Sermon: Living A Cross Shaped Life (Part One)

Scripture: 1 Peter 2: 21-24

Date: August 16, 2015

 

The other day someone sent me the most imponderable questions that we often ponder: And so some of those questions were: We often say that something is the best thing since sliced bread. What was the best thing before sliced bread? Why is the word abbreviation such a long word? And if a fool and his money are so easily parted, how did the fool get his money together in the first place? Questions that seemingly have no good answer. This is my favorite: How do they get deer to cross the highway at the yellow deer crossing signs? It’s my favorite because of the story of the woman who called the county road department and asked that the come and remove the deer crossing sign from in front of her house. And when she was asked why, she said it wasn’t safe. “Is it obstructing your view?” the county employee asked. “No, that’s not it,” she said. ”Then what makes it unsafe?” she was asked. Because the deer keep coming there to cross and two of them have been hit in the last week. They need to be crossing someplace else. Imponderable questions.

 

Most of them are just silly questions that don’t matter much. But recently in my devotions I came across an article on the essential questions of faith that people on the outside of the church ask most frequently, and the one that was on the top of that list was: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? But you see I think that was also the question that Peter was wrestling with. If the suffering of Christ is the example that we are to follow, and the Cross is the visible sign of His suffering, then what would a life that is shaped by the cross, truly look like? Or why must we pick up our cross if we are to follow Jesus? The question about the Deer crossing sign, I think points to a more serious concern, and that is all of the signs that we are confronted with everyday of our lives. We are confronted with a lot of signs in our day to day living. So many that many choose to ignore some of them. For instance, speed limit signs, especially on New Circle Road. I have concluded that they are merely suggestions and that if you follow the suggestion you run the danger of being run over by those who choose to ignore the signs. But if we think about it, there are signs that govern nearly every aspect of our lives.

 

And we are constantly faced with the choice of which signs to follow and which to ignore. Signs tell us what doors to use. Where to enter and where to exit. When to go and when to stop. What bathrooms to use. How fast to go in our cars. What we should buy. What we should eat. What brand of gas we should put in our car. Even which church to attend. Signs are everywhere. It can get pretty confusing at times. Signs that seek to control our lives. And some of them have more ominous messages. Think about all of the news of recent months. Senseless shootings. Acts of terror. Continuing war in the middle east. Some contend that these are signs of the end times. Well I don’t know about that, but I am sure that they are signs of a nation and world that does not look to God for the example, the same kind of world in which Peter found himself. One writer wrote this in the aftermath of 9/11.

 

Where the promise of peace is still drowned out by the thunder of war? Where powerless love is still nailed to the cross by loveless power?

What is God doing in a world where terrorists fly jet airliners into the World Trade Center?

What is God doing about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East?

What is God doing in a world where innocent children suffer and where good people face lonely, agonizing death?

What is God doing at the Cross?

 

Isn’t that the essence of Peter’s question? But you see the real question is not “What is God doing at the cross?” Not where is God in the midst of the suffering of humanity? The real question is: Where else would a loving God be? Because history tells us that God has never abandoned His people, no matter how far they turned from Him, and despite the signs, He will not abandon us now. In 1513, an artist by the name of Mathias Grunewald was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the chapel at the hospital in Isenheim, Germany. The hospital was run by monks who chose to treat victims of the plagues that swept across Europe in the 16th century. If they were a patient to that hospital, they knew that they were most likely going to die a painful death. And so the Monks were hoping for a painting that would share a message of hope in the midst of such hopelessness. But Grunewald painted a picture of Jesus crucified that shocked the monks because of its stark portrayal of the crucifixion. (SHOW PICTURE). In his painting the sky is dark and brooding. Jesus body is stretched taut on the cross. Huge nails protrude from His hands. But what really disturbed the monks was that Grunewald covered the body of Christ with oozing lacerations and bleeding sores. The same kind of sores that marked the bodies of many of the patients in the hospital. When they asked Grunewald about it, he said he wanted the patients to see a Jesus who was acquainted with their infirmities, to experience a Savior from whom some would hide their faces just as they did when they saw these patients, and to know the love of a God who had borne their infirmities and carried their diseases. That was his message of hope. Centuries later, the theologian Henry Nouwen, who would write the book The Wounded Healer, went to view Grunewald’s painting and wrote: When I saw Grunewald’s painting of the tortured, naked body of Jesus, I realized anew that the cross isn’t just a beautiful piece of art… it is the sign of the most radical transformation in our manner of thinking, feeling, and living. Jesus’ death on the cross has changed everything.

