Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week — the week when Christians each year commemorate the final days of Jesus’s earthly ministry, culminating in his martyrdom on the cross. Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, when crowds of people acclaimed him as a great prophet who could deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. They scattered palm branches at his feet, welcoming him as if he were their king, as he humbly rode into the city upon a donkey.
By Friday, Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leaders as a false messiah and crucified as a rabble-rouser by the Romans.
Paradoxically, in the Christian tradition, the Friday of the crucifixion is called “Good Friday.” But what was so good about the unjust execution of Jesus Christ? If his life hadn’t been tragically cut short, perhaps he could have done much more good for his people. Maybe his support would have grown, and eventually he could have been crowned king and led an army to overthrow the Roman Empire. King Jesus might have been remembered in the history books as the savior of Israel.
Instead, he instructed his followers to “put your sword away” [Matt. 26:52], and accepted the dishonorable death of a common criminal. And in so doing, he came to be remembered as the savior of the world.
For the cross of Christ has a power that cannot be measured in worldly victories with the sword, or by any other criteria that the people of the time could easily understand. In the words of the Apostle Paul,
“For 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.’ [quoting Isa. 29:14]
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? 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 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 human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” [1 Cor. 1:18-25]
A crucified messiah seemed ridiculous to both Jews and Gentiles because they valued worldly power. The average Jew wanted a savior who would solve their most obvious problem, namely, the Roman occupation. If the Romans executed a prophet, then surely he could not be the messiah — for if he were, God would have saved him, so that he could fulfill the mission of restoring Israel to greatness.
As for the Gentiles — the people of the Greek and Roman culture that had conquered Israel — what value could they see in a leader whose own people didn’t fight for him and who let himself be killed? How could such a man be relevant as a source of wisdom, even for the more open-minded among the Gentiles who appreciated the Jewish God? More likely, he was just another crazy religious fanatic who should be ignored.
Despite these logical objections to taking the crucified Jesus seriously, it is actually because of the cross that Christianity has grown to become the largest religion in the world. There is incredible power in the cross of Christ — an otherworldly power with a divine logic that has become evident in the course of time, which has always, and will always confound the worldly wisdom of those who view the cross with displeasure and reject the Christian faith because of it.
I’d like to describe three reasons why the cross is so important and has such transformative power in people’s lives and our world. First, the very fact that it was so counterintuitive — that a man who just surrendered, without a fight, to a death that was viewed by both the Jews and the Romans as a death of utmost disgrace, could somehow become viewed, nevertheless, as the greatest spiritual leader in history, is a big part of what endows the cross of Christ with such power.
The cross is the ultimate symbol of God’s defiance of our expectations — specifically, that God uses people and situations we tend to view as negative or unworthy to accomplish amazing divine purposes. As the Apostle Paul writes of Jesus, although he had the nature of God, “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant … [H]e humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,” says Paul [Phil. 2:7-9]. There can be tremendous power in humility, and sometimes what we see outwardly is the exact opposite of the true reality as seen by God.
This idea empowers human beings in a way that few other beliefs can, because it brings hope and purpose to our seemingly insignificant and miserable lives. Who hasn’t at times felt too small to make a difference, or not good enough to be part of God’s plan? Who hasn’t wondered if the suffering they experience — such as health problems, or financial problems, or other losses and struggles — could be because they are cursed, and that God has abandoned them, or never cared about them in the first place? Most people have had such thoughts at one time or another. And without the message of the cross of Christ, it would be much more difficult to put these negative thoughts of unworthiness aside.
Even Jesus, when he was hanging on the cross, felt forsaken by God. Like any human being, he experienced fear and doubt, and he cried out in his mental torment, as the Bible records [Matt. 27:45]. But the power of the cross was not that evil won the victory over Jesus; quite the contrary: that Christ was not in fact forsaken by God, despite the crucifixion, but that God used this terrible event as a means by which the world could be saved.
So powerful was this idea of God’s victory through seeming defeat that the cross became the symbol of Christianity. Think about that, how crazy it must have seemed at the beginning, that an instrument of torture and death came to represent the triumph of divine mercy and new life for all people!
