April 6, 2012

Why, What Evil Has He Done? (Good Friday)

Passage: Mark 15:12-14
Service Type:

Pilate spoke to them again, "Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?" They shouted back, "Crucify him!"  Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!"

“Why, what evil has he done?”, asked Pilate of the crowd that called for Jesus to be crucified.  The chief priests accused him of many things.  Pilate knows Jesus to be innocent.  In John’s gospel we are told that Pilate twice announced his verdict: “I find no case against him”.  Pilate knows that Jesus has been falsely accused and ought to be released.  In the end Jesus’ innocence doesn’t matter; cruel compromise comes easy to Pilate. So what if Jesus has to be sacrificed to keep religious leaders happy, an unruly crowd at bay, and Pilate's own career intact. What is one more ragged Jewish victim of Imperial Rome's political expedience?

The crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” doesn’t care about the verdict either.  They want him crucified.  Perhaps they do not place must stock in the veracity of a Roman court’s verdict.  The crowd seems to know that threatening unruly behaviour often holds sway with Pilate.  In the end, Jesus’ innocence doesn’t matter to the crowd either.

To punish a person for a crime they did not commit is a travesty of justice; to knowingly do so is despicable.  Why is this so?   C.S. Lewis wrote; “The punishment of an innocent, that is, an undeserving human, is wicked only if we grant the ... view that righteous punishment means deserved punishment.”  Do evil actions actually deserve punishment?  If we answer no then what becomes of our judicial idea of “innocence”?  “Innocence” means that no punishment is deserved; “guilt” means that punishment is deserved.

In Pilate’s courtroom the power of Imperial Rome meets the power of the Lord of heaven and earth.  Imperial Rome, in the New Testament, exemplifies the zenith of human aspirations and achievement in rebellion against God.  The word “world” is used in the New Testament to mean humanity living in defiance of God; Rome was considered its chief exemplar.  As these two powers meet which of them runs roughshod over innocence?  It is sinful humanity in rebellion against God that has little regard for innocence.

1.  Two weeks ago the sentencing of former hockey coach Graham James set off a firestorm of news coverage across Canada.  James had pled guilty to sexually abusing teenaged players he had coached.  Most of the coverage probed what seemed to many a light sentence; he was sentenced to two years in jail.  Outside the courtroom one of the victims said: “The sentences don’t come close to the damage it leaves in its wake and that’s been very clear to me here today”.

It is a difficult task for a judge to assign a just sentence; that discussion is beyond the scope of this sermon.  What I invite you to consider is our perception that in many court sentences the wrongdoer has grossly underpaid for their crime.  We may not be able to explain exactly why but when we consider the damage done some sentences seem disproportionately light.  Is this not, at least in part, because we think criminal behaviour actually deserves punishment.

On Sunday, March 18 we read the story of the Israelites complaining against God.  God, the text tells us, sent poisonous snakes among the people and many were bitten and died.  The people confessed their sin of doubting the goodness of God and God announced a cure.  Moses was to erect a bronze snake on a pole so that anyone bitten could look at it and live.

When we hear that story we bristle because of what seems to us a rather harsh punishment for what appears to us as not much of a crime.  Such stories make God appear severe to us; that the punishment is disproportionally harsh.  But there is another conclusion we could draw; namely that we don’t know what sin means to God.  We are so blinded by the corruption of our own hearts we fail to apprehend the true scope of the devastation and destructiveness of the sin of distrusting God’s goodness.  The Bible asserts that distrust of the goodness of God was at the root of the sin of our first parents; consider what such sin has unleashed upon the world as generation after generation has lived out this distrust in rebellion against God evident in their own behaviours.

3.  Our Lord taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil”; or more accurately translated, “deliver us from the evil one”.  You will note that he did not instruct us to pray that we might understand evil—rather it is deliverance we need.  Our Lord knows the deception inherent in evil.  But we want things to ‘add up” when it comes to evil.

When it comes to suffering of this world we observe that there is no direct correlation between behaviour and the occurrence of bad things in a person’s life.  Why, we ask.  Of the suffering of some we might even pose Pilate’s question: “Why, what evil has he done?”  It is interesting that we ask this question of God; some even refuse to believe God’s exists on the premise that if God did exist he would fix things—that is things would add up.

