Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church, November 19, 2017
“The Achievement of the Cross”
Second of five sermons on the ‘Meaning of Christ’s Cross’
Scripture: Isaiah 53:4-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Christianity is unique. The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but when the Gospel of Jesus Christ burst into the world, no one in history had ever conceived of worshipping a crucified man. The early Christian preaching announced the entrance of God into the world in the person of an itinerant Jewish carpenter who had been ingloriously crucified alongside two criminals, condemned by religious and secular authorities, died a painful, horrible death, and left behind a demoralized band of scruffy, frightened disciples.
The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is rarely acknowledged in today’s world. Too often, modern Christians are lulled into thinking that our faith is just another of the many world religions, without realizing that the central claim of Christianity is shockingly irreligious at its core. We normally think of religion as a set of beliefs which project humanity’s needs, wishes and longings. Religion is meant to bring joy, peace and comfort. But ironically, the essential message of Christianity focuses on the suffering, humiliation and death of its founder. Christianity’s central message of the Cross of Christ establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, society and an individual’s future.
We, 21st century Christians, are so accustomed to seeing the cross functioning as a decoration that we scarcely imagine it as an object of shame and ridicule. That was not the case for the early Christians. The Apostle Paul, in writing a letter to Christians in Rome, offered this surprising introduction, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel…” (Romans 1:16). Why was it necessary for Paul to issue such a disclaimer? Because, for those first believers, the message of a crucified Jesus dying for humanity’s sin was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Imagine hearing an early Christian share the story of Jesus’ life for the first time. They would describe Jesus’ perfect life, the remarkable miracles and His profound teachings. Then the climax to their message was that this great man whom they worshipped and served, was crucified – and they actually glorified God in that fact! Who in the world would celebrate such a gruesome end? How could the Christians believe in an Almighty and All-loving God who would allow such a terrible tragedy to happen to His only Son? Incredibly, what those original Christians proclaimed, we claim today: Christ died for our sins to bring us salvation.
I recognize the objections of those who insist the concept of an innocent person taking on the guilt of another on the Cross is illogical and unjust. I understand the argument that the concept of Jesus being God’s substitute, who dies in our place, is culturally conditioned since many cultures are not burdened with the ideas of guilt, bondage, shame and defeat. I’ve listened to those who protest any teaching about Jesus dying for humanity’s sin because it depicts God as violent and vindictive. However, we cannot ignore the many Scriptural passages which declare:
“God made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21)
“He bore our sins in his body on the tree (cross) (1 Pet. 2:24)
The Cross is the key to the message of the Good News. Through the death of Jesus Christ God has dealt with sin, misery, death, evil and Satan. Even though the message of the Cross was scandalous to non-believers, for believers it was paradoxically glorious. Because the Cross marked the epochal saving event in God’s dealing with the sin of the world.
Do you remember in 2003, when Roy Horn, one of the partners in the Las Vegas magical act of Siegfried and Roy, was attacked by a tiger? Roy had instructed the tiger to “lie down.” The tiger refused, so Roy tapped it on the nose. Suddenly the tiger struck him, carrying him around by his neck. Men rescued Roy and rushed him to the hospital where he hung between life and death for days. Roy thought the tiger would always obey him. One evening the tiger showed who had the real power!
Sin is like that in our lives. It pretends that our dependencies, lusts and desires are all healthy, and that we can stop whenever we choose. But sin is in control all the time. Just try to get free and you will see. The whole world needs the redemption that only Jesus Christ can provide.
On the Cross, our sin was imputed to Jesus Christ by Almighty God (2 Cor. 5:21) – but it could not break Jesus. He accepted its unabated power, received the horror of humanity’s sin on Himself, and overcame it by dying and rising to new life. That overcoming power of Christ is what He gives to each of us as He takes up His abode in our lives. He redeems us from the slavery of sin by becoming our new loving and patient master (Rom. 6:2). He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Revelation 17:14).
Since Jesus clearly did not deserve to die, why would He sacrifice His life for sinners like you and me? (Rom. 5:6-8) The message of the Gospel is unequivocal on this point: The Cross shows the love and justice of God. God requires our obedience but we can’t deliver. God’s justice requires satisfaction, therefore we face Judgment. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). To remedy our predicament, Jesus gave Himself up in our place and for our sake. Our sin is hidden within Him, and His righteousness justifies us. Putting it another way, we are not saved by any decision of our own. We are saved by Christ’s work in taking our sin and guilt upon Himself.
This is the message of the Cross. It is the place where our bondage to the power and deleterious effects of sin ended. It is where Jesus made an atoning sacrifice for sin; where God’s justice is satisfied; where sinners are reconciled to God; and where evil and Satan are defeated. We may not say that the message of the Cross along with other truths expressed in the New Testament constitute the Gospel. This is the Gospel – the Good News! The entirety of the Gospel is shaped by the Cross.
All our prayers are shaped by the Cross. All our worship is shaped by the Cross. All our knowledge of God is shaped by the Cross. All our motivation for living for God is shaped by the Cross. What is means to be Christ’s disciple is shaped by the Cross. How should a husband love his wife? As Christ loved us and died for us (Eph. 5:25). How should we give to the church? As Christ gave Himself to us (2 Cor. 8:9).
Wherever we may look; at whatever detail in our lives, we are constantly confronted with the dying love of Jesus Christ. Erase the Cross and our whole lives make no sense. By the power of the Cross we can face our most fierce accuser and tell them Jesus Christ died for us.
If you’ve seen the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ you’ll remember the next to last scene where the U.S. Army captain, played by Tom Hanks, is fatally wounded trying to prevent German possession of a bridge and the capture of Private Ryan. The mission is accomplished and Private Ryan is safe. The big question is, was it worth it?
It is impossible to answer for many others have died keeping Private Ryan safe. However, the dying words of Tom Hank’s character are some of the cruelest last words on film. Barely able to speak, the dying captain whispers his final command to Private Ryan, “Earn it! Earn it!” In other words, live a life that gives the overwhelming loss of others’ lives a purpose. They are cruel words, because Private Ryan has been wondering all along whether the death of so many other American soldiers to keep him alive was worth it. It is a terrible burden which the captain places upon Private Ryan. The film closes with a much older Private Ryan visiting the Captain’s gravesite at the American cemetery in Normandy, France. Tears stream down Ryan’s cheek as he asks his wife, “Tell me, I’ve been a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good enough life.”
Can you imagine if Jesus’ dying words on the Cross were, “You all earn it.” Can you imagine the burden you would be carrying if you had to live up to Jesus sacrifice for you? You could never do it! Instead, Jesus last words on the Cross were, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
The message of the Cross is simply that we can never earn it, nor do we need to. How do we respond to that incredible love? In one sense, we can’t. It is too great- too amazing. In another sense, there is only one way – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul (Mark 12:30). In other words, follow Jesus Christ!