The Magentism of the
John 19:17-19 (Also,
Easter 7 B)
The text for
today’s sermon is from John 19:17-19.
“They took Jesus. He was bearing his own cross to the place
called the “place of the skull” which in Hebrew is called
Golgotha, and there they crucified him with two others, one on
either side and Jesus was between them.”
imagination. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, I would say about 250
yards northeast of the old wall, or about 250 yards northeast of the
Damascus Gate, is a rather large cliff.
This tall cliff is about sixty feet high. It seems to be made
of old gray clay, embedded with rocks. In that cliff, 250 yards
outside the old city wall, in that cliff are large indentations,
three large indentations, almost like sockets, almost like eye
sockets. They look almost like the face of a skull, if you use your
imagination. It seemed to me there is a face of a skull in that
cliff, with three large holes, looking like eye sockets and a mouth.
I saw the shape of the skull with my own eyes.
At the bottom of that cliff, there is a flat piece of ground.
It is now a parking lot for buses. It is said today that this
parking lot at the foot of the cliff was the place of Jesus’
execution on the cross. Right there, beneath this cliff, was perhaps
the location of Golgotha.
It was about 1920,
and there was a man by then name of Dr. Gordon who had been looking
for the Place of the Skull. Dr.
Gordon was an archeologist. For sixteen centuries, people had
believed that the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was in the center of
the city of Jerusalem, where the Roman empress, Mother Helena, had
built a gorgeous palace for Christ. It was called the Holy
Sepulcher. The Holy
Sepulcher was crafted of gilded gold, baroque style, and very
ornate. This Holy Sepulcher had become one of the most sacred shines
of Christianity. I had
the privilege of visiting that ornate temple in the center of the
But Dr. Gordon
realized that a crucifixion could not have occurred in the city
walls; a Roman crucifixion would not have been permitted in the city
walls of Jerusalem. So Dr. Gordon, a British soldier and
archeologist, began looking for the Place of Execution outside the
city walls. One day, after twenty years of searching, he had
searched enough and was going to finally give up looking for the
Place of the Skull. He
was sitting in his villa about five o’clock in the afternoon, and
he saw massive shadows on this cliff across the valley floor. He saw
those eye sockets and his imagination went to work and he saw what
he thought may be the Place of the Skull. Upon further investigation, above that sixty foot cliff, was
a large flat area, now a beautiful garden, about half the size of a
football field. In that beautiful garden, were and are currently old
olive trees and giant, old, old plants. Also in that garden above
the cliff is an ancient tomb carved out of limestone.
In front of that tomb, believe it or not, there is a trough
or trench, dug out by human hands centuries ago. In that trough or
trench, is where a circular burial stone was rolled, to seal the
burial cave. To the archeologists, this was obviously an ancient
burial site, an ancient tomb, an ancient gravesite. Gradually, most
scholars have come to the conclusion that this was perhaps the
authentic site where Jesus was crucified and buried. It fits the
Biblical record very well: outside the city wall, close to the city,
near a place called “The Skull,” with a garden tomb nearby.
While the members
of our congregation were visiting there at this Golgotha, everyone
spoke in hushed whispers, even though we were outside. Even though
it was a beautiful day. Even
though there were beautiful gardens. Even though there were no signs
that demanded, “speak quietly.”
With no signs suggesting silence, everyone was hushed and
spoke quietly. We all whispered, like this was a sacred ground, like
this was one of the holiest places of Christianity.
I ask, why?
Golgotha? Why the Place
of the Skull? People were noisy at Bethlehem.
They were noisy at Nazareth. They were noisy on the Sea of
Galilee. They were noisy in the streets of Jerusalem. But when at
Golgotha…(whisper), everybody whispered. Everybody whispered as if
we were on sacred ground. And
I ask why? What is it about Golgotha? What is it about the Place of
the Skull? What is it about the place of the cross? What is it about
the cross and crucifixion that made people whisper?
As you may know
because you have heard the story before, Jesus was crucified at
Golgotha. The Roman means of execution was crucifixion. The Romans
were professionals at crucifixions, did them by thousands, and
recorded the dirty details of their executions in their history
books. On the other hand, if Jews were going to kill somebody, they
would throw rocks and small boulders and kill them. The Jews killed
by stoning, but the Romans killed by crucifixion. Jesus was
sentenced to die by the Roman courts and he was sentenced to die by
crucifixion outside the city walls of Jerusalem. One more
crucifixion wouldn’t bother the soldiers. It was all in a day’s
happened at other Roman crucifixions, the Roman soldiers whipped
Jesus. We know from history books that those crucified received
thirty-nine lashes across their backs. If you can imagine a man’s
back that has been whipped or lashed thirty nine times, it is not a
pretty sight. Jesus was then given a long wooden bar, about six feet
long, like the one I have here today. The cross of execution was
shaped like a letter “T.” The
vertical post was stuck in the ground.
