After four days at Walt Disney World, my family and I were quite exhausted. We left Animal Kingdom early in the afternoon and drove back to our condo. Tired of park food, we decided to head to a nearby restaurant for a more well rounded meal. The local Friday’s wasn’t too terribly packed, so we parked and were seated. What happened next was quite interesting.
Our waiter was a black homosexual. He welcomed us cheerfully and dully noted that we were not from the area. His observational skills were exceptional. What I found quite interesting was how his demeanor changed when we said that we were from Texas. He tried to hide it, but his acting skills were not on a par with his observational skills. Perhaps he believed the stereotypes of Texans being arrogant, intolerant Republicans who are backwards in thought and hateful to anyone who is outside the norm–who are racist, misogynist, and homophobic. Don’t you love being caricatured? I don’t, and it was a bit concerning to see how this young man reacted to the statement of our state’s name, but he had a job to do regardless of who he was serving.
The man took our drink and appetizer order and headed off to procure our refreshments, and here is where things took another interesting turn. An arm appeared suddenly over my shoulder and deposited a piece of paper in front of me. On that piece of paper were three coupons marked by bar codes: two 20% off your entire purchase codes and a one free entre code. We were struck by this act of kindness–completely random; totally unexpected. We thanked our benefactors profusely.
When our food came, our oldest, Kiera, made mention of the coupon and the kindness of the total strangers sitting next to us. She remarked, “Dad, that’s a God sighting.”
I answered, “Yes, dear. You are right. That is indeed a God sighting.”
I’m going to break from the story just a moment to say that I have since found out that Kiera learned that phrase from this year’s vacation Bible school. Dawna and I haven’t used that phrase in our home in teaching our kids about God, so I knew it had to come from somewhere. Kudos to our VBS teachers and leaders. Someone learned something this year!!!
But, let’s return now to the rest of the story. My kids have become very concerned when we eat at restaurants these days. They particularly have a soft spot for our waiters and waitresses–particularly those waiters and waitresses who show them some kindness during our meals. It was not surprising when they asked us as we were paying, “Are you going to tip him?”–meaning our waiter. Of course, I was going to tip him. He did a very good job that evening, and I wanted to send him a message both thanking him for his work and to show that we Texans ABSOLUTELY DO NOT fit the caricature. I asked our waiter, “How many tables have you waited tonight?” His response was, “Only two.” I gave him a $30 tip that he did not see until after we left. The kids asked me how much I gave him. I told them, and they were quite stunned.
As we stood to leave, I looked at the coupon in my hand which still had two more discounts. Seeing another family in the restaurant with young, energetic children, I made a snap decision. I walked past my family and up to their table. Depositing the coupon in front of the father, I said, “Someone showed us a great kindness tonight by giving us this coupon. There are still two more discounts on this, and we would like to pass on the favor.” I was thanked warmly as I left.
Kiera then looked at me and said, “Dad, you were a God sighting.”
I responded, “Yes. I was. Someone was kind to us and was a God sighting to us, and now we can be God sightings to others.”
God sightings are those things which inspire us to be different. They touch us deep within our hearts and souls. They are things which inspire us to do good; to be good; to go out of our way to show kindness and compassion; to break stereotypes and do things that we would not ordinarily do; to think outside of ourselves–to lose ourselves and love lavishly.
Today, we have before us in our Gospel text the Ultimate God Sighting. We have before us the death of God. That may sound a bit strange, but let’s walk through the text and see just what is happening when Jesus dies on the cross.
Jesus has faced the ultimate rejection by humanity. One of His disciples has betrayed Him. The leader of His disciples has denied Him not once but three times. All of the rest of His disciples have abandoned Him. He has been unjustly tried by the Jewish court system where nearly all of the rules of Jewish jurisprudence have been broken. He has faced the injustice of the Roman court system as Pontius Pilate has chosen job security and advancement over justice. The crowds which were once supportive have turned against Jesus thinking that He is a false Messiah worthy of death. He has been scourged and beaten within an inch of His life. He has been mocked and spit on. He has been hung on a cross which is symbolic of both cosmic and worldly scorn. He has been derided by bystanders and by those crucified with Him. There is not much more psychological, human distress that He could undergo.
But all of that is nothing compared to what begins to happen next. A darkness falls over the land. Scholars are in a bit of disagreement as to what this darkness symbolizes. Some have suggested it is a veil hiding God the Father’s face from this debacle. Some have argued it is a cosmic event showing that something very important is happening. Still others have said that this is the wrath of God descending upon Jesus at this very instant. All of these suggestions have merit. I will leave it up to you to decide.
It is three hours into this darkness that Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This statement is troubling for some. Ironic for others. For we profess as Christians that Jesus is God. How can God forsake God? Is it even possible? Can we even begin to make sense of this statement?
I think we can as we remember that Jesus was God immanent; God incarnate; the second person of the Trinity who dwells with us. From eternity, the God incarnate has been in a relationship with His Father that has sustained Him; given Him every bit of affirmation, love, strength, and compassion that He has needed. There has never been a moment when Jesus has felt alone or afraid or abandoned. Until now. At this point, Jesus has become the sin bearer for all the world. At this moment Jesus has taken upon Himself all of the hatred that we bear toward on another. He has taken upon Himself all the injustice we perpetrate toward each other. Not only from the past but for the entire future. All of humanity’s ills are piled upon Him, and He is paying the price for all of that. He is suffering for all of that. He is not only facing the physical pain of the cross, He is facing the spiritual pain of hell. He is facing the wrath of God; abandonment by God; the one thing He has never had to worry about in an eternity of existence. It is so painful; so excruciating that He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He undeservingly becomes forsaken because we deserve to be.
