April 18, 2014

The Cross of Christ (Good Friday)

Passage: Matthew 26 & 27
Service Type:

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’

A Washington Post journalist by the name of Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer Prize for an article he wrote which he entitled "Pearls Before Breakfast." It was about a busker playing a violin at the top of the escalator outside the L'Enfant Station Plaza in Washington, D.C. Hidden from view was a video camera set up to record the event, and the busker played some of the most inspiring classical music ever written. And the commuters just walked on by, and by and large, ignored him
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world. And the violin he was playing was a Stradivarius, which had been built in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. This one was a combination of the finest spruce, maple, and willow. And built to such perfection that if you shaved off a millimeter of wood anywhere on that violin, it would unbalance the sound. The violin had been purchased for a reported 3.5 million dollars.

Joshua Bell normally plays in the great concert halls of the world. People pay a lot of money to go to hear him play. He earns up to a thousand dollars a minute for his actual playing.
On this particular morning he walked into the exit of the L'Enfant Plaza Station, positioned himself against a wall next to a trash basket. He was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a baseball cap. He removed his violin from its case and placed the case open on the ground in front of him, threw in some change to encourage donation, and he began to play. Every time a train pulled into the station, people streamed up out of the subway. Bell played for 47 minutes; over a thousand people passed him. Hardly anyone stopped to listen. 27 people put money into his violin case—it came to $31.21. Only one person recognized him.

The Washington Post placed a few reporters around the exit and they stopped some of the folks coming out and they said, "We are doing an article on commuting—could we have your telephone number; we would like to call you later in the day and ask a few questions." They called them and asked them if they had seen anything unusual at the station that morning. Most could not remember anything out of the ordinary. Some mentioned the busker. When the journalists told the people they were talking to that this was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world playing a Stradivarius that costs three and a half million dollars, they were astounded. They didn't expect him so they didn't recognize him, so they didn't hear him.

Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion. He was formerly Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He once debated John Lennox who is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. They debated the existence of God. At one point Dawkins said this of John Lennox: “He believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the physical constants, who devised the parsecs of space, billions of light years of space, billions of years of time, that this genius of mathematics and physical science could not think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust and have himself tortured and executed so that he could forgive.”

Dawkins of course, thinks such an idea is preposterous, irrational, and profoundly unscientific. He articulates well what the Apostle Paul calls the ‘foolishness of the cross.” Humanly speaking, Jesus on the cross is the wrong place to be looking for God. It is like being blind-sided in the subway station on a Friday morning in a hurry to get to work and you pass by one of the most brilliant violinists in the world playing some of the most beautiful music in the world on one of the most expensive violins in the world. You don't expect it and you don't see it.

1. Yet, here we are again at the foot of the cross. All over the world Christians are gathering to rehearse the events of the awful day. Are we simply obsessed with the morbid? Why don’t we move on to something more positive? Many in our world consider it quite bizarre. Why are we here, again?

In our Lenten study this year we took up the subject exploring themes outlined in John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ. He observed that religions and ideologies often embrace a symbol to represent or depict its inner essence. Why did Christian choose the cross? To those outside the church, it must seem odd or weird that a depiction of a form of execution would be this symbol for us.

The Christians’ choice of a cross as the symbol of their faith is surprising when we remember the horror with which crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world. We can understand why Paul’s “message of the cross” was for many of his listeners “foolishness”, even madness. (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23) Crucifixion was probably the cruelest method of execution ever practised; it deliberately delayed death until maximum torture had been inflicted; reserved for the worst of criminal. How could any sane person worship as a god a dead man who have been justly condemned as a criminal and subjected to the most humiliating form of execution? This combination of death, crime and shame put Jesus beyond the pale of respect, let alone worship.

Stott writes: “The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of ridicule, to discard it in favour of something less offensive, can have only one explanation. It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself. It was out of loyalty to him that his followers clung so doggedly to this sign.”

Go back with me to that wonderful day in Galilee when the disciples had gone on a bit of a retreat to a beautiful place known as Caesarea Philippi. It was here that Jesus asks them “who do you say that I am?” Peter, responding for them all, declared “You are Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus confirms they are correct in his commendation of Peter; “my Father in heaven revealed this to you.” But he then says they are not to tell anyone he was the Messiah.

