The Gospel of Mark. Shock and Awe. A Workshop in Wonder. Mark describes a savior who serves, a king who submits, a teacher that learns, a human who is divine, a Jew who changes Sabbath and Passover, a human who does miracles, and a leader who loves the least. Detail after detail after detail in Mark is shocking as it’s delivered, and Mark ends his gospel without altering his tactic of shock and awe. He actually concludes at the cross with shocking storytelling.
Why is the story of the cross shocking? I believe it’s shocking because it seems to focus more on people’s response to the crucifixion than Jesus’s actual experience of the crucifixion. How one reacts to the story seems to be what’s most important to Mark as he describes each moment.
See, I grew up in a really conservative church context, where when you preached about the cross of Jesus, it was preached in unbelievably graphic detail, sometimes even quoting medical experts, so that you could understand what happened to Jesus on the cross. And I’m not saying that’s bad. I think there can be a value there to really understand the suffering of Jesus. All I’m saying is that Mark doesn’t do it. Mark doesn’t walk through each of those moments, and I think the lack of detail about Jesus’s experience and the focus on the response of people is striking. Mark’s details, therefore, demand a response to the cross. Mark’s detail demands a response to the cross.
So, let’s look at them: detail number one, Jesus’s experience. Mark doesn’t completely ignore Jesus, but what we do learn about Jesus, we learn indirectly as Mark describes what other people do. And we see the following about Jesus in that story. First, Jesus allows himself to be led away by soldiers. Now, that’s a striking moment. That’s a dad my size, allowing a three-year-old to win a wrestling match. It’s like the Incredible Hulk allowing S.H.I.E.L.D. to arrest him. Jesus has an immense amount of power. He is the God-man. He allows his creations to be his escorts to the cross. So at the beginning, we do not want to miss who is actually in charge in this moment. Jesus chose to be here. He knows what’s going to happen. He predicted it.
We see that Jesus endures physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. Jesus even endures shame. Why? The Apostle Paul says in Romans, “the wages of sin is death.” Jesus paid the wages. In Jesus’s own words, his blood is the new covenant poured out as a ransom for many. Jesus, the Lamb of God, sacrificed himself to provide a way for all peoples to be reconciled to God. Jesus’s endurance of pain reached its zenith when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cumulative effect of this moment leaves Jesus alienated from his Father. Jesus cries out. He cries a loud cry. Brothers and sisters, he screamed. He didn’t sigh. He screamed. And then Jesus breathes his last. He gave up his life. Jesus chose to take his last breath. Jesus died. So Mark’s detail about Jesus’s experience reveals Jesus is human. Jesus, a human, suffered and died.
Detail number two, supernatural evidences. Supernatural evidences. These two moments in the story,
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
And then later in the narrative,
“and Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
Why? What in the world is going on here? Why does darkness descend? I wrestled with this moment in the story a lot, wondering is God merely just adding drama to the moment? Is that all that’s going on? Does it really have any significance? And I think it has a lot of significance. I put it this way. The darkness at the cross recalls past darkness and points to future darkness. The darkness of the cross recalls past darkness and points to future darkness. So, I took a moment to read every reference of the use of “darkness” in the Old Testament. And there are some unbelievable parallels. Let me share some of those with you.
Darkness does not begin as an evil thing, by the way. We think of darkness as evil, but an image of darkness as evil doesn’t happen until much later in the Scriptures. It begins with this: darkness displays God’s power. Genesis 1, God created light and darkness and split it down the middle. Every night, when those stars come out, that is a display of God’s power. The plagues in Exodus 10, God sends a plague on Egypt of darkness, a darkness that would be felt. Darkness is a display of God’s power.
Second, darkness emphasizes God’s presence and protection. Moses, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:21, it says this;
“Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
Solomon said in I Kings 8:12 and 2 Chronicles 6:1,
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.”
David said poetically of God in Psalm 18:9 and 11,
“God bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. . . . He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water.”
Another psalmist says in Psalm 97:2,
“Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”
God’s presence is in darkness. Why? Because God’s protecting his people. Because if you see him, you’re dead. God dwells in darkness because he’s protecting his people. God literally uses darkness to protect his people. In Exodus 14, Pharaoh King of Egypt had let Israel go, changes his mind, grabs his army, chases them. As God led Israel out of Egypt, he took the form of a pillar, a cloud in the shape of a pillar, that went in front of his people, and then at night it turned to fire. When the Egyptians started chasing Israel after they let them go, that pillar moved from in front of God’s people to behind God’s people, and on this side was light, and on this side was darkness, so the army could never find Israel. God protects his people out of darkness.
Third, darkness is the context of the first covenant, the old covenant. Jesus is the new covenant. The first covenant happened in darkness. Genesis 15:12,
“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram …”
And inaugurated the covenant how God’s people and how humanity and God would be reconciled … he inaugurated that in darkness.
