By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He breathed his last and died. He died on the cross. That’s the reason, the only reason we are here. We have come here today because a man died 2000 years. He died a terrible death, the death of a criminal, a torturous and dishonourable death. We are here because a man died, not just any man, but Jesus Christ. He died for you and me.
Occasionally we hear of memorial services being held for people who have recently died. Some of you may have seen the memorial service held in Adelaide for the famous Australian cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman. People gathered to celebrate the achievements of a man who had meant a lot to our country and his contribution to our national pride. Sir Donald’s achievements drew to a close as he suffered old age and illness and then died.
Some people might think that our service today is a kind of memorial service as we recall the great deeds of Jesus of Nazareth but it is far more than that. Jesus greatest accomplishment happened when he died. His last breath brought with it the forgiveness of all people. “It is finished!” (John 19:30) he cried as his last breath slipped away. God’s plan of saving people from the consequences of their sin and their rejection of God was now complete. Jesus Christ, God himself become human, died in our place, suffered what we should suffer. He died so that we could have freedom from the punishment we really deserve because of our sinfulness, freedom from eternal death. Jesus’ death has had a powerful affect on our eternal future. Yes, we have come here to worship a Saviour who died.
Our worship here today might be meaningful for us but we know that to many in our country all of this sounds too irrelevant and too remote from what is happening in their lives at this time. What difference can Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified so long ago make to us today? The cross is meaningless. At best, Jesus’ death was no more than a noble act of martyrdom, or a fine example of devotion to duty. At worst, it was a bad mistake, a terrible miscarriage of justice. In any case, it’s something that never ought to have happened, like all the great tragedies of history.
To add to all this, the idea that the death of a man on a cross can really give us forgiveness is offensive to the intelligence of modern humanity in 2001. That idea might have been all right for people long ago but we have outgrown all of that kind of superstition. For the church to keep on talking about sin and the cross is insulting and irrelevant. The church needs to get with it and talk about modern day issues.
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I can understand why the idea of a man dying on a cross is rejected by so many. If the early church had employed a top advertising agency to help them sell the Christian faith to the public, the picture of a man beaten by Roman soldiers, mocked, a crown of thorns on his head, then nailed to a rough wooden cross, his life cruelly draining away and then dying would not have used. They would have avoided suggesting that God died at the hands of wicked people in order to provide forgiveness and eternal life. They would have avoided the whole idea that God had died – that is all too humiliating, all too illogical for God.
The apostle Paul was aware that Jesus’ death on a cross was offensive even to people back in the first century. He wrote:
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God…. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:18, 25).
That was Paul’s way of saying, “Yes, it does appear to be silly and illogical but this is God’s way of bringing salvation to us all. This is God’s way of doing things. This is the Good News – Jesus has died for us.”
Paul is right. The cross is insulting to one’s intelligence but for those with faith and trust in Jesus’ the cross is a powerful symbol of the new life that Jesus has won for us. Paul was often ridiculed, imprisoned, beaten and harassed, but the more they put Paul down, the more he preached that Christ was crucified for our sin, the simple yet powerful message of the cross of Christ. Paul knew that the cross of Jesus was able to change people’s lives.
John Grisham’s novel, The Testament, tells how Nate, the main character, has just left a hospital, where he nearly died. Listen to his encounter with the crucified Christ.
“The front door was wide open, so from the sidewalk Nate could see rows of wooden pews, the empty pulpit, the mural of Christ on the cross, and the backs of a handful of worshipers leaning forward in prayer and meditation. The organ music was low and soft, and it pulled him in.
… He shuffled along the back row and sat alone. He studied the crucifixion, the nails through His hands, the sword in His side, the agony in His face. Did they really kill Him in such a dreadful manner? Along the way, at some point in his miserable secular life, Nate had read or heard the basic stories of Christ: the virgin birth, thus Christmas; the walking on the water; maybe another miracle or two; was he swallowed by the whale or was that someone else? And then the betrayal by Judas; the trial before Pilate; the crucifixion, thus Easter, and, finally, the ascension into heaven. …
Three more stragglers came from the street. A young man with a guitar … strummed a few chords and began singing, his face glowing with words of faith and praise. A tiny little woman one pew up clapped her hands and sang along … .
When the song was finished, the young man read some scripture and began teaching. … Then his thoughts drifted.
His body had purged the fevers and chemicals. He was well fed, alert, rested. He was his old self again, and that suddenly depressed him.….
Nate closed his eyes, and called God’s name. God was waiting.
With both hands, he clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please help me.”
He opened his eyes and wiped his cheeks. Instead of seeing the young man with the guitar, Nate saw the face of Christ, in agony and pain, dying on the cross. Dying for him.
A voice was calling Nate, a voice from within, a voice leading him down the aisle. But the invitation was confusing. He felt many conflicting emotions. His eyes were suddenly dry.
Why am I crying in a small hot chapel, listening to music I don’t understand, in a town I’ll never see again? The questions poured forth, the answers elusive.
It was one thing for God to forgive his astounding array of iniquities, and Nate certainly felt as though his burdens were lighter. But it was a far more difficult step to expect himself to become a follower.
As he listened to the music, he became bewildered. God couldn’t be calling him. He was Nate O’Riley—boozer, addict, lover of women, absent father, miserable husband, greedy lawyer, swindler of tax money. (1)
This is an excerpt from a novel but Nate could be you or me. Nate couldn’t understand why Jesus should die for someone whose life had been filled with so much that was wrong. He had abused his body to the point of death. So much in his past had been evil. Jesus couldn’t love him. He couldn’t have died for him. But he did. That’s the foolishness of the cross. That’s the craziness of God’s love. Nate realised that Jesus had died for him.
The Bible says, “God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10).
We might think that some of the nicest good news is hearing of the birth of a baby, coming into a lot of money, or being cured of a disease, but the best news of all is that even though we are sinners who don’t deserve it, Christ has died for us.
Just before we heard the song: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? And the answer is: we sure were!! It was as if we drove in those nails and raised that cross ourselves. Yes, we were there when our Lord was crucified.
It was our sin that nailed Jesus to the cross;
it was our guilt that caused him to suffer;
it was our godlessness that killed him.
But thank God that the cross does more than make us feel bad about our sinfulness. The cross is the place where we were rescued. It is all we need to be saved. There is nothing we can add to it. He has given us complete pardon for all our sin. It has given us new life and the hope of life forever.
Thank God for the cross, for Jesus who died there for us.
God has shown us how much he loves – it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us!
(1) Grisham, John. The Testament. Doubleday: New York, 1999. pages 304-307
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.