“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

I Peter 3:18

By the Rev. Dr. William Hess

Sermon delivered Sunday, March 5, 2017
at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem (PC-USA)

This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians for many centuries have found it meaningful to observe a time of preparation prior to the celebration of Easter.

The 40 days of Lent remember our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness – when he fasted and was tempted by the devil.

It seems to be true that those who truly appreciate the good times – are those who have experienced difficult times.

It seems to be the case that those who appreciate good health – are those who have journeyed through the valley of a serious illness.

I believe that those who most appreciate the beauty, wonder, and joy of Easter – are those who have stood beneath the cross of Jesus.

Those who have contemplated the pain and suffering of our Lord – the crown of thorns, the flesh ripped by 39 lashes, the hands and feet nailed to the cross, and the cry – “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Those who have stood beneath the cross and sincerely asked, “How am I responsible for this?”

The old spiritual expresses this thought. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

Have you stood beneath the cross of Jesus – and trembled?

At a pastors’ conference a friend told us of this incident. It was the first Sunday in Lent and he was talking to a parishioner who had hung around after the service.

She said, “I love the season of Lent. It is my favorite time of the church year.”

He said, “That is interesting – most people would say Christmas or Easter.”

She said, “Pastor, Lent is when the church gets real.”

He asked her, “Why do you say that?”

She said, “I was abused as a child. My father abused me. He was a church officer. Through the years I have spent thousands of dollars in therapy. But nothing has helped me more than Lent. I feel the healing power of God during Lent. We put our sins up there on the altar for everyone to see – and for 40 days we have to stare at them – and trust the forgiveness that comes from Jesus.”

Lent is when the church gets real.

“For Christ also suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous . . . “ The unrighteous? – that would be us!

During Lent we will think about the cross in different ways. Today’s perspective is the most disturbing and the most difficult – the cross is a mirror. We look at Jesus on the cross and see who we are and what we have done.

It is powerful to stand beneath the cross, look up at Jesus, and think, “God came to earth, and this is what we did to him.”
“God came to earth, and this is what I did to him.”

There is the temptation to blame others – those Jews! The evil High Priest Caiaphas, the sinister King Herod, the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, the people who asked for Barabbas and called for Jesus to be crucified.

There is the temptation to blame someone else – the Romans. It was all Pilate’s fault – he washed his hands of his responsibility.

But can we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, look up at Jesus, and with a broken heart say, “God came to earth, and this is what we did to him.”

God came to earth. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He healed the sick, taught about love and kindness, gave hope to the oppressed, lifted up the lowly, and welcomed the children – and this is what we did to him!

The cross is a mirror – and in that mirror we see who we are and what we have done.

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous . . .”

In 1785 Robert Burns wrote the poem, From Man was Made to Mourn.
It includes a phrase that has been repeated over and over.

“Many and sharp the num’rous ills, Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves, Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n erected face, The smiles of love adorn,
Man’s inhumanity to man, Makes countless thousands mourn!”

Man’s inhumanity to man. Burns spoke the truth – a truth that was a basic understanding of Calvinism. Remember TULIP – the five major points of Calvinism. What did the T stand for? Total Depravity.

Kabul – Darfur – Islamabad – Aleppo – the streets of Chicago – a nice suburban church in Bethlehem, PA –

“Many and sharp the num’rous ills, Inwoven in our frame! Man’s inhumanity to man . . . “

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous . . . “

Charles Colson wrote, “The greatest myth of the 20th Century is that people are good.”

There is that view that we are all basically good – but now and then we may make a mistake, or misunderstand. The book was #1 – “I’m OK, You’re OK.”

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The doctrine of original sin is the only philosophy empirically validated by 3,500 years of human history.”

September 11, 2001 was a day of terror. A few days following there was a discussion on a national TV show. A rabbi, an imam, and a Presbyterian pastor – Tom Long – shared their thoughts.

The rabbi – “There are really evil people out there. We have faced this for decades in Israel. Now you all know what we have been up against.”

The imam – “Islam is a religion of peace. The men who did this are not like us.”

Tom Long – “It is hard to think about. Look at the perpetrators – they are human beings like us. I’m trying to figure out how I’m a part of all this.”

The rabbi, angered, said, “I disagree with everything he said. We are not responsible. This is dangerous talk.”

The cross is a mirror. If we look at the cross with a contrite heart, we can see who we are and what we have done.

Can you, with me, look up at the cross and think, “God came to earth, and this is what we did to him?”

To stand beneath the cross and to think and feel this way – is essential that we might truly appreciate the wonder, the gift, the unmerited favor that is God’s gift to us celebrated on Easter.

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”