O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown;
O sacred head, what glory,
what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call thee mine.
Coming to faith and being enveloped in a welcoming community gathered in that faith are two of the most incredible experiences in our lives. Some of us are lucky enough to be raised in that faith from childhood; others accept invitations from friends or go looking for that thing we’re missing or whatever and get found trying to find what we’re looking for. Either way, that’s the first naivete in every Christian’s life: following Jesus when life is good. When it seems like the right thing to do. When that sense of calling is so strong the rocks would shout it out if we didn’t.
The disciples felt this way those first few months and years with Jesus. When their rabbi was healing the sick, forgiving sins and transforming lives, it was easy to follow. Everyone wants to follow the glorious one, the up and comer, the hot prospect. When the first prophet in 600 years points to your guy and says, “He’s the One,” you follow.
But what do you do when the high priest points to your guy and says, “He’s the One?” When the crowd screams “Crucify him!” When one of your own betrays your beloved rabbi for a kiss and a bribe? What do you do when they point at you and ask, “Aren’t you one of his followers?” What do you do when your conscience is screaming at you, but so are the consequences? When Jesus goes to places you can’t or won’t follow, what do you do?
You run. You deny. You lose your temper. You hurt your friends. You abandon your responsibilities. You break your promises. You fail.
This is sin. This is who we are. Broken, scared, betrayed, hiding, angry, hurt, alone. In the church or out, new to faith or lifelong believer, sooner or later the glory road of certain faith turns and dives deep into the valley of the shadow of death. At the heart of that valley is a hill, and on that hill stands a cross.
How pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn;
how does thy face now languish,
which once was bright as morn!
Thy grief and bitter passion
were all for sinners' gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Behold the life-giving cross. The songs and poetry make it sound as though the cross was the price Jesus paid to God to release sinful humanity from God’s judgment. But God does not demand the cross so that sin might be forgiven. In Jesus, God came among us, forgiving sin from the very start. We demanded the cross. The church insisted sin could only be expiated by sacrifice. The high priests and scribes, the pastors and council members and lay leaders and elders of their day, insisted that there were statutes to observe, formalities to be followed. “You can’t just go around forgiving sins!” God wasn’t threatened by forgiveness: we were. So we demanded that justice must be served. We brought Him before the highest council and threw accusations against Him and the sort of people He called around Himself. We stacked the crowd with people who would shout, “Crucify Him!” We watched in horror as they took our beloved Rabbi away, and rather than die with Him, we fled for safety.
Our innocence dies when we see how quick the church is to abandon its Savior. “Love one another as I have loved you” is easy as a theological abstraction: actually loving one another with the love of Jesus is impossible. We run. We deny. We lose our temper. We hurt our friends. We abandon our responsibilities. We break our promises. We fail. And we come to the cross.
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.
Behold the life-giving cross. We may run. We may deny. We may lose our temper. We may hurt our friends. We may abandon our responsibilities. We may break our promises. We may fail. But not our Savior. Not our Lord Jesus. When our sin turns us down the road through the valley of the shadow of death, we find the cross, God’s pledge of love and faithfulness that will never be broken. On the cross Jesus takes upon Himself the worst and best of all that we are: all our anger, all our piety, all our sorrow, all our pride. Jesus takes upon himself our ugliest lusts and our highest aspersions to purity, and gives us His steadfast love and faithfulness in return.
Behold the life-giving cross. To the follower of Jesus struggling to believe because someone has failed her, the cross is God’s promise that human failings will be overcome by God’s overwhelming love. Behold the life-giving cross. To the follower of Jesus struggling to believe because he has failed someone, the cross is God’s promise that God is faithful even when we are not. Behold the life-giving cross. Here is God’s love, arms spread wide to envelop you. When our faith is killed by human sinfulness, the cross reminds us that God's love is stronger than human sinfulness. Behold the life-giving cross, on which our Lord Jesus Christ redeems the world. Be redeemed, child of God. Amen.
Lord, be my consolation;
shield me when I must die;
remind me of thy passion
when my last hour draws nigh.
These eyes, new faith receiving,
from thee shall never move;
for all who die believing
die safely in thy love.