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Spring 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 1 · pp. 148–164 

Ministry Compass

The Crucified God: Mark 15:25–39

Peter K. Stevenson

1. The way of the cross

* For the last fifteen years, each Good Friday has involved following the cross as it has been paraded through the streets of our part of south London. Walking behind the cross, alongside Christians from various churches, has become a helpful way of entering into that story which not only shapes the life of the Church, but also moulds our understanding of God. The walk of witness ends with an open-air service with local ministers taking it in turns to preach. Good Friday sermons come in all shapes and sizes; but sometimes the preacher yields to the temptation to jump too quickly from the pain of the cross to the joy of the empty tomb. However, when we tune into Mark’s account of the death of Jesus, there is no escaping the pain and brutality of what took place. For, as Larry Hurtado puts it, “Mark’s intent in presenting Jesus’ execution in such stark terms is to confront the reader with the brutal reality of Jesus’ humiliation.” But there is no masochistic wallowing in the pain, because “in the context of Mark’s theology the reader is to see that precisely in this brutal humiliation of Jesus the redeeming purpose of God comes to expression.” 1

The cross doesn’t give us all the answers but it reveals a God who is with us in the suffering we all must face.

As we reflect on this passage, various features emerge which shed light on the redeeming purposes of God, and which offer rich resources to the preacher.

2. Rejection and mockery

The outlook is bleak for Jesus, who has been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and abandoned by his friends. Things become even bleaker as he is rejected by the religious leaders and condemned to death by Pilate. Jesus is flogged and ridiculed by the soldiers (Mark 15:15, 17—20). He is beaten so badly that Simon of Cyrene has to be press-ganged to help carry the cross beam (v. 21). The condemned man’s clothes become prizes in a lottery and, in another act of mockery, a placard proclaiming the dying Jesus as the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross. Not to be left out, those crucified alongside Jesus join in taunting him (v. 32).

This note of rejection is also sounded on both occasions when Jesus is offered something to drink. Craig Evans sees the soldiers’ offer of wine mixed with myrrh as another act of mockery (v. 23), an interpretation supported by Luke’s account (Luke 23:36–37). Hence, Jesus’ refusal to drink is not so much that he wants to keep a clear head for the testing time ahead, but that “he refuses to participate in the mockery.” 2 Hurtado similarly suggests that the intention of those who offered Jesus sour wine (v. 36) “was to keep him alive for a while longer, but simply for cruel sport.” 3 Far from letting him die in peace, Jesus’ opponents appear to take every opportunity to add insult to injury.

3. The day of judgement

The sombreness of the occasion is further underlined as Mark narrates that “at the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour” (v. 33). Such darkness is best read in the light of passages such as Exodus 10:22; Jeremiah 15:9; Joel 2:10; and Amos 8:9, where the darkness clearly symbolizes divine judgement. Morna Hooker thus concludes that “the darkness at midday symbolizes the judgement that comes upon the land of Israel with the rejection of Israel’s king.” 4 The NRSV margin offers “the whole earth” as an alternative translation of holen ten gen in v. 33. Noting this, James Edwards uses a wide-angle lens to show that “the emphasis on darkness covering ‘the whole land’ has universal connotations: the whole earth . . . is implicated in Jesus’ death, not just the Jews.” 5

While some parts of the Church regard a robust doctrine of divine judgement as the touchstone of orthodoxy, others find the notion something of an embarrassment. One dimension of this problem may be that judgement can too easily be equated with penalty or punishment. It is worth considering whether or not it may be more appropriate to think of judgement as the inevitable consequence of human sinfulness rather than a penalty imposed upon sinners.

