Jerusalem – in the 1st century – a city built on a hill looking out over the Jordan Desert with a distant view of the Dead Sea. A fabulous location. Thousands of pilgrims flocking to the city for religious reasons and to honor the role of the temple in the religious life of the Jewish people. It was Passover and the remembrances of the escape from slavery in Egypt.
The city was run by two factions. The religious authorities that maintained the temple and the sacrificial systems and the Roman authorities that had conquered the area over 70 years before and held a tight and brutal grip on the people.
Who was in charge? Obviously, the military power of Rome.
Immediately outside the city gates was a rock quarry that had been used recently to dig deep into the earth to cut stones for the building of the temple under the leadership of Herod and to add to the walls that surrounded the city. The quarry had been used up and was no longer in use. It had been turned into a recreational site for the people of Jerusalem. On one side of the park was a rock hill that grew from the bottom of the quarry to about 50 or 60 feet high. It was a portion of the quarry that had large cracks in it and had not been available to cut up and use for building stones. Thus, as the quarry was dug deeper the stone hill grew higher. It became known as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the place where crucifixions were carried out regularly by the Romans who maintained a brutal occupation of the people.
This site was discovered in about the Year 325 when Helena, the mother of Constantine came to the region to discover the Holy sites. Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire and Pilgrims were beginning to go to Jerusalem. The site of Golgotha was underneath a pagan temple. The memories of the Christians in the 4th Century pointed out the site and the pagan temple was destroyed and the excavation led to the discovery of Golgotha. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 335, is on the site today in the old city of Jerusalem.
In the 1st Century, crucifixions were for public entertainment. Crowds would gather and enjoy watching the condemned criminals placed on wood planks and then raised up on the rock hill. They would eventually die of asphyxiation, heat, and torture. The crowds loved it. It was public entertainment and gambling would take place as to how long a person could live. Death penalty still remains a public entertainment for many countries including our own.
Jesus was among those being crucified. A common criminal according to Jewish law and the Romans had gone along with the religious authorities in order to get rid of a troublesome upstart who had disrupted the people, disrupted the money changers in the temple and although he appeared to be innocent of any crime, he was seen to be a danger to society with his outspokenness.
Crucify him, crucify him – the cries still ringing in the ears of those who watched him be led to the cross.
What happened at this point in time holds a significance that can never be dismissed. Over the years, the followers of Jesus came to understand that they had been visited in the flesh by the very person of God incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus.
In fact, Jesus took on the role of giving himself up to death in order to open the doors of each person to know their own humanity. To hold on to the meaning of life and death as the ultimate gift of the one who has loved us into existence, created all of us for the purposes of the God of Creation.
It was as if the voice of God was in our midst in the person of Jesus and not recognized.
I look at the sky at night and wonder about the vastness of the universe. The vastness and the silence of that which lies beyond us as we live on our island home. It is beyond my imagination and can only begin to wonder at the imagination of the God who has created all that we know and do not know.
And this same creator came to our island home in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
And it is unbelievable for so many.
Some of you are old enough to remember the series of moon shots that put our astronauts on the moon. I was here at Grace Memorial on a Christmas Eve in 1968 when an Apollo Mission was to circle the moon without landing. It had to go around the dark side of the moon and was out of communication for some time. We all waited breathlessly for its reappearance. And then we heard a crackling voice, “Hello Houston”. We can see you—our tiny, distant, teeming, planet filled with people. A voice in the vastness of space coming to us and coming back to us. To me, it was symbolic of God’s reaching out from the vastness of the universe to open for us the way of life, the light of the world, the meaning of our individual and God given freedom to chose life or death, good or evil.
Jesus died to give us so much.
To be encircled by his arms that are outstretched on the cross. Outstretched to include all of suffering humanity in its embrace.
His words: Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.
Forgiveness at the time of death.
Out of the vastness of the universe – the silence of the universe.
The word became flesh and was crucified.
And the word continues in the flesh of each of us gathered. To know our significance in a world more willing to crucify than to embrace the love of God. We all face into that love and offer it to others. To bring light out of darkness. Life out of death.