Tag: jurgen moltmann

Sermon: Creation Care Isn’t All Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows


Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on the first Sunday in Lent for 2012. This reading is from the revised common lectionary, Year B, Genesis 9:8-17. In conjunction with this reading, we are also reading from the epistles, 1 Peter 3:18-22. Creation care deserves our lenten attention as we focus on God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all the creatures of the earth.

Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows, or Maybe Not

Genesis 9:8-17 NIV/84:

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

Lent and Creation Care

Remember Lesley Gore? No, she’s not Al Gore’s daughter, although I am talking about the environment some today.  Leslie Gore was a pop singer in the 1960s whose most famous song was “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To.” Now you remember her I’m sure.

Well, Lesley didn’t stop with “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To.” Nope, she also recorded that rock classic, “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.” (See the YouTube clip at the top of this post.) I borrowed Lesley’s song title for today’s message, but with a caveat. So today we’re talking about “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows Or Maybe Not.” I’ll get to the “maybe not” shortly.

Which brings us back to rainbows, which appear in today’s reading from Genesis. This is the first Sunday in Lent, so why are we reading the story of Noah, the biblical flood, and rainbows? Because Lent is a season of reflection – a time when we consider our own spiritual lives in light of Christ’s coming death on the cross, and victorious resurrection.

Part of our task during Lent is to consider how our lives might be lived more in keeping with God’s intention, which might require some sacrifice on our part. That’s why many Christians, not just Catholics, give up something for Lent. I tried giving up broccoli one year, but since I don’t like broccoli anyway, Debbie told me that I got no spiritual points for that particular sacrifice. Incidentally, I was in good company with the broccoli-thing as George Herbert Walker Bush also had a disdain for broccoli, and thought because he was President of the United States he could do anything he wanted. It seems that America’s broccoli farmers took some offense at President Bush’s disparaging remarks about broccoli. Which just goes to show you that even if you are the President of the United States, someone is going to tell you to eat your broccoli.

But back to Lent. If this is a time of reflection, and if we are examining our lives to see what sacrifices we might make, not for the sake of sacrifice, but to remind us vividly of Christ’s sacrifice, I can’t think of any area in which we have thought less as Christians than in the care of creation.

In 2008, Yale University and George Mason University began a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward the issue of climate change. In that survey, which has been updated 4 times and most recently in 2011, researchers found that Americans were divided into six camps concerning climate change.

Researchers called these the “six Americas” and surprisingly these groups are not grouped by demographics, but each of the “six Americas” is found across demographic groups.

The six Americas include the Alarmed (12%); the Concerned (27%); the Cautious (25%); the Disengaged (10%); the Doubtful (15%); and, the Dismissive (10%). Which means that on the extreme ends of the spectrum 39% of Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change, while 25% are doubtful or dismissive.

Clearly we need to look at the Bible again to understand how we should care for God’s creation.

The Story of Noah, the Flood, and God’s Covenant Sign

You know the story of Noah which forms the backdrop for our thoughts today. To say that humankind had gone in the wrong direction in Noah’s day is an understatement. The story of humanity’s wickedness and God’s destructive punishment begins in Genesis 6 and continues through Genesis 10. The book of Genesis devotes 5 chapters to this story, which is the turning point in the history of creation. This story is important, true, and we need to understand exactly what is being said when God makes covenant with mankind and places a rainbow in the heavens to confirm that covenant.

The Bible says in Genesis 6:5-8 NIV/84 –

5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”

Contrast this image of creation with the God’s observation just after God had finished creating the earth, the plants and animals, and humankind in the persons of Adam and Eve:

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” – Genesis 1:31 NIV/84

We’re not sure exactly what happened between Genesis 1 and Genesis 6, because there is very cryptic language about the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” and the Nephilim. Frankly, although there are many opinions about what these descriptions mean, nobody knows exactly what the writer of Genesis meant. But the result is clear, and that is what matters. Humanity had become a wicked, evil lot, and God was tired of the whole mess.

Verse 8 gives us hope, however. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” We will discover much later that Noah and his children are no Sunday School class themselves, but perhaps Noah was the best choice God had. And Noah was obedient to God.

