Today is the Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season that parallels our Lord's fasting and spiritual trials in Matthew 4:1-11 over a period of 40 days. It marks a season of spiritual reflection about our Lord's sufferings for us that culminates in the cross. Most people today, including Christians, don't think too much about Lent anymore. For some it is a dead or lifeless Catholic tradition that has little to say to Protestants. For others it doesn't seem very relevant to modern life. But the most important thing about the Lenten season is that it reminds us of the cross and why our Lord came into this world in the first place as our Savior.
As we enter the Lenten season, it might be a good time to stop and ask why God chose the cross in the first place. People have always struggled with the cross from the beginning for a variety of reasons. The Apostle Paul wrote eloquently about these struggles with the cross in 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 where he writes,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
If you look around this Lenten season nothing has changed. The Apostle's words are as relevant today in America and the world as when they were written. According to the Apostle Paul the world really doesn't get the message of the cross. It is "foolishness" to people from every religion and walk of life. Much of the world is still looking for another way to believe in or experience God than through the cross. As an example, the entire Islamic world says that Jesus never died on the cross in the first place. The whole thing was just too terrible, so it didn't happen at all. Many others believe the idea of the cross is just a nice picture of sacrificial love, but not necessary for people to have their sins forgiven or get to heaven. Still others see it as a violent story from the days of the Roman Empire that may not have much to do with our modern world. And in our politically correct, gender neutral, inclusive world can a man really die for the sins of a woman? So, it ends up that there are a variety of views about the cross and all of them are wrong but one.
So why then did God do it? Why was the cross chosen and why did it become central to the Lord's plans for redeeming the world? The answer to that question is not only the heart of the Bible and the Christian Faith, but it is at the heart of what the Lord's wants us to really know about Him. The story of the cross is focused on the simple fact that there are only two realities in life, God and humanity. Every person that ever lived realizes that fact on some level. Life has something to do with people and something to do with God. And when you realize that life comes down to those two realities, we come face to face with the message of the cross that is looking right at us. That is true because in addition to only God and humanity existing in the world, God and humanity also have to do something to establish their respective identities. Human beings do all kinds of things to establish their identities, but never seem to find them. People work, have careers, start families, build cities, drive cars, take vacations, eat, drink, sleep, shower, go to parties and a thousand other things. And yet, when all our efforts are over no one has any real understanding of their identity or who they really are in life. If you doubt that, just ask a person who they really are in life. The silence is deafening. People don't like a question like that because they have no answer...none! They have no real idea about their identity apart from what they do. Most people end up becoming "human doings" and are not very sure about what it means to be a "human being." That identity crisis and problem is the heart of the human dilemma for every person that has ever lived on the earth. It is destroying our world and yet it is virtually rarely even discussed.
On the other hand, God knows exactly who He is and actually defines Himself through what He has done for us on the cross. The cross is God's work that fully expresses His identity in a way that no human being that has ever lived could do. You see God is love and the cross is the fullest expression of that truth through what God has done for us, but ultimately it also expresses who God has always been from the beginning. We see this amazing connection between God's being and His doing in these words from I John 4:8-10,
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The cross is the embodiment of God's Person, His identity as love itself, love incarnate. God's Person and His work in life are never separated from one another. God is the GREAT I AM of Exodus 3:14 and His name and identity in the Bible are connected to a verb of being. God is our verb of being that redeems us through His mighty acts of love and deliverance that culminate in the cross for our sins. The cross is what life is all about; it is the story of who God really is and what He has done for us to restore our fallen and sinful lives. The cross has nothing to do with anything we have ever done or will ever do. The cross is God's work alone, and its goal is to deliver us from our work and efforts to save ourselves. The cross is God's antidote to human sin and pride that tries to save itself with good works and through a variety of religious rituals and practices that seem to dominate the Church world. The cross ends our fallen and broken identity and establishes our new identity as a reflection of God's identity and His image in us.
With the cross being so central to everything in life, one might wonder why we hear so little about it. Increasingly, it is less common to even see a cross in a church anymore, especially in some of our newer, trendy churches. Even rarer is clear and powerful Biblical preaching and teaching on the centrality of the cross and why God chose it for us to free us from our work and human efforts. How different our modern view of the cross is as opposed to the Apostle Paul's view of it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 where we hear,
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
How often does anyone in the Church world these days hear such a message about the cross? Could the Apostle Paul find a church today that would hire him? Instead, many churches end up being very busy and active places full of our works and efforts to make our church successful or relevant to contemporary church-goers. But when it comes down to hearing about God's work on the cross there is sometimes silence. So, it appears that the cross has literally disappeared from view among many Christians and church-goers. It seems that the message of the cross is somehow "assumed" to be there somewhere, maybe on a statement of faith located on the web site or a piece of paper in the pastor's office.As this Lenten season unfolds, it is a great time to run to the cross on which the Prince of Glory died. As we stand at the foot of the cross and look into the eyes of Lord, we find our God and our future with the Lord forever more. That truth is the message of Lent and our faith as Christians. Lent can never be about giving up something, not eating meat or something else we do. The greatest Lenten celebration and experience comes from understanding and experiencing the truth of the cross and what the Lord Jesus has done for us. May it be so for everyone today and forever. Amen