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Waiting for Easter (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 15:1-47

 Sermon:

This is rough. The trial and death of Jesus on the cross is rough. It has everything detestable with which we are familiar to this very day. Here are the corruption and jealousy of religious leaders. Here is a political leader, Pilate, who seemingly has no moral character. His primary focus is self-interest. Here is the crowd, easily manipulated and being played like a violin by their religious leaders. How is it that they can ask for the release of a murdering revolutionary and call for the crucifixion of Jesus? “Crucify him!” they cry. “Crucify him!”

But then we know that people can easily be manipulated by ugliness. The Russians know this about our country. As we learned last week, organizations like Cambridge Analytica know it as well.

What is most appalling about the death of Jesus, at least to me, is the cruelty of the soldiers and then the religious leaders as Jesus is prepared for crucifixion and finally crucified. He is flogged, dressed in a purple cloak, given a crown of thorns to wear. Then these demented soldiers salute him as “King of the Jews,” strike him on the head, spit on him, and continue their mocking as they kneel down as if to pay homage to him.

Little wonder that someone had to be pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus was so beaten up that he didn’t have the strength to do that. But that was not the last of the demeaning behavior, the bullying. As Jesus suffers on the cross, he has the religious leaders and others mocking him. “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” they said. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Mark even says that the two bandits who were crucified with him, one on his left and one on his right, taunted him.

What is striking about the crucifixion of Jesus is how out of control he is. He is led around by others like a child—an abused child! And, as the spiritual put it, “he never said a mumbling word,” or, for that matter, did anything about the predicament in which he found himself! One might think that all that cruelty—from the religious leaders, from the crowds, from the political authorities—would have prompted some kind of response. Maybe lightening from heaven. Maybe, at the very least, a good tongue lashing, making sure that those who did such terrible things to him knew how much God was hating what they were doing.

But Jesus has almost nothing to say. To Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” That is, are you a revolutionary against the Roman state, against Caesar? He answered him, “You say so.” And to the accusations of the religious leaders at his trial before Pilate, we are told that he had no answer. No defense.

The longest response to his crucifixion came just before he cried out and breathed his last, Mark tells us. It is a quote from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But his quoting that Psalm may very well have had a deeper meaning for Jesus than what is obvious. While the Psalm begins with the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it ends with vindication. It ends with transformation.

It might be helpful for us to realize that the first persons who heard this story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus knew how it ended. They knew about the cruel death. But they also knew about what came next. They knew about the horrible circumstances surrounding Jesus’ trial and execution on the cross. But they also knew about the resurrection too. They knew about Easter.

And Biblical scholars believe that Mark was writing his gospel for people who were being persecuted, for people having a tough time. So Mark reminded them of what Jesus went through in the last days of his life. He reminded them of corrupt religious leaders. He reminded them of spineless political leaders who do what they think they have to do to keep the peace and hold on to their jobs. He reminded them of angry crowds manipulated by their leaders. He reminded them of bullies who demean and hurt seemingly for the sheer fun of it.

Yes, the first readers of the gospel of Mark must have known about these realities in their own lives. They must have known about cruel people doing cruel things. But what Mark reminds them is that amidst all this cruelty and meanness Easter is coming. Amidst the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” God is at work. God is doing a new thing. And the temptation to strike back in kind, as it was for Jesus, is indeed a temptation. God is on the horizon. Easter is coming.

Yesterday was both a deeply emotional and hopeful day for many of us. Crowds gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Washington D.C. and in 800 locations on every continent in the world except for Antarctica. I even have a friend who is the pastor of an English speaking church in Santiago, Chile, who posted on Facebook pictures of the gathering in that city and country. And it all got started by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the terrible tragedy there.

All the speakers of the gathering in Washington D.C. at that estimated crowd of 800,000 where kids, some as young as 11 years old. Some as old as 18.

And what brought tears to my eyes was the hope of it. Gun violence is rampant in our country. School shootings are all too common. But these kids, who are at the head of this movement, are not giving into inevitability. They are speaking for change. They are seeking change. Are they naïve? Maybe. To some extent. But in the voices of those young people, many of them who have lost brothers and sisters, as well as fellow classmates to gun violence, I heard hope, determined hope. In the midst of the carnage, I heard that Easter is coming.

Listening to them speak, I was reminded of the youth led movements when I was a kid. Civil Rights was one of them. It was largely young people who crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965 on the 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was largely young people who stood up to racism in Birmingham, Alabama. Some of them were roughed up by the authorities. They had dogs attacking them and fire hoses spraying them. They faced tear gas, nightsticks and whips. It looked pretty bad. Pretty hopeless. But Easter was coming. Americans saw the brutality on their television sets, and they said this is wrong. This is not what America was intended to be. And so out of their brave acts standing against discrimination and prejudice, something new began to emerge. Hope was born. What God intends for the world began to happen.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe you have prayed that prayer, or another one like it, with meaning during a rough time in your life. Maybe when a marriage or job was coming to an end. Maybe when dealing with an illness. Maybe when life seemed dark for you or your loved ones. Maybe when you took a stand for what you believed was the justice at the heart of the gospel, and you got shot down for it—maybe by some of your fellow Christians.

But just remember that Easter is coming. The Lord who was murdered in the cruelest way imaginable knows what it is for us to be where we are, as hopeless as that may seem. And he wants us to know that, even though it may be locked up in the darkest tomb, new life will come. Hope will emerge. The Lord, who was put to a horrible death on a cross, has not been stopped. Look for him. In your life. In the world. Wherever you go. Easter is coming.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, March 25, 2018

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