Good Friday and Easter lie at the very heart and center of the Christian message. But there seems to be a lot of confusion in our culture about these events. For instance, I was talking to a lady yesterday who teaches in one of the schools here in Toronto. She said earlier in the week they announced that they would have Easter weekend off. The person making the announcement said, "This is when Christians celebrate the crucification of Christ and his resuscitation." Well I don't know if the word crucification is in the dictionary, but Easter certainly isn't about Christ's resuscitation.
We're talking about dealing with a Christ who conquered death and how and why. I am going to read to you from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. This is what Paul says,
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
Seeing what you expect to see
A Washington Post journalist by the name of Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer Prize a while ago for an article he wrote which he entitled "Pearls Before Breakfast." It was about a busker playing a violin at the top of the escalator outside the L'Enfant Station Plaza in Washington, D.C. Hidden from view was a video camera set up to record the event, and the busker played some of the most inspiring classical music ever written. And the commuters just walked on by, and by and large, ignored him.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world. And the violin he was playing was a Stradivarius, which had been built in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. This one was a combination of the finest spruce, maple, and willow. And built to such perfection that if you shaved off a millimeter of wood anywhere on that violin, it would unbalance the sound. The violin had been purchased for a reported 3.5 million dollars.
Now Joshua Bell normally plays in the great concert halls of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Prague, London, Paris, New York, next month here in Toronto. People pay a lot of money to go to hear him play. He earns up to a thousand dollars a minute for his actual playing.
On this particular morning he walked into the exit of the L'Enfant Plaza Station, positioned himself against a wall next to a trash basket. He was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a baseball cap. He removed his violin from its case and placed the case open on the ground in front of him, threw in some change to encourage donation, and he began to play. Every time a train pulled into the station, people streamed up out of the subway. Joshua Bell played for 47 minutes; over a thousand people passed him. Hardly anyone stopped to listen. There were one or two children being brought by a parent or an adult and all the children, without exception, were intrigued. They wanted to stop and see and the parent or guardian pulled them, dragged them, and took them on to wherever they were heading. 27 people put money into his violin case—it came to $31.21. Only one person recognized him.
The Washington Post placed a few reporters around the exit and they stopped some of the folks coming out and they said, "We are doing an article on commuting—could we have your telephone number; we would like to call you later in the day and ask a few questions." They called them and asked them if they had seen anything unusual at the station that morning. Most could not remember anything out of the ordinary. Some mentioned the busker. When the journalists told the people they were talking to that this was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world playing a Stradivarius that costs three and a half million dollars, they were astounded. And the Washington Post mused about this in a very interesting article. They discussed the following question: if a great musician plays great music but no one hears, is he any good? They asked the questions: Is beauty measureable or is it merely an opinion? Or is it colored by the state of mind of the observer at the time? Is beauty a luxury? Is it largely irrelevant to the nitty-gritty of life? No one expected a famous and proficient violinist to be playing a three and a half million-dollar violin at that time of the morning at the exit of a station. They didn't expect him so they didn't recognize him, so they didn't hear him.
This is Easter weekend. It is the occasion when in particular we focus on the historicity of the death of Jesus Christ, his burial, and his resurrection from the dead. Not only does the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ stand at the very center of Christianity; it actually stands at the center of world history. Every time you write the date you are writing about Jesus Christ. History is divided into B.C. and A.D. Yet if Jesus Christ is co-equally God with the Father and co-equally God with the Holy Spirit, what in the world is he doing on a cross? That is the last place you would expect to see him.
You see if we explore the issue of God, we tend to think in terms of the big things. We think in terms of the big questions. We talk about the origin of the universe, the complexities of life, or about the vastness of time and space. We talk about the fact that we live on a tiny little speck of dust floating around a star in the outer regions of the Milky Way, which until 80 years ago, we thought was the universe. Then we discovered in 1923—at least Hubble discovered—that there was a galaxy outside of ours—Andromeda. You can see it with the naked eye if you know what you are looking for. It is 2.2 million light years away. Then he discovered a third, then a fourth, then a fifth, and the current count is 140 billion galaxies, all of which consist of billions of stars. The furthest from us is 13.5 billion light years away. We can't comprehend those kinds of figures, of course. But when we talk about God, we talk in these kind of stratospheric terms, and the arguments are non-conclusive when you talk in those terms.
