The "Ugly-Ass Cross"
The following sermon was preached by Pastor Baudler at the First Baptist Church of Bay Shore during Lent 2016 and is reprinted here by popular request.
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My wife and I recently went to see a special exhibition on the Art and Sculture of the Congo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The pieces on display were absolutely fascinating, and included jewelry, wood carvings, and sculptures of many kinds. In one large wing of the museum there were giant statues of fierce warriors who looked like they were about to attack. They were apparently placed at the entrances of villages to ward off evil spirits and other threatening natives. As I was walking around them and admiring their fierce expressions, I noticed another sculpture off in the distance in its own glass case. Curious, I wandered over to have a closer look. It was a wooden construction, a wooden dog, as best I could tell. It was one ugly dog. It looked fierce and was baring its teeth. It looked like it was about to attack. (Pictured above)
But that wasn't why the dog was so ugly. It's head was where a dog's head was supposed to be. But where the dog's butt was supposed to be . . . there was another head. It had a head in the front and a head in the back. It was like two dogs cut in half and somehow fused back together in the middle, with their heads pointing in opposite directions and their front paws pointing in opposite directions. Only it was carved from a solid piece of tree stump. It looked like a dog trying to run in opposite directions to tear itself apart.
But THAT isn't what made this dog so ugly. What made it really ugly, I mean really ugly, was that it was covered with hundreds of long rusty iron nails hammered in everywhere. Nails covered the two heads. There were nails in its eyes, nails in its ears, covering its back, and even nails in its legs and feet. The nails were everywhere. It looked like a porcupine that had stuck its paw in an electrical socket and was trying to run in two opposite directions at once.
I stood back a few feet to ponder this crazy looking sculpture. Then I got closer to it examine it close up . . . and then backed up again to see it from afar. And I thought to myself, "Now that is one ugly ass sculpture." (Don't worry, I can say that, both of those words are in the Bible.) But I also thought to myself, why would anyone create such a hideous looking creature — why make something so ugly? But as I began to walk away to look at another exhibition, I noticed a small sign off to the side and began to read it.
What the sign said, changed my understanding of everything. Now it all began to make sense. And suddenly my eyes were opened as to its true meaning . . . and this ugly, ugly object suddenly became a thing of true beauty. The sign said that the two headed dog represented two parties at odds with each other, two parties in conflict, two warring factions. These could be two neighbors, two friends, two relatives, a husband and wife, a parent and child, even two warring tribes or nations. It could include such issues as divorce, property disputes, personal injury or grievances, irreconcilable differences of hatred, malice, theft, abuse, violence, adultery, and many other infractions humans commit against each other.
But the nails represented the resolution to the conflict — they indicated that an outstanding debt had now been paid in full. Placed in the center of the village square, the nails told the world that the two parties that had been in conflict with one another have now been fully reconciled — and a nail was driven into the wooden construction to signify a permanent resolution had been achieved and peace between the two parties had now come about.
Wow! I thought. That's incredible. I stepped back and stared at the two headed dog one more time studded with all those ghastly nails and I thought to myself, "That is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen!"
I think you know where I'm going with this. The cross is one ugly-ass thing. And it was meant to be ugly; it's why the Romans used it. Its purpose was to repulse you, to offend you, to make you recoil in horror and fear. The cross was a horrific way to die and it screamed out to you, "If you come here, you will die one ugly death!" It will make you ugly, it will say you're ugly, and it'll tell the world what you did was ugly. "Don't come here," the cross warns, "unless you want to know what ugly truly means."
So I didn't go there. And I KNOW you all didn't go there. But Jesus went there. And the crowds cried, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" But Pontius Pilate said, "Wait! Let's make him ugly first!" And so they beat him, and they whipped him, and they struck him on the head saying, "If you're a prophet or a king, tell us who struck you." They placed a crown of thorns on his head and led him away to crucify him. And they nailed him to a dead tree between two thieves and the world gazed on the figure hanging in the middle with blood gushing from his wounds forming dark pools on the ground and said, "That is one ugly-ass cross." And people stood from afar contemplating the horrific scene, some in horror, some with glee, pondering this sculpture in blood, and wondering, why would anyone create such a hideous scene? Why make something so ugly? Some walked away to visit another exhibition, but some may have paused to read the sign. And perhaps for some who truly saw what the sign said, it changed their understanding of . . . everything.
