The scene around the corner from my office today…
Next week is Holy Week, the countdown to our remembrance of Jesus’ execution. It’s a bit easier to think of it as the countdown to Jesus’ resurrection, but that’s taking the easy road. To get us (me) ready, it seems appropriate to focus on a few foundational things.
Interestingly, people put forth numerous reasons why Jesus was put to death, but Scripture focuses on four in particular:
1) He aroused opposition because of the way he entered Jerusalem at the beginning of his final week of ministry (the event Christian Churches all over the world will focus on tomorrow). When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he was riding a donkey and people were shouting “Hosannah! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11.1-10) This pretty much mimicked Solomon (David’s son) who 1000 years earlier arrived on the royal mule & declared his kingship. (1 Kings 1.32-40) The crowd’s response pretty much said the same thing – this is the one destined to be Israel’s king and ruler. It would be pretty hard to avoid a run in with Rome when Jesus’ fans were suggesting in pretty unmistakable terms that he was Israel’s king not Caesar.
2) He called out the ruling priests on their failure to live up to their calling. By disrupting the sacrificial trade and traffic he made it clear that the temple wasn’t the place of prayer for the nations that it was supposed to be. (Mark 11.15-18) First Rome is angry, now the ruling priests, scribes, and elders are offended.
3) Jesus doesn’t help matters when he tells the parable of the Vineyard. (Mark 12.1-12) The ruling priests and their supporters had asked him by what authority he did what he’d done in the Temple. (Mark 11.27-33) He responds by telling a parable based on another story (Isaiah 5.1-7) that was already understood to warn about Israel’s impending judgment because of its failure to pursue justice – a story often directed against the temple establishment. Not a good way to smooth things over.
4) The tipping point, so to speak, comes when an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with oil in front of his disciples and Jesus praises her for it. (Mark 14.3-9) Right after that Judas leaves for his rendezvous with ruling priest that leads to Jesus’ betrayal. (Mark 14.10-11) Lots of people have commented on the contrast between the devoted woman with no name and the treacherous disciple with an infamous name, but there’s another interesting element as well. Judas most likely told the ruling priests what he’d experienced right before he came to them – it was a pretty intense interaction, not likely that would have been overlooked.
We have a pretty strong tendency to focus on the internal, spiritual aspects of Jesus’ death – not a bad thing at all. But it’s important to stay grounded in the temporal aspect as well. Jesus was perceived as a serious political threat. His message threatened the status quo – a status quo no one in authority wanted overturned. He entered Jerusalem just like an anointed son of David, just like King Solomon so long ago. He acted like he had messianic authority in the temple, and he was was anointed by at least one of his own followers, which was easily interpreted as having messianic significance. It’s no wonder the high priest would ask him angrily, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” and the Roman governor would put up a sign that said, “This is Jesus, king of the Jews.”
**For a short read that will ground you in the temporal experience of Jesus and his first followers during that last week – check out Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened by Craig Evans & N. T. Wright. It’s not a new one, but it’s a good one.
Holy Week begins on Sunday. Many of us have been immersed in various studies and other introspective devotional explorations, which is a very good thing. To move us outward, on both the human and cosmic levels, I suggest a (relatively) short and provocative read by N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.
We mark the crucifixion of Jesus once a year, but the problem of evil (and its solution) that is inextricably entwined with the death of Jesus extends beyond a single observance. In a broken world like ours, it’s always good to get a glimpse of the mind and purposes of our loving God. Not a new read, but definitely a valuable one.
The Romans knew what they were doing – they crucified thieves, murderers, revolutionaries, anyone who opposed them – right outside the city gate, alongside the road to town. They wanted everyone coming and going into the city of Jerusalem to be confronted by the harsh reality of crucifixion.
They wanted the Cross to be unavoidable.
And so it is. The Cross is not just central to our Christian faith – it is unavoidable. It was for Jesus, it was for his followers, and it is for us.
And yet … how much do we avoid the Cross, avoid the concept of sacrifice, and avoid the challenge of discipline?
I was serving a church in northern Indiana a few years ago where we always displayed a rough-hewn wooden cross right up front, on the chancel during Lent. Maybe your churches do that, too, perhaps draping it with purple during Lent, and then white on Easter, or something like that. One year when we put up that cross, a woman – a very faithful, long-term Christian in our church – said to me, “I don’t like that cross, it looks too realistic.”
That’s it, isn’t it? Too realistic. Too harsh. Too much of a reminder of the price paid, the sacrifice, the pain, the blood, the death. We like to skip over that, we like to, as my preaching professor Carlisle Marney used to say,
“We like to bootleg Easter in ahead of Good Friday.”
And yet the cross is unavoidable, even if it is hard to explain and maybe even an embarrassment. The Cross is unavoidable.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:18-25) he had to deal with the Cross and the obstacle it presented. To Jews, it was a huge problem to think of the Messiah being executed on a Cross. To Greeks and their philosophers it was nonsense. But, as Paul says, to those who believe, it is POWER and SALVATION.
So as we continue this season of Lent let me ask you some uncomfortable questions:
I ask these questions of you and of myself, because I believe the Cross is unavoidable, and if we try to avoid the Cross then we miss the power of the Gospel.
Let me say that again: I believe the Cross is unavoidable, and if we try to avoid the Cross then we miss the power of the Gospel.