Summary: Jesus, going to the Cross, understands our aloneness and isolation, and heals it by identifying with it.
Calverton Baptist Church, April 4, 1982; Howard University Chapel, April 9, 1982; Takoma Park Baptist Church, March 31, 1985
Recently a Methodist pastor in South Carolina created something of a stir in his church, and all of it quite innocently. He asked a member of the congregation who was known for his skill as a woodcarver if he could use those skills to turn out a cross to be carried in the processionals in the church. The pastor had in mind something quite simple, just a clean, simple cross that one of the youth of the church could carry down the aisle in front of the choir to remind everyone that the church is an army which marches under the banner of the cross. Simple, clean, easy.
But, says the pastor, what he got instead was a dramatic difference: a heavy cross, complete with a realistic, bleeding, broken body, complete with the figure of the crucified Christ, hanging there in all of his agony. What the pastor got was no clean abstraction but instead the full force of the suffering one; and also what he got was a series of comments from those good Methodist folk, who might just as well have been Baptist folk; you and I can identify with at least some of what they said: “It's too Catholic; it’s depressing; it doesn’t go with the color scheme."
The pastor's wry comment was this: “What is a modern, progressive, slightly liberal, well-budgeted church to do with a bloody cross these days?”
Well, you might want to remove the reference to being well-budgeted, but the question remains just the same. What is a church like ours to do with a bloody cross these days? What is a nice, neat, well-turned-out, middle-class, up to snuff, slightly sophisticated churchgoer to do with these images of death and morbidity, these pictures of suffering? What does an upwardly mobile, two-career and two-mortgage and two-car family do with this case of defeat? I am suggesting to you this morning that although we are thoroughly orthodox, we are nonetheless uncomfortable with this wounded one; I am feeling that in times like ours, in a society like ours, perhaps too in churches like ours, we would prefer it to be sanitized, we would prefer to make it more abstract, we would like to forget that our redemption was purchased at so great a price.
But it is not so. It cannot be that way. At the heart of the Christian faith and life is a cross, and not a bejeweled work of art, either, but an old rugged cross. At the heart of who we are there is a cross-shaped life, and it is more than an emblem to be worn around the neck or to be made palatable with banks of lilies around its base. At the heart of our faith there is the agony of God Himself, and it will not, it must not, go away.
“See, from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
As we enter this week called Holy, this week in which we Christians remember again the central mysteries of our faith, I would ask you to recall and reaffirm that from beginning to end, at its deepest depths, the Bible speaks to us of the suffering of God. The Scriptures at their most profound give us the report of a Creator whose heart breaks at the waywardness of his children, a father whose joy in the thing which he has created is tarnished as the creature becomes arrogant and disobedient. And though, as I will readily admit, there are plenty of passages in which our Lord is portrayed as a jealous God, an angry God, who metes out terrible punishment, yet I submit to you that the dominant and overriding theme is of a God who suffers.
And so there is one of the spiritual high water marks of the Old Covenant, the prophecy of Hosea, that prophet who saw perhaps more clearly than anyone has how we have injured our God at the depths of his heart, that ours is not a God who can be portrayed as a perfect and passionless marble figure as the Greek sculptors loved to show their deities. But ours is a God who if He is pictured at all is to be seen as a grotesque figure outstretched upon a Roman cross, with nothing between Himself and the elements but a loincloth, with nothing at all between himself and the elements of violence in the human heart. So Hosea's God: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, 0 Israel? My heart recoils with me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy. “