The great crucifixion - Philippians 2:8
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Back in the early 1990’s the fashion world discovered a new designer accessory: the cross. Top designers like Bill Blass draped crosses around manikins on display in high street shop windows. Jewellers offered crosses in every conceivable size and style. And to go along with the crosses, designers came up with what they called ‘the monastic look.’ So Ralph Lauren introduced long black dresses with demure white collars that made models look like convent novices. Of course this was no new revival in religion, it was simply a new trend in fashion. In fact many people no longer know of the original Christian significance of the cross. The story was told in the Daily Telegraph of a jeweller whose customer asked to see a cross. He replied: Do you want to see an ordinary one or one with a little man on it’. The jeweller, you see, had no idea who the ‘little man’ was. Well, the apostle Paul certainly knew who the little man was. He also knew more than most what the cross was and it would never have entered his mind in a million years that it would ever be made into a fashion accessory for reasons we are about to find out.
You may have heard of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Aspects of Love’, well, this morning we are going to reflect upon three aspects of the cross which take us to the very heart of the God who is love.
First of all we have a suffering to behold. Speaking of the eternal divine Son Paul writes in v8, ‘And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!’ God became a man and it was as a man that he suffered on a cross. Now to even begin to appreciate what this meant for him we need to understand something of this grisly method of execution. Apparently the Romans took hold of the idea from the Phoenicians in the Punic Wars and refined it into a black art. It was reserved solely for, the lowest of the low, those they considered to be the filth and off scouring of society, never ‘decent’ folk. The Roman writer Cicero said that it ought not even to be discussed by Romans; it was that degrading. Yet this was to be the means of the most famous death in history.
Usually the condemned man was scourged, and this alone was often so severe that the wounds inflicted by the cat-o-nine tails inset with pieces of metal of sharp bone led to death. If the criminal scourged survived then he was forced to carry the patibulum, the cross beam to the place of execution. He might have his wrists tied or nailed to the patibulum and then hauled up on to the vertical beam which was already fixed to the ground. The degradation was completed by his clothes being taken from him so impaled he was naked and exposed before a jeering crowd. Sometimes the more human execution squads would offer a draft of drugged wine before nailing the man up. And sometimes a rough saddle was fixed to the cross which offered support to the crucified man and prolonged his life because by raising himself up on his lacerated feet and the saddle he could give some respite to the heart and lungs which were put under immense pain by the position of crucifixion. When the torture was deemed to have gone on long enough, to ensure that the man was dead, the soldiers would perform the crucifragium or breaking of legs; so no longer able to support himself, the criminal would collapse and suffocate under his own body weight.
The unnatural position of the body made every movement a pain. The suspension of the whole body on jagged nails driven through the most sensitive nerve centres of the wrists or ankles ensured constant and intense torture. A raging thirst would set in brought on by the burning sun. The flies were often thick around the victim. The agony of crucifixion was terrible beyond words.
Why have I bothered to describe crucifixion in such detail? Well, not in order to tease the squeamish amongst us but to draw attention to the reality of suffering which God himself underwent in the person of his Son. Some of you will have come across this song by the folk writer, Studdart Kennedy: It was on a Friday morning when they took me from the cell. And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well. You can blame it on Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews, you can blame it on the devil, it is God I accuse. It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me I said to the carpenter a hanging on the tree. Now Barabbas was a killer but they let Barabbas go but you are being crucified for nothing here below .God is up in heaven and he doesn't do a thing, with a million angels watching and they never move a wing. It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me I said to the carpenter a hanging on the tree.
You know, there are many people today who would echo the sentiments of that song. As they look out upon the pain and misery which is so rampant in our world, the cry goes out ‘‘Why?’’ Why does God allow it to happen, why doesn't God do something? It may well be all right for him cocooned from such afflictions in the comfort of heaven, but what about us his creatures down here on earth? God hasn’t a clue as to what it is like to live and die broken in a fractured world such as ours.’ Well, according to this song of Paul it was God who was crucified instead of you and me. Here we see that God, who became vulnerable in our human nature to all our human pain and grief, has experienced rejection and betrayal and torment and death as much as anyone. He is not immune any more than he is distant; he crossed the gulf that separated us from him and came in full humanity and tasted death for everyone- even death on a cross. That is why the glorified Christ can understand our sorrows and comfort us with his own. He can say to us in our darkest hour and greatest pain ‘I have been there and I know the way out: I am the way out.’ Don’t ever say that God does not know or does not care- he knows and cares this much.
