There are certain events in our lifetimes that are indelibly seared into our memories. When the event is mentioned, we can recall the circumstances, the time of year, where we were, and who was with us.
Last year, I asked my mom to ride with me through rural Madison County in the area where my grandmother had grown up. We drove through some remote areas, and when seeing some houses, I remembered them from my childhood: the homes of my grandmother’s brothers and their wives: Charlie and Grace, Euquid and Mabel. When seeing those old houses, I remembered playing in those yards as a boy. As we rode along, my mom said, “Pull into that driveway.” I turned onto a dirt drive and when we finally saw the house, my mom said, “I remember playing in this yard when Mother ran out of that house and said, “I just heard on the radio that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” She was nine-years-old. Although that event had occurred 75 years earlier, my mother was able to remember details of an historical event as if it was yesterday.
Some of you may remember the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. You may remember what you were doing when you heard the news and the horror you felt when you saw the television footage. Personally I don’t remember that event; I was only 2 1/2 years old.
For those of my generation, we can give you details regarding the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft. I was a seminary student in Louisville, Kentucky at the time and working at the Kentucky Baptist Convention building. A maintenance man rushed from the parking lot into the mail-room with the stunning news; he had just heard it on the radio. We sat mesmerized wondering how this Cinderella story had ended so tragically.
Most of us recall where we were on September 11, 2001 when we heard or saw the Twin Towers fall in New York City. We remember monumental, historical events that occur during our lifetime; they have an effect on us. Depending on the incident, we may even be reminded of our mortality. The events stay with us for a lifetime. We can reminisce about how we felt; lingering are the sights and even the smells of the minute we received the news. The events remain in our memory forever.
Such was the case with the crucifixion. Our passage mentioned many characters in the backdrop; their lives were branded with these six hours one Friday. It had been a normal week for most; there was hustle and bustle in and around Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration, but most went on with business as usual. But the six hours on Friday were anything but business as usual; these six hours changed the course of history.
Six hours is a relatively short time; one normally couldn’t conceive the impact such a span might have on history. One can watch two or three movies in six hours. It takes longer than six hours to cook a good pot of chili in the crock pot. We can fly to California in less than six hours. Six hours is actually not a great length of time, yet the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which lasted six hours, changed the world forever.
Jesus had been charged with treason against the Roman government; he claimed to be the King of the Jews. Although called a blasphemer by the Pharisees, it was the charge of treason that was the basis for his execution.
After a grueling night of abandonment by his followers and disciples, a pseudo trial before the religious hob-nobs, beatings and torture from the hands of Roman soldiers, and finally an examination by Governor Pilate, Jesus had been condemned to die. His sentence of crucifixion was the most cruel and inhumane of the day. At 9:00 in the morning, he was nailed to the cross, a spike placed just behind each of his wrists and then another nailed through his feet. As he hung there, he was insulted by hecklers below him. They mocked him; they said, “Save yourself. You’ve saved others, but you cannot save yourself. You said the Temple would be destroyed, yet you would raise it in three days, and you cannot save yourself.” Don’t you find it a bit ironic, that the hecklers were calling on Jesus to save himself? Here, the Son of God was giving himself in a saving act for all humanity; Jesus was dying for their sins, yet they called on him to come down from the cross. They wanted a supernatural act to prove that he was God’s Son. They had no idea what was coming.
After hanging for three hours, having to push up with his feet even to gain air to breathe, Jesus had reached the half-way point of his execution. For the next three hours, darkness covered the land. It was twelve noon, normally the time when the sun was directly overhead, and yet the sky turned dark. It was not an eclipse of the sun as we witnessed back in August which happens with a new moon; it was the Passover which occurred at a full moon. Even the forces of nature, which are controlled by God, testified to the enormity of the event on Golgotha’s hill. It was a dark day; there was no sun, seemingly no hope, and no understanding. Gloom enveloped the countryside.
Can you imagine what it was like to be a shepherd on a nearby hillside? I certainly would have wondered why the sky was pitch dark in the middle of the day. As he was performing his routine duties on this normal Friday, the sky was blackened. The event had to have puzzled him. He may not have known about the crucifixion until after the event, but he certainly did hear about it. The events of this day would long be remembered by believers and non-believers alike.
Matthew recorded that many women were watching at a distance. They had not just walked up; these faithful ladies had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. They ministered to his daily needs; they had been doing all they could to help him. But now, there was little that they could do. Their leader’s death was being displayed for all to see; they were helpless. Indeed, that was their plight. Although they had nothing to fear because of their lowly position in society, they were there because of their continued devotion to Jesus. The disciples had left him, but the women were with him until the end.
Despite Jesus’ feelings of abandonment, the hecklers continued their ridicule. Three crosses were silhouetted against a black sky; underneath the one in the middle were a centurion with his soldiers standing guard, taunters close by, and some grieving women.
