Then King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price, for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings with that which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)
Images of the cross abound, and even unbelievers and hard-core atheists and agnostics will readily recognise this as the accepted symbol for Christ and Christianity. Yet there is a tendency to romanticise it – think of the images of the cross on the internet, most of which have sunrise or sunset, or some dramatic light effects or gold-tinged clouds as a backdrop. In our day-to-day rendering of the cross we fall into the very human propensity of adding beauty. We’re aesthetically wired, and so we respond with drama and artistic that inevitably gravitates towards ‘feel good’ rather than reality.
This glossy, appealing facade, while it’s not necessarily wrong, has the unfortunate result of whitewashing the essential truth that underpins the full power of the cross and what it stands for. The real beauty inherent in the cross lies in the fact that it contains no beauty at all. This may seem contradictory but it’s a powerfully simple premise that defines the entire nature of what happened, what was achieved, and what it means in our daily life and worship.
We will all inevitably come to a place of choice, a face to face encounter, confronting the real truth of the cross.
Romanticising the cross is, in effect, denying ourselves the full power of it’s work in us and in our lives. The more time I spend in reading and meditating on the Word, and in fellowship with God, the more convinced I am that the ‘real cross’ is the pivotal point in life, and that we need to see every single thing we encounter, experience or learn from this perspective. For this reason, while we can encourage ourselves with ‘pretty pictures,’ we must never forget the real beauty, the real power and the real spiritual principles it signifies.
Today’s voice brings this out very clearly. The context is, of course, David’s ‘national sin’ in counting his fighting men, but this isn’t the real focus of our devotional. Through his sin and realisation of it, David is brought to the place of sacrifice which is, of course, ultimately the place of worship and surrender. He basically faces the test that each of us face when coming face to face with the cross – do I do this the right way or the easy way? It’s the same question that confronts us when we look directly at the cross – do it my way, the easy way, or do it Christ’s way? The choice presents itself because of our perception of the cross – do we see the cross as it really is, or do we see the romanticised version that is so much easier to live with?
Before we can answer these questions, we must first examine what the cross really is. We must remove the veneer and the extra trappings and discover the ‘ugly’ reality. Most obvious is that crucifixion is quite possibly one of the most cruel forms of human execution ever devised. We don’t have time to dig deeper into this, but it’s worth exploring if you really want to understand the full nature of it. Suffice it to say that it intended to kill someone by the slowest and most incredibly painful way possible – excruciatingly painful and slow death that included ‘bonus’ torture like suffocation, thirst, exposure and unbearable agony.
The second truth was that it represented the place of ultimate humiliation. It was reserved for the worst of criminals and dangerous ‘enemies of the state’ and essentially marked them as ‘cursed’ or as ‘non-human.’ There was no dignity, no compassion, no basic respect. The condemned would be stripped naked – contrary to the images of Christ in a loin cloth to appease our sensibilities – and publically executed. A crucifixion was, essentially, a free-for-all, with bystanders able to join the mocking, jeering and insults stirred up by the soldiers.
Thirdly, at a crucifixion, the condemned person quite literally lost all possessions. We see this in the soldiers throwing dice for Christ’s robe. Everything they owned was stripped away, leaving them with nothing that would add any value to their existence as a living, breathing, human being. They became a ‘nothing’ with nothing. The person they were was utterly effaced so that they became simply and object. The fourth point relates to this – while family and friends could attend, it was only as spectators. There was no physical contact, no verbal interaction or encouragement, no exchange of love. Anything that humanised the condemned person was forbidden.
Which raises the fifth point – one the cross, one was completely and utterly alone. They no longer belonged to anyone, to society or to the nation. There was no communal identity. They were completely and utterly outcast and separated from anything that even remotely suggested belonging or humanity.
Up until now, we’ve looked at things that essentially covered every single person who ever hung on a cross. Remember that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. So what made His cross so different? To understand this we must look at His condition when He came to the cross. It’s so easy to see Calvery as a single event, but it was really the culmination of a process that the cross now represents. Calvary started in Gethsemane, with the utter anguish of a man who sweated blood in His struggle to overcome self and the desires of the flesh.
His journey took Him through personal betrayal, unjust accusations, a travesty of justice and a farce of a trial. It took Him through beating and whipping and physical torture, which included forcing a crown of vicious thorns onto His head. It brought Him to the place where He was denied His rights and condemned to death by an emotionally charged and enraged crowd despite His obvious innocence. All this served to create a significant condition that only He endured – when Jesus came to the cross, He was utterly unrecognisable as a human being.
The final feature of the cross is also the place where its real beauty resides for us as believers. It is the place of the full weight of human iniquity and its consequences, and it is the place of complete and utter separation from His Father, the place of absolute darkness, absolute aloneness, and absolute immersion in the true filth of the entire human condition.
But what, you may ask, does today’s verse have to do with this? The answer is very simple. As believers, we blithely talk of coming to the cross, and it’s usually the ‘pretty’ cross of our romanticising that we envision. It’s the place of healing, of deliverance, of restoration, of grace, of mercy… Yes, the cross is all these these things, and it epitomises the full, immeasurable extent of the grace and mercy and compassion of God. But we must never stop here. All these things have absolutely no relevance if we remove the ‘ugly’ and see only the ‘beauty.’ While the cross represents the infinitely wonderful attributes of our God, it also represents the utterly despicable condition of man.
Most importantly, the cross is the place of confrontation and the place of choice. It is the place where we decide which cross we’re going to live by – the real cross of total sacrifice and surrender, or the comfortable cross of pretty expediency. It brings us to the place where we, like David, must ultimately choose how we will worship. It’s powerful that, even in his place of repentance and recognition of the need for a sacrificial atonement for his sin, David is tempted to take the easy way. He could have accepted Ornan’s offering as a ‘gift,’ painted it in suitable and very devout-sounding spiritual phrases, and completed his act of worship.
But David realised, in that moment, that true worship in true humility carries a cost. If we avoid paying the price, it doesn’t touch us. What doesn’t touch us is not true worship. It’s action rather than devotion. We’re not saying here that anything we can do or say or give can in any way compare or replace what Jesus endured and achieved on the cross. He is, and always will be, the only perfect sacrifice who paid the price for us, once and for all. But what we are saying is He provided the example that we are expected to follow.
His attitude to the cross should be our attitude to the cross. Keep in mind that His cross wasn’t the whitewashed version with glorious sunsets and blazes of light reflecting God’s glory. His was a stark and ugly cross against a darkness we cannot even begin to imagine. He went to Calvary seeing the real ugliness of the cross, but He also saw it’s real beauty – that the ugliest, most cruel, heinous, degrading and utterly terrible thing would release the unimaginable beauty of salvation and complete restoration into a life of worship and fellowship with God.
This is such a challenge to us all to evaluate our attitude to worship. Do we ride along on the coat tails of corporate fervour, ‘borrowing’ the offerings of others in order to ‘worship?’ Do we tiptoe round the cross, selecting those things that appeal and comfort and encourage us and ignore the harsh reality that the cross requires crucifixion. If we’re going to ‘come to the cross’ we can never do so as simple receivers. If we want to share in the beauty, we must first willingly take up our own cross. To have the beauty we must first have the ugly
It’s personal. It’s my cross, my walk, my willlingness to lay it all down. I must be willing to be stripped, humiliated, persecuted, abandoned, rejected, beaten, treated unjustly, and, ultimately, to die. If I come to the cross, I must accept that I will be made unrecognisable as the ‘me I used to be.’ I must accept that my identity will no longer exist, that I will become nothing so that He can become everything. I must accept that God’s will is sovereign, and that His purpose is that nothing of the world or the flesh should remain in me.
If we persist in seeing the cross as all sunshine and light we are deluding ourselves, and we denying it’s full power. It will never work fully in us unless we first immerse ourselves fully in it. The worship that is acceptable involves a cost that is often unacceptable, and so we coast along and never quite move beyond complacent Christianity. It feels good, but it’s built on a charade. In taking hold of a man-made concept of freedom, we create a bondage that is ritual and empty action. Like David, we must make the choice – easy worship or real worship. The cross hasn’t changed and never will, but our perceptions have and that is the greatest tragedy of all.
Forgive us, Lord, for not confronting the real truth of the cross. Help us to seek Your way, not ours, and give us the courage and the grace to come to worship with this always in mind. Bring us to a place of surrender, a place of willingly walking where You have led, so that we can lay down all.