Passover – the feast of unleavened bread – was due in two days. The chief priests and the lawyers were plotting how to seize Jesus by a trick, and kill him. We can’t do it at the feast,’ they said. ‘The people might riot.’ Jesus was in Bethany, at the house of Simon (known as ‘the Leper’). While he was at table, a woman came up with an alabaster pot containing extremely valuable ointment made of pure spike nard. She broke the pot and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head. Some of the people there grumbled to one another. ‘What’s the point of wasting the ointment?’ they asked. ‘That ointment could have been sold for three hundred dinars, and given to the poor.’ And they were angry with her. ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why make trouble for her? She has done a wonderful thing for me. You have the poor with you always; you can help them whenever you want to. But you won’t always have me. ‘She has played her part. She has anointed my body for its burial, ahead of time. I’m telling you the truth: wherever the message is announced in all the world, the story of what she has just done will be told. That will be her memorial.’ Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests, to arrange to hand Jesus over to them. They were delighted with his proposal, and made an agreement to pay him. And he began to look for a good moment to hand him over. On the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lambs were sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘Where would you like us to go and get things ready for you to eat the Passover?’ He sent off two of his disciples, with these instructions. ‘Go into the city, and you will be met by a man carrying a water-pot. Follow him. When he goes indoors, say to the master of the house, “The teacher says, where is the guest room for me, where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large upstairs room, set out and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ The disciples went out, entered the city, and found it exactly as he had said. They prepared the Passover. When it was evening, Jesus came with the Twelve. As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you the truth: one of you is going to betray me – one of you that’s eating with me.’ They began to be very upset, and they said to him, one after another, ‘It isn’t me, is it?’ ‘It’s one of the Twelve,’ said Jesus, ‘one who has dipped his bread in the dish with me. Yes: the son of man is completing his journey, as scripture said he would; but it’s bad news for the man who betrays him! It would have been better for that man never to have been born.’ While they were eating, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘This is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant,’ he said, ‘which is poured out for many. I’m telling you the truth: I won’t ever drink from the fruit of the vine again, until that day – the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ They sang a hymn, and went out to the Mount of Olives. ‘You’re all going to desert me,’ said Jesus, ‘because it’s written, I shall attack the shepherd and then the sheep will scatter. ‘But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ Peter spoke up. ‘Everyone else may desert you,’ he said, ‘but I won’t.’ ‘I’m telling you the truth,’ Jesus replied. ‘Today – this very night, before the cock has crowed twice – you will renounce me three times.’ This made Peter all the more vehement. ‘Even if I have to die with you,’ he said, ‘I will never renounce you.’ And all the rest said the same. They came to a place called Gethsemane. ‘Stay here’, said Jesus to the disciples, ‘while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John with him, and became quite overcome and deeply distressed. ‘ “My soul is disturbed within me”, he said, ‘right to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.’ He went a little further, and fell on the ground and prayed that, if possible, the moment might pass from him. ‘Abba, father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible for you! Take this cup away from me! But – not what I want, but what you want.’ He returned and found them sleeping. ‘Are you asleep, Simon?’ he said to Peter. ‘Couldn’t you keep watch for a single hour? Watch and pray, so that you won’t come into the time of trouble. The spirit is eager, but the body is weak.’ Once more he went off and prayed, saying the same words. And again, when he returned, he found them asleep, because their eyes were very heavy. They had no words to answer him. But the third time he came, he said to them, ‘All right – sleep as much as you like now. Have a good rest. The job is done, the time has come – and look! The son of man is betrayed into the clutches of sinners. Get up, let’s be on our way. Here comes the man who’s going to betray me.’ At once, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a crowd, with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the legal experts, and the elders. The betrayer had given them a coded sign: ‘The one I kiss – that’s him! Seize him and take him away safely.’ He came up to Jesus at once. ‘Rabbi!’ he said, and kissed him. The crowd laid hands on him and seized him. One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus spoke to them. ‘Anyone would think’, he said, ‘you’d come after a brigand! Fancy needing swords and clubs to arrest me! Day after day I’ve been teaching in the Temple, under your noses, and you never laid a finger on me. But the scriptures must be fulfilled.’ Then they all abandoned him and ran away. A young man had followed him, wearing only a linen tunic over his otherwise naked body. They seized him, and he left the tunic and ran away naked. They took Jesus away to the high priest. All the chief priests and the elders and legal experts were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance, and came to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, where he sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire. The chief priests, and all the Sanhedrin, looked for evidence for a capital charge against Jesus, but they didn’t find any. Several people invented fictitious charges against him, but their evidence didn’t agree. Then some stood up with this fabricated charge: 58‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this Temple, which human hands have made, and in three days I’ll build another, made without human hands.” ’ But even so their evidence didn’t agree. Then the high priest got up in front of them all and interrogated Jesus. ‘Haven’t you got any answer about whatever it is these people are testifying against you?’ Jesus remained silent, and didn’t answer a word. Once more the high priest questioned him. ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ replied Jesus, ‘and you will see “the son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”.’ ‘Why do we need any more evidence?’ shouted the high priest, tearing his clothes. ‘You heard the blasphemy! What’s your verdict? ’They all agreed on their judgment: he deserved to die. Some of them began to spit at him. They blindfolded him and hit him, and said, ‘Prophesy!’ And the servants took charge of him and beat him. Peter, meanwhile, was below in the courtyard. One of the high priest’s servant-girls came up and saw him warming himself. She looked closely at him, and said, ‘You were with Jesus the Nazarene too, weren’t you?’ I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about,’ replied Peter. He went outside into the forecourt, and the cock crowed. The servant-girl saw him, and once more began to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But Peter again denied it. A little while later the bystanders said again to Peter, ‘You really are one of them, aren’t you? You’re a Galilean!’ At that he began to curse and swear, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’ And immediately the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered the words that Jesus had said to him: ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will renounce me three times.’ And he burst into tears. As soon as morning came, the chief priests held a council meeting with the elders, the legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin. They bound Jesus, took him off to Pilate, and handed him over. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate. ‘You have said it,’ replied Jesus. The chief priests laid many accusations against him. Pilate again interrogated him: ‘Aren’t you going to make any reply? Look how many things they’re accusing you of!’ But Jesus gave no reply at all, which astonished Pilate. The custom was that at festival time he used to release for them a single prisoner, whoever they would ask for. There was a man in prison named Barabbas, one of the revolutionaries who had committed murder during the uprising. So the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do what he normally did. ‘Do you want me’, answered Pilate, ‘to release for you “the king of the Jews”?’ He said this because he knew that the chief priests had handed him over out of envy. The chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead to be released to them. So Pilate once again asked them, ‘What then do you want me to do with the one you call “the king of the Jews”?’ ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted again. ‘Why?’ asked Pilate. ‘What has he done wrong?’ ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted all the louder. Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd; so he released Barabbas for them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard, that is, the Praetorium, and called together the whole squad. They dressed Jesus up in purple; then, weaving together a crown of thorns, they stuck it on him. They began to salute him: ‘Greetings, King of the Jews!’ And they hit him over the head with a staff, and spat at him, and knelt down to do him homage. Then, when they had mocked him, they took the purple robe off him, and put his own clothes back on. Then they led him off to crucify him. They compelled a man called Simon to carry Jesus’ cross. He was from Cyrene, and was coming in from out of town. He was the father of Alexander and Rufus. They took Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which in translation means ‘Skull’s Place’. They gave him a mixture of wine and myrrh, but he didn’t drink it. So they crucified him; they ‘parted his clothing between them, casting lots’ to see who would get what. It was about nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription, giving the charge, read: ‘The King of the Jews’. They also crucified two bandits alongside him, one on his right and one on his left. People who were passing by abused him. They shook their heads at him. ‘Hah!’ they said. ‘You were going to destroy the Temple, were you? And build it again in three days? Why don’t you rescue yourself, and come down from the cross?’ The chief priests and the lawyers were mocking him in the same way among themselves. ‘He rescued others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t rescue himself. Messiah, is he? King of Israel, did he say? Well, let’s see him come down from the cross! We’ll believe him when we see that!’ The two who were crucified alongside him taunted him as well. At midday there was darkness over all the land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus shouted out in a powerful voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’ When the bystanders heard it, some of them said, ‘He’s calling for Elijah!’ One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a pole, and gave it him to drink. ‘Well then,’ he declared, ‘let’s see if Elijah will come and take him down.’ But Jesus, with another loud shout, breathed his last. The Temple veil was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the centurion who was standing facing him saw that he died in this way, he said, ‘This fellow really was God’s son.’ Some women were watching from a distance. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome. They had followed Jesus in Galilee, and had attended to his needs. There were several other women, too, who had come up with him to Jerusalem. It was already getting towards evening, and it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea, a reputable member of the Council who was himself eagerly awaiting God’s kingdom, took his courage in both hands, went to Pilate, and requested the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion, and asked whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned the facts from the centurion, he conceded the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought a linen cloth, took the body down, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb cut out of the rock. He rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.
Reports suggest that there are plenty of people today who are so distant from the story of Jesus that they can watch a children’s play about him without realizing what’s going to happen. They are then shocked to the core at the thought of the terrible events that unfold so swiftly. How could they do that, such people think, to someone like Jesus?
Part of the challenge of this weekend, as we prepare for the week that changed the world for ever, is that we need to be, once again, shockable by this story. How easy it is for regular churchgoers, and even those who used to be regular but are no more, to go through Mark chapters 14 and 15 and mentally tick off the different incidents. Oh yes, there’s that bit. Oh yes, Jesus before the chief priests. And then Pontius Pilate. And so Jesus goes to be . . .