Whatever conclusions may be reached about the nature of judgement, it is clear that Mark portrays Jesus as the one who endures divine judgement on our behalf. Well aware of the ways in which the word “substitute” can be misused, Gunton argued that

we have to say that Jesus is our substitute because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That includes undergoing the judgement of God, because were we to undergo it without him, it would mean our destruction. . . . Moreover the centre of the doctrine of the atonement is that Christ is not only our substitute—‘instead of’—but that by the substitution he frees us to be ourselves. Substitution is grace. He goes, as man, where we cannot go, under the judgement, and so comes perfected into the presence of God. But it is grace because he does so as God and as our representative, so that he enables us to go there after him. 6

4. Abandonment

The release of The Passion of the Christ generated heated debates about the level of violence in Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the death of Christ. As Mark pictures the scene for us, however, it is not the intensity of the physical violence which catches our attention, but rather the inner agony of the one who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 34).

Throughout this chapter there are many allusions to Psalm 22, which begins with the righteous Psalmist crying out to God. Not surprisingly some suggest that Jesus was quoting the opening line of the psalm as a way of calling to mind the big picture of a psalm which moves from pain to praise, and through tragedy to triumph. Such a cool, calm and collected assessment of the situation was firmly rejected by John Calvin who saw the cry of dereliction as part of Christ’s descent into hell. He argues that when “we see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ there can be little doubt that his words were clearly drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart.” 7

Within the context of a Gospel which describes Jesus repeatedly encountering misunderstanding and rejection, the cry of dereliction is best understood as pointing to the profound sense of abandonment experienced by Jesus on the cross. If that is the case, however, it forces us to ask some important theological questions as to why this Jesus should experience such godforsakenness.

Reflection on this cry of dereliction leads Jürgen Moltmann to assert that the distinguishing feature about the death of Jesus is that historical investigations indicate that “Jesus died with the signs and expressions of a profound abandonment by God.” 8 He did not die with the calm detachment of Socrates, but with an overwhelming sense of desolation expressed in the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Moltmann, the possibility that these words might reflect the interpretation of the early church does not significantly affect his conviction that they bring us as near as possible to the historical reality of the death of Jesus.

Throughout his life Jesus had experienced an intimate relationship with the God who was loving, gracious and near. For Jesus to be abandoned by such a God was nothing less than the torment of hell.

As a ‘blasphemer’, Jesus was rejected by the guardians of his people’s law. As a ‘rebel’ he was crucified by the Romans. But finally, and most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and Father. In the theological context of his life this is the most important dimension. It is this alone which distinguishes his cross from the many crosses of forgotten and nameless persons in world history. 9

Theologically, the mystery as to why Jesus should suffer such godforsakenness is intensified for Moltmann when this cry of dereliction is viewed from the eschatological perspective. If, as the resurrection demonstrates, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then how could he possibly have died in such a state of godforsakenness? Why should the perfect Son have to endure that state of desolation which is the divine judgement upon the sinfulness of godless people? The answer for Moltmann lies in the recognition that “godlessness and godforsakenness are two sides of the same event. The heathen turn the glory of the invisible God into a picture-like corruptible being—‘and God surrenders them to the lusts of their heart’ (Rom. 1:24; par. 1:26 and 1:28). Judgement lies in the fact that God delivers men up to the corruption which they themselves have chosen and abandons them in their forsakenness.” 10 From this perspective the godforsakenness of the dying Jesus is no mistake or accident, but is the occasion when the Son of God stands in the place of godless people and willingly accepts the godforsakenness which is God’s judgement upon sin.

While aspects of Moltmann’s view of the cross are open to debate, The Crucified God helps the preacher by underlining the significance of the cry of dereliction. The stakes are high here because “to deny the absolute loneliness of Christ’s experience on the cross is, implicitly, to suggest that Christ cannot really be with us in our moments of absolute loneliness. For only a Christ who has experienced the darkest valley of the shadow of death can truly walk with us through our dark and forsaken valleys.” 11

Preachers hearing this cry of dereliction should not pass by on the other side, as they hurry on their way to proclaim the glad news of resurrection. William Placher helpfully sums up this dimension of the cross as solidarity, for it reveals how Christ stands in “solidarity with us even in the worst of our suffering and sins.” For

the cross represents the culmination of the incarnation: divinity fully united with humanity . . . Therefore nothing that can happen to us—no pain, no humiliation, no journey into a far country or even into the valley of the shadow of death—can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). The Incarnation shows us that in Christ God is with us. The cross shows that in Christ God is with us, no matter what. Even when we doubt or disbelieve or think ourselves completely cut off from God, Christ has been there before us. 12

