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Jesus, Lord of the Cross

Through Christ's death on the cross we are offered acceptance, forgiveness, and victory over evil.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Jesus Is Lord". See series.

There are few more exciting units of the U.S. Military than the Combat Search and Rescue (or the CSAR). If you've seen the movie Black Hawk Down, you've seen this division in action. It's their job to move into the heart of danger by going after and rescuing pilots or other soldiers who may be captured by the enemy. Every time they rescue someone, they call it a "save." Over the past eight years they have made 750 saves in combat situations. During Hurricane Katrina they made 4,000 saves. Because their missions are so dangerous, they live on the razor's edge between saving a life and losing their own. But according to one CSAR soldier, you have to think that "you're going to succeed in the mission no matter what."

The motto of this division of the armed services is clear: "So that others may live." When asked why they risk and sometimes lose their lives for fallen soldiers, one former CSAR Lieutenant said, "They're our brothers and sisters in arms …. They're valuable assets for our country. We are going to do everything feasible to bring that person back alive." But he also added, "You can't rescue somebody (who) doesn't want to be rescued."

At the Cross, God initiated the ultimate search and rescue mission, moving into the war zone of sin and evil. God was in Christ reconciling the world back to himself, risking and losing his life so that we might live. The motto of the cross of Christ is also clear: "So that others may live."

In this series we've been reminded that the Good News of Jesus is a huge plan to redeem and restore God's fallen creation (Colossians 1:20). It's a plan for cosmic reconciliation. Now in this passage we'll explore the key to this plan: the cross of Jesus. But how does a cross with a dead person who shed his blood accomplish anything for us? A crucifixion was not a victory; it was a shameful, painful, agonizing, excruciating defeat. The Romans were brilliant in their use of crucifixions to perfect pain and torture. How could followers of Jesus declare that the One who was God in the flesh (Colossians 1:15) was also the One who was stripped naked, marched through the street, humiliated, and then left to die? How does that gory defeat reconcile all things? What was Jesus doing when he died on the cross?

At the heart of this passage we'll find three remarkable statements of what God offered to his fallen and broken world when Jesus died for us:

We were offered acceptance.
We were offered forgiveness.
We were offered victory over evil.

Christ offers us acceptance.

For the Jewish people, circumcision served as the mark of their acceptance with God. This external sign and rite declared, "You belong. You are accepted into this family. You are one of us. You have a home, so come home with us." Circumcision was a little operation that had a major significance.

What does it today take for us to belong in community? If you want to belong in a family, you usually have to be born into that family. If you want to belong to the orchestra, you better know how to play an instrument. I'm holding in my hand my New York State driver's license which proves that I belong as a citizen of this country. Now I'm holding my library card which states that I can check out books at our local libraries. All of these examples serve as identity markers: they prove that you qualify to belong to this community. For the Jewish people in the Old Testament, the fundamental identity marker or badge for membership was the act of circumcision.

Of course the outward sign of circumcision was supposed to point to an inward reality: that you had faith in the living God of Israel. You trusted in this God who liked setting people free, and then you joined the covenant with this living God. But if you didn't have the outward sign, you didn't belong in the community. Unfortunately, the sign of circumcision often produced two negative results: (1) Insiders, those who had the faith, started to feel very special and even smug and superior to people who didn't have the sign; (2) Outsiders, those who weren't part of the community, felt insecure or angry because this promise-making God of steadfast love and faithfulness seemed alluring, but they believed they couldn't have this love.

Now we can see why the message of the gospel in this passage is so astounding: it calls to Jews (the original insiders) and to Gentiles (the original outsiders), and it says the same thing: there is new way to get right with God, a new way to be welcomed and accepted into relationship with God and into a new community of God's people—it's through Christ himself. Everything that circumcision promised—acceptance, embrace, inclusion, faith in God's promises, the assurance of God's love—can be yours right now through faith in Jesus who died for your sins. That's what verse 11 means. Christ circumcised you, but he did it deep in your heart. He did it to you.

