The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached May 30th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: The Darkness of Dereliction (Mark 15:33-39)
What were you afraid of when you were younger? When I was a little kid there was a TV show called Are You Afraid of the Dark? that I was, admittedly, too afraid to watch. It was a kid’s show, but it was a show about scary stories, but scary stories made for kids, Nickelodeon style (I don’t know why this was a thing, this sounds like a terrible idea). But just the title of the show turned me off because I was afraid of the dark.
We naturally fear darkness. Some of that certainly comes from some sort of biological survival instinct. We can’t see in the dark, we get disoriented, and we panic: What if there is something lurking in the darkness that is going to hurt me! But there is something more than just a survival instinct. My children have experienced nothing but safety and comfort in our home, we don’t release wild animals into their bedrooms at night or show them horror movies before bedtime; we don’t kiss them goodnight and whisper “good luck…hope you make it,” but they still get scared at night.
Why do we fear the dark? The Bible actually has an interesting theology of darkness.
In the beginning there was darkness. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). Darkness represents the disorder and chaos of the formless void. The earth had not yet been ordered, structured, and aligned by God—it was in a state of disorder, and so Genesis simply describes it as “darkness.” Throughout the Bible “darkness” serves as a picture of God’s judgment, like God is reversing the process of Genesis 1, deconstructing the order back to a state of chaos.
We see this later in Genesis when Abraham is making a covenant with God, but just as the covenant is about to be ratified this happens: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him,” Gen 15:12. This is the darkness of God’s judgment that envelopes Abraham—a judgment that God wants Abraham to be aware of, but a judgment that He pledges to take Himself if Abraham breaks the covenant (Gen 15:17).
We see this again in the book of Exodus, when God blankets the land of Egypt in a thick darkness as a judgment, a darkness described as “a darkness to be felt,” (Ex 10:21. The OT prophets would picture divine judgment on the last day taking the form of darkness, like Amos who explains, “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight,” (Amos 8:9; cf. Isa 13:10; 24:23; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; Zeph 1:15; Rev 6:12; 8:12). Jesus follows this pattern when He describes what the final day of judgment will be like, He explains that “the sun will be darkened” (Mark 13:24).
In our text today we will see this happen: God’s judgment. Jesus has been unjustly nailed to the cross and is hours away from His death while being mocked by onlookers. And suddenly, just like Amos foretold, the sun will be darkened at noon, a thick darkness of God’s judgment will fall, a darkness of dread, a darkness to be felt. The signs of judgment that are to be present at the Last Day, is showing up. But, amazingly, the darkness of judgment isn’t falling on the perpetrators of the cross, but the Victim. Let’s read:
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 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?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” – Mark 15:33-39
If anyone ever thought that Christianity was basically a moral improvement program, like a mindfulness app on your phone meant to center you and motivate you with positive messages, if anyone has thought that Jesus is basically a cheerleader there to rah-rah you on in your personal development goal-setting and that’s it—then they do not know what Christianity is about. Here’s what the world tells us Christianity should be about: you should be happy; you have dreams and goals, and the difficulty of life stands in the way of your self-actualization. Other people may not believe in you, they may doubt you, but God doesn’t! He is there to make sure you achieve your dreams! Why did Jesus come? To show us how to live a life of love and goodness, a life of impact and influence, a life where we don’t let anyone else tell us how to live! So go, follow your dreams, care for other people, and believe in yourself! That’s what God is here for.
Friends, God wants something so much better for you than that cotton-candy, whip-cream nothingness; something solid like a mountain, something gloriously bigger than you. But even if we had nothing else in the Bible but this story, we would notice that there would be a problem with this theory of Christianity as a self-improvement program: this story leaves a jagged scar on the face of this depiction of our faith. This story screams for something more than just an example. It is a story of accomplishment, of substitution. Here we see the two boulders of the holiness and justice of God crashing together with the mercy and grace of God.
The “Cry” (What happened at the Cross?)
As Jesus is being crucified He offers what is now traditionally known as the cry of dereliction: “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?” (15:34). Why does Mark preserve the Aramaic phrase here? Jews in Palestine during Jesus’ day all spoke Aramaic, but Mark has been writing his gospel in Greek, so he has been translating everything thus far—why preserve this? Because the words themselves were burned into everyone’s memory. They couldn’t get them out of their heads.
Here, Jesus is actually citing Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest,” (Ps 22:1-2).
Psalm 22 is a psalm of David that recounts David’s lament that he feels abandoned by God while all of his enemies surround him and attack him (a psalm that seems to prophetically foretell precisely the crucifixion itself, see 22:16-18). By citing this passage Jesus is associating Himself with this same kind of abandonment, this same kind of despair. This is not an example of Jesus losing His faith or second-guessing the plan of salvation. Rather, Jesus is a faithful Jew who has spent His entire life reading, meditating on, and memorizing God’s Word. It is just a part of Him. So much so that when He is wanting to express His grief and despair, He reaches for God’s Word. He is experiencing real grief, real despair, but He is turning to God’s Word to express it. But what does the cry itself tell us?
Something we noted last week was that nowhere in the gospels do we hear Jesus crying out because of the physical pain of the scourging or crucifixion (though, He most certainly did)—the only thing Mark thought significant enough to record was Jesus’ complaint of feeling abandoned by God. More painful and agonizing than anything else was Jesus’ experience of the Father turning His face away. The doubling of “my God” is an expression of grief, like David weeping over the death of his son Absalom, “My son, my son,” (2 Sam 18:33). Further, note that Jesus doesn’t just say “God, God,” but, “My God, my God.” God isn’t some distant deity that Jesus is lamenting over—it is personal. If I refer to my wife as “My Hillary,” it’s a way of communicating the depth of our relationship. And the depth of that relationship means that if that relationship is severed, there will be far, far more pain. If some random stranger on the internet tells me that she never wants to speak to me again, that won’t bother me too much. But if my wife tells me she never wants to see me again, I will be devastated. What is happening at the cross? The Father is forsaking, abandoning Jesus. But considered: how deep was Jesus’ relationship with the Father? How perfect was it? And how painful would it be to experience that forsaking?
Now, sometimes preachers who get really worked up in a sermon on this passage will make it sound like the Trinity broke apart here. God the Father turns to God the Son and casts Him out of the Godhead, or something like that. That is not happening—Jesus is God, and He cannot be un-God-ed anymore than the Father or the Spirit can. So, what is happening here? Jesus, the God-man, in the fullness of humanity is experiencing for the first time of His human life an abandonment from the Father. He is experiencing the human punishment for sin: the judgment of God.
The “Why” (Why did it happen?)
Jesus cries out to the Father: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Remember friends, Jesus is citing a psalm here. Jesus knows why. He taught His disciples repeatedly that He would die, He told them the purpose of His death (Mark 10:45). So when He cries out in asking “why,” He isn’t asking that question for Himself, but for us, for us to wonder to ourselves: why is Jesus being forsaken? This question gets us down to the very heart of the gospel, to the very heart of God.
Earlier, Mark explained that Jesus was crucified at the “third hour” (which would have been 9 AM), but in verse 33 we are told that at the “sixth hour” (Noon) something odd happens, “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,” (Mark 15:33). So, from noon to 3 PM an inky darkness covers the whole land. The darkness is the judgment of God, the judgment reserved for the Last Day when sinners will be held accountable to God. But who is being judged here? Jesus. Why? Paul provides an answer for us by summarizing our problem and our solution in Christ:
The problem: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them,” (Gal 3:10). We were made in the image of God, meaning we are meant to image God to the world around us. Our life should reflect the character and holiness of God. That was how we were designed. And from the Garden, God warned us that if we veer away from that design there will be consequences: death (Gen 2:17), a curse (Deut 27:26; cf. 28:15-68). An earthworm is designed to live buried under the dirt and eat decomposing plants and garbage; I am not. What happens to me if I try to bury myself alive or eat garbage? I will die. That is what sin does to us—it kills us. God does not give us commandments and warnings arbitrarily; He is trying to save our lives. But we don’t listen to Him and plunge ourselves headlong into the curse. And how does Jesus respond?
The solution: “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. Jesus’s response: He redeems us through becoming a curse for us. When Jesus is hanging from the tree of the cross He is becoming the curse, bearing the punishment, the death we deserved.
Think about this: the more pure and morally clean your conscience is, the more horrified you are at the sight of evil. Conversely, the more debased and seared your conscience is, the less you are bothered by it. In Dane Ortlund’s wonderful book, Gentle and Lowly, he carries on this thought: “Christ, being perfectly holy, knows and feels the horror and weight of sin more deeply than any of us sinful ones could.,” (p. 69). This leads us to assume the natural conclusion: we should be cast out of God’s presence, we should suffer the curse—precisely because Jesus is so holy, so pure.
But Ortlund also considers this conclusion as well: “Just as the purer a heart, the more horrified at evil, so also the purer a heart, the more it is naturally drawn out to help and relieve and protect and comfort, whereas a corrupt heart sits still, indifferent. So with Christ. His holiness finds evil revolting, more revolting than any of us ever could feel. But it is that very holiness that also draws his heart out to help and relieve and protect and comfort,” (p. 69-70).
