The Wait of the Cross

The Wait of the Cross

Grace United Methodist Church

Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2010

Mark 8: 31-37

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Perhaps you have noticed in our modern world an unhealthy preoccupation with beauty. Of course, there are the obvious signs; like the fact that already pictures of seemingly beautiful models are touched up and airbrushed before they go to print so that the models are not just beautiful, but perfectly beautiful. Then there’s this tendency to not even be content with the clothes that we wear (which of course must be the latest and greatest in fashion trends), but we must “accessorize” as well with tasteful sunglasses or an oversized purse or expensive jewelry. And speaking of jewelry, how about the cross; those beautiful diamond-studded cross necklaces that so many of us wear? Or perhaps some of us have a cross hanging on our charm bracelets. Now think of all the crosses that we have around our churches. In my office alone, I have seven depictions of the cross. We have shiny brass crosses and wooden crosses that are simple yet beautiful. One of the crosses on my desk is a Waterford crystal cross that a distant relative gave to me when I was Ordained several months ago.

The cross is the defining symbol of Christianity, recognized by people around the world in connection with Jesus Christ. And the cross is a reminder to us of God’s love as shown in the sacrifice of his Son. But we have made even the cross a solely beautiful thing; focusing on the sign of love, and forgetting about the symbolism of great sacrifice. Carl Henry once said, “The transformation of the bloodstained wooden cross of Calvary to the diamond studded gold cross of a cathedral may well signify humankind’s attempt to remove the offense of the cross.” Because, in all reality, the cross is not a beautiful symbol, and it especially wasn’t in Jesus’ time. The cross pointed to death, but not just any death; a brutal, ugly death. The cross of Jesus’ day was rough, terrible, and horrific. This is the message that Mark brings before us this evening. The way of the cross, the way of Christ, is no easy path!

But how can we follow the true path of the cross when even in the day-to-day workings of our lives, we try to make things “easier?” We go to great lengths to “gloss over” the difficult circumstances in our lives and to “prettify” the rough places just as we try to beautify our looks. We cover financial difficulties by running up credit card bills. We drown our sorrows in a plethora of addictive behaviors that provide only temporary relief. We hide in the darkness of illness or depression, unable to admit our fear. And we do all of this because “image” is so important; because things must always be beautiful and perfect.

Then we try and make the way of the cross easy. The word “cross,” in its truest sense is a difficult word to face; this is what Jesus is trying so desperately to drive home to Peter and the other disciples in this passage from Mark. In Christianity, we tend to misuse the word “cross” more than any other in our vocabulary. We have given the name cross to many things that are not a cross at all in the truly Christian sense of the word. We talk about “calamity” as a cross we must bear. But calamity is not a cross; though indeed, it may be a tragedy. We speak of sorrow or loss as a cross. These are often heavy burdens, but they are not necessarily a cross. We even speak of our own shortcomings – uncontrolled anger, impatience, insensitivity – as a cross we must carry. The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this, “If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life…But [the notion of suffering] has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.[1] Taking up the cross is not about patiently enduring what happens to us; while this is a great virtue, “taking up the cross” is about making a conscious decision.

You see; the cross for Jesus was a deliberate choice. It was Jesus admitting and showing that things are not always pretty. The cross was Jesus’ “yes” as he gave his life a ransom for many. The cross was Jesus’ conscious decision to minister to people’s need for the truth about God, their need for love, no matter what it might cost. And so it should be for each of us. Taking up a cross for the disciple means making a deliberate choice to face something that could be avoided; to take up willingly a burden which we are under no compulsion to take up, except the compulsion of God’s love in Christ.[2] “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.” By choosing the sacrificial path of Christ, we are freed from the suffering of this world. Such conscious decisions to bear burdens are not easy; and as we follow through with these choices, we find that they are not beautiful or glamorous either. This is what we remember on this day and during the 40 days of Lent; the ashes remind us of the “dirtiness” of the way of the cross.

