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Easter Sunrise Service - Sydney Opera House

HOPE BEYOND OUR FEARS.

Mark 16:1-8
11th April 2004

Millions have already seen Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”. In one of the most remarkable turn-around in cinematic history, a film that critics said one year ago would be a financial disaster, is turning out to be the biggest blockbuster for any independent film maker in history.

This film has led people into discussing the death of Jesus. Millions of people this Easter are talking about why Jesus died for us. Never, in my life-time, have so many people been discussing the atonement: why Jesus died for us. At a time when so many middle class clergy askew talking about the Cross, His blood that was shed for us, and who even this morning will question the physical resurrection of Jesus, talking instead about a safe, sanitized, middle class Jesus who preaches love and positive thinking, this film has brought Christendom back to reality: Christ died for our sins and was raised that we might have eternal life!

But there is an even more remarkable blessing from this film. This started with a terrible slur against Mel Gibson. Before most of it was filmed, people, including some American Jewish leaders, attacked it saying that it was anti-Semitic. They said it would stir up hatred against the Jews. This surge of anti-Semitism in Europe would be so great that there would be a new Exodus of European Jews wanting to escape and flee for refuge to Israel. One European Rabbi called upon the Israeli Government to prepare for the new Exodus. That was a slander of monumental proportions. The most viewed film ever in history, Jesus, like The Passion has changed lives but neither film is anti-Semitic.

There is no anti-Semitism in this film. Jewish leaders are presented as plotting the death of Jesus, but they were a small group of elites. This criticism came before any critic had seen the finished film. No one who has seen it argues that it is anti-Semitic. That is plainly not true. Those who have seen it retort, “It was the Italians, stupid!” The Romans are the violent ones, not the Jews. At the time I became anxious that this slander was being attached to the film, I prayed that God would not let it happen. But it did. Mel Gibson came out strongly, saying: “This film collectively blames humanity for the death of Jesus. Now there are no exemptions. I’m the first on the line for culpability. I did it. Christ died for all men for all times.” But God allowed this slander of the film being anti-Semitic to continue. Why?

In the Middle East we did not believe the Islamic Governments would allow The Passion of the Christ to be screened. But most Middle East countries are allowing the screening of the film. Theatres in Doha, Qatar, and Jordan, are screening The Passion of the Christ to packed audiences. The distributor was amazed when Qatar requested The Passion. Censors okayed it without any cuts. Many mullahs are encouraging their Muslim followers to see the film. Why such an unexpected endorsement? The false rumours that the film is anti-Semitic reached the mullahs, and as one explains, “since they hate the Jews, they want to see it.” Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet and they still revere and respect Him. So when they hear of a film that is alleged to show Jews crucifying Christ, some Muslims welcome the opportunity to revel in a depiction of the wickedness of their long-time enemies.

One missionary, marvels, “In two short hours more Qataris heard the Gospel than I have been able to reach in nearly five years living here. At the 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. showings, the film was running in all three theatres.” The people in the theatre are local Muslims, including completely veiled women. The missionary adds, “How interesting that God is using this film to communicate the Gospel in the very opposite spirit that might be motivating Muslims to see it. The message to love your enemies, and Jesus’ praying for them to be forgiven while on the cross, would hit the Muslim moviegoer in a powerful way.” Now the videos and DVDs are selling briskly and the potential is staggering.

And it is not only in the Middle East. The theatres around Lakemba in Sydney are packed with Muslims watching the film. Isn’t God amazing? He is using charges of anti-Semitism to stimulate Muslim mullahs to encourage their followers to see a Christian film during Holy Week. Violence, bloodshed, betrayal. Why? Why did Jesus die? The film Gibson has made revives an old question: who really killed Jesus? As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did. As a matter of theology, the sins of the world drove Jesus to the cross. The Church also holds that Christians themselves bear “”the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus.

What happened following His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the immense cruelty of scourging and whipping by the Romans, the painful way of the Cross, and the dreadful crucifixion? What was the end of The Passion of the Christ? I will be back to tell you.