 

Isn’t that the answer to the imponderable question of faith that Peter poses? The Roman gods were made of stone and placed in the midst decadent luxury in far away lands and the Romans relied on a horrible instrument of death to kill the hope and spirit of the people they oppressed. Who disagreed with them. But the imponderable God of the cross, meets the people on the road and lifts the crosspiece from their shoulders and places it on his and allows the nails to be driven into His hands, and fills the vertical beam of the Cross in our place. He takes our despair and our hopelessness on His shoulders, and becomes the hope and light of an often darkened world. The answer to the imponderable questions of our life. And the most imponderable thing of all, is that from the Cross He calls us to follow. Follow from death to life. Deitrich Boenhoeffer in his book The Call To Discipleship writes: When Christ calls a man, He calls him to come and die. It’s a powerful statement and often quoted. But I don’t think that it’s entirely true. I think when Christ calls to us from the Cross, He calls us to come and live with Him forever.

And the cross shaped life to which He calls us becomes the sign that points the world to light not darkness, life not death. Surely that’s the life that Peter was describing when he wrote: For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you would follow His steps who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness- by whose stripes you were healed.

 

In his book, He Chose The Nails, Max Lucado writes: In the first century A.D., the roads to Jerusalem were lined with signs. The Cross. As people made their way to Jerusalem on the way to the Temple, they passed literally thousands of places of crucifixion. The Romans did not execute people in hidden places as we do today. They placed the crosses right next to the main thoroughfares.

 

It is said that at the height of Roman power and influence, nearly 1000 Jews a day were sent to crosses that lined the road to Jerusalem. And as the Jewish people made their way from the wilderness up the road to Jerusalem, passing those crosses, they would sing the songs of lament that had been written centuries before in the midst of exile to brutal Babylon.

 

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered requested mirth. saying sing us one of the songs of Zion. But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. They felt like strangers in their own land and the Cross became the sign of their suffering. The Romans used it as a signpost to remind the Jewish people of their power and that they were still captives, in a sense exiles in their own land. And the cross became more than just an instrument of death. It became the symbol of their hopelessness. As Peter and the Jewish people made their way to the Temple, they were reminded that the God they came so far to worship does not keep them from the cross of the Romans, but rather invites us to join Him there. As they traveled the road that led up to Jerusalem, they passed others on their way down, flanked by soldiers, carrying the crosspiece of their own cross. They remembered loved ones and friends who had been taken from their homes, from their midst and had a cross piece placed on their backs and been forced to carry it to their death. Just because they were Jews and in Peter’s day Christians in a land controlled by people who hated Jews and Christians. But you know as terrible as it was to see a man hanging on the cross, what may have been even more frightening were the empty vertical poles sunk in the sand and rock, that were waiting the next Jew or Christian whose crosspiece would be hoisted there to die a horrible death Empty verticals waiting for those who did not submit. Empty verticals waiting for you and for me. And on each cross a sign was placed, written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, outlining the crime that had led them there. Thief, insurrectionist, and on one, The King of the Jews. And the Jews did not miss the signs. They knew what the Cross meant. As they made their way to encounter the God who lived in the Temple, the imponderable questions came to their lips, as they do to ours. James Harnish, in his book Dying To Live writes:

 

All too suddenly, the joyful affirmation that Jesus is “God with us” stands in shocking contrast to the looming shadow of the cross, and an unsettling question begins to form in our soul. It’s the kind of question that polite, “religious” folks often hesitate to ask. But folks whose experience with the cross has not been dulled by comfortable familiarity often blurt it out with an honesty that shatters any artificially pious veneer: If Jesus is the Son of God, then what is He doing here, at the cross? What’s a good person doing in a place like this? What is God doing when Jesus is rejected, beaten, bleeding, naked and nailed to a cross? What is God doing at the cross?

 

And so when Jesus painted his portrait of hope, his sign of hope in the midst of the hopelessness of His world, He chose the cross as His canvas. To say to everyone who would follow I know your pain. I am acquainted with your sorrow. I am the hope of the world. And when we lose hope. When we are overwhelmed with sorrow and pain, the vertical beam of the cross asks these questions of our faith.

 

It is there for everyone to ponder. The vertical beam of the cross is the signpost that points to the suffering of the world, then and now. In our secular world we lament that we are not a Christian nation, that there is so much hostility towards people of faith. But it has always been so. Christians and Jews have always been tiny minorities in the overall population of the world and the vertical piece of the cross has always pointed us heavenwards in the midst of the world’s hatred. And has always challenged us with the imponderables of faith:

 

What is God doing here? What does the death of Jesus on the cross

tell us about what God is doing in a world like this?

What is God doing in a world where very bad things still happen to very good people?

Where love is still crucified by hate?

Where generosity is still beaten down by greed?

Where compassion is still done in by selfishness?

Where love is still distorted by lust?

Where justice is still perverted by prejudice?

 

And what is the answer to the imponderable questions of life? It is that, in the words of John, that “God so loved the world that He gave us His Son Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Because you see, if Jesus’s suffering is our example and by His wounds we are healed, then surely resurrection is our example also, and in a life that is shaped by the cross, the vertical part of the Cross rises above the world and points to a God who loves us so much that He becomes the answer to even the most difficult questions of our life. And calls us to a life (not to death) that is shaped by the Cross.

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