The Empty Cross

The most common symbol of the Christian religion is the cross.  And, while many statues and necklaces and artistic renderings include a dying Christ figure , the kind you most often see is the empty cross.  On this day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, I want to consider the significance of the empty cross.

  • First, the empty cross reminds us that Christ lived.  In spite of those who continue to challenge the historical evidence, there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  He lived in a particular time and place, and he was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  His existence caused the modern Western Calendar to be split into two distinctive parts based on the estimated year of his birth, and his life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a movement that has never been stamped out, equaled, or eclipsed.

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  • Second, it reminds us that Christ died.  He was fully human in his capacity to feel pain, rejection, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and grief.  Yet he also experienced joy, companionship, hope, love, compassion, laughter, and growth.  He didn’t just grow old or fade into obscurity.  He didn’t leave his life’s work unfinished, he didn’t compromise or change his message; he didn’t give up or start over with a different “crew.”  Though he never staged a coup, or built up an arsenal, or rose to a seat of power or influence, this homeless, itinerant, soft-spoken rabbi was seen as enough of a threat to the leaders of his time that he was framed, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death.
  • The empty cross also reminds us how he died.  Modern crosses often look imposing and even triumphant, as they tower over a mega church parking lot, or hang on a chain of elegant silver, or stand in rows of chiseled rock in a military cemetery.  “O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?”  (I Cor. 15:55)  But the torture before and during the crucifixion were brutal– bones were not broken, but they were pulled out of joint and then forced to bear the full weight of a bloody, swollen and bruised body of ripped muscles and exposed flesh.  Heat caused the salty sweat mixed with blood to drip into his eyes, his open wounds, and around his nose and mouth, but he was unable to wipe any of it away.  Flies gathered; he couldn’t keep them from buzzing or biting.  Each breath was a torturous push and pull of the arms and body upon the nails holding him at an unnatural angle against a wooden bar that rubbed against his already raw back.  And all of this was public; entertainment for the masses of hecklers, and those who were rejoicing in his humiliation and failure.  There was nothing pretty or majestic about the cross on that day.

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  • The empty cross reminds us that Jesus was buried and put under Roman guard.  His emaciated, bloody, barely recognizable remains were wrapped up and prepared with spices.  Guards, whose lives depended on this body remaining in the tomb and undisturbed, were posted, and a huge boulder rolled into place to block entry to and exit from the tomb.  Jesus didn’t spontaneously climb down off the cross, or waltz out of an air-conditioned cave.
  • Finally, the empty cross reminds us that Jesus was the Christ–death could not stop him; the grave could not hold him.  His victory was complete.  He didn’t claw his way out of that tomb; he didn’t sneak out in the dead of night; he didn’t hobble into hiding for several weeks because he was only “mostly dead” of his torturous injuries.  He arose, victorious, recognizable to those who knew him best; healed and full of power.

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There are hundreds of reasons why we “cherish the Old Rugged Cross.”  And, though the cross stands empty, our reasons are not.  Hallelujah!  Tomorrow, hundreds of millions of Christians will be celebrating the empty tomb.  But for today, I want to celebrate the empty cross.

Why “Good” Friday Matters

Good Friday is a stumbling block for many people who would be Christians.  Some get angered at the mere mention of “Good” Friday.  They see nothing good in it, and no reason to celebrate.  They mock Christian celebrations and practices throughout Holy Week.  They ask, “What could be good about being arrested, beaten, tried in an unfair court, mocked, and condemned to death?”  “What could be good about celebrating someone’s final meal, and following the gruesome details of his humiliating crucifixion?”  “Why remember someone being tortured by his enemies and abandoned and even betrayed by his friends?”  I know someone who uses the crucifixion of Jesus as “proof” that God is neither omnipotent, nor holy.

Yet the Bible chooses to focus time, detailed description, and several varying viewpoints to make this the pivotal event (along with the resurrection) of history.  The Crucifixion does not come as a sudden and inexplicable episode in Jesus’ ministry. He predicts it; not just once, and not just in one account–he doesn’t hint vaguely at some “future trouble,” or potential danger–he gives a detailed description of what will happen to him:

Mark 10:33-34 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

33 saying“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be [a]delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will [b]hand Him over to the Gentiles. 34 They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”

Luke 24:6-7 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

He is not here, but He has [a]risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”

Why do we need Good Friday?  Why, my acquaintance posits, does a loving God make salvation contingent upon the death of himself in human form?  Is it that God is incapable, or unwilling to offer “unconditional” grace?  After all, does he not offer “unconditional” love?  Why must salvation be achieved only by the unjust death of a perfect being?  Why must reconciliation and new life be forged in suffering and death?

