Sunday, January 31, 2021

Crucified, Died, Buried (Sermon 4 on the Apostles' Creed)

Here we come to the real crux of the matter, if you'll pardon the pun. In the last three weeks, as we've looked at the opening words of the Apostles' Creed, we confessed that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...” But then what happened? The Creed doesn't say anything about the majority of Jesus' life on earth. That wasn't a customary part of the Church's Rule of Faith. It didn't make the highlight reel. But that isn't to say it's unimportant. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. A visit from foreign stargazers frightened the paranoid old king Herod into giving an order to exterminate the babies in that town. Forewarned in a dream, Joseph took Mary, the baby Jesus, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh they'd been given, and sought refuge in Egypt for a few months until Herod had died. Making their way back to the land, it wasn't at first clear which version of Herod's will had left which of his sons in charge where; but finding the answer, Joseph resettled the family back to Nazareth in Galilee. There they raised Jesus, there he was apprenticed to his father Joseph as a carpenter, until Joseph eventually died.

In his early thirties, Jesus traveled to where his relative John was re-enacting the entry into the Promised Land by dipping people into the Jordan River for cleansing and a new start. Jesus went through the ritual to identify himself with Israel, and then went immediately into the desert to fast and pray, which he capped off by facing down Satan the Tempter and coming away clean. Recharged, Jesus returned to Galilee, where for the next three years or so, he carried out an itinerant teaching career. Establishing himself as a teacher, he began to attract hearers and followers. As he did, he handpicked twelve men to be his personal students, who'd go everywhere he went, live with him, stick by his side, and be his proteges. Why twelve? To start Israel afresh, you'd need to reboot the twelve tribes. These students would be patriarchs of a New Israel, with Jesus as the God who called them and was giving them a fresh New Law. From the start, Jesus proclaimed the necessity of repentance, since the kingdom of God was being restored to the earth. As he went, his pithy stories, extended speeches, and cryptic sayings unpacked the nature of that kingdom, while he demonstrated its approach by curing diseases with his touch, casting out demons with his word, and commanded the powers of nature to obedience as no mundane teacher could. And so he was recognized by many as the long-awaited Messiah, and was hated by many others as a threat to their own agendas for Israel and for humanity. Increasingly, approaching three years into his announcements, he begin hinting to his students that the true mission of the Messiah, as Israel's king and humanity's head, was to step forward into the whirlwind of tribulation at the world's end and draw it down onto himself, drinking down the chalice of divine wrath against all human hate, and weathering the catastrophe himself by being hated, scorned, outcast, judged, abused, degraded, and destroyed.

And so we come to the next article of the Apostles' Creed. Not only do we confess our belief in this Jesus, that he is who he says he is, but that those final warnings were right: he “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” who at that time was the Roman prefect or procurator of Judea, the Roman province south of Galilee – a man notorious for his thuggish massacres and his insensitivity to Jewish scruples. We say that we believe in the Jesus “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried...” Those who say the Nicene Creed say the same thing: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” So what are we saying?

Jesus spent March of that year leading his disciples into Judea, where his substantial group of followers mingled with a pilgrim parade streaming through Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate there the upcoming Feast of Passover, a commemoration of God's ancient salvation of Israel from Egypt. But once Jesus had arrived in the suburbs of Jerusalem, coming in and out of the city as he and they prepared for Passover, a plot was set in motion by an alliance of those who hated him. One Thursday night in the first week of April, Jesus ate supper with his students, who were also his closest friends, when one of them slipped away from the table. Jesus led this core group across a brook, while they sang a hymn, and into an olive grove called Gethsemane where they frequently retreated to pray when they were in the area. There, Jesus wrestled with the immensity of what was to come. Late into the night, the missing disciple returned as a traitor, leading temple guards to apprehend Jesus. He was treated to a sham trial overnight in the high priest's residence, and at dawn, the Jewish ruling council, called the Sanhedrin, had issued its official decision of guilt. Within hours, they hauled Jesus to the praetorium, the official residence of the governor, where in the outside courtyard, representatives of the Sanhedrin denounced Jesus to that governor, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate's instincts were to acquit, seeing nothing in Roman law that would classify the conduct of Jesus as a criminal offense. He attempted to offload the problem onto Herod Antipas, tetrarch in charge of Galilee, who was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover; but Antipas returned the favor. Pilate proposed a non-capital form of punishment, having Jesus flogged or scourged with a harsh whip and allowing his soldiers to make sport of the would-be king of the Jews by mock-crowning him with thorns and mock-robing him in purple while spitting on him and striking him. The process was brutal, leaving Jesus bloody, raw, and quite sore – and this sort of torture was often a prelude to execution, though sometimes they used burning or branding with hot metal instead. Then Pilate presented the beaten Jesus in front of the crowd, offering to release him as a gesture of goodwill; instead, they chanted for the release of a bandit-chief and terrorist named Barabbas who'd been captured with his two accomplices, and called for Rome's cruelest punishment to be enacted on Jesus: crucifixion.

