Monday, 9 March 2015

Three stories... One story

Yesterday at Nunhead Salvation Army Corps, we looked at Mark 15:33-39. This is the passage which deals most closely with the actual death of Jesus. At the start of it, he is already on the cross; by the end, he is dead. 
33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 

I have often been struck by the fact that the passage records three things which to most people in Jerusalem at the time would have appeared to be unrelated. The darkness. The
death of Jesus. The tearing of the temple curtain. If there had been a newspaper available the next day, I have no doubt that the three stories would each have had a separate headline.

But for Mark, they belong together. They are one story. He doesn't explain how or why they fit together, but by placing them together in one narrative, he allows them to speak to and interpret one another. In fact, that is his theological method: he doesn't usually explain or expound - he places narratives together, connecting them so that the reader can think and see the Truth in the story for themselves.

In this case, it seems to me that the only words we hear from the cross, in Mark, explain the darkness, and the darkness gives depth to the words. Or the darkness is the demonstration of the truth in the words. 
In the Old Testament, God's presence and blessing were often associated with light, while darkness is associated with chaos, sin and judgement. For an excellent brief treatment of this Biblical Theological theme, see here. The Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 makes this connection, and was familiar to every member of God's community:

24 The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

 As the darkness falls and we hear the appalling words from Psalm 22, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, what we are witnessing is the inversion of that blessing.
The Lord is not blessing him
and is not keeping him;
the Lord is turning the light of his face away from him
and is cursing him;
the Lord is turning his face away from him
and taking every last drop of peace away.

We are seeing the Man on the cross being abandoned by God. Every last blessing that was bestowed through the covenant, every last encouragement that came through the priests - all, all is now withdrawn. And beyond that, the eternal fellowship of Trinity - God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in eternal "face to face" fellowship - that fellowship is broken. A great tremor is felt in the universe, because a great awfulness is felt outside of an over and above the universe. Something is happening which breaks a bond which is at the heart of all existence. Abandonment.

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And then he dies. And Mark pulls right up against that verse the fact of the tearing of the temple curtain. He doesn't explain, but the juxtaposition is Theology. It speaks.
From Genesis 3 onwards, the Old Testament is a book of barriers. There is a sword to stop Adam and Eve returning to the garden. The people come to Sinai and Moses is told to make a very clear boundary so that nobody touches the mountain of God's presence. The tabernacle is set up, and the boundaries have become three - the outer palisade, the curtain leading into the Holy Place, and then the curtain sealing off the Holy of Holies itself. As the book progresses into the era of Solomon's temple and beyond, the number of "layers" increases - courts of gentiles, of women, one after another like an onion. The central concept is that the closer you get to the very presence of God, the fewer people there are allowed to go there, and then only with blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies only sees the High Priest, and only once a year.
There is some discussion over the temple curtain - which is it - that which seals the Holy Place off from the court of the priests - this one would have been more visible to male Jewish worshippers who happened to be in the temple at the time - or the great final curtain which separated Holy Place from Holy of Holies? The latter would only have been visible to any priests actually serving in he Holy Place at the time.

Either way, the point is this: the barrier has gone. It has been torn. It has become irrelevant. And the apparently insignificant detail torn from top to bottom tells us that this was not the result of some kind of priestly tug of war, trying to rip a curtain - the only "hands" to reach the top were God's. He has done the ripping. 
The Man on the cross is abandoned by his Father. This is not because the Father is cruel or unkind. It is because this is how the enemies of Father and Son will be welcomed home. The cross is an act of love. there is an abandonment there, but it is ultimately the abandonment of giving; the Father gives his Son, the Son gives himself. They do this, together, so that you and I may go in. The veil is torn. The barrier is gone. A new and living way is open. So let's go in!
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Most people who are there at Golgotha are clueless as to what is going on. Even when Jesus shouts "Eloi!" there are people who claim to "know their Bibles" who think the whole thing has to do with the promised "second coming" of Elijah. Frankly, they are so in mockery mode that the solemn supernatural darkness and heaviness of the scene is not weighing on them. Or perhaps they are trying to shrug it off. 
But for one man, there is revelation. The centurion, probably the soldier in charge of the execution, Jesus' own killer, sees something. We can't be totally sure how much he understood by Surely this man was the Son of God!  but he got something. While others saw nothing because they were intent on seeing nothing, Jesus' official killer saw that this man was special, he was unique, and that God had been at work in him. And he sees that specifically through witnessing the actually manner and moment of Jesus' death.
Do you want to know God? Do you want to know what he is like? Then look at the Man on the cross. Here God gives himself. Here God saves us. Here God opens a way and welcomes us home. Here God reveals himself.

Be amazed. Be glad. Be thankful. Enter in! 
And then be a giver in his likeness!

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