Sermon: How to Build a Cross

February 5th, 2011
Image © Andrei Contiu |

Scripture: Matthew 27:33-42

Shall we build a cross? Crosses were commonplace two thousand years ago. Seventy years before Christ, after the smashing of the revolt of Spartacus, roads to Rome were lined with 6,000 crosses and 6,000 men dying on them. At the death of Herod the Great a revolt broke out, and the Romans crucified 2,000 people in Jerusalem. In A.D. 70 at the siege of Jerusalem, the Roman troops crucified as many as 500 Jews daily for several months.

In 1968, during excavations in Jerusalem following the Six-Day War, the remains of a man clearly put to death by crucifixion were found in a hidden tomb. His name was Jehohanan; in his late twenties, he was obviously from a well-to-do family. Jehohanan was fastened to the cross by nails, there being no standard way to put a cross together or to put a person on it. The victim could be fastened to the crossbar by either ropes or nails. Without some other support a person would die within two or three hours on the cross from muscular spasms and asphyxia, so the Romans devised ways to prolong the agony: a pointed peglike affair as a seat, and a footrest. With these aids, a person might linger for days. A long nail was driven through Jehohanan's heels; the nail went on into the upright beam and bent when it hit a knot in the hard olivewood. When his family attempted to get him off the cross after death, they had to cut off his feet, then bury a small section of the cross with his feet still attached to it, and the archaeologists found that.

How you build a cross depends on its use. If it is to be worn as a trinket around your neck, that's one thing. Arthur Blessit, on the other hand, puts wheels on the crosses he pulls across the country. In Passion plays the crosses are made of light wood. The rows of white crosses in cemeteries are often made of stone.

If you are going to save a sinful world by means of it, defeat all the powers of evil with it, crucify the Son of God on it, then making a cross requires more than fine craftsmanship, more than a vertical stake and a crossbar. Look with me at the kind of cross we need to build on which to crucify Jesus.

Endure God's Curse

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 tells us how shameful this death on the cross was, and we've lost that reality. Someone from the first century walking our streets today would be utterly appalled to see the cross on our churches and around our necks. It would be similar to you coming back to earth five hundred years from now and seeing little electric chairs on churches and on chains around folks' necks. Paul says the preaching of the Cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. Yet he does not hide the shame of the cross. He embraces it, saying in Galatians 3:13 that Christ became a curse for us. The One who died on that center cross that day died as a man accursed by people and by God; a criminal soon to be dead, buried, and forgotten.

A drama pictures the mother of Jesus years after his crucifixion. Another son, Joses, and his wife have a new baby boy. They ask Mary what they should name him, and Mary stands gazing out the window for a time, then turns with tears in her eyes and, fumbling with her apron, says, "I would have you name the child Jesus....I would not have him forgotten." Crucified, cursed, but forgotten? Never. But as we build our cross let us remember it must:

Hold a God

The irony is that the cursed One being nailed up is no ordinary thirty-year-old in the vigor of manhood; he is also God: "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19) . So what we have on the cross is divinity wrapped in human flesh; God willing to dwell among us and suffer with us and for us, for a higher purpose than anyone gathered around that cross that day could grasp. But let us keep working on this cross. It must be strong enough to:

Hold the Sins of the World

On the cross Jesus becomes the very embodiment of sin. Isaiah 53 vividly points out twelve ways that all the sins of the world—your sins and mine—were heaped on the God-man Jesus on the cross that day: "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6). Peter, who may have stood at the edge of the crowd with head bowed in grief and shame, tells us that Jesus "bore our sins in his body on the cross" (1 Pet. 2:24) . What a paradox! All the sin of this world gathered to the cross on which is dying the only sinless person ever to set foot on this earth. But let us keep building, for the cross must also hold the:

Loneliest Man Who Ever Lived

There has never been a darkness like what spread over that hill at noon that day and covered the cross of the man Jesus. For when the sins of every human being gathered at the cross, he suffered the depths of all that sin means, and it is seen in the bitterest cry ever wrung from human heart: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). We know that just as the essence of heaven is the presence of God, so also the essence of hell is eternal separation from God, and that this cry is the agony of hell itself. Consider further the cross we are building for Jesus. It must be:

A Tall Cross

This cross of Jesus towers not just over the crosses of the condemned men on either side of him, but over all the ages, to draw people to it through the years. Jesus told Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the pole with the bronze serpent on it for the healing of the Israelites, even so must Jesus be lifted up on his cross, above all the nations, all the tyrants, all human achievements, for his lifting up is the only way men and women, boys and girls, can see the terrible power of their sin and the sacrifice of Jesus that sets us free.

Rooted in the Heart of God

Christ took upon himself our sins by the will and appointment of God. He came as the old hymn says, from the heart of God, and that is also why the darkness and the agony of the cross were so deep. John 3:16 leaves us no doubt that Jesus came because God so loved the world. There is no division between the Father and the Son in their love and purpose—the Son of God came gladly, joyfully, to walk the road of the cross in obedience to the Father's will, and to offer himself up as the greatest act of love ever to grace this universe. I mention only one other aspect of the cross of Jesus; it must be strong enough to:

Hold Two Persons

Remember what Paul said in Galatians 2:19: "I have been crucified with Christ." The New Testament says that the Christian "suffers with Christ," is "crucified with Christ," "dead with him," "baptized into his death," and "buried with him." We who believe are to be identified with Christ in his life, his ministry, his death. Yet in the deepest sense there is no way we can go with him all the way, nor could we have been actually crucified with him on the same cross. We cannot face the darkness he faced, endure the punishment, bear the sins, or die under that ridicule with a prayer upon our lips because we are not the perfect Son of God, the sacrifice without blemish for the sins of the world. But we can kneel at the foot of that cross we have built. Built with our hands? No, built with our sins. We can kneel there and confess that when we survey the cross on which the Prince of Glory died, our richest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride. We can kneel there and determine that love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all. We can kneel at his cross in repentance and contrition, and accept forgiveness, healing, and peace.

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