“The Shadow of the Cross”
Albrecht Durer was an artist who lived during Martin Luther’s time, the time of the Reformation. He is well-known for his paintings as well as for his woodcuts, and one of those woodcuts depicts Jesus in the manger. It shows angels hovering over Mary and Jesus, with Joseph standing off to the left looking through a doorway. There are a couple of shepherds poking their heads in. There is a thatched roof with some holes in it. But what is most interesting is the way the roof beams intersect to form a cross that hovers over the manger. When you finally see it there, it really stands out. For Albrecht Durer, and for us, the cross always shadows over the manger.
That’s how it is with the Gospel readings after Christmas as well. A hasty flight to Egypt. The slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. The return of the holy family to settle in Nazareth. The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus – His first shedding of blood. St. Stephen’s Day follows closely after Christmas as well – which commemorates the very first martyr of the church. The cross overshadows the Christmas and Epiphany season. It’s inescapable – you just can’t get away from it.
The sweet story of swaddling cloths in a little stable, the song of the angels, the report of the shepherds, the sublime peace of that silent night – all gives way to the harsh reality of what ultimately happens when God enters our world. It doesn’t take long before there is blood, sweat, tears, threats, torture, bloodshed, betrayal, and rejection.
And once again, our preconceived notions of how God works in the world are turned upside down. We expect a God who exerts His power with force and might, but we get a God whose power is exerted in weakness and suffering. We expect a God who saves from the top down; but we get a God who saves from the bottom up. We expect a God who is a winner among the winners of this world, and not threatened by the Herods and the Pontus Pilates; but we get a God who overcomes the powers that be by allowing Himself to fall into their hands – to be tried, crucified, died and buried. He is the Promised One – but where has He promised to be?
Even John the Baptist is a bit puzzled by this great reversal of the kingdom of God, in our Gospel reading today, as Jesus comes down to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. As John sees Jesus coming towards him into the water, you can almost imagine John thinking – now hold on there Jesus – wait just one second – something just isn’t right here – this is a baptism of repentance! This water is for sinners! You don’t belong here! Don’t get in there! This baptism won’t make you clean, it will make you dirty!
John tries to prevent it from happening – “You should be baptizing me – not me you”! But Jesus replies in His simple yet powerful way – Let it be – Allow it now – It needs to be done in order to fulfill all righteousness. Trust me on this one John – its the right thing to do.
It had to be this way because Jesus came to win our salvation from the bottom up, not from the top down. You see, if God were to actually execute a top down plan of divine “shock and awe”, the fact of the matter is that we would be much more than just shocked and awed, we’d be dead and damned. Because if God were to actually use all of His mighty power and strength to do something about the sin and evil in this world, He’d utterly destroy all of us in the process. Because guess what? We are all sinners – each and every one. So, instead, He works His power in weakness – quietly, hiddenly – through a baby in a manger, a child in Nazareth, a man on the cross.
He doesn’t conquer sin by use of force, by giving us rules to follow and threats if we don’t do them. He conquers sin by becoming sin for us. He conquers death by overcoming death for us. For reasons He only knows, and which we can only grasp by faith, God has chosen to show his strength in weakness. He has chosen to show forth his victory in what looks like defeat. The King of all creation has decided to rule not from a castle – but from a cross.
And though that may not sound like much, that’s really good news for you and me. Because the fact is, we can’t save ourselves, and most of the time we don’t even want to. We embrace and accommadate the foreign element called sin in our lives. We even trick ourselves into thinking that it’s perfectly natural to sin. Hey – come on – I’m only human! It’s only natural! It’s just who I am. That’s how comfortable we have become with it. We think that death is a natural part of life. We even speak of death by “natural causes,” but the fact is – death is always unnatural and sin is completely unhuman. It’s not the way it was supposed to be.
That’s why God snuck into our world in Bethlehem. That’s why He hid out in Egypt, why He lived in obscurity in Nazareth. While no one was watching, He was defeating the requirements of the law, conquering Sin, Death and Devil while no one even noticed. By human terms, it would’ve made more sense for Him to make His appearing today – with things like 24 hour cable networks, satellite radio, email, social media, and the internet.
I mean, Israel in the 1st century didn’t exactly have a mass communication network. But the Eternal Logos – the Incarnate Word didn’t need any of that. He doesn’t need our technology and our mass communication systems. In fact, it seems, He’s better off without it.
God has His own way of doing things. He has a hidden way of coming to us, a certain way of sneaking up on us. Through Water and the Word. Through Bread and wine. Through the simple preaching of Law and Gospel. Through the gathering of God’s people in worship. Through friendship and fellowship, through the mutual conversation and consolation of His people. The promised one promises us that He can be found here through the Means of grace in Word and Sacrament.
These simple things are easily ignored, and despised by those who don’t believe. But for those who do believe, for those whom God has granted the gift of faith, this is the power and might of the Eternal and Almighty God to save His people.
It is an awesome divine power and strength, hidden under the weakness of earthly elements, given as a free gift to save you.
Albrecht Durer was right. Jesus always comes with a cross. And that cross shadows over your life and mine. It won’t keep us from having troubles in this world. It won’t make us immune from sin, disease, persecution, hardship, or suffering. It might even make us targets for the Herods of this world. Whether we like it or not, we are marked men and women.
But more importantly, we are water-marked men and women of God. Formed by God the Father, covered in our Lord Jesus Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
And on this Sunday, as we mark the Baptism of our Lord, we’re reminded that we are marked in our Baptism as well. As Jesus stands in the Jordan River in our place to begin His ministry, we remember that He took our place on the cross as well, to live our life, to die our death, and to preview our own resurrection. That’s why you were marked with a cross in your Baptism, upon your forehead and upon your heart, to mark you as one claimed by Christ the crucified. And just as Jesus rose up out of the water, and rose up out of the grave, you will rise to newness of life in him.
It is in this hidden power, in this quiet strength and gentle might – that God Himself comes to save you.