Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon: "A Sign Unto You: The Cross", Numbers 21:4-9/John 3:14-16/Mark 8:31-38 (February 18, 2018)


Sermon video here.

(This sermon was the first in our Lenten sermon series, "A Sign Unto You", where we'll be talking about the prominent symbols of our faith and how they help--or hinder--our ability to see Christ.)


Here we are again at the beginning of Lent. Purple paraments, repentant reflection, and a new sermon series: a sign unto you. Over the next six weeks, we’ll be looking more closely at the signs and symbols of our faith, considering together how they help or hinder our ability to see Christ. It’s so easy to embrace symbols without putting a lot of thought into what they really stand for, isn’t it? It’s one thing when the symbols are just literary metaphors in high school English class (does anyone actually remember what Moby Dick was supposed to be about, anyway?) but when they inform our faith—the lens through which we understand the world around us—it becomes a lot more important to pay attention.

You may be saying, “But Katey, we DO know what our symbols stand for! That’s the whole reason we have them displayed prominently in the sanctuary!” To that I say, “We may THINK we know what they stand for, but few symbols are as simple as we believe them to be.” There are often layers of meaning that we’re completely unaware of. It can be difficult to recognize this fact when the symbols at stake are so near and dear to our hearts and identities. Maybe, then, it would be helpful to start with an example a little less spiritually loaded before we jump into more holy matters.

When my friends and I were bored in college, we used to talk about tattoos and what we’d have inked if we ever decided to go under the needle. Since God was such an important part of my life, I decided that I wanted to have the Chinese character meaning “faith” tattooed on my ankle. I was perfectly content with this plan for a long time, and nobody seemed to find it strange, until one day someone asked me, “So who in your family is Chinese?” Um…no one. “Oh, well, do you speak Chinese, then?” …No, I don’t. “Is there something about Chinese culture that relates to your faith?” Well, no, not really. “Then why on earth would that be the tattoo that you choose?”

I was speechless. Up until that point, all I had considered about my brilliant tattoo design was its literal meaning (and how cool it would look cool, of course). I’d completely overlooked its context and the fact that it might have significance beyond the part that was meaningful to me. For whatever reason, I’d chosen to ignore the aspects of the symbol that were arguably more central to its character than the parts I’d embraced. I was astounded at my own blindness.

Needless to say, I never did get that tattoo.

When we adopt a symbol as our own, we should remember that it doesn’t exist in the vacuum of our personal experiences and preferences. We need to think about all parts of it, not just the parts that we’re comfortable with. And there are few places in the Christian tradition that we struggle with this more than with the cross. If you’re skeptical—if you think that you embrace the full symbolism of the cross at all times—answer me this: what are the first things that come to mind when you see a cross? Gratitude? Love? Peace? Comfort? Me too. But what about mortality? What about violence? Suffering? Destruction? Cruelty?

In Jesus’ day, the cross was far from a symbol of peace or love. It was an instrument of subjugation, torture, and death. It was a way for the Roman empire to crush their opposition beyond any hope of ideological survival. It was a symbol of violence and oppression that meant terror, despair, and powerlessness for the Jewish people. It was a reminder that hope only existed insofar as the Roman Empire allowed it to exist. And when Jesus hung dying on the cross, its meaning would’ve been violently clear to his followers.

And yet, God has a magnificent way of turning the world on its head. God takes death and destruction and is able to make it work for good. The Israelites are witnesses to this during their journey in the wilderness: their poisonous criticisms of God and Moses provoke lethal snakebites, but God takes the very instrument of their destruction—the serpent—and lifts it up as a source for healing. Centuries later, when Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee in John’s gospel, he alludes to the fact that the very same thing would happen with the Son of Man. For, according to John 3:16, this is the way that God loves: he gives his son up to an instrument of death, so that everyone who believes in him may not be destroyed by death but may have eternal life.[1] God is in the business of taking that which is deadly and making it life-giving: God doesn’t love IN SPITE OF the cross; God loves us THROUGH the cross.

(As an aside: please note that I didn’t say God makes bad INTO good, or that God makes the bad cease to exist. There will always be darkness that we must endure, but God’s love ensures that the darkness ultimately will not overcome the light.)

