The Old Rugged Cross
            A week or two ago, I talked in a sermon about making a cross out of a Christmas tree. I went home–and did it! I took our tree, which had been laying around in the yard since early January, and sawed off the limbs–then cut the trunk in half, and made a cross from the two pieces of trunk. The entire operation can be viewed on the church’s Facebook page.
            I love the cross. That may seem odd...because it represents death and pain and torment and torture. The cross was used by the Roman Empire to inflict terror on its subjects–a brutally public way of saying, “Get outta line, and this is what will happen to you.” Yet God took this instrument of humiliation and horror, of terror and torture...and turned it into something beautiful. He used the grim cross to shower upon the world His wondrous love. “God shows His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
            When I was a teenager, I entered into a dialogue with folks from a well-known religious group. And these folks hated it when people wore crosses around their necks. “If your loved one died in the electric chair,” they would always say, “would you wear a little replica of an electric chair around your neck?” But I always thought they were missing the point. The death of Jesus is the greatest expression of His love. We don’t wear the cross to celebrate violent death, but to remember the most incredible love we’ll ever encounter.
            That’s why Paul says in I Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (2:2 ). For Paul, the most important thing about Jesus was the cross–the fact that our God was willing to take death upon Himself for us. Certainly Paul also affirmed the importance of the resurrection–“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17 )–but Paul placed a special accent on the cross. So did Paul’s great disciple of fifteen centuries later, Blessed Martin Luther–whose theology is actually called “the theology of the cross”. Paul and Luther both knew that the very heart of Christianity is found in the God who was willing to suffer for our sake.
            The cross also has an incredible practical power: it helps us in dealing with pain in our lives. Recently re-reading James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, I ran across this passage:
            The boy Prewitt loved the songs [that he learned as a boy in the Kentucky coal country]             because they gave him something, an understanding, a first hint that pain might not be             pointless if you could only turn it into something.
“Pain might not be pointless if you could only turn it into something.” For Prewitt, that meant turning pain into a song, into music–and that’s a beautiful thing. And on the cross, the Lord Jesus took pain and turned it into something even better than a song. He turned it into salvation, turned it into blessing, turned it into life for the world. This reminds us that pain is never pointless–all pain unites us with the crucified Lord. With questionable knees and ankles, I find that a certain level of pain is a near-constant in my life. But I try to keep in mind that all pain can bring us closer to the suffering Jesus. All pain can be “turned into something”...into a deeper relationship with Christ the Saviour.
            A very odd testimony to the power of the cross is found in how often the cross is used to ward off bad luck and to evoke good luck. When we’re hoping for a good outcome to a situation, we “keep our fingers crossed”. When we’re afraid that we’ve called bad luck upon ourselves, we “knock on wood”. When we want to escape the consequences of lying, we cross our fingers behind our back. On one level, this use of the cross is deplorable–something so sacred should not be dragged down to a superstitious level (“superstition ain’t the way”, as Stevie Wonder reminds us). But tacky as they are, these superstitious uses of the cross make a point. The death of Christ delivers us from the ultimate in “bad luck”–eternal damnation, being separated from God forever in hell. (Could this be a witnessing opportunity? The next time a friend knocks on wood, or crosses his or her fingers, we might point out, “The reason you do that is because Jesus died on the cross for you.”)
            Another bizarre testimony to the power of the cross appeared in a news story a few weeks ago. A lady stole some crucifixes from a religious goods store–so that she could re-sell them and pay her electric bill. Now what this lady did was wrong, a violation of God’s commandment and man’s law. And yet...there is a truth there. Because on the Holy Cross, Jesus paid my bill. And not my electric bill–a much more important bill. In a verse I never tire of quoting, St. Paul writes:
            [God has] forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood
            against us with all its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross
            (Colossians 2:13-14).

My bill–the guilt of my sin–was nailed to the cross and paid off with Jesus’ blood and righteousness. In a way, when I believe in Jesus, I “steal” His righteousness to pay the bill of my sin. It’s certainly not my righteousness–I’m a sinner. But I take hold of His righteousness and make it my own by faith. (Oddly enough, the first person who “stole” undeserved salvation from Jesus actually was a thief–the thief on the cross! Luke 23:39-43). Wrong as she was, the cross-stealing lady still gives us an insight into how the debt of our sin gets paid and cancelled.
            Human pain, silly superstitions, even a lady’s desperate attempt to pay her electric
bill...these are all things that bring us insight into the holy Cross, where God poured out His love for the world. May you find peace in “that old rugged cross” as you meditate upon it this Lent.
            God loves you and so do I

Vol. 83 - No. 3
MARCH 2012