Crucifixion, suspension from a cross to which one was attached by ropes or nails, was a nasty way to die. It had everything you didn't want in a death. It was meant to be as painful as possible. It was meant to be humiliating in the extreme, rendering its victim powerless. And it was meant to be extremely drawn out, sometimes lasting for days. Many thought of it as the worst way to go. One Roman writer called it “a cruel and terrifying penalty.” Romans commonly saved it for slaves, foreigners, bandits, and the most serious offenders like temple thieves, military deserters, and terrorists. It comes as no surprise to know that Roman slaves, when they wanted to cuss each other out, would yell, “Oh, go to the evil cross! Get yourself crucified!”

Seeing the determination of the crowd, Pilate – against all righteousness, and against his own better judgment – caved to their pressure. He formally pronounced Jesus guilty of sedition, issuing a death sentence shortly after noon, and approving the employment of crucifixion. Then he handed Jesus and the two other death-row prisoners over to the soldiers. Subjected to more mockery and abuse from the soldiers before they even got out of the praetorium, Jesus – remaining resolutely speechless against these outrages – was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the crossbeam, the horizontal bar to which he'd be nailed, himself. Only, thanks to the severe treatment he'd already received, his body had been weakened to the point he couldn't get it all the way, and so a bystander from Libya was enlisted to carry it for him. Then, outside the city walls, they reached a hill nicknamed 'the Skull' – 'Calvary' in Latin, 'Golgotha' in Aramaic. It was the customary site the Romans had been using for public executions, offering splendid visibility so that large crowds could see the victims of crucifixion – that was, after all, the whole point when making an example of somebody.

Upon arriving, Jesus was stripped of all his clothes and property except for a loincloth. Nailing his hands or wrists to the crossbeam, the soldiers in charge of the execution under a centurion's direction hoisted it and him to the pole, the middle one, which was already standing. Attaching the pieces, they hammered nails through his feet or ankles, while he – curiously, they must have thought – prayed out loud for his Father to forgive them. And soon he was suspended from the cross, and to the top of the pole they nailed a placard announcing that his crime was to be king of the Jews. It certainly made him stand out from the bandits being crucified on either side of him. Not all crucifixions were especially bloody, but the severe scourging and the amount of tissue damage Jesus' body had already sustained ensured that his was going to be.

After being suspended from that cross around noon that Friday in early April, the next few hours continued to confront Jesus with hostility. The priests, scribes, and elders came to gloat over him in words that hearkened back to the temptations he'd faced in the desert. The crowds in general shook their heads dismissively. In this crucifixion that united the judgment of authorities in both Jewish and Gentile worlds, Jesus had effectively been exiled from the human race, treated as subhuman, reduced to an object or a beast. He enjoyed no consolation in his soul, but entered into the experience of absence, abandonment, and loss. Within himself, he tasted all the woes and pains of that final apocalyptic tribulation. Darkness filled the sky. Jesus began to issue his final words, issuing a messianic pardon to the newfound faith of one of the bandits, placing his mother into the care of one of his disciples, asking for and receiving a final sip of sour wine from a sponge held up to his lips, and quoting passages from the Psalms. With the word of God on his lips, the Word made flesh lifted up his weary lungs, shouted his trust in God his Father – and stopped his heart. Where many crucifixions could drag out for days, Jesus had consumed the heady wine of God's wrath in only three hours. His work had been completed. His lungs ceased to draw air, his brain went quiet, all the cells in his body ceased to function. He – the Word of creation, the Divine Son, the rightful Lord of the universe – hung dead from that cross. God had been executed.

