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"Drawn Through the Cross"

#89-32
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 10, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries


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Text: Luke 23:34

The cross, a vertical line joined by a horizontal line near the top, has become one of the most recognizable symbols in Christian artwork. But one of the earliest examples, perhaps even the first instance of the Christian cross in art, was clearly meant for evil and not for good. It's a picture of the cross of Jesus that dates from the era of the Roman Empire, about 1,800 years ago. It's a piece of graffiti scratched on a plaster wall of a school dormitory by someone who wanted to ridicule a Christian. The picture shows Jesus, naked, wearing the head of a donkey, nailed to a cross. To the left of His cross, there's a little man raising his hand reverently, drawn toward the donkey-headed figure on the cross. The artist scratched a caption on the wall. It names the little man raising his hand as Alexamenos, or Alex for short. The caption reads Alex worships his God.

This picture was discovered in 1857 during an archeological dig in the city of Rome, and it seems to be the first instance of the Christian cross in art. And it helps us remember that the cross of Jesus, on a human level, was meant for evil and not for good. In the time of the Roman Empire, the cross was a symbol of supreme evil, something suitable only for the most reprehensible of criminals. The Roman orator Cicero described death on a cross as, "that most cruel and disgusting penalty." The Greek historian Herodotus calls crucifixion, "an unspeakable cruel way to die," with the body fastened to a stake. The cross was so evil that ancient artists refrained from depicting it and ancient writers didn't dwell on it. And this is partly what makes the ancient biographical histories of Jesus so striking, so different. Because each of these accounts of Jesus in the Bible are narratives driving toward a cross and dwelling on the cross. And now, 20 centuries later—the cross for over a billion people around the world and for countless more through history—the cross has become the central sign of God's love and forgiveness that He offers to all people.

So how did that happen? How did something meant for such evil come to mean something so good? Of course, Christians like me will say that it's a miracle of God. God who reconciled Himself to the world by the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. But there is a way to answer the question from a human perspective. The cross, drawn up to be something shameful, became something wonderful because people through the centuries kept on recounting the details of what happened with the crucifixion of Jesus.

So here's what I propose today for us. Let's listen to it. Because there is no way to understand this wondrous transformation of the meaning of the cross except by participating in the wonder of what happened. So I invite you to participate in it with me. You don't have to be a member of a certain church to do this. You don't even have to be a Christian to do this. You can participate, whoever you are, wherever you're from, whatever you've done, you can participate in this wonder simply by picturing these events in your mind as you listen to the narration.

I'm going to narrate it for us from the Gospel according to Luke 22 and 23. Now let me catch us up quickly because a lot has happened to get us to this point in Luke's account. Luke has shown us Jesus, the Son of God, the Creator of the universe, Jesus has been on a one-Man mission to turn the world right side up again, to conquer evil and set people free from the power of the devil. Jesus has come to liberate people from sin and evil, and not just the obvious forms of it, but also from the evil hidden in self-righteousness and pride, the evil in looking down on others, the evil sometimes hidden in outward acts of devotion to God. Jesus has come to conquer all of it, but not by battling the people caught up in evil, but by taking their shame and guilt onto Himself and dying with it, letting sin and evil do their worst to Him, thereby exhausting its energy and breaking its power by rising from the dead. For 22 chapters Luke's narrative has been narrowing down on this moment on the cross.

Jesus has shared one last Passover supper with His disciples, that sacred meal and memory of the Jews liberation from evil long ago. Jesus has transformed that meal into a recurring, tangible promise of His liberating presence for His followers today, even as He warned His followers that night that one of them would betray Him, one would deny Him, and all the others would fail Him. And even though all of us, no matter who we are or where we're from, find our own ways to betray and to deny and to fail, Jesus went forward into the darkness to set us free from it.

Luke tells us that Jesus came out and went to the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem, as was His custom. And His disciples followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray so that you do not enter into temptation," and He withdrew from them about a stones throw away and knelt down to the ground and He prayed saying, "Father, if You are willing, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not My will, but Your will be done." And there appeared an angel from heaven to strengthen Him, and being in agony He prayed all the more earnestly and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground. And rising from prayer He returned to His disciples and found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. And He said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray so that you may not enter into temptation."

While He was saying this, look, a crowd, and the man, the one called Judas, who was one of the twelve disciples, was leading them, and Judas approached Jesus to kiss Him. But Jesus said to Him, "Judas, are you actually betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" And those who were standing around Jesus, when they saw what was about to happen, they said to Him, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, took off his right ear, and answering Jesus said, "Enough of this." And touching the man's ear He healed him. And Jesus said to those who had come out against Him, "Have you come out against a bandit with swords and clubs? When I was with you in the temple courts, day after day, you did not lay a hand on Me. But this is your hour and the authority of darkness."

