March 20

Matthew 16:21-25

Just down the street from our church is a 10 x 10 block building that is said to be the second oldest building in Jefferson.  It’s called the Calaboose.  Our church acquired the building when we bought a small piece of property it sits on a few years ago.  It is said that the building used to be a jail, although we can’t see any evidence that any bars were ever on the windows.  If it was a jail, Keith Ariail said we might be the only church in Georgia that owns one.

426462_254741364610229_1578398274_nIn Moultrie where I used to live, the city turned their old jail into the Chamber of Commerce.  If you go to the third floor you can still see the old bars on the windows and even see an old bed where the incarcerated slept.

You can also see a place on the floor where the condemned were dropped through a small hole and left to hang until they were dead.  It was there that people in Moultrie say the last public hanging in Georgia took place.

The headlines of The Daily Observer, dated August 19, 1915, read: “ McGriff Pays Death Penalty; In Final Statement Admitted Killing 11 Persons.”

The story describes in detail the final hours of Will McGriff ’s life. It tells about the ministers who met with him the evening before his execution. They baptized him.

However, the article did not focus on the prisoner’s jail cell conversion but on the details of the execution.  I realize this is a bit raw but it serves a purpose this morning.

“Without showing the least sight of a tremor he walked up the flight of steps of the jail where the death chamber is located. Reaching the entrance, he stopped while the electric light was turned on, revealing the gibbet, the hemp rope with the noose ready.”

“His eyes worked up and down; then his mouth quivered. But quickly he regained his composure and stepped with a firm tread upon the scaffold. He stood erect while his feet were being bound and his hands were being securely fastened behind his back. But all the while he was chanting a prayer. Besides this there was no noise as the executioners moved quickly about their gruesome task.”

The article continues with a description of the black hood being placed over his head and the trap door swinging open, dropping the 250-pound man to his death.

Today, just the sight of a hangman’s noose is enough to instill fear and racially charged messages.  Years ago, white teenagers hung a noose in a tree at their school in Jena, Louisiana and it snowballed into a national racial crisis.

hangmans-nooseNo one embraces a hangman’s noose because we all understand that it represents death for anyone that wears one.  We do not make a noose into a necklace.     No one wears a pair as earrings.

A hangman’s noose is a tool of execution.   Everyone knows this.  So when we see one or hear an account of one being used, even if the account is of a man who confessed to killing eleven people one hundred years ago, the inhumanity of it strikes us cold.

Let me remind you that people used to have the same kind of feeling about the cross as we have about the noose. It was an executioner’s tool used to kill the condemned.  People were tied to a beam and then nailed to a large main beam making a cross and left to hang until they were dead. This kind of death could last for hours or days.

Death often came by asphyxiation, occurring once a person became so weak he could no longer inhale.  To hasten death, the legs of the crucified would sometimes be broken so he could not push himself up to gain another breath.

I ’m convinced first century Christians would find it strange that we are attracted to crosses, as strange as if someone made a necklace out of a noose, an electric chair, or a hypodermic needle.

We find crosses beautiful. We make them out of silver and gold. We adorn them with jewels.  We make them out of wood, stone, and metal.

imagesIs that wrong? No.  We have just made them so pretty that we ’ve forgotten what they were used for. We ’ve scrubbed the cross with bleach so you cannot see the blood stains on it anymore.

We ’ve puttied over the holes so you can’ t tell that nails went through someone ’s flesh and into the wood. We ’ve sanded and varnished the cross so that it doesn’t resemble anything crude and uncomfortable.

We should never allow ourselves to forget that the cross was a tool of execution. If we wear one, if we have one in our home or church, see one erected in a field, on the side of the road, on a billboard, or in a cemetery, it should be a reminder of suffering and sacrifice.

Jesus was crucified on a cross. He was an innocent man who was executed by the Romans at the insistence of the religious leaders of Jerusalem.

However, please don’t miss this –Jesus embraced the cross, not because he wanted to suffer but because he was obedient to God.

This obedience wasn’t just a decision that he made at the end of his life when the soldiers came to arrest him –although we clearly see that he was agonizing about the cross in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was tempted to call ten thousand angels and had the power to do so. Jesus’ decision to be obedient to God and take up his cross was a long ongoing journey which he decided again on that night not to abandon.

Jesus had been teaching about cross carrying for a long time.

When Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tried to define for Peter what Messiah looked like and what a disciple of the Messiah looked like.

Jesus began using words like suffering and dying and because he used words like these, Peter couldn’t even hear the part about rising from the dead.  Peter could not put suffering and death in the same sentence with Messiah.

When Peter rebuked Jesus for using those words: the words Jesus had for Peter were stern.  He called Peter “Satan,” and said he was a stumbling block to him.

