Jesus And Our Sin
I read to you from the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew these few verses – just a handful of words, really, but words that change lives and have changed the world. This is the Word of God:
“Now, from the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. At about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani?’ That is, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’
“Some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’
“And one of them at once ran and took a sponge and filled it with vinegar and put it on a reed and gave it to Him to drink. But the other said, ‘Wait. Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’
“And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit,”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. Let us pray.
Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It seems utterly incredible, doesn’t it, to think that 2,000 years after the hell of it, we as Christians gather beneath the Cross of Jesus Christ. If we were to encounter a group of people singing songs of praise to the guillotine, we would dismiss that praise as savagery. If we were to encounter a group of people bowing down in worship before the gallows clutching with love its 13-coil noose, we would dismiss such adoration as barbarous. If we were to encounter a group of people who wore about their necks tiny gold electric chairs, we would write them off as brutal and perverse. And yet we 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. I say it again, it seems utterly incredible that 2,000 years after the hell of it, Christians still gather at the foot of the Cross.
Christianity has been called by some a living miracle and I think that’s true. And surely a part of the miracle is the fact that the Cross, this emblem of suffering and shame has become so central to everything that we as Christians say and think and do. Why is this so? By what strange mystery has an object of stark terror been transformed into an object of profound adoration? Why is it that we, as Christians, cling so lovingly and so faithfully to the Old Rugged Cross, the emblem of suffering and shame? My words today are meant to be an attempt at answering that question. So first, consider this. The Cross is the sign of our salvation. If the New Testament writers are unanimous about anything at all, they are unanimous about the fact that the Cross is the place where, by virtue of the death of Jesus Christ, the power of sin was struck down, and sinful people were saved for the Kingdom of Heaven. About that, there is no disagreement whatever. And this atoning work of Christ, it is called, is portrayed in Scripture in many splendid ways. Sometimes, the atonement of Christ is portrayed in terms of adoption. That is to say that God in Christ adopts us as His very own. He extends to us the circle of His family. He draws us in and grants to us all the rights and privileges of being His children.
Sometimes, the atoning work of Christ is portrayed in terms of the prisoner standing at the bar of justice, the prisoner knowing full well he’s guilty but suddenly hearing the astonishing verdict read, “You stand acquitted. Set the prisoner free.” On still other occasions, the atoning work of Christ is portrayed in terms of a ransom which Jesus pays in order to secure our release from the great kidnapping, enslaving power of evil. But I have to say to you that the portrayal of the atonement which, to me, is the most splendid of all is that which teaches us that Jesus Christ literally substituted Himself for us. He laid down His life so that we might take up ours. And the Cross is the place where the Perfect substituted Himself for the imperfect, where the Innocent paid the price in blood for the sin of the guilty.
Now, I know that at that point one might easily ask, ‘how is it that one man could die, and by so dying, then gain peace with God for all other people?’ Well the answer is quite obvious. No mere man can do it. No mere human being is pure enough to die for another’s guilt. Let’s be honest at this point. I mean, is there anyone here who regards him or herself as being so pure that he or she would be willing to stand before God now and say, “Lord, weigh me and my life as over against all of the carnage and depravity of the human scene.” Is there anyone here who is willing to do that? Of course not. But no matter how decent we may feel our lives to have been, who among us here has never axed a reputation with a word of gossip? Who among us here has never spoken harshly to a loved one without cause? Who among us here has never inflamed a daydream with a sordid thought? The point is clear. No mere human being is pure enough to die for another’s guilt. Only God can do that. Only Christ, God incarnate, can do that. People look to Jesus and they said, “God Himself could not be better.” And they were right, for Christ is God Himself. And it is because this Jesus was the only one in all the world not to cause sin that He could be the only one in all the world to cure sin.
