“O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, as Thou hast promised, draw us all to Thee,” are words we sing in the hymn “Lift High the Cross.” The cross has a most crucial place in the worship life of the church. The cross is central to the liturgy, hymnody and preaching of the Church. Why? Jesus was crucified — nailed to a cross — to die for you.
In many Christian congregations, the cross is prominently placed, lifted up, that we’d lift up our eyes and behold the means upon which our Lord bled and died in our place. In the early church, as she moved from house churches to larger venues like basilicas, there was no room for seating; everyone stood, but not all were able to see what was happening. So a cross was lifted up at the back of the sanctuary, so all would see it and know that the service was about to begin. The worshipers were drawn to the cross for this reason; it’s also a common practice in the church for worshipers to bow in reverence toward the processional cross as it passes by them.
Numbers 21 tells of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole. All who were bitten by serpents and looked up to the bronze serpent on the pole would be spared. They would see it and live. Likewise, all who are bitten by sin and look up to the beloved Son of God once on the cross will be saved. This is no mere optical exercise, for the promise is for all who look to the crucified Christ in faith, we’d receive the gifts Christ freely gives to us, the gifts He won for us on the cross: forgiveness, life, and salvation.
God desires to draw us to Himself because we cannot, by our own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him. Our sinful nature wants nothing to do with the Christ, His cross, or His gifts. We live in fear because we don’t want our sins exposed in the light of God’s Law. We’d much rather walk in the valley of the shadow of our eternal death.
To us sinners who are perishing, the message of the cross is foolishness. We would rather seek the Lord, if ever, where He has not promised to be found. We want to see the glitz and glamour we think God will bring. We want an earth-shattering ka-boom! We expect God to give a big production of His presence. We expect something grand like what we have seen in the movies. We look for Him in the earthquakes, fires, and windstorms of our lives. We expect, and even demand, an extraordinary God to come in extraordinary ways to do His extraordinary things.
Our Lord indeed acts in ways we deem ordinary, but He doesn’t have to do so. He does so because He loves us. He comes down to our level, sending His Son, Jesus Christ, from heaven down to earth to live in human flesh—as one of us. The sinless Son of God came down from heaven to be lifted up on the cross, drawing us to Him and His redemptive work of taking away the sin of the world, that we’d receive this forgiveness He won on the cross and gives to us from the font, lectern, pulpit, and altar.
In John 3:14 and 12:32, the Greek word used for “lifted up” is the same. It can also mean “exalted.” We can say, therefore, that Jesus was exalted on the cross. The cross was His throne. There, He was on His throne of the cross: stricken, smitten, and afflicted, where we should’ve been to die the death that we by our sins deserve.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ, the same Jesus who says to us: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:14-15), and again: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32-33).
St. Paul reminds us: “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). He who knew no sin became our sin, and was lifted up —exalted — on the cross, drawing all peoples to Himself that the world through Him might be saved.
This all-atoning work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the center of our preaching. “We preach Christ crucified … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23a, 24b). Yes, we preach a bloody, crucified, and dead Christ, but we preach not only Christ crucified; we preach Christ risen, Christ ascended, lifted up — exalted — into heaven.
We preach Christ descending and coming to us in His Word and Sacraments, that forgiven, renewed, refreshed, and lifted up in the forgiveness of sins, we would “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore His sacred Name.”
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.