A priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a movie theater together. No joke. They did. I saw them. It happened on Ash Wednesday in 2004. The movie they went to see was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I was there to see it, too, with several of my students. It would have been interesting to eavesdrop on their conversation afterwards as they discussed both the movie and the events depicted there. The movie made headlines and caused controversy because of its graphic depiction of the sufferings of Jesus, and also because the languages used in the film were Aramaic and Latin. Gibson’s goal was to recreate on film the events of the time from the Garden of Gethsemane to the interment in the tomb, to do so without any commentary, and to create a “you are there” type of experience. Both Gibson, the producer, and Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Jesus, are devout Roman Catholics and saw this as an opportunity to present the event in hopes that seeing what happened would draw people in the audience to consider the significance of Jesus.
But there is a bit of a problem with that. There is the event, and there is its meaning. The bare event may or may not have significance. Sometimes significance is perceived by one’s own interpretation of an event, but our own interpretations may be right. or they may be wrong. And if you pay attention, you will find a lot of wrong interpretations out there. This time of year we see a lot of that on the so-called educational channels on our TVs. Here we must let God interpret the events, and really that can happen only by looking at the entire context of the Gospels, and indeed the entire context of salvation history from the Garden of Eden to Christ’s second coming. To look only at the events in Jerusalem during that day in ignorance of the context will only create confusion in the minds of people. Only those who know the story really are capable of understanding what was going on. The crucifixion on that hill outside of Jerusalem was, to most passersby, just another set of executions on that hill that had occurred there before and would occur again. Most people, outside of the disciples and the accusers who viewed it, had nothing invested in this death, which was seemingly just one death among many. It is significant, and of vital importance, that after the first showings of the movie, the words from Isaiah 53 were added as a prelude to the movie. Those words, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquity,” were placed at the very beginning, which then served to inform the viewer just what was going on here. Only then could the viewer look at the events taking place and know why they happened. Gibson noted that in the crucifixion scene, those were his own hands that were pounding the nails into Jesus’ hands, acknowledging his own part in sending Jesus to the cross.
It is with those words from Isaiah that we see really what is going on here. The crucifixion is the centerpiece of human history, where the “for us” comes to fulfillment. These words, written by Isaiah about 700 years before the event occurs, is a profound meditation upon that event. Between Isaiah 52 and 53 and Psalm 22, we have clear graphic statements of what this event means.
Jesus tells his disciples over and over again that the Son of Man must suffer many things before he enters into his glory. Even as man plotted his rebellion against God, God was providing the plan to save us from our enemies, and indeed from ourselves. For us to be restored to God, this must happen. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. It’s our blood or His. He shows his love for us that even in the midst of our rebellion, while we were yet sinners, He died for us. And it could not be any other way. Had he waited for us to make the first move He would have waited for eternity. Instead He does what needs to be done, willingly exposing Himself to shame, to suffering, and to death, and doing it for us. “How strange is this great paradox to ponder. The shepherd dies for sheep who love to wander. The Master pays the debt the servants owe Him, who would not know Him.
Who is this gift for? It is for all. Isaiah tells us that many nations will be sprinkled with his blood. At the Passover, the blood of the slaughtered lamb was placed on the doorposts and lintels of the homes of the children of Israel to protect them from the death that would be visited upon the first-born sons of the Egyptians. On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the people as a means of covering them with the forgiveness of sins. On the cross the two come together. Here Isaiah testifies that the promise of atonement, the sacrifice that reunites us with God, now extends far beyond the nation of Israel, to many nations. Far superior to the sacrifice performed at the temple every year, the blood of this sacrifice performed on Golgotha is a once-for-all sacrifice that extends through all time to all nations, including this one, at this time, and in this place, among us and for each of us.
At His trial, the crowds cry out “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” It is taken to mean that they are calling Christ’s blood down upon themselves. Their complicity in the death of an innocent man will bring a curse upon them, and they do not care. Yet, in view of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, this can be a cry of blessing for the people of God. The blood of the sacrifice has been sprinkled upon us. We pray that His blood would be upon us and upon our children, for we have been sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice for sin.
