Sermon March 9

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

March 9, 2014

“The Importance of the Cross”

I Corinthians 1:18-2:2

Each Sunday through Easter the sermon is going to focus on one of the Songs of Lent, one of the hymns often associated with the season of Lent. So I thought I’d start at the top. “The Old Rugged Cross” is one of the best-known, most beloved hymns of the church. It was written in 1912 by George Bennard, a Methodist evangelist in the Midwest. The lyrics he penned are personal, heartfelt and filled with hope. One poll in 1938 picked it as America’s favorite song. After Bennard’s death in 1953, the Chamber of Commerce of Reed City, Michigan erected a large memorial cross near his home. Later, “The Old Rugged Cross” Historical Museum was opened there.

For many people there is a sentimental attachment to this hymn. I often have people request it for a memorial service. But why is that? How is it that the symbol of a most horrible and cruel form of execution has become the symbol of the Christian faith?

I don’t recall ever being in a church that didn’t have a cross in a prominent location. In our church, you can’t get any more prominent than that. Why do we do that? Why is the cross so important to us? There are a number of other symbols that could have been chosen to represent the Christian faith instead of the cross – the kind of symbols that you see around the sanctuary, on the banners and the paraments. But rather than commemorate the birth of Jesus, or his teachings, or his miraculous works, or even his resurrection, instead in the cross we remember his death.

The earliest surviving depiction of the cross is a crude drawing on the side of a house in Rome. Actually it is graffiti that was intended to mock Christians. Drawn as a caricature, it depicts a man stretched out on a cross and having the head of a donkey. To one side stands another man with one arm raised in worship. Underneath are scrawled the words: “Alexamenos worships God.” The idea of worshiping a God who had been crucified was a cause for ridicule.

This changed when Constantine, the Roman emperor, became a Christian. On the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, he reported that he had seen a cross of light in the sky along with the words, “conquer by this sign”. Constantine had the Christian symbol, the Chi Rho, emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers and went on to victory. He made Christianity a legal religion and abolished crucifixion.

In the intervening centuries the cross has come to be the most important symbol of the Christian faith. When I visited East Germany the first time in 1982, I saw the huge T.V. tower in the Alexanderplatz of East Berlin. It was intended to be a symbol of the advancement and superiority of the communist system. At the top of the tower, much like the Space Needle in Seattle, there is a sphere which contains a restaurant and an observation deck. The outside of the sphere looks like it was constructed with metallic squares and when the sun is shining it causes a huge golden cross to be reflected off the tower. The East German government tried to correct that problem but was unsuccessful. The Christians I spoke to in East Germany took great delight in that cross and interpreted it as a sign that no matter what the communists did they could never get rid of the church.

However, today the cross is just as likely to be a trivial ornamentation as it is a sign of faith. At one time to wear a cross around your neck actually meant something. Now it just means you’re fashionable or even superstitious. You may see the most unexpected people wearing crosses as jewelry or even tattoos.

As a sign of the times, one pastor shared the experience of a member of his congregation. She had walked into a jewelry store looking for a necklace. She said to the salesman, “I’d like a gold cross.” The man behind the counter looked over the stock in the display case and said, “Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?”

Here’s a quote from Vogue magazine: “Both as streetwise pendants and as couture pieces, crosses have had a popular revival. With medieval inspired fashion making its mark, a cross worn at the neck or pinned to a jacket will continue to be a definitive accessory of the moment.”

To the world the cross may be nothing more than a pretty piece of jewelry or just something to place over a grave. But to the church this is the touchstone of all that we believe about God. There is nothing more central to our Christian faith than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. We consider it crucial to all that we believe as Christians. In fact, the word “crucial” comes from the Latin word “crux” meaning “cross”.

The cross embodies the good news of the gospel. In the New Testament, we see that all that Jesus embodied in himself and all that he did as he healed and taught and loved was a revelation of who God is. But no other deed communicates that revelation so completely as the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus was more than the martyrdom of a good man. It was more than the inspiration of a great example. The cross is a window through which we see the love of God poured out for us.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said: “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.” Paul had one word to preach to the world – it was the message of the cross. He said – That’s it! That’s my message! Paul wrote: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

The message of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. Paul says that the Greeks, when they hear this message of a crucified Jewish Messiah, the Greeks laugh; they think it’s foolishness. And the Jews, they stumble over it. They’re scandalized by this suffering Messiah. It says: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

The Jews were offended by the cross. It went against all their cherished hopes for the Messiah. They wanted a warrior-king like David and instead they got the suffering servant of Isaiah. Martin Luther declared that all theology begins at the foot of the cross. We do not believe in a God who is aloof and detached from his creation, uncaring and unmoved by our human predicament. We believe that God has entered our world in Jesus Christ because he loves us, in order to save us from our sins.

