"Lifting High Offense, Lifting High the Cross"
Holy Cross Day (transferred)
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
September 12 2006
Pastoral Conference of the Columbus Circuit, Indiana District LCMS
IN NOMINE JESU
Today we are celebrating the most offensive symbol in the history of mankind. It is not the peace symbol. It is not the swastika. It is the cross. The cross. The cross. This is offensive [pointing to cross in chancel window]. This is also offensive [pointing to processional cross]. We are surrounded by offensive images. As you look at the hymnal you are using today, most of you will see a cross on its cover. The banners that you see today are offensive; each banner has a cross depicted on it. My attire is offensive. I am wearing a pectoral crucifix, and there are crosses on my stole. We tend to think of ourselves as a good-hearted and loving bunch; yet we are celebrating something reviled by the world over. We are celebrating the cross because, to those who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, it is the most beautiful sight we have ever seen. It is beautiful, not because it has great artistic value, but what happened on the cross 2000 years ago has great salvific value; that is to say, the events of Good Friday, culminating with the crucifixion of Christ, means everything to our souls. Today is a celebration, for today we celebrate a feast that falls on Thursday, Holy Cross Day, also known as the Triumph of the Cross.
To more fully understand the history of this festal day, let us go back to the fourth century. The Roman emperor was Constantine, who in 313 became a Christian and legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. His mother, Helena, went to Israel to find sites of great importance to the newly-legalized religion. She was aided in her quest by pagan shrines that the Romans erected over "Christian" sites two centuries earlier. It has been reported that, on this date in 320, Helena found what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and Burial of our Lord. Fifteen years later on this date, September 14, 335, on these sites a church building was consecrated for use by the faithful. The next day Helena brought out the cross she reportedly discovered for adoration by the faithful. The events of this day in 335 formed the basis for an annual commemoration not appropriate for Good Friday, and evidence is given for this in Constantinople (in present-day Turkey) in the fifth century and in Rome by the seventh century. On that date the churches in Constantinople, Rome, and Jerusalem that had a relic of the cross would show it to their congregations in a solemn rite called the Exaltation of the Cross; they would lift high the cross.
This is what we are doing today. We lift high the cross in our preaching and teaching. It is not merely the cross we lift high, but we lift high the message of the cross: we lift high the Gospel for all to hear. We sang in the refrain of our Processional Hymn, "Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim Till all the world adore His sacred Name." Yes, we proclaim the Gospel for all people to hear, that all people at all times and in all places would confess the Name of Jesus Christ into all eternity.
Yet, not everyone has heard the preaching of the cross, and not everyone who has heard the preaching of the cross has believed it. This is why the cross is offensive. The cross is offensive because the Gospel is offensive. More literally, the preaching of the cross is scandalous. It is a message that kills the unbeliever. In the most literal sense of the word scandal, which comes directly from the Greek, the scandal was the stick used to prop open a trap. When an animal tripped the stick and sprang the trap, it would become scandalized, fatally ensnared. It would bleed to death, unable to free itself. This is what happens to someone who hears the preaching of the cross and is offended by it, considering it foolishness. The unbeliever is caught in his own trap, the religion of the Law, the religion of works. This is the same trap that scandalizes us. We who believe we are good-hearted and loving are in reality hard-hearted and loathsome toward the preaching of the cross. We think it is foolishness. We want to hear something better. Instead of singing, "In the cross of Christ I glory," we would rather sing, "Give me that old-time religion," a religion that is all works-oriented. This so-called "old-time religion" has been a plague upon the American landscape for over 150 years. It is a plague that eats away at our souls because its basic tenet is that we can get to heaven if we are good enough, if we have performed enough good works. This is offensive to Christ, for this false teaching seeks to rob the cross of its power, desiring to reduce the work of Christ the crucified to a nice story. We think we are wise, looking for something greater. But we are made foolish by the foolishness of the preaching of the cross, for it is how the Triune God in His far superior and infinite wisdom communicates His Word and His will to us. But, rather than looking to God's Word, we look to ourselves, looking for a sign outside the divinely-ordained signs of God's grace: His Word and Sacraments. We are offended at such ordinary words and ordinary elements, and God is extraordinarily offended at us.