If we bring this question down to our own experience and life, we tend to talk about suffering. We ask the question, where was God in the earthquakes that have hit so much of the world—Japan; before that, Haiti, New Zealand. We ask where God is in the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has left 14.5 million orphans in Africa alone right now. These are the issues we talk about. But a crucifixion and a burial and a resurrection in an obscure Roman province called Judea, in a primitive society 2000 years ago? What's that all about? Why does that, seemingly come to the forefront and become the headline?
Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion. He was formerly Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. A little while ago he debated John Lennox who is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. They debated the existence of God. At one point Dawkins says of John Lennox:
He believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the physical constants, who devised the parsecs of space, billions of light years of space, billions of years of time, that this genius of mathematics and physical science could not think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust and have himself tortured and executed so that he could forgive.
That, says Dawkins, is profoundly unscientific. Not only is it unscientific, but it doesn't do justice to the grandeur of the universe. It is petty, it is small, it is pathetic. And that's the God, said Dawkins that Christians believe in.
It is petty; it is small-minded. But that is the very point. Christ on the cross is in the wrong place for God. It is like being blind-sided in the subway station on a Friday morning in Washington DC at 7:50 a.m. in a hurry to get to work and you pass by one of the most brilliant violinists in the world playing some of the most beautiful music in the world on one of the most expensive violins in the world. You don't expect it and you don't see it.
Seeing the cross as a stumbling block
At Easter we are looking in the place that people don't expect to see God in action. To the vast majority of people it makes no sense because, although we might believe in God, we don't expect to see him there. And that's why Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:22, "Jews demand miraculous signs … " Yeah, we can go with that—the big, flashy demonstration—we can go with that. He then says, "Greeks look for wisdom." As I will show you in a moment, the Greeks were famous for their philosophical thinking. They would expect that to lead them to God. "But" he says, "We preach Christ crucified." It is a stumbling block to Jews—of course it is. And it's foolishness to Gentiles—of course it is.
Paul isn't randomly saying Jews and Greeks—those were the folks who made up the people who would have read this letter because Corinth was in Greece. When Paul first came to Corinth, he began to meet with the Jewish community there. There was a sizeable Jewish community, part of the Jewish Diaspora that over the previous couple hundred of years had spread out throughout the Mediterranean world. And there was a large community of them in Corinth. When Paul came there, that's who he met with first. He began to speak in their synagogue until eventually they kicked him out. And then he began to speak to the people at large and the crowds at large that would gather in the city of Corinth. And he is saying to them in effect, "I know your city. I know the folks who are going to be reading this. You are made up of Jews; you are made up of Greeks. And you Jews are looking in miraculous signs for the evidence of God and you Greeks are finding him through wisdom - or trying to find him through wisdom. But I want to tell you, the message we have is not about that at all. And you will find him, of all places, on a cross."
Now why was this a stumbling block to Jews? He says, "Jews demand miraculous signs." And this becomes a stumbling block to Jews because the God they were interested in was a God of power. They wanted to know a God who was omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable. What these words mean is a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, in all places, unchanging. And of course, so he is. In the Jewish Scriptures, which is now our Old Testament, 333 times God is spoken of as being God Almighty or the Lord Almighty—no question about that. But they were comfortable with his mighty works in history, in the creation of the world, in the deliverance of them as a people from their years of bondage in Egypt. They loved the great work of God in Moses and Joshua, the exploits of David and Solomon, their greatest kings. They loved the great events that characterized prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. This is the stuff of the Jewish God. These were their great heroes.
