Imagine what it would be like if Satan took complete control over a city. What would it be like?
There are a number of different ways that could work out. Perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind is like the Passion Gospel – everyone conspires together to kill Jesus. Wickedness is rampant, justice is non-existent, and the visitor can find fault in every corner of society. In the modern day you might think of crime-stricken slums, riotous gangs, lawless war zones where tribal chiefs or drug lords battle for dominance, and the police have simply retreated. On every corner is the cry of a single mother whose son has been hooked on drugs and whose daughter has been stolen away into sex slavery. Alcoholism reigns, all the wrong drugs are abundant, and the government is either ineffective to fix it, or is complicit in and profiting from all these evils.
But there is another possibility that mightn’t seem so obvious at first. A Presbyterian minister in the last century, when the same question was put to him, about what his city would be like if Satan took over, replied: “all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached” (Donald Grey Barnhouse, quoted in Christless Christianity by Michael Horton). Just think back to the Triumphal Procession. Everybody seems to be fawning around Jesus, shouting all the right words, but when he comes to the Cross, there’s hardly anyone left. The veneer of godly piety was there, and the people knew the script, so to speak, but they hadn’t bought God’s plot. They were following the motions of the liturgy, but they didn’t believe a word of it.
Surely, you might object, a quiet and peaceful world where everyone’s nice and friendly and free from drugs and alcoholism is better than the third-world devastation I described before? In this life, absolutely, it is better to be healthy and safe than to be addicted, starving, and constantly running from death. But as for eternal life, which one is godlier? Neither of them. If Satan can convince people to be “good people” who are nice and polite and kind to one another, without them having to put any trust in Christ, he’d be just as happy. Even if Jesus is named and praised, Satan is fine with that, so long as the Gospel is ignored. Because Satan knows perfectly well, Jesus without the Cross is no Jesus at all. Christianity without the Gospel is just as spiritually lethal as any other religion or philosophy out there. We need the Cross.
The Cross is where we find the perfect sacrifice for sins. We hear this a lot, and in many ways. Our Standard Communion prayers describe this as “his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” An oblation is an offering of oneself. Jesus offered himself on the Cross as a once-for-all sacrifice. It was a full and perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, able to cover the sins of the whole world. It was not only a sacrifice and oblation, but also an act of satisfaction – the justice of God called for the penalty for the infinite evil of human sin – and Christ’s death satisfied that legal demand. All this, and more, we find at the Cross.
You may ask, what was wrong with other sacrifices? Couldn’t justice have been met another way? Did it have to be Jesus who had to die? Why not just stick with those animal sacrifices in the Old Testament? We looked at those in greater detail last week; the final outcome was that those sacrifices were insufficient. The penalty for each person’s sin is that person’s death. If one ordinary person suffers eternal death, it is a just punishment, but cannot cover the cost of anyone else’s death penalty for sin. If even a person can’t cover someone else’s sin, an animal sacrifice certainly can’t! A sacrifice of greater value than an ordinary human is required, not one of lesser value. And if we want to find a sacrifice valuable enough to cover the entire world, well, then we need to find something at least as valuable as the entire world. What else could that be but God himself?
And so it is the God-Man, Christ Jesus our Lord, who alone can step forward and offer himself for the sins of the whole world. As a human, he is able to stand in place of other humans. As God, he is of infinite worth. In the person of Jesus Christ, God stepped forward and died for the sake of his creation. This is shocking; this is uncharacteristic of virtually every other religion out there; this is actually scandalous to most worldviews! But this was God’s intention from the very beginning. When sin first entered the world, God promised that an offspring of Eve would overcome that ancient Serpent. When God made a covenant with Abraham and promised life through his future Offspring, God put himself in the position of commitment to suffer for the sake of his people, rather than the usual expectation of mere mortals suffering to serve their god. When God provided living water to awaken new and eternal life, it was himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, that he gave us. When God provided sustenance for that new life, he offered himself, the Body and Blood of Christ, as that heavenly food and drink. So too with the sacrifice for sins, when the system of animal sacrifices had run its course, God provided himself the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. When Jesus died for us on the Cross, God the Son died for us!
In those final hours, some remarkable signs took place that indicated just what was happening. In the Passion Gospel that we heard, from St. Matthew, darkness fell upon the land at noon, and lasted until 3:00, when Jesus breathed his last. And then an earthquake took place, graves were opened, and some of the dead are described to have arisen. There are those who argue over whether some of these events are symbolic descriptions to highlight the gravity of Christ’s death, or if they actually happened as described. I don’t want to get into that right now; the critical thing to realize with the darkness and the earthquake, as well as the localized resurrection, is that these are signs of a theophany.
A theophany is an event where God is revealed. Dark clouds and earthquakes are two of the most noteworthy elements throughout the Bible whenever God is described to appear to someone. Moses’ encounter with God atop Mount Sinai is perhaps the most central example of this, but the same sort of thing peppers the visions of the prophets and the imaginative poetry of the psalms. Jesus is raised up on the Cross, the God of all creation is splayed out for all Jerusalem to see, and as he dies, creation itself writhes in agony at the injustice of it all. Storms and fire and earthquakes and rushing waters are common reactions of nature during a theophany, so the darkness and the earthquake and the rising of dead bodies are biblical indicators that this is God on the Cross.
Ergo, the Cross is the work of God, making it infinitely more powerful than the previous Old Testament sacrifice of animals. That is what we needed.
So, fix your eyes on that old rugged Cross. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t glamorous, it certainly isn’t what any one of us would have chosen as God’s instrument of salvation from our sins. But it is what he chose, and we can look nowhere else. And, if you think back to those two scenarios – what it would look like if Satan ran supreme – you might even find that one is worse than the other. In the first scenario, where wickedness is rampant and suffering is obvious everywhere, the Cross begins to make a little bit of sense. Of course our Savior would have to suffer and die; if he wasn’t like one of us, poor wretches, how would we ever know he loves us? A conquering king, sweeping through, righting wrongs, but never getting his hands dirty, well, what encouragement is that to the person in the gutter? But take the second scenario, the one where everything looks polite and peaceful on the surface, where the shops are closed on Sundays because church attendance is at 100% though Christ is not preached… in a place where everything seems fine and under control, the Cross looks offensive, irrelevant, unbecoming. I dare say that sort of situation is far more hellish. The sick and the sinners are much more apt to discover their need for the Savior; the healthy and the happy are caught up in their hellish lies that they can get along just fine without God’s help.
Learn from the Gospel of the Triumphal Entry; waving the palms and shouting hosanna is not the sign of our salvation. Learn from the Gospel of the Passion; our salvation is found in kneeling before the Cross to exclaim “surely this man was the Son of God!”
This is my Palm Sunday sermon, 2017.