I hope you feel some of my sober excitement as we have prayed for God the Holy Spirit to inspire Robb, David, and Ben as Theological Student ministers in our church.
I’m sure most of you know the wonderful spiritual song, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, soldiers of the Cross”. Guys, my deepest hope for you here at the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha and for your future in the Ministry of Word and sacrament, is that you will be “soldiers and servants of the Cross,” of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The great Congregationalist theologian P.T. Forsyth wrote in 1909: “Christ is to us just what his Cross is. All that Christ was on heaven and in earth was put into what he did there…You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross.”
Along the Jerusalem Road, Jesus takes his chosen disciples aside, to prepare them to understand his cross. “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him and after three days he will rise.”
In the next chapter St. Mark adds more details. It will be the chief priests and the teachers of God’s Law that will hand Jesus over to the Gentiles to be mocked and spit upon and crucified.
But adds Jesus, he has come not to be served but to serve and “to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
Jesus would fulfill the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.”
The disciples of Jesus turn away – they don’t want to talk about it…
Let me share with you this morning three aspects of the Cross: the Cross motivated by love; the Cross, the Judgement of the world; the Cross, the means of the Justification of humanity.
1. Let us be clear that the Cross is the deepest expression of God’s love for the human race. There are those in the church today who accuse God the Father of being an abusive father, sending his child to a torturous death.
How perverse! God’s motivation in giving up his Son to the Cross is his deep love of his human creation.
In Romans 5:8 St. Paul writes: “…God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners!
The religion of moralism says, try hard to live a good life and perhaps God will love you.
By contrast, the Christian knows that it was while I was lost in the snares and futility of my sins, that Christ found me, cleaned me up, and took me home.”
“In Jesus Christ, God the Holy One has died for us sinners. The holiness is His; the sin is mine.” (Lesslie Newbigin)
We humans can never know what it cost God the Father to send his Son to this world first to take the form of a servant, and second, to offer up his life in obedience to the Father he loved, as a ransom for many.
Neither can we know what the pure and spotless Son of God endured at Calvary: but his cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” speaks of the Prince of life enduring the pangs of death.
But what we CAN know, is that both the Father and the Son willingly gave everything they had for the love of humanity – the Son gave his life, and the Father gave his beloved Son. What more could they do?
What will you do this morning in response?
2. In his Baptism Jesus identifies with the sins of Israel and indeed the sins of the whole of humanity, the Gentile world.
When John the Baptist tries to deter Jesus from coming to him, Jesus replies, “Let it be so now, it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
The sinless Son of the Father identifies with the sins of his people Israel and the Gentiles in order that he might bear them in his own body on the tree.
In his earthly ministry in Galilee, Jesus announces God’s soon to come Kingdom – the Kingdom of God is drawing near.
God is about to establish his rule, to disarm Satan and the powers.
He proclaims that God’s final judgement is about to descend upon his beloved yet largely unfaithful Israel, and also upon the Gentiles.
So Christ implores Israel to repent and return to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Jesus comes as Israel’s judge, delivering the Father’s verdict against human rebellion.
Israel must put her faith in this divine Son who comes as her Judge and her Saviour.
But as St. John’s Gospel puts it, “Light has come into the world but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:19).
So Jesus, Saviour and Judge enters Jerusalem in Holy Week, and now instead of announcing judgement, he steps forward to receive the judgment on behalf of and instead of Israel and the Gentiles. He offers his life as a ransom for the many.
People say, ‘Why did God need Jesus to die? Why didn’t God just forgive us and be done with it? Why did God need to hold the human race accountable for our wrongdoing? Why couldn’t he just let us off the hook? And how could one man’s death be offered as satisfaction for the rest of us?
Because God is the Holy One. God is the God of love, but also the God of holiness.
God is the God of justice.
The iniquity of humanity cannot simply be winked at by a God whose nature it is to be holy and just.
P.T. Forsyth pointed out that not only is it true to say God is love, but even truer to say, “God is HOLY love.”
In Romans 3 Paul says that in his forbearance, God has left the sins of the human race largely unpunished.
But now with the Cross of his Son, the long-delayed time of ultimate justice has come.
But the amazing surprise is this: God the judge takes the punishment upon himself, in the Person of his only Son.