Immediately after this he begins to openly teach how that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day rise again. Peter thought that Jesus’ vision for Messiah to be delusional and told him so. Jesus reacted in the strongest terms to Peter; “Get behind me adversary (Satan).” Anyone who would deflect Jesus from this destiny was an adversary, according to Jesus. Clearly, that he would die this death was paramount in his mind. Not so much the disciples’, at least until later, but certainly in the mind of Jesus.

Come back with me to his arrest. When Peter draws his sword he, again, reveals that he is of similar mind as he was on the day when he rebuked Jesus. He is going to prevent Jesus from such a destiny. Listen again to what Jesus said; “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

“.. it must happen this way,” said our Lord. Despite the great importance of his teaching, his example, and his works of compassion and power, none of these was central to his mission. What dominated his mind was not the living of his life but the giving of his life. This final self-sacrifice was his “hour” for which he has come into the world. And the four Evangelists, who bear witness to him in the Gospels, show that they understood this by the disproportionate amount of space which they give to the story of his last few days on earth, his death and resurrection.

2. “... it must happen in this way;” take a moment to underline the word “must.” “.. it must happen in this way.” Jesus is resolute that what is about to happen is necessary. He had said so when he first began to articulate his destiny with the disciples; “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed.” (Matthew 16:21) Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree; they record three occasions when Jesus said these things about his future destiny to his disciples. He was preparing them; the gospel writers note these sayings of Jesus as they prepare us who read this story for what it to unfold. It was Luke who tells us that after the resurrection Jesus taught showed his disciples how to read the older testament and understand “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.”

“… it must happen in this way.” Really? Our Lord says this so Peter will put his sword away even as Peter is trying to protect him. Was there no other way? As we stand before the cross the words of Richard Dawkins are closer to our minds—couldn’t the God who created the universe find a better way?

It is one of the great invitations of the Bible—Isaiah 55—“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts … For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In John’s gospel Jesus refers to his coming death as the hour of his glorification. (John 17:1) To glorify means to make manifest, to see clearly. It is stunning for us to contemplate that it is here at the cross that we see God most clearly; it is here we learn what God’s love is really like. Humans often turn from this scene in revulsion. When humanity gets its hands on God this is what we do. Yet it is here we see what God will do for us; he will go to any length for our sakes.

True love is purposive in its self-giving; it does not make random or reckless gestures. If you were to jump off the end of a pier and drown, or dash into a burning building and be burned to death, and if your self-sacrifice had no saving purpose, you would convince me of your folly, not your love. But if I were drowning in the sea or trapped in the burning building, and it was in an attempt to rescue me that you lost your life, then I would indeed see love in your action.

In the same way, the death of Jesus on the cross cannot be seen as a demonstration of love in itself, but only if he gave his life in order to rescue ours. Being crucified in and of itself proves nothing; it is an act of God’s love only in that it was for others.

I could explore with you how the Apostles probed the meaning of his death being for us with their images of propitiation (appeasement of wrath against our sin), redemption (transactions of the marketplace, to be bought back), justification (the law court, the judge declares innocent), reconciliation (from family life, what God has against us is set right, intimate relation resumes). And it would be a very fruitful exploration for us.

Still, even if we were to explore and understand fully these images we must be careful to note that to have understood the images is never to have exhausted the meaning of the doctrine. We can understand the words that our sin has caused God to oppose us because he is opposed to evil; we can understand that God has something against us that needs to be dealt with. But to conclude from this, that his self-giving in the Son at the cross was the necessary remedy to make such reconciliation possible is outside our comprehension? Jesus asked for another way in the garden and none was given; we too must be satisfied with the answer given Jesus.

After I have trotted out my best articulation of Jesus atoning sacrifice for my sin it is clear that the depravity of my heart is oceans deeper than I can imagine; my sin must be terrible, more so than I can comprehend—I can never know what sin means to God. Further, it is clear that God’s love for me must be wonderful beyond comprehension.

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; … Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?’