These are not unreasonable questions, but I think they miss the broader picture.  Before the cross, before the scourging and the betrayal, let’s look at the life of Christ.  Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the author of creation, could have stepped out of Heaven at any moment, and arrived in all his glory, surrounded by angels, to walk in pomp and dignity through the world he created.  He could have swept the entire Roman Empire off the face of the planet, healed every disease with a whisper, and lived in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Ruler he is.   Instead, he came as a helpless child, born to a teenage mom and her fiance during a grueling tax season.  He grew up in relative obscurity, never attended college, and is lost to history until he begins his second career as an itinerant rabbi at age 30.  He never held political office, never owned a home of his own, never wrote a book, or produced a piece of art work, never led an army into battle, never married or had children, never became wealthy, never did anything to make himself famous by worldly standards.  He was not crucified because he posed an actual threat to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but because he was accused of blasphemy by not denying claims that he was the promised Messiah of Israel.  His only “claim to fame” was that he was a dynamic teacher and had performed miraculous healings.  By almost every worldly standard, his life was a failure and a lesson in wasted potential.

His death is in keeping with his humble life.  It strikes us as a failure– humiliating, unjust, anti-climactic.  A life of servitude, poverty, being misunderstood, and making all the “wrong” friends and enemies.  Why would God live such a ridiculous and unfulfilling life?  Except he didn’t– it wasn’t a failure; his life and death stand as examples of how to live at peace, and how to change the world!  Hundreds of people flocked to hear him teach; hundreds more to see him heal the sick and raise the dead.  But he never charged a single coin, never demanded accolades or even thanks.

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This is the paradox of the Gospels.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His humiliating death on the cross was necessary for the ultimate triumph of the resurrection, but it was more than that– it was a vindication of justice over injustice and service over selfishness.  Good doesn’t always triumph over evil in a power play.  God has the power to obliterate every one of his enemies, but more often than not, he causes them to fall by their own arrogance and blind ambition.  The Chief Priests, the Roman Soldiers, the agony and torture of death– they were no match for God’s love.

Good Friday showed us that God can ALWAYS make even our most difficult circumstances, even the worst situations, into something VICTORIOUS.  Jesus still had to suffer and die, because we will still have to face betrayal, hatred, injustice, unanswered questions, and even taste death.  An Easter without Good Friday is a happy ending without the story.  Only an omnipotent God could have given us the triumph; only a loving God would have walked the Via Dolorosa to fight in the trenches with us.

 

What? A Privilege?!

“What a Friend we have in Jesus,  all our sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in Prayer!”

The word “privilege” has taken a beating lately.  A privilege used to be considered a good thing.  Merriam-Webster defines it as, “a right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.”  A privilege is granted–given as the prerogative of someone in power or authority– to someone else.  It may be given as a reward, or granted for a limited time and under certain conditions.  But a true privilege is a gift–you can’t make your own privilege, and you cannot own or control a privilege– the terms are set by the giver, not the receiver.

In the past generation, the word “privilege” has become charged with political and societal connotations.  Those connotations, and the issues surrounding them, are worthy of discussion and could fill volumes, but I want to talk about a privilege that should be free of undertones and dubious meanings.

Prayer is a pursuit, and a practice.  It is personal, practical, and powerful.  But it is also a privilege.  Often one that we take for granted.

In pursuing prayer, we are not just developing a personal routine or discipline.  We are not just approaching a powerful supernatural entity.  We are fallen creation entering the presence of a Holy Creator; we are rebels entering the throne room of the King of Kings.

We have the right to approach God; to talk to, converse with, ask favors of, plead with, confess to, and expect answers from the One who creates galaxies with a single spoken word, and designs every unique flake of snow.  This same God grants us the right to draw breath, to experience both beauty and wonder, to question and to create.