Jesus takes sin very seriously. He hates it more fully and perfectly than any other being in existence. It makes Him sick. But, amazingly, when He casts an eye an lecherous, sin-soaked people like us, what does He do? Not only did Jesus not turn from away from us in revulsion, but He was drawn to us, was willing to take on the very curse our sins deserved. The perfectly holy One, whose conscience had never tasted a drop of guilt, suddenly had 10 billion mega-tons of human guilt and corruption and condemnation dumped onto His spotless soul and presented Himself as “guilty” before the Father and was cast out, condemned, abandoned. Why? Because His pure and holy heart was drawn in by your weakness, by your plight, by your sin.
Of course, we shouldn’t pretend that judgment is no longer an option for humans. There are two places where God’s justice will be assuaged: the cross of Christ, or the eternity of Hell. If we reject the offer of Christ, then our sins will evoke God’s holy wrath and we will be left cast out from His presence. But if we are Christ’s? Then the payment for our sins have been made and our sins evoke His pity, His loving concern:
“There is comfort concerning such infirmities, in that your very sins move him to pity more than to anger…Christ…is so far from being provoked against you, as all his anger is turned upon your sin to ruin it; yes, his pity is increased the more towards you, even as the heart of a father is to a child that has some loathsome disease, or as one is to a member of his body that has leprosy, he hates not the member, for it is his flesh, but the disease, and that provokes him to pity the part affected the more…The greater the misery is, the more is the pity when the party is beloved…And [Christ], loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but his affections shall be the more drawn out to you,” (Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ, cited in Gentle and Lowly, p. 70-71).
Drop an axe head into the ocean of God’s grace and come back a thousand years later, and it will still be sinking.
The “Sigh” (What did it accomplish?)
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” – Mark 15:37-39
Jesus surrenders His spirit, breathes His last, and dies. It is finished. Immediately two things happen: The temple curtain is torn, and the Roman centurion standing opposite of Jesus confesses that He is really the Son of God.
The veil of the temple was a thick curtain erected to separate the holy of holies from the rest of the temple. It was within the holy of holies that the ark of the covenant dwelt, the footstool of God’s throne (1 Chron 28:2), dwelt. It was within the holy of holies that God’s covenantal presence dwelt. Only one person was permitted to enter the holy of holies, the high priest and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). On that day, the high priest would enter with a sacrifice of blood from an animal, a substitute to take the penalty of Israel’s sins, and sprinkle blood on the ark, confession the people’s sins, and leaving. It is ironic, of course, that in the gospel we have the high priest working to execute Jesus, who will be the final sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
When Jesus dies, the curtain “tears”—the only the other place this word (schizō) is used in Mark is at Jesus’ baptism when Jesus sees “the heavens being torn open” (Mark 1:10) as the Spirit descends and the Father speaks His benediction over the Son. Now the curtain is being “torn” open, and just in case we didn’t catch that God is the one doing this, Mark points out that it is being torn “from top to bottom.” What is happening here? All heaven is breaking loose. God is erupting into our broken, hopeless, pitiless world.
And now, this means that anyone can get in on this. The veil has been torn, there is no separation now. Jesus has come to give us direct, unfiltered, total access to God, anytime we want! If you want to go to God you do not need to go to a priest, you don’t have to wait for Sunday, you do not need to go to some sacred spot or do some religious pilgrimage, you don’t need to be born in the right family or have the right ethnicity, you don’t need to be hyper religious and know all of the right words and all the right motions. All you need is to come to Jesus and admit your need, confess your sins, and turn away from them and turn towards Jesus. St. Augustine, writing 15 centuries ago, said: “God gives where He finds empty hands.”
We see this wide open invitation by the second thing Jesus’ final sigh does: the confession of the centurion. The centurion was a Roman soldier with rank, which meant that he had to have been in the army for quite some time. He had seen many, many people die. He likely would have performed dozens and dozens of crucifixions. But, we are told, “when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). The centurion is standing opposite Jesus, watching Him take His final breath. And there is something that happens in the heart of the centurion as he watches Jesus die that makes him realize that the sign hanging over Jesus’ head isn’t a farce. To a Roman, the title “Son of God” was reserved for Caesar—it was both a claim to deity and a claim to kingship. Which makes his confession even more astonishing: He really is the King, He really is divine.
But this tells us one final point of application: you cannot understand who Jesus really is apart from the cross. No human being in the entirety of Mark’s gospel has confess that Jesus was Son of God. While people discuss and Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8:29), people at the time didn’t assume that the Messiah was divine in any way. It is only as Jesus is dying as a substitute on the cross that one can rightly understand His identity.
If you imagine Jesus as being primarily a moral example or teacher, you will misunderstand Him. If you imagine Him being a pool of energy and affirmation, there only to empower you to achieve the goals in your life, you will not see Him. If you think He is nothing but a cold, distant deity who is perpetually disappointed at your pathetic life, then you will not understand Him. It is only as you see Him as your sin-bearer, as your substitute who was abandoned and deserted on the cross, judged in your place, that you will see Him for who He is: the Son of God.