Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Christ of the Cross - A Sermon

The Christ of the Cross
Matthew 27:39-43
First Baptist Church
Nashville, Tennessee
March 22, 2015
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

(To view this sermon click the link above.  The sermon begins at 39:33)

Over the past few weeks of this season of Lent, Pastor Frank has been preaching sermons on various aspects of Jesus death on the cross.  We have been spending time in reflection on Jesus suffering while looking forward to the celebration of Easter in a couple of weeks.  Our lesson this morning comes from Matthew 27:39-43.  Of all the parts of Jesus’ life, Matthew devotes the second most time to describing the events of Jesus betrayal, his trial, his death and resurrection.  We will focus this morning on one small part of this story.  (Just in case you were wondering, Matthew spends the largest amount of time in this gospel on Jesus’ and his disciples’ journey to Jerusalem.) 

In our lesson today, Jesus has already had his last meal with his disciples.  He has already prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He has been betrayed by Judas and faced trials by both the High Priest and the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate.  Jesus was beaten and taken to the place called “Golgatha” and nailed to a cross between two thieves who were also crucified on that day.  As Jesus was hanging on the cross in agony some of the soldiers were at the foot of the cross gambling for his clothing.  Some in the crowd began to call out to Jesus and yell out about Jesus: 


There are five taunts that the people and the religious leaders shout out as they pass by:

1.     You, who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.
2.     If you are the son of God come down from the cross.
3.     He saved others, but he cannot save himself.
4.     He is the king of Israel, let him come down and we will believe him.
5.     He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s son.”

The irony is that each of these statements contains an accurate description of Jesus, but the people cannot see it.  Those who are taunting Jesus yell out “You are the Son of God”.  “He is the King of Israel”.  “He trusts God”.  “You said you would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.”  The problem is that the people yelling out don’t know what these things mean and they don’t see the truth.  As I stand here today, 2000 plus years later, I want to look at these people and say how na├»ve, how informed, how short-sighted they are.  I WANT to do that, but as I look closely at these verses, I realize that I should probably be careful. 

I am a Christian – I attempt to be a follower of Jesus (and regularly fall short).  I was baptized in a Baptist church when I was 7 years old.  I have been active in churches since that day.  My faith has been shaped by my experiences in the church through the years, but I have had a number of opportunities to question the faith that I was born into.  I have questioned it, stepped outside of it, I have been hurt by it and I have loved it.  Through the years, my own understanding of who God is and my relationship with God has been shaped by my experience in the church, but also by others I have encountered, by things I have read, and challenging experiences I have lived through. 

If there were a person who walked through the door of this church today and began to tell me that he or she had a new understanding of God and it was very different from mine – in fact it was almost opposite of mine in many ways – I would not readily jump on his bandwagon.  I would be highly suspicious and I would probably be one of those who would seek to have this “trouble-maker” put out of the church.   My tradition and my faith have been established.  I am comfortable with my understanding of God.  I don’t feel a need to change it.  So, I kind of get that these people of the temple in Jerusalem weren’t going to change their way of thinking simply because some carpenter’s son from Nazareth shows up with a handful of followers. 

These people had centuries of history with an identity as God’s chosen people.  Their ancestor, Abraham, had a special relation with God.  They had a special land that God had given to them.  They had promises made to them through their ancestors and the prophets.  They had demonstrated their devotion to God through their keeping of God’s laws including bringing sacrifices to the priests at the temple to atone for their sins.  Though the people had suffered a great deal under foreign leaders and in foreign lands, they believed that one day they would be restored to the glory that they had during the time of King David.  The people waited on a savior – the messiah – The Christ – who would be a great warrior like David who would destroy the enemies of the Israelites.  They also believed that this new savior/king would establish a time of peace and prosperity for the people.  They waited for such a warrior king to establish a prosperous political kingdom.  Their faith had been established.  They understood how God worked.  They were comfortable with what they believed and they felt no need to change it.

It is difficult to see something when you are looking for something else.

Many of you know that I have a motorcycle and I know that several of you all also ride motorcycles.  I appreciate those of you who like to remind me how dangerous it is to ride a motorcycle.  And it is dangerous.  Every year there are thousands of accidents involving cars and motorcycles.  In many of those cases, the driver of the car reports that they didn’t see the motorcycle.  There is an interesting fact however.  A Federal Department of Transportation study showed that those who do not have a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license report that they occasionally see motorcycles, whereas those who have a motorcycle endorsement on their license report seeing motorcycles ALL the time.  The point is “If you are aware of it, you will see it”.  I felt the same way about couples expecting a baby.  I never really noticed when I saw an expectant mother out and about until we were expecting our first child and then it was like pregnant women were taking over the world.  If you are aware of it, you see it. 

The religious people of Jesus’ day had attuned themselves to a different profile of a messiah.  They thought they knew what God was doing.  When they looked at Jesus, they didn’t see it.  I have often wondered what we might miss because we are expecting God to do one thing when God is actually doing something else. 

My wife Lynda is from Montana.  Several years ago, Lynda and I had the chance to meet a young couple who had moved to Montana to start a new church.  Ryan and Courtney specifically wanted to reach out to people who were not already part of a church and who may not have really understood what Jesus was all about.  Ryan and Courtney were particularly meaningful to us because they began visiting Lynda’s father in the nursing home and offering support to Lynda’s mom.   In various conversations that Ryan had with people around town, he met the owner of a bar.  They struck up a conversation and over time they developed a friendship.  The owner of the bar was not a member of any church, but because of the relationship he had made with Ryan, when the owner of the bar learned that Ryan was looking for a place to start a new church, he said to Ryan, “This may seem like a really weird idea, but what about having church at my bar. There are not too many people in on Sunday evenings and you could have people gather on one side of the bar.”  Ryan took him up on the offer and launched the church in the bar.He had people every week that would pull up on the side of the bar to study the Bible with Ryan.  Now, I’m not gonna lie.  At times, some of these people would grab a beer on their way to sit with Ryan and talk about Jesus.  These were not people who were a part of some other church in town, but they were curious about the man who came to meet them where they were and they were curious about Jesus.   

