Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, "New Arrangements: Beneath the Cross of Jesus," 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
New Arrangements: Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Elizabeth Clephane was born in Scotland, in 1830, and grew up in the village of Melrose. Her parents died when she was rather young, and Elizabeth, one of three sisters, was known to be frail and sickly most of her life. Despite this, she and her siblings worked hard to care for others who were less fortunate in their village, and Elizabeth was known as “one of those cheerful people who brighten every corner.” She and her sister tried to give away everything they did not absolutely need to live one, and she was nicknamed “Sunbeam” for the light she brought into the lives of others. Clephane’s hymn Beneath the Cross of Jesus was not published until after her death, in 1872. None of her hymns were, actually. It appeared, along with a handful of others, in a Scottish Presbyterian Magazine called Family Treasury, as a poem titled, “Breathing on the Border.” The magazine editor, W. Arnot, wrote, “These lines express the experiences, the hopes and the longings of a young Christian lately released. Written on the very edge of life, with the better land fully in view of faith, they seem to us footsteps printed on the sands of time, where these sands touch the ocean of Eternity. These footprints of one whom the Good Shepherd led through the wilderness into rest, may, with God’s blessing, contribute to comfort and direct succeeding pilgrims.” (1)
I find Clephane’s hymn fascinating. “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land; a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.” Most of our Lenten hymns that focus on the cross focus on the passion, the crucifixion of Jesus – and certainly, Clephane does that in her hymn text as well. But her emphasis is on the place of the cross as a refuge. The cross of Jesus is a resting place, a home in the wilderness, protection from the burning sun, and from the burdens of the day. She makes reference to Isaiah, who wrote, “the shade of a great rock in a weary land,” text that is found too in a famous spiritual – Jesus is a rock in a weary land. But here, Clephane is specific – not just Jesus, but the sacrificial gift of Jesus’s life is her refuge. As with most of the hymns that we know today, the original actually had more verses – two more than are included in our hymnal. In the second verse, she writes, “O safe and happy shelter, O refuge tried and sweet, O trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet!” I just love that line – O trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet. The place where Clephane pictures finding rest and comfort is the meeting place of God’s love and justice.
Our epistle lesson today is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul is writing about the urgency with which he and his coworkers are undertaking their ministry. And then he says, “16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Paul continues, talking about reconciliation, saying that our newness is a gift from God, made possible because God has reconciled with us through Jesus, and we, in turn, undertake the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation, as Paul defines it, means that our sins are not counted against us, even though they could be. Knowing that we have this gift from God, we become ambassadors for Christ, like Paul, urging others to be reconciled with God. Reconciliation means, literally, “to bring together again” or “to make friendly.” It also has a sense of “making discordant statements or facts consistent.” In that sense of the word, you might think of reconciling your bank statement with your checkbook. You want to make sure both match, and if there are conflict, you have to resolve them – you have to figure out what went wrong, and fix it. Reconciling your finances might be challenging. But I think the first kind of reconciliation is infinitely harder, and more rewarding: bringing together again, where there has been a separation in a relationship. Maybe we try to approach reconciliation in relationships the same way we do in our checkbooks – figure out what went wrong, who’s to blame, cross things out, erase, do over. Reconciliation in relationships is usually not so black and white. Whether with one another, or with God, reconciliation in our relationships means closing the gap that has formed between you.
Paul tells us that when it comes to closing the gap between us and God, God offers the gift, and makes reconciliation possible by offering Jesus to bridge the gap. I’m a fan of the Christian band Newsboys, especially some of their older music, you know, from when I was a teenager. One of their songs is called Real Good Thing, and the chorus goes: ʺWhen we get what we don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. When we don’t get what we deserve, it’s a real good thing.ʺ You can spend a lot of time thinking about that. Although we value fairness a lot in our culture, God isn’t really into fairness. I have a lot more to say about that in some other sermon! But we should be thankful that God isn’t all about what is fair, because sometimes we forget that if God was being fair to us, giving us what we deserved to get – well, maybe we, sinners, makers of bad decisions, hurters of others, ignorers of God's calls and commands, wouldn’t really deserve much actually, or wouldn’t want what we did deserve. What we might deserve is God declaring us too out-of-sync for reconciliation to be possible. What we receive from God then, instead of fairness, is God’s love and compassion, God’s forgiveness meeting face to face with God’s justice, and that’s infinitely more valuable to me than fairness. We don’t often deserve it. But thankfully it comes as a gift, free, without price. Not cheap. Rather, priceless.
“O safe and happy shelter, O refuge tried and sweet, O trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet!” Elizabeth Clephane wrote. In other words, the refuge, the rest she finds beneath the cross is the place of reconciliation, the place where God meets us, where God closes the distance we keep trying to create. Instead of trying to make do with crossing out mistakes, erasing, recalculating, God reconciles us by making us new creations in Christ. New. Everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!
Paul says we are ambassadors of this reconciling Christ. We’re representatives, the messengers meant to tell others what we know. Think of the ambassadors we send to other countries to represent our country’s priorities and points of view. You are an ambassador for Christ, for this work of reconciliation, a representative of what new life in Christ looks like. What message will others receive from you? Elizabeth Clephane lived her life in such a way that people saw her and thought, “She’s a sunbeam.” I think she delivered her message. What message is your life delivering?
(1) Hymn resources: http://www.digdeeperdevotions.com/beneaththecrossofJesus.aspx