You know this story. God commands Noah to build an ark that is by some estimates 450’ long.  Now that is a pretty good size boat today, but then it was tremendous. God told Noah to build the ark because God was going to flood the earth and wipe out every living thing. Everything, that is, except Noah’s family, and the animals Noah was to bring into the ark so that the earth could be repopulated.

Now, remember the point of this story is theological. The writer is explaining the problem of evil, and God’s first solution to evil on a global scale. I think it’s also important to point out that many cultures have a story of a great flood, which for me gives credibility to the biblical account. But the writer is not a reporter for The Weather Channel, and this is not a meteorological account. This story is about God and creation, and how God deals very early with the problem of evil.

The story comes to a conclusion several months after the rains begin. Noah and his family eventually leave the ark, along with all the animals, and the repopulation of the earth begins.

God’s New Covenant With Creation

So, we’re back to Genesis 9 where we started. In Genesis 9, God gives humanity some responsibility as their part of the covenant. Covenants are always between two parties, and both parties have responsibilities.

Humanity’s responsibilities are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  And, while humankind was going about that, human beings could eat anything. At creation, humanity was granted all the plants to eat, but now after the flood the menu widens to include animals, too.

But, even as God gives permission for people to kill and eat animals, there is a condition: respect for life. Life was symbolized by the blood coursing through an animal’s veins. God prohibited the eating of animals without properly recognizing their sacrificial death and without proper preparation.

But then God adds a special caveat about shedding human blood.

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed: for in his own image God made humankind.” – Genesis 9:6 NRSV

In other words, life is sacred, human beings are made in God’s image still, and don’t forget that, God is saying. Just because some bad characters have been removed from the earth, doesn’t mean that Noah and his family, and succeeding generations can or should forget that people are made in God’s image and their lives are to be protected with great care and reverence.

What’s God’s side of the covenant? God promises never to destroy the earth with water again. And as a token of that promise, God set a “bow in the clouds.” The interesting thing about this rainbow is that it is a reminder to God, not us, that God will never destroy the earth with flood waters again.

So, everything is wonderful, right? Not quite, which is why I’m saying that we can’t take Leslie Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” as the description of the post-flood world.

Let’s look at God’s side of the covenant again.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Look closely at this covenant statement. God is establishing this covenant with Noah, his descendants, AND every living creature that was with you in the ark – every living creature on earth.

Which says to me that God cares about all of his creation, not just us. God will never again kill people, or animals, with flood waters again. Clearly, God is concerned about all of his creation.

In verse 13, God says – “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

This covenant is not just a covenant between God and humanity, it is a covenant God makes with all of God’s creation.

Okay, what’s my point? My point is that God cares deeply about his creation, and as part of our covenantal responsibility, so should we.

Christ and Creation

Let’s turn to the New Testament quickly. With God’s covenant with the earth in mind, let’s look at some familiar places in the New Testament where Christ and creation are tied together.

In John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This obvious restatement of the creation story has a new element – the presence of Christ at creation as God’s creative “Word.” Remember that God spoke every aspect of creation into being. Genesis tells the story that on each day, “God said, Let there be light…” and so on, until by the end of the sixth day God’s Word had spoken inot existence everything there was.

Secondly, Paul says that Christ was not only present at creation, he continues to hold it all together. In Colossians, Christ is the one “in whom all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he repeatedly used as examples the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass of the earth, the sea, the river, water, trees, fruit, rocks, night, day, rain, drought, seasons, and natural disasters.

Jesus connected with the basics of creation and everyday life as he multiplied bread and fish to feed thousands; erased the ravages of disease; calmed the winds and waves; defied the laws of physics by walking on water and appearing in rooms with locked doors; and, ascending into heaven.

It was as though that Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, and his use of the elements of creation were of one and the same piece. In the Kingdom of God there is an abundance, and so an inadequate amount of bread and fish become enough for all. In the Kingdom of God, diseases and accidents that have taken life and health are all dispelled. In the Kingdom of God, the last are first, and poor are rich, and the meek inherit a peaceful earth living as God intended it, in God’s shalom.

How Should We Care for Creation?