Which brings us to the second aspect of the cross- a sacrifice to embrace.
‘And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross.’ Now here is the shock. Not for us of course, because we are so used to speaking of ‘Jesus being crucified’, but certainly for many of Paul’s original readers. We might well have expected the phrase ‘he humbled himself’ following on from what has just gone before, but as we have seen, the cross was such a place of utter contempt and disgrace that it is kept to this point in the hymn, the low point, the central point before it is mentioned. In our society the cross a pretty piece of jewellery, in Roman society it was an obscenity. And remember that Philippi was a Roman colony and its inhabitants would have prided themselves on their status as Roman citizens. The first century Jew or Roman could no more have a symbol of a cross around his neck than we would have dogs entrails around ours-it was that gross. And Paul wants to rub that in. That is why the poem is so abrupt at this point and doesn’t scan. Poetically it should simply have read ‘he became obedient to death.’ But Paul puts in the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ like an exclamation mark-scrawling the obscenity on the wall. You want to know how humble God is?-asks Paul-I will show you-he goes to a cross.
You see in his coming at Bethlehem he became a pauper, in his death at Jerusalem he became a curse. In the one he descended to earth, in the other he descended to hell. Here then is the heart of God’s mission, to bear away the guilt of sinners, to absorb into his pure and sinless body the divine wrath we deserve because of our impure and sinful acts. This is the divine rescue which plums the pitiful depths of divine condescension-as stripped naked, bruised and bleeding, his shame displayed before the watching world-God’s own Son is splayed on a cross and left to die. This is the sin-bearing God. But what does that actually mean?
Well, it might help if I tell you what happened to a Christian writer who while visiting Jerusalem found that one night he couldn’t sleep. This is how he relates what happened: ‘Toward dawn I wandered to the edge of the balconied roof and looked at the nearly empty street below. It was not entirely empty because half-way along it was a donkey pulling a dustbin into which was being loaded all the refuse from the previous day. The street where the donkey had not yet reached was full of the rubbish of yesterday, where the donkey with the dustbin had passed, everything was clean and clear ready for the new day. A donkey with a dustbin: it makes you think of the foolishness of the cross and the abasement of the one who walked that same road on the same kind of enterprise. ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the rubbish of the world.’ (T. Smail quoted in D. Tidball, The Message of The Cross p. 180)
Someone has said, ‘Forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems.’ [Carnegie Simpson in Stott Cross of Christ p.88] What is God’s problem? It is a problem which is rooted in God’s righteousness as much as our unrighteousness, namely, how to make sinners like us acceptable in his sight and yet be just in doing it; how to treat the unrighteous as righteous; how to pass over their sins and reconcile sinners to himself, without ignoring their sin. The problem finds its answer at the cross, as God himself in the person of His Son bears away the punishment for our sins in our place. This is sometimes called penal substitution, penal in that it is concerned with just punishment and substitution in that someone else personally steps in to bear it, and that someone is God the Son.
You see, for centuries the Jews had been carefully schooled by God that before sin could be forgiven a sacrifice had to be offered. The blood spread on the surface of the altar symbolised in the most graphic terms the appalling penalty that sin demands because of its appalling nature, an affront to in infinite, holy God, and that penalty is death. In almost every case when the Bible uses the word ‘blood’ it is not the life of the animal that it signifies but its death. This is offered both to expiate sin (covering it) and propitiate God- turning away his anger. God, you see, cannot ignore sin, for him to do so would be tantamount to him abdicating his role as the moral ruler of the universe. Sin has to be punished, wrongdoing demands a penalty- we all know that.. God can no more ignore your misdoings or mine than we can ignore each others. Sin brings with it a penalty and that penalty is death- separation from God for ever.
