Sunday October 12th @ St Michael’s and St Barnabas
This is the third in our sermon series, Building on the Rock.
Appreciating the full picture
I never was any good at art. I never seemed to get the colours right, and the end result never looked like anything I intended. Indeed, when I was about 7, my teacher was so frustrated with me she shoved my head in a paint pot, and I’ve never really fancied painting since.
But over the years I have gradually learnt, little by little, to appreciate art. Not in the sense that I can now paint a portrait, or even draw satisfactory stick figures. I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever be able to do. But what I have learnt, through visiting museums, and watching the occasional television series, is to learn how to read paintings. Because although we might think of a painting as simply a picture with some characters in it, when you get up close, you begin to see that it actually tells a story, and that every object and every person has some meaning and some purpose. So for example, although the painting you’re looking at might appear to be a portrait of a well-to-do nobleman, on second glance it turns out to be a story about the folly of gaining wealth and fortune, with the skull on the desk serving as a powerful reminder that no matter how much you earn, you can’t take it with you. Or that the young lad staring back at you from the edge of the picture is in fact the artist, challenging you to consider what you believe.
Paintings are in reality a very subtle yet very powerful means of communication. And although the message of the painting might take some working out, once you’ve got it, it’s likely to stick with you for a long, long time.
That’s why I want to suggest that, as we look at our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning, you should try thinking of today’s passage not as printed words on a black and white page, but as a scene in a full-colour painting painted by a master artist. And as we spend the next few minutes taking a closer look at such a familiar story, try asking yourself: What story is the painting telling? Why are the characters there? And, most importantly, what is Luke the artist asking us to believe? Because if we approach the passage in this kind of way, I believe all of us will end up with a much richer and fuller answer to the question we are considering today, namely, “Why did Jesus die for us?”
So what story is the painting telling? Well, a very important clue comes quite simply from the scenery. Because, although we might sing about “a green hill far away without a city wall”, the whole landscape is in fact dominated by a single rocky feature known quite simply as “the Skull”. And the name of this rock is no coincidence, nor is it a random fact about the geography of Jerusalem. It’s a reminder that the whole scene is about the ultimate questions of life and death, of judgement and salvation. And although we might not like to think about these questions too often, or pretend they don’t exist, there comes a time when all of us need to work out an answer and decide what we truly believe.
In order to do this, let’s take a closer look at the characters involved, and try to work out what tell us. Of course the central character is Jesus, and we’ll go on to look at Him in a while. But who else is present in the picture, and what can we learn from them?
Well, first of all there are soldiers. Tough, hardened professionals for whom hammering a man onto a piece of wood was just part of their daily business. And if the rest of the crowd want to stand round and make fun of the condemned man, then why not join in? You can almost imagine them returning to the barracks later on and saying, “Heard the one about the man who claimed to be king of the Jews? We put Him in His place, all right – we stuck Him on a cross!” For them Jesus was just a figure of fun, a pathetic wretch who deserved the end He got.
And sad to say, there are still people like the soldiers today. People for whom the Christian faith is a weak, pathetic faith, people who think nothing of making fun of Jesus. You may even know some of them yourself. And as our society moves more and more away from its Christian roots, I think we are going to increasingly to have to put up with more ridicule, ignorance and indifference. At least the fact Luke has painted the soldiers on the canvas reminds us there have always been, and always will be, folk who will answer the question “Why did Jesus die for us?” with the reply, “I don’t know and I don’t care”. May that not be true of any one of us this morning.
Who else is there in this picture? Well, if we go right to the end of our reading we will find a group of people who in true Middle Eastern fashion are beating their breasts in mourning. Whether they are the same group of people who earlier were mocking Jesus, or instead the daughters of Jerusalem who wept as Jesus carried the cross out of the city gate, isn’t entirely clear. But what we do know is that for these people the death of Jesus is nothing but a tragedy, the early and unexpected death of one they hoped would rescue them from the hands of the mighty Romans. And so their tears and their cries of mourning are not just for Jesus, but for the fact they feel God has in some deep and profound way let them down, that although He seemed to promise so much through this Jesus, yet it has all come to a bitter and tragic end.
And this leads to a very important and significant point – that we can’t know why Jesus died for us unless first of all we know who Jesus is. If we believe that Jesus was just a messenger from God, or a good man, or a misguided martyr, then, yes, His death is something that can only be bitterly regretted. That’s why before we looked at the cross this week, we spent last Sunday thinking about Jesus as both Son of God, and Son of Man, the one who flung stars into space and yet became a human being to serve us and to save us. And unless you realise that the man hanging on the cross is in fact the very Son of God with all authority and power and majesty you will never get close to understanding the mystery and wonder of His death.
Yet there is one person in the scene who does identify who Jesus is – or does He? I’m talking here about the Roman centurion who at least according to Matthew and Mark’s accounts saw the death of Jesus and said Surely he was the Son of God! But here according to Luke all he says in verse 47 (although this is remarkable enough) is Surely this was a righteous man. And maybe the fact Luke’s account differs slightly reminds us that what the centurion meant by the phrase Son of God would perhaps be rather different from what we would understand today. After all, as a Roman loyal to the emperor, he would have worshipped a number of different gods. He could certainly see that Jesus was special, and that He was viewed favourably by His God, but He didn’t necessarily understand the uniqueness of Christ.