Prayer in ancient times was almost universally accompanied by sacrifices, and surrounded with ritual– incense, bowing and prostrating oneself, covering or uncovering the head–in recognition of the horrible chasm, the great separation between God and mankind.  Many traditions still use ritual for prayer, and there is nothing wrong in this reminder of God’s Holiness and Sovereignty.  Yet God talks of prayer in intimate terms.  He didn’t impose ritual and sacrifice for his benefit, but for ours.  Several times throughout the Bible, he makes clear that he does not require the blood of bulls and goats–what he wants most is a humble and pure heart.  At the moment Jesus died, the great veil in the Temple was ripped in half from top to bottom–the most holy place laid open to all who might come into God’s presence.  Christ’s death and resurrection were not just means of saving us from Hell, but the means of bringing restoration of the intimacy God designed from the beginning.  God– Almighty, Omnipotent, and completely Holy–wants to give us the privilege to enter his presence and pour out our thoughts, feelings, burdens, and triumphs; to share intimacy with HIM.  We are not just objects of his care (or his wrath), not just creatures in whom he has a certain fond but distant interest.  We are recipients of lavish love and priceless privileges– forgiveness, power over sin, power to become more Christlike, restoration and renewal, and yes,  the pursuit of  prayer.

Talk is Cheap

We are entering the season of Lent.  It is supposed to be a season of reflection, repentance, confession, and preparation.  Some people refer to it as a spring cleaning of the soul.  It is a time when many give things up or abstain from things– certain habits or routines, certain foods or activities.  This can be a good practice for many reasons– it teaches us discipline and patience; it reminds us of all that Christ gave up for us; it turns our focus from common earthly things to spiritual matters; and it frees us from habits and routines that have not only pulled us away from God, but away from each other.

I grew up with very mixed, and mostly negative, feelings about Lent. Neither my family nor my church celebrated Lent.  Many of my friends did, and their stories did very little to change my views.  I saw the season as drudgery, self-imposed punishment, dreary and legalistic, a cheerless, fruitless, and (mostly) meatless way of counting down to Easter.  No one seemed to “celebrate” it– it was more like they endured it.  My views have since changed, but I don’t think they were all that uncommon, and I think I was missing something of great value, something I would like to explore.

There are three important elements of Lent that I have struggled with, and I would like to share what I’ve learned.

  • There is great value in sober, somber reflection.  Our world is constantly calling us to revelry, happiness, entertainment, activity, and superficial comfort.  We see weakness in mourning for, and admitting to, our sins. We judge those who are serious and sober as “stodgy”, “boring”, and “prosy”.  We feel awkward in stillness and silent self-examination.  But the Bible paints a very different picture.  And the practices of fasting, confession, and meditation, practiced across a spectrum of religions, have been shown to promote better physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as spiritual well-being.

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  • Because we don’t value Godly sorrow– we sometimes substitute other practices that make a mockery of what Lent should be about.  I know I am not perfect, but I don’t want to feel that emptiness, that bankruptcy of spirit, that comes with honest confession and repentance.  In fact, I sometimes “glamorize” what is really petty.  I justify my bitterness, I excuse my selfishness, I “confide” my dislikes and judgmental thoughts about others.  And I bring these sins before God, not in sorrow and humility, but in scandal, as though he will be shocked or even entertained by my wayward behavior

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  • Which brings me to the third thing–cheap grace.  I spend a lot of time talking about Christian living– about the value of prayer, and confession being good for the soul.  I talk about being forgiven, and loving God, and wanting to serve him better.  But I have fallen into the very bad habit of seeing God as Ward Cleaver, or Ozzie Nelson– lovable and authoritative, but not Sovereign or supremely Holy –“There, there, child.  That’s all right.  You’ve confessed, and you’ve learned your lesson.  We’ll just forget that ever happened.”   Lent should lead us to dependence on God’s amazing grace.  It is the work of Christ in us– and only that– that saves, renews, and empowers us.  There is a danger in our culture that we cheapen grace by making the focus on what we know, or say about Christianity, rather than what God does through us.  Cheap grace leads to cheap talk–in my daily life, and in my prayer life.

This year for Lent, I’m not going to talk about giving up fast food, or Facebook, or shopping at my favorite store.  I’m not going to set a checklist or a target for random acts of kindness or giving alms.  I’m not even going to set a schedule for extra prayers or a list of special prayers just for this season.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those; in fact, if you’re thinking of doing any of the above (or all of the above), I encourage you to do it with all my heart.  My prayer for the next forty days will be to invite God to clean out the pretense and hand-wringing, sweep away the cobwebs of analyzing and making excuses, and empty my heart of pride, self-sufficiency, and false guilt, so that he can fill it again with love for him and for others.  Love that is more than cheap talk.  Love that pours out life and renewal– just as Christ poured out his blood on Good Friday, poured out glory on Easter morning, and poured out power at Pentecost.  Not because it was part of a 40-day program of renewal, but because it could not be contained.

But it starts with ashes and repentance.

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