No Cross, No Crown

Originally recorded March 16, 2008

1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man‘s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

1 Corinthians 2: 1-5

1 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

Dr. John Boring was the Magistrate of the City of Hong Kong. He was the governor of the City of Hong Kong, or the colony of Hong Kong, during a very terrible and perilous period. It was a time when pirates and marauders were going all through that part of the world and were ravaging the coast in these very, very wealthy cities. He was also in charge of, or in liaison with, the colony of the Portuguese colony of Macaw.

The word came to me that the pirates had gone ashore at Macaw and when John Boering heard that he was terribly distressed because he knew that the city and the port of Macaw would have been laid waste. And so he called in some people around him and they boarded a ship and they took their sailing ship over to Macaw to see what had happened. Macaw was a Portuguese colony on the coast of China and it had a very strategic place in the shipping of that world. It was a very rich city.

As they entered the harbor they saw ships that were going under and smoke still coming from that part which was not yet under the water. They saw buildings that had been pillaged and burned upon the shore. All up on the mountain that surrounded Macaw they saw death and destruction. Smoke was hanging over the city in a way that they couldn’t understand it because of the heaviness of it. They knew that the stench of death was everywhere.

Then, as the ship went into the harbor, he looked up to the mountain above Macaw and, above everything else, he saw a little church there that had also been pillaged and burned and it was smoking. But the steeple of that church was still there, and the cross was still on that steeple. He thought about it for a moment and he wrote these words: “In the cross of Christ I glory towering over the wrecks of time. In the cross of Christ I glory, towering over wrecks of time.” It became a hymn and we sing it in our churches a great deal.

The cross of Jesus Christ is pre-eminent. The cross of Jesus Christ, somehow in this generation, has been shuffled to the side. But the cross of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece with the resurrection of the Christian faith. Now, I know that this is the time of the year when we celebrate the coming into Jerusalem of Jesus. This is Palm Sunday. I know that some of you, who are ecclesiastical scholars, think that I have gotten out of step. “You ought to preach on the Palm Sunday passages today and not Good Friday passages.”

I know that, but you know what I know that you don’t know? (Not much.) What I know is that the temptation for the preacher is to make Palm Sunday little Easter and we’ll do celebration of Palm Sunday and then we’ll come back Easter Sunday and we’ll do a celebration of Easter Sunday, but in between we have forgotten that you can’t have the crown without the cross. You can’t have the resurrection without the cross of Jesus Christ. And the life of Christ, and the life of the Christian in our lives together, have the cross as well as the resurrection.

So I’m going to do an impossible thing, or try to do an impossible thing. I want to take Palm Sunday and I want to put a cross in it. I want to take Palm Sunday when we celebrate Jesus beginning to come into the place where he knew that he was coming down to the final days and then all of his ministry would come to a climax at the end of the week. I want us to see that, but I also want us to know that there’s a cross there, and that cross has meaning and we cannot take it out of our lives.

Jesus had spent a few days before Palm Sunday in a little village called Bethany. He had raised Lazarus from the dead. Word got out all over Jerusalem that this wonder-worker from Galilee had come and had raised Lazarus from the dead and they were terribly upset. They came out to do away with Jesus because that was too much power for one person to have. They wanted to get rid of him because he was threatening their power.

Then, on that Palm Sunday morning, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, which was just a little ways from the village of Bethany. The Mount of Olives overlooked the entire city of Jerusalem and there in the middle of the city of Jerusalem you can see the temple and you can see a hill that goes down from the Mount of Olives. And on that is a cemetery and there is also a garden. Gethsemane it’s called. And there’s a brook right outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem called the Brook Hedron and that brook is usually fed by the sacrifices that come from the temple and other sources that come.

And then there’s a gate there. It’s closed up now. It’s called Golden Gate, not after our bridge. Jesus came down from the Mount of Olives. He walked through that cemetery and walked through and walked through the Garden of Gethsemane and he walked across the Brook Hedron and he crossed over and went into the city and as he went into the city the people had heard that he was coming. Word had gone all over the city. CNN was there and Fox News was there. They were getting it all out there.

“He’s here! He’s here!” The word of mouth had spread and the people were so excited. This one, who had raised Lazarus from the dead, is coming and they took palm fronds and put them out there. Now, warrior kings would come on a horse and Jesus was an active parable at this moment. Jesus determined that he was going to give a message and so he didn’t get on a great horse to ride into the city, but he got on a little donkey. He didn’t come in in a Cadillac. He came in in an old, beat-up Volkswagen.

As he came into the city, the people were so excited. He’s here they sang, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” They put the palms down in front of him. They knew now their oppressor was going to be overthrown. They knew now that the burden was going to be taken away from them. The Messiah had come. After that he left the city, spent the night in Bethany, came back the next day and cleaned out the temple.

