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Mark 14:1-15:47

Several years ago, I experienced my first Tenebrae service. The Tenebrae (Latin for darkness) Service at the church where I serve brings our Holy Week, which is packed with services, to a close in darkness and silence on Friday night. Jesus is dead and there is darkness. On Good Friday evening, at the Tenebrae service, there is no conversation about Sunday that is to come or about an already risen Savior. It is darkness. It is death. It is silence. It is all of these things in their haunting finality. The journey of Lent has brought us to Christ’s passion—to his crucifixion. And there we remain, holding nothing, at least until Sunday.

Trying to sit with and in the abandonment, terror, darkness, and death of Good Friday is essential when preaching the passion text from Mark’s 14th and 15th chapters. Of all the Gospel writers, Mark most clearly does not give us a resurrection-focused crucifixion. Rather, the hint of a resurrection that Mark gives is a crucifixion-focused resurrection, and, therefore, Mark offers a crucifixion focused gospel. Because of this, whether you are preaching on Mark 14-15 on Palm/Passion Sunday or on Good Friday, the focus should not stray to the resurrection. It should not turn to Christ’s resurrection for at least two reasons. The first is textual and the second is pastoral.

Textually, the movement of the story is focused on Jesus’ death and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. From Jesus’ being extravagantly prepared for death by the woman at Bethany (14:3-9) to Jesus breaking bread and offering wine as his body broken and his blood poured out (14:22-25) to Jesus praying that the cup of his coming death be removed from him (14:32-39) prior to all his disciples deserting him (14:50), the whole story is moving toward death, not life. In spite of two brief nods toward resurrection (14:28 and 14:58-62), the 119 verses that make up these chapters are focused on Jesus’ death and his closest (male) followers leaving him behind. As preachers of this text, we would be misguided to turn too quickly to the hope of Sunday.

What is textually true is also true pastorally. In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler—an acclaimed scholar whose work has focused on the prosperity gospel movement in the United States—writes about her experience being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. In her chapter titled “Restoration,” she writes about her experience of visiting a megachurch in Houston one Good Friday after her diagnosis. She describes how “Jesus stayed dead for about three songs in the opening worship set” before one of the pastors came on stage and said, “Isn’t it great that we serve a risen Lord!”[1] In reflecting on this, Bowler writes:

On a day and at an hour during which, historically, Christians refuse to speak the word Alleluia (“Christ is rise”) in song or prayer, Victoria loudly skipped the moment in the tradition where Jesus is conspicuously absent. He died that day. And his disciples were, in their despair, quite convinced that he was never coming back. The English language is already a bit confused in calling the day “good” while other languages settled on Holy Friday or Great Friday or, even better, Black Friday. We call it something that might have once been “God’s Day” and mull over the paradox that made it so. We have fallen in love with a God who abandons His child to die, a son who begs for His own life but, seeing it cannot be helped, gives Himself over to His murders. He seemed like He would save them all, but on this day He just hangs there off the wood He has been nailed to.[2]

Bowler goes further to call the church to stare death in the face during the season of Lent, especially on Good Friday, and to do it with all those like her who are staring their own deaths in the face.[3] The opportunity to recognize that Jesus entered the darkness and despair that our congregants know all too well is not an opportunity to be missed. Of course, Friday is good because of Sunday. Nevertheless, we must not move too quickly to Sunday lest those who are broken and hurting believe that all Sundays come quickly.

With a scripture text as long as this one, you will no doubt be challenged with the many stories, perspectives, and potential preaching points presented in the text. Maybe the opportunity that comes with such a lengthy scripture passage is the opportunity simply to tell the whole story and to allow people to find themselves within the story. In his book Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel, Richard Horsley makes the compelling argument that the Gospel of Mark is better heard than read—meaning the story is approached with all the sensibilities of listening instead of reading. Further, Horsley challenges us to hear the gospel story presented in Mark as the politically charged story it is. This way of hearing critically shapes our understanding of Jesus’ work and the calling to those who would follow him. I raise this point because if you are to tell the story in sermon form, you should resist the desire to impose particular atonement theories onto the text that are not part of Mark’s telling of the story. Pay critical attention to how you present the disciples, the women followers present along the way, the religious/political actors, and the death of the leader of this particular resistance movement. To tell this as an entirely spiritualized story would be unfaithful to the Gospel of Mark and to the person and work of Jesus.

Anyone who wants to preach this passage as a whole story might also carefully consider Soren Kierkegaard’s guidance in his book Practice in Christianity. Kierkegaard challenges his readers to approach the story of Jesus’ death with fresh eyes. He says,

If possible, forget for a moment everything you know about him; tear yourself away from the perhaps apathetic habitual way in which you know about him; approach it as if it were the first time you heard the story of his abasement. Or if you think you are not able to do that, well, then, let us help ourselves in another way, let us use the help of a child, a child who is not warped by having learned by rote a simple school assignment about Jesus Christ’s Suffering and death, a child who for the first time hears the story—let us see what the effect will be, if only we tell it fairly well.[4]

In approaching the story of Christ’s death as a child hearing it for the first time, the injustice, terror, and abandonment of the story stand in all their stark reality. In hearing the story again as for the first time, we will not miss the political, social, economic, and spiritual implications of the story. And in hearing the story again as for the first time, we come to the devastating recognition that “for the loving one [the crowds] shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ so this loving person was not only crucified as a criminal but as such a monstrous criminal that in comparison with this loving person the notorious robber became an upright man of sorts.”

As you preach from Mark 14 and 15, may you proclaim the story whole and in the shroud of darkness. And in preaching the whole story, may you encounter our crucified King—the one whose love was so disruptive to the political order that he had to be killed. And in the encounter, may you be drawn to him at the cross and be transformed by his love.

[1] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 130-31.

[2] Bowler, 131.

[3] Bowler, 133-4.