I had the opportunity recently to sing in an alumni choir at my alma mater. One of the songs we performed, "Lift Up the Cross," has a tendency to bring tears to my eyes, due to a combination of the truth and beauty of the words and the well-composed musical arrangement filled with crescendos and decrescendos. The chorus sings,
Lift up the cross! Lift up the cross! 'til every eye has seen the Lamb of Calvary. Lift up the cross! Lift up the cross! Exalt the Son of God who died, Take up His cross and lift it high, 'til every eye has seen the Lord! Lift up the cross!
I did end up making it through successfully, which was truly a good thing since I was the one accompanying the choir on the piano for this song!
I've been reflecting for weeks on the cross of Christ, in anticipation of writing about Isaiah 53, which is considered to be the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah in the Christian tradition. The entire chapter is the servant song, and so I won't reproduce it in its entirety here, but simply include a key snippet:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
It continues on, giving such specific details of the servant's suffering that Christians are incredulous that anyone could read this passage and not see that it fits Christ's life and death so perfectly. Christians may have a clear understanding of this passage, but to what extent do we consider and think about the cross of Christ? Do we have a Christ-centered view of the world, and does that view include the cross? Because, this view is central to what it means to be a Christian...
An excellent book on this topic is John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life. The central premise of the book is that not allowing a Christ-centered, and therefore cross-centered, perspective guide your life results in a wasted life. This book is the first one that came to mind for me regarding advocating for a Christocentric lens. And yet I'm torn between respecting Piper's teaching and devotional materials and cringing over his uber-conservative interpretations of what Scripture says about women who--apparently--can't be police officers or pray out loud in church. While he may be changing his mind slightly (I see some women writing articles on his Desiring God site, and writing about Scriptural applications is ostensibly teaching), I hope and pray that he accesses research by solid Biblical scholars on some of those touchy passages and continues to distance himself from those who routinely let culture and politics guide their Biblical interpretations. Evangelicals are often warned against letting "liberal agendas" influence them, but many have arguably given up the battle already by letting conservative agendas be the primary lens through which they read the Bible.
Here are some relevant quotes from the book:
Life is wasted when we do not live for the glory of God.
Since September 11, 2001, I have seen more clearly than ever how essential it is to exult explicitly in the excellence of Christ crucified for sinners and risen from the dead. Christ must be explicit in all our God-talk. It will not do, in this day of pluralism, to talk about the glory of God in vague ways.
Similarly, Paul Tripp asks, "What is a Christ-Centered life?(https://www.paultripp.com/wednesdays-word/posts/what-is-a-christ-centered-life) and answers with four words:
Source: The Lord is the source of everything we are and Christ is the source of our daily righteousness.
Motive: "A Christ-centered life is deeply intimate and motivated by relationship"--Christ is the motivation for what we say and do.
Goal: The goal is that Christ receives the glory and other goals fall into line behind this one.
Hope: "A Christ-centered life finally puts all our eggs in the basket of the Lord. We know that this life is not all there is, and that an eternity is coming (1 Cor 15:19, Rev 21:4). But a Christ-centered life is more than just a ticket out of hell. We have hope in the here and now, because Christ has promised his presence and grace until we go home."
These are hard words for the un-initiated and perhaps even for those who have sat in pews for decades. Just reading it off a page or screen, it seems extreme. That's how we know it's right-on. Discipleship isn't just a fancy term for "attender" or "someone who occasionally consults God when things are hard." A disciple is the only type of believer that we see emphasized in the New Testament. It is THE model, not an optional one. And as Tripp and Piper describe, there is an "all-in" nature to it. We can move forward in quick bursts, such as at an alter call or a deeply meaningful spiritual experience. And we can also spend the rest of our lives going in deeper, as we look back on prior years and realize how shallow and selfish we were.
We may recoil against going all in because it feels like we're sacrificing ourselves. And we are! But the mystery of all of this is that going deeper in Christ means we become more of ourselves. C.S. Lewis said,
The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become - because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. . .It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
Lewis' fiction works illustrate this so well, such as when Eustace allows his dragon self to be undone and remade into a healthy boy (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), or Orual allows herself to be "unmade" as she lets go of what she holds against the gods and seeks love, salvation, and sacrifice (Till We Have Faces). In writing these characters, Lewis incorporates aspects of himself and all of us. Hearing our words through these rather unlikable characters' mouths calls out our selfish holding onto ourselves for what it is: fear and cowardice. We'd rather stay in denial of our wretchedness than ascend to something greater.
What does all of this have to do with Isaiah 53? Well, everything ties back to this. Many, many New Testament passages refer implicitly to this passage and many do so explicitly, such as:
At the last supper, Jesus says, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” (Luke 22: 36-37)
In response to Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, among others, Matthew says Christ fulfills this: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Matthew 8:17).
John the Apostle writes, "Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: 'Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (John 12: 37-38).
And many more. I chose these Gospel passages because we see the direct witnesses, Matthew and John, showing themselves to be excellent students of what Jesus himself taught them. And Luke, as a fantastic researcher, shows that the eyewitnesses he interviewed also had listened well. The early church was therefore founded on a solid understanding of the centrality of the cross.
If we go about our days not focused on this centrality, we are disconnected from the core of the faith and have replaced our cross-shaped hole with something else. Perhaps some other type of need-fulfillment that even a vague spirituality can serve as a temporary stop-gap but ultimately never satisfy.
Do we have the sense that we need more? That something is missing? That even our religiosity can't fully satisfy? Heaven forbid that this hunger leads us to abandon the little practices we do that inch us on the way to union with Christ. Instead, the the best strategy is "come further up, come further in!" (Lewis' The Last Battle). Go all in. You won't be disappointed.