We learned that darkness is also the place of death … Job 38:16-17. God is humbling Job here with some really big questions, and this is one of them: Job,
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?”
Job, do you take strolls at the deepest part of the ocean? Then he says, Job,
“Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
Job, have you been to death and back? Darkness also describes the Day of the Lord. Now, the Day of the Lord is a term, especially in the Old Testament, that refers to when God will ultimately return. But there are many days of the Lord, these moments of God’s presence and often God’s judgment. Think of the flood and the exile. All of those little days of the Lord always point forward to the ultimate Day of the Lord. In the same way, at the cross, Jesus drinks the cup of judgment of sin for all time. And yet, even the cross is not the final Day of the Lord. We’re still looking forward to when Jesus returns and everything is set right.
So, in light of all of that, why is there darkness at the cross? Well, similar to creation and the plague, the darkness at the cross is a display of God’s immense power. Similar to the words of Moses, Solomon, and the psalmists, the darkness at the cross emphasizes God’s presence and protection. While Jesus as a man feels and expresses being forsaken by God, the Three in One — God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit — are present at crucifixion. The darkness at the cross protects God’s people ultimately because salvation flows out of the darkness that happened at the cross. Similar to the darkness of the first covenant, the New Covenant, the covenant of Jesus happens in darkness. Similar to Job, darkness is the place of death, and Jesus does die on the cross, but Jesus will understand death in a way that Job never did, because Jesus will descend to the gates of death, he will see the gates of deep darkness, but he’s not going to stay there; he’s going to return. Similar to how God’s days of judgment point toward the ultimate Day of the Lord, so the darkness at the cross compels those who were there and those of us who read this narrative to, yes, look back at the cross and then, at the same time, look forward to the ultimate Day of the Lord. The darkness at the cross recalls all of that and points us forward all at the same time. The darkness at the cross cries out to all of us, “Hey, remember who God is. Remember his power. Remember what he’s done in the past. Remember, another day is coming where he will set all things right!
Second — supernatural evidence. Why does the curtain tear? Before we answer that, let’s remember another moment in Jesus’s life. And this is also in Mark. Mark 1:10-11,
“And when [Jesus] came up out of the water” [he was being baptized by John the Baptist], “immediately [Jesus] saw the heavens being torn open” [same word] “and the spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
So, at the baptism of Jesus, the barrier between earth and heaven, the sky, was torn open. At the sacrifice of Jesus, the curtain, the barrier between humanity and God’s presence, was torn. Why does the curtain tear? Because Jesus breaks boundaries between heaven and earth. What was separated? God’s dwelling, man’s dwelling, heaven, earth, torn open by Jesus. What is separated by this flimsy curtain? God’s presence and humanity. Once Jesus dies, that thing is torn in half because that is wide open for God’s people to enter into.
Second, the reason it tears is because Jesus is, and hang with me here for one second, Jesus is the real and better curtain. Hebrews 10, beginning at verse 19,
“Therefore, brothers, [he’s using temple language here] since we have confidence to enter into the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way … [So, because of Jesus, we’re allowed to go past the curtain into holy places] by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.”
Jesus is the real curtain. Jesus is the real way that we gain access into God’s actual presence. See, the curtain of the temple prevented entrance into God’s holy place. The body of Jesus, the real curtain, provides entrance into God’s presence. The curtain of the temple was a barrier. The curtain of Jesus is an open door. The blood of Jesus literally tears open the barrier between humanity and the Holy of Holies, between earth and heaven itself. So, I think what happens here is the curtain tears itself in repentance. Just like an Israelite in the Old Testament would tear their garments to show that they repented of what they were, the temple itself, in the presence of the death of Jesus, tore itself in half and repented of being a barrier. It opened wide the door for us to go right into the Holy of Holies.
Brothers and sisters, this detail, these supernatural evidences, reveals to us that Jesus is divine. Jesus’s experience — Jesus is human. We have to respond to that. Supernatural evidences — Jesus is divine. We must respond to that.
Detail number three, and this is by far the vast majority of the content that Mark writes about — human responses. And we have two groups. I’m going to call them the mockers and the followers. The mockers and the followers. Within both, we have numbers of people that we’re going to talk about.
