The Shadow of the Cross

“They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Luke 4: 29 (NRSV)

This is the first full week of Lent, a season in which many Christians around the world reflect on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection on Easter. When thinking about the cross of Jesus, our minds go to the last week of his life in Jerusalem during which the events of that first Holy Week took place. Yet the shadow of the cross fell over the life of Jesus well before that week. In fact, that shadow emerged at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Luke chapter 4 begins with the familiar story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. This story is regularly lifted up at the beginning of the Lenten season. However, the story that follows is just as important in helping us to see the shadow of the cross during the very first days of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4: 16-30). After gaining a reputation as an acclaimed teacher in Galilee, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth where he  is invited to teach in the synagogue. He chooses the opening verses of Isaiah 61 as his text and goes on to proclaim that this Scripture is fulfilled in him. At that point, everyone is amazed and proud of their home town boy made good. After all, it’s not every day that someone from your home town fulfills a Scriptural promise!

It doesn’t take long for this celebration to turn into the worst homecoming ever. Instead of stopping his message when everyone is inspired and pleased, Jesus goes on to cite two examples of how God acted outside the boundaries of the people of Israel through the widow of Zarephath in Sidon during Elijah’s time and through the Syrian general Naaman during Elisha’s time. Luke succinctly records the reaction of the hometown crowd, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (vs. 28) They were so enraged that the homecoming ends not with a pot luck supper but with an attempt to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Clearly, the shadow of the cross falls over Jesus from this time until the actual crucifixion on that first Good Friday.

What made the people in Nazareth so angry that they were driven to attempted murder? I believe that they did not want to hear or believe that God acts beyond any of the boundaries with which they were so comfortable – boundaries of religion, privilege, culture, ethnic pride. Jesus made it clear that anyone who follows him will face the same shadow of the cross. In his famous book The Cost of Discipleship, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is a call to follow Jesus  and die to ourselves and the boundaries that define us by race, economic class, social status, gender, sexual orientation, religion or any other boundaries that come to mind. God in Christ breaks down those barriers and reconciles us to God and to each other. If we are honest with ourselves, the Church is often seen as an institution that erects barriers rather than as a fellowship that destroys them. Are we willing to follow the person and way of Jesus to the point of taking up such a cross? The shadow of the cross begins right now for anyone who follows Jesus. Yet as with Jesus, the cross always leads to the resurrection- the promise of abundant life both now and forever.

Dr. Jim Melson

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