At the Foot of the Cross
Just a few short years ago, on a late summer morning, darkness fell upon the earth in the middle of the day. Of course, I’m talking about the solar eclipse of August 2017. Chances are you remember exactly where you were when it happened. I remember being in Seattle, where I stepped outside of a coffee shop for a few minutes, to watch the moon and sun cross paths or so it seemed and watched as mid-morning all of a sudden looked and felt more like twilight. And I’m sure those of you who were here in Dillon that day saw and felt a similar thing. And if you chose to drive about two hours south towards Idaho Falls that day, and I suspect a number of you did, then what you saw must have really felt like utter and complete darkness, as you stood near the path of totality. And I imagine that it must have felt like time was standing still for those 2 minutes and 15 seconds that the moon was between us and the sun.
And as striking as that moment was, it certainly wasn’t the first time that darkness fell upon the earth in the middle of the day. In fact, there was a moment in time, many, many years ago, when darkness fell upon the earth in the middle of the day, not for a period of 2 minutes, but instead for 3 hours. And on that day, the reason for the darkness wasn’t a solar eclipse, or a windy whiteout or whatever that was around 5pm yesterday, but rather something of far, far greater significance entirely, the death of God himself. Where Jesus, the Son of God, fully God and fully human, was hung and died on a Roman cross. And when he did, for three hours, the world went dark.
We’ve been studying the book of the Luke for almost a year and a half now, and after 23 chapters, 33 years on earth and 3 years in concentrated ministry alongside his disciples and followers, the time has finally come for Jesus to accomplish what he had set out to do all along, and that is, to die. God in the flesh, who came and dwelt among us, was born to die. And so, here morning, at a place called the Skull, often known as Golgotha, we fix our eyes on our crucified Lord and Savior as we reflect upon his very hour of crucifixion.
And before we go any further, if you’re feeling a bit disorientated, thinking to yourself, “Why are we talking about Jesus’s crucifixion here on Palm Sunday? Isn’t this the day of palms and donkeys and triumphal entries? Well, yes, yes, it is. Truth is we had a Palm Sunday of sorts way back in January as we, in effect, stretched out the Holy Week narrative (or really everything that takes place in Jesus’s life between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) over these last few months. And we did so because each of the gospel writers devotes a disproportionate amount of their gospels to the final week of Jesus’s life (at least 1/4, upwards of a 1/3). And so we (okay, I) thought it worthwhile to really meditate upon the entire Holy Week narrative over a longer period of time. And after 10 weeks or so now of slowly making our way through Jesus’s final days, we now find ourselves at the foot of the cross.
And as we do, we’ll focus on three aspects of the cross of Jesus Christ:
First, the rejection within the cross.
Second, the reason for the cross.
Third and finally, our response to the cross.
The rejection within, the reason for, and our response to the cross.
And so we begin, with the rejection within the cross.
Even though Palm Sunday has come and gone (for us anyway), we can still connect the dots between Jesus’ triumphal entry, riding into Jerusalem that Sunday and to his crucifixion that took place a few days later on Friday. Whereas Jesus approached Jerusalem that day, as his disciples around him celebrated, we happened to find Jesus himself bursting into tears.
And that’s in part because Jesus saw a city and a people within it that would not recognize him. For as he said at the time, “you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
And here this morning we find the very fulfillment of that prophetic word, where rather than being embraced and welcomed, Jesus will instead be mocked, beaten, spit upon, flogged, nailed onto a cross.
Here at the cross we find Jesus facing what very well might be the greatest possible rejection that human hands can deal.
In our opening verse this morning, verse 34, it says that they “put the cross on him [that is, Simon from Cyrene] and made him carry it behind Jesus.” By all accounts, typical protocol during a crucifixion would be to have the one facing crucifixion carry their cross to the place where they’d be crucified. And yet here instead, another man is carrying Jesus’s cross, and that’s almost certainly because Jesus, having just been flogged, was too beaten and down and bloodied to carry his cross himself. And yet rather than having one of the Roman soldiers carry it for him, they grab Simon, a Cyrenian, a foreigner, to do the heavy lifting. As a human torture device, the Romans wouldn’t dare crucify their own people, and no Roman would carry a cross themselves because of the shame associated with it.