1. THE FEAR THAT GOOD FRIDAY BRINGS.

The first Good Friday was marked by fear.

Pilate was fearful. In the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The two earliest extra-Biblical references to Jesus — those of the historians Josephus and Tacitus — say Jesus was executed by Pilate. But Pilate had been in trouble with the Emperor for his inadequate governorship. He was on a warning: one more mistake and he would be recalled. He was fearful that freeing Jesus as he wanted because “I can find no fault in Him”, would lead to uprising and his own recall and banishment.

Caiaphas was fearful. Those that followed Jesus were growing in number and they wanted change. The only way was to get rid of Jesus before overexcited pilgrims rallied around him, drawing down Pilate’s wrath. “It is expedient for you,” Caiaphas says to his fellow priests, “that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation should not perish.”

The disciples were fearful; Jesus was alone before Pilate. Where were his supporters? They were silent and scared. They were hiding behind locked doors. Only His mother, some women and John stood by the Cross.

The Jews were fearful. The Temple elite instigated the death of Jesus. The Jewish historian, Josephus, noted that the Nazarene had been “accused by those of the highest standing amongst us,” meaning among the Jerusalem Jews. To them Jesus was a radical reformer and if they would keep their positions Jesus must die.

Today, many ministers are fearful of The Passion — they avoid explaining the blood atonement. They are sceptical that a human could be raised from the dead. They would rather have a comfortable, nice, positive thinking, middle class Jesus, with chestnut hair and blue eyes, like the Jesus of the film, “The Greatest Story Every Told.” Now that was a nice film about a nice Jesus who healed and helped, who told lovely stories and called the children to Him. But blood atonement is the distinctive between Christianity and every other religion. His death on the Cross and His resurrection is the unique difference. Many clergy are soft on proclaiming either. They are fearful about preaching on the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin, and proclaiming the physical resurrection, making all kinds of soapy sermons on his influence being alive among us! We have lite butter, lite cheese and light beer, and they preach a lite Christianity with neither the blood of the Cross not the emptiness of the tomb. Fear was the dominant passion of the first Friday, but Easter Sunday brings hope!.

2. THE HOPE THAT EASTER BRINGS.

For after the resurrection on that first Easter day, marks the heart of every believer! In Gibson’s film, the clouds gather and Jesus dies, and a single raindrop — a tear from God the Father? — falls from the sky. A storm has come; the gates of hell are broken. Back in the Temple, Caiaphas, buffeted by the earthquake, cries out in anguish amid the gloom. Then on the Sunday morning, there is light, and a discarded shroud slowly collapsing in on itself, and a risen Christ bearing the stigmata leaves the tomb. It is Easter. There is no more fear, but hope fills the air. The day of the resurrection has come!

“Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

The people then should have known because they had their Old Testament. The death and resurrection of Jesus was prophesised. Isaiah had written earlier: 53:4-5: “He has borne our sicknesses and sorrows and has carried our pain of punishment. He was bruised for our guilt and by the stripes that wounded Him, we are made whole.” They had seen Him scourged and crucified. Now they saw Him raised from the dead. He showed them His wounds. He ate and drank with them. Their personal experience gave them hope. You today can know the Risen Lord. Your Bible, the New Testament, reveals Him. He was raised triumphant over the tomb. Physically He suffered in His passion, was dead and buried, but on the third day, He was physically raised from the dead by the power of God. You can know personally the reality of the Risen Christ. Ring and let our Counsellors show you from the Bible, how you can personally receive the forgiveness of sins and know the presence of the Living Saviour.

Ignore the Christianity lite. Go for the real stuff. Know that in His body He bore your sins upon the Cross, and by His resurrection He enables your eternal life. You can experience His presence for yourself by faith in Him who loved you and gave Himself for you. Let your life of fear, be turned into a life of Hope.

 

Wesley Mission, Sydney.