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The Third Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2012
The Epistle: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Sermon: "Why the Cross?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
Why the Cross?
This morning I want to share with you the central and singularly most important part of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m referring to the Cross; that sign by which all of us are known to the world; that sign by which we are known to God. At the heart of our faith stands the Cross; for without it there would not have been any meaning to the life of Christ; without it his miracles would be hollow and his words empty; without it there would have been no resurrection from the dead, no new life of hope for us in relationship with God. The Cross is the most unique part of the Christian faith. No other religion, philosophy, or way of thought bears this sign, or even a sign that resembles its meaning. For the Christian, there is no life apart from the Cross.
But, the question can be asked, “Why? Why the Cross?” Yes it’s unique, which also means that it’s odd, strange. In all ages and times this has been the question of the whole world, “Why the Cross?” We have three considerations to ponder in answering this question, all drawn from our Epistle lesson in I Corinthians this morning; and the first consideration is this: the Cross is a problem for most. Paul tells us that in his day the Cross was a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek. The word used as stumbling block here in our text is the same one from which we derive the word scandal. To the Jew the Cross was a scandal for two reasons. One: It was incredible that one who ended his life on the Cross could possibly be God’s Chosen One. The Torah itself said, “He that is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deut. 21:23) To the Jew, the crucifixion finally disproved Jesus as the Son of God. Even with Isaiah 53, the great “Suffering Servant” passage, the Jews never dreamed of a suffering Messiah. The Cross was an insuperable barrier to belief in Jesus. Second: they sought signs. At the very time that Paul was writing, a crop of false messiahs had been produced; all of them had beguiled the people into accepting them by the promise of wonders. In the year 45 a man called Theudas persuaded thousands to leave their homes and enter the wilderness with the promise that the Jordan River would part for them. In the year 51 a man from Egypt led 30,000 people out of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives by promising to make the walls of the city collapse. This is what the people were looking for. By comparison, Jesus was self-controlled and humble; one who had tried to avoid the spectacular, one who sought to be a servant of others, and one whose life ended on a cross-an impossible picture of God’s Chosen One.
Then too, the Cross was foolishness to the Greek. The word for foolishness is the same one from which we get the word moron. To the Greek the idea of the Cross was moronic. The Greeks believed that perfection was static. That is, if God was truly perfect, and he must be to be God, then he must be totally unchangeable by any outside influence. For perfection, if it can be changed by something, would no longer be perfection once it did change. Consequently, God had to be totally unable to feel. If God could feel joy or sorrow or anger or grief because of our prayers, for instance, then that would mean that, for at least that moment, we had power over God and had changed him. So, the Greek argued, it followed that God must be incapable of all feeling so that none might ever ruin his perfection. A God who suffered was, to the Greek mind, a contradiction in terms. It was moronic.
Now, we can marvel at the Jewish idea of the Messiah. We can ridicule Greek philosophy; but if we are honest we can see that we are the same as the people Paul was writing about in his time. Remember Jonestown in Guyana, or the Heaven’s Gate cult in Southern California, or the Waco cult in Texas? Thousands in our time are willing to follow false messiahs to their deaths. Or, consider all the folks who look to some commercial manufacturer’s promise that a certain new technology will make life instantly better. I was just thinking about the miracle my cell phone is. It has made life easier, and I can’t live without it. Then again, there are times that I’d sure like to try. Such promises of miracles seem much easier to accept than the Cross. The Cross is a barrier to these ways of thinking, for it shocks us back into the real world. That’s why the Cross is such a problem for so many even today.
That leads us to the second consideration. It starts with a question: If the Cross is such a problem, why not emphasis something else about our faith? Why not stress the miracles of Jesus above the Cross? As Paul intimates to us this morning, it is because we would soon boast of great signs and wonders and come to worship power itself not Christ. Why not emphasis the teachings of Jesus above the Cross, then? We would soon take pride in understanding them, and we would boast of our knowledge, instead of boasting of Christ and his salvation.
Why the Cross, if it is such a problem? Because it humbles all our pride in our own wisdom! It breaks down our arrogance in our own might. In the light of the Cross there is no room for the dark selfishness of our own pride. As a result no one may boast before God, except of Jesus Christ. There’s a story about a man who had survived the Great Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania. As the years went by he became one of the last survivors still living. His greatest joy in life was to spend his afternoons at the barber shop telling the story of the great flood to all who would listen. He often boasted of his own foresight and ingenuity during the disaster. Yet everyone loved to hear his stories no matter how many times they had heard them. One day the old man died and went to Heaven. At the gates, St. Peter met him and told him that when he went before God’s throne he could say anything he wanted. So, the old man said he wanted to tell his story of the Great Johnstown Flood. St. Peter said that would be fine and led him before the Heavenly throng. But just as the old man was to speak, another man stood to talk. The old man turned to St. Peter and asked, “Who’s that guy?” St. Peter answered, “Oh, that’s Noah. He’s going to tell his story first.”
The Cross forces our self-focus and pride back to God. Our life’s focus ceases to be self, and Christ becomes the center of all. That’s why, despite the problems, that we will not emphasis anything above the Cross.
Now, having said all this, let’s take a look at the final consideration, and finish answering the question, “Why the Cross?” Why is it so central to our faith? It is central because, on the Cross, Jesus Christ willingly laid down his life for you and me; that you and I could be drawn to God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
On the Cross, God unmistakedly demonstrated that he is not the God of wrathful justice some would suppose, nor the immovable force incapable of sympathy as others would reason, but the true God of deepest love who will stop at nothing, not even his own self-sacrifice, to get our attention. By his act of love on the Cross, we who turn to him in faith, receive God’s grace. We are saved from hopeless separation from God. We are saved from our ignorance and arrogance. We are forgiven and restored as members of God’s family; sons and daughters; kindred of Christ. On the Cross, God meets and masters our sin by an overwhelming passion of cleansing, redeeming, forgiving love. I do not see how anyone can truly contemplate the Cross and remain unmoved.
When I was a seminarian at Princeton, the Dean of the University Chapel told us of his own sharing of the Gospel story with a young Thai student while on the mission field in Asia. The young man listened with wrapped attention as the Dean told the story of Jesus’ life. But as he reached the story of the passion, the student reacted, “What!? A Cross!? But Why?” The Dean explained the Cross to him. The student asked to hear the story again. The Dean started all over from the beginning. Finally, the student responded, “Yes, I understand. This Jesus died for me.”
Jesus could have led an army against Rome by the sword, but he rejected it. There were those who would have made him king. But he refused the crown for the Cross. He chose the Cross because it was the only way to bring in his reign, his rule. It was the only way to win and to purify and keep the hearts of humanity. The Cross haunts the heart and troubles the conscience, and it does lead us to the place of repentance and renewal of spirit. That is what the Cross did. That is what it has accomplished ever since. That is what it does now. To the human mind the Cross has often seemed to be the symbol of weakness. Those who stood at its foot would not have prophesied any future at all other than utter oblivion for the man and the cause that were crucified there. But that man is the most significant of all personalities for every age. His message and spirit are the sole message and spirit that can save the world. If our world is to escape a doom that always darkly threatens it, we need above all else to be baptized into his spirit and guided and illumined by his truth. The Cross has outlasted Greece and Rome and every other empire since. It has withstood the rise and fall of great nations. It has withstood the scrutiny of two thousand years. It still has power to shake the heart and transform the spirit of those who will embrace it. By it we know God’s love; through it we are reborn to new life. And that is “Why the Cross!”