Why did Jesus die? I’ve been asking people this question this week, and I’ve gotten some great answers. My favourite, though was when someone sent me this picture:
Homer Simpson. I definitely would have put that on the bulletin cover, but alas, our church bought these fancy printed ones with palms on the front.
Why did Jesus die?
The most common answer I received was along these lines:
Jesus died to save us from our sins. Jesus died for our sins.
Now I generally don’t like religious clichés, so I asked another question.
But what does that mean? How does that work?
There was a bit more wondering and pondering about that.
Which, there should be. No example, no illustration, no sermon, no metaphor, no article shared on Facebook, can fully capture the whole picture of Jesus dying on the cross.
It’s like our church building project. If we describe what we’re seeing through my office window, that’s a good and true and necessary perspective. But if we open that side door over there and look, well, we’ll see another perspective. (Plus we’d fall into a hole, so don’t do that). We need to look through multiple windows to see the whole picture.
So, I’m going to give you a glimpse through one of the windows that I see the cross, but if you see it through a different window, that’s great. We need all the windows.
So we’ll start with a story of when I was a teenager.
I had a crush on a girl. Before I was dating Ashley. And, some of us are getting a little old to remember what it was like being a teenager and having a crush on someone, but you know, you’re always asking and wondering… Does she like me? Does she not? Did she just look at me and smile? Or was that for the person behind me?
So anyhow… I had a crush on a girl. And then one day, she came up to me. And she said, “Hey Kyle. I just wanted to let you know that I don’t just like you. I am smitten with you. I love you. And I’ve loved you for a long time. We’re going to have a wonderful life together. I want to be with you forever.”
So teenager Kyle at this point is quite excited. But you know… play it cool. All smiles, I respond, “This is great! I like you too, and maybe one day it’ll grow into love!”
She looks at me. And with smile, she says, “That’s great. Because if you didn’t love me, I’d make your life a living hell forever. You will never get away from me. My wrath will be fierce, and I might even torture you. Forever. But since you love me, it’ll all be fine, right?”
“No! This is not okay! This is unacceptable behavior, and you are a monster. And I’m going to call the cops.”
Okay, so this really isn’t a true story. Sorry about that. (But thanks to Michael Hardin for the story. I read it in Executing God by Sharon Baker) Maybe a different day I’ll share about my teenage relationships. But only if you share about your teenage relationships too. Unless they involve my parents. Then I don’t want to hear them.
But I don’t think it’s a bad comparison to some of our understandings of God. God says to humanity, “I made you. I love you. I want to be in relationships with you. And if you don’t love me back the way that I want, there will be hell to pay.”
That God sounds a bit like my fake girlfriend. A monster.
Is God a monster?
What is God like?
Take a moment and sit with this question. What is God like?
Maybe today, since today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday where we celebrate Jesus as King we can say that Jesus is like a king.
But what kind of King is Jesus like? A nice king? And harsh king? A king who kills those who oppose him, or, one who runs attack ads against him? Is Jesus a triumphant king? Does Jesus hold post-election victory parties?
Pontius Pilate made a sign for Jesus. It said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
And he had it nailed to the cross where Jesus was crucified.
Our king was crucified.
What is God like?
We worship a crucified God.
But what does it mean that we worship a crucified God? What does it mean that our king was killed? What does it mean that our king allowed himself to be killed? Why is this significant?
Us worshipping a crucified God, I think, gives us a lens, a perspective, on what God is like. The crucifixion is one of the windows that we get to try to see and understand who God is.
The cross is not us trying to avoid an angry, monster God.
Because the crucifixion of Jesus is not about God changing God’s mind about humanity. The crucifixion is about humanity changing its mind about God.
To explain this, I’m going to explain some concepts with how Christianity has traditionally explained them, and then compare them with how I see them. And then I’m going to show some famous pictures that point to what I’m getting at.
And, remember… We are deep in the world of images and metaphors here. We’re doing our best to describe a mystery.
Okay… Three concepts that we have to talk about when talking about the cross. We’re going to talk about God’s wrath, God’s justice, and sacrifice
1. God’s wrath.
When I say the phrase God’s wrath, we come up with images of God sending lightning bolts and floods and dropping pianos on us. The Grapes of Wrath are being stored up for those who refuse to do God’s will. We can imagine my imaginary teenage girlfriend who’s gonna make my life a living hell.