Indeed, this is not the way we want things to be. Remember, we always prefer things to be pretty and perfect. But if we live always thinking only of our own gain, ease, comfort, and security; if our single aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible; if we make no effort except for ourselves; then, we are losing life all the time, and not in a good way! When we chose the way of the cross, when we chose to live our lives for others and to do something great for Jesus; though it may entail agony, we will be winning all the time!

We do not want to have to suffer and agonize, but through the suffering, we come to know the glory of the gospel in a much fuller and richer sense as Easter day dawns. Really, the suffering and the glory are inseparable. If Jesus had not chosen the way of suffering, enduring the cross, his life would have had little to say to people living in a world full of agony and suffering. Without the sacrifice, Jesus’ salvation would be empty in the face of evil. “His hands have been strong to save because they were scarred hands.”[3] If we are to follow Christ, to truly be his disciples, then we too must make such sacrifices. Peter protested this idea, and we often do too. Yet such protest shows our unwillingness to suffer, and that means evil gains a foothold and tries to tear the Church away from the cross of our Lord.[4] So, it is absolutely necessary that we always remember what Jesus tells Peter, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We have to take off the “bling.” We have to lay aside our longing for glitz and glamour, and we have to plunge our hands into the dirtiness of this “cross business.”

The great preacher, Fred Craddock, shares a powerful reminder of what it is to bear the true burden of the cross. He says, “We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table—‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that Christ sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting 25 cents here and 50 cents there…Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.”

As we follow Christ and give of ourselves in these “little acts of love” throughout our lives, we will find that we are not always recognized and praised for the work we do, nor will it always be easy. We will experience both the joys and the sorrows of the journey. “Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk.”[5] And yet, as followers of Christ, as disciples of Christ, this is nothing less than what is expected of each of us; giving all of ourselves all the time. And like Christ, we must walk sacrificially straight into this “danger and risk.”

This is what we practice during the season of Lent; this is what Lent is about. Lent is about denying ourselves as Christ did. Lent is about bearing the weight of the cross and acknowledging the difficulties of the way of Christ. Lent is about wearing the mark of the ashes and getting our hands dirty serving in the name of Christ. Lent is about making a conscious and willing choice to bear a burden that we do not have to bear. Lent is about putting our selfish desires aside and taking up the cross of Christ. Lent is about really learning to follow Jesus Christ; in the joys and the sorrows, the victories and the defeats. And we take on this yoke because this is the way that evil is overcome. We walk with Jesus through the pain and suffering because in that walk, we are brought through to the other side of suffering. In suffering with Christ, we are enabled to appreciate and celebrate more fully the defeat of death, the resurrection life of Easter morning. We join Christ in this journey because with Christ, we have find hope even amid challenge.

Tonight, we will leave this place with the sign of the cross marked on our forehead in ashes. Unlike the beautiful decorative crosses that are around us in church and home, the cross of ash is dirty and ugly. The ashes remind us of our need to repent, to lay aside ourselves and all that hinders us so that we might more fully follow Christ. The ashes, as with the cross itself, also remind us that this is a “dirty” business; a tough calling that entails suffering willingly borne. But will the cross be that for you this Lent and beyond? Or will the ash-drawn cross on your forehead just be a reminder that you can’t each chocolate or drink soda or watch TV? The choice is yours, ours; and it is a choice. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let us choose willingly to wear this cross and to bear the burden of sacrifice just as Christ himself did. Amen.

Let us pray: O God, help us to do better in giving everything over to You. Help us to give our lives for others and to bear Your Cross. Move us far beyond the striving for things for ourselves to a life of concern for other people. And when the call for sacrifice comes, let us accept it with grateful hearts. In Jesus’ name and for His sake we pray. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan Publishing, Inc., 1963), 98.

[2] Halford E. Luccock, “The Gospel According to St. Mark” in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), 771.

[3] Ibid., 768.

[4] Bonhoeffer, 96.

[5] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 112.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s