The Image of the About Face
One thing I remember well from my drill and marching training in the Army (and later at the Sheriff's Academy) was the maneuver known as an about face. While standing in the position of attention (standing still with both arms down at one's sides), the trick was to take a half-step back on the toe of one's right boot (without teetering) and pivot quickly so that a 180-degree turn was made, while still maintaining the position of attention. It was a difficult feat to learn at first, and executing the turn on command while standing in the ranks of a company of soldiers or squad of police trainees made it very challenging; especially when the group under the command had to move as one person in making the about face. Even the slightest stumble ruined the entire maneuver.
As Jews observe the Passover and Christians celebrate Easter 2013, I am reminded of the most famous about face maneuver in history. It occurred during the Passover week in the Holy City of Jerusalem a few days after Jesus of Nazareth received a king's welcome as he rode into the city on a mule-colt. As I previously mentioned about the Christian observance of Palm Sunday, all four gospel accounts described the memorable event of Jesus being hailed as a king, lauded with great fanfare by large crowds of adoring Jewish citizens lining the road. Less than a week later, the crowds would chant a different tune.
After the fanfare of his entry into Jerusalem had died down, Jesus prepared himself for the completion of the mission for which his life's work had been destined. Though he was human, Jesus was no ordinary man. He was God incarnate, a messenger sent from God the Father to rescue God's Chosen People (Israel) and redeem them from the burden of sins under which they had become heavy laden. Prior to his last appearance in the Holy City, Jesus had traveled all over the land of Judah healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, casting out demons, as well as helping the lame walk (among many miracles he performed in the name of God.) Jesus taught with great authority, often about Heaven and Hell, telling profound stories which amazed his audiences. He also spoke in parables that confounded the status quo religious leadership of his day.
From the time of the exodus from Egypt (under God's law-giver Moses) until Jesus began his earthly ministry, centuries of idolatry, disobedience, and feigned piousness had reduced the religious leaders of Israel to an elite, self-righteous group of hypocritical oppressors of the general Jewish population. Through his teachings Jesus rebuked the teachers, scribes, and elders and challenged them to repent of their sinful ways and be saved from their self-destructive practices and beliefs.
What Jesus taught was difficult for many to embrace, especially the experts and religious leaders. Jewish law and all its teachings upheld that there was only One God. To proclaim oneself to be God was blasphemy punishable by death. The reputation of Jesus as a miraculous healer and authoritative teacher of the law of God rattled the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Time and again they plotted to kill the messenger, but Jesus always managed to elude them, until he made his grand entry into the Holy City. His popularity with the masses and his persuasive teachings were a threat to the religious ruling class. Who did this Jesus think he was? God?
The gospel accounts paint a curious picture of that final week of Jesus' life on Earth. There was the image of the incredulous twelve disciples being instructed repeatedly by Jesus that he was bound to be condemned to death soon. None of them suspected Judas would cooperate in a conspiracy with some of the religious leaders to betray Jesus so he could be arrested under cover of darkness (out of public view.) There was the image of the plot-makers gathering false witnesses and preparing for a speedy trial to secure a death sentence before the Sabbath. And there was Jesus praying (on the night he was betrayed) that perhaps God might find another way to save His people, Israel.
As Jesus predicted, Judas made an about face and sold Jesus to his captors for thirty pieces of silver. As he told his other disciples, all of them fled when Jesus was taken. Even Peter denied him three times as Jesus had told him. And those adoring, cheering citizens who had lined the road to Jerusalem praising Jesus and worshiping him as king—they roared loudly to the Roman governor, Pilate, their approval for condemnation and execution.
'”What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
'They all answered, “Crucify him!”
'”Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
'But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”' (Matthew 27:22-23, NIV)
In an angry, emotionally charged about face, the once adoring crowds turned their backs on Jesus and demanded his immediate execution on a Roman cross. And while this was a stunning reversal in fortune by any human standard, in my estimation it is not that surprising. After all, even in our modern world we see the rise and fall of celebrity, of the scintillating stars of our popular culture worshiped one week and vilified the next. It must have been quite a bitter contrast for Jesus to experience. But this was not the greatest about face in history. What happened on the cross was.
I think of the image of the newborn Jesus at Christmas time; the wonder of his virgin birth and the angels rejoicing; the shepherds racing to the stable to see him; the visit by the three Magi bearing expensive gifts for a king. I consider the image of John the Baptist raising Jesus up from the waters of the Jordan River and hearing God's booming voice declaring His love for His Son who had pleased Him. And I wonder often at the time when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, and they heard God command them to listen to Jesus. I consider all of those precious moments when God the Father made visible, audible, and tangible his public approval and adoration for Jesus for the ears of men to hear.
Yet while Jesus was dying on the cross, God said nothing. God did nothing to help His Son. God executed an about face as evil men executed His beloved Son. It is the greatest about face in history, the image of the about face; when the man-God, Jesus was indeed God-forsaken. Beaten and bloodied, taunted and tortured, the image impaled and suspended between Heaven and Earth on an instrument of death. Why did God turn his back on Jesus? Why had God forsaken him? Why did Jesus have to die?
The answer is the reason believers celebrate Easter as the highest holy day in Christendom. God forsook Jesus on that cross so that the penalty for our sins could be paid through the suffering of that Son who pleased His Father. For without his sacrifice, we would all be lost to the perilous consequence of unrepentant sin. God did what we could not do for ourselves. We are reconciled to God by faith in His sacrifice. That is what salvation means.
I cannot fathom the depth of Jesus' pain and suffering as he was led by trial to that horrible place of his demise. Neither can I understand what God the Father suffered as he abandoned Jesus on that cross. I see the image of the about face and know how much I am loved by both God and Jesus through the resurrection. Jesus arose from the grave through the love of the Father! Though I am unworthy of such love, God's grace is more than sufficient for me, and so I believe all the more!
May you experience a Blessed Easter!
(copyright 2013, Gregory Allen Doyle)