The person being executed would carry only the horizontal top
of the “T,” a six-foot board like this one. This six-foot board
would be attached to the top of the vertical wooden pole stuck in
the ground. The cross in the shape of a T is called a Tao Cross,
pronounced “Dow” cross. After receiving the thirty-nine lashes,
Jesus and other criminals would carry this heavy piece of wood
through the streets of Jerusalem, narrow winding streets that were
about twelve feet in width. It was about a ten-minute walk from the
place where Jesus was sentenced to the Place of the Skull outside
the city wall. It was a ten-minute walk if there were not crowds,
but on that day, the crowds were crushing against one another as a
badly whipped Jesus slowly carried that top piece of the cross to
the place of his execution, the Place of the Skull.
Jesus finally came
outside the city wall to that cliff; with the eye sockets carved
into the mud walls and those eye sockets made the cliff look like a
skull. There was flat
ground below the cliff and the limestone tomb directly above the
cliff. Jesus came to that place of the skull. The Roman soldiers
stripped him bare naked and then placed the cross bar on the top of
the upright, vertical beam. The soldiers lifted the body of Jesus
onto the cross. There was a small saddle of wood where they would
put his buttocks. The soldiers then took some ropes and tied Jesus
around beneath the arms and tied his body to the cross so he
wouldn’t fall. With long heavy ten-inch spikes, they nailed his
wrists, not the palms of his hands, to the cross, so he also hung by
his wrists. They also nailed his feet to the bottom of the cross.
Jesus was hanging there in agony, having no clothes, stark naked.
The watchers made fun of him. There was no way he could
control his bodily functions. There was no way he could get rid of
the flies. There was no way he could get down. And so Jesus and the
other robbers would hang there for days until they died of
exhaustion and suffocation. Normally, convicted criminals died of
suffocation as their lungs collapsed.
Today, two thousand
years later, there is still a fascination with the cross. People
still want to hear the story of the cross. People still call today
Passion Sunday, Suffering Sunday, and still want to hear the
absurdity that the cross is the throne of Christ and that Christ
still rules from the cross.
Tell me why the crowds were so quiet above the Place of the
Skull? Why is it that two thousand years later we still want and
need to hear the story of the cross? Is it because we are human
animals? We like to see violent pieces of art, in the same way that
people want to go to the races in order to see nasty accidents and
the nastier the car wreck, the better? Or is our fascination with
the cross similar to our being fascinated with boxing matches and
football games and people enjoying the “big hit?” Are we
fascinated with the cross because we are sadistic? Why? Why are we
drawn to Golgotha? Why is there a magnetism to this place? Why do
people speak only in hushed whispers?
sense that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith.
We are drawn to the cross because we sense that the cross is the key
that unlocks the whole Christian faith. The cross is the key that
unlocks the mystery of God. The cross is the key that unlocks the
mystery of our lives. We sense that in the cross.
We love our
favorite hymns about the cross. In childhood, I remember the
congregation singing with gusto the hymn, “On a hill far away,
stood an old rugged cross,” and that melody and its words are
etched into my mind and spirit. During my college years, we sang
“Chris Men, Cross Men, in dauntless quest, led by the Spirit of
truth.” We all knew
that we were Chris- men and cross-men. Yes, the language was sexist,
but the truth was not: we were all followers of the cross. More
recently, within our own congregation, we sing triumphantly, “Lift
high the cross, the love of God proclaim.”
We sing that grand hymn as an entry hymn during all the
Lenten worship services and we bring in the processional cross and
it is lifted as high as possible.
We feel the magnetism of the cross and want our children and
all the younger people here today to feel the same about the cross
as we do. We wear
crosses around our neck; we wear crosses on our ears as earrings; we
have crosses on our desks or on the walls of our home. Why the cross? Why
not some other Christian symbol. Why is the cross the central symbol
of the Christian faith?
Here on my ring
finger is a special ring. It
is no ordinary ring, but a rich symbol of a deep love between a man
and a woman. In our
marriage, my wife and I have matching rings.
There are no other rings in the world like ours.
But these rings are not merely circles of gold; these rings
symbolize who we are as a couple; these rings also symbolize who I
am as a person. These
rings are the most symbolic “thing” in our marriage; these rings
symbolize our love. And
so it is with the cross. The
cross is the one strongest and most central symbol of the Christian
faith, symbolizing both the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus
Christ. The cross symbolizes the love of God through pain and
suffering; the cross also triumphantly symbolizes the resurrection
to new life forever. Both eternal messages are in the cross. The
hymn says it well, “Life high the cross, the love of God
You see, it is only
in the cross that you see the face of God. I look into the cross and
the cross becomes a window through which I see the face of a loving
God. I look into the sun and I see the energy of God. I look into
the stars and see the infinity of God. I look at the atoms and see the complexity of God. But it is
only in the cross that I see the face of God’s love. It is only in the cross that I see a love so great that God
was willing to die for me. It is only in the cross that I hear the
statement, “no greater love is this, than a person is willing to
lay down his life for his friend.” There is no greater love than a
person is willing to die for another, and the cross states all this.
