Preached by Pastor Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are in Mark 15:33-39. After three years on and off again in the book of Mark, this is our second to last sermon. Jason will be finishing it out next week. And since we are about to finish it, I thought it would be good to tell you what we plan to do next.
After Mark, we are will do a four-week series for the Advent and Christmas season from the book of Isaiah. That series is titled “Songs of the Savior” because in the latter portions of the book of Isaiah there are four passages referred to as “servant songs.” They are based on the promise of the “servant of the Lord” which is a phrase used in all four passages to refer to the coming Messiah.
God gave his people these ‘songs about the savior’ so that as they studied and sang them they might encourage themselves with the promise of who the Messiah would be and what he would do.
But that is in three weeks. This is this week. And we are in Mark 15:33-39 and not looking forward to what the Messiah will do, but what he has already done and is doing. I’m going to read the passage and then pray, and then we’ll study it together.
Follow along with me as I read from Mark 15:33-39.
33 And when the sixth hour1 had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he1 breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
On September 11, 2001, I was in Columbia, Missouri and so just over 1,000 miles from Ground Zero. But even there, so far away, I felt the shockwaves.
I had an early morning class that day—Introduction to Logic. When class was dismissed, there was a buzz around campus. Something had happened; something was happening.
This week, I called some friends of mine and talked to them about where they were and what they saw on 9/11. My friend Esther told me her story.
She was three blocks away from the World Trade Center when it was hit—so not 1,000 miles from Ground Zero like me, but a couple 1,000 feet. She was getting a smoothie with some friends. But for her, the morning was already somber because just the day before Esther was at funeral. And now she was downtown with the husband who had just lost his wife, and together, they and some others, had gone in the city to run errands.
Esther was near the door of the café when the first plane went by. She heard someone yell, someone wearing a khaki brown trench coat, so she ducked out the door, and she saw it. And she heard it. “It was like a million car crashes,” she told me.
She remembers that her friend’s smoothie was on the machine when it happened. They didn’t know what to do. So they paid and went outside. Then it happened again. She couldn’t see the second one, but she heard it. Again, it was loud.
Esther told me that she knew they had to leave, so they went north, they got in a cab, Howard Stern was playing on the radio. She made phone calls until cell service went out.
As she told me her story from Ground Zero and the loss that she and others experienced which I won’t go into any more, at one point in our conversation I apologized. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize just how close you were and how raw all of this is for you.”
Perhaps some of you have a Ground Zero story as well. And I’m sorry to you as well if I just went and drudged it up. I didn’t want to do that necessarily.
But I bring up Ground Zero for a reason: On that day, on September 11, 2001, terrorists didn’t just kill people, did they? No. They did more than kill people. They sent a message.
The whole world saw that message. And we were not just supposed to see the message, but we were supposed to understand that message as well—don’t mess with us; leave us alone.
In my study of Mark 15, I came across a quote from Marcus Fabius Quintilian. He was (apparently) a Roman rhetorician at the time of the NT. Listen to what he said about crucifixion:
“Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear.” – Marcus Fabius Quintilian1
In other words, when we Romans kill someone, we want the whole world to see it because we are sending a message—don’t mess with us.
And as the Romans crucified Jesus, the King of the Jews, they sent that very message.
But the irony of this passage, is that here in Mark 15:33-39 as Jesus dies, here at the Ground Zero of Christianity, God too was sending a message. God had a message that he wanted the world to see and to understand. And the question to us is this, have you seen this message from God, and have you understood this message? Oh, to be sure, it’s a very different message than the Romans were sending and terrorists sent, but it is a message that we are supposed to see and understand. So that’s what I want to focus on this morning: the message from Ground Zero of Christianity.
1. Seeing the message
Let’s start by making sure we see this message, and then we’ll focus on understanding it.
There is so much to be seen and heard at Calvary. Mark, the author of the Gospel, knew this, so he focused our attention on just a few things, just four things really.
Mark draws our attention to 1) the darkness of the land, 2) the cry of Jesus, 3) the curtain of the temple, and 4) confession of the centurion.
Let me read v. 33 again,
33 And when the sixth hour1 had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
Mark leads us on a tour of Ground Zero, and the first thing he tells us is that a mysterious darkness fell upon the whole land for three hours. Matthew and Luke record this same detail. You should have a footnote in your Bible that tells you that by Roman convention the “sixth hour” and the “ninth hour” are 12 noon and 3pm, by our convention.
Back in v. 25 of this chapter, Mark told us that Jesus was crucified in the third hour, or 9am, which means he was on the cross for six hours, but during the last three hours, darkness fell.