We don’t have time today to begin to imagine all the ways that we can and should be caring for creation. But, we do need to consider this: for almost 200 years the dominant eschatology (which means the study of last things) was that the earth was going to be destroyed by God, not by water, but in some raging inferno of destructive fire.

That reading comes largely from the Book of Revelation, but it is a misreading to think that, in my opinion. Theologians from Jurgen Moltmann to N. T. Wright to Brian McLaren now are suggesting that the earth will be remade, that creation will be salvaged, redeemed, just like people are redeemed. That the same sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his triumphal resurrection that changes us, also transforms God’s creation.

That vision comes also from the Book of Revelation, but from the last chapters, Revelation 21-22.

 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.

Moltmann contends that God doesn’t say he’s making all new things, but rather that he is making “everything new.” That, difference, Moltmann believes signifies that God is redeeming and restoring creation to its rightful place, with God at its center, and God’s shalom as its pervading presence.

Revelation 22 confirms that vision by giving us a picture of the recreated Garden of Eden, this time expanded, enlarged, and more abundant than ever.

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.

So, at the end of the Bible we are back where we started – in a garden, with living water, the presence of God, and not one tree of life, but enough trees to bear 12 crops – one crop every month of the year. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No curse, no darkness, no evil, nothing but God and humankind in a paradise of creation.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we do have a covenantal responsibility to God’s creation. During this season of Lent, think about what that might mean, and how we might also contribute to creation as an expression of the Kingdom of God.

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

I Corinthians 2:1-2

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The Cross in Today’s World

We have come today to the third statement out of six about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed.  Here’s what we have affirmed so far:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,

And today we sum up our belief in the passion of the Christ — his suffering, crucifxion, death, burial, and descent into hell during the three days his body was in the grave.  We believe in Jesus Christ, who…

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

You may remember Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of The Christ, which hit movie theaters in 2004.  Because of the controversial nature of the film, Gibson distributed it himself, turning a $30-million investment into the highest grossing English language film ever, and the most profitable R-rated film in the United States.  The movie was rated R for its horrific and graphic violence, done mostly to the character of Jesus himself.

But despite the film’s success in America, Christians in the United States have a very different view of the cross of Jesus Christ.  We wear delicate crosses made of precious gold and silver around our necks, and dangling from our ears.  Hip hop artists wear gigantic caricatures of the cross dangling from outlandish chains, and pop artists like Madonna use the cross as a background prop in their music videos.

The cross itself has become the international symbol of the Christian religion, and of the humanitarian organization, The Red Cross.  It is an iconic symbol, but for much of the Christian community, the cross is strangely absent in our worship, devotion, or Bible study.  Seeker-sensitive churches intentionally leave all the signs and symbols of Christianity, which might be confusing to non-Christians, out of their buildings, including the cross.

As those who came from the Radical Reformer stream of the Protestant Reformation, we Baptists were offended by the crucifixes of our Roman Catholic friends, which graphically depict the Christ in agony on the cross.  Our theological position is that Christ is no longer on the cross, but is risen; therefore, Jesus should not be depicted as the suffering Christ, but as the risen Christ.

So opposed were the radical reformers to the crucifix, and the statuary and iconography of Roman and Orthodox churches, that they banned all images and statues of religious figures, including Jesus, as a form of idol worship.  Church buildings were constructed simply, and called meeting houses, to avoid the confusion with the Catholic church buildings from which they were separating themselves.

Rather than a high altar with a crucifix above it, the pulpit took center stage in the meeting houses of these radical reformers. Catholic churches were constructed with a center aisle so that worshippers entering the sanctuary could have an unobstructed view of the altar and the crucified Christ hanging above or behind it.  Baptist meeting houses were intentionally constructed without a center aisle, in contrast to the Roman Catholic church buildings.  Even in our architecture, our theology finds physical expression in the ways we configure and appoint our spaces for worship.

What About The Cross in the New Testament Church?

Paul explains his time with the fledgling church at Corinth in this way —

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Why did Paul make a statement like this — “…to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Why not Jesus Christ and his miracles?  Surely Paul would want to tell these non-Jewish believers about the miracles of Christ.

