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A Faith That Sings: The Cross: Stumbling Block Or Stepping Stone?

Matthew 27:45-50

So this is Texas’s independence day. And I’ve got on my boots and my jeans. And I’m preaching about the old rugged cross. Let me tell you, this is as close to cowboy church as we get here. But let’s get on with the preaching. This is the Word of God.

“From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’

“When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately, one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. But the rest said, ‘Leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit.”

May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.

Pray with me, please. Lord, nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross, I cling. Amen.

When I stand to preach, sometimes as I have just done, I pray this simple prayer. Lord, nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross, I cling. Understand please, those are not just meaningless words casually delivered. Those words mean the world to me. For you see, I know, like you, I know that I am a sinner. And I have long since come to the realization that the only hope I have in life, the only hope I have in life is to cling for all I am worth to the cross of Jesus Christ. If the New Testament writers are unanimous about anything, they are unanimous about the fact that the cross is the place where, by virtue of the death of Jesus, the power of sin has been struck down and sinful people are saved for the kingdom of Heaven. Little wonder then that the cross is such a central reality to everything that we as Christians say and think and do and believe. And little wonder, as well, that the best known, best loved, most widely sung hymn of them all is the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” Every time someone conducts a survey to determine what is the most popular hymn of our time, “The Old Rugged Cross” in every instance always finished first. And not only that, but “The Old Rugged Cross” garners more first place votes than all of the other hymns combined.

Now why is that true? Well, it is not because the tune is great. It isn’t. And it’s not because the poetry is great. It isn’t, either. The reason is that the message of the words of “The Old Rugged Cross” is so overwhelmingly powerful. And therefore today, I wish to take the words of that great old gospel song of faith and use them to preach in your hearing a sermon of grace.

The words of “The Old Rugged Cross” remind us of what it means to live in Christ.

On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross.
The emblem of suffering and shame.
I love that old cross where the dearest and best,
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

I remember once walking down the street in Asheville, North Carolina and passing a jewelry store. And in the front window of the jewelry store, there was a display of golden crosses, varying sizes, all of them bright and shiny, some of them encrusted with precious jewels. And beside each cross, there was a price tag. And then above the whole display, a sign, big bold letters, a sign which read, “On easy terms.” Yikes. Whew! Well, crosses in jewelry stores may come on easy terms, but that is not the way the cross came to Jesus Christ. There was nothing easy about it for Him. In fact, it was horrible to the extreme.

You do understand, don’t you, that the cross was a particularly demonic form of capital punishment devised and utilized by the Romans? Now, you and I would never think of singing songs of praise to the guillotine. You and I would not for a moment bow down before a gallows and clutch with love its 13-coil noose. You and I would never dream of wearing about our necks tiny gold electric chairs. And yet, the reality is you and I as Christians worship beneath and sing about and wear as jewelry as awful an instrument of torture and death as the mind of man has ever conceived.

Christianity is often called a living miracle. I believe that to be true. And surely, a part of the miracle is the fact that the cross, this emblem of suffering and shame, has been transformed from an instrument of stark horror into an object of profound adoration. Why the transformation? Simply because on the old rugged cross, the perfect substituted Himself for the imperfect. The innocent paid the price with His own blood for the guilty. You see, because Jesus was the only person in all the world not to cause sin, Jesus could be the only person in all the world to cure sin. That’s what happened on the old rugged cross. Jesus shed His blood for your sake and for mine.

And so the next time a street corner evangelist approaches you and says, “Tell me, friend, when were you saved? Give me the year, the day, the hour,” you tell him, “Good Friday, 3:00 in the afternoon, 2000 years ago.” That’s what the old rugged cross is all about. And that’s why we love to sing that great old gospel song, because that is where the dearest and best, for a world of lost sinners was slain.

The words of “The Old Rugged Cross” remind of us what it means to live for Christ. “In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so device, a wondrous beauty I see. For ’twas on that old cross, Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me.” Sanctify. There’s a great old-fashioned theological word. Not much understood, not much used in this day and time. But it is a great words.

That’s why I’m so grateful that Frederick Buechner has taken that great old word and dragged it into our times and into our terms. Frederick Buechner writes, “In the play Beauty and the Beast, it is when the beast discovers that Beauty loves him even in spite of his ugliness that he then starts to become beautiful.” That’s what it means when we say, “We are sanctified.” When we understand that God loves us even in our unloveliness, well then we begin to live lives that are lovely indeed.

