Today, we celebrate the Holy Cross “on which the Prince of Glory died.” (LSB #425) To be sure, the cross is not 'holy' in and of itself.
• In fact, in and of itself, the cross is just two pieces of wood joined together with rope and nails.
• In and of itself, the cross is a terrible instrument of torture and execution invented by the Persians, developed to cruel excess by the Romans to inflict the maximum amount of suffering and pain over the longest period of time. When the Jews said that anyone hung on a tree had to be cursed by God, the 'tree' that they were referring to was the cross.
• In and of itself, the cross is offensive and repulsive.
But we call it 'the HOLY Cross' because the Holy Son of God was crucified on a cross. And by His suffering and death upon this wood used for the cruelest torture and punishment, Jesus Christ has brought life and salvation to the world.
What a paradox the HOLY cross is. The very instrument by which sinful and fallen man use to shame and humiliate the most despised and rejected among us, God has transformed into His instrument to bring glory and honor to His Son, and to all who, through faith, honor and worship this Jesus Christ – the crucified One.
It’s only because ‘the Holy Son of God’ was “despised and rejected by men” and suffered the shame and humiliation THAT IS RIGHTFULLY OUR, that we have the audacity to sing as we do, “Drawn to the cross, which Thou has blessed, with healing gifts for souls distressed, to find in Thee my life, my rest, Christ crucified I come.” (LSB #560).
The date of September 14th was originally established for this Festival Day based on the supposed recovery of the actual cross on which our Lord was crucified. A woman named Helena, who was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, conducted extensive archaeological excavations in and around Jerusalem. In September of 320 a.d., the site that had been called “Golgotha” was presumed to be found. And on that site, three crosses were discovered – one of which was presumed to be the one on which Christ Himself was crucified. A basilica was built on that site, and in 335, the remnant of that 'cross' on which Christ, our Lord was crucified, was housed in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.
A couple of hundred years later, the cross was stolen by the Persians, only to be recovered by the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who reset it in the basilica on September 14th which became the date for the annual celebration of the Festival of the Holy Cross.
To be sure, we do not hold any superstitious fantasies about a piece of wood on which our Lord may or may not have actually been crucified – any more than we hold any superstitious thoughts about the crucifix on our altar or the crucifix I wear around my neck or the cross jewelry we wear. These are only 'symbols.' And the purpose of 'symbols' is to point to something beyond themselves, and not to the thing itself.
It's not the cross itself that we worship and adore – but all that the cross points to – which is the ineffable love of the almighty God that He was poured out onto this fallen, corrupt and sinful world through His perfect, innocent, holy Son, who suffered the punishment that we deserve, by bearing them in His body unto death, even death on a cross.
In the cross of Christ, we see how God works to accomplish His purposes. HE WORKS THROUGH THE OPPOSITE. He accomplishes the renewal of His entire creation by this instrument of death and destruction. The antidote to sin and death that God administers to His dying world and dead people is the death of His Son on the cross. And by His death, we have life. He has used that which is most shameful and reviling, to reveal His glory – and we ABSURDLY sing, “in the cross of Christ, I glory.”
To say that this is not the way that we would go about things, or maybe better put, the way we would have expected that God would go about the business of “reconciling to himself all things…” is far more than just an understatement. (Col. 1:19) To us, the whole thing is offensive. It’s offensive PRECISELY BECAUSE this is not at all the way we would go about the business of “making all things new” and “making peace” with this fallen world and all its’ fallen people.
• Whereas we would readily and gladly look to God to rescue and deliver us from our sin and death BY HIS ALMIGHTY POWER, He gives us WEAKNESS, SUFFERING AND HIS OWN DEATH. And then declares, ‘that’s enough,’ “It is finished.”
• Whereas we would fully expect that we will HAVE TO CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING to our rescue and deliverance, even if its’ only the desire of the heart that wants to be forgiven and saved and amend our sinful lives, He gives us salvation by our rejection- “crucify Him, crucify Him.”
• Whereas we would look for the confirmation and proof of His love for me in the successes and advancements and achievements and securities and the comforts that He graciously gives me, He shows us the confirmation and proof of His love for me in the shame and humiliation of suffering and pain and gruesome death that He endured for me.
