By Pastor Jack Hartman
Scripture: John 12:27-36
There is an incredible statement in the text for today. The words in that text can literally change your life. Did you catch it? Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” The words – “.. when I am lifted up from the earth ..” – refers to his death on the cross. How does the cross have drawing power for you, for all of us? That is what we want to explore today.
The foundation of the drawing power of the cross is the love that Jesus demonstrates by giving his life in love. The cross is all about the love of Jesus. One of the fundamental questions is why did Jesus have to go to the cross? Theologians and biblical scholars have been asking that question ever since it happened. How would you answer the question, why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
Let me share with you a couple of answers that are still prominent today that I believe do not answer the question correctly. Here is one of them. The reason Jesus died on the cross was to satisfy the righteous of God. This theory would maintain that we are so unrighteous that God could not accept us as we are. Jesus, the righteous one, had to give his life on the cross to satisfy God’s righteousness. A parallel to that theory is that God was so angry with his people because of their sinfulness that Jesus had to appease God’s anger. If these theories are true, then God sent his Son to us so that He could take out his righteousness or anger on him. I would suggest that both of these explanations make God into a divine child abuser.
Here is my explanation of why Jesus died on the cross. He died to show us how much he loves us. What Jesus did – what God allowed him to do – was show not only Jesus’ love for us but His Father God as well. Through the cross of Jesus, we can see that God would never stop loving us even if it cost Him the life of His Son. The word that surrounds the cross is love, divine love giving itself fully for us.
Jesus knew and understood how His love given through the cross had the power to draw people to himself. I believe we are here this morning because we have felt the drawing power of the cross. There is something about Jesus giving His life for us that is like a magnet that draws us to God. Jesus always insisted that no one was taking His life from him. He knew what was going to happen to Him. Yet He went to the cross voluntarily. There is an old gospel hymn that says,
“He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world and set him free
He could have called ten thousand angels
But he died alone, for you and me.”
Let me illustrate Jesus going to the cross for us in love with a story. Three teen-age boys were always daring each other to do some strange things. One day as they were walking down the street, the local Catholic Church in front of them had a sign outside that the priest was hearing confessions. According to Catholic tradition, you go to the priest to confess your sin, and the priest would give you some instruction to help with your sin. One of the boys challenged the other two that each of them would make up some sin and one after the other would go in and “confess” their sin. They all agreed.
The first one went in, made up his story, and was told by the priest to increase his prayer time. The second one went in, maked up his story, and was told by the priest to read so many verses of scripture. However, the priest was becoming suspicious that these two boys were making a mockery of confession. He was sure that was the case when the last boy entered the confession booth. After the bogus confession, the priest said, “Here is what I want you to do. I want you to go enter the sanctuary from the back, walk down the aisle with your eyes fixed on the cross.” In the Catholic tradition, Jesus is still on the cross almost in full size. The priest continued, “When you get just under the cross, I want you to look into the eyes of Jesus and say, ‘They say you loved me so much you gave your life on the cross for me, but I don’t give a damn.’” I apologize for the language, but that is what the priest instructed him to do.
The three boys then met up and told each other what the priest had told them to do. The other two had already done that and insisted that the other one do the same. So, he went to the back of the sanctuary, he walked down the aisle with his eyes focused on Jesus on the cross which was hanging above the altar. He made his way down the aisle and stood beneath the cross looking up into the face of Jesus who was looking down at him. He stood there unable to speak. Tears came into his eyes. For one of the first times in his life he felt the drawing power of the cross. That experience changed his life. We know the story is true because it is the testimony of the person who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Jesus died on the cross so we would know, understand, believe, and trust the love of Christ as he gave himself for us.
If love is the basic drawing power of the cross, then forgiveness is one of the ways that God’s love is confirmed in us. Forgiveness is God’s remedy for our sinfulness. The literal meaning in the Greek for sin is missing the mark. I do not have to convince you of our sinfulness. You and I are aware of it. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience? … the power of sin keeps sabotaging my best intentions. I can will it, but I cannot do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it. I decide not to do bad, then I do it anyway. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”
Forgiveness is God’s answer for our sinfulness. God gives us mercy which is not getting what we deserve. Let me say that again because it is so important to understand. God gives us mercy which means we do not get what we deserve. My first fulltime appointment in ministry in 1970 was to West Point just southwest of Lafayette. I grew up in Lafayette. We had been at my parent’s home on a Saturday evening. It had gotten late, and I was in a hurry to get home.
As we approached an intersection, the light turned yellow. I did what most drivers do; I sped up to try to beat the light. I didn’t make it. In my haste to beat the light, I did not see the police car that was also at that intersection. He was very kind, pulled me over, and even invited me to join him in his police car. He asked me, “Why did you just run that red light. I observed you speeding up trying to get through the intersection before the light turned red. I told him the truth. It was late, and I was anxious to get home.” He then asked me, “What do you do for a living?” I told him I was a pastor. His remark surprised me, “I should have known.” I did not know what he meant by that, and I was not about to ask. Here is the bottom line. He explained to me how I should not be running red lights, and then he let me go. No ticket … not even a warning ticket. I did not get what I deserved. That is mercy. That is the way God treats us. When we miss the mark, God does not give us what we deserve.
There is more. Not only does God give us mercy, he gives us grace. If mercy is not getting what you deserve, grace is getting what you do not deserve. Hear the difference. Mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you do not deserve. Think with me about the thief who is on a cross next to Jesus. Another thief on another cross has been taunting Jesus, “If you are who say you are, get us down from these crosses!” He really did not believe who Jesus was. The other thief answered him, “Leave Jesus alone. We are getting what we deserve. He has done nothing.” Then he turned to Jesus and pleaded, “When you come into your kingdom, remember me,” Jesus quickly responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is another word for heaven. Did you notice what he said? We are getting what we deserve. But Jesus gave him grace and assured him that he was not going to get what he deserved. He would be in paradise with Jesus. That is grace – not getting what you deserve.