Oh, that process that we call sanctification is sometimes a long, slow, painful process. But gradually, little by little, the forgiven life becomes a forgiving life. The healed person becomes a healing person. The loved person becomes a loving person. Boil the fat out of the bacon, and it comes out like this: face the cross in your life, and your life will face in a new direction. Instant replay. Face the cross in your life, and your life will face in a new direction.

Peter Marshall once told the story of a little English boy who was taken to church for the very first time by his governess, his nanny. Little boy had never been in church before. They entered the church, found a place to sit. The little boy watched with gathering curiosity as the preacher mounted the pulpit steps, and then the preacher proceeded to give out a bit of terrible news. Terrible news about a kind and brave young man who didn’t deserve this, but nevertheless was nailed and spiked in great pain to a cross for the sake of other people. And it was news about how this kind and brave young man was hurting still because people just wouldn’t live the way he wanted them to live. The little boy actually thought that the preacher was delivering this news in the hopes that all of those people in the church might rise up and do something about it. And the little boy looked around. He was stunned to see, nobody moved. Nobody batted an eye. Nobody said a word.

He actually began to weep because he couldn’t believe that these people just didn’t seem to care. And it was at that point that his nanny leaned over to him and said, “Don’t take it all so seriously, son. People will think you strange.” Whew.

Let me tell you, dear friends, I don’t think it’s strange that the cross of Jesus Christ would begin to work in a person’s life to the extent that that person began to feel that something must be done. No, I’ll tell you what I think is strange. Oh, yes. I think it’s strange that there are people in the church who claim the cross of Jesus Christ, but who then give no evidence of that whatever in their everyday living. I think it’s strange that we count as normal that people would cheer at a basketball game or curse at a golf ball, but we label as fanatics and nuts people who cannot think of a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem without getting a tear in their eyes and a knot in their heart and a lump in their throat and a will in their spirits to live the kind of loving and to love the kind of living that Jesus did. That’s what I think is strange. I think it’s strange that any man, woman, boy, or girl could see the cross of Jesus Christ and understand what it means and not be changed.

I know that for some people, the cross is a stumbling block. Early in my ministry, on occasion, I would have people say to me, “Preacher, I can’t accept all this cross stuff, all this Christ stuff. I can’t accept it intellectually.” I guess I used to have a measure of respect for their views. Not so much anymore. Because you see, over the years, I’ve come to know a number of those people, and I’ve come to see that their appeal to intellectual superiority is just a dodge. It’s a cop-out. There’s nothing noble about it all. You see, they will not embrace the cross of Christ because they’re afraid. That’s right. They’re afraid. They’re afraid that if they do, they know they will have to make some changes in their lives, which they do not wish to make.

Mark this down. The old rugged cross changes people’s lives like nothing else on the face of this earth. Third time’s a charm. Face the cross in your life, and your life will face in a new direction. That’s the reason we love to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” “For ’twas on that old cross, Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me.”

In the words of “The Old Rugged Cross,” it reminds us of what it means to live with Christ.

“To the old rugged cross, I will ever be true.
Its shame and reproach gladly bear.
For He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.”

Well, for some people indeed, the cross may be a stumbling block. But for those who truly belong to Jesus Christ, the cross is nothing less than a stepping stone to the kingdom of Heaven. Do you understand that when you and I dare to take our stand for Jesus Christ in life, there is a sense in which, to some little degree at least, we actually literally put to death the evil that exists in this world? Do you understand that when you and I make the cross of Jesus Christ the central reality of our everyday living, we actually literally confirm the victory Christ has won on that cross? Mind you, we must never make light or minimize the troubles of this world or the troubles in people’s lives. But dear friends, we must never ever forget that on the old rugged cross, Jesus once and for all and forever overcame the power of sin and death and evil in this world. And that means that when we belong to Jesus Christ, we can see the road ahead, and we can know that the future is secure. When we belong to Jesus Christ, we know that we are Heaven-bound and that there, we shall live with Christ and with all of those whom we love. We shall live with them forever. That is the fact which cannot be shaken. That is the rock of God beneath our feet. When we belong to Jesus Christ, we know beyond any shadow of a doubt, that we, yes we, are Heaven-bound. When we belong to Jesus Christ, we know that in the end, we win.

That’s why we so love to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” For we know He’ll call me some day to my home far away where His glory, forever I’ll share. There is a grand old Irish superstition which says, “Scratch across upon the earth before you die, for you cannot rightly die until you have marked the cross upon the ground.” Just an old superstition. What I’m talking to you about right now is not superstition. It’s reality. Claim the cross of Jesus Christ in your life, for you cannot rightly live and you cannot rightly die until you make His cross your own.

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross till my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it one day for a crown.”

Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.


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