or the first day of the season to wear white shoes, a chance to have an egg hunt or have a nice ham dinner at Grandma’s with that goofy little butter lamb with the cloves for eyes. I realize that some people go to church on Easter out of guilt or obligation to parents or a partner or a friend. I don’t really know why you’re here today, but whatever the reason, I’m just glad you made it. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you, and I have some good news for you this morning. Pay attention; it just might rock your world and it just might change your life, and it just might give you the hope you’ve been looking for. May we pray.

It was early in the morning on the first day of the week. Pale cracks of pink and purple and yellow were emerging on the horizon as the sun began to come up, in those moments where there is plenty of light to see, but everything still exists in various shades of gray. Two women, both named Mary, were walking down a garden path to the tomb that contained the remains of their friend. On Friday, their friend, Jesus, had been crucified – executed as a criminal – the cruelest and most humiliating death imaginable.

His death came after a heart-breaking week – the religious authorities and the government officials conspired against him, trumped up all sorts of false charges against him, and had him executed. What was his crime? What was so offensive about Jesus that they wanted him dead?

In short, Jesus was a rule-breaker. The religious leaders had made up all sorts of rules that served only to alienate lost people from God, and Jesus said, “You all missed the point. You have been so busy making up your rules, protecting and preserving your little holy club that you’ve forgotten what the point of this whole thing was to begin with.” Religion for its own sake is worthless, nothing more than empty rules and ritual. Jesus kept showing over and over again that if religious practice didn’t somehow result in transforming the hearts of people with the love and grace of God, then it was all worthless.

The religious leaders didn’t like this because it threatened their positions of power. They plotted to have Jesus killed, and they were successful. They had to lie, cheat, and steal to do it, but they got it done. “Good riddance to Jesus,” they said. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, they looked at each other in self-congratulation – finally they were done with him.

But God was just getting started. Early on Sunday morning, the two Marys arrived at the tomb, to find the stone rolled away, and an angel with a message – “He is not here; he is risen!”

One of the things I love about Easter is that every year, it’s the same story. The characters are the same – yup, there’s Mary, there’s the other Mary, there are the soldier guards, there’s the angel, and yup, resurrected Jesus. The plot is still pretty much the same – Jesus still makes his resurrection appearance. Easter’s not like Groundhog Day – I’m not going to come out and say, “Sorry folks, Jesus just didn’t feel like getting up this year.” Resurrection is a universal experience, too – it’s not like the different denominations have to share the resurrection, each one getting their turn – “Oh, sorry you showed up here this year, turns out the Episcopalians and Baptists have him this year, the Catholics and Presbyterians next year, and then we Methodists and the Lutherans get him the year after that.”

The story and the message is the same year in and year out. But the hope and promise of Easter are brand new and fresh every time we hear them, so I suspect you’ve come both to hear the old familiar story, but also to have your cup filled to overflowing with hope. Some of you have heard this story countless times in your life, and some of you may be hearing it for the very first time today.

If the message of Easter rocks your world, that’s good; it’s supposed to! Matthew’s Gospel describes the resurrection as being accompanied by a great earthquake; the message of Easter is meant to rock our world. It certainly changed everything for the two Marys as they started down the path to the tomb. They had no idea the path would lead them to an encounter with the risen Lord. That’s the world-rocking story of Easter, as old as events 2000 years ago, as new as this morning.

The two Marys weren’t looking for resurrection, it was a gift to them before they even knew what was going on. Resurrection is a reality; the women were simply invited to experience it. So it always is with God’s amazing grace – transforming, life-giving, in-your-face, rock-your-world grace. God’s grace is a reality before we know about it or ask for it or have done anything to make ourselves worthy of it; we’re just invited to experience it.

The angel said to the women, “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here.” It’s the message that changed everything. Throw out the rules of what was, because now, with God, all things are possible. God takes what is hopeless and breathes hope into it. God takes sorrow and turns it into dancing. God takes death and turns it into life!

And, if you’re not interested in resurrection, if you’re not interested in hope, or joy, or promise, if you’re not interested in transformation, that’s fair enough, but I hate to break it to you: you came to church on the wrong day. Today is all about hope, it’s all about promise, it’s all about a new start.

The journey of Easter is always the same – one from despair to hope, from fear to faith, from sadness to joy, from death to life. The hope and promise of Easter always rocks our world.

