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I wonder, too, what all the prettiness does to my ability to be touched by the cross, to contemplate its significance, to shed a tear in recognition of the inescapable fact that Jesus suffered and died there for me!
Oh yes, the cross is a scene of universal magnetism. The songs, the poems, the sermons, the books and essays, the sculptures and paintings, the plays and pageants and pilgrimages -- doesn't the endless procession of artistic homage insist that we have indeed considered the cross?
Touched by it? We are inundated with it!
But isn't that part of the problem? Can't there be a kind of overexposure that blunts the meaning of the cross? To be brutally honest, don't we have to admit that the cross is a cliché? Writers for a new sitcom want to portray a smarmy, religious buffoon, so they hang a big, gaudy cross from the actor's neck. The critics give the show negative reviews and the producer whines, "They crucified us! Call the Red Cross!" The director moans, "Oh great, one more cross to bear -- as if these childish actors weren't enough!" Sarcastically he intones, "Forgive them, they know not what they do." And so, with gold chains, crosses, ankhs and a half-dozen other contradictory trinkets jangling on his chest, he jumps in his sports car and heads for the airport. On the way, he passes hospitals, insurance offices, schools, and consulates that all employ crosses in their logos, though no one seems to remember why. At the airport, he boards the private jet that will whisk him to his desert getaway near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Maybe the cross really is a cliché.
Wait, though. Which cross are we looking at? Do you see a cross that is somehow romantic, though perhaps a bit trite? A fantasized, plastic crucifix? Is that the Cross of Christ or is it an adornment in the man-made sanctuary where we seek refuge from the real cross? Sitting in padded pews, is our view of a hurting world a little too obscured and colorized by the stained glass through which we look at life? Protected by stone walls and flying buttresses, do we take a little too much comfort in a polished and stylized cross? And as we remember the blood shed on the cross, does the pasteurized grape juice we drink from the clear, plastic, sterilized thimbles go down just a little too easily?
|The authentic cross shockingly proclaims the very thing I don't want to hear.|
The authentic cross shockingly proclaims the very thing I don't want to hear. So I turn from the cross. Or if I must come to it, I'll bring cleaning solution, sand paper and paint. Lord, I love you. Let me smooth the splintery edges. Let me make your cross somehow less brutal, less repulsive, less real. I don't want to know that the cross is a bloody mess, a shameful scandal that must shock and hurt me.
After all, Lord, my friends and I are fairly good and decent folk. We don't need or deserve to be exposed to such horror. We needn't talk of atrocity or scandal. We cannot forget our propriety. We must not be cut too deeply.
A literal cross is a scene of failure, disgrace, and torture. The shame of the cross is the very antithesis of Divine Majesty. It is the ultimate affront to human dignity. Surely the only proper response is to turn away in sickened disbelief. Wasn't that what Jesus' own apostles did? Tell me again what Jesus said about love. Let me recall his blessing of the children. But don't show me an uncensored cross.
But without the cross there is no love and there can be no blessing.
Knowing that, can I go beyond repulsion and denial to the compelling reality of a Savior's perfect sacrifice? I guess Jesus doesn't really need me to dignify his cross; any such effort is doomed to result only in a pathetic sort of well-intentioned sacrilege. Still, the urge remains because a literal cross seems too much to bear. The tendency has always been with us. Even before that black day, proud and weak humanity had already begun denying the reality of the cross. From the time of Peter's confession of Christ right up to the very end, Jesus repeatedly explained that he would suffer and be killed and then be raised three days later. Remember from Matthew 16:22, how Peter reacted the first time Jesus mentioned the subject? "No way, Lord! Never, not you!" Still, there it is in the very next verse, the Lord's stern response: "
Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (NIV)
And thus it has been for nearly two millennia. To us the cross is the scandal, the stumbling block, the offense. But Christ insists that the real scandal or offense is this human reaction to the cross. To truly acknowledge all the cross is and says, sinful humanity must get past the basic urge to deny or alter the reality. Our problem is not only one of ignorance and indifference though these are considerable in our time. The problem is also that sort of misguided propriety which seeks somehow to refine and sterilize the cross.