It is worth noting that we do not ask this question of the evil one.  We are not inquisitive about why evil disregards innocence.  The Bible’s question for God is not why; they knew why—the evil one was a work in the world.  Their question was how long, how long before God brings evil to an end.

Author Henri Nouwen tells the story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the military regime there and its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge on him by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. Enraged townsfolk wanted to turn the boy's funeral into a huge protest march, but the doctor chose another means of protest. At the funeral, the father displayed his son's body as he had found it in the jail—naked, scarred from electric shocks and cigarette burns, and beatings. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress from the prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display.

Isn't that what God did at Calvary? … The cross that held Jesus' body, naked and marked with scars, exposed all the violence and injustice of this world for what it is; evil. At once, the cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, a God of sacrificial love.

When we stand before our dying Saviour nailed to a cross we see that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  Things simply do not “add up” for us; innocence is ultimately disregarded by the world, our scales of just punishment are overloaded and can’t make a measurement, and the question “why” is pushed to the side as we come to the end of our ability to comprehend..

3.  Poet W. H. Auden wrote; “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot.  The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling to faith.”

As we read the story of our Lord’s passion from Mark’s gospel there is a progression in this story that is important to note.  It is a progression that is found in each of the gospel writers.  The progression that unfolds is from Jesus-with-his-disciples to the cross where the drama is between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  We were with Jesus in the upper room for the last meal but now before the cross we are on the sidelines watching; most followers have deserted Jesus though a few remain at  a distance.  At one time he is talking with his disciples; now with his Father: “”Father, forgive them”; “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”  We have been rendered spectators.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church he wrote; “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”  In these moments on the cross God is reconciling this mess of sin and distrust and evil in himself.  We cannot explain how because this is God’s own action within himself to deal with it once and for all.  We know its benefit that for anyone in Christ our trespasses are not counted against us.

4.  What was Rome like when Mark was writing his gospel? The city of Rome had one million inhabitants. Like any huge city, it had large slum areas. In July, 64, fire broke out and destroyed 70% of the city. Nero, the emperor, set about rebuilding the city on a grandiose scale, hoping to make the new construction a monument to himself. Rumour had it that he had started the fire. Fire, after all, is always the quickest and cheapest method of slum clearance. The poor people of the city, homeless now, despised him for his callousness.

Nero wanted above all to regain his heroic stature with the people. He had to shift the blame for the fire to a group, a scapegoat, so marginalised that it couldn't protest. He blamed the Christians. He accused them of "hatred against humankind" and began punishing them in three different ways. They were crucified; they were clothed in animal skins and then set upon by hunting dogs; or they were covered in tar and then ignited so that they burned like -- like him who is the light of the world! -- Nero smirked in derision. Two outstanding Christian leaders, Peter and Paul, perished in this wave of persecution. Nero had his day of glory.

Shortly thereafter a man named Mark came to Rome (courageous, wasn't he) and wrote a tract to encourage the Christians he met. These Christians followed a crucified Messiah themselves and therefore didn't expect any better treatment than their Lord had received before them. This tract (what we call "The gospel according to Mark") was written to sustain beleaguered Christians who could be and were harassed and tormented at any time depending on Nero's mood. You and I, remember, live in the comfort  of North America. Mark's readers didn't. They needed his "good news" about Jesus.

One of the themes of Mark’s gospel was the Jesus Christ is victor.  Wherever Jesus comes upon sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering, the demonic and death, he conquers them. Jesus triumphs. He vanquishes the hostile powers that break down men and women, push them toward despair, impoverish life, undermine hope, collapse resistance. Jesus vanquishes every hostile power that afflicts us, torments us, fragments us. Jesus is victor.

One-half of Mark's gospel concerns only one week of Christ's life, the final week, the week that builds toward the climax of his death. In other words, death is the big event, the big power, the biggest enemy of all.  Over this Jesus too will be victorious.

Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?"  The answer is not because of any evil in him; this was for our sakes.