Or we can look at it as God allowing us to experience the consequences of our decisions. Central to any loving relationship is freedom. Otherwise it’s coercion, and coercion isn’t love. We are free to be in a relationship or free to not be. We are free to choose our own actions, or not. But we are not free from are the consequences of any choices we make.
Examples. If I were to speed on the highway, I can get a speeding ticket. It’s not God angrily sending me a police officer to give me a ticket. It’s God saying “You have the freedom to choose your actions. There are consequences for our decisions.”
A good way to understand this is to ask,
Are we punished for our sins? Or by our sins?
Another example: The other day I made a bonfire in my backyard. And I told my kids “Don’t touch the metal.” Now, if they go and touch the metal, did I do that to them? Could they say “Dad burned me!” Or is that just the consequence for their choice?
And when God chose to become human, God chose to live in our world, and was not immune to all the things going on in our world.
So, at the crucifixion, Jesus encounters violence, torture, betrayal, abandonment, anxiety, pain, and empire. These are all real things. And many of them are the natural consequences of simply being human, and many of them are the consequence of engaging (and enraging) the powers and authorities. We’re all free to choose violence or not, to stick with our friends or not, to serve others or not, and no matter what we choose, there are consequences for those choices. And they are real. They can be bloody. But they are not divinely orchestrated. God is not pushing the “drop piano” button.
2. God’s justice.
This one’s a little easier to understand. When we think about justice, because of our time and place in history, it’s really hard for us not to think of a judge.
Like Judge Judy. You do bad, and there’s a punishment.
This type of justice is called retributive justice. You speed, you get a ticket. You murder someone, you go to jail.
But, God doesn’t treat us according to our sins. God treats us differently.
The type of justice God is into is restorative justice. It where we acknowledge that something bad has happened, and we work hard at restitution, we work hard at making it right, and we try to restore the relationship. This is a really simple definition, but it’s a really important important.
God hates sins, so does God punish it? Banish it?
Or does God work at the relationships that are broken. And work towards restoration?
I believe that God cares more about the restoration of relationships more than the punishment of sin. If this is seems strange or unique or unfair, well, it’s kind of the definition of grace. Small-g grace. Grace is a gift undeserved.
We can understand the cross as Jesus giving his life as a sacrifice for our sins. Similar to how in the Old Testament you were supposed to kill a goat or something to atone for your sins. Or by dying on the cross, Jesus took our place. Someone has to die because of sin, so Jesus dies instead of us. Like a substitute sacrifice.
But what I do with the word sacrifice is not that God demands it, or that someone HAS to suffer or die, but rather, when someone does suffer or die, they reveal to us the consequences of sin. They reveal sin for what it is. A sacrifice can expose evil, and hopefully prevents further suffering or death.
So if we call Jesus a sacrifice, it’s not God killing God’s own kid to make God happy. It’s God allowing him to die in an effort to expose sin and evil and show us what they truly are, and also shows us how to live.
Okay. To sum up, and before we start looking at some pictures, here’s where we’re at.
God’s wrath is less about God being angry and smiting humans, and more about there being very real consequences for our decisions.
God’s justice is less about punishment and more about restoration.
Sacrifice is less about God demanding it, or something dying in our place, and more about revealing evil and sin in our world, and showing us how to respond.
I’m now going to show you some pictures.
1. The man is Zacharia Mutai, moments before Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino on the planet, died.
Did God’s wrath kill the rhino? No. But we did. God allowed us to poach them, to encroach on their territory, to pollute the Earth, and the result is another extinct species.
Is God punishing the rhino by killing him? Is God punishing us by killing the rhino? No. But I think that even though the dead Rhino doesn’t make God happy, I think God cares more about our relationships with each other and the Earth than seeking punishment. It’s not like God is saying “You let the Rhino die! As punishment, two thousand of you humans will now be trampled by hippopotamuses.”
Was the rhino a needed sacrifice? Well, on one hand no. We can learn to take care of the Earth without an almost extinct species. But on the other hand, does the Rhino’s death expose to us the evil we can inflict upon the world? Yes. And will its death hopefully prevent any other species from going extinct? Well, that’s up to us, right?
