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The sacrifice of the Son - Mark 15:21-39

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 6th November 2005.

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In 1999 the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral released yet another romantic comedy for the British public to enjoy. The film starred Julia Roberts as a famous film actress called Anna Scott and Hugh Grant as the owner of small, not very profitable bookshop in the west of London. The tagline of the movie was simple: Can the most famous film star in the world fall for the man in the street? The film, of course, is Notting Hill and I want to confess to you tonight that I am a secret fan. I know from the outside I may appear like a cold, skin flinted Scotsman but inside beats the heart of closet romantic. And so therefore films like Notting Hill often appear in my video collection. Now one of my favourite scenes in the film is when Hugh Grant takes Anna Scott, the famous film actress, to a dinner party at the house of one of his friends. And yet before he arrives he doesnít tell them who he is bringing along as a date. So here is the conversation that takes place between Anna and one of Hugh Grantís friends, a man called Bernie:

  • "So tell me Anna, what do you do?"
  • "Iím an actress."
  • To which Bernie replies "Iím actually in the stock market myself so not really similar fields, though I have done the odd bit of amateur stuff Ė P.G.Wodehouse farce, all that. Iíve always imagined thatís a pretty tough job though, acting. I mean, the wages are a scandal, arenít they?"
  • "They can be" Anna says.
  • "I see friends from university. Theyíve been in the business longer than you. Theyíre scraping by on £7-8,000 a year. Itís no life. What sort of acting do you do?"
  • "Films mainly" Anna manages to say whilst still keeping a straight face.
  • "Oh, splendid. Well done. Howís the pay in movies. I mean, the last film you did, what did you get paid?í
  • "Fifteeen million dollars" Anna says.
  • To which Bernie replies, in true English understatement, "Right...so thatís fairly good."

Bernie doesnít relate to Anna properly because he has no idea of her real identity. And in the realm of human interaction knowing the true identity of someone is crucial. To relate to someone properly we need to have some appreciation of who they are. So just imagine that you are walking down Beverly Road and you see a large number of black limousines coming towards you with American flags fluttering on their bonnets. Can I say to you that the best plan of action is not to hail down one of the cars and ask the guy in the expensive suit if he has a light. But, of course, none of us would do that would we? Because knowing that the man in the suit is the President of the United States of America influences how we behave towards him.

The same should be true when we consider the person of Jesus. Knowing his true identity is crucial when deciding how we should respond to him. And when we get his identity wrong then our behaviour towards him is completely inappropriate. So consider for a moment what I think are two of the most common misunderstandings abour the identity of Jesus in our time.

First of all, there is what I call the optional Jesus. This Jesus is not necessary for everyone. He is optional. He is disposable. He might be required by some if he provides a service which works for them but in a whole supermarket of alternative spiritual medicines he is surely just one among many. In a recent interview with the New York Daily News the pop artist Madonna said this about the involvement of Tom Cruise with the Church of Scientology: "If it makes Tom Cruise happy, I don't care if he prays to turtles. And I don't think anybody else should." Do you see the spirit of the age in that one quotation? It doesnít matter what you choose as long as you discover something that makes you happy Ė even if it involves praying to turtles. First of all, the optional Jesus.

And, secondly, the non-demanding Jesus. This is Jesus my best friend. The Jesus who helps me when I am down, the Jesus who cries alongside me, the Jesus who makes me feel happy but not the Jesus who makes demands on my life. Now please donít misunderstand me. I do believe that Jesus is my best friend. In fact, I believe, because the Bible teaches me, that Jesus is my brother but the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus who actually walked the earth cannot merely be regarded as my best buddy.

And this is what we discover in Mark 15. As we consider the sacrifice of God the Son, who left the security of heaven 2000 years ago to die on a Roman cross we are presented again with the true identity of Jesus. And so therefore we are challenged again to consider how we are behaving towards him.

Have a look at verse 39. "When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"" After watching the horrific torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth and after listening to his loud cry from the cross, what you believe it, but the chief executioner himself revealed the true identity of the man who had just died. He declares that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now before we examine together the evidence that persuaded this man to make such a claim letís be clear about what it means to say that Jesus is the Son of God. Because there is no point knowing why the centurion said what he did if in the end we are completely ignorant about what it means to call someone the Son of God. So what does it mean? First of all, letís not confuse God the Son with the Son of God. To talk about God the Son means that we are referring to the second member of the trinity. It means that we are talking about the eternal Son who has always been in the presence of his eternal Father. But when we are talking about the Son of God we are not necessarily talking about God the Son. Let me explain.

