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WHEN NOTHING ELSE WOULD WORK
II Chronicles 36: 14-23; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21
R. G. Lee tells a beautiful story about a mountain school that had a hard time keeping a teacher, because there was a group of big, rough boys who took pride in running the teacher off. The biggest and roughest of them all was named Tom.
A new young teacher won over the boys, however, by letting them write the rules for the school--which were very strictly enforced with a rod. For example, cheating would be punished with five strokes of the rod, and stealing with ten strokes, both to be given with the offender's coat off.
Everything went well until one day Tom's lunch was stolen. A frail little boy in hand-me-down clothes that were too big for him admitted his guilt. The school demanded that he be whipped. When the teacher called the little fellow up front, he came whimpering and begging to leave his coat on. The pupils insisted he obey the rules and take off his coat. When he did, a deathly silence settled over the room, for he had no shirt on and his emaciated body looked like skin stretched over bones. The teacher gasped and dropped the rod. He knew he could never whip that little boy.
Suddenly, big Tom strode up and stood between the two. "I'll take it for him, Teacher, for after all it was my lunch he stole." He shrugged out of his coat. At the third blow the switch broke, and the teacher threw it in the corner and said, "That's all, school dismissed."
The frail little boy laid his hand on big Tom's arm and through his tears said, "Thank you, Tom, it would have killed me." (1)
Who could help but be moved to gratitude by someone willing to take your place--take your punishment--suffer your consequences?
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . . ." Does that move you to gratitude? Does that cause you to re-think the meaning of your own life? Have we heard those words so often that they no longer have any impact?
Sir John Bowring was twice elected to Parliament. He spoke five languages. He was knighted by the queen. He was governor of Hong Kong. He wrote thirty-six books ranging from religion to politics. Yet all that is current from his pen is a poem he wrote. A poem set to music. A poem that has become a hymn. He wrote it as he sailed along the China Coast. He passed Macao, where an earthquake had leveled the city. He saw the ruins of a mission church. The cross which had stood atop the chapel now stuck out of the ruins. Musing on that Bowring wrote these lasting words: "In the cross of Christ I glory Tow'ring o'er the wrecks of time." (2)
George Buttrick once wrote, "The magnetism of the Cross so strangely persists as to indicate a miracle. For why should anyone today trouble himself about a peasant hung in an obscure land many centuries gone?"
An anonymous poet put it like this:
Such has been the impact of the cross on those who have perceived there One who died in their place. But was it really necessary? Was there no other way? Theologians have pondered that question through the centuries with few satisfying answers. A few moments calm reflection will reveal that, indeed, there was no other way.
For one thing, Jesus could not ask his disciples to pay a greater price than he was willing to pay. Think of Stephen as the stones rip his flesh, and Peter as he dies crucified upside down as tradition tells us. Many of the disciples were burned as living torches in Nero's gardens or torn apart by wild animals in the gladiator's arena. Only a soft, sentimental unrealistic faith would conjure the supposition that there was any other way for Jesus but the way of the cross. This is a hard world. The affluence and security of our land shelter us from that truth. Many people through the ages have given their lives for what they believe.
In the earliest days of our country, George Washington attempted to direct a small force of men against various groups that were attacking isolated homesteads. Survivors of burnings and scalpings often came to his headquarters.
"The supplicating tears of the women and moving petitions of the men," Washington cried out, "melt me into such deadly sorrow that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I would offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy provided that would contribute to the peoples' ease . . . If bleeding, dying! would glut their insatiate revenge, I would be a willing offering to savage fury, and die by inches to save a people." (3)
The father of our country was not called to make that sacrifice, but many thousands--perhaps millions have. It may be the scandal and tragedy of our land and our times is that there is nothing for which people will give their lives. We are so accustomed to comfort and convenience that it would be very difficult for many of us to pay the ultimate penalty for our faith. This may be the first reason that Jesus had to die. He could not ask his disciples to pay a greater price than he was willing to pay.
There is a second reason why there was no other way. Without the cross we could not see the destructiveness of sin in the world. It is always a tragedy when someone dies before his or her time.
