I remember the day that John Kennedy died. I remember the day when Martin Luther King, Jr. died. I remember the day when Robert Kennedy died. I remember the day when the Challenger astronauts died. I remember the day my father died.
I remember the day when these people died, not because I was physically there, but because of the reports I had received from others who were there. Vivid reports, powerful reports, so real that I remember them as if I experienced them firsthand.
One of those reports is in Luke's biography of Jesus, chapter 23. Luke was not an eyewitness to the death of Jesus Christ either. Some of the biographies of Jesus were written by eyewitnesses like John, but Luke was a physician and a historian. Although these events had been predicted for generations before, the day that Christ died was a day of surprises.
Jesus' death was a day of surprises.
It certainly was a surprise for Simon. He was from North Africa, from Cyrene, or as we would call it today, Tripoli. And he had come on the journey of a lifetime, probably something for which he had saved a lifetime. To be in Jerusalem for the Passover was a dream come true. So it was the surprise of a lifetime when he stumbled across a crucifixion parade on those unfamiliar streets. Normally it would have just been a brief delay as he watched the Roman soldiers conduct what was, for them, a routine task, for there were many crucifixions.
The custom was that the accused man was tried, convicted, and condemned at the court. Then four Roman soldiers would escort him to the place of the execution. They would be preceded by someone with a placard on a stick listing the crimes the criminal had been convicted of committing. They always took the longest possible route from the courtroom to the place of execution, hoping to cross the paths of as many people as possible. Crucifixion was considered to be a significant deterrent to further and future crime.
It should have been only a brief delay for Simon, but a surprising thing happened. Jesus crumbled under the weight of the cross, right in front of Simon. In a garden called Gethsemane, Jesus agonized over the prospect of his own death and what it meant spiritually. Later he had been beaten almost to death. Now weakened, he stumbled and crumbled. The cross he was required to carry fell to the ground.
Jerusalem was an occupied city; Roman law gave the soldiers the right of conscription. That is, they could draft anyone into their service instantly. The procedure was to take the flat part of the spear blade and put it on the shoulder of any person anywhere, and that person was immediately brought into the service of Rome.
So, with Jesus and the cross on the ground, the Roman soldier took his spear and put the blade on the shoulder of the closest man, Simon from Tripoli. Now conscripted, he was forced to pick up the cross and to carry it. He must have been humiliated and embarrassed.
Luke says nothing more about Simon. But he does appear directly and indirectly twice more in the New Testament: once in Mark 15:21 and then in Romans 16:13. It is Mark whoin another biographical account of Jesusexplains the same story but says that it was Simon the father of Alexander and Rufus. It's an unusual thing for a father to be identified by his children, unless of course the children are quite famous.
It may be assumed that, by the time Mark's gospel was circulated, two of the most famous Christians in all of the empire were Alexander and Rufus.
Later, in Romans 16:13, you again find Rufus, this son of Simon, who is described as the son of a woman whom St. Paul counted to be his surrogate mother. As you begin to put the pieces together, it's obvious that when Simon returned home to Tripoli, he told the story of the Christ and the crucifixion to his wife, who became not only a godly woman but a substitute mother to the famous apostle Paul. Simon told about the Christ and the crucifixion to his sons Alexander and Rufus, who became two of the greatest Christians in the church. So what started out as a surprise and an embarrassment turned out to be a great good for Simon and for his family.
As Jesus, now released from the weight of the cross, continued the journey to the place called in Latin "Calvary, or in English "the Skull, he passed a group of women who were crying and mourning. They were screaming out, but not because they knew Jesus, because in all probability they had never met him. They were not those women later mentioned who came from Galilee. These were professional mourners. That doesn't mean they were unsympathetic. They were women who dared to come out when men were crucified, when the families wouldn't come and cry over their deaths.
They always carried with them a liquid narcotic, a drug offered to the crucified man so the edge could be taken off the horrific pain that accompanied crucifixion. These were women who had come there often before, and it was their job. Never before, in all their tears, in all their wailing, in all of their journeys to all of their crosses had they ever had a man do what Jesus did. He turned and expressed sympathy for them. He anticipated difficult days for their future and for the future of their children. He told them he was sorry, that they ought to wail for themselves.
I don't think they knew Jesus. But if they had, they would have quickly realized that this was just like him. His concern wasn't about his own problems or his own pain but to focus so quickly and so clearly upon the problems and pain that others face.
