Sermon March 23

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

March 23, 2014

“Were You There?”

Mark 15:1-20

What makes us tremble? What is it that causes you to shake and shiver? Maybe it’s when you get the flu and you are running a temperature. Maybe it’s when you think summer is here so you brave the water of the lake or a pool, but you end up with your teeth chattering and your skin covered with goose bumps. And then there’s the other kind of trembling – the trembling that comes with excitement or tension or fear. It might be a job interview, a first date, or a few hours spent in a hospital waiting room. What is it that makes you tremble?

I’ve always been intrigued by the old spiritual we often sing – “Were You There?” The music and the lyrics are so simple. Before you’ve sung the first verse all the way through, you already know it. But the message is a powerful one. African-American slaves would incorporate into their spirituals their own life experience of suffering and hardship and hope. The passion of Jesus was something they could identify with. “Were You There?” is one of the most famous of those spirituals and one of the most emotionally powerful.

It makes a powerful hymn for us too. Is there anything about going to church that ought to make us tremble? We sing and pray, stand up and sit down, speak and listen, shake hands and smile – but tremble? What is there to tremble about? But there it is in the song – “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? O sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

When we consider Jesus’ death on the cross; his willing sacrifice for you and me; the death of God’s Son as the supreme revelation of God’s love – that ought to make us tremble. And you notice in the song – the resurrection of Jesus; the victory of God’s Son over sin and pain and death – that’s cause for trembling too. I’m sure there’s lots of people who want nothing to do with trembling, unless it’s produced by a chilly breeze. They come on Christmas Eve and Easter looking for a painless, cost-free Christianity; a socially acceptable religious experience. But let me tell you, if you haven’t trembled, you haven’t worshiped.

We’ve heard about those who were there the day Jesus was crucified. I’ve done a series of sermons based on the characters who were present. After his arrest came the trials, when Jesus was taken first to the home of Caiaphas the high priest and then to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor. There was the crowd outside the residence of the governor which was prodded to call for Jesus’ crucifixion, and there were the Roman soldiers who beat and scourged Jesus. On the way to the place of execution Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to carry his cross. At the place of crucifixion there were the soldiers, the centurion, the two thieves crucified beside him, the taunting crowd, and the religious leaders. And then there was Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, another woman named Mary, and the disciple John.

Crucifixion was a terrible sight. Leon Morris wrote: “The cross represented miserable humanity reduced to the last degree of impotence, suffering, and degradation. The penalty of crucifixion combined all that the most ardent tormentor could desire: torture, the pillory, degradation, and certain death, distilled slowly drop by drop.” Although the gospel writers record the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus, mercifully, there is no description of them. There is a modest restraint about the gory details of Jesus’ suffering.

For the Romans, crucifixion was the cruelest form of capital punishment. Roman citizens were exempted from this barbaric punishment; they could be beheaded but not crucified. The shame of crucifixion was reserved for the lowest, for non-Romans and slaves, and it was always a public humiliation enacted as a warning to others.

The story of Jesus’ arrest and trial, scourging and crucifixion is a powerful and tragic narrative. However, the question arises – What can it possibly have to do with me? As we sit on a comfortable pew on a beautiful spring morning – What does this story have to do with us? Does the death of Jesus on a cross at a particular time and in a particular place have a universal significance for all times and places? The answer is – Yes.

What Mark tells us about has to do with the greatest mystery of life – an innocent suffering and a redemptive sacrifice; the wounds of Jesus bring about our healing. The prophet Isaiah said: “Surely he has borne our griefs.” Then we know that we are standing before a divine mystery; we find ourselves standing before the cross.

One of my favorite artists is the Dutch master, Rembrandt. It’s a drawing by Rembrandt that is on the front cover of the bulletin. In his series of paintings on the crucifixion he displays a deep understanding of the meaning of the cross. One of his paintings is entitled: “The Elevation of the Cross”. What I find most remarkable in that painting is that Rembrandt has inserted himself into the scene. The man in the blue beret struggling to raise up the cross on which Jesus is hanging is Rembrandt himself. He has painted his face on that man.

Something quite the opposite of vanity was intended. Rembrandt knew that it was because of all of his sinful choices in life that Jesus Christ was on the cross. He understood that Jesus was taking his place.

At the very time when Jesus Christ was on the cross was the time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The lambs were intended as a substitution. They were offered to God in acknowledgement of the sins of the people. But it was Jesus Christ who came as the perfect lamb of God, accepting on his own shoulders on the cross the sins of the whole world.

Isaiah wrote: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

D.T. Niles wrote: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? I was there. I can see myself in each of the actors in that drama. I was there in Caiaphas who would save the nation by letting Jesus perish. I was there in Nicodemus who would not risk his position in the Sanhedrin for Jesus’ sake. I was there in Peter who loved but was unprepared. I was there in Judas who followed, but sought to bend Jesus to his own ends. I was there in Herod who did not care. I was there in Pilate who was afraid. I was there among the fickle crowd. I was one of the soldiers who simply did his duty. I know I am also guilty of his death.”

One reason we can say that we were there is because it is on account of us that Jesus was crucified. He didn’t die a criminal’s death simply because people didn’t understand him. It wasn’t only due to the powerful enemies he had made and the complexities of political life in Israel. Jesus died because of me and because of you. Richard John Neuhaus wrote (paraphrasing John Donne): “Send not to know by whom the nails were driven; they were driven by you, by me.”

What brought Jesus to the cross was a love more powerful than all our sins. Because of that love Jesus Christ endured a criminal’s death in order that we might be free from sin and free to accept his love. He went to the cross for us, and we were there.

Everything that Jesus embodied in himself and everything that he did as he healed and taught and loved was a revelation of who God is. But there is no other deed that communicates that revelation so completely as the crucifixion. The crucifixion was more than the martyrdom of a good man. It was more than the inspiration of a great example. The cross is a window through which we see the love of God poured out for us.

Let me share with you a story I’ve told before. It’s from John Killinger. It was told originally by a priest in a church in Paris, and it’s about three young students who were walking along a country road in France. The students liked to think of themselves as intellectuals and philosophers, and they were discussing the power of human thought.

One of the subjects they deplored, as they spoke, was religion. Religion, they agreed with Karl Marx, was the opiate of the people: it drugs people into acceptance and compliance with a world order that is inferior. As they walked they passed a little church. One of the boys dared another to go into the church and tell the priest what they had been saying – to tell him that religion is really passé and no longer has a place in the modern world.

Unable to refuse a dare, the young man went in. He found the priest and said what he thought. As he turned to leave, the priest said, “My son, why have you told me this?” The boy admitted that he had been dared to do it. “Ah,” said the priest, “then you would accept a dare from me as well?” And the priest dared the young man to go into the chancel of the church and stare for a moment at the crucifix and say, “Jesus Christ died for me, and I don’t give a damn.”

Embarrassed, but unable to avoid a dare, the boy went into the church. He looked up at the old crucifix, blackened by years of incense and candlelight. The face of Jesus was still visible. It was filled with pain and agony. He said the words: “Jesus Christ died for me, and I don’t give a damn.” And again he turned to go. “One more time, my son,” said the priest, “and I’ll not ask again.”

A final time the boy looked up at the face of Jesus, twisted in the torture of death. He started to say the words but they would not come. He looked and tried again, but no sound came out. At last, slowly, he turned around and approached the priest. “Father,” he said, “I want to confess my sin.”

At this point the priest who had been telling this story to a sophisticated congregation in Paris leaned across the pulpit and said, “I know this story is true, my friends. You see, I was that boy.”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? I was. And sometimes it causes me to tremble.

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