I Peter 4:12-14

The New York Times is a great newspaper, but it lacks one critical element – no comics. And I collect comic strips that I like. One of these is The Wizard of Id.  The writer of this comic strip, incidentally, is a Christian and his faith makes its way into the strip from time to time.

In one of these, Rodney the Knight is in the hospital and the nurse come in bright and cheery. “How are we this morning?” “Did we eat all our breakfast?” “Did we have a good sleep last night?” and then, “It’s time for your enema.” (For those of you not familiar with this term, it is an unpleasant medical treatment.) To which Rodney responds, “What ever happened to the good old team spirit?”

Preparing for this sermon made me think of this comic strip. We think about being with Jesus, in generally pleasant terms. We read the Gospels and think how wonderful it would be to be one of the disciples with Jesus when he told Peter to cast his net over the side and they caught so many fish the boat almost sank. Or to be there when he fed the multitudes with fish and loaves. To walk along the Sea of Galilee and hear Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, how grand that would be. To be with Cleopas and his companion and walk to Emmaus and hear the resurrected Jesus explain what happened from Moses and the Prophets, what a thrill that must have been.

But did you notice the skip in there? Jumping from the life of Jesus to the resurrected Christ? That in between time, the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Do we long to share that time with Jesus? Who among us has ever wished to be one of the criminals hanging beside Jesus? Do we wish we had been with Jesus when he was being flogged? Who among us has ever wished to share with Jesus his death and sufferings?

“12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

“Rejoice that you share the sufferings of Christ.”

John Stott in his book, The Cross of Christ writes of the sufferings of Christ and as a way of understanding Christ’s sufferings, begins with the straightforward facts and moves to the deeper meaning of what took place.

First, Christ died for us. Christ died for our sake, voluntarily. He was not forced to do this. He choose to die for us. He believed that through his death for us, we would benefit. In his teaching he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) Jesus considered it his responsibility to die for us, part of his duty as our shepherd.

In the same way, in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, when he distributed the Passover matzah, he said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

Jesus understood that his death was for our benefit.

The disciples took these words of Jesus and carried them from the first person to the second person. From “This is my body given for you,” to “Christ died for us,” and the writers in the New Testament use this language repeatedly.

For what purpose did Christ die for us? What blessing did Jesus think would be given us when he laid down his life for us?

There is no explanation yet, but at least we agree that Jesus died for you, he died for us.

Secondly, Christ died for us that he might bring us to God. In I Peter 3 we read “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (I Peter 3:18)

All religions of the world recognize that there is a problem. All religions recognize that we are distanced from our creator, nirvana, or whatever the end goal is. Islam tries to solve the problem by following the five pillars of Islam. Buddhism tries by following the eightfold path to escape the cycle of suffering and reach nirvana. Hinduism tries by doing more good than bad in this life, generating good karma, and then hoping to be born into a higher life form in the next life and so gradually over many lives, reaching the status of a Brahmin and then hoping to reach the point of liberation from this life.

Now I know this is a gross oversimplification of these religions, but the point is that in each religion, it is something that man must do to reach God or nirvana. Christianity is unique in that God has done something to reach down to us to help us out of the problem of being separated from him. It is not our efforts but God’s effort that bridges the gap between ourselves and God.

This is Stott’s point, that Christ died to bring us to God. This point is portrayed in the New Testament  in many ways, redemption, forgiveness, deliverance, new life, eternal life, peace with God. It doesn’t matter too much which words you use to describe it, the important point is that because he died for us, he is able to bring us to God.

Jesus, as the good shepherd, laid down his life for us so that he might bring us to God.

First, Christ died for us. Secondly, Christ died for us that he might bring us to God.

Thirdly, Christ died for our sins. Our sins were the problem that prevented us from receiving the gift of salvation God wanted to give us. So, our sins had to be removed before the gift could be given. And Christ took away our sins by his death. This is the understanding of the New Testament writers. According to the following verses, and many more, there is some connection between the death of Christ and our sins.
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Paul (I Corinthians 15:3)
“Christ died for sins once for all.” Peter (I Peter 3:18)
“He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26)
“The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:7)
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, … to him be glory and power for ever and ever!” (Revelation 1:5)

All these verses connect the death of Christ with our sins. What is this connection? How did Christ take away our sins by his death?

