The Cross: God’s Solution, God’s Passion

Luke 9:23 (ESV)
Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

   Everyone loves a parade, don’t they?  The bands, the floats, the clowns, the horses, the candy that gets tossed to the crowd.  I marched in my share of parades way back when I was in grade school and high school band and I’ve watched my share of parades over the years, especially the 4th of July parade that my family and I typically attend each year in Steeleville, IL.  It’s a long parade, probably too long.  But there are certain years when it’s longer than others.  And this is one of those years for this is an election year which means that every incumbent and every aspiring politician will be walking in that parade with their entourage of loyal workers, handing out flyers, promising you the moon in exchange for your vote.  Those are the parades I don’t love.

   Well, now that we’re in the season of Lent I’m reminded of a parade of sorts that took place on a sunny Friday morning in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.  It was a parade that some people loved, but that one man in particular didn’t.  His name was Simon.  Not the Simon you know best as Peter, but another Simon who came from a far away place called Cyrene.  He, like hundreds of thousands of other faithful Jews, had come to Jerusalem in the hopes of enjoying a peaceful and meaningful Passover celebration.  But that’s not what he got.  For when he arrives, he finds a noisy crowd gathered along the main street running through the city.  At first he figures that some Roman dignitary must be parading himself up and down that street with a well-organized battalion of soldiers, just to serve as a reminder to all these Passover pilgrims who’s in charge and who they’ll have to answer to if they don’t behave themselves.  But when he finally sees what the hubbub is all about, he realizes that this parade is not about some Roman official flexing his political muscle.  Rather, this is a crucifixion procession.  And at the head of the procession is a man who has been obviously and brutally beaten.  His eye is swollen shut.  Dried blood is caked beneath his nose.  On his head he wears a grisly crown of thorns that sends tiny rivulets of crimson cascading down his face.  The inside corner of the cross saddles his right shoulder, the base of the cross drags in the dirt, the top of the cross wobbles as the condemned man tries to carry it with a Roman soldier barking obscenities at him.  Finally, the burden becomes too great and this pitiful excuse for a human being stumbles beneath its weight.  He manages to get up and walk a few more steps.  But then the cross bearer stops right in front of Simon.  His mouth is open as he heaves for air.  Simon winces as he sees the rough wood of the cross rubbing against the raw back of this man, a back that has been turned into quivering ribbons of flesh by a Roman scourge.  Simon hears someone in the crowd shout out the name of this accused criminal.  It’s the voice of a woman.  “Jesus!” she cries as tears flow down her cheeks.  But the Roman soldier shows no mercy.  “Move on!” he says to the man, kicking him in his side.  But this Jesus fellow can’t move.  He lacks the strength to take even one more step.  Then all of a sudden, the cross he is carrying begins to sway like a freshly cut tree.  And as it topples everyone scatters.  Everyone, that is, except Simon, who reaches out with his burly hands and catches it.  Jesus falls face first in the dirt and stays there, too weak and exhausted to respond to the commands of the soldier.  It takes only a few seconds for the soldier to assess the situation and make his decision.  Recognizing that Jesus can no longer carry the cross, he presses the point of his spear between Simon’s shoulder blades and says, “You!  You carry the cross!”  Simon objects.  He says, “Sir, I don’t even know this man.”  But that doesn’t matter to the soldier.  So Simon does what he’s been ordered to do.  He allows the cross to now saddle his shoulder.  He steps out of the crowd and into the street, out of anonymity and into history.  And he becomes the first in a long line of countless others who will do what he did, who will take up the cross and follow Jesus. 

   Yes, Simon did literally that day what Jesus has called us to do figuratively.  In our text for today he says: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  This morning and 2 weeks from today we’re going to spend our time exploring this verse that calls for an incredible commitment from us.  Only we’re going to do it in reverse order.  Today we’ll examine what it means to take up our cross and two weeks from today week we’ll look at what it means to deny ourselves.

   So how about it?  What do you think Jesus means when he calls us to take up our cross, to bear our cross?  I suspect that if you were to conduct a random sidewalk survey in which you asked people that question, you’d probably hear answers like these:  “Oh, the cross I bear is my mother-in-law.” Or, “The cross I bear is my arthritis.”  Or, “The cross I bear is my grumpy boss.”  I really believe that most people would define their cross as some type of irritation or frustration or situation that is making their life difficult.  Your Thesaurus Dictionary would agree.  For it lists the following synonyms for “cross:” frustration, trying situation, snag, hitch, drawback.  Most people think that to take up their cross is to take up some sort of personal challenge. 