Now that wasn’t on the agenda. He shouldn’t have been doing that. That’ll make them mad. He had to argue with the Scribes and Pharisees. He spent some time cursing a fig tree that would not bring forth its fruit. The church ought to look at that. He argued back and forth with the keepers of the law. Finally on Thursday they had a meal together. Jesus knew that as they had the Passover meal together all the people had come from all over the world there. It was the Super Bowl and everything else rolled into one.

People had come from all over the world. You could hear the rustling of people outside as they were in the Supper Room. Jesus knew he was being betrayed. They broke bread together. They had their Passover meal together. Then he left that room. The most horrible events occurred. They took him that night from Gethsemane to court to court to blasphemous court as they had charges trumped up against him. The next morning they lashed him, sent him out to Calvary, nailed him to a cross and those of you who saw “The Passion of the Christ” recoiled at how brutal it was.

I remember reading in the newspapers and the magazines how they had overdone the brutality of it. They didn’t overdo the brutality of it. The Romans were that brutal. Because crucifixion was the most hideous way ever devised by human beings to kill another one. Nailed him to a cross. No vital organ was ever pierced. Let him hang out there and he dies of natural elements.

To make it even worse, they humiliate him before they send any victim to the cross. They scourge him with a cat-of-nine-tails, ripped the flesh off of his back. If he’s lucky, he’ll die of the scourging and not at the cross. Then they humiliate him by making him carry his cross up to the top of the hill, wherever that is. Sometimes Romans would capture a city and, as they would go into the city, they would put their victims on crosses all the way into the city. Instead of having beautiful trees there to welcome you, you would have row, after row, after row of dying victims on crosses.

Sometimes they took them on ships, back to Rome, and when they got to the coliseum they would crucify them, all around the coliseum, and then turn hungry lions loose on them. The people in the crowd would stand and celebrate the fact that these hungry lions were tearing their enemies to shreds on these crosses. The Romans were going to show that they were in charge.

So they took Jesus.

He went through all of this, the beatings beyond imagination, and then they had perfected a special nail, a long nail, not a little ten-penny nail, but a long nail, especially created by the Romans for nailing human bodies to a cross. Sometimes it would go through the hand. Other times through the wrist. Occasionally the body would be tied to the cross; then they would nail it there and that would prolong the agony.

Then, to make sure Jesus was dead, they put a spear into his side. If you’ve read any kind of skeptical literature that says he didn’t really die, you don’t understand crucifixion. Then they broke the legs to ensure that the other victims were dead. Then you have to remember another thing. When you were hanging on a cross, pain was in your back and pain was in your head, pain was all around you, and humiliation as you are hanging there, naked before the world, that you died of natural causes and thirst was the thing that really dominated your feeling. “I thirst,” Jesus said.

Thirst. If you think you have a Christian faith without a cross, you don’t have a faith. We want a faith that makes us feel good. We want a faith that gives us four ways to get along with everybody, three ways to save our marriage, two ways to make sure that we don’t get in trouble. And all of that little, shallow “Reader ’s Digest” kind of religion will not do a thing for you. That kind of religion is not going to get to the heart of the human problem, because on the cross of Jesus Christ we find there that the sins of humankind were taken. If you don’t believe humankind is sinful, pick up any newspaper.

Paul said, “I’m going to preach to you the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m tired of fancy little sermons.” He tried one at Athens. It didn’t work. “I’m tired of trying to do a play on television symbolism. I’m tired of trying to give you a magazine article turned up side down so that you will go out saying, ‘Oh what a nice sermon that was.’” Paul said, “From now on I’m bringing only the cross, Christ and him crucified is the center of my message.”

What has the modern church done with that? Well, we bear a cross of jewelry. That’s all right. You may do it. I read recently of an ecclesiastical gathering. They were all in their finery, their robes. The bishops were all there sitting on the dais. They have the chain around their neck with the cross on it, a little pocket on the side to hold it. And during the sermon, somebody observed one bishop had taken the cross out and was cleaning his fingernails with it.

I saw a hip-hopper, a rapper on television as I passed through the family room the other day. He was standing there with all his bling around his neck, and there was a big diamond-encrusted cross, right in the middle. I thought, “Somehow this doesn’t fit.” I was in a restaurant one day and a waitress had a cross around her neck. I said, “Oh, I see you’re a Christian. You’re wearing a cross.” She said, “Oh, it’s just nothing. Something my boyfriend gave me.”

We embellish it with jewels. We enshrine it with sacred words and we drape it in flowers and banners. Martin Luther said the cross ought to be black for covering our sin, showing our sin because that’s what created it. The German nation has the iron cross as a symbol of militarism. We have the Red Cross hope and disaster time. White cross medical help. We have the Blue Cross financial help if you can persuade. We have the green cross which means highway safety.

The cross is agonizing, but the cross is at the center of life. Now you say to me, “What does that have to do with me?” It has everything to do with you, because every one of us, in some way, is carrying a burden that we can’t carry and we need to understand that the cross is there, but if we give our lives and hearts to Jesus Christ he takes away the sin that we carry in our lives. He washes us clean, presents us to the Father.