Anthony Clarke develops this idea of the cross as a unique act of solidarity with creation that awakens our response. He asks

What then is changed by Jesus’ Godforsakenness? Firstly God is changed by this divine experience of human suffering, enabling God to have a greater depth of solidarity with us. Secondly, as God stands in solidarity with me, calling forth and creating a response, I am changed. Thirdly, then, my relationship with God is changed. God’s seeking act of solidarity draws my response of repentance and I am reconciled to God. There is atonement. What is more, with this image of solidarity there is a clear link between Jesus’ Godforsaken death and our atonement with God. 13

What is being suggested here is not some subjective view of atonement whereby the cross atones by exerting its moral influence over us. Something definitive and objective happened when the God-Man entered into solidarity with sinful humanity through incarnation and crucifixion. It is God’s gracious initiative which transforms the human situation and makes human response possible.

5. Access to the Holy of Holies

After Jesus breathes his last, an apocalyptic event takes place, because “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). The curtain referred to is probably the important inner curtain, at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, which the high priest was allowed to pass through only once a year. This dramatic event is seen by some in negative terms as a prophetic act announcing the future destruction of the temple as a place of worship. More positively it can be seen as Jesus, the great high priest, entering into the Holy of Holies once and for all and opening the way for others to follow. Hooker expresses it well by saying that “Mark does not spell out the symbolism in terms of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, but he may well have in mind the idea of the removal of a barrier which kept men out of God’s presence.” 14

6. Truly this man was God’s Son (Mark 15:39)

Grammatically it is possible to translate the anarthrous phrase huios Theou as “a son of God.” However, when those words are used at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel (1:1), the interpretation “the son of God” is generally preferred. During his ministry unclean spirits had acknowledged that Jesus was the “Son of God” (Mark 3:11; 5:7; 1:24). On two occasions a divine voice had clearly stated that this Jesus was God’s Son (1:11 and 9:7). After a careful examination of the evidence, Clarke says that

the facts that Mark uses this title so precisely, that on other occasions in the Gospel it clearly means ‘the son of God’, and that the centurion’s confession is the climactic ending so carefully prepared for, lead to the conclusion that this confession, despite being on the lips of a Gentile before the resurrection, is meant to carry full Christological weight. There is certainly the sense in which the acclamation is pregnant with meaning beyond the centurion’s own comprehension. Mark’s readers, then, are clearly intended to hear the centurion speak of the Son of God. 15

Our familiarity with the story can easily lead us to overlook the shocking fact that the first human being to confess that Jesus was the Son of God was the Gentile centurion on duty at the foot of the cross. As the story of the cross concludes, “the centurion stands at this point as the representative of those who acknowledge Jesus as God’s son. His words form the climax of Mark’s gospel, for they are the words used in the confession of Christian faith, and they are found in the mouth of a Gentile at the moment of Jesus’ death.” 16

The centurion stands clearly as the first fruits of a mighty harvest which will result from the preaching of Christ crucified; but that is not the whole of the story. For the centurion’s cry suggests that the cross is surprisingly the place where the truth about the nature of God is revealed.

This idea was explored centuries ago by Martin Luther, whose distinctive theology of the cross surfaced first in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. There he asserted that the true theologian does not speculate upon the divine nature on the basis of human reason, but acknowledges instead that the truth about God is revealed in the shame and suffering of the cross. “But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and hinder parts of God to mean the passion and the cross.” 17

Human wisdom would never dream of looking for God in the sad spectacle of the cross, but surprisingly the truth about God can only be found at the foot of the cross where God reveals himself to faith in the midst of suffering and disgrace. At the cross human beings encounter the crucified and hidden God (Deus crucifixus et absconditus) because, like Moses of old, believers are given only a glimpse of God from the rear (Exod. 33:23). The God who remains hidden in the midst of all that would appear to contradict him (abscondita sub contrario) reveals himself while still retaining the essential mystery of his divine nature. The cross thus provides a genuine revelation of God which at the same time maintains the unique qualitative difference between creature and creator. Assuming that the hidden God is consistent with the revealed God, the cross can serve as the essential criterion for all statements about God. Hence we can say with Luther that crux probat omnia (the cross tests everything).

Presenting the cross in this way, as the key which unlocks the truth about God, is one of Luther’s most significant insights. The decision to develop our understanding of God from the foot of the cross paves the way for a biblical, and a distinctively Christian, understanding of God. Perhaps in the past this vital insight did not attract the attention it deserved, but the revival of interest in Luther’s work in the twentieth century has meant that this aspect of the theologia crucis has played a creative role in contemporary theology.

However, it has to be conceded that Luther himself did not always work on the basis of the cross testing everything. In his debate with Erasmus about free will and salvation he amended his understanding of the hiddenness of God in a way that tended to sever God from his revelation in the word of the cross. For there he claimed that “God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his.” 18

Such language creates the unhelpful impression that God is not so much revealed, as hidden at some inaccessible distance behind his revelation. If this is the case then a chilling contrast arises between the God who is preached and the God who is hidden. Not unreasonably Alister McGrath concludes that “the Deus incarnatus must find himself reduced to tears as he sees the Deus absconditus consigning men to perdition. Not only do such statements suggest that Luther has abandoned his earlier principle of deriving theology solely from the basis of the cross: they also suggest that the cross is not the final word of God on anything.” 19

In The Crucified God, Moltmann offers a creative development of Luther’s ideas about the Deus crucifixus. His focus upon the godforsaken dimension of Jesus’ death leaves him feeling dissatisfied with the traditional theism which assumed an impassible God whose innermost being is, by definition, immune to any forms of suffering and death. Nothing less than a revolution in the concept of God is called for, he believes, because “if this concept of God is applied to Christ’s death on the cross, the cross must be ‘evacuated’ of deity, for by definition God cannot suffer and die.” 20

Moltmann adopts a dialectic principle of knowledge which asserts that God is only revealed as “God” in his opposite; in the context of the godlessness and godforsakenness of the cross. Rather than assuming that human beings naturally know what God is like in himself, he argues that we must build our understanding of God’s nature from that event at the cross where God reveals the truth about himself. If, like the Roman centurion, on duty at the cross, we discover the truth about the Son of God in his dereliction and death, then we are forced to change our preconceived ideas. The event of Golgotha forces us to speak about a crucified God who exposes himself to tragedy and suffering, and it constrains us to understand God in trinitarian terms.

The cross reveals the vulnerability of God because it displays the divine Son suffering and dying in the darkness of godforsakenness. For Moltmann believes that Golgotha reveals that the Father is directly affected by suffering. While he does not suffer in identically the same way as the Son, nevertheless he suggests that the Father truly suffers pain, enduring grief at the death of his beloved Son. The event of the cross, which lays bare the innermost being of God, does not therefore reveal an immovable, impassible deity, but rather exposes the passionate, vulnerable heart of the crucified God. This discovery is confirmed, for Moltmann, by the reflection that a God who was unable to suffer would likewise be incapable of the love which the Bible ascribes to him.

For some, Moltmann’s approach brings serious theological dangers. Does the inclusion of the whole uproar of history within God help resolve the problems of suffering and injustice, or does it serve only to perpetuate the problem? Does his picture of a God who is so vulnerable to suffering remove the traditional distinctions between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity and have the undesired effect of eternalizing evil? Might the logic of his proposals imply that evil is perpetuated into the future as a permanent and essential part of God’s own being?

