The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
An Ugly Cross
Second Sunday in Lent, 04 March, 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, WY
In the Name of Jesus Amen.
Does anyone love an ugly cross? I never see too many truly ugly ones. Sure, there may be a lonely wooden cross atop a hill on a scenic drive across Wyoming, but look around you. We use smooth-sanded, stained, and polyurethaned wood for our crosses. Precious metal crosses of gold and silver adorn our necks. There’s nothing wrong with that. Yet, unlike Martin Luther, many Americans are averse to seeing Jesus’ body upon a cross.
Does anyone love an ugly cross? The true ugliness of death by crucifixion, especially from a medical standpoint is often too much to bear, too much to behold. Yet we could consider the following. Would you ever decorate your home with an electric chair made of beautiful polished wood? No. Would you wear a necklace with a silver syringe on it, like those used for executions by lethal injection? No again! Yet, we will wear the cross, an emblem of suffering and shame.
We embrace the cross not because it looks like a plus sign (+) or because it is a simple way to put two lines together. Nor do we worship the cross. We cling to the cross because of He who died upon it for us and our salvation.
Jesus taught His disciples about His own cross. But they didn’t love an ugly cross either.
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
We know that the command to tell no one was temporary. Jesus wanted the disciples to wait in order to tell the whole story, Good Friday AND Easter Sunday, when they told the story of Jesus and His love.
When we read an account like the one before us from Mark 8, we tend to identify with those disciples. Peter confesses, “You are the Christ,” and rightly so, for it is the truth. But there were some parts of the truth Peter couldn’t handle. He couldn’t love an ugly cross.
31 And he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly.
Jesus tells the whole story: suffering, crucifixion, death, AND Resurrection. He knew what was going to happen to him. Holy Week was no surprise to the Son of God. He was honest and clear about these things with His disciples.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Peter says “No” to the ugly cross. Simon, newly-called Peter, gets the newer nickname of “Satan.” Why? He said no to suffering, to pain, to…the ugly cross before Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus. That was wrong. Jesus rebuked Peter. The cross was part of the things of God. Peter wanted no part of it for himself or for Jesus.
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Self-denial is the true purpose behind “giving something up for Lent.” I encourage you to pick up something new for Lent. Add a devotion. Add a work of service. Pray for those you never have prayed for in the past. It is also important to learn to give things up…at least for a time. A good place to start is to give up a sin for Lent. In saying this, I don’t mean that you should start doing it again once Easter comes—no. Use Lent as a time to teach yourself to say no to yourself. Wean yourself off of the sin during these forty days. Give it up for good. Then, live in Easter freedom and go and sin no more!
Christians have given up other things for Lent in the past. They are all part of self-denial. This is a spiritual discipline, like fasting. Some have used Lent to show their devotion to God by abandoning bad habits, like costly addictions—costly due to the physical, emotional, and financial toll they take on you and your family. I know some who have given up meat on Fridays. Others have gone all Lent without French fries. That’s really an exercise in self-denial. The point of learning self-denial is not to earn salvation or favor with God. We should be clear on that point. Self-denial reminds us to not become too attached to this world so that we would eagerly pray, “Thy kingdom come” in anticipation of the unexpected Last Day or the day of our own death.
By faith, we learn to love the cross. Holding a cross during a time of prayer or a time of physical pain could be a tangible reminder of where Jesus won salvation for you. Our sufferings could never earn our own salvation, yet they help us to identify with Jesus and He with us. We follow in humble, repentant, faith, willing to suffer all, even lose everything we have in this life, in the hopes of enjoying eternal life and rest with Christ. God doesn’t want to spoil your fun. He wants to save you from Satan, the fallen world around you, and even from yourself.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus loves you so much He loved and died upon an ugly cross. His shed blood forgives your sin. He gave His life so that you would not forfeit your body and soul to the old evil foe. He lost His life to give you life. He took up the cross, not merely as an example for you, but to accomplish for you what we could never accomplish for ourselves. The cross is where Jesus won forgiveness. He delivers it in Holy Baptism, the Holy Gospel, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. He gathers you around these gifts. Receiving them, by faith, is why we go to Church in the first place.
Johann Sebastian Bach, the great Lutheran composer, wrote the following and set it to music, practically a commentary on Psalm 23 and this Scripture text: “….To my shepherd I’ll be true. Though he fill my cross’s chalice, I’ll rest fully in his pleasure, He stands in my sorrow near. One day, surely, done my weeping, Jesus’ sun again will brighten. To my shepherd I’ll be true.
“Live in Jesus, who will rule me; Heart, be glad, though thou must perish, Jesus hath enough achieved. Amen: Father, take me now!
“If I then, too, the way of death And its dark journey travel, Lead on! I’ll walk the road and path Which thine own eyes have shown me. Though art my shepherd, who all things Will bring to such conclusion, That I one day within thy courts Thee ever more may honor” (TDP 44).
In the Name of Jesus Amen.