So, let’s begin with the mockers, and we’re going to talk about the soldiers. The soldiers. They scoffed at Jesus, which is more than making fun. There’s intent there, and you gather other people. Did you see that moment in there? They gathered the battalion, up to 600 people, who took turns making fun of Jesus. They stripped him. Did you notice that one phrase, “they put his own clothes back on him”? Most of the time, crucifixion happened naked. I can’t help but think that there’s a moment here where, if we read the whole narrative of the story of God, we remember that humanity was never supposed to understand shame in nudity. But they discovered it through sin, and now, to bear that, Jesus experiences the same shame of public nudity. They play dress-up with him. They treated Jesus like a paper doll. They put a purple robe on and a crown and probably gave him a reed scepter that they hit him with later. They were mocking his kingship because remember, the charge against Jesus is, “You claim to be king of the Jews.” They struck him. They knelt in front of him. They spit on him. I think I could take being hit in most instances. You spit on me…. They compelled assistance from a passerby, Simon. They gambled for his clothes so that they can make a profit. And then they crucified him, and the simplicity of Mark’s writing there is so profound: three little words — they crucified him. So, their response to Jesus was “Jesus was a political problem.” He was just another guy they were going to kill.
Then there were those who passed by. “Aha!” it reads. In modern … you need to come up with the most disdainful sound you could hear from someone … Pffft! Heh! That’s what they were doing to him. “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross.” They used Jesus’s own words against him. So, this group of people, the passersby, their response is “Jesus is a liar. Hey, you said you were going to do this three-day thing, let’s see it. Come on!”
The chief priests with the scribes — now they’re interesting because they mocked Jesus together as a club. The text tells us it was to each other. The people who should have known who Jesus was, the religious people, the studiers of the Old Testament —
“He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel come down now from the cross that we may see and believe!”
Lie. They’ve already seen sign after sign after sign after sign after sign, and ignored him. It’s not honesty there. They don’t really want to see and believe. It’s just another shot to humiliate him. To them, Jesus was a religious rebel. That’s their response. That’s your identity. “You’re just a religious rebel.” Those who were crucified with him reviled him. Reviled is a word that is basically verbal abuse. Even the criminals who deserved their cross joined in, making fun of Jesus. To them, their response was “Jesus is just a peer. He’s just a guy like us who is on a cross.”
Then there’s this group, the bystanders, and they say this:
“Behold, he [talking about Jesus] is calling Elijah,” and someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”
Language is really important here because this isn’t sincere. Eloi, that Jesus screams out, Eli. God, Elijah — they’re really close in pronunciation. They misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and now they think there’s a shot of seeing something amazing. Jesus is now a means to an end, a miracle. So, someone actually gives him wine to keep him awake, to see if something cool will happen. Their response to Jesus is, “Jesus is an amusement. This is a TV show we’re going to watch for fun.”
Now at this point in the story, even if you don’t believe in Jesus here, the picture painted of humanity is ugly. I mean, again, if you just read the story of Mark alone, what has this guy really done? Even the guy in charge, who scourges him, knows that this is all about envy from the religious leaders. So, we come down to this moment where you see Jesus with resolute resolve, marching into Jerusalem, marching into this moment, knowing it was all going to happen. And then in shocking fashion, Jesus wants every one of those people to be forgiven.
The other group, the other responses from followers … from followers. There are some really cool, I think, small details that talk about some interesting followers. So, do you remember when the soldiers told Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’s cross right there in the narrative? Then there’s this weird detail out of nowhere that says who his sons are, Alexander and Rufus. Who cares? Scholars tell us that this guy, Rufus, is probably the same Rufus that’s in the book of Romans, where Paul says,
“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.”
Rufus followed Jesus after his dad carried Jesus’s cross. And from Rufus, we see his response: Jesus is worth following.
The centurion, a Roman officer, a foreign occupying soldier, a Gentile, and let’s not forget, he’s literally a participant in the crucifixion of Jesus, in the story itself. And his response, after watching Jesus of Nazareth die, is this,
“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
Mark could not choose a more shocking character to utter those words in the whole book! Remember all the way back to the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, he says this:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark’s main argument is that Jesus is the Son of God. So, at the end of this story, who’s going to be the person that proclaims it? Jesus’s mom, right? No. The disciples, the guys who followed him forever, they say it right? No. Someone that he healed? No. The centurion. The guy who’s actually part of the process of killing him. And so, we learn from his response, truly, Jesus is divine.
Then there’s Joseph of Arimathea. And this is wild. Joseph is actually a respected member of the council, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, the body that put Jesus on the cross. Now we learn in another gospel, Joseph did not agree with the decision. He did not agree to do that to Jesus. We also learn that Joseph was looking forward to the Kingdom of God. He was following Jesus in secret. And now, after Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea goes public. The text is so cool. He took courage. He saw some courage, grabbed a hold of it, shoved it in his heart and went to talk to Pilate: “Give me the body of Jesus.” And we would be fools to think, from that moment on that Joseph’s life didn’t completely change. He probably was not on the council long after that moment. So, we see in Joseph, Jesus is worth the risk. He’s worth the risk.
The women witnesses. Mark is overt in his inclusion of this group of people.
“There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.”
