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The Meaning of the Cross  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  26:04
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To begin understanding the meaning of the cross, we have to go back to the Old Testament and trace significant events of God's covenant forward. It starts with a showdown in Africa.

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Let’s quick catch up to where we are today by tracing where we left off last week. We looked at a poem from the Old Testament prophet of Isaiah about how it is the servant of the Lord would take the transgressions of others upon himself through his own suffering. And we made the point last week that this first layer of meaning we see in the cross is a layer of meaning that has implications not only for our future, but also changes our present world.

All of this sets us up for what comes next today. Because we can rightfully ask the question, “How does that work?” How does the suffering of Jesus on the cross change anything about my present world? Is that a fair question? I think so. If we are going to make the claim that the cross changes our world, then we should be able to give a few specifics of how this shows up, of what that change looks like.

So, let’s keep going today by backing up one more step. Last time we looked at this poem from Isaiah in Isaiah 52-53. Let’s back up one more step and begin today with the view surrounding that poem. Listen to the verses in Isaiah 52 that come immediately before what we read last week.

Isaiah 52:10–12 NIV

10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm

in the sight of all the nations,

and all the ends of the earth will see

the salvation of our God.

11 Depart, depart, go out from there!

Touch no unclean thing!

Come out from it and be pure,

you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house.

12 But you will not leave in haste

or go in flight;

for the Lord will go before you,

the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

So, while the words of Isaiah 52-53 which we read last week are so often seen as pointing forward to Jesus and his suffering on the cross, these are words which Isaiah also uses to point back to another event in Israel’s history. It is the event of the exodus from Egypt, remembering here that Isaiah is also writing to a group of Jewish people who are living in a time of exile away from their homeland. The original audience would have been a group of people who were asking the question, “When will God come and rescue us again like that, like he rescued his people back in the time of Egypt?”

By pulling these events together and also pointing them forward to the cross, we see that Jesus is doing something that he intentionally means to be seen as a rescue of God’s people. But there is much more we need to say about that in order for us to walk away today with any kind of understanding of what the cross means today—how it changes our world yet today.

The plagues of Egypt

Let’s go back in the story to the time of Egypt—a time when the nation of Israel lived as slaves under the Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh. For some here today, this may be a very familiar story. Others may know of this story from other places. There is the epic 1956 film The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. As recently as 2014 Ridley Scott directed the movie God’s and Kings which also was based upon the exodus story from the Bible. So, chances are, whoever you are here today, you know at least a little something of what I’m talking about when we reference the exodus.

The Hebrew people are held as an entire nation of slaves. And through a series of events which we won’t go through today, one of the Hebrew people—Moses—becomes called especially by God to confront the Pharaoh and deliver the message of God: Let my people go! If you know the story, then you know Pharaoh of course says no, and the narrative continues with the outpouring of ten plagues upon the land of Egypt and the Egyptian people.

This is where we will peek into the story today and look at just a few verses from the Old Testament book of Exodus. This comes from Exodus 9. Let me give some surrounding detail so you understand what’s going on here.

I’m not going to go through all ten plagues. But here is a quick explanation of how those plagues are grouped which may help to explain why I’m picking out these few short verses today from right in the middle of the sequence. The tenth and final plague sort of stands separate by itself. And in fact, next week we are going to look at just that one by itself. So, the first nine plagues, if you were to examine the details, can be grouped together in triplets. The first three plagues stand as a group. The fourth, fifth, and sixth plague forms a group. And the the seventh, eight, and ninth plague are the concluding triplet.

I’m picking a few verses from Exodus 9 which come within the seventh plague. Or in context, this is the introduction to the final triplet of plagues. This is not random. The story hits something of a crescendo right here with the final triplet being announced.

Exodus 9:13–16 NIV

13 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, 14 or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. 16 But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

Let my people go, so that they may worship me. The command to Pharaoh from God comes with a purpose. There is a specific reason God gives for Pharaoh to release the people. Certainly, we could argue that slavery is an awful and unjust institution, and God’s command to Pharaoh was a command against the evil of slavery. We could also argue that God had made a covenant promise with Abraham so many centuries before, and now he was stepping to in to keep his word and free the people in order to hold his covenant promise. While this is certainly true of God, the explicit reason God gives here is not about justice, nor is it about his covenant promise to Abraham. It is about worship.

While slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel would have been brought up to believe that the Pharaoh was himself a divine god. It was the divine right of the pharaoh to hold authority and act as he pleased. It was also the divine power of the Pharaoh which provided for the needs of all the people. In some very real sense, since the Pharaoh held all the authority, then it also meant that any provisions the people received at all were granted to them by the Pharaoh. Even though they were slaves, their houses and food and every other basic provision needed for survival was owed to the Pharaoh. He was their god. He was the source of all power. The Pharaoh was for them—and always had been—placed before them as the object of their worship.

And so, when God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and deliver a message to let the Israelites go, it is a message that comes loaded with other meaning. Moses is telling Pharaoh, we will no longer worship you. You, Pharaoh, are no longer going to be the object of our worship. You will no longer be the one to whom we look for provision. We will no longer live in dependence upon the Pharaoh. We have been called instead to worship YHWH—the LORD. We will look to the LORD for provision. We will live in dependence upon the LORD.

It is a showdown between the LORD and Pharaoh. The plagues that we read about here in Exodus are not a series of punishments for the Egyptians. They are not a game through which God must somehow convince Pharaoh to let the people go. After all, if we truly believe that God is all powerful, he could have just snapped his fingers and made it happen. This whole thing with the plagues has but one purpose. It is meant to show—to demonstrate for all the world to see—where our true worship should be directed, where our true provision comes from, the one on whom we are truly dependent for all our needs.

And here’s the thing. This was not just a lesson for Pharaoh. It was not just a lesson for the Egyptians. It was not just a lesson for the surrounding nations. After 400 years of slavery to the Egypt, the Israelites needed to learn this lesson too. God’s very own people needed to witness the unfolding spectacle of the plagues before them so that they too would be reminded again where to turn in their worship, where to turn in their allegiance, where to turn for their provision, where to turn in their dependence. The plagues were just as much a demonstration from God to the Israelites as they were a demonstration to Pharaoh.

It is in this story of the Plagues that we see God taking the initiative before he sets his people free from their slavery to powerfully demonstrate before them a very tangible, very physical reminder that the LORD is always to be the center of their worship. And it is in the cross of Jesus that we today are still given a very tangible, very physical reminder the LORD is always to be the center of our worship as well.

We were made to worship

When we talk about worship, that may bring many different things to mind for each person here. When I say worship, some might immediately associate that word with specific things we do as a church. Worship is that thing where we gather in a church to do things like sing songs about God, pray, read the Bible, hear a minster proclaim the gospel, and give an offering of our gifts. Once in a while we do this sort of weird ritual at the table with a cracker and small cup of juice. That’s the kind of stuff we do here week after week; and we call it a worship service. Most other churches are the same. This must be what worship is.

But when we think today about the kind of Worship God is talking about in the unveiling of the plagues in Egypt, the kind of worship we are reminded of in the cross of Jesus, it is a worship that involves so much more than a few communal activities in a church building on a Sunday morning. Worship is a central activity of our entire lives. Worship is in fact the central activity of every human being’s life. We all worship every single day of our lives. Every person worships during every single day of their life. We are made to worship. It’s what we do.

St Augustine wrote in his Confessions in the fourth century, “You have made us for yourself. And our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” We as humans go looking for objects of worship all over the place, because we are made to worship. And only after we have discovered that God is the one true direction for our worship do we find the rest which our hearts have been seeking.

Jamey Smith in his book, You Are What You Love, points out that we live in a world that is filled with different cultural worship liturgies. A liturgy is simply a script that gives an expectation and repeated formula to our worship. And Smith argues that our culture has scripts for us to follow in directing our worship to many different places.

So, if the issue of the showdown in Egypt was a clash between the LORD and Pharaoh, then the worship associated with it showed up in ways that can help us dig into where clashes in our worship exist today too. The Israelites were conditioned to worship the Pharaoh as slaves because they were conditioned to see the Pharaoh as the source of their provision. They were conditioned to live in dependence upon Pharaoh for their livelihood. Those are the things that made Pharaoh an object of worship for them.

Our culture has its equivalents to Pharaoh. We live in a world that has conditioned us as well to look in other places for the source of our provisions. We look in other places for the dependence of our livelihood. We live in a world that practices other worship liturgies to other gods to which we dedicate ourselves and the meaning of our very lives. For some, career and work success has become the god we worship. The liturgy we follow is one of endless work hours and climbing promotions. For some, consumerism has become the god we worship. We live in a liturgy that places the mall as our temple of worship, as our source of provision. For some, wealth and money are the gods we worship. Our dependence is built around a 401k account, and our liturgy plays out in the stock market. Students feel this too. There are competing liturgies in your world to dedicate yourself to a particular sport or activity, or to worship a perfect grade point average, to appease the gods of higher education so that you may be found worthy of acceptance into an ivy league college.

