When I was a young father on a warm summer’s night, I called for my twin boys, who were about a year-old, to come out on the front porch. I wanted to show them a huge toad that I had spied on our front steps. Ironically, the boys were wearing night-shirts that featured brightly-colored frogs, and I knew from experience that the boys loved seeing pictures of frogs in books. I assumed they would love seeing their first big toad in the flesh. Wrong! One look at the toad, and they started screaming. They climbed up on the porch swing and started crying for mama. Frogs on T-shirts were fun. Frogs in books were fine. But a real, live, hopping, squirming toad was too much to handle! A real toad suffered the deficiency of being too real.
If you can understand the parable of the toad, you can understand the profound mystery that runs throughout the Gospel of Mark. And, without question, Mark’s Gospel is structured around a secret that runs throughout the entire text. In chapter one, Jesus heals a leper. Jesus sternly tells him not to tell anyone about the healing. In Mark chapter three, Jesus heals a host of disturbed people who cry out, “You are the Son of God!” Jesus strictly orders them not to make his healing act known. In chapter five, Jesus raises a twelve-year-old girl from the dead, but does so in the privacy of a quiet room and strictly enjoins the parents and others from sharing news of his accomplishment. In chapter seven, Jesus restores hearing and speech to a man who was deaf and mute. Jesus sternly charges the man and his friends not to say a word.
Why? Why, throughout the Gospel of Mark, would Jesus perform extraordinary deeds and then tell those whom he has helped, ‘Be quiet about it’? Because, simply put, Jesus knows that these witnesses, well-intentioned though they might be, would misconstrue his identity. If these people went throughout the countryside talking of what Jesus had done, they would communicate to others a distorted vision of who Jesus really was. They would portray Jesus as some kind of divine Santa Claus who met everyone’s needs and granted everyone’s wishes and satisfied everyone’s desires – when in fact the portrait of God revealed by Jesus was much more complex and, in reality, far more disturbing than these people could possibly imagine. Jesus’ secret comes to the fore in that dramatic eighth chapter of Mark, where Jesus and his disciples are traveling together, and Jesus looks around and says, “Guys, you’ve heard the scuttlebutt; who do people say that I am?” They respond, “Some say that you are John the Baptist come back to life. Some say you are Elijah returning to earth. Others say you might be another prophet.” Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” Peter, boldly answers, “You are the Christ. You are God’s Anointed, the Son of the living God.” In the wake of this marvelous confession, Jesus responds, “Shhhhhh, don’t tell a soul about my identity.” Why?
Because in his very next sentence Peter shows that he doesn’t understand the meaning of his own confession. Jesus tells them that as the Son of Man he will be utterly rejected. He will be repudiated by the religious authorities who will arrest him and ultimately put him to death by crucifixion. Then, said Jesus, after they have done their worst, I will rise. Immediately, Peter takes it upon himself to instruct his instructor. Peter says in essence, ‘Lord, you have it all wrong. Messiahs conquer. Messiahs rule. Messiahs reign in glory and majesty. You are supposed to throw off the yoke of these pagan Romans and restore Israel to glory. Messiahs are not rejected. Messiahs are not killed. Messiahs certainly aren’t crucified. You have it wrong.’ Jesus rebukes Peter in the strongest language possible: “Get behind me, Satan!” He says, in essence, ‘Get behind me, Adversary! You are acting as the very Devil! You are mouthing the Messianic expectations of the general populace. You are voicing the general Messianic assumptions of superficial humanity.’ Jesus is telling Peter bluntly, ‘You are going to have to let me define who the Messiah truly is in my own way. You are going to have to let me reveal the nature of God in my own fashion. And the God that I am going to disclose to you is a God of suffering love, a God of weakness, a God of vulnerability. I am the Anointed One of God who is to be crucified.’ His disciples cannot imagine what he is talking about.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, no one recognizes the true identity of the Savior. They cannot accept Jesus’ presentation of the Messiah as the stone that must first be rejected before it can be the cornerstone of God’s Kingdom. Certainly the Jewish religious officials can’t accept Jesus’ portrayal of God’s Anointed One. They can’t reconcile their image of the Messiah with a representative of God who flaunts Sabbath laws and ignores dietary restrictions, a representative of God who consorts with lepers and lunatics and Gentiles and hemorrhaging women, a Messiah who makes use of shepherds and fishermen and prostitutes and tax collectors to further the work of God’s Kingdom, a representative of God who challenges the Temple commerce and drives out the money changers. This representative of God will stand before the gathered religious powers of his country alone, without entourage, without army, without any official religious sanction, and when he is asked, “Are you God’s Anointed One?” Jesus answers, “I am.” The religious officials rip their clothes in rage. For Jesus of Nazareth’s revelation of God does not comport with their image of what they think a Messiah ought to be. They do not understand Christ’s secret.
