The Great Interruption
The Great Interruption
Some of the most significant spiritual lessons are learned from the most unlikely people. Such is the case with the story of Simon of Cyrene. We know very little about this figure who, like a small drop in a giant bucket of water, could easily go unnoticed. But what we do know about Simon should be enough to draw us in close and to draw great encouragement from, especially during these long and uncertain days. I believe Simon has much to teach us on what it means to follow Jesus in the great interruptions of life.
(Read Luke 23:26)
So what do we have here in this little story? We have a tiny little snapshot of one great big interruption. Here’s the story of a man whose plans for the day and dreams for his visit to Jerusalem were completely interrupted and disrupted. This is a story that reminds us that we are not as in control of our circumstances and the times of our lives as we think we are. It’s a story that reminds us that life is so precarious—it’s unpredictable.
I mean, just like Simon, here we are seemingly minding our own business, going about our daily life, and what happens? A million things can happen: cars break down, our health breaks down, the unexpected accident or diagnosis. And now here we are in one of the great interruptions in modern day history where so many of our plans and dreams and itineraries have been stalled, altered, or canceled altogether. So, what do we do? How do we respond to the great interruptions of life?
This is where I believe Simon of Cyrene can teach us a great deal. There are some key spiritual lessons that we can draw out from this little story, but first I need to paint the scene. I need to give you what, almost every scholar believes, is the background to this story.
Simon of Cyrene
One of the things we learn right away is that Simon comes from Cyrene. In that day, Cyrene was a leading city in North Africa, which is most likely Libya today. During that time, Cyrene was filled with many Jewish people who had been dispersed there for various reasons. If you were a Jewish person living in Cyrene, you were living about 1,000 miles from the center of all the action in Jerusalem—and they didn’t have social media. You couldn’t follow the #PassoverFeast from afar. You didn’t have the internet to see pictures or videos. You couldn’t click a Zoom link and see everyone. All you could do was imagine it in your mind’s eye from the stories or maybe the depictions in art from others. They also didn’t have trains, planes, and automobiles. So, to get there would have been incredibly expensive.
Many of these foreign Jews would have dreamt of the day where they could save up enough money and make this once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see it all firsthand. Think of it like a bucket list. Maybe you have a list of experiences that you want to have or places you want to visit before you die. For the Jewish people spread across the ancient world, this was it—to see Herod’s temple in person! To be there for the great Passover Feast. This was the dream of dreams.
We’re told here that Simon was just coming in from the country. Here he is. He’s finally made it! He’s taking it all in. If you’ve done any international travel to some famous historic site—the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower—you know the feeling. It’s this moment when you’re finally there. You’re seeing it all with your very own eyes. You can’t believe it. It’s so surreal. So here was Simon wide-eyed, ambitious, probably with a whole list of things to see and do and then he hears something.
Simon hears this loud wailing processional coming down the street. As it gets closer, he never could have imagined what would happen next. In the blink of an eye, his plans, his dreams, his whole itinerary is thrown out the window. Simon’s life and legacy are forever altered as he’s forced to carry the heavy, rough, blood-stained cross of a presumed criminal.
So, what can we learn from this? Let me offer a few key lessons. I’d say the first is definitely the most important.
You’ve Got to Become a Barrabas Before You Every Become a Simon
Or put it this way—you’ve got to see yourself as Barabbas before you ever see yourself as Simon. What do I mean? Well, did you notice that there’s two men in this story whose lives are radically interrupted by the cross of Jesus? Just like Simon, Barabbas also unexpectedly finds himself wrapped up in the story of Jesus. Here is this man in verse 25 who was guilty as charged, but what happens? All of a sudden, because of Jesus, Barabbas is released from prison and is free to go.
I mean, can you imagine this? There you are knowing you’re guilty and then you’re hearing the crowd outside crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” You’re sure they’re crying out and coming for you. In a matter of seconds, your cell door is flung open, and you’re fighting back the tears and fears, knowing the torture that awaits you. Then, like a gruff bulldog, a Roman soldier says, “Ahhh, you’re free to go!” You’re thinking, “Wait. What?!” “Yeaaah, Jesus of Nazareth is taking your place. He’s taking your cross. Now get up and get out of here!”
