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.

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