In the Old Testament all the human kings of Israel were called the Son of God. It was simply another way of talking about the King of Israel or the Christ or the Messiah. So if you were part of the crowd waiting outside the royal palace in Jerusalem on the coronation day of a new King of Israel you could legitimately shout out "Long live the King" or "Long live the Christ" or even "Long live the Son of God." And you could do this because the title Son of God was simply another way of referring to the King of Israel.

So this is what we read in Psalm 2:7. The king of Israel says this: the LORD said to me "You are my Son, today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery." Here is the job description of the Son of God. In the future the King of Israel was to be no national leader of a small country in the Middle East but one day, according to the promise of Psalm 2, the King of Israel or the Son of God is to be ruler of the entire world. And so do you see what it means to call someone the Son of God? It is not a reference to someoneís divinity but a reference to their role as the worldwide King who deserves the submission of everyone on this planet. So yes Jesus is God the Son. He is the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He is a member of the divine family. But the claim of verse 39 is that 2000 years ago God the Son left the security of heaven to become the Son of God.

This is his true identity. And so therefore because of what we know from the Old Testament about the promised role of the Son of God we cannot accept either the optional Jesus or the non-demanding Jesus. The Son of God is destined to rule the entire world. His kingdom will be universal in its scope. So any talk about an optional Jesus, a Jesus that is only for some people, is dangerously mistaken. And what nonsense it is to talk about a non-demanding Jesus. As we will see tonight the Son of God is certainly the King who loves us, he is certainly the King who died for us so that we could be part of his wonderful kingdom but he is not just the saviour, he is also the King. And so therefore he demands that we follow his instructions. Who we think Jesus is determines how we behave towards him.

So how do we know that Jesus is the Son of God? Have a look at verse 39 again. "When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" Or in other words, there were two crucial pieces of evidence that led the centurion to his profound conclusion. Did you see them? First of all, he looked at how Jesus died and then, secondly, he listened to what he said. So it was not that the brutal execution in front of his eyes convinced him that Jesus was simply another one of those failed revolutionaries. But as he looked at the events of the cross and as he listened to the cry of Jesus he was led to confess that this man was the Son of God. And so therefore our task tonight is to examine the same evidence that he saw and heard and to reach the same conclusion.

So have a look at verse 21 as we look at how Jesus died. "A certain man from Cyrene (which was a city in North Africa), Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him."

Unlike Mel Gibsonís film, The Passion of the Christ, Markís Gospel does not dwell on the physical agony of the cross. All we have in verse 24 are four simple words "and they crucified him." We have no vivid picture language of the rusty nails being hammered into his wrists or the horrific wounds inflicted by a Roman flogging. No, we are simply told "and they crucified him." And there are probably two reasons for this. First of all, his original readers would have known all about the gruesome nature of crucifixions.

This was not a punishment invented for Jesus. This was not a punishment unique to Jesus. Thousands of people were crucified in the 1st century by the Roman Army. It was a powerful deterrent used by them to persuade other likely rebels not to be so stupid. So we can safely assume that Markís original readers would have known what those four matter of fact words in verse 24 were referring to.

But here is a second reason why Markís Gospel doesnít focus on the physical agony of the cross. Instead he uses his precious space on the written page to point us in the direction of a number of important details. And the reason is because when we notice the details that he points out to us we will come to the same conclusion as the centurion. Because these details are evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. So letís have a look at the details together.

Detail number 1. The gambling described in verse 24. Weíre told that after they crucified him the soldiers divided up his clothes and cast lots to see what each would get. Now listen to these words from Psalm 22:16-18, a section of the Bible written hundreds of years before Jesus was born and a section of the Bible all about a future experience of the Son of God. Verse 16, the Son of God says this: "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."

Detail number 2. The sign mentioned in verse 26. We read "The written notice of the charge against him read: the King of the Jews." So all throughout his death on the cross what could the Roman Centurion not fail to notice? A big sign above the head of Jesus which said the King of the Jews.