And this brings me to my second point about the incredible power of the cross — a largely historical one, but one that continues to have ramifications today. Most cultures throughout history have believed in gods that required people to sacrifice — not just our time or treasure in a worthy cause, but offering the life of animals or even human beings in ritualistic slaughter. As I described in last week’s sermon, the Jews at the time of Jesus had a lucrative economy based on animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple. Some societies went even further, practicing human sacrifice.
In fact, human sacrifice was common in the ancient world. The Hebrew Bible discusses the practice and bans it, instead prescribing the sacrifice of non-human animals. Other cultures in the ancient Near East, such as the Canaanites and the Phoenicians, continued to sacrifice human beings to their gods — particularly young children. Child sacrifice was also widely practiced in early civilizations of the Americas, and elsewhere.
People sacrificed human beings or animals in religious ceremonies because they believed it was necessary to be forgiven for their sins. By giving up something valuable, such as livestock, or even someone they loved, such as their child, they could earn the mercy and favor of the God they worshipped — that was their reasoning.
But there was a different idea that grew alongside the belief in blood sacrifice and competed for people’s support. This idea was that God requires our moral goodness, not the killing of innocent life, as the way for us to show our faithfulness and be forgiven and blessed by God. For example, the prophet Micah asks, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams …” or even more, “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Micah answers the rhetorical question: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” [Mic. 6:7-8]
This may seem like common sense to us today, but that is only because of the cross of Christ. Early Christians such as the Apostle Paul argued to their Jewish and Gentile audiences — most of whom still believed in sacrificing animals or even human beings to their gods — that when Jesus, the firstborn Son of God, died on the cross, that can be understood as a perfect and universal sacrifice for all the sins of the world, for all time, forever bringing to an end all religious systems that call for blood sacrifice. God doesn’t need our bloody rituals to forgive us of our sins, for God’s nature is loving and merciful — so much so that God actually sacrifices for us.
This interpretation of the cross, and its widespread acceptance, was essential for the evolution of humanity beyond primitive sacrificial religion and toward the much more advanced moral and spiritual philosophy of teachers such as the prophet Micah — and of Jesus himself, who drove out the sellers of sacrificial animals from the Temple, directly leading to his execution just a few days later.
It’s been hundreds of years since any major civilization in the world practiced blood sacrifice, so the idea of Christ dying on the cross for our sins, in a literal sense, may seem outdated. But the concept of sacrificing for God can be understood in a more sophisticated way that will always be relevant, no matter the time or cultural context.
As the New Testament declares in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said [to God]: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am … I have come to do your will, my God.’” [Heb. 10:4-7, quoting Psalm 40:6-8]
In the case of Jesus, God’s will was for him to die as a martyr for his faith, so that humanity’s sinful practice of slaughtering millions of innocent beings in religious rituals could finally come to an end with the rise of the Christian religion. In our case, each and every one of us can live as an offering to God, through our actions helping to transform a sinful world into a world filled with goodness. Like Christ, we can say to God, “Here I am, I have come to do your will,” whatever that may be.
And this is the third point I wish to make about the incredible power of the cross: It inspires us to become our best selves. When we look to the cross of Christ, we see a person who was willing to do anything — whatever it takes — to stand up for what’s right. By reflecting on Jesus’s example, we can be moved to heroic action, without which what’s wrong in the world would never change.
Think about some things that need to change, but which require people to be willing to “take up the cross,” so to speak, and make sacrifices so that good can triumph over evil. I’m sure you can think of many examples: perhaps standing up against racism, sexism, or other forms or discrimination; or standing against excessive corporate greed and exploitation of the poor for profit; or standing for environmental protection, or for democratic elections, or for truth over lies.
In every case, there are sacrifices we might need to make for an important principle, if we wish to follow what we believe God would have us do for our fellow human beings and for the wellbeing of our world. The Christian faith glorifies such sacrifice — and it’s important that it does, because without such inspiration, it would be difficult for people to motivate themselves to nonviolently protest against evil and take inconvenient actions to advance the cause of the good.
Faithful followers of Jesus throughout history have found the courage to stand up against injustice, no matter the personal consequences. They have given up money, power, and privilege, to follow the calling of God to sacrifice, whether by living or dying, for what’s right. That’s because of the incredible power of the cross. And it’s also because of the promise of the resurrection — which, as we’ll discuss next week, gives us the confidence to believe that evil never has the last word in God’s story.
Watch on video (starting at 9:06):