Smith suggests that perhaps the most clear example of a worship liturgy in our culture that competes with God for our worship is nationalism. Nationalism has a liturgy that almost perfectly mimics Christian religion. As a nation we have hymns of adoration to the country we love, we have creeds we which stand and recite in unison together, we have scriptures of sacred texts which we hold as authoritative for our society, and we have designated holy days set aside for observance of particularly meaningful events. And as a nation we have an idol, not an idol to which we kneel, but one to which we are commanded to stand. And any who refuse to stand in worship of our idol are scorned to a fiery furnace of unpatriotic condemnation. Our worship liturgy as a nation is an almost perfect identical copy of our worship liturgy as Christians.

Now before I get into trouble, let’s be clear on the proper place for various priorities. If I left it right here it would be way too easy for us to walk away and interpret this critique about various cultural liturgies as a call to completely reject all that they stand for. That is not true. That is not the point I am making here. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13 that there is a good and proper place for us to hold our obligations to the civic authorities. One of our reformed theologians, Abraham Kuyper, argues that we in fact a calling toward civic responsibility within our nations. Kuyper himself, besides being a theologian in the tradition of the Reformed church also served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. So yes, you can be a Christian who worships God and still also have a proper place to be a patriotic citizen of your country. And you can still be good in your job and have a successful career. And you can still go buy some things at the mall. And you can still plan for retirement with smart investments. And you can still be on that sports team. And you can still get good grades. And you can still follow an educational path toward the vocation to which you are called. Just don’t worship these things.

The Israelite slaves’ condition for worshipping Pharaoh was built on the orientation of their lives as dependent on Pharaoh for sustaining them and providing for them. And the worship many people offer up in our world today is still built around the orientation of our lives towards those various other things we see as sustaining us, providing for us, granting meaning and significance to us. It happens all around us every day. We are made to worship.

The reminder of the cross

What Augustine wrote 1600 years ago is still just as true for us in our world today as it was back then. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. We are made to worship. And we still live in a world that looks to worship so many other gods which we have set up.

The story of the plagues in Egypt remind us today that God has gone to extraordinary measures to give his people reminders that our worship only finds its true and best meaning when we direct that worship to the LORD. And today we pull back another layer of meaning in the cross of Jesus and see that our God still goes to extraordinary measures to remind us that our worship only finds its true and best meaning when we direct that worship towards the LORD.

There are so many other liturgies out there competing for our worship. Let the cross be a reminder for us that we declare the LORD as the source of our provision. That it is the LORD who sustains us. That it is the LORD who gives meaning and purpose to our lives. We are made to worship. And we will worship the LORD.

For starters it means that your value and your worth as a human being does not ride on any of those other liturgies. Your value as a person does not depend on having a better career or more successful job than others. Your value as a person does not depend on the number of things you own, the size of your house, or the luxuriousness of your car. Your value as a person does not depend how rich you are. Your value as a person does not depend on the sport that you play, or the grades you get. If you do not worship those gods, if you do not let those activities become worship liturgies, then your value and worth as a person does not hinge upon those outcomes.

But since we are reminded by the cross of Jesus that our value and our worth is found through Jesus, then we are reminded that we do in fact have the greatest value and the greatest worth that there could ever possibly be because the cross reminds us of just how very valuable we are to God. It’s not because of who you are, or what you’ve done. It’s because of who Jesus is and what he has done. And nothing can ever take that away. That is worship which finds its rest in God and in God alone.

It also reminds us that all other people in our world have value and worth before God because of the cross of Jesus. The people in our community who do not have successful careers still matter because they have value to God. The people in our community who do not own big beautiful houses and cars still matter because they have value to God. The people in our community who are not rich still matter because they have value to God. The people in our community who are not good athletes, or don’t get good grades still matter because they have value to God.

It’s no secret to anyone that we live in a time when our society is so very divided by economic standards, by political beliefs, by race & ethnicity. When we worship by those liturgies, then anyone who does not conform does not belong and does not matter.

When we worship through liturgies other than the cross, there will always be entire groups of people who are cast out as worthless and meaningless. But the cross reminds us today that we are called to a worship that does not cast others aside, and does not throw away people whom others label as meaningless. Because through the cross you matter to God, through the cross others matter to God. Because through the cross you have value before God, through the cross others have value before God.

The cross represents a showdown between the one true God of the universe and all those other idols in our world. The cross reminds us today where our worship truly belongs. And the cross reminds us today that this is an invitation to worship which is open to all people.

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