All too often our lives remain stuck in places of despair and heartache. We’ve been hurt too much. We’ve refined our defense mechanisms to cope with life. The surprise of Easter is that God doesn’t want us to stay there, he invites us into a new relationship, he begins to work a transformation on us.

I don’t know what’s going on in your life today, but I do know this: every single one of us could use the transformative touch of God in our lives. We all need God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s mercy. Easter is a transformative reality that happens all around us, and in us, and through us. And when that transformation happens, we call it resurrection.

Look around! You can see the resurrection power of Easter everywhere. When the things of God begin to grow where only the things of the world grew before, we have a word for it – resurrection. When hard hearts are softened, when enemies become friends, when pride gives way to humility, we have a word for it – resurrection. When religious people suddenly care more about people than they do about rules, when bigotry gives way to acceptance, we have a word for it – resurrection. When your life is headed in a very self-centered direction and God directs it in a God-pleasing direction, we have a word for it – resurrection. When exclusion and hate give way to love and embrace, we have a word for it – resurrection. When paths of death give way to paths of life, we have a word for it – resurrection.

Do you want to know where God is? Do you want to know where God will show up? Look for despair, and hopelessness; look for lives in need of transformation, look for hurt places and lonely places; and there, in those dark, lonely, forlorn places, you will likely find God. God has a history of showing up in cemeteries, but not only does God show up there, God does God’s best work in cemeteries. God takes the broken places, the hurt places, the dead places the crucified places in all our lives and transforms them into something new.

And so, that’s the message of hope and promise and a new start for you today. Whatever in your life is broken, whatever is hurt, whatever is lonely, whatever is dark, whatever is hopeless, whatever needs to be transformed, whatever is crucified, dead, and buried in your life – God wants to take it and transform it. From something fearful into something beautiful, from something sorrowful into joy, from something that weighs you down to something that will rock your world.

And God can do it, too. God is in the transformation business. Think whatever you’re dealing with is too big for God to do anything with it, or too small for God to care? Think again. We worship a God for whom not even the death of Jesus was a permanent condition – if Jesus could conquer the grave, surely he can work on whatever you’re facing, no matter how big it is. The empty tomb is there as a permanent testimony that God is in the transformation business, and that even the seeming finality and daunting depths of death are no match for God.

Easter is a story that changes us, because it is more than a story, it is a reality. Don’t leave the Easter story here in church today, with pleasant memories of flowers and music. No, take Easter with you wherever you go. Take the transforming grace and power of God with you. Don’t leave it here. The building is going to be closed up all week; I’ll be at the beach – Easter hope and promise is going to do you no good if you leave it here! Take it with you. Touch lives with it, and transform hearts. Offer hope; offer promise, offer a new start. Go out there and rock somebody’s world with the good news of Easter.

Take Easter with you. Don’t leave it here. Offer the message of Christ’s resurrection, and watch him spring to new life in the hearts of those around you. And I guarantee that as you do, you’ll find your own heart changed, too. Jesus has a way of springing to new life in cold and hard places. If he could rock the tomb, he can certainly transform your heart and mine.

Christ is risen! That’s all you need to know today. The cemetery is empty and Christ is alive. May he live in your heart, now and always.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Hosanna!" to "How Dare You!" (Matthew 21:1-11)


When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

For the last several weeks, we’ve spent time with Jesus during the events of the last 24 hours of his life before the crucifixion, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve found it to be an inspiring and heart-breaking journey. Every step of the way, we’ve sought to see our own faces reflected back in the story. We have seen how we are like the disciples, who fell asleep and then who fled in fear. We are like Judas and Peter, who betrayed and denied Jesus. We are like the religious folks, who had it in for Jesus because he threatened the quicksand they had built their world upon. We are like the Roman governor, who convicted Jesus to death knowing he was innocent. And we are like the Roman soldiers, who took great delight in torturing and humiliating Jesus.

Today, we take a step back, away from the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion, and think about the events that took place at the very beginning of the same week. Across the worldwide church today, Christians everywhere are celebrating Palm Sunday, observing and remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week. We are waving our palm branches high and greeting Jesus as a king, joining our voices with those across the centuries who shout “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We have already looked at, as Paul Harvey might say, “the rest of the story.” We’ve started with the end of the story, and now, today, we come to fill in what came before. You know that those who greeted him with cheers of “Hosanna!” will be shouting “Crucify Him!” in a few days. Join us for worship on Thursday night and Friday night at 7pm as we consider the tragic turns in the story. Sure, you can skip past all that, from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias” of Easter, but if do you, you’ll miss some of the most important parts of the story. The crowd will turn on Jesus this week. How did something that began so well end so tragically? May we pray.