And they seized Jesus and led Him away and brought Him to the house of the high priest. And Peter, one of His disciple was following at a distance. And when they had made a fire in the middle of the courtyard and were sitting around it, Peter was sitting among them. Then a servant girl who saw Peter sitting in the light, looked at him carefully and started saying, "This one also was with Him." But he denied it, saying, "I don't know who you're talking about, woman." And a little while later, someone else saw him and said, "And you are one of them." But he said to him, "Man, I am not." And about an hour later, yet another started insisting, "Certainly, this one was with him because he is a Galilean." But Peter said, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about." And at that moment, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, "Before the rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times." And Peter went out away and wept bitterly.

Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody started to mock Him as they beat Him. They put a blindfold around His face and kept asking Him, "Prophesy. Who is it that struck You?" And they were saying many things against Him, insulting Him. And when day came, the elders of the people assembled, both the chief priest and the scribes, and they led Jesus before their council and said to Him, "If You are the Christ, tell us." But He said to them, "If I told you would not believe Me, and if I asked you would not answer, but from now on the Son of Man will be sitting at the right hand of the power of God."

And they all said to Him, "So You are the Son of God?" And He said to them, "You yourselves are saying that I am." And they said, "What further testimony do we need? We've heard it from His own mouth." And the whole assembly arose and led Him off to Pilate, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and they began accuse Him of many things saying, "We found that this Man was misleading our nation, and trying to stop us from giving tribute to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is the Christ, the Messiah, a King." And Pilate said to Jesus, "You are the King of the Jews?" And Jesus answered him, "You say so."

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and to the crowds, "I find no guilt in this Man." But they kept on insisting, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching. He started in Galilee, and He has come all the way here." Then Pilate hearing this asked whether the Man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He was under Herod's authority, he sent Him to Herod, who himself was in Jerusalem during these days. Now Herod, when he saw Jesus, was very happy because he had long wanted to see Him, because he had heard about Him, and he was hoping to see some sign performed by Jesus. So Herod started to question Him at great length, but Jesus gave no answer. And the chief priest and the scribes stood by vehemently accusing Him. Then Herod and his soldiers mocked Jesus and ridiculed Him, and throwing some brightly colored clothing around Him, he sent Him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, because before this, they had been enemies.

Then Pilate called together all the chief priests and the rulers and the people and said to them, "You brought me this Man as one who is misleading the people. And after examining Him before you, look, I did not find Him guilty of any of your charges against Him. Neither did Herod because he sent Him back to us. And look, He has done nothing deserving of death. Therefore, I will punish Him and release Him." But they started shouting, "Away! Away with this one! Give us Barabbas!" Barabbas, one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Then Pilate called to them again because he wanted to release Jesus, but they started shouting, "Crucify! Crucify Him!" And a third time he said to them, "Why? What evil has He done? I have found in Him no guilt deserving of death. So I will punish Him and release Him." But they kept pressing in on him, shouting that He should be crucified and their voices were prevailing. So Pilate judged that their demand should be granted. And he delivered Jesus over to their will.

And leading Jesus out, they grabbed hold of Simon from Cyrene who was just coming in from the countryside and they laid the cross on him to carry it behind Jesus. And a great number of people were following Him, and women who were mourning and lamenting for Him. And Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children, because the day is coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.' And in that day, they will say to the mountains, 'Fall on us,' and to the hills, 'Cover us,' because if they do these things, when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"

And two others were led out, criminals to be put to death with Him. And they came to the place called The Skull, and there they crucified Him, with the criminals, one on His right and one on His left. But Jesus kept saying, "Father, forgive them. Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing." They cast lots to divide His clothing. And the people stood by watching, and the rulers kept scoffing at Him, saying, "He saved others. Let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." And the soldiers started mocking Him, coming up and offering him a cup of sour wine saying, "If You're the King of the Jews, save yourself." And there was the inscription over Him, the caption, which read, "This is the King of the Jews."

And then one of the criminals who were hanged with Him, started insulting Him, saying, "You're the Christ, aren't You? Save us and Yourself." But the other one spoke against him, saying, "Don't you fear God? Since you're under the same sentence of condemnation, and we rightly so, because we are getting what our deeds deserve, but this Man has done nothing wrong." And then he started saying, "Jesus. Jesus, Remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And He said to him, "I tell you the truth. Today you will be with Me in paradise."

