So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
This morning’s brief reading reminds me of the one about two brothers who started up a company that manufactured nails. One was in charge of sales and the other marketing. They needed a commercial, so the one in charge of marketing got to work. A few weeks later, he excitedly showed the footage to his brother. It started with a wide shot of a mob of people on a hill and zoomed in. Eventually it was clear there were angry people, Roman soldiers, and 3 men on a cross. It zoomed in further to one of the men who turned out to be Jesus. The shot zoomed in even further to one of the nails in Jesus’ hand and on the head of the nail it read, “MURPHY’S NAILS.” The brother in charge of sales was in shock for a few moments before finally exploding, “You IDIOT! Now our nails are associated with the crucifixion of Jesus! Fix this immediately or we are ruined!” His brother apologized, saying, “Sorry, brother, give me a few days and I’ll fix this, don’t worry!” Two days later, the brother in charge of marketing told his brother that he had fixed the commercial and it was ready to broadcast. It again started with a wide shot of a mob of people. As it zoomed in, there were angry citizens and Roman soldiers chasing a figure in bloody robes that was clearly a depiction of Jesus. It finally zoomed in on a lone Roman Centurion who shrugged at the camera and said, “We should have used Murphy’s Nails.”
Wouldn’t that be a hoot?! After all these people encouraged Jesus to find a way to save himself, from Pilate referencing Jesus’ faithful followers to the taunting soldiers to the crucifixion onlookers to the neighboring man being crucified. Everyone couldn’t believe that such a powerful man as Jesus supposedly was would actually allow the crucifixion to carry through. And then to envision Jesus running through the streets because the nails didn’t hold him up there?! HILARIOUS!! Well, unfortunately the nails did hold him up there and our Lord did die rather prematurely. Just think of all the miracles and healings and teachings that Jesus could have offered if his life hadn’t ended after just three years of ministry! So few miracles and healings and teachings. I know Jesus performed many more that weren’t recorded in scripture and the ones that were recorded are enough to ignite and sustain faith. And I know Jesus is alive and well in the world today, continuing to perform countless miracles and healings and teachings. So I don’t really feel robbed by the crucifixion per se. But I’ve often wondered what the purpose of the crucifixion was in the whole passion narrative. Why did Jesus have to die at all?
Yes, of course he had to die because that’s what all living things do, they die. If Jesus was going to claim to be human, then he had to die just like the rest of us. But then why did he have to die on a cross? Well, at the time, it was common practice to make a public display of death for criminals in an effort to dissuade future criminals. Or, as in the case of Jesus, to dissuade any future uprisers. Hence, the sign above his head, “The King of the Jews.” Such a bold declaration had already incited a crowd of Jewish leaders and the Roman empire couldn’t allow further disruption. The crucifixion was more about deterrence than anything else. So Jesus had to die because he was a human and a disruptive leader. Alright, then why did he have to die for the sins of the world? Surely the sins of the world could have been placed on someone or something else. Sacrifices were and are made all the time. Couldn’t the sins of the world be placed on them? Unfortunately the sins of the world are always growing in number. The number of sacrifices would need to always grow as well. Unless you can somehow place them on something or someone that is always alive…a sacrificial paradox, both dead and alive. Jesus provides such a sacrificial paradox. He both died and lives again! Of course! Simply put the unending sins of the world on him who absolutely reconciles them. They die with him and yet he finds a way to live again so that he can bring all present and future sin into death as well. Brilliant! So Jesus had to die because he was a human and a disruptive leader and an immortal sacrifice.
By now you might be asking what any of this has to do with Palm Sunday, right? Right, well, there’s a fourth reason for why Jesus had to die that is connected to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of his final week. All those people who cried out, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!” as they laid their palms on the ground before Jesus were, in essence, giving words to their deep hope in him. They hoped he was a man of great power who could save them from the tyranny of the Roman empire. They hoped he could lead them to glory. And by the end of the week, Jesus would fulfill their hopes, just not in the way that they had envisioned. Which gets us back to the fourth reason Jesus had to die: to fulfill hope and keep it alive. This is my favorite reason for Jesus having to die! Without death, there is no fundamental change. Without death, there is no appreciation for life. More importantly, without death, there is no hope. Again, another paradoxical, nonsensical statement but hear me out. Death invariably brings forth new life and new opportunities. Death is never an end but rather a beginning. And what’s more hopeful than this?! New life, new possibilities…unending hope! Jesus, as an immortal sacrifice, forever reconciled us before God. We never have to wonder if God loves us or if God will ever stop loving us. We are forever loved by God because Jesus died on the cross. Hope never dies because Jesus died on the cross. Jesus didn’t simply save the people of Jerusalem. Jesus saved us all. Jesus died in order to conquer death and keep hope alive. So Jesus had to die because he was a human and a disruptive leader and an immortal sacrifice and an everlasting hope, all four titles making four very good reasons.
As we head into this holy week, let us cling to these reasons as we wonder why it needed to happen at all. Jesus willingly and gladly did it all for us. Our God is a good and gracious God! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.