Have you ever been excitedly anticipating something, and when it finally gets here, it’s not everything you hoped it would be?

Every year in December, one of the movies I enjoy watching, and I know many of you do, as well, is A Christmas Story. This 1983 classic is the tale of a family in Hammond, Indiana, as they prepare for Christmas 1940. The main character, Ralphie only wants one thing for Christmas – anyone know what it was? He wants a BB gun – specifically, an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. The movie revolves around his ongoing quest for this BB gun, and he even goes to see Santa at the department store to ask for it. After hours in line, anticipating the big moment, Ralphie makes it to Santa and suddenly can’t remember what he wanted. Santa suggests a nice football, and Ralphie looks confused and squeaks out “A football.” Santa says, “OK, get him out of here,” and as Ralphie is pushed down the slide, he suddenly comes to, stops himself, and climbs back up the slide and tells Santa he wants an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, to which Santa simply responds, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” and we see the bottom of his boot come toward the camera to shove Ralphie back down the slide.

Clearly, that exchange did not go as Ralphie had hoped. Have you ever been excitedly anticipating something, and when it finally gets here, it’s not everything you hoped it would be? Maybe it was over-hyped, maybe you thought you were getting one thing, and it turned out to be another.

When we look at the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, we see people who thought and hoped they were getting one thing, but as it turned out, they were getting another.

The events of Palm Sunday took place at the beginning of Passover week in Jerusalem. Passover is one of the great, high holy festivals of the Jewish religious calendar. It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. If you need a quick refresher on that story, I’m sure the movie, The Ten Commandments, will be shown on several stations this week. For Passover, great crowds of people travelled from all over the known world to be in Jerusalem, the holy city, for the festival.

However, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea were, at the time of Jesus, under the control of Rome and part of the Roman empire. And so, Passover, celebrating liberation, took place in an occupied city. At Passover, the faithful would gather to offer traditional prayers. Close your eyes and hear this traditional prayer. Think of it being prayed by a people who are oppressed by an outside government:

Long ago, at this season, on such a night as this, a people - our people - set out on a journey.
All but crushed by their enslavement, they yet recalled the far-off memory of a happier past.
And heard the voice of their ancestral God, bidding them summon up the courage to be free.
Boldly, they went forth from Egypt, crossed the Sea, and headed through the desert for the Promised Land.
What they experienced, they remembered, and told their children, and they to theirs.
From generation to generation, the story was retold, and we are here to tell it yet again.
We too give thanks for Israel's liberation; we too remember what it means to be a slave.
And so we pray for all who are still fettered, still denied their human rights. Let all God's children sit at his table, drink the wine of deliverance, and eat the bread of freedom:

Freedom from bondage and freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger and freedom from want, freedom from hatred and freedom from fear, freedom to think and freedom to speak, freedom to learn and freedom to love, freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice; soon in our days. Amen.

With prayers like these, do you see how the Passover holiday was a political powderkeg just waiting to explode? Further, the people were looking for a Messiah. They were waiting, hoping, praying, for God’s anointed who would deliver them again, set them free, and establish the kingdom of Israel forever. And during the Passover, when emotions are high, would be the perfect time for the Messiah to arrive.

Enter Jesus on the scene. He had been engaged in public ministry roughly three years at this point, and has already made quite a name for himself. He has been teaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick, spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners, challenging religious rules and the authority of religious leaders, restoring sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed and announcing that the time had come when God would save God’s people. He performed signs and miracles, he offered a new teaching, and he taught as one with authority. He was quickly becoming the people’s favorite, and some, based on things they had seen at his baptism and overheard throughout his ministry, staked their claim on the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah.

Jesus and his disciples were among the thousands of pilgrims going to Jerusalem for the festival, and as they approached the city, Jesus told his disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied . . .; untie [it] and bring [it] to me. ” The prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Behold your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” Jesus was intentionally fulfilling this prophecy and making his claim as Messiah. His actions said, to Jerusalem and to the world, “Behold, your king comes, and I am your king.”

