Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why Did My Savior Come To Earth?

This is one of my favorite songs:

Why did my Savior come to Earth
and to the humble go?
Why did he choose a lowly birth?
Because, he loved me so!

I would like to suggest to you that this does not explain why Jesus died on the cross or what God was doing through the cross. There is no simple explanation for the cross of Christ. We tend to prefer a simple, easy-to-understand explanation to everything—but the cross is anything but simple. We quote John 3:16, “God so love the world he gave his one and only son…” and we say “that’s why Jesus died on the cross!” But that doesn’t explain the purpose. It only gives the motivation. Why a cross? Why suffering? Aren’t there other ways to show love than being tortured to death? When Jesus healed lepers he was showing love. That didn’t require torture! Why death?

There is no way I will be able to unpack all of this in one lesson. In fact, I can only hope to make you curious enough to dig and study. I fear we as Christians have become spiritually lazy. Gone it seems are the days when everyday Christians would stay up late a couple of nights a week to study their Bible and to take on challenging questions for themselves. Instead we read light devotional materials or we subscribe to some Christian magazine or we go to church services to hear a Bible class teacher or preacher tell us what we’ve always heard or believed. The words of the Hebrew writer haunt us (or, at least, they should):

“it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again …Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, or the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment…”

The way we agonize over these topics you’d think they were the deep things of God! But the Hebrew writer says these things are elementary teachings: milk for babies—not solid food!

So I’m going to tease you and hope you will take this and begin your own personal odyssey to delve into the things of God[1]: to give up your favorite TV show, or to turn off the internet, or to get up early or go to bed later and spend time with your Bible (not with devotional literature, a commentary or even a study Bible) and dig into the crucifixion of Jesus.

Ask yourself, why did he have to die?

Three pictures are etched into the story of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem: a tree, a temple, and a table. These three pictures give us an inkling into the reasons behind Jesus’ death on a cross. In Mark 11 we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He enters the Temple, looks around, and then goes outside of town to spend the night in Bethany. The next day he enters Jerusalem and sees a fig tree from a distance. It is in leaf, giving indication it is an early bloomer. Even though it isn’t the season for figs, it gives every indication it has figs. Jesus is hungry so he goes to pick some figs. It has no figs on it, so Jesus curses the tree and says “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” He then enters into the Temple and sees how it has become a place of commerce and greed—especially in the court of the Gentiles, the only place where the Gentiles can enter to worship God. He then does something no one except the Messiah is allowed to do: he cleans out the Temple condemning all that is happening—and in so doing, condemning those who are in charge of the Temple, the Priests and the Sanhedrin: the rulers of Israel. When they leave the temple the disciples notice the tree Jesus cursed is withered from the roots. Israel has been represented in the prophets as either a grape vine or a fig tree. So what is going on here? Jesus, as God’s representative has judged the rulers of Israel and has judged the Temple itself. As the fig tree is withered from the roots so Israel is destined for destruction. Israel has failed in its mission to be a light for the nations.

Israel is judged as guilty of idolatry. Her leaders have colluded with the pagan power of Rome. The priests, the Herodian dynasty, and even the Pharisees have made a truce with Rome. They keep their authority, power, prestige and commerce by compromising with Rome. But this doesn’t mean Jesus approves of the Galilean Jewish Freedom fighters known as the Zealots or the Sicarii [2]. They, too, are guilty of idolatry, although they would be horrified with the accusation. They have colluded with Rome in a more primal way. Rome has created peace by violence. The Zealots are adopting Rome’s methods to achieve freedom. They are trusting in horses and chariots, swords, clubs, guns and knives—they seek to advance the kingdom of God by force, with violence. Not realizing they are employing the very tactics of paganism.

But even though Israel is judged guilty and condemned by Jesus as God's representative, Jesus as the Messiah—the representative and embodiment of Israel, takes Israel’s punishment on himself. The temple will be destroyed by the Roman armies in 70 A.D., but the temple of Jesus’ body will first be destroyed by a Roman cross. He identifies with the Temple. He will also identify with the revolutionaries by dying the death of a revolutionary. And whose place does he take? A revolutionary named Barabbas. Is it just a coincidence that the name Bar-abba means “son of father”? Jesus becomes the suffering servant who delivers his people by dying for them. Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Sicarii will be destroyed, yet a resurrected Messiah, Jesus will become the ultimate embodiment of the Temple and of God's people.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explains God’s people, Kingdom people, are to eschew violence: turn the other cheek, offer forgiveness, go an extra mile bearing the oppressor’s burden, and to be the light on the hill for everyone to see and thereby glorify God. That was what Israel was supposed to do. But she didn’t. So Jesus did by being silent before his accusers, refusing to strike back, bearing the oppressor’s burden in the shape of a Roman cross, offering forgiveness instead of curses, and being lifted up on a hill for all the nations to see and give glory to God. In fact, isn’t that just what happens when a Roman centurion praises God and says, “this was the son of God”?

