What did the centurion see?
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 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?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 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.” 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 15:33-39 ESV)
What did the centurion see? Here is a man whom we presume is no stranger to death. While each death is unique, there are usual patterns about what happens to a human body when you stick a sword in it, a spear, even nails. It isn’t a matter of ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ but as people who work in the presence of death will tell you, there are signs associated with the end of life that indicate death is not far away. The manner of dying might also mean that death is resisted, fought, to the bitter end; for others it might be a release. It is personal, individual – this dying – and we are gathered today because we agree with an unknown centurion who saw the way Jesus breathed his last and said ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’. We’ll let the centurion have his past tense – after all, he wasn’t wrong – we would just want to add more.
What did the centurion see? In the dark? That’s right, this death and the torture for the preceding three hours were in the dark. This is the realm of sin, where deeds don’t wish to be exposed, of demons, and shame and scandal. Light shines in darkness and dispels it but not if it isn’t there – or God has turned his face, so to speak, and cut off this scene from his presence. We wonder if such a thing is possible but the darkness suggests it and the cry from Jesus would confirm it ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. Something is happening in this darkness and we wonder what the centurion saw as he stood opposite Jesus, facing Jesus.
We imagine he’s been on crucifixion detail before. It’s largely crowd control since crucifixion was reserved for criminals but even they had family, friends, maybe a band of followers; as well as maintaining the Roman reputation for efficiency. The charge against Jesus wasn’t the run and mill criminal stuff – not unique though – but not common – it happened from time to time that a royal pretender came along – a so called king – to take on Rome. But this Jesus didn’t seem to have much popular support for he was mocked and ridiculed about destroying the temple and raising it again and about him giving a sign if he was the Christ, the Mesisah, the King. Power is what people respect and they wanted a sign – getting off the cross would be a start. Not on my watch!
The hours drag on in the darkness and yet the centurion when he testifies goes even higher than Christ, Messiah, King – a puppet to the Emperor anyway, but he goes above the Emperor, to God – this man was the Son of God – a combination of humanity and divinity. For Mark, the zooming in – the point he noticed – was the way Jesus breathed his last – breathed out his life or soul / spirit – a euphemism for die. Jesus did this with a loud cry – a great sound or voice. Since crucifixion is death by suffocation, breathing is primary and painful, it has got to be important to use your breath for anything other than living. And it is with a loud voice that Jesus had cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – the opening words to Psalm 22 which stand because they were heard but perhaps the words also indicate the rest of the sentiments within the psalm which ends with …
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it (Psalm 22:30,31 ESV).
You’d have thought that quoting Scripture might get you labelled educated or a scribe, Pharisee, rabbi, or priest – not Son of God.
Some scholars argue that Jesus only had enough breath for one loud cry – others say there were two – and perhaps Mark wants us to hear something his account – about this ‘loud voice’ – for he uses this term on three occasions. The first is the exorcism in the synagogue as the unclean spirit came out of the man (Mark 1:26). The second is the cry of the Gerasene demoniac who worshipped Jesus and pleaded not to be tormented (Mark 5:7). And the third is Jesus on the cross at his crucifixion in the darkness and when he dies.
How hard is it to consider the horror of pain? We wince at the thought of nails and whipping and suffering. But I think we recoil with revulsion at the thought of the demons attacking Jesus within and without – crawling in and through him, mocking him for a sign to show that he is the Son of God. The temptation began in the wilderness and whether by friend or foe Jesus faced temptation to turn his public ministry into the Jesus Kyle Show but with power – to deal with sin on his glory terms – and to avoid the cross. Even in the darkness the crowded hoped Elijah would turn up as he was the expected herald of the Messiah. Surely it wouldn’t have been hard for Jesus to call Elijah back – Moses too for that matter – after all, he’d been talking with them a little while ago? We can understand temptation but this is more, this is beyond what we usually know or experience – a consummation by evil. But that is what we’re facing – Paul told the Galatians that on the tree, the cross, Jesus was under the curse of God. To the Corinthians, Paul said that God ‘made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). Luther in his Galatians commentary said, ‘All the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc that there has ever been anywhere in the world’ (LW26:277). And now pinned to a cross in darkness, the demons can’t believe their fortune – the Son of God in their clutches – but Jesus expels them and finishes the job he came to do. That breathing out, exhaling of spirit costs Jesus – brings his death – and salvation is achieved hidden from eyes – even though the temple curtain to the Holy of Holies is torn from top to bottom as heavenly hands rip through and open direct access to God because of the perfect sacrifice.
I don’t know what the centurion actually saw to lead him to his confession but it would have been something that would resonated with Paul’s explanation of the cross – that this death was ‘for us’ – for us all.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)
We are here today because of the mystery that in the darkness, it was God’s will that Jesus should be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We are here today because the powers of sin, death, and the devil all claim to be king over us in this world but were nailed to the cross by Jesus.
We are here today because the paradox of our God is that when Jesus looks most weak, dying on a cross, he is the most powerful he is on Earth – battling everything that would usurp him and ruin us and winning by his death.
We are here today because no matter what evil we have done – whatever we’re ashamed of – whatever we’ve been involved with, the demonic included, this cross and this death offers forgiveness and mercy – even for you. When no one understands the shame and loathing or the sense of hopelessness and despair, then look to the cross, because Jesus does! And he does more than understand, he helps.
What do you see?
- Mark 15:33 - 39