Most of all, the cross of Christ crucified is so offensive to us – because in our heart of hearts, we don’t really believe that such drastic measures were really that necessary. Yes, we confess that we’re bad – but we’re not THAT bad. Yes, we confess that we are sinners – but with God’s help, we can improve and become BETTER SINNERS. We are, by nature, a ‘hopeful people,’ even if our ‘hope’ is in ourselves.
And quite frankly, I resent the fact that God HAS NO HOPE IN ME, and that He doesn’t believe in me.
So the very idea that our condition before God is really so bad and so hopeless as to require such a remedy as the Cross – is offensive, repulsive, degrading. We have a higher opinion of ourselves than God does – and that bothers us.
Christ crucified for our redemption and the salvation of the world is GOD’S TOTAL AND COMPLETE REJECTION AND CONDEMNATION OF ALL OF OUR WISDOM AND ALL OF OUR WAYS AND ALL OF OUR PROGRAMS for how we think we should be saved.
In fact, the cross of Christ actually INCREASES OUR SIN.
• The cross shows us that God is more tormented and wracked with grief because of our sin than we are.
• The cross of Christ shows us that God has determined that our condition is so utterly hopeless and beyond repair that there is no possibility that we might be renovated or reformed, but that we must be put to death and buried and then raised up again a whole new person.
• The cross of Christ shows us that He must do it all FOR US, on our behalf, in our place, even while we are still sinners and enemies of God. (Romans 5:8-10).
The cross of Christ crucified for the sin of the world is God’s ONLY ANSWER to His own question, ‘how shall I redeem my creation?” There is NO OTHER OPTION. And that also bothers us, because we are used to having ‘options.’ We like having the freedom and the dignity of making ‘CHOICES’ and ‘DECISIONS.’ We hate the premise that THERE IS NO OTHER WAY BY WHICH WE MUST BE SAVED than Christ and Him crucified for us. (Acts 4:12)
So, rather than helping us feel good about ourselves, (which is all that we really want from our religion, isn’t it), the cross of Christ bothers us, even infuriates us, because there are ONLY TWO RESPONSES we can have to it. We can either REJECT IT ALTOGETHER for the foolish and shameful thing that it is and for what it says about us – OR – fall down in utter grief and sorrow and tears – that my wretched life was the reason and the cause of such pain and suffering and even death of my Lord.
And it is THIS RESPONSE to the cross of Christ that the Holy Spirit desires to work in you and me and in all people. By the foolishness of the preaching of the cross of Christ, crucified for the sin of the world, the Holy Spirit wants to conform us into the image of God’s Son, SO THAT that we might have the same heart and mind as Christ
– to the end that we might be as utterly tormented by our sin and aware of just how turned in on ourselves that we are AS HE IS
– to the end that we too might willingly, even gladly, suffer the humiliation and shame that is rightfully ours, and willingly, even gladly die to our sin as Jesus did
– to the end that we might live for Christ.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
So, which is it for you? The folly of God or the wisdom of God?
Listen, that the ‘message of the cross’ should bring you to ‘UTTERLY DESPAIR’ of yourself before God – is the very reason that you should have great hope and be of good courage. For ‘UTTER DESPAIR’ is the opposite of ‘ULTIMATE DESPAIR.’ The ‘UTTER DESPAIR’ in ourselves before God is the PARADOXICAL REMEDY to the ‘ULTIMATE DESPAIR’ that is the end for all who continue to hold out hope for themselves before God, apart from the cross.
Only when we are brought to the hard facts of life – which are that we have been bitten by the fiery serpent and that we cannot cure ourselves – and that, as absurd as it sounds, the only way to be saved is to look to the very thing that is killing us – our sin held high on a pole – only then does ULTIMAGE DESPAIR give way to UTTER DESPAIR.
By the power of God that He has PLACED INTO the “foolishness of what we preach,” the Holy Spirit gives us this holy and wonderful gift of UTTER DESPAIR in ourselves before God.
And then, by the same power of God that He puts into the water of baptism, and the “foolishness of what we preach,” and the bread and wine of the Supper, that holy gift of UTTER DESPAIR blossoms into the holy gift of the UTTER JOY – the utter joy of knowing that we have a God who loves us more than we can comprehend.
As we will sing in our closing hymn today:
“Faithful cross, true sign of triumph, be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption, for the weight that hung on thee!” (LSB #454)