It was about the sixth hour, around noon, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour because the sun's light had failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, down the middle. And Jesus crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into Your hands, I commit My spirit." And having said this He breathed His last. And the centurion who was there, when he saw what happened, he started glorifying God and said, "Truly, this Man was innocent." And all the crowds who had assembled for the spectacle, when they saw what happened, they turned back, beating their breasts. And all His acquaintances and the women who had followed Him from Galilee were standing at a distance, watching these things.

When I try to picture this spectacle in my mind, I think about Alex, Alexamenos, the little man depicted in that ancient graffiti, drawn to the cross. And I wonder who drew him there? One answer is that it was the graffiti artist who scratched that picture in the plaster wall 1,800 years ago. That's who drew him, and that person meant it for evil. He drew Alex in that way to shame him, ridicule him, and exclude him.

But from another perspective, it was Jesus who drew Alex there. What someone else meant for evil, Jesus meant for good. And now Alex has the unexpected distinction of being pictured in what may be the first in a centuries-long tradition of the Christian Cross in art. Alex was memorialized in that crude drawing, glorifying his God on a cross, because somewhere, someone along the way told him what had happened, with Jesus, with His cross and resurrection. It was Jesus who drew Alex there, and it is Jesus who is drawing you. Whatever evil you have done, whatever evil has been done, whatever evil might be done, whatever evil can be done, Jesus is re-drawing the lines of our lives from His cross, through His resurrection, to Himself, for good. Amen? Amen.







Reflections for April 10, 2022

Title: Drawn Through the Cross


Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Today I'm visiting again with Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Bible teacher within our church body. Thanks for being with us, Jeff.

Jeff Gibbs: You're very welcome, Mike. Thanks for the invitation.

Mike Zeigler: We're continuing to listen to these climactic events from the Gospel according to Luke, specifically chapter 23. And last time we talked, we noticed how Satan and the powers of darkness meant these events for evil. And so for this upcoming Friday, when we commemorate the death of Jesus, should we continue to call it Good Friday?

Jeff Gibbs: The answer is yes, but it should surprise us. How about that? When you read the events in Luke. If you just read them on their obvious meaning and you have any sense of right and wrong, you think this is not right. It's only when I become used to the events, perhaps they lose their edge or their shocking nature. But again, St. Luke emphasizes through the testimony of Pilate, through the testimony of Herod Antipas, through the testimony of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. What does he say to his fellow thief who's continuing to mock and blaspheme Jesus? The so-called good criminal says, "We are getting what we deserve. But this Man has done nothing wrong."

So this is an evil day.

On the first level and in the first place, it's an evil Friday. It may be the most evil Friday ever to have occurred. Nevertheless, it becomes Good Friday when that evil is undone. So when Jesus dies, He's taking our place as the sinner. But He doesn't stay in our place as the sinner, He rises to an immortality that no one has ever experienced since Genesis 3. He represents us; He's in our place, and so when He rises to life, that's when we can look back and say, "Oh, that evil Friday was really good at the same time."

Mike Zeigler: So there's this phrase from the old Testament that I've heard you use in relation to Luke's presentation of the Good News of Jesus, specifically His death and resurrection. That what they meant for evil God meant for good. And this comes from the account of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. Why does that capture what Luke is trying to do with this account so well?

Jeff Gibbs: It's not just that it seems to be evil, it was evil. So evil really is evil. Satan really is the enemy. Human failure and sin really is at work here. And yet at the same time, God is working this to accomplish the plan. And for some reason I was reminded of Joseph's words to his brothers, "You meant it for evil." He could have said, "And it really was. But God meant it for good, to keep alive many lives."

I do think that we need to acknowledge that in a sense, we have three enemies: the devil, the world, and our flesh. I think in our day somehow our preaching and teaching is very often directed at the enemy of our flesh, which is our sin, which is a good target—needs to be preached against, right? But I think we also need to balance and to acknowledge the reality of Satan and his in a sense at external attacks. See he comes against the people of God; he accuses us; he comes against the Son of God. And so for us to hear good news, that even when God allows Satan to do his worst, that's not the last word. And that in a sense is part of the message of Luke's account of these saving events of long ago, that still matters so much for us today. That God lets Satan do his worst, but it's not the last word.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you for joining us, Jeff. And as you're listening, I encourage you to go back and read or listen to these climactic chapters: Luke 22, 23, and don't stop there. Keep going to 24 and see how what they meant for evil, God meant for good. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.

Jeff Gibbs: Yep. Thank you very much.







Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)


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