We live in an increasingly intolerant and hostile society that is also offended by the cross. The world has no use for the cross, except to wear as jewelry. Even then offense is taken. A few years ago a teacher was fired from her school because she, a Christian, wore a cross pendant as a witness to her faith. She was not telling her students to believe in Christ, but she merely wore this piece of jewelry and was fired for it. The judge handling the case, in his wisdom, restored her to her teaching position. The world wishes that Jesus Christ had remained in the tomb, for the world does not want to accept the reality that Jesus Christ, by His death and resurrection, showed Himself the only Way, Truth, and Life. The world considers it foolishness that one Man would be the only Way to heaven and seeks to kill Him again, as if that could be possible. So the wise, the scribes, and the debaters in this world put forth false gods. Yet their gods are only henchmen for the devil. Mohammed did not die for you. Buddha is still dead. Vishnu has not risen from the dead. It is even more offensive for us who believe, teach, and confess Christ crucified to witness a called and ordained servant of the Word inviting thousands of people of different faiths, Christians and non-Christians alike, to pray together, which a district president in our Synod did five years ago this month in Yankee Stadium, jeopardizing countless souls by asking them to pray to false gods, to any god they chose. He, like you and I, vowed to renounce such practices; yet his heart gave way to the so-called "American civil religion," one that seeks to empty the cross of its power and render the preaching of the cross foolishness. It reduces the Triune God to merely one of many gods. It is not OK for non-Christians to pray to the Triune God; their prayers will not be heard because they reject the word of the cross.
Despite the best efforts of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, the cross is still the enduring symbol of the hope that we have, the hope that is ours in Christ. Our hope endures, for the preaching of the cross has endured for 2000 years. This preaching has endured since Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame. He endured by being obedient unto death, even death on the cross. The cross. The cross. Jesus, the holy One, became the lowly One for us and was lifted up on the cross, as the bronze serpent was lifted up on the pole in Moses' day. The Israelites were punished for their rebellion, being bitten by snakes. God commended Moses to erect a bronze serpent on a pole, and all who looked to it would live. The Word who became flesh was lifted up on the cross, and all who look to Christ the crucified receive forgiveness of all their sins.
Look at the cross and remember what the Lord won there for you: the forgiveness of sins. Jesus paid the entire debt of your sins. Your slate has been wiped clean by the blood of Jesus. Your heavenly Father sees you through His only-begotten Son's blood and declares you righteous for Jesus' sake, for the very life He gave on the cross. The cross. The cross. That is the reason for our joy. This is why the cross is so beautiful to us! It is important, though, that we not remain stationary at the cross. We dare not cling to the old rugged cross because our Lord is no longer there. After He died, His body, once lifted up, was taken down and laid in the tomb. We hasten early to the tomb and see where our Lord once lay. Yet we do not remain there, either, for His body is no longer there as well. He is not there. He is risen! The cross could not hold Him. The tomb could not contain Him. Death has no power over Him. Had Christ, who once was slain, not burst His three-day prison, our faith would be in vain. But now is Christ arisen! The resurrection of our Lord gives the preaching of the cross its power, and it is power for us who are being saved, as St. Paul tells us in our text. This message is offensive to the devil and our sinful world. It is sheer foolishness to them who are perishing. But for us...we are being saved through the apostolic preaching of the cross. We cherish the preaching of the cross, but we do not remain at the cross because God does not offer His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation from the cross. Our Lord won our forgiveness there, but we, by the Holy Spirit, look to the font, pulpit, and altar, where our Lord gives His gifts to us.
While we do not cling to the old rugged cross, we lift high the cross, thanking our Lord for winning our forgiveness there. We lift high the cross to tell others what He has done. We lift high the cross since we are marked with the sign of the cross, for we and all newborn soldiers of the Crucified bear on their brows the seal of Him who died. We bear on our brows and on our hearts the sign of the cross that marks us as redeemed by Christ the crucified. We have borne the sign of the cross from the day of our Baptism, where we became children of God, where our God, the one true God, has given us His forgiveness, as He continues to give to us through absolution and preaching, body and blood. We lift high the cross as we bear the sign of the cross on our brows, telling others the message of the cross, so that they too, by the Holy Spirit, would no longer be offendedóscandalizedóbut set free to be people of God, that they too would receive the gifts the Lord won on the cross and gives in His Word and Sacraments. This is the true old-time religion, for our Lord presents His truth to us in His Word, the word of the cross. The cross. The cross. This is the message I preach, the word you also preach, brethren, the good news we tell others. We are a Good Friday people, for without our Lord's all-atoning work on the cross for us, there would be no Easter. The story continues; it continues to be told, told to all corners of the earth. As we sang in the Processional Hymn, "Lift High the cross, the love of Christ proclaim Till all the world adore His sacred Name. O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, As Thou hast promised, draw us all to Thee. Lift high the cross...." The cross. The cross. To aid us in this great task, our Lord will place His Trinitarian Name upon us, the Name into which we became baptized. With this Name we will receive the sign of the cross to remind us of His great love for us and for all the world, that we may all adore His sacred Name. This is the great Triumph of the Cross, that we will live into all eternity with Christ the crucified...and risen!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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