The Cross: Revealing the Heart

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 2:34-35

I want to look with you long and steadily at the cross of Jesus. I want to ponder with you what it means that the Lord of all gave Himself to die. I want to know and preach only Christ crucified for us.

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

Luke 2:34,35 RSV

THE MASTER THEME

The great missionary Paul once wrote to his friends in Corinth, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul was expressing here not a momentary whim, a passing interest, but a fixed purpose. When he came to Corinth, it was not to do many things, but one. He came to herald Christ crucified. That to him was the center of the message he had been given and the secret of its power.

The other apostles shared that conviction and that commitment. They went everywhere preaching Christ. They lifted up before the world as Savior and Lord One who had been done to death on a cross. The One they proclaimed was risen from the dead, alive forevermore, but they presented Him always as the crucified.

All of us who name the name of Christ today stand in the same succession. We adore and we announce the same Savior. And we at Words of Hope have made the same decision about what we will concentrate on, what will be our emphasis, what will be the heart of our message. Near at hand and to the ends of the earth, today and always, we preach Christ crucified.

As I look back over almost 15 years of my own broadcasting, I can’t remember a single program in which we did not seek to commend to our hearers the Savior who died for our sins. Sometimes I begin with a passage from the Law, the prophets, or the psalms. Sometimes I preach from the Gospels or the book of Acts, the New Testament letters, or the Revelation. But somewhere in the message, I want people to hear that the heart of the Christian message is this: God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Everything else in Christian thought and life, in theology and practice, radiates out from that luminous center. That gospel is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes. Knowing that, we can do no other: We preach Christ crucified.

In the next few weeks, I want to intensify that focus. I want to look with you long and steadily at the cross of Jesus. I want to ponder with you what it means that the Lord of all gave Himself to die. I want to know and preach only Christ crucified for us.

THE PROPHETIC WORD

Today I’m thinking especially of a word spoken about the cross soon after Jesus had been born. It came from the grand old patriarch Simeon as he held the baby Jesus in his arms. He said to Mary:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

Imagine it! Old Simeon, even as he rejoices that the salvation of the Lord has appeared to him, tells the child’s mother that ahead of her is a great sorrow. A sword will one day pierce her soul. The son who is the joy of her life will be rejected and crucified.

And Simeon’s prophetic word is this: The child born to die is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel. He is like a great stone, set in the path of the people. Encountering Him as they must, they will fall or rise. They will stumble over Him or build upon Him. They will reject Him or receive Him. He will be a controversial sign. At the climax of Jesus’ ministry, when Mary’s heart is pierced, the hearts of many will be laid bare. At His cross, people will stand revealed for what they really are.

THE REVEALING CROSS

The whole of Jesus’ life on earth disclosed a great deal in the lives of all He met. He was the light of the world, showing things as they are, a sunrise setting the landscape ablaze with color. Like the light of day breaking in when a rock is overturned, He provoked a crisis. People either came to His light, ran from it, or tried to put it out. In His presence, no one could hide or pretend. The light exposed the true identity of each. Especially His coming made clear how a person truly felt toward God. Our reaction to Jesus revealed our deepest attitudes.

This was especially true in the events surrounding His death. What we did to Jesus brought the most profound disclosure of the human heart ever made. Let’s look briefly at three of the persons around the cross to see what came to light in their hearts. And let’s remember as we do that these people are like us, people of like passions. Our hearts are like their hearts. In many respects, their story is our story too.

Look first at the man named Caiaphas to see how hard a human heart can become. Hardness of heart is not the same as ordinary sinfulness. Hearts become hardened more and more when they meet with God’s truth, His light and love, but refuse to respond. A heart grows hard when God has been there. He has come to visit that life, as it were, but the door has remained shut.

Caiaphas was an Israelite, one of the nation to whom a Savior had been promised. He must have felt some excitement when he first heard John the Baptist’s word about a coming deliverer. More than that, Caiaphas was the high priest, the spiritual head of his nation. All the longings of the people must have been somehow concentrated in his breast. He had gone from year to year into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the temple. There behind the veil he must have felt some longing for a redeemer who would cause those endless offerings to cease.

But when Caiaphas encountered a man born blind who had been made to see by the power of Jesus, he steeled himself against the man’s witness. When Lazarus had been raised from the dead and many on the Sanhedrin were wondering about it, Caiaphas scoffed, “You know nothing at all. You don’t consider that it is expedient that one man should die for the people.” When Jesus stood before him, Caiaphas demanded, “I adjure thee by the living God, tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Many heard the witness from the Lord’s own lips and rejected it.

