Holy Cross Day
As I glanced through the Facebook posts on the morning I wrote this sermon, my eye was caught by one of those advertising posts that now seem to appear there regularly. The advertisement was by SiriusXM and it said, “Celebrate the launch of Joel Osteen Radio on SiriusXM on 9/29! Enter for your chance to win 2 tickets to meet Joel & Victoria!” The add included a picture of the beaming couple greeting a crowd, and described how you could enter a contest with the chance to win a trip for two to New York City. There the winners would get to attend a special invitation only Town Hall event with the Osteens.
Now unless you have been hiding your head under a rock, you are probably familiar with Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria. Joel Osteen is pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, and his wife is an assisting “minister.” Their church is a former NBA basketball arena that holds almost 17,000 people.
In addition to filling this huge building for services, the Osteens are seen by twenty million viewers a month. Joel’s first book, Your Best Life Now, went to number one on the best seller list and has sold four million copies. Each of the four books he has written since then has also gone to number one.
And apparently, Joel Osteen’s best life is now. His wife Victoria is an attractive woman. The Osteens are worth approximately $56 million. They live in a mansion worth $10 dollars.
Joel Osteen’s positive message of self-help and self-improvement has always drawn criticism from those who are committed to biblical, orthodox Christianity. But recently, his wife Victoria said something that has attracted attention and rebuke from a much larger group than normal.
Victoria Osteen in a sermon to the congregation at Lakewood Church said: “I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you are not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
Yikes! Now admittedly, there is so much that is so obviously wrong with the Osteen’s theology, that it is almost not worth mentioning the problems. It’s too easy. It’s kind of like Cardinals fans making fun of the Chicago Cubs and their century long futility. Why bother?
However, the massive success of Joel and Victoria Osteen demonstrates how popular their message is. And on this Holy Cross Day, it illustrates how counter intuitive the cross is. On the surface, there is nothing positive about the cross. It is about sin and suffering and death. There is no “feel good” message here. Yet because that is the case, we find that the cross is at the center of the Gospel. In a paradox we find that the cross takes these realities seriously and so it is at the center of God’s saving work to defeat sin, suffering and death – his work to give us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.
In our Gospel lesson for Holy Cross Day, Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem at the start Holy Week. Some Greeks want to see Jesus, and after Philip and Andrew bring them to the Lord, Jesus begins to talk about his upcoming death. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus mentions his “hour.” And then later in our text he goes on to say, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” Jesus describes “his hour” – his moment of purpose - as something troubling. Yet it is also clearly a moment of power. He says at the end of our text, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And then John adds: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus talks about being lifted up because he is talking about the cross. And this is the not the first time. When he spoke to Nicodemus in chapter three Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The fact that Jesus will die by crucifixion – that he will die lifted up on the cross – is very important in John’s Gospel. In describing our Lord’s arrest and trials, this Gospel narrates a scene which makes it clear that the Jewish leaders must come to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in order to put Jesus to death. They can’t do it themselves because only the Romans have this authority. Pilate says to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews reply, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” And then John adds the explanation, “This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” Jesus had said he would die by being lifted up – he would die on the cross. The religious leaders are forced to submit their desire for Jesus’ death to the Romans. And so crucifixion became the means by which Jesus would die.
If you had told people at the beginning of the first century A.D. that the cross would become a beloved symbol all over the world, they would have said that you were nuts. The cross was an instrument of fear – fear that the Romans used to keep the provinces in line. It was a means of painful, lingering, and humiliating death. No one was more powerless, than that poor schmuck hanging on the cross.
The cross and the theology of the Osteens have nothing to do with each other. And, not surprisingly, you don’t find a cross in their church. However, the Osteens are successful in worldly terms for a reason. They have a message that everyone wants to hear – a message that you want to hear.
For you see, you want the God who is happy because you are happy. You want the God whose focus is making you happy. You want to have your best life now. And when things don’t go your way – when you have problems with your health, or you don’t get that job, or you don’t have the money to do all the things you want to do – you are not happy with God.
But instead of focusing on your happiness, God focuses on your sin. He does so because he is holy and just. It can’t be any other way. The things that don’t bother you because you are so busy trying to get happy, are the things that will cut you off from God. They are the sin that evokes God’s wrath.
And so when Jesus hour arrived, he was lifted up on the cross. He went as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He hung there and was mocked by those below because now he was weak and powerless. But there was a paradox they did not perceive. The weak and powerless One had arrived at his hour. It was the hour of the world’s judgment. It was the hour when the ruler of this world was cast out. It was the hour when God’s most powerful saving action was taking place. God condemned sin – your sin - in Jesus Christ. Through the cross he gave you forgiveness. And because of this Satan no longer has any claim on you.
Now normally, the cross was the final word. The dead crucified body was left on the cross to be eaten by birds and rot. It was left there as a billboard from the Romans that said, “Don’t mess with us.”
Yet Jesus’ body was not left on the cross. Instead, it was taken down before sundown on Friday, quickly prepared for burial, and placed in a tomb. It lay in that tomb on Saturday. And then on Sunday, the first day of the week, the paradox of the cross became clear. The cross was not the end. Instead, it was the means by which God had made a new beginning as Jesus rose from the dead. Sin had been forgiven and new life – resurrection life – had begun.
This new life is already yours. You received it when you were baptized – when you were born again of water and the Spirit. And because this is true, you are now able to see Jesus’ cross in a completely new way.
You are able to see Jesus’ cross in a new way. And you are able to see the cross in your own life in a new way too. Jesus says in our text, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Jesus says that those who love their life – who want their best life now – will lose it. And on the other hand, those who hate their life in this world – those who don’t cling to it but put Christ first – will keep it for eternal life.
Because you now understand the paradox of Christ’s cross – the victorious defeat of his death – you are able to view the things the world considers to be defeat in an entirely different way. You are able to follow Jesus and take up the cross of sacrificing for the faith and sacrificing for others.
You are able to look at suffering and loss in your life, and know that these are not proof of God’s absence. After all, you have seen that God’s great work of salvation occurred on the cross. It occurred in the midst of suffering and loss. Indeed just as God was present and at work on the cross of Good Friday, so also you can trust that God is present and at work when you experience the cross in your life.
You can do this because Jesus’ body wasn’t left on the cross. It was taken down and placed in a tomb. And on the third day he rose from the dead and demonstrated how God had been at work in the cross. Because you have seen this, you can trust that God is working out his purposes. You can know that his forgiveness and love have not changed – that they cannot change. And so there can be only one ending – life. Indeed, the risen Lord promises this morning that “where I am, there will my servant be also.”