But on a Roman cross? Described by the Scriptures as despised and rejected by men? A man of sorrows and familiar with suffering? No. So much so that when Jesus Christ was on the cross outside the city of Jerusalem, it says in Matthew 27:39-41, "Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ' … Save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!' If You are who You are claiming to be, don't kid around; demonstrate it; come down from the cross." But they didn't stop long enough to see if he might. They fully knew that he wouldn't and they kept going because, "Who is this man?" So John tells us in a very sad verse in John's gospel Chapter 1, "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him." Didn't recognize him—they were looking in the wrong place.
Why is it foolishness to Greeks? I mean what is the concert hall where the Greeks would expect to find God? Well of course Greeks, as Paul said, look for wisdom. They are renowned for it. They produced the great philosophers, the great thinkers of the age, whose philosophies still influence western thought. The big three were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who lived in the 4th and 5th Centuries before Christ.
They all talked about God. Socrates said he was compelled to follow God because he believed there was a human soul. We are more than just a physical body. There was a soul and that soul was eternal—that was Socrates' conclusion. But he didn't quite know who the God was who was behind this so he became polytheistic eventually. His student was Plato. Plato spoke of the gods (plural) but said it's impossible to talk about God in human words. So he said we can only talk about God negatively by defining who he is not and stating what we do not believe because that is the only way you can begin to understand him. Which is a very interesting approach, because God is bigger than the human mind of course. His student was Aristotle who devised the theory of "the unmoved mover."
Logical thinking. The Greeks loved this kind of speculation and philosophy and it's good. We're rational beings; we must think rationally. We don't bury our brains. But Paul says the only problem is this: if the Jews are looking for the flash bang miracle, dynamism power, and the Greeks are looking for the impressive wisdom and insights and ideas to point us back to God, the real message, he said, that we have to offer people is not about that at all. It is Christ crucified.
The cross as the power for reconciliation
So what in the world was happening? What is it about? In 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul wrote this: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." Something was going on, Paul said, in Christ, that was having the effect of reconciling the world to himself. Let me explain this as simply as I can. What makes the cross of Christ necessary are two things in the character of God: God is just and God is merciful.
The only problem is justice and mercy are incompatible with one another. Justice, you see, is giving people what they deserve—tit for tat. Mercy is not giving people what they deserve. So you can't give somebody what they deserve and not give them what they deserve at the same time. Justice and mercy—though separately existing and fine, in the integrity of God's character, justice and mercy cannot be applied to the same context at the same time; they are incompatible—unless there is the introduction of a third party.
Let me give you a simple inadequate illustration, but it will make the particular point I want to make. Supposing I was driving my car down Sheppard Avenue outside of this building at 80 km. an hour. And the limit is 60. And a car with the flashing lights pulls up behind me, pulls me over. "You are driving at 80 km/hr?" "Yes, I am." "You know the speed limit?" "Yes, somebody just told me it's 60." "You're 20 km. over." "Yes, I understand." "You know it's against the law?" "Yes."
Okay, I am summoned to appear in court. So I go to the court. The magistrate says to me, "Are you guilty or not guilty of driving your car at 80 km/hr in a 60 km limit?" I say, "Guilty, your honor." He has now one of two options. He can deal with me justly and he can fine me. Or he can deal with me mercifully and say, "Well, I understand you have got a clean record, so it's okay; don't do it again. Off you go." But he can't do both. The only way justice and mercy is reconciled is if the magistrate acts justly and says, "Because you are guilty, I am going to fine you.
He says, "I am going to fine you $120" and I say, "Oh boy, $120—man alive!" And then I have a really good friend who says, "What did they do?" I say, "They fined me." "How much did they fine you?" "$120." "Wow, have you got that?" "No, I don't." "Well, I'll tell you what. I have got my checkbook with me. I will write out to the Toronto City Council, the nasty awkward bureaucrats, a check for, $120."
It goes to the clerk of the court. "Here's a check for Charles Price's fine." The record from that courtroom says this: "Charles Price: Crime: speeding on Sheppard Avenue. Guilty. Fine: $120. Paid." The justice of the court has been met but because of the introduction of a third party, I have become the recipient of mercy. Somebody else has absorbed my fine for me.
