“And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him…”
Maundy Thursday 2012
All four of the Gospel writers tell us that when Jesus was arrested and tried, not only was he stripped and scourged, but he was mocked by soldiers who dressed him up in a robe, with a crown of thorns, put a scepter made of a reed in his hand, and then spat on him, laughed at him, paid mock homage to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” There is a profound irony in this. They could have never in their wildest dreams have imagined that this same One who was the butt of their cruel jokes would one day indeed be worshiped as a King by millions of people of all races and cultures , across the world, spanning both continents and centuries, unlike any other King the world has known. 2000 years later, it is not Pilate or Herod or Caesar I call my King. No, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”
Mark, Luke, and John tell us that this robe they placed upon him as a joke was a purple robe. Matthew alone says the robe was scarlet. Who was right? Was it purple, scarlet, both? The main point of course is not the color, but what the color symbolizes: Kingship. You see, ancient people used a kind of costly purple dye to produce a wide range of shades across the whole spectrum of scarlet, crimson, burgundy, maroon, violet, purple. Remember Lydia in the Book of Acts, a wealthy seller of “purple goods”?
This is something that I have always loved about the stained glass windows of our sanctuary and how Jesus’ robe in nearly every window is scarlet. Or is it purple? Or is it shades of both?
This is one reason why when we were rebuilding the sanctuary after the storm, we chose shades of this color for the carpet, for the choir robes, for the pew cushions, to match the shades of red in the robe, to tie it all together. Some of you will remember there was much debate over the shade: crimson, scarlet, maroon, burgundy, violet, purple? We even had to call in a professional colorist to choose the color of carpet you see on our red steps! He was obviously on Matthew’s side: scarlet. I initially thought it was way too red, but he said, “Don’t worry. It will deepen in time.”
Most things do: deepen in time.
I am saying all this because I believe there is some powerful symbolism here. It is symbolism used not only in the windows that surround us every time we worship, symbolism employed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but it is symbolism that is used in a hymn that we will sing on this holy night, in the beautiful verse that reads:
In mock acclaim, O gracious Lord,
they snatched a purple cloak;
your passion turned, for all they cared,
into a soldier’s joke.
They could not know, as we do now,
that though we merit blame
you will your robe of mercy throw
around our naked shame.
Your robe of mercy. That same robe the soldiers meant for mockery, now a robe of mercy.
I sing that verse and can’t help but remember that day when the scribes and Pharisees caught a woman in the act of adultery and dragged her from her bed no doubt naked before Jesus, ready to stone her to a bloody violent death. Pronounce judgment, Jesus! Step back and let’s give her what she richly deserves. But remember how he put himself between her and her accusers, how he knelt down next to her in the dust, how he wrote in the dirt, how he protected, shielded her, defended, saved her, and would have taken the bullet for her that day. How well that she would have understood the meaning of that verse: You will your robe of mercy throw around my naked shame.
I think of the thief on the cross hanging there next to Jesus, his wasted life of crime exposed for all the world to see, asking Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” How well the thief would have understood that verse: You will your robe of mercy throw around my naked shame.
I think of all the stories told about the way he would defend the defenseless, befriend the friendless, include the excluded, loving the unlovable, forgiving the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, reaching out to Samaritans, foreigners, drawing God’s circle of mercy wider and wider and wider. How well anyone who was blessed to stand inside that perimeter of grace would have understood that verse: You will your robe of mercy throw around my naked shame.
And mine. For it is precisely in those times when I have not been at my best, but my worst and weakest–consumed with self-doubt, self- condemnation, kicking myself for something stupid I have said or done, haunted by past failures for which I have never quite forgiven myself, that I have found in him my Shield and Defender, Redeemer and Friend. He will his robe of mercy throw around my naked shame.
And yours. That’s what tonight is about, what this whole week is about. What not only this scarlet robe means to us, but this table, this bread, this cup, this cross. It’s about just how far God will go to show us the height and depth and breadth of his unfailing love for us. In our worst and weakest moment. When we feel we least deserve it. This amazing grace: He will his robe of mercy throw around our naked shame.
On this night, as we sit in this in this sanctuary, surrounded by images of this strong symbol, may your life be filled with unfailing love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
Eternal God, we come to his place tonight just about as faithful as those first frightened disciples were, anxious about the future, keenly aware of our shortcomings. Surround us with a sense of your presence. Fill us with the assurance of your love. Help us to know that where our imperfect love falls short, your unfailing love embraces all. Wrap us in your robe of mercy, that we may learn to love one another as you first loved us.