Is there any sense we can make of all the evil around us? It is so senseless, so meaningless. And is there any amount of legislation that can rid our culture of evil? No, the Apostle Paul “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom.3:20).
But as students of God’s Word, and as Lutherans, we are uniquely qualified to deal with tragedy, heartache, and struggle. One of the most precious gems handed down to us through the Reformation is a right understanding the theology of the cross. Through the eyes of faith and the light that shines through the truths of the God’s Word, we as Lutherans Treasure the Cross.
And that makes us strange to others in our world. It isn’t shocking for you to hear that we “find joy in the cross” because we find joy in Christ’s cross. For it is through that instrument of torture that God exacted full payment for our sin. The cross is little like one of those old credit card machines, the type that would take an imprint of your card by pressing it hard against a piece of carbon paper. So Jesus was pressed hard against the cross to leave an imprint of His sinless identity while absorbing the ink of our sins which were charged to His account. Now, in Jesus we have forgiveness and the promise of an eternal life of happiness. Of course we find joy in the cross of Christ. It means our salvation!
So, the cross means forgiveness for sin! The cross means God and man are reconciled! The cross means heaven is wide open for all! The cross means Satan loses! We find joy in the cross of Christ.
But it’s not just the cross of Christ that brings us joy. Martin Luther brought to light for the Church that we can also find joy in the cross that God calls each believer to carry. Jesus once said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).
Jesus said that we each must carry a cross in His name. This cross doesn’t earn forgiveness. Our own crosses are not the cause of our salvation, but our crosses are a necessary consequence of our salvation in Jesus.
But why? Why is it necessary to carry a cross? If we have faith in Jesus and through that faith we’ve been promised the ultimate prize: eternal life in heaven, why do we need to carry crosses? Because even though we’ve been promised the prize, we don’t actually hold it in our hands yet. It’s like buying a new car at the dealership. The paperwork is filled out and you hold the key to your car, but it’s not yours until you put the key into the ignition. Only then can you enjoy what the new car has to offer. Through faith in Jesus the joys of heaven are ours, but we’re not there yet to enjoy it.
To keep us from throwing away the key to heaven, or to keep us from trading it in for some other earthly, temporal joy, God fits each of us with a cross to carry. The Apostle Paul explains why when he wrote: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:2-5a). The cross that each believer must bear keeps that individual looking to and longing for Christ. It drives us to our knees in prayer. It drives us to despair of ourselves and to continually seek comfort in God and His promises, rather than in any of the many false “treasures” this world has to offer.
Consider the circumstances of Job. Job was a man who lived probably about the same time as Abraham, some 4500 years ago. He was wealthy and a believer in the true God. One day Satan came into God’s presence and God brought Job to his attention. God gave Job a ringing endorsement about what a faithful believer he was. To which Satan remarked, “The only reason he loves you, God, is because you spoil him. Take away his toys. Take away his health. Take it all away and he’ll surely curse you to your face.” “Very well then,” God replied. “Have your way with Job, only don’t kill him.”
You know what happened: Job lost everything, including all 10 children, and then even his health. Job’s friends, who knew nothing about what had led to his difficulties, figured that God must be punishing Job for some sin. So they urged him to repent. But Job’s suffering wasn’t caused by any specific sin. Yet Job couldn’t explain why he was suffering. The only thing he could do was throw himself on God’s mercy, which is exactly what he did in these words before us – words which have brought comfort to many suffering believers. Listen again to these familiar and comforting words. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I and not another. How my heart yearns within me.”
Ever felt that way? Have you ever been as excited as Job about seeing God? It likely happens when we are undergoing our toughest situations. When things are easy, there seems to be no need for God. But without God, without faith in Jesus as our Savior from sin, we have nothing worth holding on to in this life because the Bible tells us that this world and everything in it will be destroyed.
In his explanation to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther said this about carrying the cross: “…where God’s Word is preached…and bears fruit, there the holy precious cross will also not be far behind. And let no one think that we will have peace; rather, we must sacrifice all we have on earth—possessions, honor, house…spouse and children…body and life. Now, this grieves our flesh…for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us” (Luther’s Large Catechism).
But difficulty itself is not a cross. Even unbelievers have to put up with sickness, with broken relationships, financial ruin or lost loved ones. What makes hardship or tragedy a cross is how God calls us to deal with it: with faith, with patient humility, continuing to put God’s will and the needs of others before our own. If I carry my cross I deny myself: my sinful self--sinful pleasures, put aside sinful pursuits. As you know, the sinful nature doesn’t want that. It wants us to put ourselves first, to seek our own happiness. But if we live that way, we are not carrying our crosses and we are turning our backs on God and his promise of eternal life.
But Christians, don’t despair, God promises help in carrying our crosses. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). We also think of the rest we have in Jesus, which we do, but perhaps a better translation would be “…and I will give you refreshment.” When Jesus invited us to come to Him to find rest, He didn’t mean that we’d find an end to our troubles and pain once we became Christians. That’s a false teaching called the “theology of glory.” It’s what we hear from preachers who claim that strong faith produces a happy and prosperous life. No, God wants you to have so much more than the fading riches of a dying world. He wants you to enjoy heaven! But He also knows how Satan will use the riches and happiness of this world to distract us from what is truly important. That’s why God lets us struggle, lets us see firsthand how health is fleeting, how worldly wealth or the latest gadgets don’t bring lasting joy. And this isn’t a lesson He’ll teach us just once, but again and again. In fact, we can expect to carry a cross our whole lives with its slivers digging in at different places at different times. But we never have to bear the cross alone. We run to Jesus and His Word and find refreshment, because in His Word we learn the reason for the cross: to break our love for this world, for ourselves, and to keep us focused on the true prize of heaven.
When we fail to do so… to keep running to His Word… we only end up trying to ditch our cross. We do that in numerous ways: by ducking out of difficult relationships, by surrounding ourselves with more and more creature comforts… by stealing because we don’t want to deal with the stress of working… or by escaping through drugs or alcohol. When you’re tempted to do that, remember the example of Job. Remember the cross of Christ, and throw yourself again on God’s mercy and promises. Hold steadfast to the promise that through the blood of Christ, even though your skin will be destroyed, you will be raised to life and when you are, you’ll come face to face with your living, loving Savior. Until then keep meeting Him in His Word and in the body and blood He offers in the sacred meal.
So much tragedy on the news, in our nation, around the world, and in our own lives! How can we take it? How can we even begin to wrap our minds around it all? Only through the cross! The cross of your Savior Jesus, who has overcome the sin of the world… your sin, and mine. The cross that has redeemed this world and overcome even death itself. And what a treasure, too, then, is the cross He lays on us… As our peace and happiness is so often fleeting in this life, and even opposed to salvation, our cross drives us back to His… and to the eternal treasures He alone has won! So rejoice, dear Christians… in HIS cross, AND yours! Amen.