I Corinthians 1:17-26
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 buiding, and immediately your attention is rivetted 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 sign of our religion.” Immediately thoughts go racing through your mind. Incredible. What are these people? A bunch of sadists? They must be sick. I must have walked into a Stephen King horror story.
1. The Cross in Christian Worship
And yet, right behind me, on the front wall of our sanctuary we have something just as horrible as a hangman’s noose. We display a cross. 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. Million churches with millions of crosses.
It is obvious to you and I 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
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it some day for a crown.
For that old rugged cross
so despised by the world
has a wondrous attraction for me…
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 also ensured a slow agonizing death. A strong man could hang there for days, slowly dying with the eastern sun blazing down on him, thirst consuming him, and hour by hour his strength slipping from him until death comes.
Upon these crosses the Roman empire suspended its victims. On such crosses, thieves, murderers, traitors, and other undesireables, 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 the worst way that humanity had ever devised for the execution of its undesirables. It was a barbaric hangman’s noose, a grotesque guillotine of its day.
3. The Transformation of the Cross
Then why the metamorphosis from a thing of horror to the revered symbol of our faith? Because one man, who was different from any other man, 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 for ever.
But of course the cross had nothing to do with the strange thing that happened. At times the church has spoken as though the cross itself effected the miraculous change in human fortunes. That is why charlatans sold splinters of the cross to any pious pilgrim. These pieces of the cross were supposed to contain wonderful powers. But it was superstition. It had no basis in fact. It was simply a piece of wood that was probably used many times in those days to kill off Rome’s enemies.
Crosses cannot save people. They could not then and could not 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 a cross, the cross would simply be a grim reminder of a more barbaric day. No one would try to understand it, for it would have no meaning. It would have the same status as a gas chamber in Belsen has.
But it all changed because Jesaus 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 they 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 tranformed them into the foundation of the Christian Church. Everything Jesus touched he transformed and redeemed. 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 transfotmed it into a symbol of human redemption! Everything he touched he changed.
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 filthy floors, the washing of dirty dishes, and the never ending pile of laundry, and can make it as valued as the work of any other calling.
He can take a marriage from which all the magic is gone and give a family a new lease on life.
The transformation of the ugly cross tells me that he can alter the significance of the worst circumstances of my life.
But, it also speaks to me of something more significant than that even, 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 want to have my life changed so I can be a contribuotor to the health of my world.
The transformation of the cross, underscores that truth. Let God touch your life, and who can predict the rest!