The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WERE YOU THERE?

Delivered 4/18/03
Text: John 19:14-18
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The morning sun had been up for some hours over the Holy City.(1) Already pilgrims and visitors were pouring in through the gates, mingling with merchants from the villages, with shepherds coming down from the hills.

The narrow streets were crowded. There were the aged, stooped with years, muttering to themselves as they pushed along. There were children playing in the streets, calling to each other in shrill voices. There were men and women carrying burdens - baskets of vegetables, casks of wine, waterbags - tradesmen with their tools. Here a donkey stood sleepily beneath his burden in the sunlight. There, under a narrow canopy, a merchant shouted his wares in a street-side stall.

It was not easy to make one's way through the crowd. But it was especially difficult for the procession that started out from the Governor's Palace. At its head rode a Roman Centurion, disdainful and aloof, scorn for the child or cripple who might be in his way. Before him went two Legionnaires clearing the crowd aside as best they could with curses and careless blows. Behind followed two short columns between which staggered three condemned men, each carrying a heavy wooden cross on which he was to be executed. Try as the soldiers might to keep step, they moved at a snail's pace. It was evident that they did not relish this routine task which came to them every now and then in this troublesome province. The sunlight glanced on their spears and helmets. There was a rhythmic clanking of steel as their shields touched their belt buckles and the scabbards of their swords. Left, right, left, right. "Get a move on, we don't have all day!"

The crosses were heavy, however, and the first of the victims was at the point of collapse. He had been under severe strain for several days. He had been scourged - lashed with a leather whip in the thongs of which had been inserted rough pieces of lead. Slowly they all moved forward from the courtyard of Pilate's palace and made for one of the gates leading out of the city.

The sun was hot. Sweat poured down the face of Jesus, and he swayed now and then underneath the weight of the cross. A group of women went with the procession, their faces half hidden by their veils, but their grief could still be seen. Some of them were sobbing aloud, others were praying, others moaning in that deep grief that knows not what to say or do. Some of them had little children by the hand and kept saying over and over again, "What harm has he done, why should they put him to death? He healed my child, a touch of His hand and this little one could see." Another mother would join in, "He brought my child back to life; she had all but died. What harm could there be in that?" There were men too, who followed as closely as they could, men who walked with the strange steps of those to whom walking was not yet familiar. And others who still carried sticks in their hands, but who did not use them as once they had, to tap their way through villages and towns - men who had been blind and now through habit carried sticks - now blind again, but this time blinded by tears. Their lips were moving in prayers and their hearts were heavy - they wanted to help but there was nothing they could do. The procession inched slowly forward.

Meanwhile, outside the city, all unsuspecting, Simon of Cyrene had almost reached the gate. He had just arrived in Judea and was about to enter Jerusalem as a pilgrim for the Passover. He had spent the night in a village nearby, and rising early this morning, he had bathed and dressed himself carefully with a tingling excitement because soon he would be in the City of David. He walked along the path that sometimes ran through the fields and sometimes along the winding course of a dried-up riverbed. Sometimes it wound up a jagged hillside to twist down again among giant boulders and huge rocks behind which thieves and robbers were known to hide. He could hear the sheep bleating on the almost-barren hillside, while the morning sun climbed higher and higher and chased away the mists that rested upon the hilltops. Already he could see ahead of him the domes of the Temple gleaming gold in the sunshine.

As Simon neared the city he began to hear shouting. It grew louder and louder and there seemed to be sort of beat to it, a rhythm, a kind of chant that he thought sounded like "crucify, crucify, crucify!" They met right at the city gate, Simon of Cyrene and the crowd.

He found that the procession was headed by some Roman soldiers. It was obviously official, but Simon had little time to gather impressions. As for asking questions, that was impossible - he could not make himself heard in all the noise.

There was a sinister, throbbing malice in the air that made this pilgrim shudder. He was aware of two moving walls of Roman steel between which there staggered a man carrying a cross. And then he saw there were three men, but it was one, one in particular, that attracted his attention.

As Simon was jostled and shoved along by the unrelenting mob, he felt his gaze returning again and again to that one face. He noticed that blood was trickling down from wounds in the brow. And then he saw what caused it - the twig of long-thorned briar twisted around in the shape of a crown and pushed down on the forehead. But it was his eyes, it was the terribly sad look in his eyes that fascinated and frightened Simon. He watched with beating heart as they shuffled along. My, but the look in those eyes! Simon could see nothing else and as he walked, everything was forgotten - the feast, the celebration, the Temple, friends he was to meet. Everything was forgotten as he watched the man carrying the cross. And then Jesus looked up...His eyes almost blinded by the sweat and blood that trickled down from under that grotesque crown. Why didn't somebody wipe his eyes?

As Simon continued to look at that face and Jesus was raising His weary head, their eyes met. The look that passed between them, Simon never forgot as long as he lived. For no one can look at Jesus and remain the same.