Why not Jesus Christ and his ethical teaching?  In the brutal world of the Roman empire, where power dominated, and military power held an iron grip on the civilized world, why not tell the Corinthians about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving your neighbor as yourself?

Why not Jesus Christ and him risen?  The resurrection is the hinge-pin of the story of Jesus, for if we leave Jesus on the cross or in the tomb, his story becomes the sad story of another failed revolutionary, a Don Quixote figure tilting at the windmills of the Roman empire’s strength.

But Paul says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Leon Morris, in his massive volume titled, The Cross in the New Testament, begins his introduction with these words:

“This is principally a book about the cross, since in the New Testament salvation centres [sic] on the cross.”  He goes on to say, “The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith.  Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.”

The gospel writers are not in agreement on all the details of the life of Christ.  Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that describe the conception and birth of Jesus.  So, even the event in the Apostles’ Creed that we examined last week — “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary” — is not included in two out of four of the Gospel accounts.

The gospel writers include different miracles, different parables, and different events in the life of Jesus.  Even those dramatic times of healing, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, and walking on water are not included in all four of the Gospel accounts.

But when it comes to the cross, each of the Gospels includes the story of the cross and the crucifxion of Jesus.

Why did the apostles consider the cross central to the story of Jesus, and why are we so ambivalent about the cross today?

The History of the Cross

Why is it then, that in our 21st century sophistication, we’re so uncomfortable with the cross?  I grew up singing hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, At the Cross, Lead Me To Calvary, Power in the Blood, Nothing But The Blood of Jesus, and Are You Washed in the Blood, and other old-time hymns which reminded the singers of the cross, and the shed blood of Christ. But, today’s praise songs seldom refer to the cross or its result, the bruised body and shed blood of Jesus.  We sing about he awesome God, the glory of God, the wonder of God, the friendship of Jesus, and the majesty of heaven — anything but the cross and the blood.  The history and setting of the punishment known as crucifixion will help us understand some of the difficulty we have with it.

Paul introduced the centrality of the cross in the first chapter of I Corinthians with these words —

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  — I Cor 22-25 NIV

Corinth was an outpost of the Roman empire.  It was an immoral, corrupt city even by the standards of the first century.  The reputation of Corinth was so bad, that to be called a “Corinthian” was to be insulted and slandered.  Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite, where over 1,000 temple prostitutes performed the rituals of the temple.  It was a wild and wooly town, but Paul visits there, Aquila and Priscilla, and plants a church.

Upon Paul’s departure, the Corinthians quickly stray both theologically and morally.  We know more about worship in the Corinthian church than any other church in the New Testament because the Corinthians were doing just about everything wrong in worship that they could do.  They were trying to out-do one another in the practice of their spiritual gifts — speaking in tongues, interrupting each other with prophecies, shouting out words of supernatural knowledge, and letting worship degenerate into a frenzy of one-upmanship.  Even when taking the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians turned communion into a drunken, gluttonous affair.  The well-to-do brought their own food, which they refused to share with those who had none.  In short, they were a train wreck of a church.

Paul’s letter calls them back to the center, and he reminds them that when he came to Corinth, he preached the cross of Christ.  That was his central message.

If they were such an immoral people, why not the ethical teaching of Jesus?  The Corinthians knew the great philosophers.  They knew the arguments for a kind of detached morality, even in the midst of their immorality.  They lived in the shadow of one of the great temples of the civilized world, the temple to Aphrodite.  A simple appeal to “live better” would have been totally lost on them.

But, if they wouldn’t listen to the call to live life according to God’s instruction found in the Ten Commandments and in the teaching of Jesus, what about the miracles of Jesus?  Surely, they would be impressed with those?  But Roman culture had its own mystical experiences.  The oracles, mystical figures who seemed to speak the words of the gods themselves, were located throughout the Roman world.  The most famous was the oracle at Delphi, but others existed as well.  Demon-possession, magic, the dark arts, and other forms of the supernatural were as common in the first century as they are in our world today.  Just as Pharaoh’s sorcerers and wisemen counterfeited the miraculous staff of Aaron with their own, the magicians and pagan practicioners of the first century also practiced the equivalent of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Ecstatic speech, foretelling the future, speaking as the voice of a god, healing, and other dark practices were well-known in the ancient world.

