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“The Message of the Cross”
1 Corinthians 1:18


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday After the Epiphany—January 23, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Every year at Christmastime a small number of atheists and secularists create controversy in our nation about public displays of nativity scenes, Christmas trees, and other Christmas symbols.  This year they took out billboards in several cities, including one in a prominent location in New York City, which proclaimed about the Christmas story, “You Know It’s a Myth.”

It should not surprise us that the world takes that attitude toward Christ, and Christianity, and the teachings of our Christian faith.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way in today’s Epistle Reading, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”

“The Message of the Cross” has two parts, what we call the Law and the Gospel.  As Law, the cross communicates the bad news of our sins.  For, the horror of Christ’s death upon the cross is testimony to the wickedness, the depravity, the sinfulness of all humanity, including you and me.  The Apostle Peter puts it this way, in the first Christian sermon, recorded in the book of Acts: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you, by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him . . .  and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. . .  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart.”

The author of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” served as a missionary in very remote mountain areas of Eastern Europe, where he encountered many people who were hearing the story of Christ’s crucifixion for the first time.  He said he wrote the third verse of his famous hymn based on the reaction many people would have when hearing for the first time about Christ’s crucifixion.  Like the people in Acts, they were often “cut to the heart,” and would cry out and sob over their sins:

But when I think that God, His Son not sparing,

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.

That on the cross my burden gladly bearing

He bled and died to take away my sin.

That is the first reaction God seeks from you with “The Message of the Cross,” an acknowledgement of your own sinfulness.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel Reading, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

But, “The Message of the Cross” is not only, or primarily, a message of the Law, the bad news of our sins.  “The Message of the Cross” is primarily a message of the Gospel, the Good News of your salvation.  Paul puts it this way in Colossians: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God . . .  but now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

That is the Good News of “The Message of the Cross”: Through Christ’s death on the cross, your sins are all forgiven.  On his account, God the Father declares you, “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

We are so accustomed to the cross representing an inspiring, comforting religious symbol, it is hard for us to get back into the mindset of the first century, when for most people the cross was the total opposite of inspiring or comforting, a gruesome method of torture and execution.  As Paul says, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

You’ve heard examples of oxymorons before, a phrase that is an inherent contradiction, like “jumbo shrimp,” “exact estimate,” or “working vacation.”  Some people would say “short sermon” is an oxymoron!

To both Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day, the whole idea of “Christ crucified” was an absolute, nonsensical oxymoron.  Because, the Jews were expecting the Messiah, the Christ, to be a mighty warrior-king, who would overthrow the Romans and establish on earth with military might the greatest kingdom the world had ever seen.  So, “Christ crucified” was an oxymoron to them, a contradiction in terms, like a “powerful weakling” or “pathetic hero.”  “Christ crucified” just didn’t make sense, didn’t seem possible.

The non-Jews also could not accept “Christ crucified,” because in their pagan philosophy and mythology the gods would never allow themselves to suffer so.  The Almighty Creator of the universe dying on a cross?  It was just plain silly.  As the Roman Governor Festus once said to Paul, “You are out of your mind, Paul!  Your great learning is driving you insane.”

An ancient citizen of the Roman Empire transported over the centuries to a modern American city would be absolutely dumbfounded by the large number of impressive buildings that have crosses prominently perched on their steeples.  Why would people put crosses, of all things, on top of these buildings?  The cross atop our bell tower is the highest object towering over our community, and we have both a massive cross and a stained-glass illustration of the crucifixion at the front of our sanctuary.  Why would we commemorate such a horrific event?  Why would we so prominently display this symbol?

“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  But, to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

For us the cross and Christ crucified have been transformed into symbols of hope, forgiveness, and God’s love.  Peter puts it this way, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. . .  he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”

That is why the cross and Christ crucified cross are transformed for us into inspiring, comforting symbols of hope, forgiveness, and God’s love, love so great that he gave up for us his own Son.  As Paul says in Romans, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. . .  Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Amen.

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