A sermon on Mark 15:39
preached at the Reformed Church of Port Ewen, New York
on Good Friday 2021
And darkness came over the whole land. The veil is rendered. Judgment — God forsakenness — has fallen upon the Beloved. “This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God” (line from W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio).
This is as Jesus had predicted. He had wept in lament over the Holy City, the city that kills its prophets (cf. Matthew 23:37-39). He had predicted this judgment in his cleansing of the Temple (cf. Mark 11:12 ff.). He had predicted this judgment when he said that not one stone would be left upon another, that all would be thrown down (Mark 13:2). It has happened as Jesus said it would, when he spoke woes against the Pharisees and the Scribes, when he spoke of the tribulation and trials to come, when he said to flee to the mountains and that it would be better to be without child, when he said: “But in those days, after that sufferings, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the ‘Son of Man…’” (Mark 13:24-25).
It is as the prophet Amos had prophesied about the final judgment of God:
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day. (Amos 8:9-10)
It was a bitter day. The sun was darkened at noon. The Feast of the Passover was interrupted by this lamentation of all lamentations. The Father mourned His only Beloved Son, His cherished offspring, whose innocent death reveals the ongoing drama of our redemption (Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 1062).
And then he, our Lord, our Redeemer and friend, the Beloved Son of God, dies. He expires. He breathes his last. Literally “breathed out his spirit.” In one last act of compassion, Jesus, in his death as the world in cruelty murders him, breathes out his spirit, his life, on us. He gives his life to us even as we put him to death. And in the power of the Spirit, the Spirit by which Jesus breathed out his life onto the world from the cross, the centurion utters the most remarkable confession: Truly this man was God’s Son.
This man? God’s Son? This is the way with Jesus Christ, the way with God. All the signs are here: the darkness, the Temple veil rent asunder just as the heavens and earth shake and are torn apart. The lamentation, the feasting turned to wailing and weeping. All the signs are here. But the judgment, the final judgment, the judgment of God, it falls not finally upon Israel, not finally upon the people of God, not finally upon humankind. No. It falls upon Jesus Christ, this man, the Son of God. This is the final judgment of God: the Beloved, the Son of God. This man, Jesus Christ, the one for the many, for all the world.
Truly this man is God’s Son. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is man, the man of all man, the human of all humans, the one human who stands for the sake of the many.
This man, Jesus, cries out with the cry of dereliction. He cries out on behalf of all humanity, in complete identification with our condition, with the human condition — with our waywardness, our lostness, or complete and utter failure to love God and love neighbor, to be holy as God is holy, to be human as God made us human. He cries out his cry of dereliction, identifying with us in our God-forsakenness.
He is the man, the human of all humans. He is us. He is our end. He, in his suffering, in his humiliation, in his shame, in his God-forsakenness, in his destruction — he is us. This is what we have chosen. We exchanged the holiness of God, the life and love of God, for this. We chose freedom from God, and instead of freedom we have found ourselves bound to paths of destruction and death. We see in Jesus, the human of all humans, the end of this path, this Way of Sin. It ends in shame and humiliation and God-forsakenness.
This is the abomination. This is the wrath of God.
But Jesus is not only the man, the man of man, the human of all humans. He is God’s Son. Truly this man was God’s Son.
Even here, even here in the darkest of darknesses, the light and love of God shines forth. Just as the veil in the Temple is torn, so is the veil between heaven and earth once again rent before us and we see God for who God truly is. A God whose holy love is so fierce, so strong that God would die for us, take our judgment upon Himself. A God who will suffer such utter humiliation and shame pro nobis.
The centurion, he gets it. In the power of the Spirit breathed upon him by Jesus, he gets it. Only three times in the Gospel of Mark is Jesus called the Son of God. First, at the very beginning in Mark 1:11 when Jesus is baptized. There the heavens are torn and the Spirit descends as a dove and the voice of the Father declares: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” The second, in the very middle of Mark (9:7) when Jesus stood transfigured before Peter and James and John and the cloud of darkness descended and from the cloud the Father spoke: “This is my son, the Beloved.” And here now, for the third time, at the very end. It is the centurion. A Roman soldier. A pagan. A foreigner, an outsider. One who is not of Israel. He gets it.
Unlike Peter, the apostle of all apostles, who confessed in the very middle of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is the messiah, but then immediately rebuked Jesus and told Jesus that he messiah does not suffer, does not die, the centurion gets it. Jesus is the messiah. He is the Son of God. And the precise moment this happens, the precise moment Jesus is fully and finally revealed, the very moment his suffering climaxes in his death.
This is God and not another. Broken. Beaten. Bruised. Dead. Killed as a political prisoner of the Roman Empire. Killed by the religious leaders and authorities. Killed by humankind in our sin, in our desire to do away with God. This, this is God. A prisoner, hung naked, in utter shame and humiliation, for all the world to see. Only we, the world, cannot look. We dare not look at what we have done. But there he is: dead and hanging from the cross. Nothing is more paradoxical than this. It is the inversion of everything we think about God. This Jesus, this man, is God’s Son. Humanity forever at odds with God in our sin, now reconciled in Jesus. This man is God’s Son. God and humanity together again, reconciled in this Jesus.
The men, the apostles, they are not here. They’ve run away in fear. The women, they are here at least, but they stand far off in the distance. They do not draw near. But this man, this centurion, this soldier trained in the art of killing, the soldier who has given his life to violence and to Caesar who himself claims to be the son of a god, this soldier whose life is dedicated to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth — this soldier, a Gentile who does not belong — he draws near. He sees Jesus for who he truly is: The man, the human of all humans; the Son of God. He draws near and sees here on the cross that this is the Son of God and there is no other. Jesus, in his arms stretched open wide on the hardwood of the cross fully and finally absorbs all the violence — religious and political, personal and systemic — all the hatred, all the mockery, all the unholiness, all the injustice, all the sin and judgment.
So if we have fled, like the apostles, let us draw near tonight, draw near like the centurion, draw near to our Redeemer and friend. If we are here, but we stand far off, keeping our distance like the women — we want to see but we don’t want to see — let us us draw near tonight, draw near like the centurion, draw near to our Savior. For here tonight, God reveals Himself as He truly is: the man on the cross, the human of all humans, the Son of God, upon whom, in the holy love of God, the judgment of the world, of us, has fallen. And in him, as all our sin and evil is absorbed and overcome in the holy love of God, God and humankind are reconciled. This man, God’s Son. God and humankind together again.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.