Well, he can stand that, we say, but what about seeing Jesus crowned with thorns? Caiaphas holds out against that, too. He stirs up the crowd to cry, “Crucify!” And perhaps at the last he was shouting with the rest, “He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

Perhaps Caiaphas felt secure when Jesus was safely in the tomb. He later paid the watchmen to keep quiet, to let no one know what had happened. Ten weeks later a lame man was healed by the power of the name of Jesus. But Caiaphas commanded the apostles who were the Lord’s agents not to speak or teach in that name. More light rejected.

Why do we look at all this today? Is it so that we can say, “I thank thee, O God, that I’m not like Caiaphas”? No, if we’re honest, we need to say, “I am a man; I am a woman, and nothing human is alien to me. This insensibility, this hardness, could come upon me.”

It doesn’t come all at once. A man may begin by shutting his eyes to a truth he but dimly sees. A process then goes on and on. He ends by openly insulting truth that he fully knows. The voice of conscience is completely stilled.

Now, can we say that we’ve never done that, never stifled conscience, never thrown a cloak over its judging eye, never quickly acted before it could speak? Here’s the sad truth that we see in Caiaphas at the cross. Every time grace is offered and truth is rejected, its next approach to the heart is made more difficult. If you feel a stirring to consider the gospel today, oh, friend, don’t harden your heart!

Look next at Pilate to see how shallow a human heart can be. In Caiaphas, we saw an enemy of Jesus. Now we behold a man too weak to be either enemy or friend. Pilate asked Jesus, remember, “What is truth?” and then went out to talk with the Jews. This man is no seeker for truth. He asks the question in an empty, mocking way with no desire to learn or discover. He doesn’t wait for an answer. For him, apparently, there is no real truth. There is no right and wrong, no final standard by which things can be measured. Here is the pathetic creed of a Pilate: All religions are systems of falsehood; all praying hearts are deluded; all martyrs for truth are idiots; all devotion is false fire. To Pilate, the man who stands before him as the king of truth is not even worth listening to.

Poor Pilate – too weak to stand for truth, he was too weak to deny it too. See in him how shallow, cowardly, and vacillating a human heart can be. For Pilate, conscience was on one side and the fear of man on the other. He heard the whisper of what he felt to be right along with the loud clamoring of anxiety for his honor, his office, his property.

From the first, Pilate was probably aware that Jesus was innocent. That’s why he tried to shift the burden of trying the case to Herod. That’s why he offered to free one prisoner, hoping it might be Jesus. When that didn’t work, he had Jesus flogged. At the screams of the crowd for blood, Pilate washes his hands as though he is totally innocent. Then he condemns Jesus to die.

This is a heart without faith, without principle. In ordinary times, that poverty may not become quickly apparent. But when the pressure is applied, there’s nothing within to resist it. In the presence of Jesus the crucified, Pilate appears for what he is, an empty, shallow man.

Yes, and there’s something of Pilate in us. Think about it. Are we eager to know the truth? Do we keep listening to it? Do we search for it? Do we commit ourselves, whatever the cost, to what we know to be true?

Look now at Peter to see how vain a human heart can be. Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Christ. He knew that He had the words of eternal life. He pledged his deathless loyalty to Jesus and he meant it.

But Peter dreamed that he was immune from falling. When Jesus said, “All of you will forsake me,” Peter said, “Not I.” When Jesus told him directly about his coming fall, Peter protested that he would be faithful to the death. When Jesus warned him to watch and pray, he three times fell asleep. Peter was a sincere believer, a dedicated man, but he presumed to have a strength of his own. Not long after, when asked if he knew Jesus, we hear this same Peter saying, “I don’t know the man.” See what’s in your heart, Peter? See what you can do, what you can become, apart from God’s grace?

And really, can any of us judge the great apostle, or feel superior to him? Has something like that never happened to us, just when we felt ourselves strong and secure? How the cross reveals the heart!

Sometimes it reveals encouraging things in the hearts of people. Not only the hardness in Caiaphas but the tenderness of weeping women and of hands that wrap the broken body. Shallowness, yes, but also surprising depth and courage in a Joseph of Arimathea and a Nicodemus. We see vain complacency in Peter but in that same man later – brokenness, trust, and utter devotion.

But let’s not hasten on to that too soon. Let’s look deeply first at what may be in our hearts of a Caiaphas, a Pilate and a cowardly Peter. But then, let’s look again at Christ crucified. And as we look, let’s see one more heart laid bare here on Golgotha – the heart of God. There behold a grace greater than all our sins, a mighty love that can cleanse and change even our hearts. Alleluia.

PRAYER: Father, help us at the cross of Jesus to behold both what we are and what we can become. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.