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Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.
Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, bless all of us with your Holy Spirit, to me that I may preach well, and to all of us that we may hear well. Amen.
Tonight in our last midweek Lent sermon for this year, we reflect on the event where Jesus was led to place of his death.
In the last 50 years or so, there has been a change in the way many Christians have viewed the life of Jesus. In a time gone by, it was always seen that the suffering and the death of Jesus was central. Around 300 years ago, the great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, who was also a Lutheran, wrote two masterpieces: St Matthew’s Passion and St John’s Passion. These works are the history of Jesus’ suffering and death set to music, together with poetry and hymns interspersed. To perform St Matthew’s Passion takes close to 3 hours. But you can see that in those times what care and what effort was taken to focus on the suffering of Christ.
If you look in our hymnbook, the largest section is the section is the “Passion” section, which also has the longest hymns.
But now, we are living in a time where many Christians could go to church for a whole year and almost never hear a single word about the suffering and death Jesus. Some people will say, “people used to focus on the suffering of Jesus, now we focus on the resurrection.” But this isn’t genuine. You can’t play these things against each other. I heard a funeral sermon recently, where the pastor said the person who had died was an “Easter person”, as if to say that they were simply a happy, energetic person. That’s not what Easter is about. And then people think that Good Friday is the day where we feign some kind of an austerity and solemnity, but then Easter is the day when we can forget about all that, kick off our shoes, mess around and be silly. This is not what Jesus’ life is about.
What has really happened in the church is that many Christians have forgotten that Jesus is our Saviour, our Redeemer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Instead, they want to dress him up in some hippy flared trousers, and an open neck avocado and orange coloured shirt, and have him have a beer at the bar with us as just another friend! They want to make Jesus one of the blokes, one of the guys, one of our mates. But Christianity is a serious matter—sure, there is plenty of time for humour, and laughter, and enjoyment. But we also need to think about the real issues of our soul and of our life, that require a seriousness of purpose that is often not valued in our country. We need to have a renewal in our church that revolves around the suffering and death of Jesus, of Christ crucified. After all this is what St Paul said about his preaching, when he said: We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. The world still goes around, but the cross stands still.
In some sense, the Roman Catholic Church has kept a strong focus on these things, that should be admired. You might have been in a Catholic Church and seen what they call the “Stations of the Cross”. The Stations of the Cross is a devotion where they have 14 different pictures of different events as Jesus went to the cross. And this practice is based very strongly on the event which we read about in our reading tonight, where Jesus is walking to the cross. In some places, like in the city of Melbourne, an ecumenical stations of the cross walk in the outdoors is held each year on Good Friday. The idea of the “Stations of the Cross” is to walk with him, in some respect. In Jerusalem even today, if you ever have a chance to visit, you can walk what is called the Via Dolorosa, “the sorrowful road”, where Jesus walked his final walk of shame out of the city to Golgotha.
However, the problem with the Catholic “Stations of the Cross”, and the thing that can never it make truly “ecumenical”, is that there are many things depicted that are not actually mentioned in the bible, which are from legend. For example, the stations refer to Jesus falling three times, which simply isn’t mentioned in the bible. Of course, it’s not unlikely that he did fall, but it’s not written. Also, there is mentioned a woman called Veronica who came out to wipe Jesus’ face with a cloth, which then left a bloody imprint of Jesus’ face on it. These things just aren’t mentioned in the Scripture, and they really shouldn’t have priority in our understanding of what took place.
Not much is said about this event.
Luke says the most about it. Matthew, Mark and John say very little.
But in our sermon tonight we are going to reflect on three things.
I. The fact that Jesus was led out to be crucified, carrying his cross.
II. The fact that Simon of Cyrene was called upon to help him.
III. Jesus addresses a group of women who were following him.
So let’s look at the first part, where:
I. Jesus was led out to be crucified, carrying his own cross.
In Matthew and Mark, we are told: When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
Throughout the events of the last day, Jesus had been clothed three times: once by Herod, once by the soldiers when they mocked him, and then before he was led away. Herod clothed him in “splendid clothing”, possibly a white garment, or something brightly coloured. The soldiers clothed him in a purple robe, and now they clothe him with his own clothes.
In some sense, these three different clothes remind us of different things: the white garment from Herod reminds us of the white clothing that priests would wear in the temple, and their splendid clothing, with jewels and gold thread. This reminds us that Jesus is our priest, in fact our high priest, who constantly prays for us before God the Father. He is a priest who is able to sympathise with us in our weakness, and was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. The purple robe reminds us that Jesus is a king, since purple is the colour that kings wear. He is the King of glory; the King of kings and Lord of lords. But then lastly, before he is led out, they put his own clothes back on him. These are his simply humble clothes that he normally wore. This reminds us of the fact that Jesus is a prophet, and just like all the prophets, he wore no fancy clothes, but was poor and lowly. Remember the encouragement that Jesus gives to his disciples about their persecution. He says: So they did to the prophets who were before you.
These three things, that Jesus is priest, king and prophet, is what it means that he is the Messiah, or the Christ. Messiah (in Hebrew) or Christ (in Greek) mean that he is anointed. The people who were anointed with oil in the Old Testament were prophets, priests or kings. Jesus is all three, and he is not simply anointed with oil, but with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and declared by God to be his beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. This is the same Jesus who is going to the cross.
In John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus carried his own cross. This was to add to the shaming of Jesus as he walked to place of his execution. This was a piece of wood that was going to sustain the weight of a grown man: it was no twig.
And we are reminded in this picture of Jesus carrying his own cross that he is the Lamb of God who carries the sins of the world. He is carrying a heavy load, and he carries it for us. In Isaiah 53 we read that the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
On one hand, we see the fact that it is us and our sin that has laid this on him. On the other hand, we also see that we have a wonderful Saviour, Jesus, who carries it, and takes it off our shoulders and takes it upon his own.
In Deuteronomy, we also read that the wood of the cross was a curse from God. It says: Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. St Paul says about this in Galatians: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. Jesus removes all curses from us, by taking this curse upon his own shoulders, which we see here as he carries his own cross. He takes the curse, but he gives us all the blessings of his kingdom.
This brings us now to the second part of our reading, where:
II. Simon of Cyrene was called upon to help Jesus carry the cross.
In John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus carries his own cross. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we are told that Simon carried it. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that both didn’t happen. Also, it is also quite likely that Jesus began to carry his own cross, but because he had been so weakened by his scourging, he needed some help.
Now, we don’t know much about this man Simon, except that he was Cyrene, and Mark tells us that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. In Romans 16, we read at the end of the letter where Paul is passing on various greetings to various people. He says: Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. If Mark mentioned Alexander and Rufus, it is probably likely that many people knew who these people were, and it seems that in Romans here, there was a man called Rufus and his mother who were particularly close to Paul, and had looked after him. Simon of Cyrene probably became a Christian himself and raised his family as Christians too.
We read that he was from Cyrene. Cyrene was a city, founded by the Ancient Greeks, on the North African coast of the Meditteranean Sea. Today, this region is part of modern day Libya. Simon is a long way from his home. On the day of Pentecost, we read that there were people from Cyrene there, amongst all kinds of other people. We read where the people say: Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Romes, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our tongues the mighty works of God.
Simon was not the only person from this part of the world who was in Jerusalem, and yet he was most certainly a foreigner. We read in Luke: And as they led [Jesus] away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.
We have here a wonderful picture here of the words which Jesus had said to his disciples earlier: Take up your cross and follow me. It’s strange: on one hand, Simon doesn’t have any choice about the matter. He is forced to carry it. And also, it is not his cross—it belongs to Jesus, and Jesus is the one who is going to die on it.
This gives us a wonderful picture of our own Christian lives. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow me. He lets us carry his cross for a little while, so that something sinful in us can be put to death. But Jesus doesn’t make us pay for our sins, and atone for them—that is his job. Sometimes we feel in our lives that we have been carrying an incredible burden, which has been laid on us for a time. Often we carry things around with us that are actually not for us to carry—we have decided to carry them, whereas Jesus is the one who carries them. For example, sometimes people that we love might not act and behave in a way that we would like. And we take upon ourselves the task of changing them, or even converting them to the faith. Now, we can talk to people, encourage them, warn them, teach them, but we can’t change their hearts—that is Jesus’ job, and the Holy Spirit’s job. What a wonderful thing it is when we realise this, and we can say to Jesus: “Jesus, I realise now that I cannot carry this burden. I ask that you would take this burden away from me, and take it upon yourself.”
In 1 Corinthians 10, we read something about bearing temptations. St Paul writes: No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. It’s strange—even Jesus is given the help that he needs to bear the weight of the cross. Simon only carries the cross for a time, and then it is no longer his any more. But Paul writes that God provides the way of escape. When we are burdened by some sin or troubles, we should be encouraged by the fact that God will provide the way of escape. But we often think that escaping means that we don’t have to bear it any more. Actually, it says: He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. He provided the way of escape, not so that we don’t need to endure it, but so that we can endure it. He provides the way of escape through the temptation. He leads us through it, not around it. And the wonderful thing about this is that God lays these things on us as long as they are of some benefit to our soul. And when we realise this, there is then a great joy in being able to bear the cross for as long as God would have us bear it. We know that in just a little while that Jesus will demonstrate his power and glory by showing us how he died on that same cross. St Peter writes: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. But now listen to what he says: And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
Also, there is that wonderful passage in Matthew where Jesus says: Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. He doesn’t say that he will remove the load immediately, or straight-away, or when we think that we need it. But he does promise us rest. And he promises us rest in a very strange way. He says: Take my yoke upon you. You have carried your burden for long enough. Now carry mine for a while, follow me, and I will show you where this road ends up. It ends at Golgotha, at Calvary, where I die for your sins, and make full payment for them, and where I win you for myself. He says: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. We find rest for our souls, knowing that the cross we bear belongs to him, and he is just lending it to us for a while for our training and our blessing. The loads we carry are heavy and burdensome, but to follow Jesus and carry his cross is a much easier weight. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. What a wonderful privilege it is to walk with Jesus and carry his cross!
The other important thing about Simon carrying Jesus’ cross, is that he was forced to carry his cross. Sometimes in our Christian lives, the people outside of the church force Christians to suffer for some part of the Christian faith that we would rather not have to. At first, it is painful. We might have preferred to suffer for some other reason, but Jesus chooses the issues for us that we have to wrestle with. And as he trains us, and as we endure with him, we realise that Jesus was even more gracious and merciful than we could have ever have imagined. He draws us further away from the corrupt and sinful world, and closer to him and his way of thinking. He trains us to think like him, as St Paul writes to the Philippians: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. This is what is says in Hebrews 13: Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. A chapter earlier iwe also read: For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The last part of our sermon has to do with where:
III. Jesus addresses a group of women who were following him.
This is what we read: And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
We read that there was a large group of people, mostly women—and Jesus addresses the women—who were mourning and grieving over Jesus. They felt sorry for him for what was about to happen to him.
But Jesus says to them: Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. Jesus is saying: Don’t feel sorry for me, because I am going to do a wonderful thing now that is going to change everything as we know it. I am going to go and win the forgiveness of sins.
Previously, the Jewish people had divided the world up into two categories: themselves, and the Gentiles. But they had seen it all as an external kingdom. They were looking forward for a Messiah who was going to be a political figure, a great world leader who was going to suppress all their enemies. But now, Jesus is telling them: No—my kingdom is not of this world. The true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. I am going to establish a new kingdom now, I am going to be enthroned. The old older of things is finished, now there will be a new kingdom with a new kind of worship. This will be a kingdom of word and sacrament—of preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper—it will be a kingdom of the forgiveness of sins.
The world will now be divided into the sheep and the goats. There are those who trust and follow Jesus, and there are those who reject him. Anyone can weep for Jesus, but Jesus tells these women to weep for themselves and their own children. Weep over your own sins. And weep over the fact that your children will be sinners with you. But rejoice in what I am now accomplishing.
Jesus says: For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ What Jesus is saying here is that there is going to be a judgment over the world, and even in Jerusalem. Jerusalem will end, and the world will end. And it will be preferable to wish that their children had not been brought into the world than to see them have to endure it. It will be preferable to want to be swallowed up by hills and mountains than to be face to face with that judgment of God.
Jesus says: For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? What does this mean? Jesus has been walking around and teaching and healing, and it has been a wonderful time, where many people have been called to follow him. It has been a day of salvation. It is a time when the wood is green, and leaves and fruits can grow. When Jesus calls us to repentance and faith, we should not put it off until later. We should take his hand when he reaches it out to us. But Jesus speaks of a time later when it will be too late, when the wood is dry. It is like the parable of the 10 virgins, where the five foolish virgins have missed their chance, and the doors are shut, and the bridegroom says: Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.
And if Jesus, the Saviour of the world, who has no sin, receives this kind of treatment, what kind of treatment do you think people deserve, like us who do have sin? Jesus turns the women’s eyes away from the glory of the city, away from the glory of Jerusalem, and towards him, who is the light of the world. It is not the world and people and politics and society and culture that saves us, but Christ alone. He is the green wood, everything else is dry. And when nations fall, cities are overthrown, cultures are eaten away, societies crumble, Jesus shows to us his victory over all of it—his cross, his death, his blood, his sacrifice.
The Danish poet Grundtvig writes in a hymn:
Built on a rock the Church doth stand, / Even when steeples are falling; / Crumbled have spires in every land, / Bless still are chiming and calling; / Calling the young and old to rest, / Calling the souls of men distressed, / Longing for life everlasting.
And in a Swedish Advent hymn we read:
Jerusalem is fallen, / and closed its temple door, / its sacrifices ended, / its sceptre is no more. / Christ’s kingdom never ceases, / its glory still increases.
Hebrews 13 says: Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world – grant us your peace. Amen.