Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Sermon: Matthew 27:54 The Centurion Speaks

I wonder if you were able to enjoy a bit of a break today? The days around Easter weekend can sometimes be a bit of a mystery - whether the banks are open; if there’s post coming; if the doctors are having surgeries. Perhaps you took things easy today. The sun was out, all the caravans were on the road towards Enniskillen, holiday time and a long weekend is here!

But maybe you had to work today. The alarm went off as usual; the cows needed milking; the office was calling. As we hear the account of that first Good Friday, we heard of someone who was working that day. When the rooster crowed that morning, little did he realise that he would take home with him more than just his day’s pay; more than a gambled for garment; he would have something much more precious.

He was there that day, probably far from home, working in that backwater place of Israel, in the troublesome town of Jerusalem. The centurion was a Roman soldier; commander of a hundred; and he was just doing his job. The crucifixion of trouble makers was commonplace. He was probably hardened to the painful cries and gruesome sights. It was all in a day’s work, to keep the locals in order and punish the worst offenders. But this day, there was something different about the crucifixion.

He might have heard something about Jesus - certainly he had been around Jerusalem for the previous week, with plenty of discussion and debate. The Jewish leaders were trying to get rid of him. They managed to arrest him (with the help of one of his followers) and gave him to Pilate.

And then he was handed over to be crucified. The centurion took charge of him. Into the Praetorium for scourging and mocking. They say he’s the King of the Jews? We’ll show him what that looks like: a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns, and beating, spitting and mocking.

Then off to the place of the skull. The place of death. Jesus is nailed to the cross, having refused the wine and gall to numb the pain. The centurion and his soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing - the only bonus from a day at the foot of a cross. But it’s at the foot of this cross, the cross of Jesus, the King of the Jews, that the centurion realises that this isn’t like every other crucifixion. This is because of what he hears, and what he sees.

First of all, what he hears. Victims of crucifixion were always insulted - it was a bit like those held in town stocks in more recent times - they were fair game. But what was said was different; more vicious; more vindictive.

The passersby targeted him: ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ If he is the Son of God, he should just come down off the cross and show everyone.

It’s the very same thing that the religious leaders mock him for: ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’’

Both groups were mocking Jesus because he thought he was the Son of God. They didn’t believe it. Despite all the evidence, his teaching, his miracles, his goodness, they refuse to believe. In fact, it’s the reason they put him to death, because they had rejected God and his Son.

The centurion heard all this. But what he didn’t hear was just as significant. He didn’t hear Jesus respond or retaliate. There was no backchat, no threats. The only thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus said was a cry to God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ A desperate cry as the satisfaction for our sins was achieved through the separation and silence.

As well as his ears, though, the centurion was seeing strange things, further pointers that this was no ordinary crucifixion; that this wasn’t an everyday event.

From noon until 3pm, the sky turned black. Darkness was over the land. An unnatural darkness. It couldn’t have been an eclipse, because, as you might have noticed, there’s a full moon these nights, the Passover full moon. Imagine, it being night in the middle of the day.

As Jesus gave up his spirit, an earthquake shook the ground. Rocks split. Tombs were opened, and dead people were raised to life. It was as if the very earth itself convulsed at the death of its maker.

It was the combination of the sights and the sounds that led the centurion and those with him to be terrified! Grown men, Roman soldiers, fearsome fighters, terrified. The taunters may not have believed; the religious leaders could not and would not see. But it was plain to the centurion: ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’

The centurion came to see who Jesus was. The challenge for us tonight is whether we align ourselves with the religious leaders, or with this pagan soldier? Do you hear the story of the cross and turn away, thinking that it doesn’t matter? Adding your mocking voice to the cry of the scoffers? Wanting him dead, and having nothing to do with him?

Or will you confess with the centurion that this man on the cross, committed to the Father’s will, is none other than the Son of God? To realise the seriousness of our sin, that there was no other way. That in order to save us, he could not save himself, but freely gave himself for us.

Our prayer, as we bring to a close our week of joint meetings, is that you will be able to say with Paul that the man on the cross is: ‘the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Surely he was (and is) the Son of God. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday, 18th April 2014.

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