When did he do this? This new way to come to God has been opened through the work of Jesus on the cross. Every time someone puts her faith in Christ, she experiences a new birth. By saying "her" I'm not just being politically correct; I am emphasizing the new way that is open to all—to Jews and non-Jews, to men and women, to rich and poor. See also verse 13. There is one fundamental thing that every follower of Jesus has in common: we can all say, "I was dead, but Christ touched me and made me alive. Now I belong to God. I have been accepted and embraced and I'm 'in' for good."

The new sign for this new way into acceptance with God is baptism. See verse 12. Notice it isn't a matter of just going through the ritual; what makes baptism powerful is our faith "in the power of God, who raised (Christ) from the dead."

So the question to ask yourself is this: Do you know the new way of acceptance? Some of you might think, "Well, I'm 'in' with God because my family is in," or, "I'm in because—well, don't we live in a Christian culture? How could I not be in?" On the other hand, some people might say, "I'm not in the realm of God's loving embrace and never could be because of my family, my culture, my tribe, my nation," or, "My past experiences were so far from God's love and purity, so I guess I'm out; I don't qualify and I never could qualify." This passage undercuts a false sense of security in our acceptance ("I'm in on the coattails of my parents or my culture") as well as a false sense of fatalism ("I could never find a home with Jesus"). There is a new way, and it is open to all.

What is stopping you from trusting in this new way? You can be accepted by God right now, today, in this place, in your life, with your heart. You don't have to wait for a better time, a better place, a better background, a better past, or to become a better you. You can receive this wonderful gift of belonging with God and to God through Christ right now.

Christ offers us forgiveness of sins.

Verse 14 outlines our problem and God's solution to our problem. It states that we had a "written code, with its regulations, that was against us, that stood opposed to us." It literally meant a kind of hand-written document. Some people point to the fact that this document was used to indict prisoners, like an ancient arrest warrant: it listed the charges of how you failed to keep the law. It could refer to the law of the Old Testament. For instance, the law said, "Thou shall not murder." Of course we might object and say, "I haven't murdered anyone," but even Jesus says that "anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22). The law can be broken in our hearts—it's much deeper than our actions.

Colossians 2:14 also might mean my internal conscience, a sense of right and wrong. That could include everything from a written code and regulations about how much I should weigh, what it means to be a real man or woman, how well I should do in school or at my job, how I should or should have parented my kids. These written codes and regulations are against us; they are opposed to us in two ways: (1) they stand in opposition to bring us down by guilt; and (2) they stand as a barrier to prevent us from getting close to God and others. They thwart security and intimacy in our relationship with God and other human beings.

For example, last week I was at the Stony Brook University's men's soccer playoff game at home. Every time the opposing goalie got ready to kick the ball, the crowd would start yelling, "OOOOOOOOOOOOOO," and then as he kicked the ball, the fans all screamed, "You Stink!" (although they used another word besides "stink"). That's what the written code—the law—says to us: "You stink! You've messed up once and you'll do it again. You don't qualify. You don't measure up."

This external or internal written code is so painful that most of us flee from it. We deny it, or at least we minimize, excuse it, and justify it. Psychologists describe this behavior as using defense mechanisms. The Bible calls it pride and shame—we cannot or will not face the ways in which we have failed. My friend Ken, a Long Island police officer, told me that whenever he tries to arrest someone, they almost always complain: "Hey, I know I was speeding, but why don't you go after the drug dealers?" Or, "Hey, I might be a drug dealer, but why don't you arrest the pedophiles?" We cannot face the pain and reality of how we have failed to keep the law.

