April 13, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I’m curious. How many of you recognize the name, Marshall Mathers? It’s actually Marshall Mathers III. Does that name mean anything to anyone here? He rarely goes by that name. He is better known as Eminem. (At 9 am, I will probably have to ask a secondary question: How many of you recognize the name, Eminem?)
Eminem, for those of you who don’t know, is a rap artist and a songwriter. He is controversial, to say the least. His music is often vulgar and is anything but politically correct. And no, we’re not going to be playing a Youtube video to illustrate what I mean.
Back in 2005, Eminem just pretty much quit everything he was doing. He stopped making albums. He stopped performing. He just dropped out of sight. There were rumors that he was getting treatment for a drug addiction. It was assumed that like many young superstars, he had flamed out early and would never be heard from again.
Then in the summer of 2010 he resurfaced. He gave a concert in ComericaPark in Detroit, his hometown. It was the same Eminem as before but with one small difference. He was now wearing a necklace with a cross on it.
Why is a cross a big deal? Maybe it isn’t. We see crosses everywhere. How many crosses would you guess are in this sanctuary? I counted. I came up with 10. I’m sure I missed a few. You weren’t here when I counted, so I missed the crosses you are wearing as jewelry. And if we include the crosses on all our hymnals and bulletins and offering envelopes, we have hundreds of crosses, just in this one room.
We see the cross so often we might expect to get desensitized to it. We might expect it to lose some of its power. Especially after 2000 years. Don’t you suppose it’s time for Christians to come up with a new logo? But no. We see a cross and we see more than a cross. We see Jesus. We see his death. More than that, we see the life his death made possible.
Why did Jesus die? It’s a deceptively simple question. It’s really two very different questions. Both with complicated answers. The first is the historical question. Why was Jesus put to death? Why did it happen? What events and choices and circumstances led to this particular outcome? The second is the faith question. Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? What did his death accomplish? What difference does his death on the cross back then make for us today? We’re going to spend more time on the faith question than the historical question, but we’re going to begin with the historical question.
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard wrote a book answering the question of why Jesus died. They wrote from the historical perspective. Their book has sold quite a few copies. I know many of you have read it. It’s a good book. I would recommend it. I’m a little nervous that they might sue me for stealing the title of their book this morning. But that’s not why I’m recommending it.
Why did Jesus die? The short answer is that the Jews and the Romans killed him. They were both threatened by him, but for different reasons. The Jews were threatened because he claimed to be God. They were expecting God to send a Messiah. But they weren’t expecting this kind of a Messiah. They accused him of blasphemy for putting himself in the place of God.
The Romans considered Jesus a threat to the peace and stability of Rome. They were afraid he would incite revolution. Which is ironic, because the Jews who turned against him turned against him in part because we wasn’t doing enough to incite a revolution. The Messiah they were expecting would do that and when he didn’t, they figured he must not be the Messiah. So the Romans accused him of being a revolutionary. He was an enemy of the state.
The Romans and the Jews collaborated on the result they both wanted. They were involved in an intricate dance to make it happen. The way scripture is written, it is impossible to blame either more than the other.
But here is where some sensitivity and just common decency come in. There are no more Romans. The Roman Empire ended a long time ago. So we can’t beat up on the Romans. But there are still Jews. And often modern-day Jews are on the receiving end of vile and vicious attacks. Not just because of what their ancestors did 2000 years ago. Anti-Semitism is practiced by a lot of people who don’t care who killed Jesus. But too often Christians forget that Jesus was a Jew and that therefore we and Jews are next of kin. Too often, this time of year especially, Bible passages are used in a hateful and hurtful way against the last people Jesus would want us to attack.
I didn’t see this but I trust my friend, Jim Monroe, who did. Jim went to the same seminary in Denver I attended but a few years earlier. He tells the story of driving by a church in Denver and noticing a church sign that said, “Jews Killed Jesus.” Then he looked to see the name of the church that would choose to display such a hateful message. It was the “LovingWayChurch”.
Why did Jesus die? By the time he entered Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday, it was probably too late to stop the momentum that had already built. H
He died because there were people who wanted him dead.
That’s the history lesson. Now let’s look at this same question from the faith perspective. Why did Jesus die? What did his death accomplish? Why did Jesus have to die?
Before I even start, it just needs to be said that there are many answers to this question. The Bible gives us many answers. We have been conditioned to think that there can only be one right answer. That may be true with simple questions. 2 + 2 = 4. Not 3 or 5. But this is anything but a simple question. So the Bible approaches the one truth from several different angles.
