Crossed-Up: Substitution - Mark 15:1-15
I’d like to do a survey this morning? Is there anyone here wearing an injection needle? An electric chair? A rifle? A hangman’s noose? A guillotine? How about a cross? Every one of those items are instruments of execution, yet we are unwilling to adorn our necks, ears, clothing, vehicles, and homes with the needles, electric chairs, rifles, nooses, and guillotines. When it comes to crosses, though, we often don’t pause a moment to think about wearing them or using them to decorate. What is it about this most barbaric form of execution—because the reality of it is that all of those other means of implementing the death penalty are, comparatively speaking, quick and humane, compared to crucifixion—what is it about the cross that causes us to make an exception to the rule when displaying instruments of death? What makes the cross beautiful while the others are things that we would rather not see?
There must be something special about the cross. The truth of the matter is, my brothers and sisters, the cross stands at the center of our faith. Too often, though, we don’t talk about it. It is one thing to display it, but to talk about the reason for it…the fact that someone was actually bloodily put to death on it…we want to avoid those thoughts or that discussion. In fact some churches have gone as far as removing crosses from their places of worship or entire building because they don’t want folks scared off by a cross that is hard to truly understand. While we haven’t gone that far within the United Methodist Church, the thought has been there. A great controversy in the 1980s during the formation of the hymnal we use was an effort to remove the “bloody” hymns, those hymns that focused on the gruesome death of Jesus, resulting in the outpouring of His blood.
The thing is, my friends, that if we ever lose the cross, we lose our faith. There are many preachers and theologians that are striving to recapture the importance of the cross, to bring it back to the forefront of our minds, that we might understand the true beauty of the cross. Mark Driscoll, a pastor from Seattle, Washington, calls the cross, “a multi-faceted jewel” and continues by saying, “One theologian has called the cross the great jewel of the Christian faith, and like every great jewel it has many precious facets that are each worthy of examining for their brilliance and beauty.”[i]
Within the United Methodist Church, Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, has said, in reference to the atonement (the means by which we become reconciled to God through the cross), “There are a variety of theories. No one of them is wholly adequate, but taken together they paint a powerful and profound picture of the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death for us.”[ii]
This year our choir is working hard on a cantata to present on Palm Sunday, which is also known as Passion Sunday—this cantata, called Canticle of the Cross, focuses not on the resurrection, but on the beauty of the cross. In preparation for that cantata, from now until then, and afterwards on Easter Sunday, we are going to try and examine and recapture an understanding of just why we celebrate the execution of a man almost 2000 years ago.
One of central theories of atonement, the way that we are made at-one with God through the cross, is substitutionary theory, or penal substitutionary theory. This theory suggests that Jesus, on the cross, became a substitute for each of us.
From the time of creation through now, the biblical penalty for sin, is death. At the time of creation, God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden, and said to them, “‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’”[iii]
The sins of humanity brought about their death through the flood of the earth in the time of Noah…the sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah brought about their death…the sin of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians brought about the death of the firstborn in Egypt…the sins of the Hebrew people brought about their death as they wandered in the wilderness…as Moses reveal The Law of God to the people, many of the sins carried with them the consequence of the death penalty…the sin of King Saul brought about his death…the sin of the political and religious leaders of Israel and Judah led to the death of many of its people…we see the sin of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John before a stone-throwing firing squad…and Paul reminds us, “the wages of sin is death….”[iv]
Why does sin demand death—because God established it that way to begin with, from the Garden’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God, being the good parent that He is, had to follow through on the punishment that he declared would happen if His children were disobedient. Because God is a Holy and Just God, sin demanded death. The thing is, my brothers and sisters, the God we worship is not only Holy and Just, He is also loving and forgiving.
In His love for us, God began making a plan for restoring us into relationship with Him and giving us life. In the Old Testament, God’s Law established the Day of Atonement…this was a day in the Hebrew Year to deal with the sin of God’s people. On that day, the priests would take two goats. The first goat would be killed. The blood of the goat would be sprinkled on the altar as a blood sacrifice for the sin of the people. The priest would offer a prayer of confession and he would place his hands on the second goat which was still alive. He would be understood to be transferring the sins of the people onto this “scapegoat” that would then be driven from the community into the wilderness, thus removing the sin. The goats stood in place of the people, thus sparing their lives.
However the people continued to sin and each year this act would have to be repeated. Something more had to be done. Something greater had to be done. The prophets saw it coming, particularly Isaiah: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[v]
Jesus understood this to be an aspect of what He was doing when he said during his final meal with the Disciples, taking the bread and breaking it, saying “This is my body” and later taking the chalice of wine, “This is my blood of the covenant[vi], which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins….”
Peter, John, Paul and the other New Testament authors all understood that in the crucifixion our sins were placed upon Jesus and he died in our place. The author of Hebrews writes, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who…offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins…he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself…Christ…having been offered once to bear the sins of many….”[vii]
How could God be so cruel that He demand the death of His own son so that we might be forgiven of our sins? We must not forget two things…first, it was an act of love…”For God so loved the world…”[viii] and “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”[ix] Secondly, we must remember that Jesus, the Messiah, was not only man, but was God, Incarnate…God loved us enough that He came Himself, took on our flesh, and took our punishment…He substituted himself for us, He took on Himself the punishment that would restore us to relationship with Him.
Who was the first to experience the amazing wonder of having Christ die in their place? We heard his story this morning… His name was Barabbas... a murderer who had been sentenced to die…Can you imagine the wonder of how he felt when suddenly set free from his sin? He found himself freed as an innocent Jesus was sentenced to the die instead.
My brothers and sisters, we had been sentence to death, deservedly so for our sin. Yet Jesus stepped in voluntarily laying his life down for us—“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[x] How much more beautiful a picture of love could we ever find? He could have let us die for our sins—when we substituted our will for His—but instead He offered us life by substituting Himself for us.
O how marvelous, O how wonderful…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.