After six hours of suffering, the man on the middle cross shrieked loudly; his voice pierced the darkness. The cry was loud enough for all to take notice. Jesus had been receiving attention from the mockers, the guards, and the women. But with this blaring cry, Jesus probably got the observation of everyone else. And then he gently gave up his spirit. He voluntarily offered his life; he died without a further struggle. To the taunter’s insults, Jesus in return gave his life for their sins.
It was not unusual for those who were crucified to die very slow deaths; so slow that the Jews talked the Romans into bringing down the crucified people at sunset on the Sabbath so they would not have to hang there on the holy day. The Romans would break the legs of the criminals so they would have to die on that spot.
Given his earlier treatment, it is no wonder that Jesus died after six hours. Although he peacefully gave his life on the cross, at the moment of his death everyone knew something monumental had occurred.
The Scripture stated that the veil in the Temple was ripped from top to bottom. This is very significant for us. This veil was more like a curtain and was in the Holy of Holies, an exclusive area of the Temple reserved for the chief priests. Regarding the veil, A. T. Robertson writes, “The veil was a most elaborately woven fabric of seventy-two twisted plaits of twenty-four threads each, and the veil was sixty feet long and thirty feet wide. The rending of the veil signified the removal of the separation between God and the people.” (A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1930. p.235-236)
Being torn from top to bottom certainly indicates divine intervention; only god could have done that. Tearing a curtain that was sixty feet high would have been quite a feat; the strength of the veil, seventy-two twisted plaits of twenty-four threads each, insured that it could not be damaged…at least by human hands. The symbolism of this act is that in Jesus Christ, every person has direct access to the presence of God. We do not have to go to a certain place to find God, nor is another individual necessary when we want to communicate with God. Paradoxically, the death of Jesus now means that Jesus is available to anyone and everyone.
Also at the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth quaked. We don’t know what the measurement was on the Richter scale, but we know that it was strong enough to split rocks and open tombs. For three hours, many had been wondering about the black sky; local astronomers may have been baffled at the loss of sunlight, and then everyone felt the earthquake. The hecklers were silenced by Jesus’ loud shriek, and now they were losing their footing because of the shaking of the ground. The soldiers, chief priests, teachers of the Law, and the elders were content in reviling this innocent man. The most religious of the day had plotted to kill him, and they were finally seeing their plan come to fruition. But as he died, I would guess that they were having second thoughts about their actions.
When the tombs opened, some of God’s followers, who had already died, were raised from the dead. The liberating power of the death of Christ on the cross immediately began having an effect on the world.
Those raised from the dead were not the only ones who were immediately affected. The centurion was a central figure in the unfolding drama that historical day on Golgotha’s hill. He held quite a responsible position; as centurion, he had one hundred soldiers under his command. He was there to keep the crowd from getting out of hand. But his world would be forever changed by these six hours one Friday.
Undoubtedly, he had worked numerous crucifixions; he had been charged with handling crowds on multiple occasions, but this was different. An employee of the Roman government, he was accustomed to order; his job was to keep order. So as he stood at the foot of the cross with a dark sky above him and the earth trembling beneath him, he realized that this peasant who had been convicted of treason was more than a common criminal. He declared, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
Jesus had told his followers “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” The centurion was the first to be drawn by the magnetic power of the cross. The centurion was a Gentile, an outsider to the faith. The devoutly religious people, the Jewish high priests and elders, had scoffed and reviled Jesus while he was hanging on the cross; contrast that with the realization that a Gentile accurately declared who Jesus really was. The religious people reviled him; the outcast identified him.
As I stated earlier, the events of these six hours one Friday affected everyone. It was a watershed day, a day that was seared into the memory of all Judea. And today, the crucifixion still has an impact on individuals. What is your response?
Are you like the shepherd? You certainly did not know about the crucifixion until after the event, but have since heard about it. He wondered about what went on, but did not experience it personally. His life remained unchanged. Are you like the shepherd?
Or are you like the crowd of chief priests and elders from the Temple? Are you detached and cynical about the movement of God? Has your relationship with God become so stagnant and stale that you simply go through the motions? Are you like the religious elite?
Some today may be like the women who were present for the crucifixion. They had done great things for Jesus but now felt helpless as their world crumbled before them. Regarding the tragedy in Las Vegas last Sunday night, many of us have felt helpless and powerless; only God can put broken worlds back together again. Are you like the women?
And others may be like the centurion. Circumstances have communicated the reality and presence of God. Today may be the time that you fully realize that Jesus truly is the Son of God. If today is the day you now know who Jesus is, and you want to begin a relationship with him, I’d like for you to come talk to me about that.
Today, the invitation is simply this, who are you most like in the story, and what are you going to do as a result of these six hours one Friday?