And again, I believe there are many people who are like the centurion today, especially if they have been brought up in an Eastern culture where many gods are still worshipped, and there are many stories of such gods taking human flesh. The problem here is not that folk are unwilling to accept who Jesus is, but they fail to understand what His death and resurrection is really all about. And until you can see that this Jesus is the one who alone can give us peace with God you will never truly see why the good news is good news, and why it demands a response.
Well, so far we’ve just skated around the edges of our picture. We’ve looked at the soldiers for whom Jesus is just a figure of fun. We’ve looked at the crowds for whom Jesus’ death is an absolute tragedy. And we’ve thought about the centurion who maybe glimpsed who Jesus was, but failed to grasp the meaning of His death. That’s quite a lot to think about already, isn’t it? And if you can in any way identify with any of these three groups of people today, there’s something you need to do this morning, and you need to talk to me afterwards.
The two thieves
But if you’re still with me this morning, it’s time we moved on to the centre of our picture. What do we see there? The answer, of course, is three crosses. On the first is the impenitent thief who is shouting along with the crowd Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us! And the dreadful irony of the situation is that if only he had recognised who Jesus was, he would indeed have been saved. There is surely no greater contrast in human history between the words of hate and scorn of this criminal and the words of the thief on the second cross, almost inaudible above the booing and the hissing of the crowd. “Don’t you fear God …since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
It is, I find, always a sobering thought when I look at this scene that it is not the soldiers, not the women, not the centurion, not even the teachers of the law who recognise who Jesus is – but someone who with due legal process has been condemned to death for a crime worthy of such punishment. And that’s why the thief is near the centre of Luke’s picture. So even if by this stage we are being drawn inexorably towards the figure of Jesus in all His pain and agony, it is worth stopping for a moment and reflecting on just what this thief is saying.
Because, first of all, he recognises that what he has done is worthy of death. He knows he is getting what his deeds deserve. And because he admits and accept this fact, whether he knows it or not, he actually has taken the first giant step towards understanding why Jesus has to die for us. For the solemn and inescapable truth is all of us one way or another have done things that are guilty of death. OK, not in such a way that we deserve to be executed by HM government – at least, I hope not – but in such a way that we have broken our relationship with God and cut ourselves off from Him. And as the apostle Paul writes elsewhere – in Romans 6:23 – the wages of sin is death. Death is the natural consequence of our sin and rebellion against God, and unless you grasp this, you will never see why the Christian message is good news.
So how does understanding Jesus’ death for us save us from this situation? Well, as the thief goes on to say, this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus in fact lived a perfect life on this earth and never committed any form of sin. And because He is the Son of God, pure and blameless, this means He is able to pay the ultimate price for all our sin and rebellion against our loving Heavenly Father. He puts all our sin upon His sinless shoulders that we, lost and sinful, may be made right with God. It really is the most stunning and the most amazing transaction that ever has taken place, that in the words of Paul in our first reading, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Not in the sense that we ourselves become perfectly purely and blameless when we believe in Jesus, but that Jesus’ death for us covers all our sin and shame and wrongdoing. Even those things which by rights should be worthy of death.
The love of Jesus
Which is why if have we properly understood what Jesus has done for us we can pray with confidence Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Not because we are good enough to be a child of the king, or religious enough, or clever enough, but because of Jesus’ mercy and grace, and above all else, His overwhelming, surprising, and just so generous love for each and every one of us.
So can I ask you: do you know this love? Or to put it another way – as your eye finally meets the centre of the picture Luke has so cleverly painted, what do you see? Do you see just the pain and anguish of the crucifixion, or do you also the love of God’s Son for you? The message of love in this picture is, I admit, subtle, but once you get it, I hope it will stay you for a long, long time.
For it is there in the words of Jesus as the soldiers take up hammers and beat nails through His flesh: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. It is there in the words of Jesus as the thief turns to Him in penitence and faith: I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. In fact it is there throughout His trial and ordeal as what comes out from the lips of Jesus are only words of utter, utter love and compassion. So as the darkness comes over the land and the sun stops shining, His final words are not a cry of despair or the anguish of a broken man, but the ultimate expression of trust by someone who has broken once and for all the power of death and bitterness and hatred: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. For by carrying out His Father’s will and being faithful even unto death, Jesus knows that his Father will raise Him up, and not only Him, but also all those who believe and trust in His name.
The torn curtain
And as we stop to gaze upon Jesus, and as we think about His amazing love for us, our eye is for a moment drawn to one final small detail in a corner of the painting. It’s a drawing of the Jerusalem temple, but somehow it is not like any other drawing we have ever seen. And suddenly we understand why. For this temple is standing open, and the curtain that separates us from our God is flapping torn and useless in the wind. And Luke the artist has added this touch to ask us if we have understood the message of this painting. Because all that He is trying to convey comes down to this one simple truth: that Jesus’ death for us has opened up the way to a new and living relationship with God. So how will we respond? With mockery and derision? With blank incomprehension? With a sense this is just one story among many? Or will we like the penitent thief come in all our weakness and brokenness before the Son of God and say to Him in penitence and faith Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?
That, my friends, is the decision all of us need to make.