So what did God do with this problem? First, he canceled it (he wiped it clean, he erased it); then he took it away by nailing it to the cross. We have to back up to the Gospels of Jesus' life because the Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus died, a document was nailed to the cross just above his head—a document called a titulus. When Jesus died, the Roman official Pilate had someone write "The King of the Jews" on Jesus' titulus, and then he nailed it right above Jesus' head. That way, everyone walking by could see why Jesus had to be put to death: he made this outrageous claim about himself, he was a troublemaker and a scoundrel and a threat to peace, so he had to die.

Now here's the amazing thing: when Jesus died, God (not Pilate, but God himself) took the written code against us, the handwriting—all the ways that we have failed God, others and ourselves, all the ways we fail to measure up; that list of wrongdoings that stood against us and that was opposed to us, that disqualified us and made us want to run away and hide—he took all of that, wrote it on a document, and then nailed it to Jesus' cross. Jesus took it away. But he not only nailed it to the cross; he also erased that record of charges against us. Now that is amazing! God doubly dealt with our sins: he erased them and he nailed them to Jesus' cross. It is God's way to say, "That list of charges against you is completely gone, gone, gone—completely and forever. I won't bring it up again, and you shouldn't either."

Have you received this forgiveness? It's simply remarkable. We can live in such amazing freedom. Do you know the gift that God through Christ is offering you right now? He wants to take all the charges against you—everything you've ever done or failed to do to hurt your relationship with God and other people—and erase them and nail them to Jesus' cross. Your sins and failures aren't yours to carry anymore. My brothers and sisters, if Jesus, the Lord of Creation and the Lord of New Creation, did that for you, can you let your sins go? Can you receive and believe and feel his forgiveness? Will you allow it to sink into your heart today?

Christ offers us victory over evil.

Let's look at verse 15. If you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, you'll notice a pattern running through every story: as Jesus was going to the cross, every form of evil, in its most potent concentration, came rushing together. The rulers and authorities—political, religious, demonic—banded together to strip Jesus naked, hold him up to public contempt, spit on him, mock him, haul him away, and then kill him, thus permanently and fully triumphing over him once and for all.

But the Gospels also tell us that raw evil is not just "out there" in the demonic and really bad people; the story makes it clear that the evil is in us—it runs right through our hearts, even as followers of Jesus. Peter, one of Jesus' favorite followers, stumbles and cracks. Thomas grumbles and doubts. James and John argue over who gets the best seat in the house. These seemingly small acts are all part of this downward spiral into evil, which does its very worst to deface God's good creation, destroy human beings, and kill the Son of God, Jesus. In the words of Bible scholar N. T. Wright, "The Gospels tell this whole story in order to say that the tortured young Jewish prophet hanging on the cross was the point where evil had become truly and fully and totally itself."

The natural conclusion to draw is that evil wins the day. With all its violence, cruelty, and hatred, sin rules the world. But all of the sudden this passage turns everything upside down when it states clearly that at the cross Jesus was the real victor. How can this be? How can Jesus defeat lead to victory? How can the worst day in human history be the greatest reason that you and I can hold our heads up in wonderful hope, knowing that all shall be well, that even our cracked and broken stories will one day share in the triumph of God's ultimate victory? How does God make light shine from the abysmal darkness of the Cross?

Imagine there's a soldier who has fallen behind enemy lines and been taken captive. A group of his captors surround him, spit on him, and mock him. But the mocking isn't enough; they start beating him. At first they take turns, but as their rage and hatred grows, they go at him all together. One after another they beat him, punching and kicking and cursing him. Their rage is uncontrollable. But the fallen soldier won't go down, so they continue to torment him. As they continue the beatings, they cannot contain themselves: like a broken cesspool, the sludge of evil in their hearts comes pouring out. They are exposed for what they are. Finally, as the beating continues, the captors, now at the point of total exhaustion, manage to kill the prisoner. He topples and falls, dead at last. For the captors it's a relief, because they have nothing left. They slump to the ground, utterly exhausted.

