Faithful cross, above all other
one and only noble tree.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Today, on this most solemn of days, the Cross of Christ confronts us.
All that we, the Church, have done and said in the year past. All that we will do and say in the days to come, are confronted by this gruesome reality that is set before us.
On this day, all that we say and believe about truth, justice, love, and mercy; all that we teach and tell ourselves about salvation, forgiveness, and our own unworthiness is put to the test, weighed in the balance, as we, in just a few moments, are asked to gaze upon the bruised, bloodied, and beaten frame of the innocent Son of God, hung to die a slow and agonizing death by no fault of his own; a fact only made worse when we come to the harsh realization that it wasn’t the voice of a far-off people in a distant land long ago who shouted “crucify him”, but that those words, that sentence of death, comes from our very lips.
All of our philosophies; all of our theology; all of our opinions about this life and the life to come; all of our understandings about who God is and what the true shape of love, mercy, and justice looks like are confronted today with the Cross.
And, as we are confronted, we hear the message that there is simply no other way that we could be forgiven; that there is simply no other way that we could make ourselves good enough to pay the price for our disobedience and pride.
And so, as we reflect this day on what we believe, on how we live our lives, on how well we have or have not lived out our great commission to bring the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to our neighbours and the ends of the earth, Christ looks at us from the Cross, Christ pleads with us, that we would accept, that we would embrace what God the Father has already and eternally accepted: that one, perfect offering and oblation of himself, the gruesome image of an innocent man, abandoned, mocked, and left alone to die, not in any way as a display of God’s wrath, but as a earth-shattering display of just how broken, just how dead we had been.
No other way.
For, as we hear in the Garden last night, everything – all that we believe, all that we are – hinges on the events of this day.
We heard the voice of Christ: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”.
And today, we see the response: “there is no other way”.
Of course, it’s not as though our Lord had any doubts; it’s not as though the voice of God was silent, somehow absent as Christ prayed and was then betrayed to be crucified.
No, there was no loud voice from heaven; there was no thunder, Jesus needs no voice from heaven to know the will of the Father. The voice, he said, was only for our sake, that we might know that he is the only and beloved Son.
“if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”
Jesus spoke those words in the Garden not for his sake, but for ours. That we would know, inescapably, that there was no other way.
And it’s that eternal truth, not just the image of a dying man, which confronts us.
The Sacrificial Lamb
This death, this sacrifice, is no accident. This is no afterthought.
This offering of the perfect lamb without blemish; this offering of the warm blood of the perfect man, dripping over wood and iron, sprinkled down onto no less of an altar than the earth itself, was the plan from the foundation of the world, that as God deigned to give us the will and the grace to choose him, so God first loved us so much, that the divine word through whom all things were made would empty himself of all but love, and bleed for Adam’s helpless race.
Even today, when in a few moments we come to venerate the Cross of Christ, we hear the voice of our Lord calling to us from the Cross.
You see, God the Father accepted his perfect offering.
Yet, in spite of God’s acceptance, so often, it is we who deny Christ’s offering.
It is we – not the Father – who, holding on to our shame, turn our face away.
It is we who boast in our righteousness, who boast in our baptism, yet so easily shy away from, or even reject, the very sacrifice that makes our righteousness, that makes our sharing in the resurrection of Christ possible.
There is no other way for man to be reconciled to God but through the cross.
There can be no mercy, no love, no justice, no peace; there can be no human effort that can restore that which is broken, apart from the Cross of Christ.
And, He says, if you would be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.
And, my friends, it is important that we get that right.
So often, we think of our crosses as the daily struggles that we bear. But, it’s this day that tells us differently.
Our crosses are not our trials and temptations.
Our cross cannot be – and we cannot allow it to be – sins and griefs to bear. He, Christ, bore our griefs and sorrows, he, Christ, bore our sins in his body unto death, when, with his perfect offering, death itself became the victim, and the grave lost its victory.
So, then, what does it mean to take up your cross?
The Cross is no mere annoyance.
The Cross is no self-pitying sorrow.
The Cross of Christ in which we glory, the Cross which we are called to bear if we are to be his disciples, is nothing short of total and unavoidable paradox, total contradiction in the eyes of he world.
It is that life-giving reality that demands that we first give up our very lives.
It is that paradox that demands that we give up what we have come to believe about ourselves, so that, in dying to our own perceptions, we find out who we really are, and what we are meant to be.
The Cross in which we glory is nothing less than rough wood and cold iron, on which was hung the very Word of God – the Word which, when spoken, cause that wood, and that iron, and caused all things to be.
The Cross in which we glory is none other than the place where the Righteous Judge of all Creation is sentenced unjustly by the unjust.
The Cross in which we glory is that horrific and almost incomprehensible place where the Light – the true light which enlightens every person, dies. And, in dying, opens the door to eternal life.
It’s that cross that Christ tells you to take up if you truly want to be his disciple.
It’s that cross that demands my soul; the cross demands my life, and my all.
All I once held dear; all I’ve built my life upon, all that the world reveres – that is what the cross demands if we wish to truly follow Christ and be sharers in his glorified and resurrected body.
All that I am, all that I have; my very identity, all of my ambitions, hopes, and plans – those are what the cross demands this day. That is the price of self-sacrificial love that imitates the King who came to serve, who humbled himself; the creator who became subject to the created, setting aside his glory so that death itself could be vanquished and we – though deserving of death – could live.
The scandal of the Cross
The glorious faith which we proclaim is nothing less than Christ crucified: yes, it’s foolishness to those who are perishing; yes, if we are trying to save ourselves, then it appears torturous, unnecessary, horrific, and unjust.
But… it’s the only truth.
At the end of the day, when all the glories of God’s temple are stripped away, one thing remains: that Christ, from the foundation of the world, was willing to be sacrificed; that the Word of God which spoke the world into being was willing to take our flesh, and be scourged, mocked, and beaten, nailed to a tree, pierced through with a spear, and lifted up, that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, it is in confronting that bloodied, scarred reality of our sinfulness, in gazing upon, in drinking in the gruesome reality of the price which Christ paid, in believing in him, we may have eternal life.
This is love: to lay down your life for your friends, to love the world so much that Identity – even equality with God – is not something to be grasped.
This is mercy: that the servant was guilty, yet the Son was offered as ransom.
This is justice: that not our sin, nor our pride, nor our self-reliance; not the powers of darkness, nor even the grave itself would endure the righteousness of God’s plan of salvation from the foundation of the world.
…And, this is truth:
Lord, I am the guilty. I brought this upon thee. It was my treason. I crucified thee.
And Lord, I believe: but help thou my unbelief.
For, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof. But, speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.