A Different Kind of Tree
One the the amazing things about our culture is how quickly it changes. Styles come and go, ideologies change, and even the words we use change their meaning over the span of a few years. Starting after the thanksgiving meal until December 31st I listen exclusively to Christmas music. While there are a few newer carols, most of the songs in my play list are are least decades if not centuries old. That’s why there are a few lyrics that cause a little bit of confusion and some difficult conversations with a 12 year old. In 1881 when Deck the Halls was first published no one would have imagined what the call to “don our gay apparel” would mean in 2016, much less “trolling an ancient yule tide carol.” Those words and phrases have changed a lot in the last 120 years.
The nature of our world is that it’s ever changing and always in motion; that’s also the nature of the church. This week the story of Jesus brings us to the moment that God has been building towards ever since Genesis 3. And while today we see that moment as a victory, for those people who were there witnessing the whole ordeal it seemed like a defeat.
Today, like every Sunday, you can take a quick glance around the building and see a lot of folks who are wearing crosses … that would have been unheard of in Jesus’ day and the years that followed. Their Christian symbols were the Chi Roh, an ichthus, or anchor. It was a shift in culture that changed the way that we see the cross.
Yesterday at Chad and Sarah’s wedding there were lots of crosses, because it’s no longer a symbol of torture and death; instead we recognize it as a symbol of redemption and hope. Today we want to get as close to the cross as we can, we know that’s where we find hope, acceptance, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. But that was not always the case. While we desire to get close to the cross, there was a time when folks wanted to keep their distance.
I want you to read with me today Luke’s account of what happened that fateful day. We are going to look at Luke 23 and start in verse 44. (Read 44-49)
The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, the cross was used by the Persians more than a century before the Romans became the world power. But as Rome’s chosen form of execution they evolved it to the ultimate form of torture, humiliation and death. Death by crucifixion was slow, and not only did they torture the one being crucified, they heaped humiliation on top of pain. Under Roman law, men were crucified exposed and naked. This type of public execution also served as a warning to the onlookers about how serious Rome was about keeping her laws.
In Philippians 2 Paul says that Jesus emptied himself, … by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. When Jesus emptied himself it was so much more than refusing to claim equality with God. He emptied Himself by taking on the role of a sinner and enduring the humiliation and shame of the cross. While the Jews required that a man be fully clothed when he was stoned for blasphemy; Jesus emptied himself by allowing them to take everything He had, including His dignity.
When you understand how truly awful a crucifixion was, you can understand why those who were closest to Jesus stayed away. But you also understand that this was not the first time that people who needed Jesus stood in the distance. In Luke 17, we read about the time that ten men who were lepers stood at a distance and called out to Jesus. Jewish law said that anyone with a skin disease was to be cut off from the community, so these men were not allowed to approach Jesus. They wanted to get close to Christ, but they stood at a distance and it was humiliating.
They were humiliated by their society and forced to wear ragged clothes and walk down the street yelling unclean. Not only were lepers faced with living in a disease that would eventually take their lives, they were doubly humiliated by being forced to live as an outcast in their society. Society had stripped them of their worth and value. Now they stand at a distance because they have been told they are not worthy to come and stand close to Jesus.
Next to the church building we served in Texas is an open air basketball court. I drove past that basketball court at least twice every day. There were always a group of guys playing, and very often there were another group of kids standing on the edge of the court watching. I imagine that those kids standing on the sidelines were not just there to watch; what they really wanted to do is to get in the game. They wanted someone to ask them if they wanted to play. But for whatever reason they were humbled and humiliated into standing on the sidelines. Maybe they were told they were too short, or too slow, or too clumsy, and what they wanted to do was get into the game, but they didn’t have the courage to take that step.
The same is true for so many folks in the Jesus Story. Just a few days before thousands of folks were clamoring to get close to Jesus, to hear what He had to teach, to get a glimpse of Him. Now things are different. We read in Luke 22 that Peter denies knowing Christ with cursing. In Luke 23 we find that the whole crowd rejects Him. Once He is on the cross even God forsakes Him. And while Luke does mention that some women in the crowd cried and sang funeral songs as Jesus moved towards Golgotha, for the most part Jesus is alone.
These same people who longed to be with Jesus only days earlier were now keeping their distance. Jesus is no longer a celebrity; He’s become an outlaw. All of those folks who followed Him and wanted to be close to Him are left standing on the sidelines, watching, and knowing the humiliation of not being able to do anything. Once Jesus finally get’s to the cross the crowd begins to insult Him, and spit on Him, and question His identity and power. In this final act of humiliation Jesus was all alone.
Another reason that people kept their distance from Jesus was that they were afraid.
Pilate had a wonderful opportunity to know the power that Jesus possessed, but he kept his distance because of political fear. We know that politicians live and die by their image. Our images are often made by being seen in the right places with the right people. Get your picture taken with the right people in the right place say the right thing and your image shines. Get caught in the wrong place with the wrong people, say or do the wrong thing and your image in tarnished. Perception is often more valuable than the truth. How many politicians just ran their election based on the perception of the current president. How many folks lost their election bid based on their relationship with the current president?
Pilate had to be careful about his image. He lived on a very short political leash that stood between the Roman government and the Jewish religion. To keep Rome happy Pilate had to keep Jerusalem peaceful. That’s why even though he readily admitted that Jesus was innocent, he distanced himself from someone he saw as a victim of jealousy. Pilate distanced himself from Jesus because of political fear.
