Pondering Unanswerable Questions
Did Jesus Have to Die?
Text: Mark 11:1-11
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 28, 2010
The word ‘if’ is a big word.
On December 7th, 1941 radar operators detected a large number of airplanes traveling east toward Pearly Harbor. They were expecting a small number of planes flying west from California and determined that this blob of planes to be nothing. What would have happened IF they had correctly read their radar and ordered the many fighter planes into the air to defend Pearl Harbor?
In 1939, England and France declared war in Germany after Germany had invaded Poland. The vast majority of the German Army’s resources were in the eastern part of Germany and stretched out into Poland. This left a large expanse of Germany very vulnerable to attack. Many military historians have speculated that had France and England invaded Germany from the west during this time period, the war could have been over very quickly. What would have happened IF this happened?
In the Book of Jonah, there is, of course, the story of Jonah being told to preaching in Nineveh. He doesn’t want to go because the people of Nineveh are pretty horrible people. He runs from God by taking a boat, but God causes a great storm. He is thrown overboard, swallowed by a large fish, and belched onto shore by this fish. Right near Nineveh. Jonah gives pretty much the world’s worse sermon and the people of Nineveh, including the king, repent from their sins and turn their lives over to God.
What would have happened IF Jesus’ preaching and teaching had changed so many hearts that people fell down and worshiped Jesus, much like the people of Nineveh, and never crucified Him?
It forces us to ask the question: Did Jesus have to die?
It is, of course, always a rhetorical question. Jesus did die. The early Christian Church had to deal with the reality of Jesus’ death and the theology of Christianity was written and embraced around the fact that Jesus did die on the cross. But there is always that question: did Jesus have to die?
In ancient Jewish tradition, it was taught that the only way to atone for sin was through a blood sacrifice. Lambs were slaughtered at the first Passover and throughout the history of Judaism, up to and just beyond the time of Jesus, if people wanted to repent of sin, they brought an animal to be sacrificed, in their behalf, unto God.
The early Christian Church adopted this as the reason Jesus died on the cross. Jesus’ death on the cross was a difficult thing to rationalize or explain. The early leaders of Christianity studied the Old Testament and Judaism intently to determine an answer.
The most compelling argument is made in Isaiah 53. It reads, in part:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
Isaiah, who wrote the Four Songs of the Suffering Servant, prophesies about one who will suffer and be crushed because of God’s will.
On the other hand, there is a compelling argument about God.
There is an old philosophical riddle: Can God create a rock that is so great that God cannot move the rock? You may be surprised to learn this, but this is actually an answerable question. And the answer is ‘no.’ The one thing God cannot do is create something greater than God Himself. God is perfection and cannot be improved. The only limitation to God’s power is that God cannot create something greater than Himself.
So, did God have to follow ancient Jewish traditions?
Did God have to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah?
People in Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would be a new David who conquered the Romans or a new Moses would you lead them to a new Promised Land. They cited Scripture to validate their positions and God did not fulfill their expectations.
Frankly I think you can make an argument that Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross. Had people embraced him and crowned him King or whatever, then the story changes.
Maybe this is the wrong question to be asking and it always has been the wrong question to be asking. I say this for one simple reason. Jesus died on the cross.
Today is Palm Sunday and to be perfectly honest, I have always found Palm Sunday to be one of the most difficult Sundays in the church year. It is, on one hand, joyful and celebratory; Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. A crowd is there to cheer him on. All is good in the world. Except, we know how the story continues. Jesus will be arrested and Jesus will be crucified. The celebration of Palm Sunday quickly turns to horror.
We can speculate all we want to about what had to happen or did not have to happen. The speculation does not matter one bit. Jesus died on the cross.
There's a marvelous story about Jesus' choice that has been around for a long time.
The legend goes that Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the crowds went wild and welcomed him with glee.
On Thursday morning, however, he was approached by many people who were the leadership in the Temple. They told him that he was causing a major disruption and that the Romans would not tolerate this for long. They suggested to him that he had to leave the city or face the consequence of the cross.
Jesus talked to the apostles, prayed, and decided to leave on Friday. On Friday afternoon, as they were leaving the city of Jerusalem, Jesus looked and saw Golgotha, and saw crosses up there and men hanging from them. And Jesus said, "Wow, that could have been me."
And Peter said, "It sure could have been, Mister."
Ever notice something about that story? We never call Jesus, Mister. We call Jesus, Lord, because he didn't leave the city, but accepted the cross.
All too often I hear people almost dismiss the cross because they simply chalk it up to God's will and that Jesus had no choice.
Pontius Pilate's executing Jesus is often perceived like he's an innocent pawn of God who had no choice in crucifying Jesus.
Even Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, is often ‘let off the hook' because he is so often portrayed as an innocent pawn of God who had no choice.
The reality is quite different.
What if Jesus had left Jerusalem. He could have let the cup pass from him and abandoned Jerusalem.
Pilate could have let Jesus go.
Judas could have remained faithful and loyal to Jesus.
They made choices that changed the world. Jesus accepted death on the cross; Pilate executed Jesus, and Judas betrayed Jesus.
Sometimes I think saying this was all predestined diminishes the impact of what took place; but speculating on it, ultimately gets us nowhere other than into a needless debate.
And the reason is simple. Jesus died on the cross.
The poet John Donne wrote a poem: Good Friday 1613: Riding Westward.
Donne, who was a priest in the Church of England wrote about riding his horse westward while the crucifixion was taking place in the east. He was writing about turning his back on the cross, turning his back on Christ. Turning his back on everything that was taking place.
The week we have before us gives us opportunities to turn eastward, to turn towards the cross and embrace what Jesus did for us. Easter is a day of joy to be celebrated next Sunday. Let us use these final days, before Easter, to walk the path of Christ, and to not debate the what if’s but allow the what happened to touch our hearts and souls.