Yes, the cross has gained new meaning through Christ, but it hasn’t lost the old meaning. In fact, its new meaning relies entirely on the old. There can’t be resurrection without death first. How can the cross symbolize divine love and sovereignty unless we remember the human cruelty that it stands against? If we forget the gravity of the evil, we can’t understand the magnitude of the Grace. The significance of the cross for Christians isn’t to remind us of how God is a mighty fortress, or how we’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts. We have other symbols for that. It’s a reminder of the stark reality of human sinfulness, and how God is willing to dwell in its depths with us so that we might be redeemed and loved through it. THAT’S the full measure of the symbolism of the cross. It doesn’t represent strength or righteousness; it represents subversiveness in the face of power—the power of empires, the power of evil, even the power of death.

Our impulse to domesticate and sanitize the cross as a symbol is troubling because it robs it of its own true power. We do it for decent enough reasons. We’re desperate for hope in a world that is already painful enough, and we want to offer beauty and comfort to one another. But beauty and comfort are worthless if they’re only a fa├žade. Of course, we’re not alone in this desire: as usual, Peter does an excellent job of personifying the most misguided impulses of humanity. He aces the pop quiz Jesus throws at the disciples just a few verses before today’s reading from Mark (when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am,” Peter is the only one to correctly identify him as the Messiah), but when Jesus tries to move on to the next part of the lesson and teach that he must be rejected, made to suffer, and killed, Peter objects angrily. He panics, trying to make Jesus conform to his idea of what the Messiah ought to be: maybe not a military ruler, but at the very least someone who doesn’t suffer such abuse. “NO, Jesus,” Peter might have said, “we’re never going to get people on board with that kind of attitude. That’s not how to effect change!” On the inside, his heart may have been saying, “I’m afraid of what this will mean. I’m afraid of what this will require of me. You’re supposed to make us powerful, not vulnerable.”

But Jesus has had enough of Peter’s refusal to understand reality. “GET BEHIND ME SATAN,” he bellows, not caring about polite debate or rational discussion. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The status quo wasn’t good enough for God. Jesus knew that the way to fix it wasn’t through the usual channels of rabbis who quietly came and went, or zealots who burst on the scene in a brutal fury and were put down by the Roman Empire as quickly as they rose up. The way to redemption was through the vulnerability of the cross.

We’re not so different from Peter, you and I. We belong to a society that furiously refuses to be seen as weak or wrong. We insist that things are just fine the way they are, thank you very much. Or worse, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we long for some abstract past that we seem to recall being so much better (nevermind the literal slavery). We are creatures of habit and apathy, and change—even possibly change for the better—is anathema to us. We fear whatever threatens to take away what little power we perceive we have.

But we now know the whole message of the cross, this symbol with which we adorn our buildings, our clothing, and our very bodies. The message is that the way to salvation and healing is through vulnerability and surrender. Lift your eyes to the mountain—to the bronze serpent—to the cross—from whence shall our help come?[2] Not from ourselves or from our own power or from our tools of destruction, but from God. If God can turn death itself into life, what have we to fear?

We can’t pretend that everything’s fine. We can’t pretend that joy and faith are sufficient to be a Christian. To do so is to ignore half of the story. The world is broken—still—because we refuse to acknowledge the enduring power of evil and God’s example of how to confront it. Jesus doesn’t say, “Take up your weapons and follow me.” He doesn’t say, “Take up your sense of safety and personal well-being and follow me.” He says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Deny yourselves. Take the risk to be vulnerable. Do the difficult, perilous, humbling work of living life on God’s terms instead of on humanity’s terms. It may be scary—terrifying, even—but we know that it’s right.

I did wind up getting a different tattoo eventually, by the way. I wound up choosing a symbol in languages that actually meant something to me—Greek, Hebrew, and English. It hurt A LOT, since I decided to put it on my ribs, but it was important for me to have a permanent reminder that my personal power, my own fears, and my selfish desires are inconsequential in the light of God’s plan. A reminder that I’m called to tell the whole story, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me. So what reminder did I have put on my body? It says “Amen”. So be it, Lord. Thy will be done. Amen.

[1] John 3:16, paraphrased translation inspired by Craig S. Keener.
[2] Psalm 121:1.

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