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An Unjust Death

Luke 23:26-49
David A. Davis
March 6, 2022
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Spectacle. “…all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle…” All the crowds gathered outside the city gates at the placed called “The Skull”. Maybe it was called “the skull” because it was a barren, craggy, rocky, bald head-like notable hill always in view from the city. Maybe it was called “the skull” because the ground was littered with skulls and bones from all the public executions held there. A place where everyone knew, everyone came, everyone gathered for the spectacle of death. “The place that is called the skull”. Everyone knew where it was just like everyone in town knew where the lynching tree was. Spectacle.

The crowds saw it all. The march. The torture. The mockery. The scoffing. The derision. The humiliation, degradation, dehumanization. The violence and the death. All the crowds saw every bit of it, the spectacle. Some of them would have been in the crowd shouting “Crucify, crucify him!” They would have heard Pilate say, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But all the crowds, the mob, they kept demanding Jesus be crucified. According to Luke, the loudest voices carried the day. Instead of releasing Jesus, Pilate released Barabbas. The one the gospel writer says was “Put in prison for insurrection and murder”. Pilate handed over a man to be killed that he knew was innocent. There among all the crowds, some must of heard one of the others suffering and dying on the cross say “this man has done nothing wrong”, referring to Jesus. And after Jesus “breathed his last” there on that cross, some must have heard the Centurion say “Certainly this man was innocent.” What Luke called a spectacle: an innocent, innocent, innocent man being brutally murdered by the powers and principalities of authority and empire in the world as all the crowds who had gathered there saw what had taken place.

When you begin reading Luke at the cross, when you begin Lent at the cross, when you begin a sermon at the cross, you can’t help but, you sort of have to see the cross for what it was. Spectacle. I grew up singing about the cross. I grew up hearing a lot about being a disciple of Jesus and taking up the cross. I was taught to lay my burdens at the foot of cross, and to ponder Christ’s suffer on the cross for my sins and the sins of the world. But the spectacle of it all; not so much.

I have a database of all the sermons I have preached from this pulpit in 21 years. I can reference sermons by date, by title which I can never remember, or by scripture lesson. Trust me, the development and maintenance of that data base is thanks to the people I get to work with. I cannot take any credit. You will remember that Good Friday services at Nassau do not include a sermon. We don’t follow of tradition of several sermons and a three-hour service on the “Seven Last Words”. But I was still surprised, and frankly a bit embarrassed, when I checked the data base this week. I have never preached a sermon at Nassau Church on the texts of crucifixion. I have never preached a sermon about the cross. When you begin reading Luke at the Cross, when you begin Lent at the cross, when you begin a sermon at the cross, you can’t help but, you sort of have to, see the cross for what it was. A spectacle of evil and violence sparked by threatened authority, fueled by ruthless power, and seductively attractive to masses of people who couldn’t look away. See the cross for what it was. Humanity’s spectacle; a timeless spectacle of the power of sin and evil.

“When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”, Luke writes, “saw what had taken place, they returned to their home, beating their breasts.” The phrase “beating their breasts” connotes lament and weeping. It is as if Luke implies that everyone in those crowds left in grief and horrified having watched what took place. All the crowds? Everyone in the crowd? I am not convinced, Luke. Too many people thump their chest in victory or defiance or in self-congratulations. No Luke, I don’t think everybody walking home from the place called the Skull was filled with lament and regret. Human history and our own eyes won’t let us completely believe that it was everyone.

But the women? The women who had followed him from Galilee, who stood at a distance watching as the mobs went home. The women are the very personification of the grief and lament caused by that spectacle. Those are the woman who were following him along the way of the cross. The ones in the crowd following him as Simon of Cyrene was seized and given the cross beam to carry. The women were “beating their breasts and wailing for him.” Tradition and the presumption of the gospel narratives would place Mary, the mother of Jesus in that crowd. Mary, who bore for us a Savior to show God’s love aright, when half spent was the night. Mary who wrapped her infant child in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. She laid him in a manger, the little Lord Jesus who laid down his sweet head. Mary and the other women from Galilee standing at a distance in grief as the crowds turned away from the spectacle and her son was left on the cross with his sweet head hanging in death.

Earlier, according to Luke, along the way Jesus turned to those women and spoke the puzzling words full of apocalyptic imagery and a quote from the prophet Hosea. Like anyone who attended one of our small groups this week talking about this passage, I find myself struggling to wrap my head around Jesus’ words here. It could have something to do with Luke’s attempt to take the spectacle of the crucifixion to apocalyptic levels. Maybe it has something to do with connecting the violence perpetrated upon Jesus with the violence and death that came with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman Empire.

But maybe you and I should worry less about wrapping our heads around Jesus’ words and more about wrapping our hearts around Jesus and his words: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” The Savior of the world speaking words of warning and solidarity to every mother in every time and place who has lost a child to an unjust death. Because when you begin reading Luke at the cross, you will now never gloss over or even forget what old man Simeon said to Mary and Joseph way back in the second chapter of Luke as he took the child Jesus in his arms. You won’t gloss over “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” A mother’s sword of grief that pierce’s her soul and a son’s unjust death.

No reader of Luke will ever gloss over or forget this word of Jesus from the cross either: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The eye, and the ear, and the attention for all kinds of reasons leans toward “paradise.” The word “paradise” which occurs nowhere else in Luke. But you know Luke is going to want the reader to ponder the word “today.” “Today” does occur in Luke, sometimes in a pretty significant way. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today…today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus and today. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s what Jesus said after unrolling the scroll in the temple and reading from Isaiah; good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, the oppressed go free. Today. “Today, you will be with in paradise.” Jesus, the gospel of Luke, and the theology of today. Jesus and his cross, the whole horrible spectacle of it all. Today.

When you begin reading Luke at the Cross, when you begin Lent at the cross, when you begin a sermon at the cross, it is to stand at the foot of the cross today and weep. It is to look around the world today and see yet again and again examples of humanity’s timeless spectacle. Even more, to see the very face of Jesus, his sweet head hanging in death, in the faces of the victims of the unrelenting spectacles of the power of sin and evil. Jesus’ death was not the first nor the last unjust death. And Mary has never been alone in her grief. To begin at the cross is to affirm the very presence of the Savior’s dying love for this, this very world. Yes, this world, our world. 2022 and all that it is. All that there is in the world. For God so loves…this world.

By the way, all those soldiers, Ukrainian and Russian dying, all the Ukrainian men, women, and children dying amid the atrocity, the spectacle of war, they all have a mother grieving the unjust death of a child. Johanny Rosario Richards was a Marine killed by a bomb in Kabul along with 12 other members of the United States military as the forces left Afghanistan. Johanny’s mother’s name is Culasa. Brian Sicknick is the police officer who died just hours after defending the capital on January 6th of last year. His mother’s name is Gladys. Ahmaud Arbory’s mother name is Wanda. Breanna Taylor’s mother’s name is Tamika. Katie Meyer, the young woman who was the goalie on the Stanford’s women’s soccer term who tragically took her own life on campus last week, Katie’s mother’s name is Gina. Michael Brown’s mother is Leslie. Travon Martin’s mother is Sabrina. A mother’s grief and a child’s unjust death. No, Mary was never going to be alone.

At the foot of the cross and at the Table of the Lord’s Supper. Today. Weeping, yet clinging to Christ’s promise. I will be with you always. Yes, in every time. But more, maybe even more, in every place. Every. Place.