The Message of the Cross
St. Philip Lutheran Church
29 January 2023 + Lectionary 4a (Epiphany 4)
Rev. Josh Evans
It reminds me of Good Friday.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
Micah’s lament is leveled squarely at God’s people. Despite God’s clear instructions for a way of life that does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God and with one another, the people have strayed. Despite God’s enduring and unfailing faithfulness, it is God’s people who have been unfaithful. They have forgotten who they are and whose they are. They have forgotten what God has done for them.
Micah’s lament against the people of Israel also finds fresh expression in Christ’s lament against the church in the words of the Solemn Reproaches – an ancient text used by many churches today, including our own, in the Good Friday liturgy.
The poem itself, speaking from the point of view of the crucified Christ, and echoing Micah, repeatedly poses the question to its audience: “O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?”
With each successive verse, Christ offers example upon example of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, drawing on the stories of our ancestors in the faith: God has delivered us from slavery, led us across the desert, fed us with manna, guided us by a pillar of fire, given us water from the rock, and led us into the promised land.
And in spite of God’s faithfulness, we stand accused, as each verse ends: “But you have prepared a cross for your Savior.”
Despite God’s faithfulness, we God’s people have been unfaithful. We who are humanly imperfect, who pompously assert we know what’s best, have forgotten who we are and whose we are. We have forgotten what God has done for us.
On Good Friday, we center the message of the cross. And like Micah’s audience who had lost focus of their identity as God’s people, sometimes I wonder if we too have lost our center.
Have we lost the message of the cross?
Foolishness, St. Paul calls it. No wonder we resist it. No wonder we try to go our own way.
On the other end of the liturgical year from Good Friday, the church commemorates Holy Cross Day, observed every September 14th. Holy Cross Day, a Christian feast day with its roots in the fourth century, places at its center – you guessed it – the cross.
It’s a fitting feast day for us Lutherans who, thanks to our namesake Martin Luther, have sometimes been called “theologians of the cross.” We place our emphasis on the cross because we believe that we can’t have Easter without Good Friday, that resurrection without death is meaningless.
The cross doesn’t make much sense though. The idea that God’s glory and majesty and saving power are made known to us in this instrument of death? Foolishness.
It certainly doesn’t feel like the greatest evangelism tactic – especially at a time when the institutional church as we know it is in decline, only spurred on by the culture shift of the pandemic.
For some demand signs… like how many people are filling the pews on Sunday, or the number of kids in Sunday School or GLOW, or a perfectly balanced budget and a healthy reserve to go along with it.
…and some desire wisdom… like the answers to all of life’s questions, or a fool-proof plan for “growing the church.”
But we proclaim Christ crucified… a stumbling block to those who want to see signs and foolishness to those to want all the easy answers.
We proclaim something far more valuable. We proclaim the message of the cross.
It doesn’t make much sense – but it’s absolutely necessary.
The cross is our center.
The cross is the very reason we keep showing up Sunday after Sunday and Good Friday after Good Friday because we need to keep hearing this message.
The cross shows us where God is – in the foolish, despised, rejected things of this world.
The message of the cross reminds us that God is present where we least expect because, in the first place, God has come to be one of us and to be Immanuel, God-with-us.
It only makes sense that the first words out of this Immanuel God’s mouth in his public ministry are words of blessing. And not just any blessing, but a blessing that is conferred on unexpected recipients in unexpected circumstances.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who lack, those who are ignored and left behind, those who struggle. Blessed are you.
Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who have loved and lost. Blessed are those who know it means to have everything and everyone they care about ripped out from their embrace. Blessed are you.
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who have nothing to speak of. Blessed are those who are abused and taken advantage of by the more powerful. Blessed are you.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are those who are reviled and hated because they dare to stand up in the face of injustice and proclaim: This isn’t right. Blessed are those who come to the defense of their siblings who are oppressed, marginalized, abused, and ignored, and speak up on their behalf. Blessed are you.
These blessings make no logical sense, but that doesn’t make them any less true.
God’s blessing is pronounced on unexpected people and revealed in unexpected but wholly (holy) profound ways.
God has come into this world as Immanuel – God-with-us – to turn the world upside down and to subvert all of our expectations. To bless the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the rejected, and to say to us: You are enough. You are loved.
The kind of blessing that God offers to us is not about bliss or perfect happiness, as we might expect or even prefer.
This kind of blessing is the assurance of being in God’s love no matter the circumstances.
And this kind of blessing is revealed most fully in the cross because the cross shows us where the God-who-blesses is: alongside those who are grief-stricken, those who have been rejected, and those who feel like they have nothing to offer.
Blessed are you:
No matter where you are in your life or on your faith journey…
No matter how far removed you feel from God or from community…
No matter how “deserving” or not you feel…
God bends to us in weakness and in foolishness, and blesses us, and reminds us:
We are never outside of God’s love.