The Cross: The Hidden Face of God
Lent 3A I Corinthians 1:18
Epiphany 3A I Corinthians 1:10-18
Epiphany 4A I Corinthians 1:18-31
Holy Cross I Corinthians 1:18-24, John 3:13-17
Lent 2B Mark 8:31-38 (the cross)
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
My first memory of the cross is as a boy growing up in Jackson, Minnesota. Jackson, Minnesota is my hometown. It is located in southwestern Minnesota, six miles from the Iowa border. It is a farm town of three thousand people. That little farm town shaped my life in my formative years. I loved that city. In fact, I often wish my children could grow up in a similar kind of quiet rural community.
Jackson, Minnesota, is located in the bottom of a valley. Imagine a bowl (like you were having a bowl of cereal) and down in the bottom of that bowl is our little community. As you approached our city from the north on Highway 71, you came to the brink of a high hill, the edge of the bowl. Just as you were at the brink of that hilltop, you have this breath-taking panoramic view of the city below. And at night, as I remember, it was absolutely gorgeous. You could see all the lights of our little city, down there in the bowl beneath you.
The following story, like so many stories, is a blend of fact, fiction and caricature. In 1955, the evening skyline changed. The Methodists started to build a gorgeous new church on the east side of town. It was the most lavish building that Jackson had ever seen. These Methodist farmers were rather wealthy, and they could afford a big church. There on the top of that beautiful new Methodist Church was a gigantic slender spire, and on the top of that tall steeple was this inspiring cross. Sleek, slender, beautiful. It was also decorated with a pink neon light. And so this pink cross could be seen against the evening sky; a new bright, crimson evening star. As I recall, it was given by a wealthy farmer who had pink carpet in his living room. And in the eyes of many people, that sleek, slender, pink cross was absolutely gorgeous as you came driving into town at night. And most importantly, when all the truck drivers came driving into Jackson at
midnight, as they came to the crest of that big hill outside of town, their lives were touched; their lives were inspired by that pink Methodist Church cross silhouetting its simple beauty across the evening sky.
Well, needless to say, the Lutherans felt a little uncomfortable with the pink Methodist cross. They didn’t say it openly, but the feeling was there. They didn’t want to be a step behind the Methodists in witnessing to the truck drivers, and these Norwegian Lutherans wanted all of the world to know, and especially the truck drivers, that they too were witnessing Christians. And soon the Lutherans were designing a new cross for their church steeple. They had a problem. Their steeple wasn’t as high as the Methodist’s. They had to solve that problem. Something had to be done, so the Lutherans created a wide, stout cross. It was bold and solid like we Lutherans are supposed to be, white and pure in color. This new cross was flooded with the brightest lights so that it could be seen for miles at night. And so when the truck drivers came driving into Jackson, Minnesota, in the evening, they now had two crosses to inspire them - the pink cross of the Methodists to the east, and the Lutheran cross in the center of the city.
But unfortunately, as you have perhaps figured out by now, the Roman Catholics didn’t want to be outdone. And the Roman Catholics were on the far west side of town. They needed a new church, and they, too, needed a new spire, and they definitely needed a new cross. And soon, there were three beautiful crosses dotting the evening skyline; just like at Calvary: one, two, three. And importantly, most importantly, the Lutheran cross was the center one, the middle one, the solid one, on which Jesus died (so all the Lutherans quietly told themselves, but no one else). And such was my first and fond memory of the cross; the emblem, the pink emblem of Jesus silhouetting himself on the sky.
The cross is and always has been the primary symbol of the Christian faith. Humorously, sometimes, made out of Popsicle sticks, egg cartons, and plastic; lovingly covered with yellow sequins, glittering gold, Pepsi bottle caps, and neon lights. And it is found on dashboard, chimneys, water towers, desks, earlobes, and bosoms. And regardless of all the sizes and shapes; and regardless of all the colors, commercialization, and corniness, no other symbol has so captured the imagination of Christians as the cross. For us Christians, no other symbol illustrates what it means to be a Christian. No other symbol so clearly illustrates for us the love of God; the breadth, length, height, and depth of his compassion.
And this symbol, more than any other, is the window through which we can look to see the face of God himself. What does God look like? Can you tell me what God looks like? Can you tell me what his face resembles? Look through the cross and you will be able to see the presence of God face to face. And that is what I would like to talk with you about today: God’s face as seen through the window of the cross.
When you look through the window of the cross into the face of God, what kind of face to you see?
You see the face of a passionate lover, one who loves his beloved passionately. His feelings are filled with intensity and emotion, for the face of God is the face of a passionate lover.
And what immediately comes to your mind when you think of the phrase, “passionate lover”? Do you not think of a large movie screen with a face of a famous lover? From movies of yester year, you may think of the face of Rudy Valentino or Clark Gable. Or from yesterday, the faces of Sean Connery or Robert Redford. Or from today, the faces of who knows whom? When you think of a passionate lover, you think of a face of a famous romantic symbol from American movies.
Or when you think of a passionate lover, you may visualize one of those passionate love scenes in the movies, when a kiss between and man and woman goes on breathlessly, on and on and on. When we think of the phrase “passionate lover” we usually think of a love scene at the movies.
But I am using the word, “passionate” very carefully. If you go home and look up in your sermons, the Latin word, “passion” means suffering. If you go home and look up the word “passion” in your dictionary, you will discover that it primarily means suffering. The word “passion” does not refer to some madly intense, French kissing, slobbering, breathlessly clutching, sex scene that has little or nothing to do with passionate love. That has to do with sex. If you go home and look up in your dictionary what the word “passion” means, you will discover that passion has nothing to do with breathlessness. Passion means suffering. And today we are talking about the passion story, the suffering story of God on the cross.
And God is a passionate lover, a lover who passionately loves and suffers in pain with us. He loves us with complete abandonment, taking our pain upon his shoulders, and it is only through the window of the cross that we see the face of God, face to face. His face is the face of a passionate lover and not that of a movie star.
Let me explain. Let me illustrate by three simple stories. One time long ago, our family was watching a television show. We were watching “The Waltons”, and were sitting with our two young children on the sofa. We were huddled up together and feeling cozy. As usual in “the Waltons”, there was not only one plot but several subplots. And all the plots revolved around war, about sons going and dying in war. Mrs. Walton’s son, Jason, the red-haired boy who plays the guitar, wanted to enlist in the National Guard. This was the time of Hitler, and World War II was just to begin. Mrs. Walton did not want her son, Jason, to enlist in the Guard because she was sure that her son was going to be killed in battle. There was a gripping, touching scene between Mr. And Mrs. Walton where Mrs. Walton was recalling when she gave birth to all four of her sons, how she prayed that all four would be girls because she didn’t want to go through the agony of sending her sons to war. She didn’t want those kinds of feelings because she knew if Jason was killed, his death would be her death, and his pain would be her pain. She so closely identified with him, and she knew her heart would break.
Meanwhile, my little son, Joel, who is five years old, was sitting there snuggling in his daddy’s lap, his blonde hair and his blue eyes not comprehending what Mrs. Walton was talking about. He had no idea, but I knew. I knew what it would feel like, and my mind started to run fifteen years into the future. There would be another world war, and my only boy would be called up. Feeling the future and seeing my little boy someday having to die for our nation, my heart started to ache. I didn’t like the thought of offering my son as a sacrifice for our country. I wanted to teach him to be a pacifist. I didn’t want to offer my son as a sacrifice, yet I knew I may have to someday. Some of you people have already painfully offered your son as a sacrifice for our nation. It hurts like hell.
The other day, I was talking to two fathers in our congregation about their sons being in the military right now, and the real prospect that their sons might die in this war in Iraq. I didn’t bring the topic up. Both fathers did. And these fathers were contemplating what it would mean for them to sacrifice their sons for the good of the nation. Those fathers’ hearts were aching as they grieved the possible loss of their sons.
And such was the passionate love of God for us. His love for us was that he was willing to give up his Son for us. That is the passionate love of God, that he was willing to sacrifice his Son on the cross for you and me. And God loved his little boy just as much as all of you parents love your sons and daughters. God loved his little boy just as much as any parent loves their son or daughter. And the heart of God was breaking, as he saw his Son suffer and die on the cross. A parent suffers with a child. A parent dies with his child.
And God is a passionate lover, and the word “passionate” means suffering, and the one who suffers with us and for us. It is only through the cross that you see the face of God as the passionate lover, the one who suffers. A passionate lover is not a movie star at all.
Let me give you another example, a stereotype, but a true story from my life. It’s about a fiend of mine. I will call him Jack. I knew Jack back in Madison, Wisconsin, years ago. I was working there in as a youth director in a church, and Jack was a member of this congregation. He was a great kid, a fine young man. He was a gifted athlete and held the high school track record in the 440 dash. I loved and admired young Jack. I moved away from Madison, and Jack joined the Marines. He went to Vietnam. In 1966, a grenade was tossed into a group of young men who were in a foxhole together. Jack instinctively dived onto that grenade and was blown to bits. He was killed instantly, and thereby some of his friends are living today. Jack voluntarily gave his life that others might live. And such was his love for others. I saw his mother afterwards at the funeral. She wished her son wouldn’t have done that. Her heart was breaking because of what her son had done. And such is passionate love. It is a love which is willing to die for others. The few times that I have been in Washington, D.C., I always visit the Viet Nam memorial and look up the name of Jack and stand before that long, black wall remember “this kid” from long ago and grieve.
The face of God is the face of a passionate lover. And likewise, the face of Jesus, who was the spitting image of his Father: Jesus, volunteering to die on the cross in our place. Jesus, jumping on a grenade that you and I might live, paying the price for us. Like Father, like Son. Both are passionate lovers. They are not French-kissing movie stars at all.
