The Ninth Hour

ethan hugPairing youth ministry and ranching has always been one of my passions.   I believe there is an awful lot to be learned by urban youth on a ranch. Most times it goes well. They have learned to use a chainsaw and cut down trees, ridden horses with me, set fence posts, and even gotten on a bull (and rode it!). But there is always that one time.

I had just run about 150 ft of barbed wire between a couple end posts. I had stretched it tight, and wrapped it snug around the two h-braces at both ends of the field. All my line posts were set in place, all that was left to do was to drive a staple into each post to finish off the strand. I thought I had given plenty of direction and guidance. I am a firm believer that most of the time middle school students don’t follow expectations or understand what to do because I am not explicit enough with instruction and direction. This was not the case this time. I went to another part of the property and began to set some more posts in the ground for our next run. About 30 minutes later, I hadn’t heard any hammering from his direction. I crested the hill to see him laying down on the job. I was upset, until I got closer. He had managed to make himself the fillings of a barbed wire burrito. He had become a human spool for 12-guage-4-point-barb-wire. The only word that I could muster between laughs was “how?” His answer: “Mr. Travis it all happened so fast…”

The question of “how” makes a few assumptions. In the first place, “how?” Implies that there was a process involved. “How?” never happens in a vacuume. Anywhere between 2 and a million steps take place for a “how” event to occur. When you tell a person about how you have three broken ribs, both a sprained ankle and ego, and make a cracking noise when you walk, in the same sentence with your kid-broke gelding, the question is not of why? but how?. When your farm truck is upside down in the ditch with a bovine dallied off on the bale spear, the question is not of why? but how?. For the record, the why? question often has great bearing on the how? and often provides great insight and background information to making the how? answer that much more entertaining.

Secondly the “how?” question is much more convenient to ask. Why? often deals with philosophies, worldview, learning, cultural influence and personal perspective. Asking someone why they’re a poor cowboy? begs the answer that generations ago they settled the land and many years down the line it was inherited by the poor guy being interrogated. Its been years since he had any desire to do a 9-5 job that pays well. Asking someone how they became a poor cowboy? The answer is simple: when his buddies went to college to be accountants, he spend $50,000 on an education in ranch management, then he bought a horse trailer and went to rodeoing. Not really much Greek philosophy in his answer, though it does bear resemblance to a Greek tragedy.

The “how?” question is quite intriguing and a statement of “how” is equally so.

At the 9th hour, the world has been dark for three hours and Jesus time on the cross is approaching six. For the guy standing at the foot of the cross in Mark’s gospel, this has been an interesting experience. He is a centurion, a leader in the Roman army. He is not at the front of the Roman legions conquring unknown territories, expanding the glory of Roma, and gaining honor battling foreign nations. He is stationed in Judea on a peace-keeping mission. The days are long, tiring, and boring. It is easy to see that the soldiers need to find entertainment. Crucifixions are a common occurrence in Judea. So common that the soldiers have to find ways of spicing it up by gambling on the victim’s clothes, mocking the condemned and playing games with those sentenced. This centurion has undoubtedly seen many crucifixions in his lifetime and presided over a good many. Seeing another Jew die is just part of the job.

Mark says this about the guy: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15.39) This death-hardened soldier knew something was different about this execution, but what was it?

At the 9th hour, Jesus lets out a loud cry and dies (Mark 15.37).   Was it Luke’s “Father into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Luke 23.46) or John’s “It is finished” (John 19.30)? Mark doesn’t say what the cry was, just that he let out a loud cry. Jesus has made three statements in Mark’s gospel since he was arrested. In front of the Sanhedrin, he answered the High Priest’s question about his identity as the Christ:

“I am and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14.62)

In front of Pilate, when asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered:

“Yes, it is as you say.” (Mark 15.2)

Jesus silence before Pilate amazed him (Mark 15.5). Mark made the effort to show Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53, in the depiction of his life, his mission statement (“the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” [Mark 10.45]), and now his silence before his accusers. And finally he speaks with God as he proclaims “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mark 15.34). Could this be the “how” that the centurion saw? His silence in the midst of suffering? His connection to God in the midst of suffering?

Perhaps the “how” is referencing the miraculous darkening of the land for 3 hours (Mark 15.33). This wasn’t an everyday occurrence. The fact that it happened when the sun was supposed to be the highest wasn’t lost on him. Darkness [skotos] is referenced in Acts when Paul told Elymas that he would be blind for a time and he began to grope around in the darkness [skotos] (Acts 13.11). This is not your average nighttime darkness, this is eerie, creepy darkness that you can feel. Was the darkness and miraculous around Jesus death, the “how” that the centurion saw?

Could it be the enemies that surrounded him? Perhaps the centurion, who makes a living putting down the underdogs, was drawn to this man who was insulted by: 1) the soldiers (15.16-20); 2) those who passed by (15.29); 3) the chief priests and teachers of the law (15.31); and those crucified with him (15.32). Mark doesn’t record the criminals repentance that Luke does. Maybe the centurion sees the uniformed hatred by everyone around the scene and is drawn in by this man who seems to unite everyone against him? Could that be the “how” that the centurion saw?

In Mark’s book there are many times when the true identity of Jesus was almost exclaimed. The disciples almost got it (4.41), the crowds got close (6.2-3; 7.37), and Peter gave it an effort (8.29-32). But the man who finally got it was this Roman Centurion. From 1.1, “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” to “surely this man was the Son of God.” (15.39)   The Centurion’s “how” could be all these things, but “how” Jesus died was unique. It was a cursed mans death, but a glorified man in the eyes of the Centurion. Before his eyes, a criminal was seen to be the King.

The “how” was clear to the centurion.

I am so thankful for the “why” Jesus died. “He who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that we may become the righteousness of God.” But I to often forget the “how” he died? It’s a little more uncomfortable for me because the “how” he died is expected of me. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8.34)

The centurion may not have understood the “why” but he knew the “how” better than anyone who has ever lived. I know the “why” but need so much practice on the “how”!

And this was the 9th hour when he breathed his last.

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