Barabbas and Simon
The story of Barabbas comes before the story of Simon because every single Christian is, in a sense, both a Barabbas and a Simon. But the order matters. I get it. We’re not told that Barabbas had personal faith in Jesus at this moment. My hope is that later he did. But, we can’t miss that he is a poignant picture of what happens to anyone who becomes a Christian.
When a person becomes a Christian, he or she recognizes their guilt before the ultimate king and judge—our cosmic treachery against God—and by faith in Jesus we are acquitted, released, made forever right in the eyes of the true King, and we’re free to go. What does the hymn say? “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night but thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off my heart was free …” You see, there’s Barabbas! But then it goes on. “I rose went forth and followed thee.” There’s Simon of Cyrene.
In theological terms Barabbas is a picture of justification—the one-time moment of being released from your debt and made right in the eyes of God because of what Jesus has done. Simon of Cyrene is a picture of sanctification—the long road of following Jesus in life. Barabbas is a picture that salvation is a free gift. Simon is a picture that Christian discipleship is costly.
But you’ve got to become a Barabbas before you ever become a Simon. And I would argue that if you can’t see that Barabbas is a picture of what Jesus has done for you—that he’s born the punishment that you deserve—you may not be a Christian. Because a Christian is someone who sees both the gravity and weight of their sin and the gravity and weight of what Jesus has done for them. They see the ugly diagnosis of sin but also the beautiful cure of a Savior called Jesus.
The Cruciform Life
You see what is the cross? What was the cross? The cross in their day meant one thing and one thing only—it was an instrument of death. So, as Barabbas you die to every attempt at trying to save your life. As Simon you die to every attempt at trying to control your life. All of us are called to relate to the cross of Jesus in these two ways: to first behold the cross and receive what Jesus has done in our place. Then to bear the cross and follow the Lord down the dusty hard road of Christian discipleship.
So, before we go any further, I need to ask: Have you done that? Can you sing, “Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders?” Can you see yourself as Barabbas—guilty as charged but forgiven and set free because of Jesus? You’ve got to see Jesus carrying away your cross before you ever try and carry a cross for him. But when it comes to carrying our cross, here’s the second lesson I think we can learn from this story.
The Crosses We Bear Often Comes to Us as Sudden Interruptions
The crosses we have to bear in life often come to us as sudden, unexpected interruptions. We don’t get to choose the crosses we bear and the time that we have to bear them. Again, we’re told very specifically, that Simon was coming in from the country. This is Luke’s way of telling us that Simon wasn’t a part of the original crowd. He had no part in what was going on and then all of a sudden, he’s yanked by some Roman soldier. “You! Get over here!”
We read here that he was seized out of the crowd and forced to carry the cross of Jesus. There’s no way that Simon was expecting this. It’s not like he woke up and said to himself, “You know what I’d like to do today. What about carrying someone’s cross? Let me just add that to the agenda.” No! This wasn’t scheduled, wasn’t planned. This wasn’t wanted. You can imagine how Simon must have felt—disgusted—you realize that this would have made him ceremonially unclean for the Feast. He’s frustrated. Angry. Upset. Annoyed. It’s this moment where we cry out, “Why did this have to happen to me right now?”
What is the Lord teaching us?
We don’t choose the moments in life when we are called upon to carry some heavy painful load for Jesus. Bearing our cross comes in many forms: It’s certainly the moments where we are mistreated and ridiculed for identifying with Jesus. But they’re also, as C.H. Spurgeon pointed out, “the hard providences of God that we’re called to endure.”
And here we are. It was a little over six months ago where all of us were living our lives together, hanging out together, working jobs, making plans for this and that. What were we doing? We were “coming in from the country.” Then all of a sudden we were seized and swept up in all the losses and pain that this virus has caused us. If you’re anything like me, the tendency is to be totally shocked at this great interruption.