Several years ago newspapers and magazines throughout the world carried the story of the suicide of Freddie Prinze. At the age of twenty-two Prinze had attained one of the highest status roles in show business. He was the darling of television and had just performed for an incoming president at the Inaugural gala in Washington. Yet something was terribly wrong in the life of this talented comedian. A close friend, comedian David Brenner, explained to Time magazine, "There was no transition in Freddie's life. It was an explosion. It's tough to walk off a subway at age 19 and then step out of a Rolls Royce the next day."
Producer James Komack, also a close confidant, said, "Freddie saw nothing around that would satisfy him. He would ask me,`Is this what it is? Is this what it's all about?'" Mr. Komack said, "His real despondency, whether he could articulate it or not, concerned the questions: `Where do I fit in? Where is my happiness?' I would tell him, `God, Freddie your happiness is right here. You're a star.' He'd say, 'No, that's no happiness for me any more.'" As Time magazine commented at the end of the story, "For one of the most singular escape stories in ghetto history, escape was not enough." (4)
We are touched by the tragic death of a young person--whether by disease or accident or murder. Jesus was only 33 when he died upon Calvary. Falsely accused, bitterly reviled and yet guilty of no wrong. A healer and helper, a lover of little children, and a liberator of people imprisoned by their own sin and guilt, a man who knew God intimately enough to address him as "Abba," daddy, and yet never lost his concern for the least and the lowest. Yet there he hangs on the cross of Calvary, and it was sin that put him there--your sin and my sin.
Would I be wrong if I said that many of us are like Celia, the young society leader in T. S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party? Celia is talking to a psychiatrist named Reilly. She is confessing that she had discovered a sense of sin in her life. Sin is not a familiar word to her. She explained that her upbringing had been "pretty conventional." She had always been taught to disbelieve in sin. "Oh," she said, " I don't mean that it was never mentioned! But anything wrong, from our point of view, was either bad form, or was psychological."
For many of us sin is a meaningless term--it is merely bad form and or a petty peccadillo. We do not perceive that there is an enemy within our gates, a betrayer in our hearts, a demon within our consciousness, that can bring inconceivable tragedy into our lives. We chuckle when someone sings, "I was sinking deep in sin, 'Whoopee!'"
The cross shows us that sin is no casual matter. Sin is the enemy of our bodies, or our marriages, of our relations with one another and with God. There was no other way for God to show us that except on Calvary.
But there is one more reason why there was no other way but the cross. There was no other way for God to show the depth and the width of his love except by the gift of his Son. John puts it like this, "In this is love--not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the expiation for our sins."
Corrie Ten Boom put it like this: "In the forest fire, there is always one place where the fire cannot reach. It is the place where the fire has already burned itself out. Calvary is the place where the fire of God's judgment against sin burned itself out completely. It is there that we are safe."
Wayne E. Ward described it like this: "All heaven and earth converge upon that central cross. The drama of redemption reached its amazing climax when human sin rose up and divine love reached down to that cross on Calvary! No words could possibly catch the despair which overwhelmed the disciples as they took the body down from the cross and laid it in Joseph's tomb. The drama was over. The king had come, but he was a king that nobody wanted. With wicked hands men had brutally tortured him and his dead body was already in the grave, from which no traveler ever returned." (5)
"What wondrous love is this, O my soul," writes the poet. "That caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul, to lay aside his crown for my soul."
That is why the cross had to be. Jesus could not ask his disciples to make a sacrifice he was not willing to make himself. There was no other way to reveal the awfulness of man's sin and the awesomeness of God's love.
Of course, the challenge that each of us faces is to respond in faith to that love. The challenge is to cast off the sin that so easily besets us, and to give our lives to Him as He gave His life for us.
1. R. G. Lee, Grapes From Gospel Vines (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1976).
2. Source unknown.
3. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1969).
4. Billy Graham, How to Be Born Again (Waco: Word Books, 1977)
5. Wayne E. Ward, The Drama of Redemption (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966).
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