SERMON: Bringing Heaven Before Our Eyes

— Andrew McKearney’s sermon for the Second Wednesday in Lent — Isaiah 50.4-9a and Mark 10.15.15-20 —

The story of Jesus’ last few days is a brutal story. As his own disciples shied away from it at the time, so do we. And the short section in Mark’s Gospel that I’ve just read is not the only time in that last week that Jesus gets jostled and spat on, punched and beaten.

Each of the gospels tells the sequence of events slightly differently, but at the end of the first trial in front of the high priest and before he’s handed over to Pilate, some of the Gospel writers say that people spit on Jesus, blindfold him and strike him.

In the way that John’s Gospel tells the story, Pilate flogs Jesus as a punishment, the soldiers put the crown of thorns on his head, before parading him in front of the crowd in an attempt to placate the people, and so be able to release Jesus: ‘Here is the man’, or, as it is sometimes referred to in Latin: ‘Ecce homo’, ‘Behold the man’.

I suspect that we’ve never considered Jesus’ back before!

I think we can reasonably assume that as a carpenter his back would have been broad and strong, used, perhaps, to carrying heavy pieces of wood. And to think more metaphorically, we do talk about turning your back on things or situations or people, or backing someone up, or defending someone’s back – these are quite common turns of phrase that we use.

What had Jesus turned his back on in his three-year ministry?

When he came to the river Jordan to be baptised by John, he turned his back on his previous way of life, leaving the safety of home. He turned his back on Satan. The temptations in the wilderness before he begins his public ministry are exactly this – he turns his back on the Evil One – says ‘No’.

If you turn your back on one thing, its often to turn your face towards another – and in Jesus’ case he gave his all to doing his Father’s will, even if that meant, as it did, turning his face towards Jerusalem. When he did so it was Peter who tried to dissuade him only to be roundly rebuked with the words: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ Jesus had clearly heard this voice before when he was doing battle in the wilderness!

The disciples had seen Jesus’ back when he withdrew from them a short distance to pray in Gethsemane for instance, had looked out for Jesus’ back when he strode ahead of them on the road up to Jerusalem, and had no doubt searched for his back when they had lost him in a crowd – they were after all called to follow him! And no doubt Jesus hoped that they might at least defend his back against his accusers, and back him up when they got to Jerusalem – but we know that was a vain hope.

His back was left undefended to be flogged, his head spat on and bruised.

The degradation seems so gratuitous. But we know that soldiers can behave like this, and soldiers even in disciplined armies as the Roman army was, can behave badly. So Jesus, now handed over to the soldiers by Pilate, suffers humiliation and mockery at their hands.

The soldiers deliberately mimic the emperor worship of imperial Rome. The purple cloak worn by emperors; the crown of thorns perhaps not to cause pain so much as to look like the crown that the emperor wore on Roman coins which radiated streaks of light; the reed, according to Matthew’s Gospel put into Jesus’ hand for a sceptre before being used to strike him; and the cry ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ deliberately parodying ‘Ave, Caesar Imperator!’ It was designed to humiliate.

Time and again Mark, in the way he puts his Gospel together, offers us moving contrasts.

Earlier in this last week of Jesus’ life, Mark tells of a meal that Jesus has in the house of Simon the leper (Mark 14.5-9). During this meal a woman comes in with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment. She breaks the jar and pours the contents onto Jesus’ head – Mark alone says that it was onto his head.

It was hospitable to refresh a guest with oil, but she does much more than that. She breaks the jar – it can’t be used again – and pours the content onto Jesus’ head.

What do the people around her say as she does this? Does a murmur of approval go round the room?

‘Why was this ointment wasted in this way? It could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’

The people complained; the disciples too scolded her! But an act of such love can’t be put in the scales and weighed against things that are more useful.

And there’s more going on here even than this.

Remember how when Jesus is buried, the women come to anoint his body after his death, but their desire is frustrated because when they go to the tomb after the Sabbath, Jesus’ body is no longer there. Instead his body is anointed before his burial. In defending her against her critics, Jesus says:

‘She has done what she could: she has anointed my body  beforehand for its burial.’

And there’s more even that that!

At the beginning of the last week of his life, Jesus enters Jerusalem and is acclaimed by the crowds as the Messiah, the Son of David. When he is arrested and tried, the high priest challenges Jesus to say whether he is the Messiah or not.

The word ‘messiah’ means anointed one.

The only person who ever anoints Jesus’ head, is not a chief priest in some impressive ceremony in the temple, but an unknown woman in the house of a leper – a woman expressing her love in an extravagant gesture that came straight from the heart.

What a head – full of such wisdom and compassion – loved and anointed, now battered and bruised, crowned with thorns.

What a back – full of such strength and dedication – watched out for and followed, now whipped and flogged.

If we are to interpret all this as the wound of love, as I argued last week, then the wound goes very deep indeed, right into Christ’s head and his back.

The words sung in Bach’s St John’s Passion are quite shocking at this point:

‘Look how his bloodstained back in every part brings heaven before our eyes.’


The only possible way that we can interpret these words that Bach uses, is absolutely not that heaven is in any way like this torn and beaten back, this battered and bleeding head – No!

But in these two short lines, Bach has perceived what we all struggle to fathom – that the enormity of God’s compassion and concern for the world is seen right here, even in his Son as he is humiliated, mocked and abused:

‘Look how his bloodstained back in every part brings heaven before our eyes.’