Beneath the Shadow of the Cross
By The Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
A. It was weird. It was really weird. The sky that afternoon had taken on a ghastly, ghostly, almost haunted hue. Ever since the midday bells had rung it had been like the edge of night. The darkness of the day seemed to reflect the way the apostle felt. It seemed to reflect the darkness of his soul and the darkness of the event taking place.
John; one of the chosen twelve; one of the inner circle of leadership; the one who always seemed closest to Jesus, stood shrouded in his own sorrow. The lump in his throat ached as he stood there at the foot of the cross where Jesus hung. He could feel Mary, Jesus’ mother, shudder in agony and grief as only a mother could, as he held her in his strong arm. John wasn’t really sure who was comforting who as they both stood there on that ugly hill. They both wept openly as they watched Jesus dying on a cross like a common criminal. It was hard to believe, the Messiah, the Son of God, had been broken and cast aside like so much garbage upon the town dump, known as the place of the skull, Golgotha, Calvary.
The sound of the hammer striking those nails still echoed in John’s ears. The anguished grunt from deep within Jesus’ soul that accompanied each strike of the hammer still tortured John’s mind. The pain that contorted Jesus’ face still haunted John’s soul. His heart and soul ached. They raged in disbelief, anger and frustration. As he wept his fists clenched and unclenched. He ground his teeth in nervous frustration and fear. He must have been thinking: “How did we get here? Less than a week ago we entered Jerusalem in the midst of a parade.”
B. And they had. It was magnificent. It was spectacular. What was so wonderful about it was that it was totally spontaneous, no matter what the Pharisees had said. It wasn’t staged. Jesus didn’t enter the city like some great dignitary with an advance publicity crew. There weren’t any loud speakers. There weren’t any fliers. There wasn’t a chauffeur driven limousine. There wasn’t a huge entourage of hanger-on-ers. It was just the twelve and Jesus. Jesus didn’t even come in on a regal white steed. Jesus entered Jerusalem that day astride a lowly donkey colt.
The people were already singing. Passover was a joyous time. It was one of the high holy days of Judaism. It was a time to gather the families together. People came from all over the country to stay with their friends and relatives. Passover always had sort of a homecoming, Christmas and Mardi Gras atmosphere all rolled into one. It was a time of remembrance and celebration. It was both festive and introspective.
And on this day, the first day of the week, the pilgrims were entering Jerusalem armed with the traditional festal branches, emblems of the king’s royalty, and singing the festal songs of praise. There was a natural rhythm and movement toward the Temple where the palm branches would be laid at the altar as a sign of thanksgiving and praise. There was joy and laughter and shouts of “Hosanna,” as people remembered their deliverance from bondage in Egypt and gave thought to the coming of the Messiah.
Into this merriment in motion rode Jesus on the donkey colt. He smiled and waved, accepting the accolades with humbled honor and a knowing, bittersweet smile. Behind the smile, his eyes were full of the future. He knew the irony of this parade and this show of support. Jesus knew where it would all end. He knew because, while he saw the joy and the hope in the eyes of the people, he also saw the hatred in the eyes of his silent, sullen opponents. So, beneath his smile was sorrow and compassion.
When the folks in the crowds saw Jesus riding on that donkey, some laughed because he was so big and the sight was so comical. But then like a flash, some of them remembered the Messianic significance of the unridden colt. They were desperate for a Messiah and it was as if they all remembered at once. The air exploded with shouts of joy and loud “Hosannas.” People began waving their palm branches in joyous abandon, shouting their praise to God, looking to Jesus as their Savior and Messiah.
It was as if they knew but didn’t know. It was as if there were safety in the crowds. They could each remain anonymous in the mass of motion and sound and still shout their faith in Jesus. Or at least voice their hoped for faith in Jesus. The very air of the city that day was electric with anticipation and excitement. It was one of the most joyous and exciting events that ever took place in Jerusalem.
But to John, standing below the cross and his Master, that day seemed so long ago and so far away. In the darkness descending on both the world and his spirit, it felt as if the whole world were standing beneath the shadow of the cross. Thinking back on it was like trying to remember a bad dream that you wanted to forget.
