Songs of Faith (Pt. 3): When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

John 19:31-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

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This morning we continue on in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith,” by focusing on the text that relates to the hymn, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” I’ll do my best try and keep things on the lighter side this week, which may seem ironic when talking about the cross, but we’ll see how things go. On another note, I hope that during this Season of Lent you have something that fills our souls… Some folks have told me about the beautiful spiritual practices they have been doing, and let me say that it is never too late to start a Lenten or year-long spiritual discipline. I think that how we choose to practice Lent is a mirror that shows us what things are and aren’t necessary for our lives… And it shows what things we are and aren’t willing to lay down at the foot of the cross.

But before we dive too deep into the passage for today, we’ll take another brief look at the author behind today’s hymn. It was said that on one Sunday afternoon a young Isaac Watts complained to his father about how terrible were the hymns that were sung in church. His father, who was also the pastor of the church, scolded Watts and said, “I’d like to see you write something better!” Well, then legend has it that the young Isaac Watts retreated to his room for the night and came up with his first hymn, which was received with great excitement at the Sunday evening service that same day. Isaac Watts appreciated the power of sacred music and often took well-known tunes and turned them into hymns. There are over 600 hymns which are said to be credited to Isaac Watts, including the focuses of today’s sermon, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”

Our eyes are immediately drawn upwards towards the cross starting in the very first verse of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” It puts into perspective the cost of grace, the cost of love, that God poured out without any strings attached, it is there for all who seek it. In all reality, it should make us stop and wonder at how great a gift this was, especially when you consider how brutal crucifixions actually were. Crucifixions were not meant to kill people instantaneously… On the contrary, they were designed to make people agonize in public for long enough that those who considered doing misdeeds against the Roman Empire would think twice about committing such acts.

What are the things that keep us from coming to the foot of the cross and being in the presence of Jesus? And know that Jesus has risen, but technically we haven’t arrived at that point in the church calendar yet, and the cross is still a place for us to come and be in the presence of God as well. There is a multitude of art pieces that try to capture the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I don’t think that there is anyone painting or piece of music that can truly encapsulate everything that happened the moment that Christ laid down his life for the world.  “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow, and love flow mingled down,” write Isaac Watt and, “Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Perhaps the weight of those words and the things that they represent are what makes it feel like we are unable to come and stand at the foot of the cross.

When we come and stand at the foot of the cross, we do so with a bag of mixed feelings containing the joys and sorrows of life. The cross is one of those things that brings both clarity and moments of contemplation. Recently I came across a funny comic strip that showed Jesus sitting on a park bench with a stranger. Jesus says, “I want you to follow me.” The stranger replies, “On Facebook?” “No,” Jesus says, “I literally want you to follow me.” “Oh,” replied the stranger, “I get it now… So you mean on Twitter?” The comic shows Jesus putting his face in the palm of his hand and then taking a deep breath. Jesus looks up and tells the stranger, “Okay… I’m going to start over again, and you can let me know where I lose you.” The great thing is that Jesus is a patient mentor, friend, and teacher… And truth be told we certainly in need of someone like that to walk alongside us as we navigate the perils of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last couple of years and about people who have been fellow travelers on this journey of life and faith. I’ve thought about our gifted ministers of music: Carl, Sara, and Jenny, and everyone who helps lead worship, as they’ve been very accommodating to my desire to try out new kinds of music… I’ve thought about Mary Sandford and John Suddith, who have shared with me a myriad of stories about life and faith and the those who have come before. I’ve thought about the Sunday morning group that has been meeting and the conversations we have had about a whole assortment of different topics. And when it comes to it, I’ve really just thought about everyone who I met this past couple of years both those here in Watertown and those who I’ve journeyed within other contexts as well, even if just for a little while. Who have you been walking alongside with on this journey that leads to the foot of the cross? It certainly frames things differently when you think about how our lives all interconnect and come together.

My favorite verse of this hymn is probably the last because it captures all these things. It is the one where Isaac Watts writes, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” At the foot of the cross, there is love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our all. And that divine love is so amazing how can we keep it to ourselves? We should naturally want to go out and share it with the whole wide world. As God gave the gift of love to the world, it is our responsibility to help make sure that that love is accessible to all people, in every time, and in every place. And that can’t happen if we don’t actually go out and share the good news of such love with who is around us. Slipping notes to passerbys under the cracks of the church door would not be an effective means of spreading that good news. It takes a spirit that is willing to take risks, to dream, and to live boldly in their identity as people created in the image of God.

When you look at the reading for this morning and then look at the hymn text for “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” you should feel a sense of reverent awe, but also a sense of tenderness and love that is so divine, it has the power to bring the world together. In a previous sermon, I once talked about “two-handed giving.” We cannot give to God entirely if we have one hand open and one hand held tightly shut behind our backs. That idea of two-handed giving applies to this morning’s reading as well. How can we come before Jesus who bore the weight of the cross if we are not willing to lay everything at his feet, the things that weigh heavily on our hearts with hands that are open? And then if we come to the cross with open hands, we need to be willing to turn to those around us and share with them the love, the compassion, and grace we have received because that is what we find when we come and stand at the foot of the cross.

In the end, when you take all these things together, I want to lift up a few points that I think will be important for you all, and for this church, as you move forward together… And since I didn’t want to cram a final farewell into one sermon, I thought I would break that up into what was said to today and the last part of this sermon series which will be next week, so here we go:

  • As you continue to strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, don’t forget to stop and enjoy a little fun and humor along the way. Even though the Bible doesn’t include any jokes by Jesus, I’m sure that he had his moments with the disciples. I’ve been reminded by my good friend Gerda Barbour, that we all need a good laugh every now and then.

  • Our community of faith is made up of people, not programs… I think that at the heart of the cross you will find that God emphasizes the importance of relationships. The relationships that we have with God and the relationships with have with those around us… Programs are important, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t maintain the core of what it means to be a part of a community of faith, which is the people who belong to it and those around it.

  • Finally on a similar note I would lift up the importance of the love that is found at the cross as being something that will carry you forward for years to come. Love can’t be bought, sold, or traded like some generic commodity. Love, especially the divine love that comes from God, is something that is received and shared without stipulations or expectations.

When you take all these things, I think we find that we have worked towards living a life that brings us closer to the cross, closer to the being with God who dwells in the company of others as well. When you take all these things together, I think that what you will find is that wondrous cross that has inspired generations of people who have come before us, and ages who will come after us as well who have been good and faithful disciples. Amen.