‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 27. Catastrophe – Friday
Jn 19:6 Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
Approach: It’s early Friday morning. The historian Max Hastings wrote a book entitled ‘Catastrophe’, detailing the First World War and then a subsequent one detailing the Second World War, entitled, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’. They are sobering reading and the folly of mankind is laid bare, but the description, ‘Catastrophe’ and the following one, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ are apt descriptions of what took place on this most shameful day in history. If we may, let’s just itemize the things that happen in the next eighteen hours. It’s very easy to forget all that happened so let’s remind ourselves what Good Friday is about:
– night, Jesus is taken first to the house of Annas (Jn 18:13) where interrogated.
– he is then sent to Caiaphas’s palace being interrogated by scribes and elders (Mt 26:57, Jn 18:24))
– “chief priests and elders and all the council” (i.e. the Sanhedrin) seek false witnesses (Mt 26:59-62)
– the chief priest demands him under oath to declare if he is the Son of God (v.63)
– Jesus affirms this is so (v.64) The high priest declares this is blasphemy (v.65)
– collectively they agree this is worthy of death (v.66)
– he is abused by some there (Mk 14:65, Lk 22:63)
– the ‘trial’ continues to the morning (probably daybreak) (Mt 27:1, Lk 22:66)
– they then take him to Pilate (Mt 27:2)
– Pilate interrogates him, finds no fault, offers to free him, the crowd calls for Barabbas (Mt 27:11-23)
– Pilate sends him to Herod who returns him (Lk 23:6-12)
– Pilate washes his hands of the situation and gives him over to be crucified (Mt 27:24-26)
– Jesus is beaten and mocked by the soldiers (Mt 27:27-31)
– Jesus is crucified (Mt 27:35, Lk 23:33) It is midday (Jn 19:14)
– At three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus dies (Mt 27:45-50)
– As evening approaches Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and entombs him (Mt 27:57-60)
– On Saturday, a guard is placed over the still closed tomb (Mt 27:62-66)
Detail? I am aware that a list like this skims over the events but the truth is that there is so much that it would be impossible to cover it all in all four Gospels, so I leave it to you to read the accounts. The end result is that by late afternoon on this Passover day, Jesus is dead, the Lamb of God has been sacrificed for the sin of the world. Wonderful and terrible. The wonder will come with later understanding but for the moment, on this day, it is simply terrible, a catastrophe! All hell has broken lose. How else can we explain what has taken place?
Uncertainty? How does our overall theme fit here? Well, when we look at the appalling acts of the combined Jewish authorities – and they are all implicated – their only uncertainty, their only question mark, is whether they will be able to get Pilate to agree to their demands and have Jesus executed. When Jesus is before Pilate, the procurator’s initial uncertainty is Jesus’ guilt, and he is fairly sure he is guilty of nothing demanding death. His secondary uncertainty is how he can let Jesus off without displeasing the Jewish authorities and possibly causing a riot. He tries suggesting releasing Jesus – or the rebel leader Barabbas – but when that offer is rejected he tries to offload his responsibility by sending him to Herod but Herod gets no further with Jesus and so sends him back. When the crowd shout that he is no friend of Caesar (Jn 19:12,15) he capitulates and gives him up to be killed. He stands in history as a moral coward and thus Jew and Gentile share in the responsibility for the death of the Son of God.
But the peak of uncertainty must be seen in the disciples. Mostly they have simply fled and hidden. Their future is questionable. Peter has denied Jesus and is now in total despair. He, the one so often seen as the leader of the twelve, is now enveloped in guilt and shame. He has no future. The apostle John and a number of the women have witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross and they are in no doubt that the one they love is dead. There is a massive question mark over the future. What were these three years all about? The anguish of what they had just witnessed overshadows everything else. There appears to be no thought given to Jesus words, reiterated so many times about his coming death AND resurrection. It has all been swallowed up in the awfulness of what has just happened.
I think it is probably impossible, this side of heaven, to see and understand the absolute awfulness of this day. We can catch a glimpse of it, how wrong it was, but let’s try to stretch further, remembering all the time of the wonder of who it is we have been considering – the glorious Son of God who put his glory aside and left heaven to experience life in a human body, who waited patiently thirty years until he was able to bring about the most incredible three years the world has ever witnessed, with miracles, healings, deliverances, people being raised from the dead – the love of God being poured through him on a daily basis to bless humanity.
– the disciples – who betray Jesus, abandon Jesus, deny Jesus in his time of need,
– the Jewish authorities – who take this man full of utter goodness, and scheme to have him killed because he showed up the bankruptcy of their faith and their lives and put their nation under threat (at least as they saw it), and the Jewish people who allowed themselves to be used by the authorities to raise the threat level against Pilate, and thus enable the will of the authorities to proceed,
– the Roman Procurator, Pilate, who failed to stand up to the evil confronting him and abrogated his authority and that of Rome to let his men bring about the will of Judaism.
Questions for Us? As we read the accounts of Jesus on the Cross there is a measure of uncertainty that most of us never dare go near, questions arise over the Scriptures. It is the event plus what is said about it in the rest of the Bible. Let’s consider two examples:
First, how about the prophetic Psalm 22 that starts with those terrible words that Jesus uttered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v.1) revealing a psalm that saw behind the scenes if we may put it like that. “All who see me mock me.” (v.7 fulfilled in, for example Mk 15:31). “all my bones are out of joint.” (v.14) the experience of hanging, nailed, on a cross. But then what about, “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions that tear their prey,” (v.12,13) and “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.” (v.16) This is not merely people, this is the demonic hoard egged on by Satan, deriding him and seeking to provoke him to curse God so that he became less than the perfect sacrifice that the prophecies and Law required. I have referred to C.S.Lewis’s Narnia book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” before, and if you read it you will remember the mob around Aslan as he is being sacrificed. I think Lewis got it right. On the cross on this day, there is a battle going on for the fate of the world that depends on a perfect lamb remaining perfect (Ex 12:5 etc. 1 Pet 1:19, Heb 9:14) and he never gave way (Heb 4:15). Hallelujah!
Second, bearing our sins? “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness,” (1 Pet 2:24 quoting Isa 53) How many times have we perhaps heard that in Easter sermons and yet we’re still not sure what it means. Bore – carried, took on himself. In other words, in some way they defies our understanding he took every sin that has ever been committed and will be committed, wrapped them round himself on the cross as he died, taking the punishment for every one of them (That is not to mean every person is cleared – we still have to believe it, appropriate it for our own lives).
And So? We collectively as humanity were guilty of this awful result. It is too easy, in the light of retrospective study with the whole of the New Testament in our hands, to say we wouldn’t have been part of all of this. But whether we would have remained silent and let evil have its way, or allowed ourselves get swept along with popular opinion (stoked from behind, maybe), or whether we might have been like a later Saul of Tarsus and thought that although he was a great teacher and healer, this man needed to be stopped for the sake of our country and our belief system, whatever… we would almost certainly have been in that mix somewhere. It leaves us (well, it does me at least) praying with Jesus, “Father, forgive us, we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t understand the dynamics of what was happening. Please have mercy on us. Amen” Silence.