I wonder if you have ever been to a Death Café? There are or have been nearly 3,000 around the world since the first was held in London in 2011. Visit www.deathcafe.com, enter your postcode and you will be directed to the nearest. There was one at Virginia Water Library last week. “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion about death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session. – With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action – Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!” I welcome this initiative to break the taboo of talking about death. But how much more helpful and above all hopeful to discuss our mortality in the light of the most significant death in all of history.
John Owen, the 17th Century pastor and theologian, who became chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, managed to squeeze ‘death’ into the title of a book about Jesus, three times. “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” dwells on the love of Christ and the deep conviction that Christ’s work on the cross literally saves us from the deadly nature of sin.
That is why it is perhaps not surprising that about a third of the gospels dwell on the last seven days of Jesus’ life and specifically the subject of Jesus’ death. Why spend so much time dwelling on his death? And further, why is it that the mode of his death—the cross—has become the universally-recognized symbol of Christianity?
Why a cross? No other religion celebrates the death of its founder. Even more striking, the cross was a particularly horrendous form of execution the Romans reserved only for criminals. Imagine if H. Samuel, Earnest Jones or Swarovski started selling necklaces with a pendant shaped as a guillotine or hangman’s noose. We would think that it was incredibly distasteful. Why would anyone want to wear a symbol of death that was reserved for the worst in society? But right after Jesus died Christians were not ashamed of the cross. In fact, they seemed proud of it.
The Apostle Paul, said this, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14a).
Why boast in the cross? Jesus tells us in Mark 8:31,
“And he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
Notice the word “must.” Jesus is saying not only that he will die, but that he must die – his death was necessary. Similarly, notice Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). Jesus died to rescue us, to ransom us. He paid the price to set us free. Freedom from sin, freedom from judgment and freedom from death. The cross is good news, because the cross is our way of escape. Please turn with me to Mark 15. Three things we can say about the death of death in the death of Christ:
- God Was Angry
The first thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that God was angry. Mark 15:33 says,
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mark 15:33)
Mark is counting hours according to the Jewish system, so the sixth hour would have been noon. At the moment when the midday sun should have been at its brightest in the sky, a darkness fell over the whole land and remained until three in the afternoon. Why is that unusual? Was it an eclipse. No. For two reasons. First, Jesus was crucified at Passover. Passover always falls on a full moon, so a solar eclipse is out of the question because a solar eclipse cannot take place during a full moon. And second, solar eclipses never last more than 6 minutes. The darkness that fell as Jesus was crucified lasted three hours. Something else was taking place. Something not just unusual, something supernatural. In the Bible, light symbolizes God’s presence and blessing, darkness symbolizes God’s anger and judgment. For example, for three days the ancient Egyptians experienced a “plague” of darkness because they would not let the Israelites leave Egypt (Exodus 10:21-22). When Israel did escape, darkness foiled Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:20). So when Jesus dies and darkness comes over the land, we know that God was angry. We won’t understand his anger this if we equate anger with the unpredictable, wild, and irrational.
God’s anger is not like that. It is his settled, controlled, personal hostility to all that is wrong. And a God who cares about injustice is right to be angry about sin, and right to punish it. God is a God of holiness, of blazing purity, and he hates what is evil. When it comes to evil he doesn’t lean back in a rocking chair and pretend nothing has happened. No, evil matters to God. So, lying matters to God, as does selfishness. Likewise, adultery matters to him. Greed matters to him. Stealing matters. Bitterness matters. Murder matters. He will not simply overlook them. Surely if we care about the injustices we see in the world, we cannot expect our loving Creator to care any less. So, as Jesus was dying on the cross, darkness came over the whole land. God was acting in anger to punish sin. But that leaves us with a question: Whose sin was God angry at? The staggering answer is that God seems to be angry at Jesus. God was angry.
- Jesus Was Abandoned
The second thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that Jesus was abandoned. Mark 15:34 says,
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34)
Now there is no doubt that Jesus suffered physical agony on the cross. But what is being spoken of here is spiritual agony—being forsaken by God. And the word Jesus uses for “God” here is “Eloi.” Normally Jesus uses the word “Abba,” which is close to our word “Daddy.” But “Eloi” has none of that warmth or intimacy. On the cross, Jesus was abandoned by God. It was Jesus that God was punishing. But Jesus had led a sinless life. Not even his fiercest enemies could find any fault with him. So why should God be punishing him? Answer: So that we can be rescued.
The Bible says “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)
That means everything I have ever said, thought and done is recorded and will be given in evidence against me. The Bible uses the terminology of the courts to describe our plight, and warns that death is the only and certain outcome. “the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us.” (Colossians 2:14). We are helpless and hopeless. Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve. That’s why Jesus cried out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27) as he hung on the cross. It couldn’t have been his own sin that made him feel separated from God, because the Bible tells us that Jesus had no sin. No, it was my sin that separated him from God. In those agonizing moments, Jesus was taking upon himself all the punishment that my sin, and yours deserves. The Bible says,
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
Jesus died in my place, in your place, taking the punishment we deserve. The amazing truth is that Jesus loved us enough to die for our sin. He died for our sin, and for the sin of every person who puts their trust in him. God was angry. Jesus was abandoned.
- So We Can Be Accepted
The third thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that we can be accepted. Mark 15:37-38 says,
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:37-38)
Mark records the exact moment of Jesus’ death, and then refers to something that happened simultaneously in the temple. When Jesus died, the thirty-foot high 3-inch-thick curtain in the temple, was torn from top to bottom. God wants us to understand that the two events are connected in some way. Why is that significant? This massive curtain hanging in the temple, separated people from the place where God was said to live. The curtain was like a big “Do not enter” sign. It said loudly and clearly that it was impossible for sinful people like you and me to walk into God’s presence. But, suddenly, as Jesus died on the cross, God ripped this curtain in two, from top to bottom. It was if God was saying: “The way is now open for you to approach me.” God was angry. Jesus was abandoned. So that we can be accepted.
If you look across the skyline in London you can see the Old Bailey, the home of British justice. On top of it is Pomeroy’s magnificent golden statue of the goddess Justicia holding the scales of justice in one hand and the sword of wrath in the other. The message is clear: If we are found to be guilty, then the sword of judgment must fall. But just across the London skyline, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is another golden symbol.
It is a cross—a powerful reminder that the sword of God’s judgment did fall. But it fell on Jesus Christ. So what will you do with your sin and death? You can take it to a Death Café where there will be no condemnation but no counsel, where there will be no judgment but no hope either.
Or will you take it to the cross and experience the death of your death in the death of Christ? For in the cross of Christ we experience the deep, deep assurance of sins forgiven and in the resurrection of Christ, the certain hope of eternal life.