To be put to death by crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful and public, slow and shameful, way to die. In fact, in verse 36, when it says that the soldiers offered him wine vinegar, that might seem like a kind gesture, driven by remorse and regret to help relieve Jesus of his pain. Yet, probably the more likely motivation was that the wine vinegar was given to prolong Jesus’s death and to see him suffer all the more.
To be put to death by crucifixion was the ultimate rejection. And this is how Jesus, our Lord and Savior died – in the most brutal and horrific of ways.
Friends, this is about as heavy as it gets, and yet because we know the end of the story, because we know that Easter’s coming, there’s hope to be found in the midst of it all.
Because here in the crucifixion, we see God incarnate, facing evil incarnate head on, taking on pain and suffering, all for us. And because of it, we find the ultimate resource and counselor in our own pain and suffering.
I’m sure many of you have seen the ads and commercials that have been produced by an organization called HeGetsUs. They even had two commercials during the Super Bowl, far and away the most watched television broadcast each and every year.
Now, the HeGetsUs campaign has received a bit of backlash, from sources of all kinds, and I suppose no one bats a 1.000 when it comes to theological precision, but the impulse is right on. Jesus gets us.
In addition to all of the other human-like ways he gets us, Jesus knows what it’s like to be rejected, abandoned, mocked, and shamed. He knows what it’s like to suffer, to be lonely, to be misunderstood. In fact, he gets us far more than we could possibly comprehend.
Which means he can come alongside those who are grieving in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, and most recently in Nashville. And not in a consolation, misery loves company kind of way, but in a galvanizing, soul strengthening kind of way, because as we’ll celebrate next week, Jesus stood calmly in the face of evil and suffering and death and rose from the grave.
All in all, I suppose the point is this: If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Where is God in my pain and suffering?” Friends, look no further than the cross.
That’s point one. The rejection within the cross.
Now, here’s point two, the reason for the cross.
What’s abundantly clear from the narrative here is that so many of the people who carried out and witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion don’t see a deeper reason or purpose for his crucifixion. They seem to have no earthly clue that Jesus was actually trying to accomplish something through his crucifixion. In fact, his dying was in fulfillment of his very mission. So many of the people here have no clue.
First, the religious rulers sneered at him and said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah.”
Then the soldiers mock him all the more, by saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
And then finally, in the ultimate low blow, one of the fellow criminals who was being crucified along with Jesus, hurled insults at him saying, “Save yourself and us!”
None of them knew, none of them could see the deeper reason, the greater purpose for the cross. In a way, it kind of reminds me of how some people today look at Jesus’s death on the cross as a “divine child abuse,” as God needlessly punishing His Son.
And yet, what I think they all fail to see is how God was going to use what was intended for evil and ultimately use it for good.
And I think kind of understandably so, each and every one of them was working from the premise that Gods don’t die. To them, it seemed like a logical impossibility. And yet, here’s Jesus, who by dying, didn’t come to save himself, but rather us.
And if there’s one word that best summarizes what it is that serves as the primary purpose of the cross, it’s the word that Jesus himself used moments before. Forgiveness.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
You see, his death makes possible our forgiveness, the forgiveness of our sins. Offering forgiveness to all those who have rejected him throughout the years.
Now, to this you might think or say, okay, I understand that there are bad people out there, people who have done really bad things, people that really need God’s forgiveness, but surely I am not one of them, and surely what I have done is not so bad as to demand Christ’s death. I understand that sentiment to some degree. I’ve thought about it myself.
But let me ask you this, and I borrow this thought experiment from Christian author and apologist Rebecca McLaughlin, whom I’ve quoted before. Imagine that everyone here in Dillon had access to your every thought from this past week and that you had a literal thought bubble above you that people could read at any time in the week ahead? You all, to use the word embarrassed would be far too weak of a word to describe how I would be feeling in that moment. Rather, I’d be mortified. And my hunch is you’d be too. Friends, we’re far less pure and holy than we think we are.