C. Who would have thought that their simple Passover celebration in the Upper Room would have lead to this. When they set it all up and began to reminisce, it was fun. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. The meal was perfect. But right in the middle of it all, Jesus did something very strange. He got a basin of water and a towel; then hitching up his robe like a slave, he began to wash the disciples’ feet. At first Peter was offended, but when Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter said, “Lord, not just my feet but also my hands and my head!”
When Jesus was finished and described what he had done for them, he started talking about death and betrayal. He said one of the twelve, one of the chosen, one of his friends would betray him. They all wanted to know who. Jesus paused in the middle of the meal, looked right at Judas and handed him a piece of bread with which he had sopped the gravy, a portion usually reserved for the guest of honor. Judas nearly choked. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost, and he took off. No one but Jesus knew where he was going or what he was about to do.
The more Peter thought about it, the angrier he got. That was when he stuck his foot in his mouth, big time. Jesus told the disciples he was going away and Peter wanted to go with him. John couldn’t forget the pained look in Peter’s eyes when he thought they were going to be left behind. Peter blurted out, “Lord, I’d go with you anywhere, even to death.” Jesus looked at Peter with a love like the disciples had never seen before. And very softly and lovingly he said, “You say that now but I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Peter denied it would happen but they could all see that he was shook up.
Then Jesus went and changed the liturgy of the Passover even more. Not only had he sent them all into a tailspin of faith, he messed with one of the very foundations of that faith, the Passover Meal. Jesus took a piece of the unleavened bread, broke it and said, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you.” Then he took the cup, the extra cup, the cup of Redemption, the one reserved for the Prophet Elijah, blessed it and said, “Drink from this all of you for this is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” They ate and drank but they weren’t really sure what was going on.
D. By the time they finished, the whole place was somber and introspective. In that mood, Jesus got up and quietly lead them to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane so he could pray. On the way he asked Peter, James and John to go pray with him. They did but they had difficulty staying awake.
While they were fighting sleep and while Jesus was praying great drops of blood, a commotion broke out. All of a sudden the garden was filled with Temple Guards, priests, and Roman soldiers. The chief priests and elders were there, too. And right in the middle of them all was Judas. He stepped out of the crowd, walked up to Jesus, said, “Master!” and kissed him. The betrayal didn’t surprise Jesus at all, but the kiss did. You could tell it surprised him and it broke his heart, “Judas? Do you betray me with a kiss?”
That was when Peter struck out, cutting off the ear of one of the High Priests slaves. Nobody even noticed that Peter had a sword until the damage was already done. Like Peter, how many times have we struck out against those who have hurt us or betrayed us only to have Jesus heal them. Only to have Jesus quietly, lovingly remind us who we belong to and our role as disciples. As Jesus healed the slave’s ear, he rebuked the disciples, and us as well, for using the sword and not some other means, like forgiveness.
Then they hauled Jesus off to try him. The guards and the conspirators didn’t really care what happened to the disciples; destroy the leader and you destroy the movement. The disciples scattered. Some, like John and Peter, followed to see what would happen.
E. They drug Jesus to Pilate’s house but it was obvious that Pilate really didn’t want to be a part of the whole sordid affair. Pilate even said that Jesus had done nothing wrong. But to satisfy this bunch of Jewish leaders he would have him whipped. And he did. Thirty-nine lashes. Jesus never uttered a sound, but John did. Every time the whip lashed across Jesus’ back, John whimpered and another tear fell.
That wasn’t enough. Pilate thought it would satisfy the crowd but they were like a bunch of bloodhounds on the scent of death, and they wouldn’t settle for anything less. They even chose to free Barabbas, a known murderer over Jesus. And when in disgust Pilate asked, “Then what do you want me to do with Jesus, the one you call King of the Jews?” The people yelled, “Crucify him!” So Pilate washed his hands of the matter, signed Jesus’ death warrant and let Barabbas go. The priests and elders glowed with pleasure.
The guards spun Jesus around and led him into the courtyard. Peter moved in closer, up to the fire, to see and hear what was going on. Those gathered around the fire in the courtyard laughed in hushed tones at the antics of the guards. The guards were mockingly bowing down to this beaten so-called king.