It's not a good illustration because much more was going on, on the cross, but it expresses that point—God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God, in the integrity of his character, demands justice be done. The soul that sins shall die. The wages of sin is (that's a present tense thing, by the way—is) death. We are born in that state of being separated from God. We inherit that fallen condition, which is why our lives are messed up. But Christ stepped into your place and my place as our substitute, the only One with a right to do so, for he had no sin of his own. And he satisfied the justice of God to such an extent that, in consequence, you and I can be forgiven for the purpose of that reconciliation with God being made real.
You see the Christian message is all about reconciliation with God. And for that to take place, that barrier must be broken down. It was broken down in the cross when he took on himself all the sins of the world. He who knew no sin, the Bible tells us, was made to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ. And that's why today we are able to be forgiven.
Do you know forgiveness is one of the greatest needs that people have, one of the greatest psychological needs. I think I have mentioned this to you before, but some years ago I was listening to BBC Radio. I was driving my car and the head of a psychiatric hospital in Scotland was being interviewed. In the course of the interview he said this, "If my patients could be assured of forgiveness, half of them could go home tomorrow."
One of the root causes of the breakdown, he said, in people's lives was unresolved guilt. Now I know there is a false guilt. I know there is a guilt that has no real warrant and a lot of us are very vulnerable to that. But there is real guilt as well—of course there is. Newsweek Magazine reported an American psychiatrist saying—and I quote: "95% of insanity in the USA has its roots in the refusal of people to accept forgiveness." I have no way of verifying that figure, but the breakdown in people's lives often can be traced back to guilt that has been unresolved.
When you and I come to the cross of Christ and recognize here is the means, the way back by which I can be reconciled to God, because as my substitute, Christ gave himself in my place, then we can have that wonderful freedom of being forgiven, the baggage cleaned up. What does God do with our sin? Here are some verses in the Bible: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." That is in Psalm 103:12. It's very interesting—he doesn't say, "As far as the north is from the south" because the north is a fixed point. There is a North Pole and a South Pole. If you go north, you fly over the North Pole and begin to go south. But if you go east, you will keep going east; never begin to go west. If you go west, you will keep going west; never begin to go east. It says as far as the east is from the west—infinity—immeasurably. That's the picture he uses to say that is what God does with your sin—he removes it so far.
Not only that, but Isaiah 38:17 says, "You put all my sins behind your back." Where is there such a place that is behind God's back? Well it's so removed that it doesn't exist. That's where he puts your sin. Isaiah 43:25 says, "I am he who blots out your transgressions … and remembers your sins no more." God has this wonderful ability to remember our sins no more. It doesn't mean he is forgetful but he never recalls it, never brings it back. It is over, past, done, gone. I wish we believed that, because some of us don't.
I heard about two brothers one day who were fighting all day. At the end of the day the mother went to the older of the two brothers and said, "Look, before you go to bed, make it up with your brother. You have been fighting all day." He said, "I am not going to make it up with him. It's his fault; he hit me first." She said, "But you are the older one." "He hit me first. I am not going to make it up with him—he doesn't deserve it." So the mother tried to appeal to his sentiment a little bit and she said, "Just suppose that during the night your brother died. Wouldn't you be sorry in the morning if you hadn't forgiven him?" So the boy thought a moment and said, "Alright, alright I'll forgive him. But if he is alive in the morning … "
The cross as the antidote to sin
There may be some of us here today and you are scared about the morning. Listen, it's done. Do you know what Romans 8:1 says? "There is, therefore, now no condemnation to those who are in Christ." No condemnation. But that's not the end purpose. The end purpose is not just to forgive and clean us up, because there is a verse that is an important verse about what took place on the cross. In Romans 5:10 it says, "If, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!" He says we are reconciled to God by the death of Jesus Christ. That's what reconciles us to God. But now, here is something much more: we are being saved day by day by his life. In fact, the Amplified Version of the Bible says, "Now that we are reconciled, we shall be saved, daily delivered from sin's dominion through his resurrection life."