Detail number 3. The criminals mentioned in verse 27. "They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left."

Now listen to these words from Isaiah 53:12 Ė another section of the Bible about the Son of God and another section of the Bible written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. This is what we read: "He poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors."

Detail number 4. The mockery in verse 29. "Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ĎSo! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!í Now here are the words of Psalm 22:6-7. The Son of God says, "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads."

And detail number 5. The vinegar mentioned in verse 36. Weíre told that "one man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink."

Now listen to the words of the Son of God in Psalm 69: 19-21: "You know I am scorned, disgraced and shamed, all my enemies are before you. Scorn has broken my heart and left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst."

I donít know if you remember Mystic Meg. Does anyone here tonight remember Mystic Meg? A few heads are nodding. Mystic Meg used to be a regular feature of the National Lottery Programme on BBC1. Every Saturday night before the balls came out of one of those lottery machines, Mystic Meg would make an appearance on the stage and give her predictions for who would win. But her predictions were completely vague. So she would say things like this: "This week I see that someone who has bought a ticket will win the lottery!" And the audience would go Ďwooí and the dried ice would be released to make the pronouncement more dramatic than it actually was. And then just as you were about to switch channels to something more interesting like The Annual Blind Mice in a Bag Painting Competition on Channel 5, Mystic Meg would utter another one of her predictions. "I think that the winner tonight will either be a man or a woman." And you are left thinking "Iím so glad Mystic Meg is getting paid a lot of money to tell us this priceless information."

The details of Mark 15 are not Mystic Meg predictions. They are not vague generalisations but are precise descriptions of what a person would have to endure if he was to be declared the Son of God. And so when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

So why is Jesus the Son of God? First of all, because of how he died and, secondly, because of what he said. Have a look at verses 33 and 34. "At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" ó which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Now there can be no doubt that this cry was real. In the Garden of Gethsemane, described for us in Mark 14, Jesus is deeply distressed. In fact, he told Peter, James and John that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." He knew what was going to happen to him in the next few hours and so, if you remember, he prayed to his Father "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."

So when we hear his loud cry from the cross in Mark 15 "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" we are not to conclude that this was only how he felt not the true reality of the situation. Yes it is true that by this point in the story he has been deserted by the religious teachers, by the crowds of Jerusalem, by the Roman authorities and even by his own disciples but the darker truth revealed in his cry from the cross is that at this point in history the Son no longer experienced the love of the Father.

Until those three hours on a Roman cross the life of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was uninterrupted. But for those three hours the impossible happened. The Son was separated from the love of the Father. And to work out why we need to examine the three clues provided in Mark 15.

First of all, the mockery in verses 31-32. Weíre told that "the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he canít save himself! 32 Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Now do you see how close to the truth they are? They goad him to come down from the cross and save himself. They tease him by saying he saved other people during his life but now at the point of his death he cannot even save himself. And yet what they say in mockery is actually very close to the truth. Because if he wants to save others from the greatest danger that they face, not exclusion from their community or from a debilitating disease or from low self-esteem, but from the judgement of God that they deserve, then Jesus cannot come down from the cross. If he saves himself then he cannot save others. And so in order to save others Jesus stays on the cross. It wasnít the nails that held him there but it was his outrageous love for you and me that kept him attached to that piece of wood.

Secondly, the darkness mentioned in verse 33. "At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour." Mark is counting the time according to the Jewish system, so the sixth hour would have been 12noon. At the moment when the midday sun should have been at its brightest in the sky, a darkness fell over the whole land and remained there until three in the afternoon. It could not have been an eclipse, because the time of year described in Mark 15, the season of Passover, always fell on a full moon and the experts tell me that you cannot have a solar eclipse during a full moon. And, donít forget, that solar eclipses never last more than about six minutes, whereas this darkness lasts for 3 hours.