|By the first century AD, crucifixion had been developed to a science of exquisitely prolonged torture and death.|
By the first century AD, crucifixion had been developed to a science of exquisitely prolonged torture and death. This form of execution was all too familiar to the first readers of the Gospel. There was no need to go into detail. That may not be true today, so descriptions of the medical horrors Jesus endured may serve a purpose. The scourging, the nails, the continual cramping of the muscles, the inability to take a breath, the spittle of his tormentors, the insects burrowing into his wounds; Jesus felt every one of these. But Scripture does not focus on these torments at all. Rather, it calls us to consider what must have been the most excruciating pain of all. The burden of my sins and yours, our guilt and shame that he bore; what words can depict that agony? How dare we compare that cosmic throe with any physical pang?
His radical, affronting grace cries out from the cross: In your place! With three simple words, he invites me to put aside my own ill-defined and pretentious dignity. In your place! With three simple words, he identifies with me and bids me come lose my identity in his.
"In your place I cried, 'Forsaken!"' he says. "Now, in my place, you may cry, 'Father!' I have taken your sinfulness; now take my righteousness. I paid your penalty; now receive my reward. I died your death for sin; now come live my life of glory. What was yours, I have taken as mine. Now what is mine, come take as yours!"
And then he cries out, "It is finished!" But there is no tone of defeat, no sigh of resignation. This is nothing less than a victory cry. "It is accomplished ! I have won!" How can such words echo from a cross? They can because, indeed, all is finished on the cross. From that point on, nothing is the same. As he cries, "It is finished," he is also saying, "Now it begins!" Finished are the law's unmet demands, hanging over our heads like a curse, now completely fulfilled on our behalf by the perfect Lamb. Begun is the liberating law written on the heart, righteousness offered as a grateful gift. Finished is the darkness of ignorance, begun is the Light which is Christ. Finished is this mere existence in the death of sin, begun is the celebration of the bountiful life in the Spirit. Finished is the deformation from our fallenness, begun is the transformation into his holiness.
There was a separation but that wall has been razed; the veil is ripped, the chasm bridged. In place of alienation from God there is reconciliation. The sacrifice, being perfect, must never be repeated. Christ died once, for all; there is nothing any of us can ever do to make the gift better or the work more effective. There remains only to say "Finished!" to self and "Begun!" to Christ. There remains only to embrace a belief lived out in total surrender. Since his righteousness is now ours, then his Father is ours, his joy is ours, his abundance is ours, his glory is ours, his home is ours. Even now, he is preparing there a place for us (John 4:1-3).
I stand, then, confronted by the cross. Shall I turn away, insisting that I can somehow save myself? Shall I stay, only to give a mock obedience, a pretense of righteousness made up of compromise and self-determination? Or will I find the grace to forego my self-satisfaction, safety, comfort, dignity, and propriety? Can I simply kneel at the cross and let the full force of its message pierce my heart? Can I let Christ's cross crucify me, too?
Really, the cross offers me only one option. If I want to be made whole, I must be broken. If I am to be fully healed there, I must be mortally wounded there. If I desire to live with Christ in his home, I must die with Christ on his cross.
OUT OF MY SIGHT -- Literally, go behind me, an idiom very close in impact to the vernacular expression, "get out of my face!"
SKANDAL -- The word skandalon most commonly has been rendered by these three English terms. It occurs also in Galatians 5:11 from which the title of this chapter is taken.
©1998 ACU Press. Used by permission. This book can be ordered from ACU Press, ACU Station, Box 29138, Abilene, TX 79699.
HEARTLIGHT(R) Magazine is a ministry of loving Christians and the Westover Hills church of Christ.
Edited by Phil Ware and Paul Lee.
Copyright © 1996-97, Heartlight, Inc., 8332 Mesa Drive, Austin, TX 78759.
1998 ACU Press. Used by permission. This book can be ordered from ACU Press, ACU Station, Box 29138, Abilene, TX 79699.
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