Or, to give you another example. My cousin, Lois, died of cancer. She was a young woman, about my age, and she died of bone cancer at the age of thirty-five. I will never forget my last visit with her. She was sitting in her living room, looking down on Lake Oswego in Oregon. I will never forget my last visit with her, nor will I forget afterwards when I went into the kitchen with her mother. When the door was closed, and we were out of earshot of Lois, my Aunt Annie said to me, “If only I could die for her. Why can’t I die? I am the one who is old. Why can’t I die?” And that was the prayer of a mother, that she could die in her daughter’s place. As I came driving home from Oregon that night, thinking about what had happened, I thought about my mother and father. And if I would have been on that bed dying instead of Lois, I know that my mother and father, would have been out in the kitchen wanting to die instead of me. And then I reflected on my own children. If they were sick and dying, that would have been my prayer: “Father, take me. Don’t let Anne Die. Don’t let Joel die. Don’t let Nathan die. Take me, Father, not them.” Such is the love of the heavenly Father for us. It’s a passionate love; a love which suffers with us and for us and instead of us. It’s truly a passionate love, not the love of some passion scene in a movie.
And you see this passionate love of God only through the window of the cross. Oh, I know, you see the face of God elsewhere. There are other places where you can look and see the face of God. There are other places. You can look into the brightness of the sun, and you will see God’s face of energy and power. Or, you can look to the infinity and endlessness of space with your telescope, and as you look out into the endlessness of space, you will see God’s eyes and eternity. Or, you can look at the complexity of nature as you take your microscope and see molecules bouncing intricately back and forth. You can see the face of God in all these places. But it is only through the window of the cross that you can see the face of a passionate lover; a passionate lover who suffers with us, for us, and instead of us. You can see that face of God only through the window of the cross.
It is the nature of this passionate lover to keep on loving you, no matter what. There is one thing that you cannot do: You cannot stop God from loving you. You can stop God from doing many things, but you cannot stop God from passionately loving you. If you want to keep the sun away from you face, you merely pull down the blinds and close the drapes, but you cannot stop the sun from shining. Likewise, you cannot stop the love of God from shining on your life and mine. You can pull down the shades, close the drapes, and try to blot it out, but you cannot stop the sunlight of God’s passionate love from shining on you. You cannot stop God from loving you. It is an impossibility, any more than you can stop the sun from shining.
Or God’s passionate love is like the mighty waters of the Mississippi River. You may not want to drink from the water. You may not want to harness it’s energy. You may not want to go boating on it, but you cannot stop the mighty Mississippi from flowing. Nor, can you stop God’s love from flowing into your life. For that is the nature of a passionate lover: He cannot stop loving you. That is one thing that God cannot stop doing. Believe it or not, he cannot stop loving your life.
God is that passionate lover who woos you into loving him. He doesn’t force you to love him by means of his raw power. He doesn’t command you to love him as a dictator commands obedience. He doesn’t bribe you into loving him by giving you what you want or what you think you need. He simply woos you into loving him by dying on the cross for you. He suffers with you, in you, and for you.
And just “what if” this is true? What if it’s true that the face of God is in the face of the cross? What if it’s true that the very nature of the universe is not only energy, not only intelligence, not only power; but what if it’s true that the nature of the universe is a passionate lover? What if it’s true? That this love is not some religious ideal or pretty philosophical speculation? But what if it’s true? What if it’s true that God is a passionate lover? What difference would that make to you? What difference would that make to your life, if you knew for sure that God was such a lover? Would you not love him back? Would not love God in return? Would you not respond to him, wanting to love him as he loved you? Is not such love irresistible? Can a child resist such passionate love from his mother or father? Can a child resist such love?
Unfortunately, yes. A husband can passionately love his wife, and she not respond. And a mother can passionately love her child and her child not love back. And it is possible for God the Heavenly Father to passionately love us, his children, and for us not to love him in return. We can simply forget him, ignore him, or resist him. We can live as if the sunshine of his love is not beaming upon us. For God does not coerce, God does not command, and God does not bribe. God simply suffers and dies for you, me, and the whole world.
It’s in the cross, that symbol which pictures the hidden face of God. And what is the cross for me? The cross for me is the little pink neon light that is gracing the Methodist cathedral in Jackson, Minnesota. And what is the cross for me? It is that simply silver cross that I gave to my wife on our wedding day. And what is the cross to me? It is two nails soldered together, hanging on my office wall. And what is the cross for me? It is that brass symbol of the cross that hangs on my key chain, that brass symbol that has been worn smooth by me touching it every single day of my life. And what is the cross to me? It is a simple reminder of the passion, of the passionate love of a lover, of the passionate love of the Heavenly Father who loves his children, and who loves you and me, a passionate lover who cannot stop loving us. Amen.
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