So what is going on? In the Old Testament darkness during the daytime is always a sign of Godís judgement. So this is what we read, for example, in Exodus 10:21-22, the last plague before the Passover itself. God said to Moses "Stretch out your hand towards the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt Ė darkness that can be felt. So Moses stretched out his hand towards the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days." Here was an example of Godís judgement on the land of Egypt. Or what about these words from the book of Amos 8:9, words describing the judgement of God: "In that day declares the Sovereign LORD, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight." So, do you see darkness during the daytime is a sign of Godís judgement? But here is the crucial question to know the answer to: Who is being judged? We know the darkness has fallen because of judgement but who at this particular moment in human history is undergoing an experience of the judgement of God? The one who cries out in verse 34, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

So why is the Son forsaken by the Father? Why is he abandoned by his eternal protector? The answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. "God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us." You see, according to the Bible, the final consequences of human sin is to experience separation from the all the love of our creator. But here is the good news. The love of our creator is so overwhelming that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit decided to sort out our greatest problem within themselves. Sent by the Father, in the power of the Spirit, God the Son willingly left the security of heaven to become sin for us. And so for those three hours on the cross we have a vivid description of the reality of hell. His cry is not one of identification. We are not to listen to the cry of Jesus on the cross and think to ourselves "well, at least now Jesus knows how I feel living in this mocked up world." No, his cry on the cross was not one of identification but one of substitution.


He suffered hell on the cross so that we have the possibility of never having to suffer what he endured.

And how do we know this is right? Because of the third clue, mentioned in verse 38. "The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." Now at first glance you may be forgiven for missing the significance of this small detail but just think for a moment about its place in the overall story. In verse 37 we are told that Jesus breathed his last and in verse 39 we are told that the centurion declared that Jesus was the Son of God. But in verse 38 we are taken to another part of the city. We are taken from the Place of the Skull and are taken to the inner workings of the temple. We are told that at the very moment when Jesus died the thirty-foot high curtain in the temple, which was as thick as the span of a manís hand, was torn in two from top to bottom. Now why is that significant? Because this thick curtain used to hang in the temple, dividing the people from the place where God was symbolically said to live. The curtain was like a massive No Entry Sign. It said loudly and clearly that sinful human beings could not dwell with God because if they approached him they would experience his judgement because of their sins. And yet when Jesus died that massive barrier was torn in two from top to bottom. What is the message? The way is now open to God. We are being told that because of Jesusí death on the cross the judgement that once prevented access to God has been dealt with once and for all. And who has dealt with it? The Son of God. Did you know that Jesusí words on the cross, in fact the only words he speaks from the cross in Markís Gospel, are the very first words of Psalm 22? And who is speaking in Psalm 22? The Son of God.

I want to finish by asking you to think about your own relationship with the person of Jesus. At the very beginning of the sermon I said that to relate to someone properly we need to have some appreciation of who they are. So given what we have discovered about Jesus tonight, that he is the Son of God, what best describes your relationship to him at the moment?

  • Are you a rebel? Are you someone who still refuses to recognise Jesusí rule in your life? If that is you then, can I say to you, please do not treat Jesus as an optional extra. Look at the evidence of Mark 15. Look at the way Jesus died and listen to the conclusion of the centurion and ask yourself this: What is stopping me from making the same confession? And if there is nothing then why not confess Jesus as the Son of God tonight? Do you see how much he loves you? Do you see that he experienced hell on the cross so that you may avoid the agony of eternal separation from your creator? So why not hand over control of your life to him and thank him for dying on the cross so that you never need to face the judgement of God? Why not pray the prayer at the bottom of the sermon notes and begin a new relationship with your Creator before you leave this building. You can do that tonight.
  • Or maybe you would consider yourself a doubter. Perhaps at some point in the past you did believe that Jesus was the Son of God but now if youíre honest you are beginning to doubt whether all of this is true. If that is you then please let me encourage you to look again at the evidence of Mark 15. Look again at all the details, predicted of the Son of God many hundreds of years before Jesus was born. And as you look take reassurance that even though your feelings may go up and down like a roller coaster the evidence for confessing Jesus as the Son of God never changes. And that is good news because the evidence is substantial!
  • Or maybe you are someone who is still resisting Jesusí rule in a particular area of your life. You know he is King, you even confess him as the Son of God, but if the truth be known you are still reluctant to let him have his way in a particular aspect of your life. If that is you then can I encourage you to stop resisting and to start trusting that your King loves you. He loves you enough to die for you and so therefore when he commands you to do something it will always be for your ultimate good. So let me ask you: do you believe this?


To relate to someone properly we need to have some appreciation of who they are. So who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. And how do we know this? Because of how he died and because of what he said. Letís pray.

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