Now, there are eight theories of what it means. Theologians have had a field day on “The Atonement,” as they call it. “Atonement” actually means “mystery.” I’m going to run through all eight of these because all of them have a spark of truth in them. Now you’re looking at your watches. Don’t worry. I’m not looking at mine.

There is a “Ransom Theory.” We’re slaves to sin and Christ died to buy us back. There’s a “Debtor Theory of Saint Anslom.” We are debtors and Christ paid our debt. Remember that old hymn, “Jesus Paid It All; All to Him I Owe.” That’s where that comes from.

There’s the “Governmental Theory.” Justice had to be satisfied. There’s the “Moral Theory.” Christ died as a martyr, a moral example for all of us. There’s the “Moral Influence Theory.” His love will move us to repent. There’s the “Universal Idea” of Christ universally repenting for all of us. And then we need to understand that there is the “Eternal Cross.” For there is the cross in the heart of God that’s carried there because of our waywardness and our sins.

There’s some element in truth in all of them, but we must understand this very clearly. Something happened at the cross and Jesus Christ was crucified. The veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the people was rent from top to bottom, from God to humankind. It was rent. Now, the Holy of Holies was not locked up behind the veil, but was open to all. In Jesus Christ the way has been made open for all of us.

Now give me another minute or two. This morning, when I got up early to pray about this service and this sermon, I could not get what I’m going to tell you right now out of my mind. You need to understand it. So I said, "Lord, it doesn’t fit." didn’t plan to tell it. But I’m going to tell it. Yesterday, my family and I, at least my wife and two grandchildren, were returning from the North Georgia Mountains. We had been there for spring break. I came home for a funeral. Went back up to get them.

We were driving in two cars. I thought we were going to be in just heavy rainstorm. We were coming down I-985 at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon. Does that tell you anything? Rain was pretty bad. It was beyond bad. In fact, I got to thinking maybe we ought to just take a break. Was going to get under an overpass and just sit there, but all the heavy trucks were there. So I pulled off at a wonderful, wonderful place called Rabbit Town.

We went into one of these service stations that really a grocery story disguised as a service station. Had 20 pumps out front, and the rain was coming in torrents and hail was beginning to fall about the size of marbles. We parked our car and ran in. The lady there — she could have been a waitress — greeted us, “Come in. We’re glad to have you.” As we opened the door all of that water and all of that ice came rolling in, and about the time we got there — almost like somebody had turned on a switch — about 10 cars appeared out under the pumps at the front. Everybody was getting away from the tornado.

So I stood there with another person who was there and we opened the door, and these people came streaming in. You know, I didn’t stop at the door and say, “Are you good enough? Are you dressed well enough? Are you educated enough? Are you qualified to be in here?” I didn’t say that to any of them. They were getting out of a storm and I was opening a door.

I’ll tell you something else. They didn’t drive by saying, “You know, I don’t like the color of that grocery store.” Not one of them drove by and said, “You know, I don’t like the gas they sell.” Nobody complained about the price. You know what they were aware of? The storm outside. And these people came in — rich, poor, healthy, unhealthy. One lady had a heart problem. We had to call EMS while she was there. And then we all huddled in the back.

Finally, someone said, “Into the restrooms. That’s the inner part of this.” Another man just came in and he said, “The tornado has just crossed I-985 at Lula.” I started to say, “No, that’s 441 up there,” but I didn’t argue with him. Lula was close enough for me. Interesting, I watch people. Nobody said, “Now, you do this, you do that; let’s elect officers; let’s have a nominating committee.” Not a word of that happened. Instantly.

One lady who had a couple of children about knee-high and one in arms. She’d gathered up all the other little children and went into one of the stalls. The lady who was sick; they took her into another one and said, “You sit down here. You don’t have to use it. Just sit on it, there until we get the EMS.” I noticed that one guy who I would not have wanted to have met on a dark alley. He had enough tattoos to take care of “Entertainment Tonight.” He had them everywhere, all over his body. He was saying, “Can I help you? What can I do?” Everybody seemed to find their place until the storm passed.

When the storm was over we had become family. The lady who ran the place gave away free slushies to everybody. We were all so scared nobody wanted one. She knew that. But you know what‘? I’ll never forget, as long as I live, opening that door and seeing people getting out of a storm. Just open the door and they just flooded in.

Now there’s a storm out there. See, it doesn’t take a preacher long to get to this place. If you don’t believe it, how is your 401K doing? You put your trust in finances, or government, or political parties, or political opinions there’s a storm out there. You put your trust in anything in this world, there’s a storm out there. The only thing you can trust is the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for you. I’ll stake my life on it. I have staked my life on it. We have staked our life on it here. And we open the doors.

You see the storm? You need to come rushing in. You don’t need to quibble. You don’t need to argue. You don’t need to say, “I don’t believe this or like that. You’re too loud, or soft, or bald, or old or whatever.” That doesn’t matter. There’s a storm out there. The cross of Jesus Christ saves us. And you can’t have — none of us can have — Easter Sunday until we understand and have experienced Good Friday. I want you to come in. There’s a storm out there.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)