I don’t want to bog down here, but many people have pointed out that this could not have been a solar eclipse for the following reason: it was Passover. And you might not have known this, but Passover occurs at a full-moon (Exodus 12:17-18, Leviticus 23:4-8). And I had to brush up on my lunar phases, but a solar eclipse – that is, when the moon blocks the sun for a period of time in the middle of the day – cannot happen during a full moon because during a full moon, the moon and the earth and the sun are in the wrong places (i.e., the moon is not between the sun and earth; the earth is between the sun and moon). In other words, Mark wants us to know that at Ground Zero there was a mysterious, ominous, sobering darkness. Something unusual was happening, like a low flying plane in Manhattan. A message was to be seen.
And look now at v. 34,
34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Mark records Jesus’ statement first in the original language that Jesus would have been speaking because of the misunderstanding that ensues. We’ll come to the misunderstanding later.
When you look at all of the gospel accounts, we see that there were seven statements from the cross, but this is the only statement that Mark includes in his account. At Ground Zero, we see a man crying out to his God, his father even, about the forsakenness that he is experiencing.
“Forsaken” is such a harsh word. We speak of it sometimes of the wilderness: “This godforsaken land” we might say.
And Mark tells us this cry was loud in v. 34, and again the volume is pointed out in v. 37.
37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
We don’t know if this last cry was associated with one of the other sayings from the cross. If it was, then likely it was the statement “It is finished” from John 19:30. But it’s possible this that Mark records cry was just a violent shriek of pain and isolation. We don’t know. But we do know that he died. “[He] breathed his last.” The cosmic Ground Zero of the history of the world just took place, and it was loud, like a million car crashes.
Then in v. 38 we get the third thing that Mark wants us to see.
38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Now this is interesting. The crucifixion is happening outside the city of Jerusalem, maybe within eyesight of the temple, but you really could not have seen this curtain tearing because it was inside the temple.
Mark must have heard about this later. We don’t know how. The book of Acts records that many priests came to the faith in Jesus, and maybe when they did, they shared this detail other Christians. 2
But if you had been standing in front of the curtain and did see it torn, that would have been a sight. The inner curtain to the Most Holy place was 60 feet tall and decorative. And it was ripped not from ‘the bottom to the top,’ which was possible to be done by a person, but from the ‘top towards the bottom,’ and so only able to be done by God – just like the darkness. That’s a message.
Then Mark gives us the last part of the message he wants us to see at Ground Zero. In v. 39, we read,
39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
This is an unlikely confession, is it not? This soldier, this centurion was part of the mocking, part of the flogging, perhaps he drove the nails into Jesus’ hands (or at a minimum, as a centurion he would have overseen the process).
Notice the words “when [he]… saw that in this way he breathed his last.” There is an emphasis on sight, on what he “saw.”
If this centurion was a typical Roman, we might assume he was a man far from God. If he was typical, he would have never believed that God, if there was just one God, could ever work through a man that got crucified. He would have believed that if and when God works through a person, then they don’t get crucified. But something changed for this man at Ground Zero as God sent his message.
And now you say, “Okay, okay, Mark, I see the darkness, and I hear the cry of forsakenness, and the curtain torn in two, and the centurion’s confession. I see those. I hear them. But what do they mean, Mark? How am I to understand this message?”
2. Understanding the message
Let me run through these four events again pointing out ever so briefly, not merely what was seen, but what is to be understood.
First, there was the darkness. In the Hebrew scriptures, darkness that is out of place – that is, darkness that appears when it shouldn’t – communicated judgment (Exodus 10:21-23; cf., Isaiah13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:10; 3:15; Amos 5:18, 20; 8:9).
Remember again that perhaps around a hundred thousand people have flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. And now consider the how darkness was part of the message sent by God during that first Passover.
In that story recorded in Exodus, God delivered his people from Egypt and from Pharaoh, and he did it through ten plagues. And the ninth plague was a plague of darkness for three days. Darkness was over the land of Egypt because God was judging Egypt. And then in the tenth plague, at midnight, God killed the first born of his enemies.
God did say that ‘if you would slaughter a lamb and put the blood on your door posts, then the angel of death will passover your house.’ This is what Passover meant. There was a way of forgiveness offered even in the midst of judgment. A lamb had to die in your place.
But what is going on here at the cross?
This leads right into the second thing we saw at Ground Zero. Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I’m your first born son; I’m not your enemy.
But what is going on here at the cross?
Well … because God was judging his enemy. But it was not Pharaoh or Egypt, but his own son. On the cross, Jesus, the beloved Son, is crushed. He is Godforsaken. We might be able to say it like this: the most evil person that ever lived was Jesus when he died on the cross because there on the cross he absorbed the sins of so many.
