PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “ABIDING HARD BY THE CROSS-SO SPARKS OF CALVARY CAN KINDLE OUR FIRE”.
Matthew 27:36 says “And sitting down they were watching Him there”. Mark 15:40 says, “The women were there looking from afar off and were looking on”. He lists them, “Mary Magdalene, Mary of James the least, and Joseph’s mother, (John calls her of Clopas), and Salome”. Luke says, in 23: 35 and 48-49 “And stood there the people beholding. “”And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding those things which were done, smote their breasts, and all his acquaintance, and the women that followed Him, stood afar off beholding these things”. John, some sixty years later, writes under inspiration and memory of the Holy Spirit’s guiding, “Now there stood by the Cross of Jesus, his Mother Mary, her sister Mary Cleopas, (his Aunt Mary), and Mary Magdalene” (Three Mary’s at the cross). The Gospel narratives seems to emphasize the impact this execution had on the spectators that day. Matthew puts the emphasis on the guards’ who were “watching” the crucifixion-pointing to the fact that it was their duty to guide and guard each action that occurred. They were in a reclining position. (The word watch is “tereo” meaning to “watch over and guard”. But of course, such guarding involved actively observing every movement, word, and reaction of the other bystanders. Mark points out, as the crucifixion neared the end, that the women there could take it no longer, and had moved away quite a distance, not able to bear it any longer. (“makrothen”-meaning a substantial distance yet still in sight of all occurring). Mark says, “They kept on watching from afar…and they were looking on”. The word looking is “thereo” from “theomai” meaning “to gaze, to partake of, to contemplate with analyzing” It is the root from which we get the word “theater”. It means “to take in with comprehension and understanding”-“a theater is where people concentrate on the meaning of an action or a performance”. Luke, likely writing the crucifixion from Mary’s eyewitness perspective, uses the same word-“thereo” but says that the crowds that had come together beheld, (thereo) the spectacle (Theorian). The emphasis indicates a “happening that is hard to view and understand with comprehension of meaning”. Viewing the spectacle of Calvary caused almost all of the spectators to beat their own breasts to dull the deep pain viewing this spectacle first hand, with their own eyes, had caused them to feel. Eyewitness viewing was that impactful. We all must wonder what it would have been like to have been, as John writes of the women, sixty years later in his memory, that they were “standing by the cross of Jesus”. Mel Gibson, in his Passion of the Christ, has done a theatrical spectacle quite realistic in order to transport us to their side. That is why we find it so hard to watch-so overwhelming. So crushing! In our own way we leave the presentation “beating our breasts” like they did, though maybe not literally. That kind of experience is critical for Christians-we must never forget that spectacle!
Charles Spurgeon, in his daily devotional, called Morning and Evening, writes, “Abide hard by the cross and search out the mystery of His wounds”. John R.W. Stott tells us why that is a valuable exercise for the believer. He says, “The cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us!” That is why Jennie Evelyn Hussey wrote, in her hymn Lead Me To Calvary, sings “King of my life, I crown thee now; Thine shall the glory be; Lest I forget Thy Thorn-crowned brow; Lead me to Calvary.” Refrain reminds us-“Lest I forget Gethsemane; Lest I forget Thine agony; lest I forget Thy love for me; Lead me to Calvary”
Every year during this season it is a privilege, it is a mandate. It is an imperative given by God for your Pastor to stand in this pulpit and summon you to come to Calvary. To encourage you to “abide hard by the cross to search out that mystery!” To encourage you to come close enough to “let the sparks from the fire fall on your cold heart, to kindle a new passion in your heart” as you relive His ultimate sacrifice for you and I. Many famous painters have taken the time and their talents to preserve and portray for us the spectacle with such vividness that it enables us to answer the question of the old Spiritual-Where you there when they crucified my Lord? with a clear affirmative-yes! And as we revisit Golgotha annually it is my assignment to portray it in a worthy enough manner that your love for Him leads you to respond in kind. Rembrandt van Rijm, the great Dutch Rennaisance painter painted several scenes of the Crucifixion during the mid 1600’s. They tell us that he usually included himself in each, sometimes in a subtle way, and sometimes, as in the Raising of the Cross, in an explicit way, with him being the man with the Dutch painter’s beret, helping to raise the Cross of Christ! His way of saying, we were all there, we were all involved, we all played a part in His necessity to dying that death! As we visit there again, whether we come, like we did last Sunday, through the words of Israel King-Sweet Singer, and view the cross from the perspective of the Forgotten I AM, and view the cross from the perspective of the Son of God being Abandoned by the Father, Abhorred by the Fools, and Attacked by the Fiend, (Satan), written 1000 years before it occurred, or whether, like today we return to stand beside the cross of Jesus, seeing it portrayed by the Prophet of the Gospel of Love, Isaiah, as he paints the portrait of the Suffering Servant as He endures the Stripe of Sin to Redeem us. We must come to this Holy Ground, focus all of our heart, mind, soul, and person on what we see. Let me again share the words of Spurgeon, which he wrote of Psalm 22, but find application for Isaiah 53 as well. “For plaintive expressions uprising from unutterable depths of woe we may say of this Psalm, that there is none like it. It is a photograph of our Lord’s saddest hours. The record of his dying thoughts and words, the lachrymatory of his last tears…the memorial of his expiring joys. David and his afflictions may be here in a modified sense, but as the star is concealed by the light of the rising of the Sun, he who sees Jesus will probably neither see, nor care to see David. We should read reverently, pulling off our shoes from off our feet, as Moses did at the burning bush, for IF THERE BE HOLY GROUND ANYWHERE IN SCRIPTURE…IT IS THIS PSALM!” That is certainly true of Isaiah report of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, the Suffering Messiah of Calvary, as he voluntarily yielded His soul as a Sacrifice to Satisfy the Stripe of Sin for a world of sinners! You and I so included that if we were the only ones, he would have still paid the price in full!
In this perspective I want to give you three real life examples of what “abiding hard at the Cross can do for your heart today. The first comes from a famous Christian named Nicholas Ludwig Zinsendorf. On May 20, 1719 he, his brother Frederick, and a dear friend and tutor Herr Riederer entered the art gallery at Dusseldorf, Germany. They had been on a tour of Europe’s galleries to take in all the masterpieces. As he toured the gallery he was drawn to a particular painting-by Dominico Feti titled Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). It showed Jesus being presented by Pilate for Crucifixion, with a crown of thorns on his head. Underneath the artist had written the words “This I have done for you. What have you done for me?” He immediately thought of how he loved to read the Bible. How he loved to sing hymns. How much he did love the Lord. But somehow these things seemed so insignificant now. But his mind went back to Paedagogium in Halle. He thought about the time he had sat at the table listening to all that Bartholomaus Ziegenbaig, the missionary from India, had to say. Now there was a man who was doing something for Christ. “I will do more” he vowed as he stood in front of the painting. “My life will not be spent for myself”. He finished the rest of the gallery but could not get that painting out of his mind. It transformed his life. He founded a denomination called the Moravians that emphasized a passion heart-felt love for Christians that yielded their resources to sacrificial missionary work all over the world. Even the great John Wesley, upon spending a trip to America with them, credited them for showing him the way to true faith and salvation…“When feeling his heart strangely warmed”. “Sparks from the fire of the cross will do that for believers who are close enough to Ziegenbalg have a new passion ignited in their heart for the Savior.”
Another famous person found that same visit to that Gallery, that painting, impact her life as well. Francis Havergal while advancing her education in Dussseldorf, Germany saw the same painting. She saw Christ standing between Pilate and a crowd demanding death. Pilate says, “ecce homo” “behold the man”. That scene-Jesus whipped mercilessly, wearing a crown of thorns, purple robe of mockery. She copied the caption-“this I did for thee. What hast thou done for me?’ Back home when she relived that emotional moment at the gallery, she wrote a poem of five stanzas each ending with a pointed challenge-“what have you done for me?” Reading it again, she thought it a poor poem and threw it in the fireplace. It did not burn. She retrieved them. Showed them to her father. He encouraged her to save them. Years later they became her most famous hymn. I Gave My Life For Thee. “I gave, I gave my life for thee; My precious blood I shed; That thou might ransomed be; and raised up from the dead; I gave my life for thee; what hast thou given for me?’
The third famous person who was impacted by “abiding hard at the cross” was Ernest Borgnine. He recounts the story in the March 1989 Guidepost testimony. While filming the movie Jesus of Nazareth, by Franco Zeffirelli, playing the role of the Centurion, back in 1976 with Anne Bancroft, and Olvia Hussey. The film was shot in January and February in Tunisia on the Mediterranean. He tells his story like this: ” It was cold, windy, and miserable. I was uncomfortable wearing the Roman soldier’s gear, especially the ponderous metal helmet. It made me pity those ancient soldiers. When it came to film my part at the cross, Robert Powell, who was playing Jesus, was given the day off. Zefferelli put a chalk mark on the cross and told me to ‘stare at it as if you were looking at Jesus’. I said, ‘okay’. I tried. I could not do it, I requested, ‘somebody read me the words of Jesus as He hung on the cross’. The director agreed to do that. I knew the words from my youth, and from reading for the part. I stared at the chalk mark and began to think like the centurion. That poor man up there, I thought. I met him. He healed my servant. He is the son of God. An unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know he is innocent of any crimes”. As Zefferelli read Jesus saying ‘father forgive them’ I felt so ashamed! I thought if you forgive me too, I will retire from soldiering and live out my life on that farm land outside of Rome. Then it happened! I no longer saw the chalk mark. I saw Jesus, on the cross! Not Robert Powell, the actor. Jesus! Pain-seared. sweat-stained. blood flowing from the crown. His face filled with compassion. He looked down at me, through tragic sorrowful eyes, with an expression of love beyond description. He cried out ‘it is finished’. ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit’. His head slumped to one side! I knew he was dead. A terrible grief welled up inside of me. I became oblivious to the camera. I started sobbing uncontrollably, Zefferilli yelled, ‘Cut’. Olivia was crying. Anne Bancroft was crying, I wiped my eyes and looked again. Jesus was gone! That encounter changed my life. Made my faith real… Was a profound conversion experience. I have not been the same person since! As the centurion learned 2,000 years ago, you cannot encounter Jesus like that without being changed forever!” May that be your encounter today as we visit Mt. Calvary located in this text of Isaiah 52/53.
Two last quotes- J.I. Packer wrote, “The traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of hill called Mt. Calvary”. J. Knox Chambliss wrote, ” The Spirit does not take his pupils beyond the cross, BUT EVER MORE DEEPLY INTO IT!” May that be your worship experience today. “EVER MORE DEEPLY INTO HIS CROSS!”