As nightfall drew near, which would begin the Jewish sabbath and holy day, Jewish scruples demanded that no crucifixion victim be left exposed, since that would desecrate the land. So instead of leaving the slow agony to do its work, the soldiers broke the legs of the two still-living victims, depriving them of the ability to support themselves and draw breath. Finding Jesus shockingly dead so early, they verified his condition by thrusting a spear through the ribs of his side, puncturing his fluid-filled pericardium and heart, and saw the telltale sign of water and blood. An appeal to Pontius Pilate by Joseph, a dissenting Sanhedrin member, allowed him to not only take down Jesus' body. Wrapping it in a linen shroud with myrrh and aloe, Joseph and his colleague Nicodemus brought the body to Joseph's own recently purchased tomb in a garden near Golgotha, a tomb that had only lately been hewn and never yet used. Jesus had suffered. Jesus had been crucified. Jesus had died. And now Jesus had been buried. His lifeless body, deprived of soul, remained united to the Eternal Word – and so did his soul, which descended into the realm of the dead, the underworld. Corpse, ghost, divinity. Finished.

Did these things really happen? The details, of course, are witnessed to us by four first-century biographies – we know them as the Gospels. The early church in its common witness handed on the tradition “that Christ died in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul of Tarsus, writing twenty years after the event, mentioned “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14) and said that “we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Peter, one of those original core students who ran away that day, himself wrote about “the sufferings of Christ” which he endured when his body was “on the tree,” that is, the wooden cross, when Jesus was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 1:11; 2:24; 3:18). Around the year 73, so maybe forty years or so after the event, a pagan philosopher from Syria named Mara bar Serapion, taken into exile, wrote to his son and asked, “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished.” Twenty years later, a Jewish historian and Pharisee named Joseph ben Matthew remembered that “upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him” – Jesus – “to a cross.” And about twenty-three years after that, even the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded that “Christ... suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” Yes, Jesus really suffered. He really was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, a known public figure in Roman provincial government. Jesus really died. And then he really was buried.

This message was scandalous. To say that a crucified man was your hero? To worship a crucified man as your god? Paul tells us that the message of a crucified Lord was “foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was absurd, ludicrous. We have record, in the next few centuries, that a priestess of the Greek god Apollo, who ran an oracle purporting to give the god's own words, slandered Jesus as “a god dead in his delusions, who was destroyed by judges who decided correctly, and in public the worst death, bound with iron, killed him.” And, of course, the message of a crucified Lord was “a stumbling block to Jews,” Paul adds (1 Corinthians 1:23). They saw crucifixion as the type of thing Deuteronomy was talking about, when it says that any criminal executed by being “hanged on a tree” is “cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). And so Jewish critics scoffed at the thought of a Messiah who had “died shamefully and dishonorably by a death that's cursed in the Law.”

And yet Paul says that “it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer” (Acts 17:3). And because it was necessary, therefore Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). We can understand why many, faced with opposition from Jews and Gentiles alike who found this bit distasteful, could have been tempted to soft-peddle the crucifixion – to talk about Jesus in ways that skirted around the manner of his death. That was, to outside ears, the embarrassing bit, the dirty laundry, the part to be kept quiet and admitted only reluctantly. But instead, the mainstream of the church leaned into it, refusing to minimize the cross or its scandal. Why?

Because, they said, Jesus “died for us (1 Thessalonians 5:10). Having entered into our nature, he entered also into our plight, standing where we by our guilt and stain and peril do stand. He had come to restart humanity, to make it a humanity marked not by a defiant rebel spirit but by humble obedience. And how better to do that, how better to perfect a life of humble obedience, than by carrying it to the extreme, submitting to the utmost degradation and loss of status – doing, in obedience, the very thing most contrary to your dignity? And so Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

For in stepping forward into the tribulation, Jesus was able to square off against none other than Satan, the heart of darkness. In some way, by dying on the cross, Jesus gained a victory over him and over all who stood with him, exposing them as not only guilty but powerless. The goal was “that through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). And so Jesus “disarmed the powers and principalities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them” at the cross (Colossians 2:15). He baited the darkness, he baited the powers and principalities, he baited Satan himself, into unleashing everything they had on him. And he proved that it wasn't enough to compromise him, break him, or cancel him. He cornered them, he unmasked them, he mortally wounded the darkness. How does that help us? By destroying the devil, Jesus' death will “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15).

Not only does the death of Jesus win a combat over the devil and over the darkness, but it allows Jesus to act as our scapegoat and obtain a pardon. One of the rituals of Israel's faith involved a scapegoat – a goat onto whom the sins of all Israel were transferred. The high priest would lay his hands on the goat's head and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). And the goat was then used effectively as a package to return those iniquities, transgressions, and sins to their sender: the goat was dismissed into the wilderness each year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:10), to “bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area,” carrying the guilt away from the community (Leviticus 16:22). And Jesus acted as that scapegoat for the world, carrying our sins into the wilderness of his tomb, that he might deposit and lock them there, far away from us. As his Father's faithful servant, he accepted the responsibility to “bear [our] iniquities” and transgressions and sins, which were laid upon his head (Isaiah 53:11). And then he “blotted out the handwriting against us in the decrees adverse to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). And so “our old self was crucified with him, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Romans 6:6). Our sins were “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4), and so “we have now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9), receiving pardon.