It’s true, we can say of that young soldier lying in a Lebanese desert that he gave his life for us. We can say it, and we can catch our breath while saying it or sobbing it, “He gave his life for us.” But let’s be clear about one fact. Yes, perhaps he gave his life for us. But he gave his life for us as our shield. Only Christ, only Jesus Christ could give His life for us as our substitute. That’s precisely what Jesus did on the Cross. There, He took our place on the Cross and paid the price in blood for our sin, for yours, and for mine. So when the street-corner evangelist comes up to you and grabs you by the lapels and says, “Tell me, friend, when will you say – give me the year the day and hour.” You tell him it was Good Friday at 3 o’clock in the afternoon nearly 2,000 years ago. That is why we cling to the Old Rugged Cross. For there is where the dearest and the best for a world of lost sinners was slain. Cling to that Cross because it’s the sign of our salvation.
Ah, but then consider this. The Cross is the start of our sanctification. Sanctification, now that’s just a great big old theological word. But Frederick Buechner manages to reduce that word to terms we can easily grasp. He writes – and listen closely – he writes, “It is – in the classic story of Beauty and the Beast – it is when the Beast finally begins to realize that Beauty loves him even in the midst of all his ugliness, it is only then that the Beast himself starts to become beautiful.” That’s what sanctification is like. It is only when we begin to realize that God loves us even in the midst of all our unloveliness that we begin to become more God-like in our own lives. It’s a long, slow, painful process Buechner says, but gradually the forgiven person becomes a forgiving person. The healed person becomes a healing person. The loved person becomes a loving person. That’s sanctification.
The very moment that we accept the Cross of Jesus Christ as the sign of our salvation, at that moment, the Holy Spirit of God, by some process I cannot describe, immediately invades our lives and begins immediately to work to produce within us the fruits of dedicated disciplined living.
It happens. My years in the pulpit have taught me the happy lesson that if, somehow, my preaching, by the intervention of God’s Spirit, can enable people to be gripped by the reality of Christ in Him crucified, that there is then no need to submerge those people in an endless instruction about morality because, you see, the one inevitably follows the other as the night inevitably follows the day. Boil it down to a single sentence, and it comes out like this. Face the Cross of Jesus Christ in your life and, immediately, your life will face in another direction.
Peter Marshall tells the wonderful little story about a small English boy who was taken to church for the first time by his governess. There, the little boy watched in mounting curiosity as the preacher climbed up the pulpit steps and proceeded to give out a bit of terrible news. It was the story of a kind and brave young man of long ago who was spiked in great pain to a cross but who was hurting still because people would not do what He wanted them to do. Well, that little boy thought that the preacher had shared this bit of news in hopes that the people who gathered there in church that day might rise up and do something about it. And yet, he looked about him and, to his shock, he saw no one moved. No one batted an eye. No one said a word. They just sat there as if they hadn’t heard a word. And the little boy was so upset that no one else was upset that he literally began to weep. And it was at that point that the governess leaned over to him and said, “Don’t take it all so seriously, son, people will think you strange.” My friends, I do not think it’s strange that the Cross of Jesus Christ would begin to work so deeply in a human heart that that person would begin to feel that something must be done about it. No, I don’t think that’s strange.
But I’ll tell you what I do think is strange. I think it’s strange that there are people in the church who claim Jesus Christ and His Cross but give no evidence of it whatever in their lives. I think it’s strange that we count as normal that a man should cheer at a football game or curse at a golf ball, but we call that man a fanatic or a nut who cannot think of a certain hill outside Jerusalem without getting a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye and a knot in his heart and a will in his spirit to love the kind of living and to live the kind of loving that Jesus did. I think it’s strange that any man, woman, boy or girl could look at the Cross of Jesus Christ and know what it means and not be changed.