Timothy Keller puts it this way: “Jesus was so holy he HAD to die for us: nothing less would satisfy his holy and righteous nature. But he was so loving he was GLAD to die for us: nothing less would satisfy his desire to have us as his people.”
“There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin; he only could unlock the gates of heaven and let us in.”
In the Cross, Justice is done, righteousness is accomplished. The sum total of human sin, violence, oppression, pride, lust, hatred and murder, betrayal, meanness, selfishness and complacency – the price is paid for its horrible history in human life and in the life of every one of us. God judges sin; but God himself in the Person of his Son, pays its just price.
Christ alone of our race, could offer his Father the perfect sacrifice, because his own life was lived in sinless obedience and love toward God the father.
St. Paul helps us explore the great mystery of this sacrifice of the Son of God in two key passages:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
That is, God took the sin of our race and laid it on the shoulders of the spotless Lamb.
He then judged that sin righteously in Christ.
In turn he set us free from sin.
Justice was done in that the only man who could pay the price did so; the representative man who alone could present himself a spotless sacrifice.
“Look Father, look on his anointed face and only look on us as found in Him.”
Here’s the great thing. All of us need to be accepted in life. The biblical way of putting it is that we need to be justified. The fall-back position of men and women is to attempt to justify our own lives, that is to try to prove to ourselves and to others that we’re good enough to earn the acceptance of God and other people – which is simply the pride which St. Augustine discerned to be the root of every other sin.
Here’s the classic NT text from the 3rd chapter of Romans, v23-25: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”
The word translated “sacrifice of atonement” is an OT word, hilasterion. It refers to the place in the OT Temple where the blood of the sacrificial victim was spread. The victim was called the hilasmos, the sacrifice.
It was the place where the holy God in his justice AND his mercy met his covenant people Israel.
And now the NT picks up this word, hilasmos, to refer to our Lord Jesus on the Cross of Calvary: The Cross is the altar, the body of Jesus is the sacrifice where the Justice of a Holy God and his compassion and mercy encounter those who place their faith in Jesus.
“Justified freely by his grace… through faith in his blood.” This was the kind of text that gave rise to the Doctrine of Justification by grace through faith. It was the great Father of the Reformation Martin Luther who rediscovered this biblical teaching of St. Paul and the Gospels. It made its way into Article XI of the Articles of Religion in the BCP: “Of the Justification of Man” – “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings…” pp. 702-03.
When I come to trust that God has totally accepted me, accounting me righteous because I have put my faith in Christ, I can give up trying to make myself righteous. What will make me a better spouse, a more patient mother or father, a more generous person, or a more trustworthy friend is not redoubling my effort to follow Christ. Rather, it’s delighting in the fact of my Justification through the death of Christ, the knowledge that I am totally accepted by the Father, for he views me in my union with Christ. Justified, I know that I’m adopted, an adopted child of the Father. I have an unassailable status as a righteous child of my Father. Justification through faith in the Cross of Christ is God saying to his people: “No matter what you’ve done, whatever your sense of failure, I could never love you more than I love you now.” This knowledge, received by Faith, is amazingly liberating.
So what’s the street value of the doctrine of Justification by grace through faith?
What practical difference does it make in the life of the Christian? In the life of the Christian community? If by faith I receive Jesus as the One who justifies me before God Most Holy, then I can stop striving to base my justification on myself. On my good deeds, my good character, my successful career, my relationships in my family and my place of work. These are good things in themselves, but they were never meant to be the basis of my relationship with God the Father. There’s something in human nature that makes us want to earn our own way. We don’t like depending on someone else’s work on our behalf. Yet that’s how it is with God. Only He can do the work of freeing us from the captivity of sin, and setting us on the path to holiness. When I receive by faith the knowledge that I don’t need to strive for my standing with God, that it’s his gift to those who gladly and humbly receive it, then in fact I’m set free to actually be transformed by the Holy Spirit and to receive the personality traits of Jesus himself. These are called in Scripture the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Justification leads to the life-long process of what the Bible calls Sanctification, the actual growth in grace in every area of our lives leading to holiness. But Sanctification is the topic of a future sermon or two.
For this morning, I invite all of us to step forward and receive Christ, whether for the first time or afresh, as the one who died that we might live as justified children of our heavenly Father.