Monday, February 18, 2008

A complete victory

It had been billed as the match of the season. The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world, and Saturday's draw had thrown together the two top teams in the country. Arsenal and Manchester United have been jockeying for position all season, with first one and then the other holding top spot. In fact for the past ten years it has been these two teams that have dominated football in England.

Manchester and London, north and south, working-class and middle-class; this was a match. The two managers, the fiery Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson and the cerebral French professor, Arsene Wenger, provided another contrast. Moreover, whereas most football in England is broadcast on pay-TV, this game was being shown by the BBC. All the nation would be watching.

Manchester United have won the cup 18 times and Arsenal 17. Manchester have a mix of youngsters and more experienced stars, including Giggs and Scholes from the golden generation of British footballers, as well as the brilliant youngsters, Rooney and Ronaldo. Arsenal seem to produce a stream of gifted, black, French stars and their young Spanish midfielder, Ces Fabregas, has dominated all season. But when the teams are announced there is disappointment. Both teams had omitted their chief goalscorer. No place for the mercurial Ronaldo or the huge Adebayor, but captain Giggs, schemer Scholes and stopper Hargreaves were all missing for United and Arsenal lacked both their first choice full backs as well as the emerging mid-fielder Flamini. Still at this time in the season injuries are to expected, and that is why the teams have large squads. No reason not to expect a well fought match.

In the event it was completely one-sided. Arsenal were humiliated. It was as though only one side had turned up. United were first to every ball. They won 4-0 and it could have been ten. In the second half Arsenal showed their nasty side and began to cheat. After the match Wenger blamed the state of the pitch as if it were worse for his side than for United.

In Mark 16:1-8 everybody seemed to have accepted defeat. Jesus, the hoped for Messiah, had died on the cross, defeated by the Roman occupier at the behest of the religious authorities, betrayed by one of his own followers, denied by his most ardent disciple and deserted by the rest.

The women knew where they had buried him, so while it was still dark they went to the tomb expecting to do a woman's duty; wash the body and anoint it with sweet smelling perfumes to disguise the stink of decomposition. They were in disarray. They were at a loss as to who would grant them access to the tomb. There was a huge stone (weighing as much as a ton) sealing it. And they knew nothing about the armed soldiers that Pilate had set to guard it. With a Micawber-like hope that something would turn up they approached the tomb.

When they got there depression turned to alarm. The stone had been rolled away, but instead of the body of Jesus, a young man in a white robe was there. This in itself must have been bewildering. Only priests wore white and priests were not young men - you had to be at least 30 years old to become one.

He is not here. He is risen! No wonder the women were trembling and bewildered. But why? Peter's mother-in-law had been miraculously healed by Jesus, the paralyzed man had taken up his bed and walked, the daughter of Jairus had been raised from the dead, blind Batimaeus had received his sight, Only the previous week Lazarus had been raised after being 4 days in the grave, and Jesus himself had declared to them "After I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee".

They had seen and heard who Jesus was and is, yet they had not believed the evidence of their eyes and ears.

The defeat had seemed so overwhelming, yet it was a victory. The Devil had thrown his worst at Jesus. The military had inflicted extreme violence on him. The civil authorities had vented their spite on him. The religious authorities had spewed their hatred upon him. Yet he walked free. Death could not hold him.

He was the lamb without blemish. He was without sin. No-one could lay a glove on him. No accusation would stick. The wages of sin is death, yet he had no sin to earn such a wage. Instead he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities and the punishment that was upon him brought us peace.

Had he a single sin, death could have claimed him and kept him. The daughter of Jairus, the widow of Nain's son and Lazarus all had to die a second time. Not so Jesus. His resurrection was of a different nature. He was raised eternally, It was a complete victory. He was raised to show that the price he paid was enough. Had he remained in the sepulcher we might have suggested that he died for our sins, but we would always wonder, "Was it enough?" His resurrection showed that it was complete. For all past sins and all sins to come, no more duty is due.

Go and tell his disciples and Peter, instructed the Angel (for such he was).

Trembling and bewildered the women fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. And here ends story the according to Mark, what he called "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God".

Of course, we know what happened next from the other gospels. How Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and she reported to Peter and John, how he appeared to the two on the road to Emmaus, on two occasions in the upper room, to the disciples by the lake, on the Mount of Olives and on one occasion to 500 at a time. But Mark leaves us there. The final verses in our modern Bibles are a later addition, not necessarily untrue, but not Mark.

Why did he stop there? Because the victory is Christ's alone, achieved despite our failures. We continually let him down. We desert him, deny him, betray him and even when we have seen a miracle are afraid to speak out. What is our excuse? The pitch was too muddy? We didn't have our best players out? The opposition was too strong?

We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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