But the cross of Christ was the center for the Corinthian church, and for the Christian faith Paul knew.  Why?  And why did Paul refer to the cross as foolishness, and in another passage as a stumbling block or scandal to the Jews?

From the Roman perspective, crucifixion as capital punishment was borrowed from the Persians and others.  Crucifixion was reserved for criminals, rebels, slaves and the lower-class.  Seldom were Roman citizens or the upperclass foreigners executed by crucifxion.  Slaves and robbers particularly were crucified as a deterrent to those who might either try to escape their masters, or steal from others.

Crucifixion was gruesome business.  It was one of three methods of capital punishment used in the empire.  Crucifixion, being torn to death by wild beasts, and burning were the three methods of capital punishments.  Being torn by wild beasts required a public festival and an arena, so that was more difficult and involved.   But anyone could be crucified at anytime, and in a variety of methods.

Sometimes the stake was a single straight piece of wood.  At other times, cross pieces were used either in the form of a “T” with the crosspiece on top, or in the form most familiar to us — two pieces of wood that intersected with space above the victim’s head for some type of placard identifying his or her crime.  Limbs were either lashed to the cross, or fastened with nails.  Flogging and torture most often preceded the actual crucifxion, and the condemned was required to carry his cross, if able, to the public place of execution.

Public humiliation was as much as part of the punishment as was the victim’s actual death.  Stripped totally naked, the nude body was beaten, nailed to the cross, and lifted up for all to see as they passed by.  Jeers and taunts would greet those who had been robbers particularly, because the rural Judeans were often victimized by roving bands of robbers and criminals.

Bodies were often left on crosses to decompose, or be picked apart by wild animals and birds of prey.  The denial of burial was a further humiliation, particularly to the Jews.

As if all of that were not enough, the Jews had a special aversion to crucifxion and wooden crosses because of Deuteronomy 21 —

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Jews had a special aversion to crucifixion and crosses because they equated it with the Old Testament curse of being hung on a tree.  So, the offense of the cross, the scandal of the cross, the revulsion of the cross is that the Jews could not imagine that the Messiah of God, the Anointed One, would ever be hung on a tree. How could he, for anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God.  It becomes impossible for Jews to reconcile Jesus’ manner of death with his claim to Messiahship.

What of the Cross For Us Today?

But we are just as scandalized by the cross, just as offended by the gore, the brutality, the blood, and the stench.  Just as offended by the nakedness of Jesus, the taunts of the bystanders, the ridicule of the placard over Jesus head saying, “This is the King of the Jews.”  Like passing a bad car wreck on the highway, we don’t like the cross, and we turn our eyes from it as quickly as we can, and move on to other more pleasant aspects of our faith.

I have done that myself because the cross and Jesus’ death on it seems so barbaric, so crude, so primitive, and so messy.  My sensibilities are offended, and my sophistication and education rail against this as the central story of Jesus.  I like the Sermon on the Mount, or the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus, or even the resurrection of Christ himself as the central story of our faith.  But, none of those are, nor can they be.

We do not follow just an ethical teacher who gave us startling instructions on how we are to treat our neighbors.  We do not follow a mystic who could somehow gather the forces of the unseen world to make blind eyes sees, lame legs walk, and diseased bodies whole.  We do not follow a rebel, or an insurrectonist, as some would have us believe, who only sought to overthrow the unjust systems of society.

No, we follow the crucified Son of God.  And, Jesus himself was well-aware of the horror, the humiliation, and the inhumanity of the cross.  And yet, all the gospel writers tell us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, not for the praise of Palm Sunday, but for his death on the cross.

Mythology is full of stories of gods who were punished. Prometheus was nailed between two rocks in the ancient fable of the anger of Zeus. But Prometheus was freed and resumed his place in the pantheon of Roman gods.  Even in the popular literature of the day, the equivalent of our pulp novels, the hero of the story could be threatened with crucifixion, but just in the nick of time always escaped it.

But in Jesus, we have God who dies.  Jurgen Moltmann calls him “the crucifed God” — a story unlike any that has ever been told in literature or fable.  Gods don’t die, and certainly are not killed by mere mortals.  But in Jesus, God dies.  God provides a sacrifice for Himself of his only Son, who is himself God.  It is an event so radical, so impossible, so unlikely that those who think they know the One, True God best, cannot get past it.