There are bystanders by the cross who hear Jesus’ cry, and they use it as one more opportunity to mock Him. Not comprehending His words, they believe that Jesus is calling for Elijah to come and rescue Him from the cross. The Aramaic words for God and Elijah are actually pretty close, so this isn’t farfetched. It was also common practice that people would appeal to Elijah if they believed they were suffering unjustly. A man puts a mixture of vinegar and water on a sponge and offers it to Jesus. This might seem like a compassionate gesture, but rest assured it is not. A better translation of the words this man speaks are, “Permit me. Let us see if Elijah is coming to save him.” Essentially, this man is saying, “Let me give him something to drink. That will prolong his life a little more. Let’s just see if Elijah will come down and save him.” One more opportunity to mock the man hanging on the cross. But it is not the last word.
Jesus cries out with a loud voice as He dies and at the exact same moment the Temple curtain is torn in two. There is much debate regarding this tearing of the curtain. For there were two main curtains in the temple. I personally didn’t realize this until I was studying for my sermon this week. There was an inner curtain dividing the most sacred part of the temple from everyone in the world–including the priests. Behind that curtain it was believed that God dwelled. There was also a second curtain dividing the courtyard of women from the courtyard of men. This curtain prevented Gentiles and women from coming closest to God. Which curtain was torn? Speculation continues, but I appreciate what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:
The outer curtain (the only one described by Josephus) was the only curtain visible to all people. It appears that schizein “to tear” at v. 38 is intended to refer to this curtain. In Mark’s only other use of this word at the baptism, the tearing of heaven revealed Jesus to be the Son of God. Likewise, the tearing of the curtain of the temple enables the centurion to confess Jesus as the Son of God. Both confessions depend on the tearing in two of a veil so that something may be witnessed. The only curtain visible to a Gentile centurion was the outer curtain, not the curtain before the Holy of Holies. Moreover, Josephus describes the outer curtain as a tapestry portraying “a panorama of the heavens”. That is a striking parallel to the tearing of heaven in 1:10. Thus at both uses of schizein Mark signifies the rending of the skies–to open heaven to humanity in the baptism of Jesus and to open the temple as the locus Dei to humanity at the death of Jesus. At the baptism and death of Jesus the heavenly and earthly dwellings of God are open to humanity.
Edwards makes me consider this veil very thoroughly as it seems to grasp the reality of Jesus’ death. For as Jesus dies on our behalf, he opens up both heaven and earth to all who trust in Him.
Beholding how Jesus died, a Roman centurion is moved to speak. With what we know about crucifixion, we can be relatively sure that this centurion watched Jesus’ being beaten and mocked. We can be relatively sure that he was in the procession as Jesus marched to Calvary. We can be relatively sure he has watched the entire, gruesome spectacle. We can be relatively sure he has seen many crucifixions. And we know that in nearly every one of those instances, people died from suffocation. They ended their lives with no breath; no strength. But here was something different. Here was something strange. Here a man died with a shout of power–a shout that tore a heavy curtain from top to bottom rending the heavens.
“Truly, this man was God’s Son.” It was a God sighting. This centurion had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
Mark then includes a list of eyewitnesses who passed this story onto him: several important women who were also followers of Jesus. “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” In a culture that generally demeaned women and would not trust their testimony, it is quite heartening to see how from the earliest, Christianity trusted women’s witness with some of the most important occurrences in our history. They too had a God sighting.
What makes this God sighting different from those other little God sightings that we have in our daily lives? What makes Jesus’ death on the cross markedly different from any sort of other kindness we witness in our day to day activity?
In my case, an act of kindness performed for my family and I by a complete stranger was enough to cause two other acts of kindness, but it was not life transforming. It did not cause me to think about it at all hours of the day. It did not cause me to write any hymns of thanksgiving or praise. It did not affect my daily routine or thought process in the least. It was a small act of kindness.
Jesus’ death on the cross is a God sighting of cosmic proportions. Jesus death on the cross is an act of tremendous love. As I said earlier, on the cross He bore the weight of the world’s sin. He bore the weight of my sin. He bore the weight of your sin. Now, if you do not understand your sinfulness, the cross isn’t a big deal for you. You are probably happier with Easter than you are with Good Friday. The cross is just a stepping stone you need to celebrate the resurrection. The resurrection gives you hope and joy and laughter, but it is not necessarily life transforming. There are plenty of people who focus on the resurrection who believe that this is what Christianity is about: that God bestows upon us glory and honor and joy and peace without trial and tribulation and hardship. We can simply believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead without any transformation in our lives. We have received the cheat death coupon, and we don’t have to worry about anything at all. We might be thankful from time to time, maybe attend worship at Christmas and Easter, but there is relatively little that passes for anything different in our lives. Such is what happens if I do not know the depths of my sin.
But if I understand the depths of my sin. If I understand that I am a failure–that I hold others to a standard that I do not even live up to; that I am selfish in many of my actions–even when I don’t think I am; that I fail to show the basic levels of kindness to those around me; that I fail to look at others in a compassionate light; that I am always ready to see the worst in people’s motivations; that I am always ready to caricature those whom I disagree with; that I am striving for people’s attention and praise; that I am more concerned with dollars and possessions than I am with loving my neighbor. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I am sinful. You are sinful, and Jesus hung on that cross because of our sinfulness. He died that we might live. He poured out undeserved love as He faced forsakenness from the Father so that we would not have to. This is the extent of God’s love–God is willing to sacrifice Himself for us.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”
If you understand your sin and you understand what is happening on that cross, then you understand why this is the most tremendous God sighting you can ever see. You understand why your heart beats in a different rhythm. You understand why deep down you are brought to your proverbial knees. You find yourself very much like that centurion who in awe says, “Truly, this man is God’s Son.” May those words ever be on our lips. Amen.