First, Christ died for us. Secondly, Christ died for us that he might bring us to God. Thirdly, Christ died for our sins.

Fourthly, Christ died our death, when he died for our sins. It is not that Jesus happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and died for our sins. Jesus did not die because humans were brutal in their treatment of him and then God made use of his death. It was to die for our sins that Christ was born into this world. Christ came to die our death. Christ came to die your death.

Death was not part of God’s initial plan. Death was the consequence of our wilful disobedience of him. “the wages of sin is death,” Paul says in Romans 6:23. We sin and the penalty of sin is death. The sin that separates us from God cannot be removed without death. And because God loved us so much, he sent his Son to die for us, to die our death, so that we might be freed from the penalty for our sin and have eternal life with him.

Our sins, my sins, your sins prevented us from receiving the gift of salvation God wanted to give us. Our sins had to be removed. Someone had to pay the price, someone had to die and Jesus volunteered to take our place.

Was Jesus forced into this sacrifice? Did he die our death, your death, because he had no choice?

When Jesus was revealed in his heavenly glory along with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus was once again back in that world he left to be born as a human being in a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was once again in a world where there is no hunger, no thirst, no sorrow, no suffering. And Jesus chose to step out of that world back into this world that was leading to his suffering for us, to dying our death. Jesus chose a second time to be human and live a life that was leading to his death for our benefit.

Although Jesus did not deserve death since he was without sin, he voluntarily chose to die in our place. He went voluntarily to the cross.

When the Scriptures say that Christ died for our sins, there is more than it seems behind that phrase. Christ, who had no need to die since he was without sin, died our death, the death our sins deserved.

Was the suffering Jesus experienced physical? Yes, it certainly was. People with medical training have written about the pain experienced by Jesus from lashings and beatings and then being crucified. Hanging on the cross, suspended by nails driven through his wrists and ankles. There is no need to go into detail at this point. At no point can we minimize the physical suffering of Christ.

But Jesus also experienced psychological suffering. Jesus died unjustly. It is one thing to be punished when you know you did something wrong. It is quite another to be punished when you know you are innocent. Jesus did not deserve to die. He had done nothing wrong. As he was beaten and mocked and spat on and flogged and crucified, at all points in this physical suffering, the suffering was compounded by the fact that it was undeserved.

Jesus experienced social suffering. Where were his friends while this was happening? Were they rallying around him, lending him their support? His friends with whom he had spent three intense years, deserted him. The leader of his group of disciples had denied even knowing him, so eager was he to protect his own skin. He was left alone, to suffer without the support of his friends. A week earlier he had been cheered as the Messiah as he entered Jerusalem in a parade of Hosannas and palm branches. Now the crowd yelled to crucify him.

Jesus experienced mental suffering. He had worked for three years to prepare his disciples to carry on without him and now they were hiding in closets and attics all over town. What future was there for those he had taught to lead the new church? Had his life been wasted?

Jesus experienced spiritual suffering. Jesus who in his humanity had experienced perfect fellowship with God, now came to the point in the most intense suffering of his life, where he was deserted by God. “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27) It is impossible for us to know the pain and suffering of that moment, but I suspect that that pain was the most intensely painful of all the pain Jesus endured. What did it mean for Jesus who was fully human and fully divine to suffer the penalty of death?

Jesus, who existed from the beginning, who was present at the creation of the world – Jesus chose to be born into this world with the limitations of a human being. He chose to continue on his path to the cross at the Mount of Transfiguration. He chose to die your death and my death.

When you see a cross, it is a reminder that Jesus died for you. Jesus suffered for you. Jesus died your death.