Peter knew a different kind of fear, it was not political but personal. I love the fact that while Peter denied Jesus three times. it was Pilate who declared Him innocent three times. Peter's fear by the fire that night in the courtyard of the high priest was not so unrealistic. Maybe Peter knew all too well what might happen if he didn't put some distance between himself and Jesus. Maybe you know that fear as well.
Luke tells us in chapter 22 that Peter followed at a distance. The events of the last few days probably have Peter scratching his head. He’s upset. He’s frustrated. He’s afraid believing that this whole thing has gotten way out of hand. So he distances himself from Jesus. He’s close enough to watch and far enough to disassociate himself. We don’t really know what he’s doing and I doubt that Peter even had a plan. All we know is he sat down by the fire, watched and waited.
Eventually a young woman, and then another servant, and eventually a man all asked him if he was aligned with Jesus. And all three times Peter distanced himself. While we are never told why Peter distanced himself with cursing and swearing an oath, I suspect it has everything to do with fear. Peter was afraid of being recognized and arrested. He was afraid of sharing the same fate as Jesus, so he distanced himself. He stayed close enough to watch and far enough away to be safe and in the end, he failed.
The third reason that people distanced themselves from Christ was their rebellion and opposition.
In Luke 22:2 we read that the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus. It’s a bit ironic that the religious folks were the ones that seemed to have the biggest problem with Jesus. And I’m just going to insert here real quickly, that not a lot has changed. The religious folks were the rule makers and the rule keepers,. They were the ones who were able to decide who broke a rule and what the punishment should be for those law breakers. Then along comes Jesus, who claimed to be God, and throws open the doors and tears down the walls which had been built by their religious system. Jesus had the audacity to make God available to the people.
The main reason the religious folks opposed Jesus was found in the fact that their religion dictated that the more you separated yourself from the lowly sinners the more righteous you were. So they separated from Gentiles, and from women, and from people of low estate, and from the poor, and from the unclean. And here comes Jesus and says that everyone is welcome at the table. That type of thinking not only stood in the face of their religion, it caused them to call for His blood.
Religious people often see themselves as the gate keepers of God's house. They like to imagine that they, or the people they have put in charge, have the keys to the kingdom and therefore the authority to say who is and who isn't welcome. Jesus threatened their position, so they saw no alternative but to kill him.
In Luke 22 Jesus has been in Gethsemane, betrayed, arrested, beaten, and on trial for hours during the night. Finally in verse 70 they ask the million dollar question: Are you the son of God? Jesus answers by saying, you are right in saying that I am. If you can separate yourself because of a blood line or your social standing, than to distance yourself from a blasphemer was a no brainer. They handed Jesus over to the Romans to be tortured and crucified because He rightly claimed to be the Son of God.
When Pilate tried to release Jesus they incited the crowd to scream out, Kill him, and release Barabbas to us. There were some in Jerusalem that distanced themselves from Jesus because of the rebellion and opposition in their lives.
And finally some distanced themselves because of indifference.
The soldiers who were performing the crucifixion, who beat Jesus, nailed His hands and feet to the cross, who put the cross in the ground where just doing what they had done hundreds of times before. All that was left for them to do was mark time until the execution was complete. These men had been hardened by the very coarseness of their lives. They had seen others die. They were not concerned about the meaning of Christ’s death.
Here is the innocent Son of God, hanging on a cross, His blood dripping down and falling onto the hard ground. And while all of this is happening these men are casting lots trying to see what they can get. Their lives stand as a stark reminder to us that our world is filled with folks who are too involved with their daily lives to worry about the significance of the cross.
These soldiers were callously indifferent. Standing at the most pivotal moment in history all they gained was a few pieces of clothing and nothing more. No changed hearts, no changed visions, no changed lives: no Savior and Messiah. While one centurion paused long enough to declare that Jesus was innocent, it seems that he even missed the fact that Jesus was not just innocent but the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind.
Jesus came into our world and lived as a man who experienced the same heartache and joy, sadness and delight, pain and peace that we all do. But there was also something different about Him. From the first day that He entered our world His sight was set on the cross. All of His decisions, all of His choices, were made with the cross in mind. The symbol of death and torture would be redeemed just like your life of brokenness and sin can be redeemed. But for that to happen Jesus had to endure the cross.
This morning I have said all of that, to get to this. During this time of the year we will gather with our families around a tree. I know in my house we will sit on the floor and enjoy the lights and ornaments that adorn a tree that towers over a pile of gifts. We will spend some time talking, and laughing, and being thankful for the millions of ways that God has blessed us.
I also hope during this holiday season that we can draw close to a different kind of tree. During this time of the year I want us to remember that The Story of Jesus is a story of redemption. I want us to remember that His story included a cross, and because Jesus was willing to take the cross all alone, we don’t have to live in humiliation, fear, opposition, or indifference.
As we draw near to this tree I find great joy in the fact that Jesus went to the cross and endured the humiliation and torture for those of us that are keeping our distance and those of us who long to be close. When Jesus endured the cross He erased the racial and the ethnic lines, along with the gender and the generational lines, social and the political lines, and the religious and the secular lines.
The cross is why Paul could write in Galatians 3 that You are all God’s children by believing in Christ Jesus. Clearly, all of you who were baptized in Christ’s name have clothed yourselves with Christ. There are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free people, males nor females. You are all the same in Christ Jesus. Because of the cross, everyone who chooses to stand near Jesus are in. Everyone of us are equally humbled and equally exalted in our baptisms. And anyone who wants to cross that line and be with Jesus is freely invited to do so and welcome on His court.