Now this saying about being forsaken is misunderstood, and it’s easy to see why. Mark gives us what Jesus said in Aramaic so that we see how the wordplay creates a misunderstand— “Eloi, Eloi,” which means “My God, my God” could have sounded a lot like Elijah, Elijah. That’s an easy misunderstanding made by these bystanders; they think Jesus is calling for Elijah. Elijah was a prophet in the Old Testament.
But it’s through this misunderstanding that we see a deeper misunderstanding take place. You see, there are a handful of verses in the OT about how at the end of time Elijah would return, or at least someone like Elijah (e.g., Malachi 3:1; 4:5). The Bible does say that. But this legit, biblical truth morphed into something different at the popular level. One commentator wrote this: “Popular Judaism believed that Elijah … would return in times of crisis to protect and rescue the righteous” (James Edwards, Mark, 476).
In other words, there was a popular understanding that if someone was really loved by God, then God would send Elijah to come rescue him from trouble, and who better to be rescued than the king of the Jews?
36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”
This is where the confusion comes in. They don’t understand. They write Jesus off precisely because he is not rescued. They assume that Jesus must not be God’s son because he is not being rescued. But that’s not how it worked for Jesus. God did not rescue Jesus because he was working out a way to rescue everyone that would come to him through the sacrifice of Jesus.
Third, there was the curtain torn in two from top to bottom. It’s clear how we are to understand this. For years and years and years and years only one man could go into the most inner part of the temple, and only then just once a year. And when he went in, it was to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people, including his own sins. It was a weighty thing, a wonderful thing. Inside the curtain was the physical manifestation of God; he was in the Most Holy Place.
And the point of the message of tearing the curtain is that through the sacrifice of Jesus a way has been opened up to God for everyone. The author of the NT letter called Hebrews, when this topic comes up in his letter, he spends almost two chapters talking about how amazing it is that because the curtain is torn all people everywhere can have access to God through Jesus (Hebrews 9:11–10:22; esp. 9:12, 24; 10:19–20).
Which leads to the last part of the message. This Roman centurion, when he sees the way in which Jesus died, he declared that this was the “Son of God.”
We shouldn’t miss this. The first verse in Mark’s gospel said that Mark was going to tell good news about Jesus, the “Son of God.” And then all along the way, Mark has been building to this moment. And note this: it’s not a Jewish leader nor a disciple of Jesus, but someone far from God that makes this declaration. The centurion was someone without the right background, and he was so opposed to Jesus that he participated in killing him. It’s amazing. The Bible is filled with prophesies about Jesus, that when he would come, he would gather to himself people far from God (cf., Isaiah 42:6; Luke 2:32). And here, at Ground Zero, it has begun. And it continues today.
You know, God could have been silent. He could have just let his people go. He didn’t need to send a message. He didn’t have to forgive. But he was not silent and he does forgive. And forgiveness took place here at Ground Zero of Christianity, the cross of Jesus.
Mark takes us there to see this message. To hear it. To feel it. But more than that, Mark asks us to understand. What does it mean?
In the mockery and abuse and humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus, God sent a message to the world that he wants us to see and to understand. It’s not the message the Romans were sending or a terrorist might send. No, God wants the world to know how much he loves them. The Bible says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
We have to see this message and understand this message.
And then, we have to be changed by the message.
We don’t know what became of this centurion. I’d like to think in just a few days, this centurion learned of the resurrection of Jesus. And I’d like to think that his life was changed, and his family – if he had family – was changed. I’d like to think that this man that was outside of the Jewish fold, who didn’t have access to God, now had it – free and undeserved. The temple curtain was torn in two, and he was ushered in to the family of God. I’d like to think that he went around telling people that, “If there is hope for me – I mean, I killed Jesus! – then there is hope for you.”
But we don’t know what happened to his man. But we do know that at Ground Zero, God’s displeasure was directed at his son. Jesus was forsaken. And the curtain was torn providing access to God.
At the start, I mentioned the story about 9/11 and what Esther heard at Ground Zero. It’s funny, when I first texted her husband, to ask if he or his wife had a story from 9/11, if they had a Ground Zero story. You know what he responded back? He wrote, “everyone has a 9/11 story.”
That’s good. I think he means that you know where you were and what you were doing on that day. I know I do.
But more important than a 9/11 story, I would ask, do you have you a story from Ground Zero of Christianity? Have you seen that message? And if so, have you understood it? And if so, how is it changing you? Maybe you go around telling people that if there is hope for me, then there is hope for you as well.