Suddenly, the Man with the cross stumbled and the soldiers, moved more by impatience than by pity, seeing that the Nazarene was almost too exhausted to go any farther, laid hands on Simon and forced him to take the cross. Simon's heart almost stopped beating - he was terrified. Just a few minutes before, he was a lonely pilgrim quietly approaching the Holy City. Now he is a beast of burden, his shoulders stooped under the weight of a cross on which this Man, this Man with the arresting eyes, was soon to die.

Only a short distance more. They called the place Golgotha. Visitors to Jerusalem would be asked if they agreed that, seen in silhouette, it suggested a human skull. It was where two great highways converged upon the city, and down in the valley below, a place of stench, a place of horror, a place of ugliness where garbage always burned and the evil smelling smoke curled up and was wafted over the brow of the strangely-shaped hill. This was the place of public execution - Calvary - and here the procession stopped.

Now the shouting stopped as well. Thud, thud, thud. There was a hush. Even the hardest of them were silent. It is not pleasant to watch nails being driven through human flesh. Mary, His mother, stopped her ears and turned away her head. They could hear the echo across the Kidron valley, the hammer blows. John stood beside Mary and supported her. The other women were weeping. But as soon as the Nazarene had mounted his last pulpit, as soon as the cross had fallen with a thump into the pit they had dug for it, the shouting broke out again.

There were some who had followed Him once, who had been attracted by the charm of the wonder worker. Some had accepted loaves and fishes at His hands. Now they shouted taunts at Him. They remembered what He had said and now they hurled His words back in His teeth - barbed arrows of hate and malice, promises He had made, predictions and eternal truth that had come from His lips: "Oh yes, He saved others, himself he cannot save. Miracle man, come on down from the cross and we will believe. One more miracle, the greatest of them all. You who would build the Temple in three days, Mr. Carpenter, you have nails in your hands but you cannot build a Temple up there. Come on down from the cross and we will believe." They shouted until they went hoarse. The noise was so great that only a few of them standing near the cross heard what Jesus said when His lips moved in prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

One of the thieves crucified with Him, drugged and half drunk, cried out to Jesus, "Can you not see how we suffer? If you are the Son of God save yourself and us." He raised his shoulders and twisted until he leaned from the crosspiece and then he begged and taunted Christ. What he sought was salvation from the suffering, not salvation from sin. Then a spasm of pain gripped him - his weight once again fell upon the nails that held his hands and he began to curse and swear until his companion turned his head and rebuked him. "What has this man done that you should treat him so? We deserve our fate, but this man has done nothing wrong." And then he said to Jesus "Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." And Jesus, His face drawn with agony but His voice still kind, answered, "This very day, when the pain is over, we shall be together again. Truly I say to you, you will be with Me in paradise."

The sun beat down with relentless heat. Time oozed out like the blood that dripped from the cross. Jesus opened His eyes and saw His mother standing there and John beside her. Jesus called for John to come closer and said, "Take care of her." And John, choked with tears, put his arm around the shoulders of Mary. Jesus said to His mother, "He will be your son." His lips were parched and He spoke with difficulty. He moved his head against the hard wood of the cross as a sick man moves his head on a hot pillow.

A thunderstorm was blowing up from the mountains. It was becoming strangely dark. People looked at the ominous sky and became frightened. Women took little children by the hand and hurried back to the city before the storm would break. It was an uncanny darkness - it had never been as dark at midday before.

The tears of the women were drying now. The Centurion was silent - every so often he would gaze up at Jesus with a strange look in his eyes. The soldiers were silent too, their gambling was over. Suddenly Jesus opened His eyes and gave a loud cry. The gladness in his voice startled all who heard it for it sounded like a shout of victory. "It is finished. Father into your hands I commend My spirit." And with that cry, He died.

They were all there that day on the top of the hill, the friends of Jesus and His enemies. The Godly people, they were there, as well as the people who could have cared less about God. The Priests were there and the scribes, the greedy Sadducees, the hypocrites, the proud authorities with their robes, their broad-bordered phylacteries on which the golden bells were sewn with golden thread. They were there, gathering their robes more tightly around them and standing with arms folded approvingly. The unbelievers were standing beside them. The harlots were there and their customers were there, they were all there. Simon of Cyrene was there and the soldiers too. Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?

When we are honest with ourselves, we know that we were there too and that we helped to put Christ there. Because every attitude present on that hilltop that day is present with us now. Every emotion that tugged at human hearts then tugs at human hearts still. Every face that was there is here too, every voice that shouted then is shouting still. Every human being was represented at Calvary, every sin was in a nail or the spear or the needle-like thorns, and pardon for them all was in the blood that was shed.

Almost 2000 years have passed away, but the rains of the centuries have not yet washed away the blood from the rotting wood of a deserted cross. Nor have the winds covered Christ's footprints in the sands of time. Calvary still stands, and you and I erect the cross again and again and again, every time we sin. The hammer blows are still echoing somewhere in the caverns of your heart and mine. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? I was! Were you?

Amen!


1. Inspired by a sermon of the same title delivered by Dr. Peter Marshall which eventually became part of a book, The First Easter (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959)

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