Of course, Pilate also doesn’t understand the image of God that Christ reveals. Pilate is sure this “King of the Jews” is a Zealot, and he knows how to deal with Zealots. He has one named Barabbas in his prison, a violent political insurrectionist awaiting execution. But after one conversation with Jesus, Pilate knows that Jesus is not a Zealot. A Zealot would have looked at him with hatred and disdain. There is no hatred in Jesus’ eyes, and its absence disturbs Pilate. Pilate is prepared to have Jesus scourged and humiliated, but he is not prepared to crucify him, preferring to release him to the crowd, only to find that the crowd had no desire to receive a beaten, bloodied, so-called Christ. They wanted a Barabbas instead, someone willing to match Rome violence for violence, hatred for hatred. The crowd had no use for a scourged, bleeding, broken, seemingly weak man who turned out to be nothing more than another victim.
The secret of Jesus’ identity is not revealed until the last of Mark’s Gospel, in the fifteenth chapter, where Jesus hangs on the cross, and the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus with challenges like, “Let the King of Israel come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe,” and darkness covers the whole land from noon until three. Then, about three that afternoon Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama, sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then, with a wordless scream, Jesus dies. It is precisely at that moment that the pagan Roman centurion who has overseen the execution sees the truth of Jesus as who he really is and exclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Here the secret of Jesus is revealed. The disciples don’t see it. The religious officials don’t see it. The crowd doesn’t see it. Pilate doesn’t see it. But the pagan soldier who oversaw Jesus’ execution saw it! The man who hangs on the cross, the man who dies with a last wordless scream – this man is the Son of God!
What does Mark’s secret mean for us? Oddly enough, a Jew, a contemporary Jew, has helped me understand the profound meaning of Mark’s secret. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning author and Auschwitz survivor, writes of an experience in his autobiography Night, where he was among the inmates forced to watch their German captors hang two Jewish adults and an adolescent in front of the entire camp. The two adults died quickly, but the youth’s noose was tied improperly, and his death throes lasted for half an hour. As the horrified assembly was forced to watch this young man’s tortuous strangulation someone behind Wiesel asked aloud, “Where is God? Where is he?” Wiesel recorded, “As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ Wiesel said: “I heard a voice in myself answer, ‘Where is He? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.’ ” God was hanging with that young man on the gallows. There is the secret of Mark’s Gospel revealed.
God gives every person a cross. And everybody’s cross is different. We can ignore our cross, we can reject our cross, we can pretend that we don’t have a cross, but every single person is given a cross – and God hangs with us upon that cross, and God sustains us, whatever our cross might be. Some of us are living lives that we never envisioned, lives that we never intended to live. Some of us are bearing crosses that we never hoped to bear. Some of us don’t understand the cross that we have been given to endure. But understand this, we do not bear our cross alone – God bears it with us. In our frustration, in our anger, in our sense of abandonment, know this – Christ has been there before us. Christ is present, sustaining you, helping you bear your cross. Whatever your cross might be, God’s strength is present with you, helping you bear that cross. The truth is, even Jesus did not want the cross he was given. He begged his heavenly Father to give him another cross. But then he prayed that God would grant him the strength to bear his own particular cross to the glory of God.
The truth is, you may never understand the Why? of your cross. You may cry out with our Lord, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and you may never receive an answer while you live on this earth. God doesn’t even answer the question posed by his own Son. But God hangs with us and helps us bear our cross, whatever that cross might be.
On the back of your bulletins you will find a picture. I’ll be curious to know what you see there. It is actually one of three pictures that a Harvard Business School professor handed out to his class years ago to explain to them how our individual frame of reference can color our perception of reality. To half the class he first gave a picture of a beautiful young girl; to half the class he first gave the picture of a sullen old woman. Then he projected a third image on the screen, the image you hold before you. I’m curious to know what you think you see. In that professor’s class, those who had seen first the image of the beautiful girl saw a beautiful young girl. Those who had seen first the image of old lady saw a sullen old lady. Each group came to realize that their view of reality was not reality; their frame of reference caused them to see only what they were prepared to see. Each group was captive to their preconceptions. The professor’s point was that our preconceived ideas have the effect of distorting our understanding of reality.
Jesus came into the world to reveal the Person and Personality of God. He came into the world challenging the world’s preconceived notions of what a Messiah should be. Jesus came redefining all Messianic assumptions and banishing all preconceived ideas of what a Messiah should be. In so doing he revealed that his heavenly Father is a God of suffering, vulnerable love. Yes, the crucified Christ will ultimately rise in resurrected triumph. Yes, ultimately, the Son’s trust in his heavenly Father is gloriously affirmed – and our redemption is unreservedly secured. But there are those Golgotha moments in all of our lives when we need to know that Christ hangs with us. There are times when we need to know that amidst every frustration, amidst every anguish, amidst every anger, amidst every doubt and fear, Christ is here with us. That is the great secret of Mark’s Gospel. May each of us appropriate that great truth for our own lives.