Over time, the little gathering of people grew and Ryan began to visit with folks outside the bar and offer them care in various ways in their lives.  However, when some of the larger churches in town (including one Baptist church) heard about Ryan’s ministry in the bar, they were not supportive of Ryan, but criticized him.  But things turned ugly when they began send him hate mail.  People called his house and threatened Ryan and his family.  The conflict that was brewing was covered in the news and instead of the people in MT hearing about the love of Jesus that meets people where they are, they saw the petty jealousy and hate that can exist in the church.  Out of fear for the safety of his family and because of a lack of support for his work, Ryan left Montana.  I would bet not too many people that Ryan got to know in the bar were that interested in visiting those other churches.  I couldn’t help but think of Jesus eating meals with the people that were considered “sinners and tax collectors” of his time.  The people of that time criticized Jesus.  They could not see that Jesus was taking the love of God directly to those who needed it because they were sure they knew what God was all about and what God would be doing. 

It is difficult to see something when you are looking for something else. 

People sometimes come to see us at the Pastoral Counseling Centers because they have been through something in their life that has caused them to wonder where God is.    Several years ago, a young woman came to see one of therapists in our office.  This young woman, still in her teens, had been through a traumatic event in her life.  It was the kind of event that turns your life upside down.  It was the kind of event that would change her life forever.  This young woman came to see her therapist regularly and talked about her pain and how her life had changed.  She eventually began to feel better and found a sense of hope for the future.  One day she said to her therapist, “[You know, before this terrible thing happened to me] it was like my life was a beautiful crystal ball, so bright and shiny, so perfectly formed. Then suddenly that crystal ball fell on the floor and shattered into a million pieces. I got down on my knees and tried to fit the pieces back together, [I prayed that God would help me put the crystal ball back together] but the pieces would not fit anymore. I sat helpless on the floor, not knowing how to restore the beauty of that crystal ball. Finally after much time [with you], the suffering has begun to pass, it is like now I am beginning to pick up those pieces with all their jagged edges. I am able to put some of them together and it is like now I am forming a stained glass window from the jagged pieces of glass; and now I can see a little light, God’s light, just beginning to shine through the stained glass.”  She needed to find where God was at work in her life.

If we are aware it, we will see it. 

Of all the things that the people yelled at Jesus and yelled about Jesus, there is one thing that all the statements have in common.  “If you are who you said you are, you would come down from the cross.”  The warrior/king messiah that the people expected would not wind up on a cross.  If for some reason he had, the expected messiah would be able to demonstrate his power and come off of the cross and save himself. 

The reality is that Jesus could have come off the cross.  He said it himself to Peter when the soldiers came to take him away and Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Jesus said that if he wanted to, he could have called down a legion of angels.  Just before that as Jesus was praying, the very real human part of Jesus had actually struggled with whether he could go through with this horrible death or not.  As he prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to the point of exhaustion that if there was any other way for God to accomplish what God needed to accomplish, he wanted God to do THAT.  He ended that prayer though with, “not my will, but yours”.  Jesus knew what he was doing.  It was not a lack of power that kept Jesus on the cross.    It was in fact the power of his perfect submission to the will of God and his love for every one of us that kept him on that cross.  Jesus did not come down off the cross because his focus was not on saving himself, but on saving humanity. 

The people could not see what God was doing because they were expecting God to do something else.  It is difficult to see something when you are looking for something else. 

The people taunted Jesus, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.”

In that moment on the cross, Jesus DID destroy the temple, but not the way the people thought.  Gone was the need to continue to offer sacrifice because Jesus had offered himself as the final sacrifice.  Gone was the need to keep God and the people divided by the holy of holies because Jesus had made direct access to God possible. For generations the temple had been considered a dwelling place for God, but Jesus established himself as the new temple – the dwelling place for God’s spirit.  He rebuilt the temple in three days.  If you are aware of it, you see it. 

It may be that your practice of faith has become a routine.  You know what to expect from your time at church and you know what to expect in your time with God.  Thing have become so routine – might I even say stale – that God could not surprise you if He tried.   You may need to rediscover how God is at work in your life.    If you are aware of it, you will see it. 

For others, it may be that you think you know how God works.  You feel like God cannot love you unless you doing all the right things.  You may find yourself comparing yourself to others trying to make sure you are doing all the right things, but that also means that you may be spending time noticing when others are not.  Trying to earn God’s favor can be exhausting.  Through Jesus’ selfless act of love, he provided another way to relate to God and he said my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  If you are aware of it, you will see it. 

Maybe, like me, there are things you have done in your life that you feel have alienated you from God and you have felt like God could never love you or forgive you.  You may have been rejected by others or suffered consequences for things you have done and you may feel unlovable.  The truth is that because of Jesus, we no longer have to be defined by the mistakes we have made, God does forgive us, and we welcomed at God’s table.  If you are aware of it, you will see it. 

Perhaps you are looking for a new church home – a place that you can find fellowship and a place to serve.  This is not a perfect place.  I know that because I am here and I know I am not perfect, but you will find people here who want to support you, love you, and serve with you.  If you are aware of it, you will see it. 

*I included the link in this paragraph to the article in the Billings Gazette from 2009 for those who questioned the veracity of this story.  The story itself is neutral to positive about "The Well", but it was the comments on the article that contained unbelievable hatred.  Apparently, the comments are no longer available in article.  If you have difficulty viewing the text, click the "print" button for a preview of the text.