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Mystery And Wonder: And He Died
March 31, 1996

On Sunday, Jesus was greeted with palm branches and crowds shouting Hosanna! On Friday he died alone. On Sunday the crowds watched a parade. On Friday they watched a beaten man carry his cross to his death. He was a conquering hero on Sunday, an enemy of the state on Friday. And he died.

President John F. Kennedy ranks third among famous men in the amount of material printed about his death. Some 33 years after his death, they are still writing about it. Second place goes to Abraham Lincoln. 230 years later, they are still writing about his death. First place easily goes to Jesus. 2,000 years later, we are still writing and talking about his death.

Why? Why has the crucifixion of Jesus fascinated people throughout history? Jesus died because he dared to upset the business of the temple, and challenge the religious establishment. But, something also happened on a deeper level. The death of Jesus relates to everyone. Believers have the inner feeling that we are beneficiaries of his death, that we were died for in some mysterious way. Christ died for you and me is a cornerstone of our beliefs and our experience. Somehow, the death of Christ connects us to God. The barrier separating humankind from God has been bridged by the death of Christ.

Beginning with Paul, theologians have attempted to explain why Christ died for us, and how his death reconciles or connects us to God. The explanations are called the Doctrine of the Atonement. Somehow, Christ atoned for our sins, made up for, compensated for the sins of humankind, and we can now enter into relationship with God. There are many theories of the Atonement.

There is the sacrificial view. In ancient times, sacrifice was a means of placating an angry god. Godís justice was satisfied by sacrificing birds or animals. Jesus, the perfect man, was the perfect sacrifice. Once and for all Godís justice is satisfied by Christís sacrifice.

There is the substitutionary view. Because of our sins, we deserve to be judged and sent to hell, but Jesus took our place, substituted for us, and therefore God no longer condemns us.

There is the legal view. Paul used the analogy of the court system. Because of Jesusí death, God, the judge, declares us all "Not guilty." We are justified, which means acquitted, because Jesus took the blame and the sentence.

There is the ransom theory. The devil has kidnapped humankind. We are all under the devilís power. And, the ransom demanded to release us has been paid by Jesusí life.

Quite a different view was offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who eventually died in a concentration camp at the hand of the Nazis. He saw the death of Jesus as a symbol of the suffering God in the life of the world. In Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote.

God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. The Gospel makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ can help us, but by his weakness and suffering. This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Manís religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world...The Bible, however, directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.

There is yet another view of the Atonement. It is based on John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. The chief characteristic of God is not wrath, or getting even, or vengeance, or judgment, but love. The cross is Godís heart breaking with grief over the way humans live and treat one another. The cross is Godís tears shed over the waywardness, cruelty, and evil of humankind. When we look at the cross, and consider how the Son of God was treated, our response is one of shame and repentance. Oh, what we are capable of! Oh, what our sins do.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, atomic scientist, said, "The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person." God wrapped up the idea of love in Jesus. When we see the end of that brief life of 33 years suspended between heaven and earth on a cross, we behold divine love, and in a deep sense of awe realize that it is directed to us. Oh, the mystery and wonder of the death of Jesus is focused in the realization that Christ died for you. Because God loves you, because God has compassion for the struggles, problems and suffering you endure, because God cares about you and wants a relationship with you, it cost Jesus his life. The separation between us and God is so great, so vast, that it takes the life of a good man to wake us up, recognize we are not living as God intended us to live, confess our sin and separation from God, repent and turn from living our lives without God, accepting the salvation offered to us in Christ, and entering into relationship with our Creator.

He died. He died for you. When I look at the cross and realize what I have done, and what I am capable of doing, my response is, "Lord, deliver me."

ã 1996 Douglas I. Norris