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Perspectives of the Cross: The Cross Ahead

March 26, 2006

Luke 9:18-36, 51

As you look around this Sanctuary, how many crosses do you see? Most of you see the cross above the baptistry. Do you see other crosses? Members of the choir can see perhaps as many as seven crosses in the large window above the balcony. You can see a cross in the Christian flag and one on the front cover of your bulletin. If you look carefully at our light fixtures, you will see that at the top of each panel is a stylized Celtic cross. How many crosses do you find in the Sanctuary? Maybe I should ask a more important question: How many places in your own life do you find the cross of Christ?

Talking to a Baptist congregation about the cross is a bit tricky. I remember when I was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, a person wanted to donate a cross to adorn the steeple on the seminary chapel. That proposal created considerable opposition, one of those flaps for which Southern Baptists are famous. Because the opposition was strong, the Board of Trustees finally voted to place a weather vane on top of the steeple instead of a cross. One of my brilliant professors of church history wrote in a column that apparently some Southern Baptists are more concerned about which way the wind is blowing than they are about the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ is quite meaningful. It is important to us.

A man named Anton Boison was in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Plunged into the depths of insanity, he became deeply psychotic. He described an event in his life that brought him back to reality. One morning as he awoke, he saw before him the cross. As he came to full consciousness, he realized that the cross was actually made by the iron bars outside his window, back lighted by a streetlamp. He said it called his attention to the cross of Christ, and he started thinking about what the cross meant to his life. He recalled his salvation experience, and he said that the cross of Christ brought him back to sanity.

We begin today a series of sermons entitled Perspectives on the Cross. During this season of Lent, we move toward the time when we celebrate the passion of Christ. We are going back by Golgotha and look at this event from various angles. We will consider what the cross means to us and how it applies to our life.

This morning when I left home, I noticed Clare’s Bible on the kitchen counter. On top was a small wooden holding cross, one intended to be held during a time of meditation and prayer. I would like to suggest that perhaps you would like to find a cross to hold during these days of Lent as we consider together what the cross of Christ means in our lives.

The year 2005 has been called a year of suffering, beginning with the Asian tsunami and continuing with the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, the terrible earthquake in Pakistan, the genocide in the Sudan, the war in Iraq, the mining disasters in West Virginia, and the many acts of terrorism around the world. We certainly could make a case that indeed the past year witnessed worldwide suffering. News broadcasts into our homes constantly bombard us, reminding us repeatedly of the pain and anguish in our world. We hear so much and see so many pictures that we could possibly become desensitized, numb, as if we were given anesthesia. We see so much suffering that it could no longer really affect us. We could grow insensitive and callous. It is so easy just to change the channel and find yet another ballgame to avoid suffering. We adopt the idea, “out of sight, out of mind.” We just do not want to see it or hear about it. It is somewhat like touching a hot stove. Once you have touched it, you do not want to touch it again. The great irony is that though this stream of news bombards us and reminds us of the torment of the world, we have a national preoccupation with trying to avoid suffering.

A multi-million dollar industry in this country, and indeed worldwide, tries to prevent suffering, to relieve pain. We see NASCAR drivers peddling headache powders. We see former NFL football players talking about football injuries and advertising anti-inflammatory medications. We see current NBA basketball players showing us patches and wraps that can relieve aches and pains. This industry promotes the idea that we should not have to endure the pain and that we should avoid it and try to find some way to get rid of it. When the medications do not work, people turn to their own kinds of painkillers, which are usually addictive: gambling, alcohol, illegal drugs. Of course, these painkillers do not kill the pain at all. They only intensify pain. A great dichotomy exists in our lives. We hear so much and see so much about the suffering of the world, but our mindset is to try to avoid it at all cost.

Then we look at the life of Jesus and see another way. Derrick read for us a passage from the American Standard Bible. I want you to open your Bible to Luke 9 as I read a few verses. The NIV before me has included subheadings to the text. You realize, of course, that these subheadings are not part of the original manuscript. They merely serve as guidelines that give us a sense of the flow of this chapter. We learn, first, that Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to do the work for which he has been preparing them. When they return, 5,000 hungry people greet them. One gospel account says that when Jesus saw this crowd, he was deeply moved with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd. When Jesus instructs his disciples to feed the 5,000, they have no idea how they can accomplish this mission. Jesus enables them to do what he has instructed them to do. Immediately following the feeding is the remarkable confession of Simon Peter that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Messiah. Matthew’s gospel puts it, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

I want to remind you that when Peter made that confession, he knew nothing about the cross and nothing about the resurrection. That confession, made at Caesarea Philippi, was one made only on what Peter had seen of the life of Jesus until that moment. Peter’s confession summarizes the thoughts of the disciples, “We finally got it figured out. We finally know who this teacher is. He is the Messiah” (Luke 9:20). Of course, once they think they have it figured out, they believe that now they only must follow him into his kingdom. At that very moment, however, Jesus takes them deeper and begins to show them something else about what it means to declare that he is the Christ. In Verses 21-22, Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” The very moment they think they understand, Jesus begins teaching them about his suffering and his eventual death. Did Jesus know that the cross was ahead? Absolutely. He knew that the cross was a part of his future. When Peter made this confession, Jesus told the disciples what was ahead. According to Matthew’s gospel, they did not want to hear it. Simon Peter said, “Lord, I will never permit that.” At that point, Jesus replied to him, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus would not be detoured from this read ahead.

The next event in this chapter is the transfiguration. People sometimes think the transfiguration occurred on Mount Hermon because Luke puts these two events in close proximity to each other. This is the furthest point north that Jesus would ever go in his travels. Caesarea Philippi is far to the north, and Mount Hermon is just a little further north. Probably, the transfiguration occurred on Mount Tabor. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, among the first of the prophets, appeared with Jesus. It is as if God is saying, “My Son is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.” During the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples were fully awake. They experienced being engulfed in a cloud out of which came a great moment of affirmation as the voice of God stated, “This is my Son.” When they came down the mountain, they encountered a father who has an epileptic son and discussed among themselves who would be the greatest.

Then finally, Verse 51 states, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” I really like the wording of the Revised Standard Version, “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was still far away. It would take weeks before he reached the city. Though Jesus knew that going to Jerusalem meant the cross, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus certainly knew what was ahead. He was on his way to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die on the cross. He was not trying to avoid it. He was not trying to find a way around it. He was not loading his medicine cabinet. Jesus knew about crucifixion. The Romans, after all, put to death 180,000 on the cross, many before Jesus, and many after him. He knew what death by crucifixion was like. He knew how painful it was, but he set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. In your mind’s eye, look at that face. Look at those dark eyes, gazing intently to the south. Look at that Jewish nose. Look at that determined chin, that face turned toward Jerusalem. He would not only die on a cross; but in the weeks before his death, he would also live the cross life. He would not only die the cross death, but he would live the cross life.

Not only did he not avoid his own suffering, but he also did not avoid the suffering of others. As these weeks progressed, we see Jesus encountering a man possessed by demons at a place called the Gerasenes. This man was living among the tombs, screaming like a wild animal and cutting his own flesh. Jesus approached the man and healed him, casting out those demons, which the man himself called “Legion.” Jesus encountered the blind and the deaf and healed them. He encountered a widow and an orphan, and he did not turn them away. Jesus embraced a leper, even before he healed him. He enabled the lame to walk. He ministered to those who had physical illness, but he also ministered to those with terrible emotional and spiritual illnesses of the soul: a prostitute, a woman caught in adultery, the Pharisee who also suffered, and the publican. Jesus did not avoid his own suffering, and he embraced the suffering of others.

Jesus calls us to respond in the same way. He does not want us to be masochistic, but he knows that suffering is a part of life for everyone. One of the great lies that the father of lies tells us is that we are alone in our suffering and that no one else has it as bad as we do. People who believe that lie are prone to complain. Suffering is a part of life for everyone. I know it is a part of life for everyone in this sanctuary. Everyone who hears these words knows the experience of suffering. Jesus encourages those who are his disciples, those who would be his apprentices, to learn the great lesson of embracing suffering. Jesus knows that it is the best, the clearest, the most open avenue, to demonstrate the love of God. Only when we act with compassion toward those who suffer do they really experience the love of God. Jesus encourages us, his disciples, as he did these first disciples to take a counter-culture approach, to go against the grain and not avoid suffering. We are to embrace it. Look with me at Verses 23-25: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his own soul?” We are to open ourselves to our own suffering, to find a way to see it as redemptive. We are to open ourselves to the suffering of others.

How do we do that? I have some suggestions for you. Go visit someone who is in the hospital. Accompany Wayne to the prison. Go to a nursing home, and see the people confined there. Deliver a meal for Mobile Meals. Volunteer at TOTAL Ministries, SAFE Homes Rape Crisis Center, the Children’s Shelter, St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic, or Miracle Life Ministries. Make yourself available to the sufferings of others. Volunteer for a short-term mission project. Go on a mission trip to the Gulf Coast. Some of our members can tell you how to do that. Billy Graham did that at age eighty-seven with Parkinson’s disease. He went simply to pray, to express compassion, to embrace the suffering of those whose lives have been ravaged by Katrina.

You cannot do these things, you say? You think that your own physical disabilities limit you? Remember the Holocaust. Read the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Write a card to someone listed on our prayer list. Make a phone call to someone who is lonely. Embrace the suffering of others. Those of you who have done this understand that this is the way to demonstrate the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. When Jesus says, “You must deny yourself. Take up your cross,” he does not mean that we have to die on the cross. He means that we have to take up this ministry, our destiny, our calling as the disciples, the apprentices of Jesus. It will help us in our growth as disciples rather than calling down fire from heaven as John and James wanted to do. We do not intend to hurt people. Rather than despising the ministries others have, we affirm their ministry because we are clear about our own. We know what God wants us to do. We are to take up our cross. As we do, the world will get a glimpse of God’s love revealed in our willingness to bear the cross.

Years ago, forty men from a little village in England died in a mining disaster. The suffering and grief was so intense that the mining company decided to close the mine and place before it a marker with the names of these forty miners. The village asked the elderly Anglican priest to come to this closed mine, now a grave, and say some words of comfort during a memorial service. This aging priest stood before the grave and held up a bookmark his mother had made. He said, “You can see that this bookmark is a mass of tangled threads that make no sense at all. Suffering is like that. It makes no sense. If you turn the bookmark over, you can see on the other side the message that my mother put there with her needle and thread, ‘God is love.’” We find that the suffering of this life makes no sense. Indeed, this suffering is nonsense, but we will have an opportunity to view it from the other side. I am convinced that when we do, we will see clearly that God is love.

Have you experienced that love in your life? Do you know that the love of God can be revealed in your suffering? Do you know that when you embrace the suffering of others, you demonstrate the love of God? It is the reason that Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him. The cross ahead is not just for Jesus. It is for all who follow. Do you know the love of God? Have you asked Christ Jesus to be your Savior? Invite him to be a part of your life. Doing so is a life-changing experience. Some of you have other decisions to make, maybe about church membership. Whatever decision God lays on your heart, we invite you to respond as we stand and sing together our song of invitation, “I Am Thine, O Lord.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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