The great sculptor, Rodin, was a man who honored Christ in his life. At one occasion he was at an art exhibit and saw there on display for sale an immense cross that had been carved from the very finest marble. He was taken by it and not simply because of its sense of proportion or its value as a work of art but because of what the Cross meant to him in his life. And so he purchased it for his own. And when he took it home, he discovered that the room was not large enough to hold it. So what did he do? Did he whittle down the cross? He could have, he was himself a master sculptor. Did he whittle down the cross? No. He rebuilt his house, just so, when you and I take to heart the Cross of Jesus Christ, then we shall have to rebuild that heart. We shall have to restructure our way of living. We shall have to establish for ourselves new standards of commitment and conduct for our daily experience. We cannot see the Cross of Jesus Christ and know why He died there and go on living the way we’ve been living. That’s why we cling to that Old Rugged Cross. It may be old, and it may be rugged, but it changes. And it changes hearts. And it changes lives. And it changes structures. And it changes nations. And it changes the world like nothing else. It was on that Cross Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me. It’s the start of our sanctification.
But then consider this.
The Cross is the source of our service. Jesus said it Himself, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Now, let’s be honest. We don’t like to hear that. It kind of disturbs us, doesn’t it? I mean, we in our lives – well, we want to live with a degree of comfort. We want to pursue some happiness. We want to indulge in some pleasure. And all this talk about sacrificial living, well, we’d just rather not hear that. And yet, deep down, for all of our innate resistance, deep down inside, we know that Jesus is right. We know it. We’ve even had that experience in our own lives at some point along the way. You know how it is. You remember the time when you reached out to someone and said, “I’d like to help you”? Or when you devoted yourself to some noble cause for a time? Or when you sacrificed something for the sake of someone you love, or for someone you don’t like at all? You remember the feeling that came from that, the deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. It’s like a satisfaction and fulfillment that could come from no other place in the human experience. Yes, we know. We know deep, deep down that Jesus is right, that the only way to have a truly happy and fulfilled life in the midst of a world like this is to deny ourselves and to take up His Cross and follow Him.
That’s what happens when people begin to see the Cross and understand what it means. It’s happening all around you right now. It’s the Cross that’s the source of our service. It’s the Cross that moves out of ourselves and out into the lives of others and into the world about us. I ask you why is it that that high school girl reads and studies every weeknight with her blind friend so that her blind friend can learn? It’s because of the Cross. Why is it that that automobile dealer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, got up on the floor and asked a prominent public official right in the middle of his address to stop taking the Lord’s name in vain? It’s because of the Cross. Why is it that that urologist in Pine Bluff, Arkansas leaves his large and lucrative practice for one month every single year and travels to the Presbyterian Medical Center in Jeonju, Korea, there to spend 18 hours every single day, seven days a week for a whole month doing surgery and teaching his specialized skills to Korean doctors and bearing verbal witness to his faith in Jesus Christ? It’s because of the Cross. Why is it that that group of men who are a part of this congregation go week after week after week to the jails of our city and county in a desperate struggle there to share the Gospel and to build relationships and to somehow redirect misdirected lives; a struggle to somehow keep our criminal justice system from becoming nothing more than a godless warehouse for wasted lives? It’s because of the Cross. Every one of the people I’ve just mentioned, I know. And I know that they are motivated, empowered, and driven by the Cross and nothing less than the Cross. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the source of our service.
Are you aware of the fact that there is a very lovely old Irish superstition that says, “Scratch a cross in the earth before you die, for you cannot rightly die until you have made the mark of the Cross somewhere on the ground.” That’s just an old superstition. What I’m talking about now is not just superstition. It’s reality. I am saying to you that every single one of us here, every single one of us, is called sometime before we die to leave somewhere upon the face of this earth a sign of the Cross written in the blood and the sacrifice and the service of our very lives. Well, maybe you can understand then why I think the words are more than just a sentimental old Gospel song. Maybe you can understand why I think the words are nothing less than the beating heart, the life’s blood, the driving spirit of our whole Christian experience.
You know the words as well as I do, “I will cherish the old rugged cross / Till my trophies at last I lay down. / I will cling to the old rugged cross / And exchange it some day for a crown.” Come to think of it, maybe it isn’t so incredible after all that 2,000 years after the hell of it, Christians still gather at the foot of the Cross. Let us pray.
Gracious Lord, let us see the Cross and know what it means for then we shall be changed, and then we – yes, by the power of Your Spirit – we can change the world. Amen.