|God’s Love Is Written in Red
April 16, 2000 / Mark 15:16-41
I will never forget something I saw on a Tuesday night in the spring of 1986. Willis Owens and I were standing outside the building our church used as an assembly site on 21st Avenue. We were on the Ashwood side of the building, and I happened to glance over his shoulder. I saw a rooftop billboard across 21st Avenue that had been used over the years to sell everything from Levis to Budweiser. While we had been in a meeting for about an hour and a half, it had been changed.
There was nothing “commercial” about the billboard that day. Nothing was being sold, bartered, or begged. Something was instead being offered in love. A man was making himself vulnerable and offering himself to someone else. Here was the message it carried:
I grinned and interrupted the conversation. “Willis, look behind you!” I said. He turned, read the billboard, and — to nobody’s surprise who knows him — began to cry. The rest of the story is unknown to me. I have no idea who Amy was or Calvin. And I have always wondered what her response was to his proposal.
But I can tell you this much: I liked Calvin’s style! He was in love, and he could not have cared less who knew it. His proposal was public and emphatic. At whatever risk to himself of being rejected for his brash deed, he laid his heart out to Amy. I suspect she considered herself pretty fortunate to be the object of that kind of love. One thing is for sure: She would never forget his proposal.
Calvary: God’s Audacious Proposal
Come to think of it, though, God has been even more public and emphatic about his love for us. He loves you with a constant and unconquerable love, and he wants everyone in the cosmos — humans, angels, and demons — to know it. He advertised his love for you at Calvary, offering Jesus of Nazareth in a proposal of spiritual union and salvation, on a billboard for everyone to see.
The Romans made an art of public ceremonies. Victories were celebrated with long parades of triumphant soldiers in full military gear. They built memorials, erected awe-inspiring public buildings, and impressed conquered people with their high sense of ceremony. They also knew what to do with condemned criminals.
People about to be crucified were flogged to within an inch of their lives. Then the condemned man was lashed to the crossbeam to which his arms would shortly be nailed. He was then paraded through the streets as a warning and deterrent to other would-be thieves or insurrectionists or murderers, with a placard announcing his crime being carried before him.
The crucifixion site was always along well-traveled roads. There the man would be nailed to the crossbeam he had carried with a single big nail through each wrist, hoisted onto a permanently anchored upright pole, and positioned astride a peg resembling a rhinoceros horn. Finally, his feet would be nailed to a foot support that allowed the victim to push himself upward for a few seconds at a time to relieve the pain of the sharp peg between his legs and gasp for air. Another big nail through the ankle or extended foot would keep the condemned man in place. Finally, they nailed the placard on which his crime was announced above his head.
Crucifixion was a “cruel and unusual punishment,” even in a calloused world. The Romans had borrowed it from the Carthaginians, and the Phoenicians and Assyrians before them had used it. Crucifixion was not merely an instrument of execution but of torment and humiliation. Since no vital organs were affected, victims could linger for hours and even days. They died slowly and cruelly from blood loss, muscle fatigue, and suffocation.
Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Death
The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth followed the general pattern for such events. First, he was beaten by the solders. For good measure in this case, the soldiers finished off the flogging with their personal torment.
[Pilate] had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him (15:15b-20a).
Second, they marched him through the streets toward the site of execution. The street from the Fortress Antonia to Golgotha is called via dolorosa, Latin words meaning “way of sorrows” or “street of sorrows.” A walk that I once made in fifteen or twenty minutes likely took considerably longer that day.
Then they led him out to crucify him.
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.
It was the third hour when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS (15:20b-26).
Third, in addition to being stripped naked and nailed to a torture stake, there was the taunting of the angry mob. This innocent man was crucified along with two real criminals, and the three of them suffered the abuse of the rabble come to add insult to injury.
They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!”
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him (15:27-32).
Fourth, God Almighty all but spoke from heaven itself at high noon on that day to the jeering crowd. “So you want to see a sign, do you? You want to see proof that this is the Christ, the King of Israel, do you? You have never been able to see what I was showing you, and you will not ‘see’ my son any further in his humiliation.” So, as a sign of his judgment against those who had judged Jesus, darkness enveloped that scene in midday! “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour” (15:33). If there is a prophecy of this scene in Scripture, it is found at this text from the Minor Prophets.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious feasts into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day (Amos 8:9-10).
Fifth, the Lord Jesus himself announced what was happening in these events.
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:34-39).
Mark wanted his original Gentile audience to know that the death of Jesus had torn the veil in the temple and given Gentiles as well as Jews the chance to react to God’s love. Everyone can come into the presence and favor of the Lord through Jesus! And how is that so? It is because Jesus tasted of hell for us on the cross that day!
Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was not the hollow, now-insane cry of a man who had been tormented past his breaking point. It was instead the articulate statement of what was happening that day. Jesus was suffering a visitation of judgment — the withdrawal of God’s gracious presence, the essence of hell. The Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world was now being offered.
In that hour, Jesus became a curse for us. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).
In what happened on the cross of Jesus, the one man utterly without sin before God was treated as if he were the only sinner — so that all of us who are sinners could be treated as righteous persons through faith in him. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Or, as Eugene Peterson translates this verse in The Message: “God put on him the wrong who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.”
Written in Red
Jesus was no criminal, no insurrectionist, no sinner. He was God’s Single Perfect Son! He was the victim of lies, prejudice, and injustice that day. And the scene is horrible to behold! But in the plan of God, that horror scene has been transformed into a billboard of proclamation and invitation.
Calvary proclaims how great God’s love for sinners is. Even more, it proposes that sinners share in eternal life through the cross. Just as Amy was offered Calvin’s love on that spring day in 1986, you and I were offered God’s love on a spring day in A.D. 30. I hope Amy accepted and has lived happily with her beloved. And I hope you have accepted and are living happily with your Beloved Christ.
Jason Tuskes was a 17-year-old honor student. He was said to have been very close to his mother, wheelchair-bound father, and younger brother. And he was an expert swimmer who loved to scuba dive. His final dive was in west-central Florida, not far from his home. He left home on a Tuesday morning to explore an underwater cave. His plan was to be home in time to celebrate his mother’s birthday that night.
Jason got lost in the cave. Then, in his panic, he apparently got wedged into a narrow passageway. He ran out of air in his diver’s tank and drowned.
When Jason realized he was trapped and doomed, he shed his yellow metal tank and unsheathed his diver’s knife. With the tank as tablet and his knife as pen, he wrote one final message to his family. Etched on the tank when his body was discovered were these words: “I love you Mom, Dad and Christian.”
God’s final words to us are etched on a Roman cross. They are blood red. They scream to be heard. But they are not the formal words of a “last will and testament” nor even the outraged words of an innocent victim. They are not the anathemas of an angry judge. They are the generous, affectionate, merciful words of divine self-disclosure.
Do you hear the words? From the cross, these words of God — written in red — ring convincingly through the corridors of eternity: “I love you.”
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