2. We’ll use a relevant example for us in Canada. This is our new $10 bill, coming out soon. And that woman is Viola Desmond. Her story is that she was in a movie theatre in Halifax, but she sat in the “whites only” section. When told she couldn’t sit there because of her skin colour, she didn’t leave. She was dragged out, arrested, thrown in jail for 12 hours, and fined.
Was God’s wrath poured out on her? Oh gosh no. She’s a hero. But God allowed her to suffer the consequences of racism. There are consequences for our sins, and they are real.
Did God care about punishing her for not following the rule of law? Does God care about punishing us for our sins of racism? Or does God care more about the restoration of relationships? (I loved watching the news conference where Viola Desmond’s sister Wando Robson shared the stage with the Finance Minister.)
Was Viola’s sacrifice necessary? Well, on one hand, absolutely not. We white people didn’t have to be racist, and could have just let her sit where she wanted. But did her actions, did her suffering, prevent further suffering for others? Did it reveal and expose the evils of racism? Yes. Will it help us work to end racism in 2018? Well, that’s up to us, right
3. (In my sermon, I showed a picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach, the two year old toddler from Syria who drowned and was found on in Turkey. I showed it for only 30 seconds, but I can’t bring myself to posting it here. I’m sure you remember the picture, but I’m posting a picture of him happily playing instead.)
This is Alan Kurdi. We’ve seen this picture before.
Was God’s wrath poured out on a two year old migrant from Syria who drowned and washed up on a beach? No. Does it show the consequences of sin? Yes. And there is a whole lot of sin wrapped up in this picture. Violence and weapons manufacturing and barrel bombs and racism and religious bigotry and fear and anxiety and desire for control and the disregard for human life and profound, profound apathy. The consequences of sin are real, my friends. And God lets us choose.
Was this God’s punishment for sin? No. Is God going to send a foreign army to Canada and make us refugees as punishment for not taking in more folk? C’mon. I think God cares a heck a lot of more about the relationships between humans, and how we get along, more than punishing us for our sins.
Was his life a sacrifice? On one hand, goodness no. A sacrifice for what? That someone has to die, and he drew the short straw? That notion is ridiculous. But on the other hand, does his death prevent the deaths of thousands of other kids? Will his death ensure others will have a different fate? If his death revealed and exposed the evils that we perpetuate, if his death shook the world into action, if this death shook our church into action, if his death shook me to action, if his death continues to affect me, then yes, his life then was a sacrifice. Not God ordained. Not God planned. One that we wish didn’t happen. But it did. And will it help us work towards peace and welcoming more refugees into our lives? Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it?
4. Jesus on the cross.
Was this God’s wrath being poured out on his own kid? No. The cross reveals the consequences of violence, torture, betrayal, abandonment, anxiety, pain, fear, and empire. The cross reveals that even in our efforts to be true and faithful and safe, we can even crucify the son of God. The consequences of our sin are real.
Was it God punishing Jesus for our sins? Well, a) what would that accomplish? And b) Does God care more about punishing people for our sins? Or our relationships? I would venture to say that the cross reveals how God views sinners… Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. I mean, if God doesn’t punish the people who killed his own son, who does God punish?
Was Jesus a sacrifice? Well, on one hand no. Does God really need blood to be satisfied? Does God serve a higher power than Godself? Does God get a kick of out animals and people dying? Does something have to die? No (Well, our egos need to die. Maybe our addiction to power and our desire for control. But here I actually mean “Does something need to physically die?) But on the hand, does the death of Jesus reveal the evil in this world? Does the death of Jesus reveal how God responds to violent sinners? Yes. Does the death of Jesus prevent further deaths? Does the death of Jesus show us how to live? Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it?
The crucifixion of Jesus is not about God changing God’s mind about humanity. The crucifixion is about humanity changing its mind about God.
And the key word for me to understanding the cross is REVEAL.
The cross reveals our own sin and brokenness.
The cross reveals how destructive the power of sin can be.
The cross reveals how God treats sinners.
The cross reveals who God is.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Colossians 2:15
Why does any of this matter? Why does us worshipping a crucified God matter?
Because us worshipping a crucified God means that the God we worship is a “loving God who sacrificially gives up receiving payback for sin, who is satisfied by a justice that reconciles and restores relationships, who sees to it that mercy triumphs over judgement, and whose love for enemies works to win them over with grace, mercy, and compassion.” – Sharon Baker
We worship a crucified God, and that has the potential to change everything.