You see Christ wasn't just raised from the dead in order to impress a few folks (wow, look at that!). No, but having been raised from the dead and then ascend to his Father, he might pour out and give his Holy Spirit to live the life of Jesus Christ in us. That living in us, he might be the One who saves us daily, sets us free, as that verse says.
Our problem is not just what we do; it's what we are. Here's what Paul says about himself when he is very honest in Romans 7:15. He says, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate doing I do." Then in vs. 19 he says, "And what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing." Very simply: there are things in life that are good and they are right and I like them and I want to do them, but I don't. There are things in life that are wrong and I don't like them and I don't want to do them and I say to myself, "I'll never, ever do them again." But you will never guess what happens: I do them. Anybody here got that problem? Come on—a bit of honesty here. Then he goes on to say this in vs. 20, "If I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it; but it is sin living in me that does it." So he says it is something in me that is out of my control that is pulling me down all the time.
But there is an antidote to it and that antidote, he says in Galatians 2:20 is this: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Look at those two verses together. It is no longer I who do it but sin living in me. That's what pulls me down. That's the inner brokenness of my own life and my own soul. I am broken and dysfunctional. And I can intend all kinds of things but I don't accomplish them. I find myself pulled down, because it's not I who will do it but sin living in me. The antidote is: it is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me, that the guiding power of our lives is either the old natural nature, which is broken and called sin. Or the life of Jesus Christ that has been given to us on the basis of our confession of our sin and our need of Christ and we receive him into our lives that he might now live in us a new quality of life. And as Paul says, what you discover then is that Christ is the power of God, Christ is the wisdom of God. The things the Jews are looking for; they will find them. The things the Greeks are looking for; they actually find them by his presence working and operating within us.
Let me give an illustration as I come to the end. I stole this from a man called D.L. Moody. He was a very famous preacher back in the 19th Century. And D.L. Moody apparently would very often hold up a glove and he would say, "This glove was made in the image and likeness of a hand. You recognize it—it's got a thumb, it's got fingers, it's got a palm, it's got a wrist. Very much as human beings were made in the image of God—not a physical image but a moral image. Our character is intended to display his character." He would put the glove down on the desk like that and say, "Glove, you are made in the image of a hand. You have got fingers, a thumb, a palm and a wrist. Here's a book; would you please pick up the book for me?" And Moody would say, "Glove, I am talking to you. You have got fingers, a thumb, a palm, a wrist. Pick up the book." Nothing would happen. "Glove, pick it up!" Come on, pick it up."
Moody would say to his audience, "This glove is a dud. How in the world is this glove ever going to pick up this book? There is only one way," Moody would say, "and that is if I put my hand into the glove. When I put my hand into the glove, all the power of the hand becomes the power of the glove when I pick it up." It's not that the glove has learned a new trick. It's not that the glove says, "Alright, I'll do it. Okay, I'll try." The glove has been inhabited by a new hand. If you want to pick up a book, you want to form a fist and punch someone on the nose; the glove has all kinds of ability now because of the life of the hand that is within it. Now all illustrations are poor. This is a passive piece of material; you and I are not. But the principle is true. Paul says, "We are reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ."
That's why there is a big cross here this morning, to remind us. That's why we are reconciled to God. But much more exciting than that is once you are reconciled to God, you will be saved by his life. His resurrection life will come to live in you and impart to you and to me not only meaning and strength to give you that sense of completion—you can put your head on the pillow at night and go to sleep and if you die tomorrow it doesn't actually matter anymore in the way that it used to. Because it is the risen life of Christ that saves us everyday—the resurrection life.
And this Easter, there may be some of you here and yes, you know it's all about the cross, it's all about Jesus Christ, all about a resurrection, but what in the world does it mean? And maybe you will begin to understand it's the means whereby you and I, in our weakness and frailty, can be reconciled to God that again we are in touch with God. We have relationship with God, we have communion with God; we know him. And we begin to live in the power of a new life.
Charles Price is the Senior Pastor of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the founder of Living Truth, an international teaching and preaching ministry.