But the biggest surprise that day came to the executionersthese tough, veteran soldiers who so many times before had crucified other men by nailing them to wooden Roman crosses, and then watched them writhe in pain as they died. As the men would scream and suffer, they would sit at the feet of the crosses and play games. They were desensitized to the curses, to the pleas, to the threats. They were men who just were not caught by surprise. Yet never before had any one of them heard what Jesus said.
For soon after his hands were nailed to the cross and this nail was driven through his feet and the cross was lifted upright and dropped into its socket in the ground, Jesus prayed audibly for them saying, "Father, forgive them, because they don't know what they're doing.
It was enough to shock the toughest of soldiers. It was enough to make a man think before he went to sleep that night about those words that in his mind a thousand times. It was enough for even a soldier to remember.
So it's no wonder that when the centurion made his final inspection after Jesus' death, he paused long enough at the cross to say, "Now this one, this one was a righteous man.
The forgiveness of Jesus was a surprise then, but it is still a surprise today. I'm surprised by his forgiveness. He knows our worst sins so well, he who lives and who died for forgiveness. I'm surprised that no matter what we've done or what we do, Jesus' heart still seeks to forgive.
The surprises on the day Jesus died were not just for those clustered around the cross of that skull place. The surprises that day were for everyone. For at noon, a most extraordinary thing happened. It became dark as if it were night. The sun disappeared behind the thickest clouds people had ever seen. There were some who thought it might have been an eclipse (although astronomically it could not have been because the moon is full at the Passover time).
But it makes sense that as Jesus, the creator of the universe, died, the world would become dark.
I imagine it was like Los Angeles on that day last January when the earthquake struck, when people who had all of their plans made were suddenly brought up short, realizing in an instant that this was a day unlike any other day. It would be remembered for the rest of their lives. The people of Jerusalem knew when it became dark at noon that God was doing something different and special, that this was God's unusual day.
It was, after all, the darkest moment in human history. In those three hours from noon until three o'clock in the afternoon, something happened. In the words of the Bible, "Jesus, who knew no sin, was made sin for us. It would have been horribly inappropriate for the sun to brightly shine in the face of such horror.
The fifth surprise on that day Christ died was witnessed by only a few, but their surprise must have been profound. At the center of Jewish worship was the temple. The temple was the place of gathering. It was the place of sacrifice. It was the residence of God on earth. The outer courts of the temple were open to just about everyone. Then they became increasingly exclusive as you moved toward the middle and toward the frontso much so, that eventually there was one small place called the holiest place.
It was accessible only to the high priest and only once in each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, the high priest would go behind a curtain and see something no one else could ever seethat secret place, the residence of God on earth. Then he would offer God a sacrifice seeking forgiveness for the entire nation of Israel.
He must have been scared, for God had actually allowed people to die in the awe of coming into his presence. They had a custom of tying a rope around the ankle of the high priest before he went in, because there was always the concern that the high priest in the awe of the moment might have a heart attack and die! No other priest would go in and risk his own life collecting up the body of the high priest who had died. So the rope was intended to pull him out from under the curtain. It was an awesome place, an awesome thing to be in the presence of God.
So try to imagine the surprise of those few on duty in the temple that day, the sky so dark that they had to light all of the candles in order to see. Imagine the surprise when that thick curtain ripped apart from top to bottom and opened wide so they could see into where they never thought they would see. They realized that God had done something new. God had opened up his presence forever to everyone. Never again would there be a curtain that would keep God at a distance, and never again would a priest who would represent everyone be necessary. Now all of us have direct access to the holy God. It was a day of surprises.
Jesus' death was a day of stupidity.
But that day of crucifixion was also a day of stupidity. Crucifixion was a terrible sight. Some say it is the worst form of human torture. You would think that people would wince at the sight of such horrible torture inflicted on a man. But that was not so. The religious and political leaders of Jerusalem made a special effort to come out and to watch Jesus as he was crucified. They were sneerers. They mocked him with carefully chosen words. They laughed at the high and the holy names of Christ of God and The Chosen One.
Last week Schindler's List won the 1993 Academy Award for best picture. There have been numerous clips telecast ever since that award was given. One of them shows a scene in which the people inside the cattle car, on their way to Auschwitz, look through the cracks and see little boys running along the side of the train, taking their fingers across their throats, saying, "You're going to die. You're going to die.
You might be able to excuse the insensitivity, the mockery of a child. But we're stunned by the stupidity of grown men, rulers mocking Jesus as he died.
