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Restoring The Cross
January 28, 1996


In Milan, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci painted Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper on the refectory wall. As the centuries passed the paint faded, and other painters were commissioned to touch up the original. Art technicians working with delicate tools carefully scraped away the layers of paint which had obscured da Vinci's masterpiece. Only after the restoration was completed, did people realize how much beauty had been lost because of the glossing over by inferior painters.

Something like that has happened to the cross. Over the years, the cross has been glossed over with cosmetic gold and jewels to where it has become little more than an impotent talisman, dangling from our ears, around our necks, or our rear view mirrors. The cross wasn't the hood ornament on Paul's theological vehicle. The cross was the engine--the power plant. Nor was the cross a pretty decoration. The hymn we have just sung gives us the real picture: the old rugged cross, emblem of suffering and shame, stained with blood. Paul warned the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 1:17), lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. We have trivialized the cross, glossed over its tragedy, and obscured the message. 1 Corinthians1:18, The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Lest the cross be emptied of its power is Paul's warning.

The priest of a Roman Catholic Church in North Carolina placed three crosses out in front of his church on Good Friday, all draped in black. Soon he received a call from the Chamber of Commerce. "Look preacher, we've been getting complaints about those crosses out in your church yard. They are offensive. The retired people here don't like them; they find them depressing. The tourists will not like them either. It will be bad for business. People come down here to get happy, not depressed." Popular American religion is a cross-less religion which denies death, pain and suffering. We would rather trust in positive thinking or possibility thinking. But, when you take the cross out of our religion, when you gloss over the cross and make it a decoration, you remove the very heart of Christianity, you remove its power.

The cross is foolishness to the world, says Paul. But, to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Sin is to live your life as if the cross makes no difference. Salvation is to live your life in the power of the cross. Peterson in The Message translates our text,

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out.

God works in this world, God works in our lives through the cross.

The world looks at the cross and sees humiliation and shame, the emblem of shame, says the hymn writer. It was humiliating for anyone to be crucified on a cross. Common criminals, murderers were executed on a cross. Oh, what had become of Jesus' movement? Jesus preached, "The kingdom of God is near." And, this is the kingdom? Death, a humiliating, shameful death on a cross? Where were the faithful disciples when the soldiers arrested Jesus? Where were his loyal friends when the soldiers taunted Jesus, teased him, put a mock crown of thorns on his head and jeered, "Hail to the king!" Where were his followers when Jesus was led to the hill of Golgotha? Where were those who had seen a glimpse of the kingdom, a vision of what life on this planet could be like; where were they when the soldiers hung Jesus on the cross, pounded in the nails, and raised it in the air to let him die in the hot sun? His followers let Jesus die alone, a humiliating death.

A delegation from northern California attended a Sunday School convention in Houston, Texas. On Sunday morning two of the women decided to worship at a nearby United Methodist Church. They approached an usher who shook his head, "No." They approached another usher who shook his head, "No." They approached a third usher who shook his head, "No." None of the ushers spoke, offered any explanation, or apologized. One of the women was a black woman from Oakland; the other was a Native American woman from the Shasta District. Humiliating! Minority persons still bear crosses of humiliation.

Some of you women here this morning are bearing a cross of humiliation and shame because of the way you have been treated by some men-- sexually harassed, embarrassed or even victimized. According to the statistics, if we are a representative group of Americans, 1/3 of the women here this morning have experienced incest, 1/2 of the women here this morning have been raped, and 2/3 have been beaten, battered, or pushed around. The humiliation that some women feel is so embarrassing they have told no one of their shame. It is a painful secret.

But, look at the cross. The humiliation and shame of Jesus crucified as a criminal, an enemy of the state on a trumped-up charge, was transformed into triumph. God raised Jesus from the dead. Humiliation was not the last word. The world sees humiliation and shame. To us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God, transforming humiliation into triumph.

When the world looks at the cross, it sees weakness. The world calls Jesus weak. According to our standards, why didn't he fight back? Why didn't he organize his forces and overthrow the Romans? One reason why Jews historically do not accept Jesus as the Messiah is because Jesus died. If he were the Messiah, he would have conquered his enemies. The cross is a stumbling block, an obstacle to the world-- folly, foolishness to the world, said Paul.

But, God took what the world calls weak and made it strong. God turns the world's values upside down. God takes what the world calls foolish and uses it as a means of changing the world. God takes what the world calls simple-- fishermen, tax collectors, poor people-- and calls them to be God's people. God actually uses weak folks like you and I! We heard read this morning Paul's words, 1 Corinthians 1:25-27,

For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

Consider Mother Teresa, a tiny, weak woman missionary from Yugoslavia who was deeply moved when she arrived in Calcutta and saw a homeless, dying woman lying in the gutter, being eaten by rats. Mother Teresa persuaded the government to let her use an abandoned Hindu temple and convert it into a crude makeshift hospital. She said, "Nobody should die alone." In a commencement address, Erma Bombeck told graduates, "Never confuse fame and success. Madonna is one. Mother Teresa is the other." However, Mother Teresa was once asked, "How do you measure the success of your work?" She looked puzzled and then replied, "I don't remember that the Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love." Who can measure the influence of this one small, seemingly weak woman who is not motivated by success but faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Let no one put you down, and tell you you are too small or too old or too young or too inexperienced or weak. The world looks at the cross and sees weakness; but to us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God, transforming weakness into strength.

When the world looks at the cross, it sees an ornament--something attractive to wear or hang. To us who are being saved, the cross is the heart of God breaking with grief and love. The essence of God is revealed in the cross-- suffering love. God so loved the world that He gave his Son. God suffered in love. Some of you bear a cross on which your heart is breaking. Some parents watch their children, agonize with their children when they make a mess of their lives. A son or daughter gets in with the wrong crowd and gets hooked on drugs. What does a parent do? Kick him out of the family? Ostracize, excommunicate her? No, a loving parent suffers and bears the pain. The heart breaks in love until the child asks for help and wants to change.

When we make a mess of our lives, or get cancer, or watch a loved one die, God's heart breaks with grief and God suffers with us, as God suffered with Jesus on the cross. And, through it all, you receive strength to endure, patience to cope, and power to hope.

Sin is to live your life as if the cross makes no difference. Salvation is to live your life in the power of the cross. The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Humiliation and shame are transformed into triumph. Weakness is transformed into strength. Grief and suffering are transformed into hope .

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris