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Dangerous Unmarked Crossing 
Sunday, March 4, 2007, 08:00 AM - Sermon
Luke 13:31-35

There are a lot of railroad crossings in rural Ohio without warning lights or bells or gates. They look like the picture on the front of our bulletin. Ever been stuck on an unmarked railroad crossing? Stuck in a fire rescue truck? On a hill? With the quarter million engine a few feet behind you? There is a feeling of power looming around you, and suspense of how that power might affect you. And that power, that looming threat of death is marked with a cross.

The cross of Christ is at the heart of our faith, for it is through the Lord's death that we receive new life. The gospel of Christ crucified is a treasure that surpasses the limits of human language, and so the Bible displays a wealth of expression that leads us to thankful knowledge and grateful faith. — Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (lines 117-122)

The cross of Christ is at the heart of our faith, for it is through the Lord's death that we receive new life. The gospel of Christ crucified is a treasure that surpasses the limits of human language, and so the Bible displays a wealth of expression that leads us to thankful knowledge and grateful faith. — Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (lines 117-122)

God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd's life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God's love for humankind. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God's reconciling work [The Confession of 1967, 9.09].

In the scripture, Jesus is warned that his way will lead to death. Yet instead of denying or avoiding the possibility, he decides to go to his death in Jerusalem. What would it be like? Maybe, maybe like a soldier that has had been to Iraq, who has watched his buddies die, being told he was going back to Baghdad. Can you imagine that situation? Can you imagine saying, Yes, I will go, when you don't have to go? We can't fully know then or now what it means to march toward death, to set our face to go to the place where death loom, to sit on the crossing. And there is part of the mystery of the cross.

When we discussed this scripture last Wednesday at our Lent Road Trip to Jerusalem, someone said that mystery was something that wasn't settled. That's an important part of looking at the cross, even after 2000 years, there is still mystery, an unsettledness when we look at the cross. Why is it necessary? Why did Jesus have to die?

How and why the cross works is called atonement — an invented word that literally means “at one” and more generically as “peace” or “agreement”. Somehow the cross brings us together with God, makes us one, erases the gap betweens us and salvation, establishes peace between humankind and God. Now there are many theories about how this works, but all Christians are agreed that it does work. Time magazine had a special issue on the brain:
The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation….why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience…The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

We don't know how to explain consciousness based on the brain but we know it is in there somewhere.

So we use allegories or metaphors to approach the mystery of atonement, of the saving work of the cross. From a feudal understanding of debts of honor and repayment by vassals to lords came the explanation that Jesus Christ's death on the cross was a substitute for our death, a payment for our sins, a way to make God's law and love balance out. These types of explanations focus on forgiveness. You hear words swirling around ransom, redemption and reconciliation. Everyone affirms that somehow Jesus death is tied to the depth of human sinfulness and somehow it makes forgiveness real, but to reduce the cross to balancing a math equation or clearing an accounting transaction has it shortcomings, including making God seem cruel and even wicked to require the innocent to suffer to bring about forgiveness. Is that our God? Remember mystery is at the base of the cross.

Alongside of forgiveness, is one that might be a little foreign to our tradition, one of inspiration. This is usually moral influence or inspiration, we see this in our scripture today. Jesus is told: “Stop what you are doing or Herod will kill you”; compromise or the cross is presented to Christ and he chooses the cross. Just so, we should, as followers of Jesus take up our cross and follow him. The idea of the cross then is that since Jesus suffered and died for us, how much should we be able to do for him? I hear this understanding echo when folks make excuses for not coming to worship or some other spiritual service or discipline. Jesus died on the cross but you can't ___________ (fill in the blank.)

Some object to this understanding because is an extreme example and seems to make violence and torture necessary for inspiration for goodness and love. The Passion of the Christ while viewed by some as an devotional classic is seen by many as a orgy of violence and gore without redeeming value.

The third major understanding of why the cross, or atonement, is revelation. When humanity in spite of all our sin and rebellion asked God how much God loved us, God said, “This much” and spread out his arms and died. The cross shows there is no where you can go that God will not be with you. There is no pain, no evil, no hopeless situation that God has not been, no where you can go that God is not with you. The cross shows that evil has real horrifying power, but God has real love for us. When God says, “I feel your pain” it isn't a gimmick, he has borne all the pain and evil this world can dish out, yet still loves the world and us.

There are those who reject this understanding, looking toward the resurrection of Easter Sunday instead of the crucifixion on Friday. They would have an empty tomb, perhaps a washer like medal, a circle with a hole through it, as the symbol of the power and love of God rather than a instrument of execution and torture.

So, the cross atones for us. It brings us to God across the gulf of sin that separates us from God. It redeems our past with forgiveness, it sanctifies our present with inspiration to do good and to be better, and it assures our future that nothing nowhere can separate us from the redeeming power of God's love. With forgiveness our sinful past, sanctification of our faithful present, and assurance of God with us in the future; we are saved by the cross.

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