Dr. Chris White April 13th, 2014
When we consider the crucifixion of Jesus, we tend to remember the great pressure exerted to kill him. A lot of people went out of their way to see to his death. It’s a story of punishment, brutality, and the executors’ efficiency. We might also remember this story as one that allowed Jesus no room to escape. But this isn’t how the story goes. In fact, the greatest pressure exerted on Jesus was not for his execution but for his freedom. Time and time again he was offered freedom. Time and time again he was reminded that, were he really God’s man, saving himself was not only something he could do but was the right thing to do. But time and time again, he did not save himself. That is a story worth considering.
Read with me from Luke 23:32-43:
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
You no doubt noticed the three times a particular phrase was used. The rulers call for him to save himself, the soldiers call for him to save himself, and the man on the cross calls for him to save himself. It all happens so fast that it seems like an isolated patch, but Jesus has been under pressure to save himself since Judas entered the Garden of Gethsemane. As we see in Luke’s gospel beginning in 22:47, Jesus sees Judas coming and does not flee. He knows what is ahead, so now is the time to save himself. But he stays. He’ll stop Peter from defending him with his sword, endure the beatings, and pass on the opportunity to defend himself before the chief priest. Later, he’ll stand silent before Herod and not give Pilate the chance to free him.
It is his unwillingness to save himself in these tight spots that puts him in the position we find him in Luke 23. Had he saved himself by flight or simple argument he would not be on a cross awaiting death. It is here that the calls to save himself are so loud. And tempting. The rulers want him to save himself as the proof of being Messiah—break from the cross and show your power. The soldiers want him to save himself to show that he is king of the Jews—use your authority in the world to save yourself. The man on the cross wants him to save himself so he can save him as well—why wouldn’t a Messiah survive and aid others in survival?
One thing is obvious. There is a shared belief about God running through this story: anyone with God’s favor should be saved from crosses. There is mocking when the leaders say, If he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One, and mocking when soldiers call him king of the Jews, but there is also the presumption that were Jesus God’s man he would not be suffering. As far as they are concerned, the Messiah wouldn’t tolerate such indignities and threat to life. And as far as the man on the cross in concerned, he might ask this question: If God’s favor does not save you from days like this, what good is God’s favor?
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ was God’s Son, fully righteous and without sin, and fully within His Father’s favor. Jesus Christ lived and walked fully within God’s will. The Scriptures also tell us that he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, denied, abandoned, and crucified by people not walking fully within God’s will. In the Father’s eyes, the cross was the final step of faithfulness from His Son. It was evidence of Jesus’ success. In the eyes of soldiers and crowds, the cross was the final step that disproved Jesus as Messiah. It was evidence of Jesus’ failure. The world has never found the cross a safe idea, whether as a tool of execution or a message of God redeeming the world. Our Messiah dies on a cross. If our Messiah is one who enjoys God’s favor and dies on a cross according to God’s will, then we are crossing lines no one knew existed.
We sing of a cross this morning, but let’s not forget how that cross threatens us. We, too, believe that God’s favor should save us. We pray that way regularly. And when we’re not saved as we expect to be saved, we begin to question God’s faithfulness. Some even question God’s existence if they or their loved ones are not saved from harm. Maybe we’re like the enemies of Jesus in the Scriptures: we believe God’s favor should save us from crosses. Like them, we hear voices aplenty calling out, save yourself. We know the downward pressure to save ourselves—a reputation, a persona, our own fulfillment, our stake, to win an argument, or to stay away from anyone and anything that threatens the idealized future we’ve planned for ourselves.
A cross was threatening to Jesus, and a cross is threatening to us, because the first human impulse is save yourself. Jesus says in Mark 8:34, 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. The call on Jesus’ life was to deny self and embrace a deep faithfulness to God that included death on a cross for our forgiveness. The call on our lives is to deny self and embrace a deep faithfulness to God that includes cross-bearing. God asks us to deny the many tendrils of self and our pre-occupation with small, petty gripes and selfish wishes that we might accept the kingdom of God. Cross-bearing in all its shapes and sizes—needy people, difficult circumstances, privation and suffering in Christ’s name—is not a sign that we are out of God’s favor. It is God’s will that we bear crosses. It is God’s will that we not save ourselves or our interests if denying self and taking up a cross is the price of being faithful to God.
We are saved through Christ and here today worshiping because Jesus did not save himself. Might it be that others will be saved through Christ when we do not save ourselves?