Crosses are everywhere. People wear them around their necks, on their wrists or even ink them into their flesh. They place them on top of churches, altars and buns—even in their homes, on their car bumper stickers—everywhere. Most of them are nice and symmetrical, clean and neat, perfectly proportioned and bare—a logo of the Christian faith.
Sometimes there is a figure on the crosses—a sad looking Jesus in a loincloth, who doesn’t much look like He wants to be there.
It's familiar to us; comfortable and familiar.
But it's time we stopped sanitising and merchandising the cross. I want you today to use your imaginations. Strap yourselves in and journey with me.
You see a Man, fairly average—height, weight, build—He's nothing special to look at. He's in a courtyard and He's tied up. He's surrounded by soldiers.
You know that He's innocent. You’ve heard the stories of His miracles, His teachings.
All of us, we are there, surrounded by curious onlookers. It’s a particularly nice day, the sun is shining down hot. This is probably all just a misunderstanding; some scare tactics by the local God squad, trying to protect their turf. Should all be cleared up by the end of the day. But soon it starts to turn ugly. You can feel anger beginning to boil over. The guy in charge yells an order. Out steps a burly soldier—a mean-looking brute—he’s the one to carry out the sentence.
In his hand he holds a whip. With a short wooden handle, wrapped in a leather band, the leather splits and splays out at the end.
Tied into the leather are pieces of metal and bone. The Prisoner's shirt is stripped off and His arms are tied together at the top of a large pole. The soldier begins the flogging. Bright red stripes open on the Prisoner's back. Blood splatters as the soldier whips, again and again. The pieces of bone cut down into the flesh as the back and sides of the Prisoner become mashed into a bloody pulp. The bones and muscles are exposed.
After this they take a branch from a thorn tree. It has been wrapped around and woven together into a rough circle. The thorns stick out at all angles. Can you imagine four to six centimetre thorns, thick and sharp? They ram the circle down on His head, mocking Him and calling Him King of the Jews.
Can you imagine stinging pain all over your body from a whipping? Your eyes are stinging from the blood, sweat and tears. Every time you move the thorns rip a different part of your head, digging into your scalp and your forehead.
Now we see the cross: a rough-cut plank, with splinters and jagged edges. It's heavy but Jesus must carry it. He stumbles under the weight and it digs into the open wounds of His back.
As He falls to the side, you can see where the flogging has sliced through to the bone. And He is marched to the place of the Skull. Golgotha. Only Simon, a foreigner, helps Him. He's nailed down, with seven-inch nails through His wrists and feet. And He is then hoisted above the heads of the angry mob.
Imagine as they lift the cross into place and it drops into its resting hole. Imagine the jolt that would go through His wrists and feet as they hold Him in place.
The Romans were a technologically advanced society and the cross was the cruellest way to die that they could devise. They would not even kill their own citizens this way. You would hang from the crossbar until your arms could no longer support your own weight. And then you would fall, dislocating your shoulders by the heaviness of your own body. As you slumped down low, you would not be able to breathe.
Every time you wanted a breath, you would have to pull up and push up on your hands and feet, supported only by the nails. The pain would be searing and intense. Your lungs would scream for air, your raw back would scrape against the rough wood.
And people looked on and taunted.
This is pure pain. Imagine the most pain you’ve ever experienced. Now imagine it all over your body. You can’t begin to understand the physical agony of the cross. There was no cheat, no short cut, Jesus felt it all as a human, as you or I would.
At that point, Jesus understood loneliness. Jesus, who talked often and for a long time with His Father. Jesus, who knew the plan, had predicted this very event. Jesus should have known.
But up there above the heads of men, hanging from that cross, surrounded, not by the love of His Father who He had known for all eternity but by a wall of suffering and pain. A wall of hatred. Jesus was alone.
Have you ever felt alone? Bullied, pushed to the margin, not accepted, hated. Jesus knows how it feels. He went to the extreme.
Once we’ve been struck by the raw severity and barbarism of the cross, it's hard to look at it in the same way.
And when we come to terms with the how of the cross what about the why? That's much harder to define and defend. We talk about words like sacrifice and substitute but some people find it hard to swallow that a loving God would need an atonement sacrifice, like the gods of other nations. However author Ty Gibson in A God Named Desire (p 123) says we need to view the cross through the lens of the incarnation. “Once we understand the incarnation, we realise that the One hanging on the cross is none other than God Himself.” He goes on to say, “Rather than channel His justifiable anger towards us and demand that we pay for our sins, God chose rather to bear the loss in Himself, to take the hit our sin dealt to Him and refuse to return the hit to us.”
There are so many texts that describe the process of the cross and what it means, even from the Old Testament: “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all . . . because he poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:6,12).
The mystery of the cross is hard to grasp but that’s where the faith element comes in. Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms of universal justice, even if we accept the concept, sacrifice, atonement and debt, we still have to accept the cross. We have to make it a part of our daily lives. What are the ramifications of this act?
If what happened at the cross was reconciliation to God, then I can live my life without shame. I will still feel guilty when I miss the mark but I know that if I accept the cross, the sin is washed away. Shame is a weight, a burden that you carry with you. Shame accompanies unrepentant sin. Jesus was heaped with shame so I don’t have to carry it around. That makes my life fuller and lighter and more beautiful.
Also, the cross, which Jesus instructs us to bear, is a reminder of the humility and service of God. We can spend our lives in service to others because of the example of Jesus. Any trials we face, He’s faced before. Any worries ahead, the cross shows us that the God of the universe understands. We have an example at the cross that encourages us that nowhere is too low to stoop and no-one is too lost to help.
Finally, the cross means nothing without the resurrection. Timothy Keller, in his book, King’s Cross, calls the resurrection “the hinge upon which the story of the world pivots” (p 221). The resurrection means that God has power over death. So even though death, loss and suffering here on earth are hard, painful and hurt a lot, the resurrection gives us hope.
“The joy of your glory will be that much greater for every scar you bear. So live in the light of the resurrection and renewal of this world, and of yourself, in a glorious, never-ending, joyful dance of grace.“ (Keller, p 225)
Jarrod Stackelroth is associate editor for Record.