Although he is Israel’s representative—he is also the descendant of Abraham who blesses the Gentiles—the nations. If Israel is guilty of worshipping political power, commerce, and violence then what of all of the other nations? They, too are guilty. So Jesus not only stands in Israel’s place, he stands in the place of all nations.

For God so loved the world…

The Temple and the Tree speak of Jesus’ suffering for Israel’s sin and for the sins of the world. But more than that—through embracing the evil behind Rome’s power politics and violence, he turns evil upon itself. By refusing to curse, by refusing to strike back—he allows evil to do its worse and thus evil is totally exhausted and defeated on the very symbol of Rome’s violent power: a cross. It’s here, on a cross, where Paul says the power of God was demonstrated. It is here, on a cross, where the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms are defeated.[3] Evil burns itself out on Jesus. While evil still exists—it has already been defeated. It’s companions, death and Hades will one day be eternally cast aside as we experience resurrection and the world is made new again—Eden returns.

The third image is that of a table. Following the cursing of the tree and the cleansing of the temple, Jesus sits with his followers at a table for one final meal. But the meal he chooses is the freedom meal—the memorial meal. This meal reminds us again that God suffers for his people. That he comes down among his people who are in captivity and knows their suffering. He experiences it himself. But at the table he creates community. At this table, this final meal, he shows the way for a new community. As Jesus’ body will be resurrected, so Israel will be resurrected and restored—but not in a way previously imagined. After Jesus is raised, the disciples ask him, “Is it now when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He doesn’t rebuke them. What he does is tell them to wait. Because you see, Israel is going to be renewed and restored. By his wounds we are healed. There will be a resurrected Israel, a new Israel: a community of God. But instead of a kingdom made up of only Jews, it becomes a kingdom uniting both Jew and Gentile—tearing down a wall of hatred that so divided the nations. Now, because of the death of Jesus, we can all sit together at the table and enjoy the Messianic banquet as one people.

Jesus died to restore and redefine the community of God. It is not a community of violence and war, but a community of love and peace. It is a community where there is forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. Jesus restores Israel. Israel failed to be a light to the nations—but now the redefined community of God serves as that light. By imitating the life of the Messiah, by embracing suffering and unselfish service to each other and to the world—we become the city set on the hill.

And now: so what? How do we respond to what God has done through the cross? There are several lessons we can make of this but I only want to focus on one: we are to become a cross-shaped people. We are to embody that community of the cross. We are to be what Jesus is, what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: a people who, in the face of opposition turn the other cheek, who offer forgiveness, who bear the burdens of others the extra mile, who become a city set on a hill and through our acts of mercy and kindness become a light to the world.

How is this accomplished? It starts here, but must intentionally spread out to our community. I refer you to another teacher of Israel, a man named Saul of Tarsus, or Paul, the apostle. When he wrote to a community in crisis—who had forgotten about the temple, the tree, and the table he boils all of their problems down into one answer: love.

Read 1 Corinthians 13 below—this is the essence of Jesus. This is what he means when he says, “Love one another.” This is a brief synopsis of what it means to be the community of God. It is the Sermon on the Mount in poetry. Read and ask yourself: does this describe how I treat, how I have treated, or how I plan on treating people in my church? Does this describe the way I interact with people every day?
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Why did he drink the bitter cup / of sorrow, pain, and woe? / Why on the cross be lifted up? / Because he loved me so! And, for the sake of his love, he calls us to be the fruitful tree, the faithful temple [4] , and the people who share the same table, by being a cross-shaped people—a people defined by love.

[1] I'll let you decide if these are the deep things of God or not.

[2] For a detailed explanation of who were the Zealots and the Sicarii read Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews

[3]Colossians 2

[4] 1 Corinthians 3

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