But the slaughter of an animal on the altar for a Jew was not only a vivid reminder of the penalty for sin, but also a moving picture of the provision of God. For this was God’s way of ensuring that those who put their trust in him, could be accepted by him, for God treated the animal as if it were the guilty one, he graciously accepted the animal in the place of the offending party. But this is no animal that Paul is speaking about, but a human being and more than a human being, God himself. He has steadily been unfolding the great condescension of God the Son who leaves the worship of angels in the purity of heaven, to become a human zygote on the uterus of a Jewish teenager, to undergo all the messy business of birth, growing up and tireless opposition from fellow human beings. Then he becomes ‘obedient to death’ Don’t you find that a strange phrase? For us death is not a matter of obedience but inevitability. But Jesus willingly chose to die in loving obedience to his Father. And not just to die but to be the moral and spiritual dustbin of the world as all the moral sewage that has ever been spewed out by human beings by the way we treat God and each other, flows into his body and God strikes him down, which is what should happen to us.
This is another reason why Paul puts the cross at the centre of this hymn because it is at the centre of human history; it is literally the crux of the Christian faith, the cross-roads and turning point of God’s dealings with humanity. You see, forgiveness is never cheap. You ask the survivor of a concentration camp; you ask the wife of an adulterous husband; you ask the rape victim or abused child how costly, if not nigh on impossible it is to forgive. When people have really been hurt by the callous action of someone else, that cannot be resolved by the mere wave of the hand, saying, ‘Never mind old chap, forget it, it doesn’t really matter.’ Of course it matters, it matters deeply. Sin hurts and one of our natural responses to it is righteous indignation. Now if sin angers us in that way, how much more do you think it angers God who will act justly to uphold the moral order of the world he has created? However, the anger God expresses towards sinners and sin is not like that of a hurt victim, lashing our uncontrollably and vindictively in revenge. It is the measured, righteous indignation of a good ruler, who must see that right is done and let others see that it has been done. It is one whose motive is love and whose goal is reconciliation- a love which would spare us from the ultimate consequences of our sin by taking the consequences upon himself on a cross. Think of it as a great exchange. Jesus the sinless one bears the punishment of the guilty ones-us, while we the guilty ones receive the status of sonship of the sinless one-Jesus. Do you see?
The 16th century German Reformer, Martin Luther used to tell of a dream he once had in which Satan, always the Accuser of God’s people, presented him with a long scroll on which his sins were written. There they were, accurately and indelibly recorded: thoughts, words, deeds, failures to act, all with names, times and circumstances. They were so many that the scroll was filled with them from top to bottom.
But at the bottom a space remained and Luther, after Satan had recited them all, calmly and solemnly replied, ‘Now write in the space at the bottom these words, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.’ Could I ask: do you know that reality for yourself? Are there things in your conscience which trouble you, memories in your mind which haunt you? Deep down you know that there is a God but you feel he couldn’t possible be interested in someone like you? If that is the case, then in your minds eye go to that hill bearing three wooden crosses and think on the one person hanging in the middle, for whatever weighs you down with guilt, whatever you feel is acting as an impenetrable barrier between you and the One who made you and loves you, has been dealt with there once and for all. You may not be able to understand the ‘how’, who can? But you can embrace the fact- it is done. Why not do that this morning if you haven’t done so already and in your heart ask the Lord Jesus to come in as your Lord and Saviour. He has been doing it now around the world for 2,000 years, I don’t see why you should be the exception, do you? This is a sacrifice to embrace.
It is also an example to follow. There is little doubt that the church to which Paul is writing is, in many ways, a terrific church and he is so thankful to God for the Christians there. But it is far from a perfect church. As we shall see in chapter 4 some key members are at each others throats, and what Paul wants to urge upon Christ’s followers- us- is that we are to have the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ-v 5. So what is the attitude we see being displayed by Jesus going to the cross that we are to copy and which will put paid to all the petty squabbles and posturing that can mar a church family? One writer has put it like this which I found very challenging: ‘The Christ whom we are trying to follow and trying to emulate made himself nothing. He became a nonentity. It was not what he was, but it was what he looked like, what he allowed men to think of him and how he allowed men to treat him. He obscured his deity beneath his humanness and ordinariness and suffering and even death. He didn’t look great or clever. He had none of the trappings of popularity. Instead, he was despised and contemptible: a no-person. That is a hard road. But for the Christian it is the only road: one on which we are willing to renounce our rights, to be misunderstood, to be damned with faint praise, to serve and yet be deemed absurd failures by those we are trying to help.’(Macleod: From Glory to Golgotha p 157).
‘Let your attitude be the same as that of Christ Jesus…. who humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.’ Let us pray.
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