And we ought to be saying to ourselves: ‘Crucified? That’s crazy! You can’t do that!’ We ought to want to jump up from our chairs and rush to the rescue. How can they even think of sending Jesus to his death? In most countries in the Western world, capital punishment has long been abolished, and when those of us who take that for granted then hear of people being executed in cold blood, whether in Iran or in Texas, we are horrified, and want to write to the newspapers, or to our members of Parliament, to anyone, in protest. But we ought to have that same reaction magnified a million times as we read the story of Jesus’ death. This was one of the cruellest things ever done, one of the most unjust things ever done, one of the wickedest things ever done.
It was also the moment when God did the most loving thing of all; the moment when God unveiled his justice once and for all; the moment when God’s mercy overflowed, through the one man Jesus, for all. How can this be? How can we hold on in our hearts and minds to these two utterly different readings of the same event?
The easy answers are there, and they are all true. He died to save us. He died for our sins. He died because ‘he loved us and gave himself for us’. Yes. Cling on to those. We need them.
But there is more, much more. The easy and well-known answers are signposts to a larger reality, less easy to capture in slogans. Some of the greatest truths in life can’t be caught in the butterfly net of a phrase here, a neat little dogma there. If you try, you will end up simply pinning them to the page; the butterfly is beautiful, but it will be dead. What we need to do instead is to let the creature fly, let it spread its wings and do what it does best, while we look on in wonder. And that is the task to which Mark invites us now.
His explanation of the reasons why Jesus died draw on every-thing that has gone before in his story. The story he tells is the climax of the story of Israel itself; and the story of Jesus’ death is the climax of the climax, the point where God’s age-old purpose for Israel is finally unveiled. Mark has hinted at this, from Jesus’ baptism onwards. The scriptures pointed to it, whether the passages that spoke of Jesus as God’s son, to be enthroned as the true king, or the passages that spoke of him as the servant, come to inaugurate God’s kingdom by dying a shameful death. All that is important, but it will simply get us to the starting point.
The starting point, as we find it in the first verse of chapter 14, is the festival and the plot.
The festival! Passover, of course. The time when God went down to Egypt to rescue his people from their slavery. Jesus has chosen this moment, when everyone is coming to Jerusalem, everyone is telling the story of God’s great rescue operation, God’s covenant with his people, God’s revelation of his name and his character in overthrowing the pagan enemy (in that case, Egypt, but most people had no difficulty in translating ‘Egypt’ into ‘Rome’) and bringing his people out into freedom. Jesus chose this moment because (Mark is telling us) he believed it was time for the ultimate Passover, the Passover of Passovers. God had come back in person and was revealing himself and his powerful love in a way never before imagined but never again to be doubted.
And the plot. All through Mark’s gospel we have seen the plots being considered, and sometimes attempted. We have seen trick questions, mutterings behind hands, and, darkly, the accusations. He’s in league with the devil. He’s breaking the sabbath. He’s blaspheming – who does he think he is to be forgiving sins? He’s leading the people astray. And now the sequence begins: why this anointing? Why this meal? Why the agony in the garden? Jesus knows the accusations are closing in, the Accuser is doing his worst. Judas, terribly, hands him over. The chief priests accuse him of many things, not realizing whose voice it is coming through their throats. They go on doing it the next morning, before Pilate. The crowds join in. Then the passers-by mock him, still accusing: Messiah, eh? Well, come down from the cross and then we’ll believe you! The plots, the accusations, the Accuser. Jesus takes it all. It all comes on to him. This is central to Mark’s meaning.
And then, flitting to and fro in the shadows of the story, the frightened characters who remind us so much of . . . well, of ourselves. The incomprehending disciples, not understanding about the ointment at Bethany. The worried disciples, each anxious that it might be him who would suddenly turn traitor. Blustering Peter, eager to swear that he’ll stick it out, then collapsing like a pricked balloon when, for a moment, the searchlight of accusation swings round on to him. The soldiers, doing what (alas) soldiers still do, taking out their frustrations on an easy target. The bystanders, misunderstanding what Jesus is saying, watching and puzzling and only figuring it out long after-wards. The centurion, watching his thousandth victim die and suddenly realizing he’d never seen anything like this before.
The point is not to catch it all in a formula. The point is to stay there, to let the story wash over you again and again like a huge tidal wave, knocking you off your feet, rinsing you out, breaking you down, leaving you with nothing but awe and sorrow and gratitude and love. He did it for us. He did it for me. For you. For people near by and far away. Jesus has gone to the darkest place in the world, the place where all that he can say is ‘My God, why did you abandon me?’ And he has gone there, with all the plots and accusations and paranoia and frustration and hatred and misunderstanding and failed hopes and broken dreams of the world clattering about his head. He has gone there because that was, and is, the only way the world can be rescued. The only way you and I can be rescued. The only way by which God’s love can take the worst on to itself and leave us free.
‘This fellow really was God’s son.’ Mark tells us that the centurion was the first to say it. But he wants us to say it, too.
Give us, almighty God, the faith and courage to stand this week at the foot of the cross, and to learn to see your glory there.