NOW it all began to make sense. And suddenly their eyes were opened as to its true meaning and this ugly, ugly object suddenly became a thing . . . of true beauty. Some of them may have suddenly remembered Psalm 22, "Yea, dogs surround me, a company of evil doers encircle me, they have pierced my hands and feet — I can count all my bones — they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."
Reading the sign of the cross for what it truly is, they would have understood in faith that it represents a two headed dog: the Creator and the creature . . . going in opposite directions, each about to be torn apart from the other, two parties at odds with each other, two parties in conflict, two warring factions. The one fully immersed up to its eyeballs in sin, constantly warring against God, engaging in never ending sin in property disputes, personal injury or grievances, irreconcilable differences of hatred, malice, bigotry, theft, sexism, abuse, violence, murder, adultery, and oh so many other infractions that humans commit against their neighbor and against their God. Like the nails in the two headed dog, the nails pounded into the cross mark the resolution to a seemingly insurmountable conflict: They announce that an outstanding, indeed impossible debt, has now been paid in full. The nails of the cross tell the world that the two parties that had been in conflict with one another have now been fully reconciled. The nails were driven directly into and through the flesh, bones, and tissue of the Son of Man, right on through into that hideous wooden construction to show all of humanity that a permanent solution and resolution had been achieved and peace between the two parties, heaven and earth, had now come about.
But unlike the wooden sculpture of the Congo, to which both parties contributed in ending the conflict, to which both parties contributed a nail and both parties wielded a hammer to drive them in, you and I did no such thing on the cross. God alone did it, in Christ alone. There only one party contributed to the conflict resolution. There only one party provided and drove in the nails, only one party wielded a heavy hammer and slammed it into the cross beams. God the Father did. "For God so loved the world that he GAVE his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
I didn't crucify Christ. You didn't crucify Christ. Our sins didn't kill Jesus. The Gospel proclaims Christ took our sins upon himself, and he took you and he took me, and he willingly went to the cross out of God's pure love for us, our sins did not overpower him, but he overpowered our sins, the darkness did not overcome him, but he overcame the world, killing our sins instead, taking them and us to the cross in his body to be crucified once and for all time. Jesus said in John's Gospel Ch.10 v. 9: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."
I don't know at what point the wooden sculpture from the Congo was declared by the people who made it, finished, whether it was when they ran out of any more spaces to put the nails, or when the museum purchased it and took it to New York and put it under glass. I don't know. I DO know when the wooden sculpture on Golgotha was finished: When Jesus said it was. When he declared in his dying words from the cross, "It is finished," and the loving, gracious, merciful God of this universe ended the war once and for all between the Creator and the created.
Sometimes when I'm called to a funeral home, the director will apologize and quickly remove the cross from the previous funeral service, probably done by a Catholic priest, what he calls "the Catholic cross," the ugly twisted one with the body of the suffering Christ hanging from it, and then hustle in with the so-called "Protestant cross," the one without the corpus, the body, the empty or Easter cross. And I always tell him to give me back the ugly one, the one with the body. We can't get to the empty cross without passing through the occupied one first. We can't get to the open tomb until we've been to Golgotha first. The cross, the cross, that''s all we preach says St. Paul to a world that likes to skip Good Friday to get to Easter quickly thank you very much. If Christ has not died, we cannot live. "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15).
Those who are in the world and of the world will always look at the cross and say, "That is one ugly-ass thing." But for those who are not of this world, who can properly read the true sign of the cross through the eyes of faith, they who are the children of God in Christ will always say, "Now THAT is the most beautiful thing . . . I have ever seen!"
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ.