The following sermon deals with the “theology of the cross.” During the post-service announcements, I mentioned that I would provide three links on this blog post with further materials on the theology of the cross by Prof. Em. Daniel Deutschlander. The links refer you to his book on the theology of the cross from Northwestern Publishing House, a recent WELS district convention essay on the theology of the cross, and a radio interview from 2009 on Issues, Etc. about the theology of the cross.
WHO WANTS THE CROSS?
Only in California! Last Sunday afternoon, my family and I went to the San Mateo County Fair. After we made our rounds through most of the things we wanted to see and do, we walked past a booth that was distributing information about composting. One of the signs in this display caught our attention. The sign said, “Achieve inner peace and self-realization through the art of composting.” Like I said, only in California!
I’m not quite sure how working with garbage and worms helps you to achieve inner peace and self-realization. But the fact that someone thought this would be a good way to advertise composting should tell you something. People will look for personal peace wherever and however they can find it! And why do people look for peace? Because they don’t have it. Tragedies and tension in the home, instability at work, state and federal governments that never seem like they have their act together, wars and rumors of wars on the international scene—wherever you look, there is no peace. No wonder people will look for peace wherever they think they can find it, even if that means digging through worms, dirt, and garbage.
The quest for peace often leads people back to God. Think about the common reasons people come looking for a church. Seldom does someone come completely out of the blue. It happens, but more often than not, something negative and unpleasant and difficult drives a person to find God, and that person drives to the local church to do that. And maybe, just maybe, the person in question hopes that when he (or she) finds God, he will also find peace.
Since every one of us here deals with a lack of peace to a greater or lesser degree, perhaps we should turn to God this morning and find the elusive peace that others search high and low to find. Jesus has something to say about this quest in the Gospel for today. In the excerpt we heard from Luke chapter nine, Jesus asked the disciples what others thought of him, and then what they thought of him. After Peter gave the correct answer, “the Christ of God,” Jesus explained the journey to the cross that lay ahead of him as the Savior. And then Jesus used the metaphor of the cross to talk about the Christian life. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Jesus’ words about his followers denying themselves and carrying their crosses is a familiar statement to many Christians, but I’m so sure we always understand what Jesus means. The cross Jesus refers to is not just the problems we face in life. Believers and unbelievers have problems. Everyone gets sick; everyone has trials and challenges; everyone ultimately has to deal with death. But here is the difference: When Jesus talks about the cross, he is talking about the problems we face because we are Christians. He is talking about everything we suffer as a result of our faith in him. That’s our cross.
Look carefully at the way Jesus describes our cross. First, he says that we must deny ourselves. Jesus is referring to our sinful nature or sinful self, sometimes called the Old Adam. The sinful nature within us only and always wants to do the opposite of God’s will. Ever since the fall into sin, human beings come with a default setting that is hostile to God from conception to coffin! And Jesus calls on his people to fight their sinful self—not very peaceful sounding, is it? But it gets harder! Jesus says that each person must take up his cross. This is not the collective cross of the whole church. Every one of you has your own cross, your own set of challenges and problems that result from your faith in Jesus Christ. Your cross may look very different than another person’s cross, but the axiom is true: No cross, no Christian! And finally, Jesus says that cross-carrying is something that we do daily—not annually, not every so often, not during certain seasons of life, but day by day.
Remember what we said about the reason people come to church looking for God? They are looking for peace. I suspect you are too! And so the question has to be asked: Who wants this? We come to Jesus looking for peace, and he promises a cross! We come to God looking for peace, and he promises us problems simply for being his child. Who in his right mind wants this? Who wants the cross?
Maybe the question we need to ask is, “Why?” Why would Jesus promise his followers daily problems and constant trouble just for being his disciples? Why would Jesus say that the Christian’s life experience will be comparable to a cross—pain and torment and suffering? This doesn’t exactly sound like a good “draw” to Christianity, does it?
Why does Jesus promise a cross? Could it be that Jesus wants his church to be an exclusive organization? Could it be that Jesus wants his church to be the spiritual version of the Marines—the few, the proud? Could it be that Jesus really is not out for everyone to be in his kingdom, but wants only the cream of the crop of humanity?
Perhaps that is why Jesus promises a cross, because only a few will be able to carry the cross. But that doesn’t jibe with Scripture. The apostle Paul wrote, “God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The Greek word for “men” refers to mankind in general. God wants everyone to be saved! So he would not send the cross to narrow his church down to an elite few.
Why does Jesus promise a cross? Could it be that Jesus wants to weed out the slackers from his church? Could it be that Jesus has lost his patience with all those people who claim to be Christians but really aren’t—those who just pay him lip service but never listen to his law or cherish his grace? Could it be that Jesus sends the cross to weed out the weak?
Perhaps that is why Jesus promises a cross, because it will send Christians-in-name-only packing. But that doesn’t jibe with Scripture, either. The prophet Isaiah, writing about Jesus centuries before his ministry, said, “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). With poetic imagery, Isaiah says that Jesus would not come just to clean house and expel weak and wavering disciples from his church. So Jesus would not send the cross to sweep out the weak in faith.
Then why does Jesus promise a cross? Could it be that Jesus has a little bit of a vindictive side? Could it be that God has lost his patience with sinful mankind just like he did when he sent the flood on the earth? Could it be that Jesus is sick of seeing the same old sin-and-repent pattern over and over and over again, and that he has run out of forgiveness? Could it be that Jesus sends the cross as punishment?
Perhaps that is why Jesus promises a cross, because our constant sin and repeated attempts to ignore God’s commands merit nothing but his punishment now and forever. And while it is true that sin deserves God’s punishment, that is still not the reason Jesus sends the cross; that still doesn’t jibe with Scripture. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? … Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:7,10). When God permits hardship to enter our lives, it is not about vindictive punishment; it’s about discipline, or training. So Jesus would not send the cross just to “let us have it.”
But we still haven’t answered our questions. Why does Jesus send us the cross? And who in his right mind wants the cross? Since Jesus tells us in our Gospel that he is going to send the cross, perhaps we can look in that same section and find out why he sends the cross. In the last verse of the Gospel for today, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
Could this be the answer? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” Jesus has just told us about the necessity of denying our sinful self, our sinful nature. What happens when we don’t deny our sinful self? What happens when we live for that old self? Will we pursue the things of God? Will we set aside all of the other things we could be doing to come to his house each week if we live to please ourselves? Will his Word ever see the light of day in our homes if we live to please ourselves? No, of course not! If we live to please ourselves, we will neglect our soul’s nourishment to the point of death—eternal death! Instead of saving our lives, we will lose our souls forever in hell.
So Jesus sends the cross. He sends troubles—and not just generic troubles, but troubles that come because we are his children. And what does that do? It drives us back to him for strength! It drives us back to his cross! It drives us to find forgiveness in his blood for all the times we have been more concerned with pleasing our sinful self. It drives us to the Word that proclaims his saving work on the cross for us. It drives us to remember the promise God first gave us at our baptism where he made us his adopted and dearly loved son or daughter. It drives us back to his holy Supper where he gives us the very body and blood offered on the cross for continued strength and forgiveness. Our crosses drive us back to his cross, and we find his cross through his Word and sacraments. And that Word and those sacraments help us to deny our sinful self and instead nurture our faith in Christ. And that brings us to Jesus’ conclusion, “Whoever loses his life for me will save it.” This is not self-denial for self-denial’s sake. This is self-denial for Jesus’ sake—denying ourselves the sinful influences that lead us away from God and receiving the blessings of Christ’s grace that he richly showers on us in the gospel.
The story is told of a man who visited a shepherd. The man noticed that there was one sheep in particular who always stood right next to the shepherd. As they walked along, this sheep walked right next to the shepherd wherever he went, constantly placing itself right next to the shepherd’s leg. The visitor couldn’t help but ask, “Why does that sheep always stay so close to you?” And the shepherd answered, “That sheep used to wander away constantly. It never stayed with the flock. It never came when called. It always went out on its own. So I broke its leg. Ever since then, it stays right next to me no matter where I go.”
The same can be said about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. In love for us, his sheep, he may send crosses our way—crosses that are meant to break our sinful nature, crosses to keep us from wandering away from him, crosses to drive us back to his cross for grace, crosses to keep our sinful self in check and our redeemed souls close to him. For the one who went to the cross for you in love sends crosses to you in love with the purpose of keeping you in his flock for all eternity.
Who wants the cross? When Jesus asks, “Will you take up the cross?” let your answer be “Yes!” and “Amen!”