But you see, this story of Simon is a picture of our lives. It’s here to remind us that oftentimes the great crosses of life that we’re called on to carry for Jesus are thrust upon us. They come to us as sudden unexpected interruptions. What is God telling us here? To expect the unexpected. To plan for the unplanned. Just as Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial as if something strange is happening to you.” This is the way of the cross. This is the way of life. And as Christians, this isn’t just a trial, we can know that it’s a cross because God is going to use this to do far greater things than we could ever imagine—in our lives and the lives of others.
God Uses the Crosses of Our Lives to Write a Beautiful Story
What does Ecclesiastes 3—the great chapter in the Bible on time—tell us about time? That God will make everything beautiful in his time. The times are not in our hands—they’re not in my hands or your hands—but they are in his hands. And God promises to use the crosses in our lives to do far greater things than we could ever imagine.
Simon of Cyrene had no idea how this great interruption would change the course of his life and define his life and legacy. What did God do with this moment for Simon? God brought him face-to-face with Jesus—the True Passover Lamb. He used this interruption and cross to bring him close to Jesus and to bring others to Jesus.
The Alexanders and Rufuses
Do you realize that in Mark’s gospel, he points out that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. This means that when Mark was writing his Gospel everyone in the Christian community knew who Alexander and Rufus were. It would be like someone saying today, “And Simon was the father of Keller and Piper.” Most everyone would know who you were talking about. What this means is that most likely God used this moment to save Simon and then to bring about a spiritual legacy of salvation in his own family as well.
Friend, how do we endure the cross? How do we bear up under the unexpected interruption with strength, hope, and joy? The same way Jesus did—for the joy set before him he endured the cross. We can have the joy of knowing that somehow God is at work in this! That somehow God is going to use this cross to bring us closer to Jesus, and to bring others to Jesus as well. God is going to use this cross to bring many Alexanders and Rufuses into the family of God. Just like with Simon’s cross, God is going to use this cross to write a far greater story than you and I could ever write if we had the pen and everything was going as planned. God is using the crosses of our lives to write a beautiful story. We may not see how he’s doing it now, but one day we will and like Simon we will rejoice at the crosses that we never wanted.
This is a story that I believe captures some of principles that we’ve been looking at. Many years ago, there was a Scottish farmer who everyone knew as Farmer Fleming. Well, one day Fleming was behind on his work and extremely busy but he heard what he thought to be cries for help from a nearby pond. He thought about just going on with his work—he had so much to do, but the cries were getting louder. So, Fleming stopped everything and ran to the pond only to find a boy sinking deeper and deeper into the sludge next to the pond with no way to get out. Fleming rescued the boy, took him back home, gave him a new change of clothes, and then sent him on his way.
A few days later, a fancy carriage pulled up to Fleming’s farm. A rich nobleman got out and told Fleming, “It was my son’s life that you saved the other day. How can I ever thank you?” Well, standing next to Fleming was his own son. So, the Nobleman said, “I tell you what. Why don’t you let me personally mentor and educate your son? I have a feeling he could be something great if he’s anything like his father!” Fleming agreed and years later his son graduated from St. Mary’s Medical School in London. The farmer’s son was Alexander Fleming, the man who would later discover the life-saving medicine called penicillin. The name of the nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill. His son was … Sir Winston Churchill!
Farmer Fleming. Simon of Cyrene. They had no idea what one big inconvenient interruption would mean for their family and mean for the world. But this is how God works. The crosses we bear often come to us as sudden interruptions but what does God do? He uses these crosses to write a beautiful story.
What if instead of looking at the interruptions that we face in life as obstacles to avoid, we looked at them as opportunities to get closer to Jesus, to serve others in the strength that he provides—fixing our eyes upon him who is with us and goes before us.
Simon had come to Jerusalem for a totally different purpose but he left encountering Jesus. Maybe there’s a Simon watching this right now. Maybe you jumped on the Internet for a totally different purpose and you stumbled across this message. You didn’t just happen to tune into this. God wants to interrupt your life in the most beautiful way possible. He wants to use this message to free you from your sins like he did with Barabbas and to encourage you that for every cross we have to bear, we can know that it is under God’s loving sovereign care. As the old hymn goes, “Shall Simon bear the cross alone and all the rest go free no there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me”
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA.