The cross. Such a potent symbol, pregnant with a million meanings, yet at the same time so ubiquitous and universal that it loses its impact.
So what is the cross a symbol of? It is not a symbol of power, or strength, or authority, or victory, or glory… or rather it is, but in a new way that turns all of these ideas on their heads. What true power and glory and victory mean are forever changed, the old ways overturned by the cross.
The cross is the ultimate paradox at the heart of the universe and of human history. The Creator of all things, destroyed by his own creation. The Lord of Life, dead. The Great Healer, fatally wounded. The Prince of Peace, brutally and violently killed. The Mighty One, utterly weak and vulnerable, bleeding to death. The Glorious One, stripped in naked humiliation for all to mock. The ultimate Good, overcome by evil. How can this be? It makes no sense.
But this is our God. Not the Sovereign God of the Calvinists, who wields absolute power, arbitrarily determining the fate of all of his creatures according to his inscrutable iron will. But also not the absent God of the Deists, removed from the suffering of his creation. Nor the nice but slightly useless God of some ultra-liberals, saddened by human misery but unable to do anything about it except set an example that we won’t follow.
The God of the cross is the God who sees and feels the mess and pain of his world, and determines to do something about it himself – to take it on and into himself. It is the God who hates injustice and oppression and all the myriad evils which we inflict on each other and ourselves, but who is not willing to wipe out humanity. It is the God who must act, must do something about the mess, but to redeem not to destroy; to save not to punish.
The cross is the glory and wisdom and power of God. It is where God truly reveals himself and shows that he’s nothing like the God we’ve imagined. It is where he carries out his ultimate act to change the universe and us. And it is like nothing we’ve ever expected or dreamt of.
I get bored of preaching about the cross, because it so often focuses just on a narrow and transactional view where Jesus dies in our place to save us from God’s wrath at our sins so we can go to heaven. There may be some small truth in this, but it diminishes, dilutes and distorts the reality. We can’t explain what happened at the cross in some kind of formula; we can’t really explain it at all. And there is so much more to the cross, to God, than this picture allows.
Of course you may have a very different understanding of the cross to me, and that’s okay. As I say, I don’t claim to understand it, but I do still believe it. I believe in it as both symbol and reality, but by attempting to put that symbol and reality into words we do damage to it.
To me the cross has inexhaustible meanings. For a start it means that God is with us and for us; God is up close and involved; God is good and God is mercy; God forgives and so can we. The cross means that there is hope in the darkest situation and for the worst person. It means that evil can (and often will) do its worst but it won’t get the final say or the last laugh.
For the cross turns power and glory and victory on their heads. It turns even death on its head. I said that it was the Creator destroyed, the Healer fatally wounded, Life killed. But the end result of that the opposite becomes true – God’s death becomes the source of life; God’s wounds the source of our healing; the cross’s destruction the source of new creation.
How does this work, how does it happen? Who can say? Call it magic, call it miracle, call it mystery, call it what you will. It is the profoundest and most unfathomable work of the God of paradox, the God of surprises. But it has happened, and it is working. We can receive it and partake of it without understanding it or having to explain it.
For now evil still remains – for love cannot destroy evil by force – but now ultimately love wins. It wins by losing. It wins by dying. And that is what evil cannot understand, cannot destroy, cannot ever overcome.
God is dead; long live God.