Even still, you might say to yourself, “Yes, but Daniel, we’re talking thoughts here, not actions. The world around me doesn’t have to know everything I’m thinking.” I know. And yet God does.
Friends, on the cross, Jesus, the one who lived the life that we should have lived, and died the death that we should have died, stands in our place, stands in as our substitute, offering us the forgiveness of our sins.
And as wonderful as that is, the reason for the cross does not end there. After all, God forgives us in order to be in relationship with us. You see, God is not some kind of divine police officer, who pulls us over for speeding, then graciously lets us off the hook, only never to be seen again.
No way. As is true in many human relationships, whether between husband and wife or friend to friend, God forgives us in order to be in and stay in relationship with us.
And we see this principle at play in the strangest of ways. Where, did you notice in verse 45, that as Jesus breathed his last breath and as darkness fell upon the earth it said, “and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”
Throughout all of Israel’s history, the temple was the place where God’s presence dwelt. And upon Jesus’s death, the curtain, the very mechanism separating God from his people, was torn in two. All together, here at the cross, God has made a way for his people to dwell in his presence once again.
The rejection within the cross, the reason for the cross, and third and finally, our response to the cross.
Within the various parties and groups of people standing at the foot of the cross that day, we see a variety of responses to Jesus’ crucifixion, from women mourning, to rulers sneering, to soldiers mocking.
And yet, in the midst of it all we see our responses to the cross best illustrated by the two criminals that are crucified with Jesus on either side of him.
There’s the one criminal, who we mentioned earlier, who hurled insults at Jesus.
And yet, in the other criminal, we find one of the most beautiful conversations and one of the most unexpected conversions in all of the gospels.
Picking back up in verse 40, 40 But the other criminal rebuked [the other], saying, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
At first glance, this criminal’s response might seem like one of the original hail Mary's, an I’ve got nothing to lose, last ditch effort to save his own life. And though that may be part of it, I’m convinced there is some remarkable faith overflowing from within this man.
On one hand, he understands who he is and what he has done – he is a guilty man, being punished justly, deserving of this painful death. While simultaneously understanding, at least in part, who Jesus is and what he has done. He knows Jesus is innocent, he’s done nothing wrong and likely vaguely understands that if he’s truly God and truly innocent, there must be a greater reason why he’s there.
And so he asks, maybe begs, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Unbelievable. This is remarkable faith. A dying man, saying to another dying man, “I want to go where you’re going.”
And in the end, that’s all you and I are, dying men and women, looking at a crucified King, saying, “I want to go where you’re going.”
And what’s Jesus' response? “I’m sorry man, I know what you’ve done, I know what’s led you to this moment of crucifixion. It’s too little too late, I’m afraid.” No way.
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
All in all, here we find one of the first deathbed conversions, and if you’ve ever wondered if there’s hope for your loved one, who has never professed faith in Christ, well turn here, to remember that God brings life out of the death, eternal life from the foot of the cross. And if you’ve never reached out to Christ in faith yourself, what is it that’s holding you back from reaching out like this faithful criminal once did?
In your bulletin, you’ll find an insert, it’s rectangular and multi-colored, you can’t miss it. Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it. I want to encourage you to give that card to one person in your life who doesn’t normally come to church – could be a friend, family member, neighbor, co-worker, someone who you sit next to during your kids sporting events, whatever, I want to encourage you write them a card and invite them to come. Could be as short and sweet as “Come experience Holy Week with us” or “Come celebrate this Easter with me” and make the ask.
I took Noah to get his haircut on Friday and as we were paying and about to leave, the woman who cut his hair wished me a Happy Easter, and so I wished her a Happy Easter and decided I’m just going to go for it here and said something to the effect of you should come to our church this Easter and celebrate with us. After all, she brought it up. She wants me to have a happy Easter, I want her to have a happy Easter, and what do you know, I know just the place where she can celebrate Easter. So let’s not overthink the room here people … make the ask, and let God lead from there.
Together, as you and I journey through this Holy Week and as we gather a week from now, may we respond not only like the criminal on the cross, but also like the Roman centurion, who,
seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”