Sensitive to such concerns, Anthony Clarke talks helpfully about God’s willing vulnerability. He argues that such divine

vulnerability does not imply that suffering is in any way forced upon God . . . but that it is God’s nature to always choose the path of love in which the possibility of suffering befalling God is a real, and even likely, possibility. . . . Vulnerability actively places God on the side of the victims, sharing in their suffering, in a morally acceptable way, so that God genuinely suffers yet always as the result of divine freedom. 21

Moltmann also asserts that the cross causes a further revolution in the metaphysical concept of God by forcing Christians to think and speak in trinitarian terms, because Father, Son and Spirit are all involved in the crisis of the cross. The Father “delivered up” his Son to suffer the death of the godforsaken (Rom. 8:32). This is not the case of a vindictive Father imposing his will upon a reluctant Son, because the Son willingly offered himself on the cross (Gal. 2:20). The cross created a radical rift within the nature of God, but the unity of the Trinity was preserved by the power of the Spirit of love. The Father and Son were united in the Spirit of surrender because Christ offered himself unblemished to God “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The life-giving Spirit thus flows from the event that takes place between the Father and the Son. Consequently the doctrine of the Trinity is not some far-fetched piece of speculation, but is in fact “a shorter version of the passion narrative of Christ.” 22

Sermon 23

A few days ago I received an email from a military chaplain explaining that he was leaving on a government-sponsored trip to the Middle East and that he didn’t know precisely when the return trip would be.

Day by day the news is full of the build-up to war in Iraq. But as we think about the many innocent people who’ll die in such a war . . . As we ponder the explosive ramifications of such a war . . . we ask . . .

Why does God allow such things to happen?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

As you’re probably aware, today, something like 20,000 children will die because of poverty and malnutrition.

20,000 yesterday

20,000 tomorrow . . .

And if we can bear to open our eyes to catch a glimpse of the injustices and suffering in our world . . . a little voice within us asks . . .

Why does God allow such things to happen?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

And as we’ve listened to the story of a young preacher who was

100% obedient to God

100% loving and compassionate towards others;

but who ends up being mocked and insulted

who ends up hanging from a cross

who’s put to death in a most barbaric fashion . . .

. . . As we hear about Jesus being executed slowly, painfully and cruelly

. . . As we see love and goodness being rejected and snuffed out . . . we wonder

Why does God allow this to happen?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

I wonder what helps you when you’re feeling down . . . when you’re feeling blue?

Maybe different personality types find different things helpful?

For me it’s often a piece of music which

Touches a nerve

changes a mood

Pours oil on troubled waters.

Now I don’t know where Jesus would fit in the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator . . . I don’t know what he would’ve found helpful . . .

But some suggest that when Jesus cried out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? he was using some familiar words

To reassure himself

to encourage and help him through the trauma of the cross.

And the familiar words he used—words from Psalm 22—come from a prayer which begins in a mood of despair and ends on a note of praise.

The Psalm is a prayer which begins with tragedy but moves through to triumph

It moves from doubt to renewed faith.

So, as Jesus hung on that painful cross—was he reciting those familiar words to remind himself that there would be a happy outcome? That his suffering would eventually be rewarded?

Maybe . . . but . . .

. . . But it seems to me more likely that when Jesus cried out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? he was using familiar words, not to cheer himself up, but to express the depths of the forsakenness he was experiencing.

You see, throughout his life Jesus had enjoyed a special, close, intimate relationship with God His Father.

At his baptism God had said You are my beloved Son . . .

On the mount of transfiguration the heavenly voice said This is my Son. Listen to him.

And that special, intimate relationship was expressed in the prayers of Jesus as he addressed God as Abba, my dear Father.

Throughout his life Jesus had experienced this close, intimate relationship with God his Father . . . with a God who was loving, gracious and near.

But now in his darkest, bleakest hour

Not only was he abandoned by his friends,

But he was also abandoned by this God.

And for Jesus, such an abandonment was nothing less than the torment of hell.

When Jesus hung on the cross he didn’t die with a fixed evangelical grin across his face; but he touched the depths of abandonment and godforsakenness; and that’s why he cries out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And as we tune into the depths of pain voiced in that cry of dereliction we can’t help asking:

Why should he be abandoned by God?

Why didn’t God the Father step in and do something?