The symbolism was not lost. Imagine someone looking off in the distance, toward the Mount of Olives, as Jesus came riding down the road on the donkey. They thought, “Oh my gosh, this is it! Here he comes! The Messiah! It’s happening! It’s happening! The Messiah is coming! The Messiah is coming!”

This message spread like wildfire through the crowd – Jesus was coming down the road, and if he was the Messiah, he was the answer to everyone’s prayers. They threw down their cloaks on the road, they ran to the trees to cut down palm branches so they could wave them and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode on by.

Throwing cloaks on the road – it was an ancient way of rolling out the red carpet, so to speak. The idea was that this would keep the person’s feet – or the feet of the animal they rode – from touching the dirty ground. It’s similar to the way men used to throw down their overcoats over a mud puddle so a lady could keep her feet from getting dirty, though that always seemed an odd habit to me, because then you had a muddy overcoat when it might have just been smarter to walk around the mud puddle. I’m just sayin’!

As the crowds greeted Jesus by waving palm branches, they were remembering a similar episode 190 years earlier, when another government oppressed the Jews. The Syrian-Greek dynasty had killed many Jewish people, and during their occupation, set up an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple and slaughtered pigs on it.

Then, in 165 BC, a family of Jews, the Maccabees, began a revolt and were successful in driving the Greeks from the Temple and the Holy Land. When Simon Maccabee returned to Jerusalem, he was hailed as the great deliverer; and the people took palm branches and waved them in front of him as a sign of victory. “You have freed us from the Greeks. We salute you.” The palm branch was a national symbol. There are mosaic pictures of Hebrew soldiers with palm branches. In the crowd cheering for Jesus, there were those who cheered for a militant Messiah. They were waiting for the Messiah so they could start a rebellion.

The people waved palm branches as Jesus rode into town, and they shouted “Hosanna!” loosely translated as “Save us now!” They recited Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna, Son of David!” “Son of David” was a nationalistic term. Waving palm branches and calling him the son of David, they may as well have been waving flags of the nation and singing, “All Hail the Conquering Hero!”

In essence, the crowd was saying, “Jesus, be our deliverer. Save us from the Romans, as Simon saved our forbears from the Greeks. Cast out our enemies and save us from their awful oppression.” This is what they were looking for in Jesus – a militant, national hero – a king, an anointed one, a messiah. David was a messiah. Solomon was a messiah. Any of the ancient kings anointed by the priests were said to be messiahs. The people had specific expectations about what the Messiah would be like.

Many were looking for the leader of an armed rebellion, the prominence of the nation restored, the kingdom of Israel established as a political superpower; Jesus must have been a great disappointment. They cheered for Jesus as a way of saying, “Jesus, be the king to our nation! Jesus, be savior to our people!” Instead, what they got was a Messiah who came to be the king of all nations, a Messiah who came to save all people. There were those in the crowd who shouted and cheered for Jesus that day, but for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t know the ways of God. Jesus would challenge their preconceptions, their prejudices, and their presumptions, and joyful shouts of “Hosanna!” soon turned to indignant cries of “How dare you!”

I find there is often this same tension for those who would follow Jesus today. As long as Jesus does what we want him to do, as long as he fits inside our box, matches our religious and cultural expectations, and advances our own personal agenda, we are like those in the crowd who shout “Hosanna!” But, when Jesus draws us outside our comfort zone, when he broadens our religious perspective, and when he asks us to follow his way instead of conforming to our way, we look at Jesus and say, “How dare you!”

The crowd turned from their shouts of “Hosanna!” to cries of “How dare you!” because Jesus challenged their narrow, inward-focused, short-sighted worldview. They turned on Jesus because his purpose was grander and wider and deeper, and they just weren’t ready for that.

Jesus opens windows and shows us the true nature of the kingdom of God. He says, “This is my kingdom. A kingdom of peace, and love, and forgiveness. A kingdom of grace rather than judgment, a kingdom where all humanity is welcome to sit at the table with God. A kingdom where enemies are made friends, where the weak are lifted up, where the proud are brought low. A kingdom where lives are transformed, where the blind see, where the lame walk, where the deaf hear. A kingdom where the love of God rules in every heart, and the very fiber of everyone’s being become instruments tuned for praise.”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There’s only one catch. In order to participate in that kingdom, in order for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we must follow the one who is king. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey, fulfilling the prophecies and making his undisputable claim as the Messiah, he was saying, “I am the king. Follow me.”