F. It was there, in the dim light of the fire, that Peter crawfished. The others around the fire noticed his Galilean garb. Up until then, the darkness had kept him hidden. But one of them recognized him, “You’re one of them! You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?.” First once, then twice, then a third time Peter denied even knowing Jesus. As he turned he saw Jesus look up and glance his way. The color drained from his face, his eyes burst open and his jaw hung slack in shock as the cock crowed.
Peter spun to leave. In that moment Peter and John’s eyes met across the courtyard. Their eyes locked for an agonizing, soul searching second. And what John saw shook his soul. It was the pained look we see in our own eyes as we gaze in the mirror of self. Stripped of our defenses, we stand as our own accuser knowing how many times we’ve stood in Peter’s place, shod in shoes of shame having denied our Lord simply by not speaking up or by not acting.
John couldn’t stand it so he looked down. When he dared look up again, Peter was already retreating into the pre-dawn darkness, his shoulders bent and stooped with the burden of his faithlessness, fear and sorrow.
G. That was when John heard the loud raucous laughter, laughter filled with cynicism, mockery and belittlement. We can be so cruel to each other can’t we? We can be so cruel to the weak ones, the ones who appear to have been defeated, the ones who are different than us in some way, can’t we? The guards had Jesus blindfolded. First they spit on him and pushed him, then one of them slapped him and told him to “prophecy” who it was who struck him.
Then to make matters worse, someone brought a robe, a purple robe, a robe the color of royalty and they made Jesus wear it. They even wove a crown out of some thorn branches. Looking on, John winced and groaned with pain as they jammed it onto Jesus head. Nobody even tried to stop them.
The mockery went on as they brought the cross and the two who would be crucified with him. When they dumped the cross on Jesus’ shoulders he nearly fell. His face contorted in pain as the wood hit the open wounds of his whipping. John followed at a distance. When Jesus fell, John started forward to carry the cross for him, but the guards had already grabbed an unlucky stranger from the crowd. John remembered that even without the cross, Jesus could barely walk. Yet, somehow, he stumbled his way to Calvary as if driven by a mission.
All of a sudden into this darkness, gloom and despair came the rude sound of laughter. And that brought John’s thoughts back to the present. Right there in the face of death, right there under the cruelty of the cross, the guards were shooting dice for the robe Jesus had worn. Not his homespun, Galilean robe, but the purple robe that mocked his royalty. No doubt one of them wanted it for his girl friend, so they cast lots by shooting dice.
The crowd still mocked and taunted Jesus. Even the two thieves on either side of him mocked him. “If you’re the Messiah, then come down from the cross. Save yourself and save us.” But Jesus said nothing in his own defense, instead he turned his eyes heavenward and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Not long after, about three in the afternoon, Jesus looked up and with a loud cry said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and then he breathed his last. At that moment all anyone could hear was the last sigh of breath from Jesus. The world was completely quiet for a moment as if all of creation bowed its head in homage and offered up a moment of silence in his memory.
The silence lingered for a short while and was broken only when the centurion surprised everyone by saying: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” When John heard those words, his jaw and his eyes were thrown open in amazement and into the shocked disbelief of belief. The supreme acclamation and revelation came not through a voice from heaven but from a gentile, and one of the executioners.
At that very moment, all of Jesus’ teachings flooded into John’s mind and soul to purge him of his grief. “The Son of God. The Son of God.” Now he understood! Standing there beneath the shadow of the cross, John understood. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey colt wasn’t an appeal to gain the kingship of the world’s thrones. Jesus was making his final appeal now, an appeal for people to open their hearts. His lordship came through suffering, humiliation and death. Jesus was presenting the world with a startling image of servanthood through taking on the sins of the whole world. He was the final sacrifice, the expiation for our sins. Jesus was lifted up on the cross for our sakes and through his death we are set right with God.
And what better place to deal with the garbage and refuse of the sins that separate us from God than on a trash heap like Golgotha. What better place to come to the realization that Jesus is the Son of God, than in the shadow of the cross, the very cross of our salvation?
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
This Sermon was first preached on Sunday. March 21, 1991 at First United Methodist Church of Groesbeck, Texas. It was later published in King Duncan’s Dynamic Preaching, March 1994, Volume IX, No. 3. (Seven Worlds Publishing, Knoxville, TN).
Copyright 1999 Billy D. Strayhorn. Used by permission.