He was Crucified
Mark 15:25-39, Philippians 2:3-11, Isaiah 53:1-12
Go with me to a strange town where you have never been before. You are invited by a friend to go to a certain building of unusual shape. You enter into a dimly lit building, and immediately your attention is riveted by something at the front of the auditorium. There, hanging from one of the rafters is a hangman’s noose. You stand there stunned. “What have I gotten myself into this time?” you say to yourself.
As you stand there, people begin to file past you and take a seat facing the platform where that horrible noose dangles. As some of these people pass you, you notice that some of them carry books in their hands that have the symbol of the hangman’s noose imprinted. You notice that others are wearing fine gold chains around their necks from which dangles a miniature hangman’s noose.
You turn to your friend and ask, “What is that thing at the front of the auditorium there for? Why are people wearing miniature gallows around their own necks? Your friend replies, “Oh, it is the symbol of our religion.” Immediately thoughts go racing through your mind. Incredible! Who are these people? A bunch of sadists? They must be sick. I must have walked into a Gothic horror story.
I. The Cross in Christian Worship
And yet we have something just as horrible as a hangman’s noose. We display a cross in our sanctuaries. Some of us wear a cross as an article of jewelry. Go into church after church across our city, nation and world and there you will see the cross on altars, walls, spires, furnishings, books and in stained glass windows. Some churches are even shaped in the sign of the cruciform. A million churches with countless crosses.
It is obvious to us that the cross is not on a par with a hangman’s noose. In fact the very reverse is true. The cross has become a thing of beauty. Listen to our songs:
- When I survey the wondrous cross…
- In the Cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.
- On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame
But I love that old cross, Where the dearest and best, For a world of lost sinners was slain
The hymnody of the church has continued down the centuries to consider the cross a thing of transcendent glory.
2. The Cross in Jesus’ Day
But people have not always thought that way about crosses. Go back in time 2,000 years to a world where the cross reigned as one of the most horrible instruments of torture and death.
It was a most simple thing. Anyone could make one. Just two beams of wood, nailed one across the other. But when it was placed in the ground and a person was hung on it, it became a perpendicular couch of horror. Its diabolic design ensured the death of its victim, but it also ensured a slow agonizing death. It was a way to torture the victim slowly, but guaranteeing death at the end. A strong man could hang there for days, painfully dying with the eastern sun blazing down on him, thirst consuming him, and hour by hour his strength slipping from him until death comes.
But nails through hands and feet kill no one. They just hurt. Breaking the legs of a person does not kill either. But here is the genius of the cross. A person dies of eventual suffocation. When the hands and arms cannot stand the pain, then the legs push up to give the hands relief. But then the pain moves to the feet, and when that becomes unbearable the legs give way and then the hands bear the pain, and up and down the body moves, trying to find relief. But finally when the legs cannot push, the hands bear the load and then the person cannot catch his breath, and finally succumbs to hyperventilation and then suffocation. When the prisoner is strong this can go on for hours and days, and so to speed up the process the legs could broken and then death comes quickly.
Upon such crosses the Roman Empire suspended its victims. On such crosses, thieves, murderers, traitors, and other undesirables, were hung between earth and sky. Historians tell us that while Jesus was just a boy in Nazareth, there had been an insurrection against Rome. The legions came pouring into the Galilee area, and before they left, a forest of crosses were left behind, holding hundreds of victims.
The cross was such a horrible implement of death that it was usually reserved for the worst of men and the Hebrew Scriptures shouted, “Cursed is anyone that is hanged on a tree.” The cross was one of the worst way that humanity had ever devised for the execution of its fellow man. It was worse than a hangman’s noose or an executioner’s sword.
3. The Transformation of the Cross
Then what caused the metamorphosis of a thing of horror to the revered symbol of our faith? Because one man, who was different than all others, one day hung upon such a cross.
On the hill of Golgotha, the hill shaped like a skull, the alchemy of God’s grace changed that piece of wood and that geometric configuration forever. And now we sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory”
At times the church has spoken as though the cross itself effected the miraculous change in human fortunes. Some thought that the cross was a supernatural relic with a magic that could elicit miracles? Charlatans sold splinters of the cross to pious pilgrim who were hoping for magic or miraculous cures. These pieces of the cross were supposed to contain wonderful powers. But it was superstition. It had no basis in fact. The cross upon which Jesus died was simply a piece of wood that had been used many times before and would be used many more times to kill Rome’s enemies.
Crosses cannot save people. They could not then and cannot now. They were instruments of death, not life. And had there not been a certain man, on a certain day, who had been nailed to one of those crosses, the cross would simply be a grim reminder of our barbaric ways. No one would try to understand it, for it would have no meaning.
But it all changed because Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, was nailed to it. For Jesus changed every thing that he touched.
- He touched the leper, the crippled, the blind, the deaf and the speechless, and they were changed.
- He touched the demoniacs, and their lives were changed.
- He touched the dead and they came to life.
- He touched sinful men and women, and they were never the same again.
- He touched a boy’s lunch and made it a banquet of God’s best bread.
- He touched a goblet of wine and a loaf of homemade bread, and it became a sacrament to the millions that came later.
- He touched 12 men of rather common skills, and transformed them into the founding members of the Christian Church..
- At his birth he touched the stable and it became a place of worship.
- And in his dying he took hold of wood and nails that had been used to crucify people, and transformed the cross into a symbol of human redemption! Everything Jesus touched he changed. Everything he touched he transformed and redeemed.
All of that says something wonderful to me.
- There is no event of my life, no matter how terrible, no matter how crippling, that he cannot transform.
- There is no event of my days, no matter how humdrum, to which he cannot add new meaning.
- There is no event so traumatic, that he cannot infuse with a new glory.
God specializes in things called impossible. God can take the dull lead of tragedy, sufferings, limitations, and set backs, and by his grace transform them into gold that shines with a new glory.
He can take a job that seems like a waste of life’s best energies, that feels like an albatross around the neck, and can turn it into an adventure.
He can take the task of the homemaker with its endless succession of preparing meals, cleaning dirty floors, the washing of stained dishes, and the never ending pile of laundry, and can make it as valued as the work of any other calling.
The transformation of an ugly cross tells me that he can alter the significance of any of the circumstances of my life.
But, it also speaks to me of something even more significant than the transformation of my circumstances. It tells me that he can take my life and transform me. The poet has said,
He can take my life
Debauched with sinning
Ground in the dust of earth and common things
Can grant me by his grace a new beginning
Can cause my soul to soar on heaven’s wings.
The cross has always declared to humanity, how much God loves us. It is a welcome word in a world without love.
But its second message is just as crucial. Love is not enough. To be loved as I am is not enough. I want to be different than I am. I need to have my life changed so I can contribute to the health of my world. The transformation of the cross, underscores that truth. Let God touch our lives, and who can predict the outcome!