   But is that really what Jesus was talking about here?  Do you think he was saying, “If you want to be my follower, then you have to put up with a few tough breaks in life”?  Do you think he’s reducing the significance of the cross to a few hassles and headaches that we might have to contend with occasionally?  I don’t think so.  I think there’s more to it than that.  Think for a moment about the cross that Simon carried on that first Good Friday.  What was the significance of that cross?  What happened on that cross that forever distinguished it as holy?  I believe the answer to that question can be stated as follows: The cross declares God’s solution for sin and his passion for people.  The cross that you wear around your neck, the cross that hangs on the wall in your home or office, the huge cross that people can see from I-57 when driving through Effingham, those crosses declare God’s solution for sin and his passion for people.  Let’s look at both of those for a few minutes.

   First, Christ’s cross is God’s solution for sin.  Now Simon had no way of knowing this, but he carried a holy relic that day.  For at the crucifixion, in some way that we can’t begin to comprehend, the sins of all humanity were transferred to Christ.  We deserved to die for those sins, we deserved to experience the punishment of hell for those sins, yet on the cross Jesus changed places with us.  He became our divinely appointed Substitute.  1 Peter 3:18 puts it this way: “Christ himself suffered for sins once for all.  He was not guilty, but he suffered for those who are guilty to bring you to God.”  You see, we deserve to die but live.  He deserved to live but died.  And in the process Paul tells us in Col. 2:14 that God “canceled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow.  He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross.” 

   I believe when Paul wrote those words he may have had in mind an old Jewish custom I recently learned about.  If you were a citizen of ancient Israel and you found yourself financially destitute, unable to pay off your debts, you had one final option.  You could write all of your debts on a goat skin and then nail that goat skin to a post in a public place in the hopes that some compassionate passerby would see that list with your name at the bottom and out of the goodness and kindness of their heart and out of an abundance of resources that you sure didn’t have, they would pay your debt for you.  If they chose to do that, they would signify it by folding that goat skin over that list and tacking it to that post so that your debts could no longer be seen.

   Don’t we wish that such a process existed today?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could take our maxed out Visa bill down to the grocery store or city hall and put it on the bulletin board?  And somebody would come along and say, “Poor, Pete, he’s having a tough time.  I feel sorry for him so I’m going to pay this debt for him.”  Now don’t hold your breath.  That’s probably not going to happen.  Why not?  Because most people have enough debt of their own.  And just like one debtor can’t pay off another person’s debt, so also one sinner can’t pay off another person’s sin.  But on the cross Jesus, who had no sin, no debt of his own to pay, voluntarily paid for ours, thus cancelling our debt and setting us free from that overwhelming burden. 

   I pray that during this Lenten season you will receive anew what that means for you.  Some of you here today are still carrying sins that you committed decades ago.  You’re shouldering loads that I guarantee God does not want you to bear.  So take them to the cross.  Lay them down at the nail-scarred feet of Jesus.  And understand that the cross is God’s solution for those sins. 

   But there’s more.  For the cross also declares God’s passion for people.  And to take up your cross means to share in that same passion for people.  It means to love people the way Christ loves them, to see people as he sees them, to serve people as he served them. 

   And while our crosses are similar in that regard, they are not identical.  Let me explain by using the example of myself and my two best buddies from my days at the seminary.  Those two best friends were named Brian and Bob.  All 3 of us began our studies for the ministry looking to serve God in a typical congregation like this.  But I was the only one that actually did that.  While I’ve served in four pretty standard congregations during my ministry, Brian ended up serving as the pastor of a congregation in Florida that was also affiliated with a Lutheran campground there called Woodlands, a ministry that is totally different from what I’ve served over the years.  Bob, on the other hand, found that he had a passion for mission work.  So he ended up going to Liberia, West Africa as a missionary for a number of years and at one time even served as the Executive Director for our Synod’s Board for Mission Services.  Each year he logged hundreds of thousands of miles as he visited remote areas of our world to bring encouragement and leadership to our missionaries who were serving on foreign soil. 

   So you see what I mean when I say that even though we all carry the same cross or passion for people, our crosses are far from identical.  Certain needs shout at us more than others.  For example, some people feel a heaviness for those who are spiritually sick, those who for whatever reason have removed themselves from the fellowship of God’s people or those who have never been a part of that fellowship.  Others feel a burden for those who are physically sick, those who are facing a major illness or a life threatening disease.  Still others carry a cross for those who are emotionally sick, those who are struggling with discouragement, disappointment, depression; those who are grieving over the loss of a loved one; those who are lonely and just need to know that they’re not forgotten.  When we take up the cross of Christ, we share in his love for people and his passion for people.

   So I hope you’ve received a whole new perspective today on what Jesus was talking about when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  That cross is more than just an irritation or frustration that makes life miserable for us.  That cross signifies God’s solution for sin and his passion for people which he wants to become our passion as well.  Next time I preach we’ll spend our time examining what it means to deny ourselves as I bring you a message that will be entitled “The Society of the Second Mile.”  Until then, may the peace of God that surpasses all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds firmly anchored to the Rock of Ages, Jesus Christ, at all times.  Amen.