thinking about Christ dying in our place instead of us, I remember
walking with our children down to the beach from our house. There is
a very sharp curve on the way to the beach, a blind curve, and cars
speed around it very fast, and you sense that a car on that curve
could kill someone someday. Like other walkers on that curve, I
always walk defensively, listening for the speeding car coming down
the hill into a blind curve. I can hear them coming fast but they
cannot see me. I always have the children walking in front of me on
that curve and I am ready to push them out of the street and into
the ditch so the speeding car wouldn’t hit them. In doing so, I
perhaps would die instead of them.
The car would hit me, but I would have pushed them off the
street from the oncoming car. In
other words, I would die instead of my children; in behalf of my
children. All parents
who I know feel the same way. It is the way we are.
I remember when my
cousin Lois was dying of cancer, and my Aunt Annie would visit her
dying daughter, and Aunt Annie poured out her heart, as we were
standing alone in the kitchen, “How I wish I could die instead of
Lois.” As a pastor, I
have heard those words and attitudes many times by loving parents: “How I wish I could die instead of my child.”
I remember years
ago working as a chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital in Park
Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I remember this man who came
around all the time, dressed up like a clown, and he used to give
nickels to all the children who were in the hospital. He would walk
into the children’s wing and children’s rooms, and they would
all begin to laugh because he looked so silly and funny. He would
give them nickels. As a young chaplain, I tried to imitate this
funny man and even went to the bank to get rolls of nickels so I too
could emulate his example. One day, the clown came into the hospital
and he wasn’t laughing at all.
You could tell something was wrong; he had discovered that
his child had leukemia and faced an almost certain death.
The clown and I had become friends and he spoke to me
quietly, “Ed, how I wish I had leukemia.
How I wish I could die in my child’s place.”
There are numerous
stories from war that illustrate this. From World War II, Korea,
Viet Nam. This is a
true story I read in the newspaper during the Viet Nam war. It was
wartime in Viet Nam and I want you children to imagine war.
Everybody outside is shooting at your house, and you and your
mom and dad and seven brothers and sisters are in that house that
has been riddled with bullets. It is very scary. Your dad has a
machine gun and he has been firing that machine gun ferociously, out
from a window. The house has a secret cellar, and the father keeps
on shooting, shooting, shooting. Your father commands his family,
“Children, wife, go down into the secret cellar and be absolutely
quiet so one will know you are there. I will cover the entrance to
the cellar, so the enemy will only think that I was alone in this
house.” So, you and
your family go down into the secret cellar and you hear shooting,
shoot, shooting, and finally silence.
You hear soldier’s voices, the movement of feet, and then
silence again. Your heart is wildly beating with fear …
Why? You tell me why?
You tell me why the father died instead of you? Why? Why?
Because the father loved you, that is why.
That is what the
cross tells us: God loved us so much that God was willing to die for us.
That is the message of the cross. That is what the cross says.
It is only in the cross that we see the face of God’s love.
Not in the sun. Not in the stars. Not in the atoms. It is only in the cross. The cross is that glorious window
through which we see God’s great love, a love so great that God
was willing to die for you, that God’s son was willing to lay down
his life for you and me.
It is in the cross
that one sees the face of God. It is only in the cross that we know
the heart of God. It is from the cross that we hear the voice of God
who constantly and persistently says, “I love you. I forgive you.
I am with you.” You
cannot stop God from saying these words to you. You cannot stop the
sun from shining. You
cannot stop the ocean waves from rolling into the shore. You cannot
stop the springtime flowers from blooming.
And you cannot stop God from the cross saying, “I love you.
I love you. I love you.”
So, what if it’s
true? What if all that
has been said here today is true? What if all this is true?
What if it is true that the symbol of the universe is not the
atom? The symbol of the
universe is not the spreading of galaxies and the infinite number of
stars? What if it is
true, the symbol of the universe is … the cross?
What if it is true?
We will lift up our crosses and sing our hearts out, “Lift high
the cross the love of God proclaim.” And we will know the truth
I’ll never forget
that summer in Jerusalem. While
in the Holy Land and Jerusalem, I was impressed with many sacred
sites, but I will never forget looking at that sixty foot cliff, and
seeing those sockets that in my imagination and others imaginations
looked like hallowed out eyeballs in that cliff.
The cliff looked like a skull.
I imagined the three crosses there, and looking behind those
cross and up on top of that cliff, I saw an ancient garden tomb. I
heard everyone whispering, and I thought to myself,
“Why? What is so sacred about this place? What is this
place trying to say to you and me? Why is the place of the cross so
holy in our lives?” Amen.