You were on death row and then someone took your place. Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, illustrates this. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution when the aristocracy is being guillotined. There are two men in this novel, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Charles Darnay is the protagonist who ends up marrying Lucy and they all live happily ever after. Sydney Carton is a shady character who no reader roots for when reading the book. At the end of the book, Charles Darnay is in jail awaiting the guillotine when Sydney Carton arranges to take his place. (They look very much like each other.) So Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine in place of Charles Darnay so Charles can live. This is where the famous line comes from, “Tis a far better thing I do than I have ever done before.”

This is your situation. You were sitting in jail awaiting the guillotine and then Jesus took your place so you might live.

Someday when you are feeling worthless and unlovable, remember this, that Jesus suffered and died for you. Jesus died your death. That makes you not unlovable and worthless, but loved and worth more than any person or thing in this world has ever been loved or valued.

When you receive a present from someone, a beautiful bowl or a painting, it is impolite not to respond with a note expressing your appreciation for the gift. Not to respond to the gift is rude and insulting. The larger the gift, the greater the obligation. If I give you a plastic ring I found on the street, not much of a response is needed. If I give you a diamond ring, a greater response is expected. Maybe even, “Yes, I will marry you.”

If we are walking down the street and I step out into the street and you pull me back so I do not get hit by a car, a thank you is appropriate. If you push me back to safety and in the process get hit by the car and go to the hospital with a broken arm, a mere thank you seems inadequate. If you are killed by the car as you push me to safety, my life now takes on a new meaning, I have to live with the knowledge that you died to save me.

But now, if I am facing death, and you choose ahead of time that you will take my place, that you choose to die so I am free to live, I owe you my life. I must live the rest of my life for you.

In the case of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, the sacrifice was mitigated somewhat by the fact that Sydney was not a good person and deserved to die. Charles Darnay lived the rest of his life knowing that Sydney Carton had gone to the guillotine in his place. But think how different the story would have been if Charles Darnay had taken Sydney Carton’s place, if Charles Darnay, who did not deserve to die, had gone to the guillotine for Sydney Carton who did deserve to die?

This is what happened with you and Christ.

We read in Romans 5, 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Jesus Christ, the greatest man who ever lived, God in the flesh, took your place, died your death so you might live.

Can you comprehend how much you are loved by God that Jesus died for you? Do you realize how great a gift that is? How have you responded to Jesus’ choice to die for you?

To be a Christian is not like going to the market where there are five restaurants and you choose which one you will eat at. If all religions were alike in that they all tried to find ways to live good lives and each one was an attempt to find God, then one choice would not be much better than another choice. In that case, all religions would be more or less equal.

But that is not the case. All religions are not equal. All religions are not man’s attempt to reach God. To be a Christian is to respond to what God has done for you. To be a Christian is to respond to God’s overwhelming love for you and the sacrifice of Jesus who died your death so you can be free to live. Instead of reaching up to God, Christianity is God reaching down to you.

If you have never responded properly to the gift of Jesus, dying your death so you can live, then today you can respond by taking God’s hand and offering yourself to God.

In the bulletin there is a section for you to help with your response.
In light of all that God has done for me,
In light of the suffering of Jesus for me,
In light of the voluntary sacrifice of Christ dying my death:
I come gratefully this morning and offer myself to God.
I pledge myself to seek God,
to learn of his love for me
and to obey him so that my life will be transformed.
I intend to be his disciple.

If you have never made a suitable response to the gift God has given you, then this morning you can do that. This is your opportunity this morning to say thank you to God for his gift. This is your opportunity to say thank you to Jesus for dying your death. Make the only appropriate response to God’s gift. Put your name in the box, tear that box out of the bulletin and when we have communion in a few minutes, drop it into the offering plate. Make your name legible so we can follow up and talk with you about this decision you are making.

If you have already responded to God’s gift to you, then this morning as you come forward for communion, come forward with resolve to renew your efforts to live your life for God. As a Christian, you are not better than or wiser than any other person in this world. You are not better than or wiser than Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. You are the fortunate recipient of God’s gift to you. You are a beggar who has been fortunate to find where there is food.

As you come to the table of the Lord’s Supper this morning, come in humility with a grateful heart.

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