In Hebrews we are told that Jesus died “to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26). So Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins. His blood was shed for us. We are washed clean by his blood. And so we sing old songs like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and younger people shake their heads in bewilderment. So do a lot of older people.
This idea that Jesus died as a sacrificial lamb is a very old one that makes no sense unless you understand that for much of human history people would try to please God with animal sacrifice. They would give their best lamb, or bird, or goat, or bull to God. That means this innocent animal would be slaughtered. And the blood on the altar would show that you were sorry for your sins and wanted to be back in good favor with God.
We don’t do that any more. We haven’t for a long time. Why? Because Jesus made that unnecessary. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. He was the “one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” as it says in the old communion ritual. When Jesus died on the cross, Jesus did what all those centuries of animal sacrifices had tried and failed to do. His death made us right once again with God.
That’s one answer to our question. But there is more. In Colossians it says that through Jesus “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (1:20). So Jesus died to make possible reconciliation. To make possible peace. In other words, Jesus died so broken relationships could be restored. One obvious broken relationship is our relationship with God. Through the cross we are reconciled with God. We are at peace with God. But this verse, when it says “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”, makes it broader than this. Jesus died so our broken relationships with other people could be healed as well. The cross is that powerful!
Romans 3 has another answer to our question. Why did Jesus die? He died so we could be “justified by [God’s] grace as a gift” (3:24). Justified is a legal term. So is justice. Justice for us would mean that we would all be found guilty. We all are guilty of sin. But through the cross, we are “justified”. We are made not guilty. Because Jesus paid the price we should have had to pay. So we are set free. We are set free because Jesus died for our sins.
We turn next to II Timothy where it says that Jesus “destroyed death” (1:10). In other words, there was a battle going on between Jesus and death. Death appeared to have won. Jesus did die, after all. But his death was not the end of the battle. It was not the final verdict. Jesus didn’t stay dead. So through death Jesus won the ultimate victory.
One more answer. For this one we turn to Ephesians. “In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood” (1:7). Redemption. What does that mean? It’s really a word from the business world. Home owners learn about redemption when they get a foreclosure notice. They have fallen behind on their loan payments. They are about to lose their home.
But they have one last chance. It’s written in their loan documents. It’s in the fine print. It has to be there because it’s the law. It’s called the right of redemption. Before foreclosure, you just need to catch up on your payments. After foreclosure, it’s a little harder. You have to pay off the entire loan. So it’s not an easy thing to do and it doesn’t happen often, but if you pay the price you can get back what was lost.
We were lost in our sin. And God bought us back. God redeemed us. It’s not an easy thing to do. It required Jesus to die on that cross. But God paid that price. As Richard Pimentel pointed out a couple of weeks ago, you are worth that much.
So to recap, we now have five answers to our question. Why did Jesus died? What did his death accomplish? We’ve jumped around the New Testament and found Biblical support for all five. The death of Jesus, (1) put to an end animal sacrifices, (2) restored our broken relationships, (3) set us free from judgment for our sins, (4) won the battle against evil and death, and (5) paid the price for our redemption.
Why so many answers? Why so many facets to the meaning of the cross? Why not a single, simple sound byte we can all memorize and recite whenever the question arises? Because what happened on the cross is such a big deal it is not easily captured in words. It does not lend itself to sound bytes. That God came to this earth as a man and then died — God died! — that is too much for our small brains to take in.
So if words fail us, what we need is a symbol. Something simple, like a cross. Something we can look at. Something that holds a meaning, very deep, very powerful. It speaks not to our heads but to our hearts.
Isaac Watts looked at the cross 300 years ago. Words came to him. But it was the language of poetry. And those words became a hymn. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” In other words, “When I Look at the Cross”, what do I see? More than words can capture. But the last line comes close. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
I suppose the verdict is still out on Eminem. He is a very interesting, very complicated character. He wouldn’t be the first to wear a cross and without giving his life, his soul, his all to Jesus. But I like to think that when he was going through whatever hell he was going through, he saw the cross and he saw in the cross something that gripped his soul. I like to think that he saw what so many others have seen who looked at the cross. Hope and grace and life.
God, some in this room are going through hell right now. Others are filled with joy at how good life is for them right now. Most are somewhere in between. Jesus died for all of us. For each of us. Because you consider us worth that much. And so in this Holy Week we now have entered, keep our eyes on the cross. Whatever we need most right now, whatever you most want to give us, may we find it. May we receive it. And most of all, may we give. May we share the love we see in that cross with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.