Then, a few days later, much to their amazement, the fallen and dead soldier stands up again. He's alive—fully, beautifully alive! The captors can't believe it. They spewed all of their evil at him, but he's back. But their energy for evil has been spent. They cannot produce more evil. In the process tormenting their captive, they seemed to be in charge. Then when the soldier fell to the ground, it looked like they had finished him off for good. Instead, the soldier, in the process of exposing and exhausting the full depth of their evil rage and hatred, was really routing them.

That is a picture of what Jesus did for us and for his fallen creation when he died on the cross. According to Colossians 2:15, as Jesus died on the cross he was absorbing all the world's evil and sin. And as he absorbed it, he overcame it, exposing and exhausting evil's power. As he was being led down the path of the cross, stripped and defeated, he was actually stripping the powers of darkness, winning the victory over sin and evil.

Today, right at this moment, and right in the midst of our imperfect lives, with our fears and pettiness and sins, God offers us the chance to share in the victory of Jesus. Sharing in Jesus' victory means that we can be reconciled to God and as a result nothing will ultimately defeat God's plan to reconcile the world through the blood of the cross of Jesus. As Tolkien claimed in his great Lord of the Rings, "One day all of our sad stories will become untrue." In and through Christ and his victory on the cross, we can expect that one day every tear will be wiped away, every sorrow will be healed, every addiction conquered, every broken relationship reconciled, and every sad song will become a shout of joy.

Right now you might be experiencing evil. Perhaps someone has wounded your heart. Or you're in dangerous temptation, and you're weary of the fight. Perhaps the evil was your choice, and now you regret it. It doesn't matter: God's power, as displayed so powerfully at the cross, is greater than your personal, or our corporate stories of evil and sadness. How do we know this is true? Because Jesus told us this, and Jesus lived this story. He faced the most potent concentration of pure evil that this world has ever seen; it even killed him; he even descended into hell; but ultimately, Jesus rose again to new life. The grave couldn't hold him. The evil powers couldn't hold him. The jaws of hell couldn't hold him. And, ultimately, my friends, although these forces can scare you and wound you, they cannot and never will be able to destroy you or God's good creation. In and through and with Christ, you too will share in God's great power over evil.


So how should we respond to all of this incredible, huge, life-changing, hope-giving good news of Jesus? You may recall the quote at the beginning of this message from the Colonel who served with the Search and Rescue squad. He said, "You can't rescue somebody who doesn't want to be rescued." Wanting to be rescued and then asking to be rescued is what the Bible calls that faith. It's admitting that we are lost, behind enemy lines and we can't find or fight our way out of this jam.

Secondly, it means believing that Jesus is the One who died to offer me acceptance, forgiveness and victory. These are his gifts to me. He achieved them for me when he died on the cross, and now as I ask him, he will give them to me also. When we ask Jesus to rescue us for the first time, we begin a new relationship with Jesus Christ. But as we follow Jesus over the years we also need to be rescued from the guilt of sin and the power of evil over and over again.

Third, it means that we can join Jesus in his quest to bring his peace to the world. We can tell others about this good news of the true Lord who has secured the victory for our broken world. With our whole life—in our jobs, and neighborhoods, and families, and schools, and communities, and friendships, and even our relaxation and hobbies—we can allow the risen and victorious Christ to live in us and through us. Every encounter we have with every person on every day becomes a sacred encounter. Even in the most ordinary encounters, we have the opportunity to shine Christ's light and love and hope. In other words, Jesus didn't just fight for your freedom; he fought for the freedom of your loved ones, your neighbors, even your enemies—or at least the people that you have the hardest time loving and accepting. In Christ, you can't look at any human being the same way anymore. Each and every person you may meet—or even the people in far-flung places of the globe—are valuable to Christ. He fought for them. He died for them. He wants to reconcile them to himself through the blood of the cross.

So are you ready to receive these gifts from Jesus today? Are you ready to be rescued?

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Christ offers us acceptance.

II. Christ offers us forgiveness of sins.

III. Christ offers us victory over evil.