In the cross, Jesus identifies with the slaves caught seeking freedom.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of his own hometown, Nazareth.  He unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61 —

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

Freedom for the captives, the slaves, can only be bought with a price.  Release from darkness for the prisoners can only come from the one who holds the keys.  By the way, and we don’t have time to dig deeply into this, the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed —

He descended into hell

is meant to reflect Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.”  Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18 — “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Scholars disagree on exactly what that verse means, but I believe it means Jesus did what he said he would do, what he proclaimed his mission to be — to release from darkness those imprisoned, even if they’re imprisoned in world of the dead.  That is what Jesus meant when he said “the gates of hell” will not prevail, will not stand, against the onslaught of the Kingdom of God.

Paul, in my favorite passage about Jesus says —

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

It’s all there in these seven verses —

  • Jesus willingly choosing to set aside all that is rightfully his;
  • Jesus taking the nature of a servant, a slave;
  • Jesus making himself nothing, becoming a human being;
  • Jesus humbling himself in obedience to God:
  • Jesus obedience even extends to his death on a cross — the worst, most heinous death one could die;
  • But Jesus being exalted to the highest place;
  • And Jesus being given a name above all names;
  • That at the name of Jesus every knee bows — every angel knee in heaven, every human knee on earth, every demonic knee in hell — every knee bows regardless of location or previous allegiance;
  • And every tongue belonging to the hosts of heaven, the citizens of earth, and the condemned to hell, confesses that Jesus The Messiah is Lord;
  • And God the Father is glorified.

Mel Gibson, who was both producer and director of The Passion of the Christ, used his own hands in the camera close-up of the Roman centurion nailing Jesus to the cross.  Gibson did that he said, because, “It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins [that put Jesus there].” — Wikipedia

But that’s not right.  Our sins did not put Jesus on the cross.  He put himself there.  He walked straight to Jerusalem knowing the death that awaited him.  He put himself on the cross to die for us, for the world, and for God’s creation.  He put himself on the cross to say to the slaves both living and dead, “I know your suffering, I endured your pain, I took your place.”

He put himself on the cross to suffer for us, to share our sorrow, our despair, our misfortune.  He put himself on the cross as though he were the people of God, the Temple and the sacrifice — as though he were the last hope of a sacrificial system that no longer worked.

He put himself on the cross as the Lamb led to the slaughter, as the scapegoat, as the fulfillment and final chapter in the broken religious imagination of God’s people.

Jesus put himself on the cross so that we would not be hung there.  He put himself on the cross so that we would not be abandoned by God as he was.  He put himself on the cross as example and embodiment of God’s love.

No, we did not put Jesus on the cross, and neither did the Jews or the Romans.  Jesus put himself there, suffered unspeakable torture, endured the ridicule of Romans and Jews alike, humiliated between two thieves.  His last act of redemption was to save a condemned thief, and ask his Father to forgive those who did not know what they were doing.

We need the cross.  Without it we are doomed.  Without it the incarnation is meaningless.  Without the cross we do not see the love of God, the suffering of God, and the sacrifice of God.  All for us.  All because of our sin.  All because we couldn’t do it for ourselves.  For even our death would not have brought us into fellowship with God, nor paid the penalty for our sin.

We need the cross, the scandal of our intellect, the offense to our sensibilities, the foolishness of preaching.  We need the cross because it stands at the center of Jesus’ story.  If all we know of theology and the Bible is that Jesus died for us on an old rugged cross, then we know enough.

Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

When a right-wing death squad broke into the living quarters of Jesuit priests in San Salvador in 1989, they killed six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  Father Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, was one of the priests killed.  The killers then drug the bodies of their murdered victims back into the house.  As they did so, they bumped into a bookcase, knocking a book to the floor.

When their bodies were found the next morning, lying in a pool of innocent blood was the fallen book — Jurgen Moltmann’s book titled The Crucified God.  Thousands around the world wept for those slain.  And I am sure God must have wept that day, too, for He knew the suffering and death of the cross.