Then Jesus defined what a disciple looked like.

  1. A disciple must deny self
  2. A disciple must carry a cross
  3. A disciple must lose his or her life for Jesus

Here we are in the middle of the Presidential Campaign.  I’m sorry to remind you.  Trump says he will “Make America Great Again.”  Hillary says, “Everyday Americans Need a Champion.  I Want to be That Champion.”  Ted Cruz’s slogan is “Reigniting the Promise of America.”  “John Kasich is For US,” with “US” being in capital letters.  Bernie Sanders says, “A Political Revolution is Coming.”

“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

Why is that revolutionary?

Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

The revolution came 200 years ago and if you will live by his slogan it will revolutionize your life.

It will revolutionize the church.   It will revolutionize the community.  If we were to embrace this slogan as a nation it would revolutionize our country.  

Charles Darwin taught us in evolutionary theory that the way for survival is through natural selection, a process where every creature looks after itself. It is the way that we ensure that we pass on our genes to the next generation.  Darwin said that we are no different from that any other species in this matter.

In the movie, “Man of Steel,” Superman is in a battle with Faora and she says, “You are weak, Son of El, unsure of yourself. The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage.”  As she picks Superman up and throws him into another building she says, And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.”

Is Faora right? How then has Christianity flourished with Jesus’ philosophy of living, which says that we are to have so much love for others that we are to sacrifice ourselves for others?

If you want to look at any period in the history of our country when you can say, “That’s when we were the greatest,” you will point to a time when there was great sacrifice being made on behalf of the people for our nation.  Even when you find that period of our history, you will still discover that we had great room for sacrifice as people around us lacked civil rights and were denied the basic tenant of our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

President John F. Kennedy noticed this and sought to get people to rise up above our selfish ways when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

th-1Whenever the people of our nation began to live only for themselves and to grab for themselves without caring for those around them, that is when we have been at our worst.

In August 1999, 46-year-old David Hutmacher was sitting at his desk in the Roswell, GA, branch of Turf Care Products when a summer squall abruptly started brewing in his belly. “I wasn’t sure what was going on,” he recalls. “But I knew, whatever it was, it wasn’t right.”

He was diagnosed with diverticulitis.  He ended up enduring two surgeries and spent a total of three months in the hospital. (Ibid)

He quickly went through all his vacation time and sick leave and then his company had to stop paying him. (Ibid)

David had two daughters, ages 8 and 5.  They were barely keeping things together on his wife’s teaching salary and with Christmas fast approaching things looked bleak. (bid)

Then something unexpected happened.  Two weeks after his check stopped, he received a full paycheck—plus the money that had been missing from the previous check and several hundred dollars in cash. (Ibid)

All 70 employees from the company got together and donated cash and vacation time they had left and gave it to David. (Ibid)

David said, “I cried. I cried a lot, actually. I don’t know quite how to say this but I was very surprised by what my colleagues did and yet not surprised at all when I found out, because they’re good, good people.” (Ibid)

The idea behind all of this came from Sandy Davis, Turf Care’s comptroller, who donated her vacation time and then sent out an email asking others if they cared to do the same.  (Ibid)

David said, “That Christmas was one of the best I’ve ever had.  Even though I was still quite ill, I was suffused with gratitude—for my life and for the good, good people in it.” (Ibid)

Now were all these people Christians?  Probably not.  But they were all acting Christian in their gift to David.  They were all doing what Jesus said Christians ought to do: deny ourselves.  When we do we give witness to the standard that Jesus has set for us.

When we take up a cross we make a sacrifice that is costly to ourselves in order to love someone else.  Now Jesus did this to the degree that he gave his physical life for us.

Jesus once said that there is no greater love than this, that a person lay down his life for his or her friends.

While we aren’t likely to be asked to give our lives away in this regard, the Apostle Paul said that the goal is to make our lives a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

The way that we worship God is by daily giving ourselves to him by giving ourselves to others.

So when we look at a cross or wear a cross we should think about what it means to our faith. The cross still means death. It means dying to self. It means burying our selfish ways. It means denying self. It means serving others. It means saying “no” to selfishness and “yes” to service.

If we live only for ourselves, we will find ourselves separated from God and others and the result is lostness.

Satan masks this by allowing us to find temporary pleasure in trying to live so the world revolves around us, but it also leads to great frustration, unhappiness, and a lack of peace.

The cross is about embracing a kind of life which puts God and the service of others as our priority.
This means that we have to let selfishness die.

This does not mean we do not love ourselves or take care of ourselves.

The second greatest command is to love others as we love ourselves. It means that we stop being selfish and we start making sacrifices so others can know that the nature of God is love.

Is the universe is revolving around you? Perhaps it is time to let Jesus revolutionize your life. Take up your cross and follow him.