Monday, September 1, 2008

Why a Cross? - A Sermon

Listen.  If you’re careful you can hear the groans.  That’s millions of children slinging on their backpacks and tromping toward the bus as school begins this week.  If you listen more intensely, you might just be able to hear a sigh of relief from parents.

But even that is mixed with anxiety because parents now have to adhere to their kids’ schedules:  getting them fed and out the door by 7:00, running them around to practices and rehearsals.  There’s a definite sense of depression floating about this week.

You can even feel the negative turn in the scriptures today.  It starts out with Moses who is minding his own business when God tells him “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt” -- and you are going to leave your comfortable life to go fix it.  Moses is not happy.

Or what about Paul:  “Bless those who persecute you.”  That went over really well, I bet.

So, it’s a gloomy day in scripture as well as in many homes.  Well, Jesus doesn’t make it any better.  There he is with his adoring fans when he tells them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

If you think that didn’t put a dent in their moods, think again.  Already, he had been telling them HE was going to suffer and die.  Many of them thought he was talking metaphorically -- you know, “It’s going to be tough going….”  But Peter finally figured out Jesus was serious.  He meant he was going to really be killed.

But even then, he couldn’t really be serious about EVERYONE getting killed like that, could he?  

Actually, he was -- and is.  He is going to a place where most people then and now don’t want to even consider.  He is moving resolutely toward death itself and asking us to follow.

Now, back to the school theme for a moment, I want you to know I’ve been doing my homework.  Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Bruce Chilton all about sacrifice.  He tracks how people move from sacrificing animals to children, to themselves, then to their enemies.  He suggests that we now call soldiers who die in battle sacrifices (which never was the case before, say, the crusades) because at least they’re taking bad guys with them.

But notice how we slipped right by the part where Jesus was.  Sacrificing themselves -- without taking anybody else by force.  Jesus harms nobody -- even those who kill him.  The only people he takes toward death are those who willingly follow.  

Does this all sound a little crazy by now?  Well, let’s put it in perspective and try to see what Jesus was up to.  He absolutely knew he was going to die.  The cross was the most likely method for execution under Roman occupation, so he had every right to expect that.  And it was a gruesome, humiliating death.

Jesus also know that bad things were likely to happen to his disciples if they continued to associate themselves with him.  Many, he knew, would literally pick up their crosses and die as well.

But he was leading the rest of us as well -- maybe not to Gethsemane but to death -- and then THROUGH death -- to the other side.  He moved unwaveringly toward what we fear most in order to remove that fear that so imprisons us.   

For some of us, we fear humiliation the most.  Our reputations are the most importatant things to us, so Jesus takes us to the most humiliating place imaginable to his disciples -- a cross.  He leads them himself.

For many, suffering is the worst thing.  I’ve heard people say they don’t really mind dying as long as it doesn’t hurt.  The pain is what frightens them.  So Jesus leads us to a horribly painful death.  Again, a cross.

But to most of us, the unknown that comes after death is the most frightening.  What lies on the other side of that wall?  And again, Jesus leads the way right through death to that other side.  And there he stands saying, “I made it, and you will, too.”

Yet he walks with us as well.  You will notice that Jesus never says he will make humiliation or fear or death go away -- only that he’s been there and will be with us along that path.  And that it will be okay.

Sounds like a parent with a kid going back to school.  “I can’t make the tests and the homework and boring lectures go away, but I’ve been there, and they will help you live a better life.  They will help you really LIVE later on, not just exist, as many who don’t have an education do.”  But parents know they also sit next to their kids and make sure they get the homework done.  They help them build volcanoes that sort of erupt.  They know that they’ll learn the new math right along side their kids.  They know they won’t let them skip school but will watch them get on the bus (secretly, if the kid’s a teenager).  We let them know that on the other side of that long slog, it’s worth it.  It’s good. 

Just like Jesus with life and death.  Jesus helps us know that whatever befalls us, God is with us, walking side by side, and will be with us into the next world. 

And that is our faith.  We will live and live more fully after this life has passed.  No matter what happens here, Jesus has already led us to the other side, already showed us that we don’t have to be afraid.  We can live -- truly LIVE -- because he’s already done it.

The point is that God is with us in every difficult turn -- never taking away the hard parts but assuring us that in the end it will work out.  

Which sounds a lot like what I tell my kids as they ask why they have to go to school.  Some day, you’ll be glad you did this.  In the meantime, I’ll be there with you through the whole thing.