Then Mark adds this: After Joseph takes the body and buries the body of Jesus, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.” They continued following. So, why is Mark overt? Well, first, these are followers who actually followed. Unlike the eleven disciples of Jesus — the guys we think are supposed to be there — these women did not scatter and flee. They huddled and followed. Even from a distance, they were there when their friend died for them.
Second, why is he overt? Because these are witnesses who witnessed. Now how in the world … I never thought of what I’m about to say before studying for this. I don’t know. I’m a moron. Maybe you’ve already thought of this. But if the disciples weren’t actually there — and they weren’t — how do we know what happened at the cross? Who’s our source material from? These women. The story of the crucifixion stands squarely on the shoulders of these women. The church should probably say thank you. You know, we’re going to discover next week they’re also the first ones to report and see the resurrection. And then they’re ignored by the disciples.
And from their response, I think we learn that Jesus is compelling and culture-changing. He’s so compelling, they took off and followed him. They continued to follow when no one else was. And then they told their story so we wouldn’t forget. So, this group of followers … The centurion, who’s the least likely to respond because of his ethnicity — he’s a Gentile, a Roman — and his job, he was killing the guy. Joseph is the least likely to respond because of the risk, his role on the council, his job. The women are the least likely to be regarded in this moment as viable witnesses culturally. And yet that’s exactly who’s included in the narrative. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, reaches into least likely places. It goes beyond ethnicity, job, economics, and gender.
Now there’s one more group of followers. We’ve mentioned them briefly. They’re not in the text, but their absence is conspicuous and really important. Who’s missing? Who is it? Who’s not there? We’ve already said it. The disciples. The disciples themselves, the Eleven! What in the world are they doing?! Now, John tells us in his gospel that he was there because he and Jesus have an exchange, where Jesus says, “John, take care of Mary,” and John does that. So, we’re going to give John a pass on that one. The other ten, though, what do we do with them? Do we beat them up? Do we kind of mock them a little bit for not being there? Do we use them as examples of really bad disciples? And some take this approach. You can have a whole sermon that these guys become an object lesson in poor discipleship, but their absence to me is striking for another reason.
Here’s the crazy part. Jesus predicted they wouldn’t be there. “You guys are going to scatter.” He goes further. “Peter, you’re going to completely deny me and curse at me so people don’t think you’re with me.” And then this is huge: Jesus still predicted a reunion with them in Galilee. So back up for one second, and imagine this: as Jesus is dying, he knows the first group of people he’s going to want to make sure to see are the people who ran away from him. What kind of love is that? “Guys, I’m going to be killed. You’re going to run away. I’m going to make you breakfast in Galilee.”
So, we learn from the absent ones that Jesus is faithful to the faithless. Jesus is faithful to the faithless. The detail of Jesus’s experiences reveal that he is human. The supernatural evidences reveal Jesus is divine. The detail of the human responses reveals that Jesus is either a liar, a religious rebel, a mocking amusement, or a normal guy just like us. It’s either that, or Jesus is the divine God-man, the Lamb of God, who by his death saves us, and he’s worth following, he’s worth the risk, he’s compelling and culture changing, and Jesus is faithful even to people that aren’t faithful to him. Jesus is either in that way nothing or he’s everything. And that’s what the narrative cross brings us to.
The cross of Jesus Christ is warning and welcome. It warns you this death had to happen for you because you have a problem you can’t fix on your own. You’re separated from the God who made you. But if you believe in this Jesus, that is completely changed. It is warning and welcome. It is declaration and invitation. It is a declaration. It’s not an argument. You have a problem you can’t fix on your own. You need to put your faith in this person so that you can be reconciled to God. It is, in a sense … the cross of Christ is divisive and unifying. It divides in that you either believe in Jesus or you do not. But if you do, there is a unifying power in the cross of Jesus Christ that is completely unexplainable and supernatural.
Mark brings the cross to the forefront by presenting to us a moment where we, too, must respond. And I mean, everybody in here must respond. There’re so many responses we see in this narrative, even ones we haven’t talked about. There are passersby who didn’t do anything. They just ignored Jesus as another guy up on the cross. Will we choose now to mock, scorn, and make fun of the gospel of Jesus? And I’m just going to be honest, I just think with as many people are in here, through three services, certainly there are some among us who are still in this category of, kind of mocking and scorning him. Will you recognize it, receive it, and respond to it? Will you be like the centurion? “Truly, this guy is the Son of God. He’s divine, and I want in him.”
Or for many of us, perhaps we need to return and rediscover, like the disciples did once they reunited with Jesus. Because you know what? After they ran into Jesus, after the resurrection, no more stories of betrayal. No more scattering. No more fleeing. Actually, the eleven disciples and Mary and Mary and Salome changed the world. We’re kind of here because of them. So, Mark puts this story of the cross in front of us, driving towards response. So, what will you do?