Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church, November 12, 2017
“The Heart of the Cross”
First of five sermons on the ‘Meaning of Christ’s Cross’
Scripture: Psalm 103:8-14 and 1 Peter 2:21-24
I invite you to examine a painting by Holman Hunt entitled ‘The Shadow of Death.’ (Copies attached to manuscript.) It depicts the inside of a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Stripped to the waist, Jesus stands by a wooden trestle into which He has placed His saw. He is lifting His eyes toward Heaven, and the look on His face is either pain or ecstasy, or both. As He does so, the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a shadow on the wall behind Him. The shadow is the form of a cross, with the tool-rack portraying a crossbeam. At His feet lies a red headband, symbolizing the blood-soaked crown of thorns which one day would be shoved unto His head.
In the left foreground a woman kneels, her hands resting on the chest in which rich gifts from the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face, but we know she is Mary. She looks startled, or so it seems, at her son’s cross-like shadow.
Holman Hunt painted ‘The Shadow of Death’ from 1870-1873 while living in the Holy Land. Though the scene conveyed in the painting is historically fictitious, it is theologically true. From Jesus’ birth, through His youth, even as He pursued three years of ministry, the Cross cast its shadow ahead of Him. He realized that His death was central to His mission. Moreover, the Church has always recognized the centrality of Christ’s Cross to the faith.
Imagine a stranger visiting this church on any given Sunday. This fictional person was raised in a non-Christian culture and possesses no knowledge about Christianity. Yet, he is very interested in learning about our religion. He enters our building through the Christian Life Center doors and notices inside the large room a ten foot cross lite by candles and a five foot wooden cross hanging above the stage. Walking down the hall towards the sanctuary he can’t help but notice 48 crosses of varying colors forming a circle on the wall.
Before the service begins, our visitor sits quietly and observes the man beside him wearing a little cross on his lapel. The woman on his other side has one on her necklace. After staring at the front of the sanctuary for a few seconds, he notices the etching of a large cross in the front window. What’s with all the crosses, he wonders?
Suddenly the choir and the congregation stand up to sing a hymn. The visitor reads the words on the screen, or opens the hymnal to the designated page, and scans the opening words:
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
(‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, #213, Hymnal)
After the sermon, where the Cross of Christ has been referenced several times, our visitor realizes he is witnessing a Holy Communion service that focuses on the death of Jesus. Before inviting the people to receive bread and the cup, the minister speaks about the body and blood of Christ. The service concludes with another hymn:
Upon the cross of Jesus mine eyes at times can see
the very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
and from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess –
the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
(‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus,’ #216, Hymnal)
Our stranger leaves church impressed, but puzzled. The repeated reference by word and symbol to the centrality of the Cross has been striking. Yet questions have arisen in his mind. What makes an ancient, horrible method of death so significant to these people? Do Christians really consider the Cross so important that they are willing to sacrifice everything for it? Wouldn’t the Christians be better off choosing another symbol for their faith, like a dove, or a fish, or a smiley emoji?
Essentially, our fictitious stranger is pondering the core question of the Christian faith: Why did Jesus have to die? Note the emphasis in the question. It is not, “Did Jesus die?” or even, “Who was responsible for Jesus’ death?” Rather, the question probes at a deeper level: “Why did Jesus have to die?” A person does not truly understand the Christian faith without knowing the answer to that question. Nor does a person understand the Cross until you see God’s hand at work in Jesus’ death.
Some people opine that Jesus was crucified because He was a troublemaker; a first-century rabble-rouser who got on the wrong side of the law and ended up paying with His life. Ostensibly, He was a trouble-maker, at least in the eyes of the religious authorities of His day (Matthew 26:57-68). But that explanation does not explain the Divine motives at work in Jesus’ life. The Romans bear some responsibility for Jesus’ death since only they possessed the authority to crucify a person. They felt the necessity to silence Jesus since He appeared to be a threat to law and order, which no society can tolerate (John 19:16b-22). So Jesus was quickly terminated. Nor, can we ignore the responsibility of Jesus’ own disciple Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Mt. 26:14-16). But the Gospels do not blame the Jews, Romans, or even Judas for Jesus’ death. There was another reason why Jesus died on the Cross. And that reason was so significant that the Cross became the very heart, the foundational belief of the faith.
The cross was identified as the symbol of the Christian faith in the fourth century. Christianity’s persistent refusal to discard the Cross in favor of something less offensive can only have 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 believers have clung steadfastly to this sign. What evidence is there that the Cross stood at the heart of Jesus’ own understanding of His life and faith in God?
Our only glimpse into the developing mind of the boy Jesus is provided in the account when He was twelve years old and mistakenly left in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:41-50). When His anxious parents eventually found Him, Jesus responded with innocent astonishment, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” The story reveals how, at the age of 12, Jesus spoke of God as “my Father” and also felt an inward compulsion to occupy Himself with His Father’s affairs. He knew His Father had sent Him into the world for a purpose.
The mission God had sent Him to perform gradually emerges in the Gospels. The Gospel writers hint that Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:13-17) and temptation (Matt. 4:1-11) were occasions when He committed Himself to follow God’s path: the way of suffering and death rather than popularity and acclaim. A critical moment in His ministry occurred when Peter blurts out that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus responded by warning him not to tell anyone (Mark 8:29-30). Afterward, a significant change took place in Jesus life, for He:
Began to teach them (His disciples) that the Son of Man must suffer many
things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law,
and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
Jesus repeats the prediction of His passion two more times (Mark 9:31, 10:33-34).
Putting the three predictions incidents together, one realizes that the most startling fact is not that Jesus knew He would be betrayed, rejected, and condemned by His own people; nor that He would be handed over to the Gentiles who would mock and kill Him; not even that He would rise from the dead after three days. What is most impressive is the determination He expressed and exemplified. He accepted that He must suffer and die, in order that everything written about Him in Scripture would be fulfilled (Matt. 5:17-18, 18:20; Luke 24:27; John 2:19-20, 5:39,46, 12:47-49). Based upon all this evidence, what are we justified in saying about Jesus’ perspective on His own death? Beyond question, He knew the fate that awaited Him; not in the sense that we all know we will die one day. But in the sense that He would meet a violent, premature, yet purposeful death which God had planned for Him. He knew He would die because of what was written about the Messiah in the Scriptures (Mark 14:21). From Isaiah 53, Jesus seems to have derived the clearest forecast not only of His sufferings, but also of His subsequent glory; for there the servant of God is presented as “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain” (v.3). On him the Lord laid our sins, so that “he was pieced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (v.5).
Jesus understood that He would suffer and die for humanity’s sin, and also be glorified. What dominated His mind was not the living, but the giving of His life! So the Gospel writers, and Paul, and Peter, all emphasize that Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-5; Romans 5:9-10; 2 Peter 2:24, Rev. 5:5-6). Although the apostles’ attributed His death to human wickedness, they declared that the ultimate reason for Jesus’ death was to fulfill God’s purpose of defeating sin – all of humanity’s sin – my sin and your sin.
We put Jesus on the Cross by our greed, envy, hatred, lust, and many other sins. Whenever we turn away from Christ, we are crucifying the Son of God all over again. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And we must answer, “Yes, we were there.” Not as spectators, but as guilty participants – plotting, scheming, betraying and handing Him over to be crucified. Before we can see the Cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance). Only then do we recognize the amazing measure of God’s grace. For in Jesus Christ, the Father gave Himself up to die for us. We glory in the Cross of Jesus Christ!