Grace mercy and Peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The text I would like to concentrate on for this Holy Cross Day is, “The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” This is “Holy Cross Day” a festival of the church year of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The point of the day is to reflect on what happened on the cross and what that means for our salvation. We also reflect specifically on the cross and what happened to Jesus on it on Good Friday; but that is a more somber and subdued affair. Pastor may be dressed in black, the room may be darker and the mood quieter. But on Holy Cross Sunday; the lights are brighter, music is louder and the paraments are a festive red color.
The origins of this festival date back to 325 A.D. when St. Helena, the mother of Constantine went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her team excavated parts of the city that had been destroyed by the Romans, as Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple. St. Helena’s team found three crosses and it was determined that these were the very same crosses used on Mt. Calvary. It seems rather dubious to believe that these were the same crosses used on Jesus and the two thieves, especially with the thousands of people put to death in this manner by the Romans. But the ancient church celebrated Holy Cross day, and the day selected was September 14th, at the time of harvest. The practice fell out of favor, but came back into the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in 1982, and since September 14th falls on a Sunday we observe this day; a day to reflect on the victory won on the cross.
The Cross is a powerful image; it generates different emotions in different people. Some see the cross as salvation, others see the cross as an enemy religion, and still others are just put off by the fact that it is associated with Christianity. There are even churches in this country which do not have a cross on top of them or in their sanctuary. One reason for this is their view is that the cross is merely a symbol or a sign that divides the church from other public buildings, like brand name on a fast food restaurant. While I will not totally disagree with that type of thinking, there is so much more to it than that. Others say that the cross is too divisive it drives people away, so they don’t want to display the cross. But here again there is a kernel of truth, but the message of the church is the cross.
The cross does divide people. In the Mojave Desert, 15 miles off Interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas, there is a monument dedicated to soldiers of World War 1. On top of this monument in the middle of nowhere is a wooden cross. A group has spent over 11 years in court to try and get this cross taken down. As one of those that were defending the placement of the cross said: “You can’t see it from the freeway. You have to drive to it to be offended.” There are groups that have made an effort to remove two steel beams in the shape of a cross at ground zero in New York City. Workers on the site said they found inspiration in the cross.Others, who weren’t workers, were offended and went to court. The crosses remain at both sites, but the cross remains a divisive issue.
To help us understand why the cross is so divisive, we need to look no further than our Epistle lesson for today. St. Paul writes: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”.What we preach is folly to the world. God has chosen to confound the learned people with his wisdom. The world does not look to Christ for salvation, but looks to its own knowledge. The world sees no sin and by extension, no need for a savior. We read in our lesson: “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine”.Those in the crowd that believed knew that this was a voice from heaven. But there were those that did not understand what the sound was, and tried to figure out what it was using natural means, their own understanding. We see this today when people say Jesus didn’t really walk on water, He didn’t really raise people from the dead or he really didn’t die on the cross. The ones who say these things try and discredit the miracles by saying they never happened or they happened through natural phenomenon. Non-believers will convince themselves that there is no God; and even if there is one, they don’t sin and certainly don’t need a savior. The cross does not mean salvation to them.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need the cross. Alcoholics Anonymous has a well know twelve step program to recovery. The first step is to “Admit that they are powerless over alcohol – and that their lives have become unmanageable”. We have to admit the same thing about sin, we are powerless over sin and for us it is unmanageable. When we come to confession, we tell God we are, “poor miserable sinners”. We can try and try not to sin, but we know we all find ourselves there. We might find ourselves using language that we know offends God, lying in business deals or even making our new fancy car more important than God. We also know that we cannot get ourselves out of this situation, we need outside help. And right here is the cross, and the work that Christ did on it for our salvation, the only thing that scripture tells us that can help us.
When St. Helena was going through the debris in Jerusalem she found what she said was the True Cross. Soon there were pieces of the True Cross all over Mid-Evil Europe. These pieces of the true cross were becoming basically good luck charms. They were understood to aid in travel or sickness. They were given all kinds of magical powers. Clearly there were two major problems with this type of thinking. First there is no scriptural evidence that the True Cross has any power at all of its own. There is no recording in the Bible of the dead being raised or the lame to walk on account of the wood from the cross. The second issue is the number of pieces of this true cross. John Calvin, a theologian you will rarely hear me quote, said of all the pieces of the cross in the Middle Ages: “if one were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo”. All these pieces of the cross added together were way more than one cross. Superstition had taken over in people’s view of the cross.
Where is the power of the cross? It is Christ’s work on it. Earlier in the book of John, it is recorded that Jesus was in a discussion with Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law. In that discussionJesus quotes from our Old Testament lesson saying: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. The people of Israel in the desert needed to have faith in God by looking up to Him; we must have faith in Jesus by looking to him for our salvation. We look to him on the cross. Jesus used a different metaphor for the Greeks that were asking to see him. Jesus used the description of a seed that must be buried and die so that new life could begin. This was easier for Greeks,who were not trained in the Old Testament scriptures to understand. This description was to tell people how he was going to die. Unfortunately the English language fails us here.In our Bible we see the word “die”, but in the original Greek the term used describes the exhaled being humble and dying. This fits in well because just prior to our reading, in the book of John, Jesus made his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. Now he is telling us he must be humbled and die, die on the cross.
We read many times in scripture that Jesus says something like,“it is not my hour”, but this time he says: “But for this purpose I have come to this hour”.When I was in Fort Wayne, I had a Bible study in the Whitely County Jail. Every Tuesday night I would go to cell block “C” and have a bible study with 4 or 5 prisoners. On one occasion I asked one of the men “Why did Jesus come here?” He looked at me for a second feeling like this question was a set-up (which it was), and answered (knowing it was the right answer, but it would be wrong). He said kind of sheepishly, “to die for our sins?! And I looked him straight in the eye and said “wrong”. That got the attention of everyone at the table and maybe yours too. “Jesus came to be killed for our sins, He didn’t just die; we all will die. Jesus conspired to have the most powerful military force in the world and the most powerful religious leaders kill him, using the devils most powerful weapon, death.” The creator of the entire universe was killed so that we might live. The sinless one took the punishment of our sin for us. When he rose from the dead he showed that he had power over all time, matter and even death.
That is what we see when we look at the Cross. Just like Baptism, the power of the sacrament is not the water, its Christ’s place in it. It’s not the wood, steel or gold that holds the power of the Cross; it’s what happened there that makes the cross important. We as Christians are united by the cross, but more importantly we are united to God by the cross. We understand the voice of God telling us to look to the cross of Jesus. Our message to the unbelieving world is that Jesus work on the cross is not for a select few or to take the joy out of life. Our message is that salvation through Christ is available to everyone, and knowing you are saved brings joy to life; True Joy.
St. Helena may or may not have found the “True Cross”. But our trust is in THEE CROSS.
In the name of our Savior that was killed on that cross, Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.