One of the long running TV programmes I sometimes watch is A Question of Sport which includes that round which asks, “What happened next?”

Will the goalie throw the ball into the back of his own net?

Will the pole vaulter’s pole snap at the wrong moment?

Will the show jumper fall off her horse and end up in the water?

Well . . . we know what happened next after Jesus cried out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We’re familiar with what happened next, and maybe our familiarity means that we miss something surprising?

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”—which means, “My God, my God. why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

And surely with his death it appears that the whole Jesus experiment was over.

Surely the death of Jesus shows that all this talk about loving God, neighbours and enemies just doesn’t work in the rough, tough world we live in.

But what happened next?

Well, faced with the death of Jesus—faced with the apparent defeat of love . . . something surprising happens, because, “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ ”

It’s not the miracles of Jesus

It’s not the teaching of Jesus

It’s not the success of Jesus

Which impress the centurion.

It’s the suffering love of Jesus which opens the centurion’s eyes and leads him to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Maybe he didn’t fully understand.

But we can see that the truth about Jesus comes out at the cross.

The cross reveals the truth about Jesus . . . reveals the truth that this man was and is the Son of God.

The one who suffers and dies.

The one who enters into all the pain and suffering and injustice that causes us to cry out My God, my God, Why? . . . is none other than the Son of God.

Why did God allow this to happen?

Well in part to reveal the truth about himself.

In part to remove the barriers of sin and error that keep people away from God. The cross was necessary so that people like the centurion, and people like us, can know and experience the truth about God.

A God who doesn’t keep his distance from pain and suffering.

But a God who loves us so much that he is willing to identify with us and take upon himself the judgement our sins deserve.

A few weeks ago I was working with a group of Masters students in Ghana, and it was exciting to see how many of them are beginning to catch a glimpse of a new theology of mission. They’re moving from a very church-centred view of mission and ministry and beginning to see the need to turn the church around, and to turn the church outwards to face and serve the community in Jesus’ name. Seeing things differently is leading them to do things differently.

As we stand at the cross we see God differently, and we see the world in a new light. Yes, the pain, injustice and suffering are still there, but we also see the God who bears the scars of suffering standing with us; giving us the strength to endure, and the power to live for him in a painful unjust world.

A few days ago Colin Powell made an important speech to the UN laying out the evidence which proves that the Iraqis are baddies and the Americans are goodies. And that speech has provoked very different reactions.

The Jerusalem Post in Israel concluded that “Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council was masterful and devastating. He reduced any inconceivable case for inaction in Iraq to rubble.”

In London, however, the Daily Mirror suggested that Powell’s presentation was a good bit of “dramatic theatre,” but “there wasn’t enough evidence to convict someone of shoplifting let alone the killer facts that might condemn thousands to death, some of them British servicemen. Some smudgy old photos and blurred taped conversations are not the basis for war.”

As we listen to the account of Jesus’ death on the cross, we see that then, as now, people confronted by Jesus reached very different conclusions.

Some hurled insults in his direction:

“He’s getting what he deserves.”

“He’s a misguided fanatic who cried in vain to Elijah for deliverance.”

Others, like the centurion, discovered, much to their surprise, that the truth about God is revealed through the bloody and painful episode of the cross.

Faced with the cross,

Some believe, and some reject, because we’re dealing with a loving God who invites, but who doesn’t compel our belief.

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

Well, the cross of Jesus doesn’t give us answers to all of those questions; but it does reveal a God who has done something about it.

For at the cross we see God the Son sharing in the pain and suffering which leads us to cry out My God, my God, Why . . . ?

The cross doesn’t give us all the answers but it reveals a God who is with us in the suffering we all must face.

And for me that’s enough

Enough to encourage me to take up the cross daily and to follow Christ.


For many people today suffering and injustice act as barriers which stand in the way of belief in a loving God. In such a context preaching the story of the cross plays its part by helping to demolish false pictures of a remote God who keeps safely away from the pain and anguish of life on earth.

