Matthew 27: 33-54
[This post is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is available here.]
We began Lent with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. He is fresh off the spiritual high of his baptism where the voice proclaimed from the clouds, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” He is physically exhausted and famished from forty days and nights of desert fasting. And then the tempter shows up.
According to Matthew’s version, for the second temptation Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, / and they will lift you up in their hands, / so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus’ response was, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
There is a struggle here between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Jesus could call down the angels. Yet Jesus has accepted his own humanity in order to reconcile all of humanity to God. There is a tension between the divine and human natures of Jesus throughout the Gospels, and that tension culminates in the Passion Narrative.
The crucifixion, more than any other event of Jesus’ life, highlights his humanity. Death is a universal human experience. We remind ourselves of this at the beginning of Lent each year on Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In the news stories surrounding the recent death of Fred Phelps, I was interested to read an excerpt from a 2010 interview with Phelps by Joshua Kors. In the interview, Phelps says, “I’m not planning on dying. . . . The Lord himself should descend for me with the angels.”
We know now, of course, that Fred Phelps did die, and he died like so many people. He got old and sick and went on Hospice and finally his body just quit working. The Lord himself did not descend. Not even a puny angel–as far as we know. Just Phelps’ failing body–alive one minute and dead the next.
Like Jesus’ body on the cross. Alive one minute, and the next–“when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit”–dead.
As the story continues, of course, we will learn that Jesus is not dead in the way that all people die. We will hear news of the resurrection; we will hear testimony that confirms the divinity of Jesus over and against and in addition to and all mixed up with the humanity that is so evident here, as his lifeless, bloody body hangs from the cross with the mocking sign above his bowed head: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.”
Yes, we will know of Jesus’ divinity soon. But not soon enough for Matthew. Matthew in particular, of all the Gospel writers, seeks to reveal Jesus’ divinity right along side his humanity in the death event itself. Mark and Luke include the darkness and the torn curtain in the temple, but only Matthew gives us this dramatic apocalyptic scene, these extraordinary signs and wonders to accompany the otherwise relatively ordinary death of Jesus–an itinerant rabbi from Galilee.
There is darkness and the tearing of the temple curtain, yes. There is also an earthquake–apparently one that registered pretty high on the Richter scale since it split rocks. And, the most bizarre part of all, tombs broke open and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Then Matthew goes ahead and gives us a sneak peek–getting his narrative all out of sequence, he says that after Jesus’ resurrection these undead holy ones went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
As you might imagine, scholars and pseudo-scholars have had a heyday with this stuff: trying to date the eclipse and earthquake; debating about which of the temple curtains was torn and whether or not the centurion and guards could have seen the curtain tearing from their perch on Golgotha; discussing which holy people might have been raised and how they could be raised before Jesus and where they hung out until the resurrection.
In the end, though, I think I have to go along with Raymond Brown’s assessment [in The Death of the Messiah] that “[a]ll such speculation is unnecessary, for this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague–its forte is atmosphere, not details.”
Atmosphere, not details. For Greco-Roman readers, the atmosphere conjured up here matches the atmosphere surrounding the death of Caesar. For Jewish readers, it brings to mind Scriptural portents of God’s divine judgment–both positive and negative.
Atmosphere, not details. For contemporary Christian readers, the atmosphere Matthew creates can lead us to a sense of horror and hope. The darkness and torn curtain, the earthquake and split stones, the broken tombs and holy undead–the atmosphere of this story leaves no question about the frailty of humanity, no question about the power of God. The atmosphere of this story leaves us in awe of the One who somehow held both that frail humanity and powerful divinity fully within himself even as he hung in that horrifying, hopeful space between death and resurrection.