And his death also accomplishes ransom and redemption. If some property or person had been lost due to debt, it would be confiscated and would have to be redeemed. If someone were taken prisoner in war, they would need to be ransomed. Both those things were costly. But the death of Jesus amounts to the purchase price for our ransom from captivity and our redemption from the slave-market. Jesus himself said his purpose was “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). By shedding his blood, by draining out his life, Jesus “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Ephesians 1:7). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and “gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14).

But it goes even deeper than that. “Christ loved and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). But what kind of sacrifice? And what does that do? For starters, he was a sacrifice like the lamb was sacrificed at Passover: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Passover lamb's original function was that, in being slaughtered, it provided blood that could be used by the Israelites in Egypt for an important purpose. “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (Exodus 12:8). “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). This prevented the angel of death from entering their homes to do them harm in the final plague (Exodus 12:23). And so to call Christ our Passover lamb is to say that his blood wards off the destroyer, the forces of death that afflict not only the body but also the soul. Jesus died so that his blood might provide the same sort of protection over the house where the New Passover is eaten – and, as we'll learn more in a few weeks, the church is that spiritual house.

What's more, Jesus' death acted as a sin-offering. For we read that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12) – so not only a sin-offering, but the ultimate sin-offering, the last one ever needed or accepted. Sacrifices like this could be thought of as a tribute payment to God: we did wrong, we broke his law, we incurred a debt, and so to make up for it, we're asking him to accept this gift, this present, as sort of the tax penalty on our lives, if you will. And Jesus' death was that, too. Acting on behalf of humanity as a human high priest, he offered this sacrifice for sins – in light of all the law-breaking that we've done and all the debt that we incur, he gives the Father this immense gift as tribute, glorifying God to a greater degree than all the dishonor his creation has shown him. As sacrifice, Jesus' life can be made a tribute payment; as human high priest, Jesus can present this sacrifice on our behalf; and as God, Jesus' life has limitless value. The Father receives in him an infinitely worthwhile tribute from the human race, enough to settle everything.

But this sacrifice also accomplishes purification. That was one of the functions of sacrifice. During the regular routine of sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple, these things functioned like a filter for Israel's sins, catching them. But filters need cleaned, washed, purified, purged. And so these sacrifices would allow for some of the blood to be sprinkled on Israel's houses (Leviticus 14:51) and onto the side of the altar (Leviticus 5:9), and even – once a year – onto the mercy-seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:11-19). The blood acted like a ritual and spiritual solvent. Or so it was meant to. In practice, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus became our new mercy-seat (Romans 3:25) and “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). And so “the blood of Jesus... cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), and “the blood of Christ [will] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus' blood is the truly effective spiritual solvent that gets stains out of souls and out of the world. His sacrifice unleashes the one treatment that purges us and makes us clean (Psalm 51:7).

And not only that, but some sacrifices had as their purpose the establishment of a covenant. It was after Noah had provided burnt offerings on an altar that God established a covenant with him (Genesis 8:20; 9:9). It was after Abram had slaughtered five animals in sacrifice that God first established a covenant with him (Genesis 15:9-10). And to confirm the covenant between God and Israel, oxen were given as burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, “and Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar... and Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words'” (Exodus 24:5-8). These were sacrifices to establish a covenant, a kind of structured and committed relationship with God – and it was built on the 'blood of the covenant,' sacrificial blood. And we should hear an echo of Moses' covenant-founding words when Jesus talks to his disciples, less than 24 hours before the crucifixion, about my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26). And so Jesus, by this sacrifice, becomes “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24), and “the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). With this new and everlasting covenant founded on Jesus' sacrificial blood poured out from the cross, he aims “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

And so Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. In this, he made an exchange: by taking our sin, he traded us his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21); by taking our curse, he traded us his blessing (Galatians 3:13-14); by taking our poverty, he traded us his riches (2 Corinthians 8:9); by taking our death, he traded us his life; by taking our tomb, he traded us his heaven. This confession matters because “Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives” (1 Clement 49.6). May our trust and love and adoration forever be in Jesus the scourged Savior, Jesus the crucified Christ, Jesus the Lord who laid down his life for his friends, Jesus “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … We have been justified by his blood … While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:6-10). Glory to God – the story is not yet done!

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