Our proper response is captured so well in the lines from the old hymn. “Where he leads me, I will follow. I’ll go with him all the way.” Wherever he leads, we follow. If he leads us out of our comfort zone, if he leads us out of our prejudices, if he leads us beyond our own agenda, we follow. And we go with him all the way. We don’t stop when it gets challenging, we don’t stop when we are asked to make sacrifices, we don’t stop at the borders of what is safe and comfortable and easy to us. If we will truly follow Jesus, we’ll go with him all the way.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he made him claim as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There were those in the crowd who were willing to follow him all the way. I don’t know about you, but that’s where I want to see my face in the story. Today, Christians around the world are shouting “Hosanna!” and raising their palm branches high, because they have been changed by his love and want to give him the honor he is due.

How about you? The King of kings wants to be lord of your life. As Jesus comes to each of us as a king, he is calling us to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the messiah, the anointed one – truly, he is God’s son. If he is your king and the Lord of your life, wave your palm branch high and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tortured and Humiliated (Mark 15:15-23)


So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of the skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it.

Today we are continuing in our series of messages, 24 Hours that Changed the World, looking together at the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. We are experiencing and understanding the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in new ways along this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.

Three weeks ago, we spent time with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. We joined him as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done. Two weeks ago, we stood with him in the trial before the religious leaders, and were embarrassed to realize it was the religious people who had it in for Jesus, not the sinners. Last week, we went with Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who knew Jesus was innocent, and yet condemned him to death.

Today, our attention shifts to the next episode. Following Jesus’ conviction by the Roman governor, Jesus was mocked, tortured, and humiliated by the Roman soldiers. Some of what we talk about today is both violent and upsetting, especially when we think of our Savior and Lord enduring it, but we need our eyes open to that suffering to understand something about this story. We will live somewhere in that tension this morning. May we pray.

There used to be a giant weeping willow in my grandparents’ front yard, and when we were visiting in the summer and had acted up, we had the pleasure of going out to select our own switch from the tree. I learned early on that you don’t select a small, thin, green switch; you go for something old, thick, and brown. One time my grandma said, “Go get me something to spank you with.” Hear her instructions very carefully: “Go get me something to spank you with.” I came back with a piece of notebook paper and said, “Here you go, knock yourself out.”

Friday Morning, 8:00am

The Romans were great inventors and innovators. Their contributions to culture, science, and engineering – things like roads, aqueducts, architecture, and the republic form of government – were significant. Their creativity also spread into killing & torture, and the Romans took great delight in figuring out new ways to inflict cruelty.

In one form of flogging likely practiced on Jesus, the victim was stripped and forced to bend over a post, to which he was tied and struck across the back. One common whip was the flagrum, made of leather, and then braided with bits of stone, glass, metal, bone or other sharp objects designed to not only bruise, but to tear flesh with each lash. The third century historian, Eusebius, said that in Roman flogging, often “the sufferer’s veins were laid bare and the very muscles and tendons and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Part of the inherent cruelty was that very few people died. They were in excruciating pain, but still very much alive so they could feel that pain and suffer in it. They were often left with just enough strength to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site.

Jesus did not beg for mercy, which was unusual and angering to his torturers. Part of the satisfaction came when a victim’s will and resolve would be broken, when they would cry out and beg for the torture to stop, thereby placing themselves in a position of submission. Yet, Jesus said nothing, and no doubt, this angered his torturers.

They led him into the courtyard and called together the whole cohort, which would have been anywhere from 300-600 soldiers. Picture the scene. Jesus – stripped, bloody, in pain, weak, vulnerable – is led into the courtyard where several hundred soldiers from the finest and deadliest army in the world surround him. They are a picture of the undisputable strength and power of the empire – strong, virile, fearless. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

Can you see it? The soldiers taunting him, jeering at him, poking him, tripping him, continuing to strike him. “Hey, Jesus, you think you’re so great? You dare to call yourself a king? One simple man, against the strength of the most powerful nation on earth – really? Look at what you’ve gotten yourself into now, Jesus. You’re pathetic.”

Hear the taunts becoming bolder and louder, until someone finally yells out, “If he is a king, let’s give him a coronation!” They laughed in agreement with this absurd suggestion. Someone went back into their barracks and found a robe – a cape, really – they could drape over his shoulders but that would not hide his nakedness. Someone pulled some branches off a thornbush and bent them into a crown. “Here, put this on him,” he said, and someone else did. They pressed the crown down onto his head until it dug into his flesh and blood began to flow down his face.

“Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18) they shouted. They paraded him around the courtyard, shouting, “Hail, King of the Jews!” in mock salute. Someone took a cattail reed and placed it in his hand, a mock scepter, a parody of the king’s authority. They circled close around him, shouting at him, striking him, spitting on him, heaping humiliation upon the physical pain they had given him through torture. They had all but broken his body, beaten him literally within an inch of his life, and now they were all getting a good laugh out of breaking his spirit.

And here we find the story’s focus: a clear and tragic glimpse of what humanity did when God took on flesh and walked among us. Jesus could have destroyed them all with a word. Instead, he bore the shame and humiliation, in part so that all who came after him could learn from this story something about the human condition and the costliness of God’s grace.

We must ask ourselves why the soldiers did these things. Why did they torture and humiliate Jesus? The man had loved lost people. He had preached the good news of the kingdom of God. He had healed the sick. He had opened the eyes of the blind. Of course, he had also challenged the authority of the religious leaders and exposed their hypocrisy. But still, what kind of people would do this?

The Evil Within Us

Throughout history, we must recognize that human beings are capable of tremendous inhumanity toward one another. Humanity is neither inherently good, as the humanists say, nor inherently evil, as the religious fundamentalists say. The human condition is this: first and foremost, we are created in the image of God. We are marked indelibly with a sense of God’s reason and beauty on our souls. At the same time, our wills are also bent and broken away from God, and stand in need of restoration. We human beings are capable of great and tremendous good, and we are also capable of great and tremendous evil.

It is easy for us to say, “I could never do that. I would never have been one of the Roman soldiers who took delight in mocking, lashing, and terrorizing an innocent man.” Friends, we need to be careful about boasting in such claims. Have you ever see the mob mentality take over when a child is being teased or bullied, when otherwise good kids join in taunting and terrorizing another child simply because “everyone else was doing it?”

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a professor at Stanford University, turned the basement of the psychology building at Stanford into a prison. He and his colleagues hired 24 middle-class Stanford students and randomly assigned 12 of them to be prisoners and 12 of them to be prison guards. They were to be observed for 14 days, but the experiment was called off after 6 days because the students assigned as guards took their roles so enthusiastically. They lost sight of the fact that it was an experiment, and began to hurt and oppress their student prisoners.

Dr. Zimbardo discovered that all of us – each and every one of us – are capable of being transformed from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Given the right circumstances, all of us – each and every one of us – are capable of great evil.

Or, perhaps you remember the famous Milgram experiments in 1963. Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale, invited people to come in off the street and take part in a scientific investigation. They were paid four dollars for one hour in which they were placed in front of gauges and dials and told to deliver shocks when someone in the next room gave wrong answers to questions they were asked. The person in the next room couldn’t be seen and wasn’t actually shocked, but they were hired to scream out as if they had been shocked.

Before the experiment, researchers estimated that only 1% of the US population would administer what they thought to be lethal doses of electricity. However, the study showed that 65% were willing to increase the electricity to 450 volts, despite the apparent cries of pain coming from the other room. Even after the cries fell silent, subjects were still willing to give electric shocks to that person because an authority figure told them they had to complete the experiment. 65%!

Certainly, we can look at the results of these experiments and see many historic parallels. Abu Graihb, Guantanamo, Kent State, and Nazi Germany come to mind. What was so different in the minds of people in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s that they went along with Hitler’s “Final Solution?” Were they so unlike present-day Americans like you or me?

The sobering reality is that, no, they weren’t. Ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinarily awful and evil things. Given the right toxic mix of ideology, authority, gradual desensitization, and circumstances, all of us can become monsters, capable of destroying others with weapons ranging from words to gas chambers. It is a reality we must guard against, looking instead to God and trying to understand who God has called us to be.

The Power of Sacrificial Love

Jesus clearly taught that his suffering and death meant salvation for humanity. Through Christ, we are offered forgiveness, redemption, and right standing with God. The technical word for this is “Atonement.” Break it down – “at-one-ment” – it refers to everything God did in Christ on our behalf to make us one with God. It is about restoring the image of God within us, it about restoring the broken relationship between us and God that manifests itself in the fracture of our relationships with each other. We are made one with God through the suffering and death of Jesus.