The theologian Paul Tillich has said that Matthias Grunewald’s painting 500 years ago of the “Crucifixion” is the greatest portrayal of the incarnation in the visual arts. In that painting we see a bloody and dying Jesus hanging on the cross. The wonder of it all is that God came in human flesh and that he went to the cross for you and me. The book of Hebrews encourages us to look to “…Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Jews knew the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy it says: “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The Jews made no distinction between a tree and a cross. As far as the Jews were concerned, Jesus, condemned by the Jewish leaders and legally executed by the Roman authorities, was cursed. The Old Testament said it, therefore it must be true. And the Jews were right. Jesus was cursed. But the question is – whose curse did he carry? It wasn’t his curse. Jesus was the sinless Son of God. Jesus didn’t carry his curse to the cross, he carried your curse and my curse as he died upon the cross.

For the Greeks the cross was the height of foolishness. To the Greek way of thinking the primary characteristic of the gods was apatheia. This is where we get the word – apathy. It meant a total inability to feel. The argument was that if God could feel emotions then it would be possible to influence God, which for the Greeks would be a contradiction in terms. A Greek could not conceive of God lowering himself, subjecting himself to come in human flesh. And the idea of a God who suffers and dies was foolishness to them.

Instead they revered wisdom. They were intoxicated by fine words and complicated arguments. Paul’s answer to the Greeks was simple. He said: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Then Paul said: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

The Greeks liked to think in generalities. They preferred the perfect ideal rather than the concrete and the tangible. And that’s the way many people are. People like to think of God in vague generalities. Most people would say that they believe in God. They even believe that God created us and that God loves us. But they have difficulty moving from the general to the particular. Let me tell you, we can know nothing about the love of God apart from the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the concrete deed and action of God himself. Jesus Christ is not just one illustration of God’s love for us. This is God’s most supreme revelation of himself to the world. In that sacrificial act God has spoken in human history and we must hear the Word of God.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross simply because people didn’t understand him. It wasn’t because of the powerful enemies he had made. Jesus died on the cross for you and me. He came to pay the penalty for all sin. All the charges that can be made against you and me, all the fingers that can be pointed at us, all of the condemnation that rightly belongs to us, was laid upon him. You and I are like the thief who comes to Christ with nothing good to say for ourselves. But at the cross, our need and God’s love meet. At the cross of Jesus Christ we find a love that can save us.

In the late 1800s, Charles Berry was the pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. One day Berry described how earlier he had come to Jesus Christ. There had been a time in Berry’s early ministry when he preached a very thin gospel – really no gospel at all. He looked upon Jesus as merely a noble teacher but not as a divine Redeemer.

Late one night during his first pastorate, as he sat in his cozy study, there came a knock. He opened the door and found a young girl. “Are you a minister?” she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on breathlessly. “You must come with me quickly. I want you to get my mother in.” Thinking it was a case of some drunken mother out in the streets, Berry said, “You must go and get a policeman.” “No”, said the girl, “my mother is dying, and you must come and get her into heaven.”

Berry got dressed and followed her for a mile and a half through the darkened streets. He knelt at the woman’s side, and he began telling her how good and kind Jesus was and how he’d come to show us how to live.

Then the desperate woman cut him off. “Mister”, she cried, “that’s no use for the likes of me. I’m a sinner. I’ve lived my life. Can’t you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me and save my soul?”

“I stood there in the presence of a dying woman”, said Berry, “and I realized I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother’s knee, to my cradle faith, and I told her the story of the cross and of a Christ who is able to save to the uttermost.”

The tears began to run down the woman’s cheeks. “Now you’re getting it”, she said. “Now you’re helping me.” Charles Berry concluded the story by saying, “I got her in, and blessed be God, I got in myself.”

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