Some years ago, our church had a national-wide publicity blitz with the theme, “The United Methodist Church has a message for you.” We used that publicity in the church I was serving. One of the places we advertised was the local newspaper. One day I got a letter that was addressed to Father Hartman. The envelope looked like it had printed my name and address with the printing of a younger child. I opened the letter and here is what it said, “Father Hartman, if your church has a message, we need to hear it. Would you please come visit us in the county jail?”
I knew the Sheriff and called him to tell him about the letter and to check on these two individuals. I gave him the names of the individuals. He informed me that one of them was in the jail for selling drugs to young kids within a block or two of the local school. The other person was in jail because he broke into a home and was confronted by a woman who lived there. He severely beat her in an effort to try to get her not to tell on him. I told the Sheriff how they wanted me to come visit them. “So, when are you coming?” he asked. To be honest at that moment, I was not sure that I was going to visit them. What message did I have for these two individuals?
But we set a time for the visit. He met me at the jail and explained to me how I would be set up to talk to these two individuals. He said he was going to bring the two men to a cell near the front door. We would be locked in that cell together. As he left with the three of us in that locked cell, his last words were “If you need anything just yell really loud.” The door to the cell block slammed shut. I thought to myself, “You have got to be kidding me.”
I remember one of them looking at me and asking with curiosity, “What is your message for us.” Neither one of them had attended church very often and knew very little about the faith. So, I started telling them about Jesus. His love for them, and his ability to forgive them for what they had done. About that time, the sheriff re-entered and said our time was up, and it was time for me to leave. Before I left, I agreed to come back the next week. They asked if I could get them a Bible. The next day I gave the Sheriff a Bible for each of the men. The next time I went, it was obvious they had been reading the Bible. They asked me to explain some of the verses they had been reading. We met for a number of weeks. When I went back one week, the one who had sold drugs had been extradited to another county to face other charges. I continued to meet with the other man for more weeks. He had originally pleaded innocent to the charges against him. He met with his lawyer and changed his verdict to guilty. He said he was okay with that. He was guilty and was willing to receive and accept his sentence.
Here is what I learned in that experience. What they needed is what you and I need. They needed someone to assure them that Jesus loved them in the midst of their sinfulness and that there was something God could do. God extended them mercy. From God’s perspective they did not get what they deserved. God extended to them grace: they got what they did not deserve. That is the drawing power of the cross! We experience God’s love and know he offers full and free forgiveness.
That is not where the drawing power of the cross ends, however. There is more. Those who have experienced God’s love and have received his mercy and his grace have to begin to live differently. They begin to live with their lives shaped new.
In his classic novel, "The Robe," Lloyd C. Douglas has a character called Marcellus, who had become enamored withJesus. He wrote letters to his fiancé Diana in Rome. He told her about Jesus' teachings, about his miracles, then about his crucifixion, and then about his resurrection. Finally, he informed her that he had decided to become a disciple of Jesus. In her letter of response, Diana said, "What I feared was that it might affect you. It is a beautiful story. Let it remain so. We don't have to do anything about it, do we?"
The answer is a resounding yes! Once we have experienced the drawing power of the cross, we need to do something about it. Each week we pray the Lord’s Prayer. One of the lines in that prayer is “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As we pray those words, how does God’s kingdom come? How does his will get done on earth? Is God somehow in a mysterious way just going to make it happen? Not at all. God wants to use you and me to make his kingdom come and his will to be done. Once we have experienced the love and forgiveness of Jesus, we get involved in kingdom work. God is counting on us to spread his love and justice.
Some years ago, Tony Compolo wrote a book entitled, Red Letter Christians. There was a time when you could purchase a Bible that had everything Jesus said in red print. Compolo suggested that Christians pay special attention to the red sayings of Jesus and then do whatever the words inform us to do. I think he is on target. We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn to the cross without also beginning to live in such a way that God’s kingdom can come through us by the decisions and actions we take both individually and corporately as a church. His will gets done on earth by people like us who make what God wills to be done in and through us individually and corporately.
William Barclay, a great Biblical scholar, tells a legend that describes when Jesus went back to heaven after His resurrection and His time on earth. Even in heaven he bore upon him the marks of the Cross. The angels were talking to him and Gabriel said: "Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there." "I did," said Jesus. "And," said Gabriel, "do they all know about how you loved them and what you did for them?" "O no," said Jesus, "not yet. Just now only a few people in Palestine know."
"What have you done," said Gabriel, "to let everyone know about it?" Jesus said: "I have asked Peter and James and John and a few others to make it the business of their lives to tell others about me, and the others still others, and yet others, until the farthest man on the widest circle knows what I have done." Gabriel looked very doubtful, for he knew well what poor stuff men were made of. "Yes," he said, "but what if Peter and James and John grow tired? What if the people who come after them forget? What if away down in the twentieth century people just don't tell others about you? Haven't you made any other plans?" And Jesus answered: "I haven't made any other plans. I'm counting on them."
Jesus is counting on us to make his kingdom come and his will to be done. The story of Jesus and the drawing power of the cross is far more than just a beautiful story. My prayer is that the drawing power of the cross will change your life. It calls us through the love and forgiveness of God to get involved in God’s kingdom work.
Today as we celebrate communion, I want us to remember and celebrate the love and forgiveness Jesus offers each of us. I want us to remember and celebrate that God’s kingdom is coming through each of us. Thanks be to God!
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