Helping people to believe in the face of suffering is traditionally seen as part of theodicy rather than atonement, but is it necessary to choose between the two? The message of the God-Man who suffers in solidarity with us clearly offers vital insights for anyone wishing to justify the goodness of God in a world scarred by injustice. Perhaps that message also has the potential to atone and reconcile to God by virtue of revealing the truth about God and by removing some of the obstacles which keep people from faith?

In response to questions about contemporary preaching, Anna Carter Florence wonders if the problem might be with preachers who feel that their job is to explain the text rather than to preach the text. So she tells her homiletics students that

their job is not to make the text understandable, or logical, or relevant, or fun. Their job is quite simple, really. It is to preach the text, because there isn’t anything more interesting or sensible than that. Preach the text, offer it in all its thickness and inscrutability, and trust that it will speak better than we could to the competing worlds of consumerism and militarism and individualism and anxiety that plague our people. 24

The preceding sermon represents one attempt to preach the Markan text without trying to explain every element of it. It was prepared for a group who were participating in a weekend exploring the links between preaching and personality types, shortly before the start of the war in Iraq.

In terms of structure the sermon roughly follows the stages of Lowry’s Homiletical Plot. 25 It begins by “upsetting the equilibrium,” raising a series of questions about why God permits various kinds of suffering. The sermon then begins “analyzing the discrepancy,” by turning to the story of Jesus and wondering why someone who was 100 percent obedient to God should end up dying such a godforsaken death. Reflection upon the centurion’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God “discloses the clue to resolution.” The sermon then invites the congregation to “experience the gospel” by briefly considering some of the implications of discovering God’s presence in the midst of the suffering of the cross. Conscious that people react differently to many things, the final section invites hearers to “anticipate the consequences” of the cross for their own lives.


* Chapter 4 in Preaching the Atonement, by Peter K. Stevenson and Stephen I. Wright (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2005). Used by permission of the copyright holders.—Ed.

  1. Larry Hurtado, Mark (NIBC, 2; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989), 263.
  2. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (WBC, 34B; Dallas, TX: Word, 2002), 501.
  3. Hurtado, Mark, 276.
  4. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (BNTC; London: A & C Black, 1991), 376.
  5. James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 475.
  6. Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 165–66.
  7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (LCC, 20; ed. J. T. McNeill; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), II.xvi.11.
  8. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), 147.
  9. Ibid., 152.
  10. Ibid., 242.
  11. Leanne Van Dyk, The Desire of Divine Love: John McLeod Campbell’s Doctrine of the Atonement (New York: P. Lang, 1995), 106.
  12. William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 128–29.
  13. Anthony Clarke, A Cry in the Darkness: The Forsakenness of Jesus in Scripture, Theology and Experience (Oxford: Regents/Smith & Helwys, 2002), 229.
  14. Hooker, Mark, 378.
  15. Clarke, Cry, 28.
  16. Hooker, Mark, 379.
  17. Martin Luther, “The Heidelberg Disputation,” Thesis XX (LCC, 16; London: SCM, 1962), 274–307 (278, 290).
  18. Martin Luther, “De Servo Arbitrio” (LCC, 17; London: SCM, 1969), 99–334 (201).
  19. Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 166.
  20. Moltmann, Crucified God, 214, original italics.
  21. Clarke, Cry, 216.
  22. Moltmann, Crucified God, 246.
  23. Preached by Peter Stevenson at Rochester Diocese Readers’ Training Weekend, Aylesford Priory, Kent, 8 February 2003.
  24. Anna Carter Florence, “Put Away Your Sword! Taking the Torture out of the Sermon,” in M. Graves, ed., What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 93–108 (99).
  25. Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2nd ed., 2001).
Peter K. Stevenson, PhD (King’s College, London), is a Baptist minister and principal of South Wales Baptist College, Cardiff, U.K. He also teaches in the Department of Religious Studies and Theology at Cardiff University. He is co-author with Stephen Wright of Preaching the Atonement (Westminster John Knox, 2009) and Preaching the Incarnation (Westminster John Knox, 2010).

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