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Sermon - 21 March 2016

Palm Sunday, 21 March 2016

“Surely this man was innocent”

The passion of Jesus – his last days, trial, crucifixion – is the focal point of the Gospel, the point toward which everything else heads. Mark’s Gospel has been called a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction. It overshadows even the resurrection.
It is a compelling event to rehearse, as we have just done. Thousands of people were crucified in the Roman Empire, and scores of men before that in the rough justice of great powers seeking to govern by ferocity and intimidation. Yet the narrative we heard this morning is the most detailed and most extended of any literary record known.

And this fits the remarkable man Jesus. The thing that made his death different, and life giving, is that he chose this path. Of the thousands crucified by the Romans, the man Jesus could with a word have walked away. Even Pilate gets this.
When he told his disciples that the son of man must be tried and scourged and killed, it was this kind of death he had in view. Jesus is no tragic victim, as much as our hearts go out to him. He came against forces of darkness and death, forces at work in ourselves and aided and abetted by human sin, our own misdeeds and injustice. He came against them and allowed them to do their worst, so that every pocket of sickness, rebellion, injustice, petty hatred, stored up resentment and score-keeping might be exposed and defeated. At great cost.
Dorothy Sayers put it this way.

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He has organized with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it all worthwhile.”
When the centurion says, “surely this man was innocent,” it isn’t just a registering of the obvious. It is an acknowledgment that Jesus had the power to accept this fate but not be undone by it. There was something unique and forever life-altering in this death, and the centurion’s verdict seeks, however feebly, to comprehend it.

And of course we can see it in the power of a man to forgive, in the moment of his deepest anguish.  Not a sweeping judgment that all will be well, made by a general on horseback surveying a battle scene, and pronouncing forgiveness over enemies conscripted against their will. But amid taunts, personal and biting, and efforts to get out at the last moment, there is Jesus forgiving and assuring a man next to him that today you will be with me in paradise.
That is the power of God. The power we need. The power we cannot summon up by will or dint of effort. The power we may seek to distance ourselves from because it shows how powerless we really are in the end, but which seeks us out, and will not let us go.
How provident of God to send his son to die for us, and as well, to provide the means each year—this Gospel record--so we can stand at the cross and see the power we need in our lives. The innocence we lack, and the strength that unleashes it for us, year after year, and at every moment of need or defiant self-reliance. Before this man and this cross we are to see genuine strength and the hope that brings to us even eternal life, larger life, fellowship with him that will not end.

Let us stand and sing Isaac Watts’ powerful hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” 
 
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