5 lessons from the Cross

crucifixWe’re in the middle of the Lenten season, a time when Christ followers reflect on the sacrifice of our Lord.

Isaac Watts in 1707 penned the immortal lyrics to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The first verse reads:

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of glory died;

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

His invitation is fresh today, challenging us to ponder again the meaning of that sacrifice outside Jerusalem’s walls.

What are the lessons of the Cross?

  1. No good deed goes unpunished. Christian do-gooders, beware! There are forces who are invested in the status quo. Shine your light, but don’t be surprised when lots of people would prefer to douse it. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). Some things haven’t changed.
  2. Christianity was never meant to be a feel-good faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s no accident that prosperity preachers rarely feature the Cross prominently in their sanctuaries or sermons. The Cross is a bloody instrument of torture, a reminder of what awaits every person who would follow in the footsteps of the Master.
  3. God doesn’t treat sin lightly. Sin is a tear in the moral fabric of the universe, one that isn’t easily mended. Hebrews 9:22b (ESV) reminds us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” When Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, John cried out: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The severity of sin is underscored by the costly nature of the sacrifice necessary to atone for it.
  4.  Non-resistance is a powerful force. This is the paradox of the Cross. Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to his defense (Matthew 26:53), chose the much more difficult but infinitely more powerful course of non-resistance. It was his chance to practice what he had taught his followers: “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39, NLT). Our instinct is to meet force with force, like Peter who drew his sword and lopped off the ear of Malchus when he came with the soliders to arrest him (John 18:10). Jesus shows us a better way.
  5. Love is stronger than hate. Michael Card poetically asks: “Why did they nail his feet and hands, when his love would have held him there?” This is the most amazing of all spiritual insights at the foot of the Cross. The sacrifice of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love, and not because we earned it. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV, italics added). Perhaps Paul was thinking of the Cross when he wote to the Romans: “Do  not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). In the Cross, we have a picture of God’s love for us, a love that was willing to die that we might live.

These are just a few lessons of the Cross. These lessons are radical in an age when we’ve convinced ourselves that God exists to serve us and not the other way around. May the Cross remind us of the Cause we serve, One far greater than ourselves. May we cherish the promise of the eternal life reserved for those who dare follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

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Is the Cross our ‘Mizpah’? – Gen. 31:49

“Mike,” a friend of mine in the youth group, was head-over-heels in love with “Brenda.” They’d gone out together for several months when Brenda learned that her family was moving out-of-state. Before she left, they went to the mall together and bought his-and-her necklaces. She wore the left side of a jagged heart, and he the right side. Engraved on each of the half-pendants were these words, taken from Gen. 31:49 — “The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (KJV).

Love will do funny things, but it’s doubtful that verse was exactly what they had in mind. In its context, Gen. 31:49 has nothing to do with romance, and everything to do with mistrust. The employer/employee relationship between Laban and his nephew, Jacob, had been anything but positive — see Gen. 29-31 for the whole debacle. Through a series of shrewd flock breeding techniques, Jacob had prospered at Laban’s expense. Jacob took off  in the middle of the night with his own wives, children and flocks, not even saying goodbye, but Laban eventually caught up with him.  That sets the stage for a final confrontation between uncle and nephew. Laban begins:

The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? (v. 43, NRSV).

In short, Laban knows he’s been beat, but he doesn’t trust Jacob any further than he can throw a stone. So he resorts to stones. They cobble together a pile of boulders as a “witness” between them, then share a meal. This pile of rocks is a Mizpah, a “watchpost.” Laban explains:

If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me (v. 50).

Every time Jacob passed by that pile of stones in the future, it would remind him of his promise to be faithful and kind to Leah, Rachel and Laban’s grandchildren.

What Laban and Jacob did on that day was an attempt – however unsuccessful – at reconciliation. In the New Testament, that’s an important theme. If Jesus had died on a pile of stones, like Aslan at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then perhaps we’d have a Mizpah at the front of our churches. But Jesus died on a cross, and so we find pieces of wood hanging there.

Yet the Cross goes far beyond what Laban and Jacob were able to hammer out that day. The Genesis 31 account gives no hint of true reconciliation. They left each other with a cloud of suspicion still hanging over their heads. But at the Cross, we are reconciled to God. When we look at its beams, we are reminded that heaven and earth embraced on a hillside overlooking Jerusalem. The Mizpah of mistrust yields to a different kind of Mizpah, a “watching” motivated not by suspicion but by love.  Jesus promises:  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NIV).

Now that’s the kind of Mizpah we can all celebrate.

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Reflection based on Scripture reading for Day 33, Cambridge Daily Reading Bible, 1995