Lent Devotional 44


Overwhelmed with horror at what we are seeing, we join the crowds as they hurry along behind the soldiers with their prisoner. Forget the calm tableau of so many historic paintings of the scene, with Mary and John standing at a discreet distance from the foot of Jesus' cross. In the Middle East, then as now, there were always more people in the crowd than would fit into the small streets, always people pushing and shoving. The soldiers might keep people at arm's length, but not much more. There were probably fifty people within ten feet of Jesus, jostling, shouting, jeering, pointing, spitting. Some weeping.

You could tell the story a thousand different ways, and they'd all be true. Jesus' followers quickly came to tell it in such a way as to bring out what Jesus himself had been trying to say all along, and what Matthew has been trying to tell us through- out his gospel: this is the event through which Jesus became king. King of the Jews. King of the world.

To see how Matthew has done this, you have to imagine yourself, in that crowd, as someone who has prayed and sung the Psalms all your life. The Psalms turn the hard lumps of Israel's story and hopes into liquid poetry, flowing along like a great river, carrying you with it. And as you stand at the foot of the cross, you have a nightmarish sequence of flashbacks, of déjà vu moments, watching Israel's hopes and dreams come to life, or rather to death, in front of your eyes. Bits and pieces of the Psalms, acted out right there. Jesus is offered sour wine to drink. They cast lots for his clothes. They hail him as 'king of the Jews'. They mock him with his own words. And, after three hours of darkness, Jesus screams out the words that begin the Psalm (22) where some of those things happen: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The fulfilment has come, and it is a moment of utter terror and hopelessness. It is as though the sun were to rise one day and it would be a black sun, bringing a darkness deeper than the night itself.

As you stand there in this strange, powerful mixture of recognition and horror, bring bit by bit into the picture the stories on which you have lived. Bring the hopes you had when you were young. Bring the bright vision of family life, of success in sport or work or art, the dreams of exciting adventures in far-off places. Bring the joy of seeing a new baby, full of promise and possibility. Bring the longings of your heart. They are all fulfilled here, though not in the way you imagined. This is the way God fulfilled the dreams of his people. This is how the coming king would overcome all his enemies.

Or bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young. The terror of violence, perhaps at home. The shame of failure at school, of rejection by friends. The nasty comments that hurt you then and hurt you still. The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end. The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much. They are all fulfilled here, too. God has taken them upon himself, in the person of his Son. This is the earthquake moment, the darkness-at-noonmoment, the moment of terror and sudden faith, as even the hard-boiled Roman soldier blurts out at the end. (Don't forget that 'Son of God' was a regular title claimed by Caesar, his boss.)

But then bring the hopes and sorrows of the world. Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine. Bring the children orphaned by AIDS or war. Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes. Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live. Think of God's dreams for his creation, and God's sorrow at its ruin.
As we stand there by the cross, let the shouting and pushing and the angry faces fade away for a moment, and look at the slumped head of Jesus. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him, here on the cross. God chose Israel to be his way of rescuing the world. God sent Jesus to be his way of rescuing Israel. Jesus went to the cross to fulfil that double mission. His cross, planted in the middle of the jostling, uncomprehending, mocking world of his day and ours, stands as the symbol of a victory unlike any other. A love unlike any other. A God unlike any other.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for all that you bore that day. Thank you for your victory, the victory of love and justice. Thank you that you are the Son of God.

Matthew 27:33-56