I've wondered when they realized what they did. Do you think it was three days later when Jesus rose back to life again? Or do you think it was for each on the day he died, when at his moment of death he realized that he was standing before the Judge of all the universe and humanity, and it was none other than this Jesus whom he had mocked?
The soldiers weren't any better. Spiritual stupidity is not limited to any ethnic group or class of people. They actually took pleasure in teasing Jesus. They taunted him with his claim to royalty, and they laughed at the thought that such a figure, bleeding and gasping, could ever be considered a king. How stunningly stupid, for he was a king. He was the King over all kings. They thought they knew so much, and he knew everything. They thought they had such great power over him, and he had all power over them.
I shudder to think of anyone being so stupid as to speak with sarcasm and superiority toward Jesus Christ, the King of kings, the Son of God himself. Where had they been? Hadn't they heard that he spoke as no other man had ever spoken? Didn't they know the news that traveled to the streets of Jerusalem, out into the villages of Israel: that he made the blind to see and the lame to walk, the storm he stilled, the dead he brought back to life again? He was no ordinary man. And yet, they spoke as if he were nobody. How stupid.
Then one of the criminals joined in the chorus. He was himself crucified. He was dying. He was just hours away from death and eternity. You would think he would be consumed with concern about what was going to happen to him when he died. You would think that he would be scared speechless at the threat of death and of hell. You would think that he would save every word he could to plead that somehow God would give him help and hope. Instead, when he spoke, it was to insult his partner.
It wasn't because he was ignorant; this criminal was street savvy. His words reveal that he understood a lot about who this Jesus was. He asked the question, "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us. He knew the right title to use. He knew that Jesus had taught that he was the savior of all of humanity.
I just don't understand. But I've seen it since. I have seen those who ought to know better, those who fully understand his teaching and his claim to be Savior, treat him with insults, sarcasm, and mockery like that man on the cross who was dying. I know it's sin what he did, but it was really stupid.
Jesus' death was a day of salvation.
On that day Christ died, the angels must have been struck speechless at the sacrifice of God, at humanity's stupidity. But perhaps they were even more amazed that the day Christ died became the day of one man's salvationa criminal. For the criminal on the other side of Jesus (not the one who spoke first, but the one who spoke next) called across Jesus and said, "Don't you fear God? It was a good question because sooner or later it becomes everyone's question.
We may live a lifetime thinking and behaving as if we have everything together and we have nothing whatsoever to fear. But eventually we close in on our own deaths, and we are forced to face the reality of our own weakness, or our own sinfulness, and the reality of God. And it is then that, keenly aware of our inadequacy and of God's holiness, we are struck with the realization that it is God who judges our eternal destiny. It is God who sets the rules and not us. And that is no time for clever argument. That is no time for defense. It is time to fear God, to wonder about one's eternal destiny.
Of course, it's far better to resolve such matters before the moment of death comes. For none of us knows when that moment will be. For the condemned man on the cross, time was running out. Regardless of what he had said or done before, in the end he did fear God. He realized that his judgment after death would be totally determined by God. It is a fear, I think, necessary for anyone who seeks God's salvation.
Like the convict on the far side who insulted Jesus, this man must have come to the cross with some advance knowledge of who Jesus was and what he could do. For he understood that Jesus was no criminal. He made the comparison. He realized that Jesus had done no wrong, that he was a good man. And he must have realized that Jesus was God's Son who was headed back home again to the paradise from which he had come. And so, he believed.
And so, having feared God and believed Jesus, he decided to ask. He asked Jesus to save him when he arrived back in heaven. What an interesting contrast between the criminal who mocked Jesus to save him physically and this man who sought Jesus to save him spiritually. And Jesus said yes! Of course he said yes, because that's why he was there. He was being crucified for this very purposein order to save sinners and to promise heaven to all those who ask.
You know, all the ingredients are right there. He feared God. He believed Jesus. He sought salvation. Here are all the ingredients for every one of us to review on this anniversary of the death of Jesus Christ.
We must seriously ask if we fear God, if we believe Jesus, if we seek his salvation. For those who do, Jesus' answer is still yes. For those who do, it is the day of salvation.
There is a strange irony to the 1994 calendar, this week's calendar. This Friday is called Good Friday because it marks the anniversary of Jesus' death. But this Friday is also called April Fool's Day. Same day. Those who are like the criminal who rejected Jesus may be called the greatest of fools. And those who like the criminal who accepted Jesus may call this Friday the day of salvation, call it good.
Leith Anderson is pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. His books include A Church for the TFirst Century.
(c) Leith Anderson
Preaching Today Tape #151
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Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.