Behold God’s servant! Here is the one, who though in the form of God is willing to obey the Father’s will, set aside all the trappings of glory, and humble himself, make Himself nothing, and go willingly to the cross. Though sinless himself, he chooses to be numbered with the transgressors. He counts Himself among the sinners. Who of us would do that? Who of us could do that?
Yet though he willingly makes Himself an offering for sin, He goes to His death vilified and mocked, both by the very people he came to save and by the soldiers who were just doing the job assigned to them.
Isaiah tells us, He was wounded for our transgressions. The Hebrew is even more precise, stating that He was pierced for our transgressions. I have always been struck by how graphic and how precise this verb is. Pierced with nails, thorns, and sword, He gives Himself fully for us.
It is sometimes suggested that if the church simply presented the beauty of Christ and His person to the world, the world would run to Him. But it doesn’t work that way and it never has. Both proclaimers of the message and believers of the message have been put to death for the faith down through the ages, from apostolic times to the present, and people have gone to their deaths for the sake of that message. Isaiah is clear: the Christ that we preach has no beauty about Him. There is no sentimentality about the report. As Isaiah reports it, the faces of the people did not look toward Him, but turned away from Him. Such is the scandal of the cross. The idea that God took on flesh for the purpose of serving fallen humanity and for the purpose of dying for that humanity is foolishness in the eyes of the world, but this is the power of God and the wisdom of God. In her cycle of plays, The Man Born to Be King, Dorothy Sayers says that Jesus was nailed to the cross “like an owl to a barn door.” Like the farmer who nails the carcasses of his enemies to a barn door as a warning to any predator that this would be their fate, the Romans and Jewish leaders nailed Jesus to the cross to warn any would-be insurrectionists and religious deviants that this would be their fate as well. But Jesus has the last word, presenting Himself as the substitute, the one who suffers the fate of the sinner, being made sin for us, exchanging our sin for His righteousness.
There are so many who viewed the movie, and so many others, that still don’t get it. They don’t understand that the one who hung on the cross for them was, and still is, God of God and Light of Light, He who was present at creation and at the Fall vowed to take on Satan and defeat Him by paying the penalty we owe on our behalf. But it is true. If it is not true, then His death becomes meaningless, both for Him and for us.
But it is true. And it is in this most astounding, most perplexing act, that He is exalted; He is lifted up. We sometimes get it backwards, thinking that we lift Christ up with our praises, when in fact we lifted Him up with our sins. The only lifting up that really matters is His being lifted up on the cross. And He Himself tells us that it is in His death that He is glorified. We must remember that He is glorified not so much in our lives as in His death, where He exchanges His riches for our sin, taking upon Himself what is ours, and giving us what is His. What happened on that hill outside the walls of Jerusalem that day nearly 2000 years ago was done for you. The gifts won there were then given to you at your baptism, are applied every time you hear the pastor forgive you your sins in Christ’s name, and they are there for your assurance every time you come to the altar to receive with the mouths the body and blood of the One who was sacrificed, as you hear those words “for you, for the remission of your sins.”
A minister and a priest ate dinner together. In this case I was the minister, and the priest was the chairman of the team visiting our seminary for our accreditation renewal with the Association of Theological Schools. This was also in 2004, just a few weeks after we had both seen The Passion of the Christ. We were talking about what we thought was well done in the movie, and what we had issues with. During a lull in the conversation, my attention briefly turned to the music that was playing in the background in the restaurant. It happened to be an excerpt from Bach’s Passion according to St. Matthew. We both smiled at that as we recognized the chorale, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Whether the music had subconsciously led our conversation to the topic of the movie, or whether it was the natural course of topical conversation for two theologians during the season of Lent, the two events together demonstrate that Christ’s passion is the centerpiece of the Christian faith, the essential element of God’s good news of great joy.
Isaiah asks, “Who has believed this report?” Even kings hear it and are astounded. By their own strength or power, no one can believe. It is simultaneously too scandalous and too good to be true. And so, we each acknowledge, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe.” But by God’s grace you do believe. And believing you are saved. As you believe, so may it be done to you. Amen.