Friday, March 18, 2016

The Message of the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18; Matthew 27:27-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the summer of 2012, 36 year old Sage Stallone, son of actor Sylvester Stallone, of Rambo and Rocky fame, died suddenly of a heart attack.  His father said: "It's very, very tough. It's a horrible situation, but time hopefully will heal and you try to get through it."  When filming began on a Rocky sequel, the actor was still devastated by the loss of his son. Stallone said, "You just feel responsible. You weren't there and you can't even save your son."

We are familiar with the principle of life that all parents hold in common – children should not precede their parents in death.  The loss of a child, whether young or grown, is perhaps the greatest loss in life.  We contrast this normal human reaction with the Bible's understanding of the cross.

John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”  God chose to not save his only Son for our sake.

We turn now to the crucifixion of Jesus.  The Roman's charged Jesus with treason; he was condemned by the Romans as a traitor.  The derisive inscription on the cross read – “King of the Jews.”  Rome was telling the world there was only one king, one Emperor and that was Caesar.  The name of the place in Jerusalem where criminals were crucified was ominous.   Jesus was crucified at a site just outside of the walls of Jerusalem called Golgotha, an Aramaic name for “place of the skull.”

Now, the question is often asked - who killed Jesus?  Was it the Jews?  Yes and no.  Jews have been called Jesus-killers or Christ-killers for centuries. The Nazi’s accused them of this crime in order to justify their diabolical plot to exterminate all Jews.    The New Testament Gospels implicate the Jews in Jesus’ death.  The crowds and the Jewish political and religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea, under Roman Emperor Tiberius, and shouted –“Crucify him, Crucify him.”

Annually, the custom was that the Roman Governor Pilate could free one prisoner, anyone the Jews asked for.  Pilate asked the crowd if they wanted him to release Jesus, but they shouted “No,” release another prisoner, Barabbas.  So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, freed Barabbas from his impending execution.

Well did the Romans kill Jesus?   Yes and no.  Clearly, they carried out the punishment.   As I've said, the governor Pontius Pilate desperately tried to get Jesus released, but the crowd wouldn’t hear of it.  Pilate didn't believe that Jesus had committed any crime which merited execution.  But the crowd was relentless.    So a specially selected unit of Roman soldiers first whipped Jesus and then hung him on a cross to die a slow and agonizing death.

We could stop here.  We could say both the Jews and Romans were responsible for crucifying Jesus.  But the New Testament pushes us forward.  Our Christian faith takes us to a deeper level.   We move from interpreting Jesus' death politically, to interpreting it theologically.

The Bible and our Christian faith says Jesus was crucified because humanity sinned against God.  Humanity's sin dishonored God, disobeyed God, rebelled against God and followed other gods.  Humanity committed idolatry by following and worshipping others gods instead of the one true God. This was an egregious affront to God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.

The Bible and Christian faith proclaims this truth; it was humanity’s sin which killed Jesus.  The letter of Romans says: “What then?  Are we Greeks any better off than the Jews?  Not at all, for we have already charged that all, Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”   The Bible declares: “For the wages of sin is death.” Because of humanity's sin against God, humanity deserves the penalty of death.  Humanity broke away from God.  Human sin was responsible for Jesus’ death.

Christians have long sung the gospel song “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.  Were you there?”  The Bible's answer is: “Yes, I was there that day, you were there that day.” Humanity crucified Jesus on that fateful day at Calvary.

But still this is not the final word.  The Bible goes even deeper, it declares this astounding truth; it was God’s will out of love for the world, that Jesus died on the cross.   I Timothy says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  The letter of Romans says:  “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.”  “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Jesus atoned for our sins by his sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus took our sin, guilt, our shame, our punishment, our death upon himself.  Jesus the judge, was judged in our place.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 53 written centuries before Jesus appeared on the human scene says: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.   Surely he bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Rather than punishing humanity, God decided to do something about this broken relationship and mend the relationship, reconcile it, restore it, through the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ.  Scripture uses different metaphors to portray this.  Jesus' death was a means of redemption or deliverance from sin.  It was a sacrifice, a ransom, a debt paid, a substitution, an act of forgiveness, an ultimate price paid to bring us back to be at one with God.

The letter of Romans says:  “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Scripture in essence is saying that Jesus’ death is a paradox; it was the result both of the sin of man and the will of God.

John 4:9 declares:  “This is how God showed his amazing love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”  Jesus’ death made us right with God and through faith in the crucified and risen Savior we can experience new life, a new beginning, a fresh start now and forever.

The late author Christopher Hitchens wrote a bestselling book God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.   Hitchens was an avowed atheist and toured the country debating religious leaders.  In Portland, OR he was interviewed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell.

Here is an excerpt:
Rev. Sewell: “Mr. Hitchens, the religion you refer to in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I'm a liberal Christian, and I don't take the stories from the Scripture literally. I don't believe in the doctrine of atonement that Jesus died for our sins.  Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?” 

Hitchens: “I would say that if you don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you're really not in any meaningful sense a Christian. 

Rev. Sewell wanted no part of that discussion so her next words were, "Let me go someplace else."

I agree with Hitchens.  If you don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who died on the cross to forgave our sins and the sins of the world, and rose from the dead, you are not "in any biblical or meaningful sense" a Christian.  How ironic that an outspoken atheist points out this truth of Christianity.   What you believe about Jesus Christ and his life and death really does make a difference; it really does matter.  No other world religion makes this claim about God.

For centuries, the message of the gospel has radically changed people's lives.  People who have heard and believed this message experienced a transformation and were never the same again.  At the same time, this same message has been rejected by many people.  People have distained it and called the message sheer folly.    People have mocked it and ridiculed it.

The Bible calls this message a mystery.  We read in I Corinthians where the apostle Paul writes:  “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom.  I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Scripture says human wisdom alone cannot believe this message.   We read further: “Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age.  We speak of God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this.  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

I close with this story from the Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. He tells about a Vietnam veteran‘s parade in Chicago to commemorate a mobile version of the Vietnam Wall, which like the original wall in Washington D.C. bears the names of all the American service men and women who died in Vietnam.

A reporter asked a veteran why he had come all the way to Chicago to visit this memorial and to participate in the parade. The veteran looked straight into the face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face said, "Because of this man right here." As the veteran talked, he was pointing to the name of a friend that was etched in the wall.  He traced the letters of his friend's name in the wall with his finger saying: "This man right here gave his life for me.  He gave his life for me." And the sobbing veteran let the tears flow, as he stood there with his finger on the name of his friend.

As we approach holy week, beginning next week with Palm Sunday, let us both remember and testify to this central truth:  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”  Amen!

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