Remember, we are intended to see ourselves throughout the story. As we have seen already, each person in the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life is a reflection of humanity’s broken, bent, and fractured nature. The disciples fell asleep, and then fled in fear. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied him. The ruling council wanted him dead. The crowds preferred a messiah preaching violence and nationalism to one preaching God’s kingdom of love. The governor went along with the ill-wishes of the crowd, and the soldiers took delight and made sport of torturing and dehumanizing an innocent man.

I don’t know about you, but I can see my face reflected in each face through the story, and that reality disturbs me. I see the evil committed throughout the story, and I have to honestly admit that, given the right circumstances, I could do the same exact thing. We are meant to look at this story and not sit in a position of judgment against those who have committed great evil, but to hold a mirror up to the story and see our own face reflected back.

In the story of Jesus’ suffering, we can see the jealousy, pettiness, self-centeredness, spiritual blindness, and darkness that lurks in all our souls. Christ’s suffering is not about what “some people, long ago, in a land far, far away” did to Jesus; we should be convicted of the things we all do that hurt God and hurt each other.

God help us. Save us from ourselves. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us.

But, the suffering of Christ not only shows us the brokenness of humanity; it also shows us the love of God. It shows us the lengths to which God is willing to go to restore our relationship with God, to restore the tarnished image of God within each of us. How great is God’s love for us! We see the love of the One who suffers for us, as well as his determination. He faced the whip, the crown, the cross – suffering and humiliation – with resolve, silence, and dignity.

He did all this to show us sacrificial love – the love that is the heart of the Gospel. Friends, his suffering is a declarative statement in which Jesus looks each of us in the eye and says, “Do you see the extent of God’s love? Do you understand that I have come so that you might finally hear of a love that is willing to suffer—even die—in order to win you over?”

Jesus’ love is sacrificial and abundant. It refuses to give in to vengeance or give up. Jesus is determined to love the enemy in order to win freedom for them and restore them to the rightful relationship of a beloved child, brother, and friend. In Romans 5:8, St. Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; that proves God’s love toward us.” We share those words with each other each time we come to the Lord’s table, reminding us of a love and grace that was reaching toward us and working on our behalf long before we did anything to earn God’s favor. Or, John 3:16, the verse that is possibly the greatest summary statement of God’s prevenient grace: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God gave – God gave his Son; the cross is the vehicle for demonstrating the full extent of God’s love.

When we see Jesus’ sacrificial love, we are given an example for our own lives. He has set an example for us of a kind of love that alone has the power to save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Sacrificial love transforms enemies into friends, exposes our own shortcomings and sin, shames the guilty into repentance, and melts hearts of stone. The world is changed by true demonstrations of sacrificial love and selfless acts of service.

When you look at the cross – in a church, in your home, around your neck – do you see the power of sacrificial love? Are you inspired to give of yourself sacrificially in order to transform the world, just as Christ gave himself sacrificially to transform you? We are to look at the cross of Jesus and say, “I have to strive to live in such a way as to be worthy of that sacrifice.” We are meant to be changed – not just once in our lives but each and every single day – and because we have been changed, we, in turn, will practice sacrificial love toward others. As each new follower of Jesus practices such love, the world will be changed and humanity transformed.

Where do you see yourself in the story? When I see the soldiers humiliate and torture Jesus, when I see them inflict pain and suffering, when I see them mock Jesus and ridicule Jesus, I have to admit the places in my life where I’ve done the same thing. I see the places where I have mocked Jesus, where I have denied him the right to be king of my life, where I have humiliated him through my actions, where I have inflicted pain and suffering on him.

When I see Jesus so determined and resolute in the way he faced suffering, I see his love for me. I see the fact that despite my own shortcomings, even though I was and am a sinner, Christ died to show God’s love for me. I am both embarrassed and humbled at that realization – embarrassed for the many things I’ve done that failed him, humbled that despite those things, Jesus still died for me.

And when I see the cross, remembering my own sin and shortcomings, humbled by the realization that Christ died for me not despite my sin but because of my sin, I am inspired and challenged. Because I realize that sacrificial love has changed and continues to change my life, sacrificial love continues to shape me in God’s image so that, by God’s grace, each day I might become a little more Christlike and a little more the person God wants me to be. I am challenged to show sacrificial love because I realize that sacrificial love, as it spreads from heart to heart, really will transform the world.