James Merritt - Front And Center
Some of the world's major religions have a visual symbol that illustrates the central feature of its beliefs. And when you see that symbol, you're actually looking at a visual commentary of what they believe at their heart of their very religious faith. For example Buddhism is symbolized by the lotus flower. Now I find it it's really interesting. I didn't know this, but the lotus flower has a life cycle unlike any other flower that we know of. It's actually rooted in mud, and every night the flower submerges into this murky river water, somehow overnight by morning it miraculously reballoons without any mud on its petals whatsoever.
So this real shape lotus flower depicts the central belief of Buddhism, which is, we're all in this endless cycle; you're born, you live, you die, and then based on how you lived your life, you are reincarnated, you come back as something or you come back as someone else. A Judaism is symbolized by the Star of David. And this symbol represents the fact that Jews believed that God made a covenant with David, that out of his lineage He would send Messiah who would not only be over the Jewish race, but He would actually rule over the entire universe.
And then of course Islam is symbolized by the star and the crescent moon. That symbol actually predates the religion, it was adopted in religious times, because what it symbolizes is that there's a God that is totally sovereign and totally powerful and over everything. But without a question the most ubiquitous and the most universally recognized religious symbol all around the world is a symbol cross. And there's a big difference in this symbol and every other symbol of every other religious faith. And this is the difference: Now listen carefully. The cross is not just a symbol of the Christian faith, it is the secret to the Christian life. The way you are a Christian, the way you become a Christian, the way you live as a Christian is all wrapped up in the cross.
And having said that, I really believe the most misunderstood religious symbol in the world is the cross and I'm gonna tell you two reasons why. First of all as you know crosses are worn as pendants, they're worn as necklaces. I guarantee you there are people in this room right now, you came in, you wear a cross around your neck. And what's so fascinating is, anybody and everybody wears the cross. Athletes wear crosses, movie stars wear crosses, celebrities wear crosses, rockstars wear crosses, politicians wear crosses, somebodies, nobodies, everybodies, anybodies. And it doesn't matter; they can be a Christian or not a Christian, they can believe in God or not believe in God, go to church not, go to church, believe the Bible not, believe the Bible, and yet they will wear a cross around their neck.
Because people tend to see the cross as kind of a symbol of goodwill, it's a symbol of acceptance, and it's almost like they say, "You know what? It doesn't matter what I believe spiritually, it doesn't matter whether I have a religion or don't have one, the cross is just a really cool thing to wear". But the second reason why I know that many people don't understand it, is because you really can't find anybody that really says a whole lot against it. Nobody's gonna slam you, nobody's gonna criticize you, nobody's gonna knock you, nobody's gonna come up to you and get in your face and go, "Why are you wearing that cross around your neck"?
Now you say, "Well, why should they"? Because 2,000 years ago you would have never dreamed about putting a cross on a necklace or a bracelet. You'd never worn it in public. You say, "Why"? Because 2,000 years ago the cross was considered obscene. It was actually despised. As a matter of fact to the Romans, the cross was so despicable that Cicero, the Roman orator wrote these words. He said, "Even the mere word cross must remain far, not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears". Cicero said, "Don't even teach your kids to use that word. If they use the word cross, wash their mouth out with soap. We don't talk about that word in public".
For the Jews, crucifixion was the same thing as hanging, and the Old Testament thought, if you've died by hanging you were under the curse of God. To the Greeks, they were philosophers, they were kind of the intellectual elite. They thought the cross was foolishness. They thought the cross was just sheer stupidity. They thought it was nonsense. So everybody and anybody that was anybody rejected the cross. Don't talk about it, don't point to it, don't think about it, but there was one exception; the early church. From its beginning, they said, "We don't see the cross the way you see the cross, we don't have the same attitude towards the cross that you have toward the cross".
And there was a man by the name of Paul, who more than anybody really came to the fore and said, "Oh, let me tell you why we love the cross, let me tell you why we glory in the cross, let me tell you why all we wanna talk about is the cross". If you're visiting for the first time, we've been in a series in the Book of Galatians, were actually ending that series today. We've been calling it Free At Last. And what this book is all about is very simple; Paul basically been saying for six chapters, "Jesus did not come to give us another religion, he came to free us from religion. He didn't come so we'd have more rituals to follow, more rules to follow, more this more that, He came to free us from all of that".
And the way He did it was by the cross. Because the cross frees us not only from the burden of sin, it frees us from the bondage of religion. And so he comes to this last chapter, chapter six of Galatians, he comes to this last chapter which by the way, if you're bringing your book it's on page 18, that we're in in the book. He comes to this last chapter in Galatians, and he gives this jaw-dropping breathtaking-statement, 2000 years ago that's just really hard to believe. Now today no big deal, but back then it was unbelievable. 'Cause let me go back and remind you just one more time. 2000 years ago, people would take the cross, put it in the closet, all the way in the back, shut the door, lock it and throw away the key.
Paul comes along and says, "Oh no. I want it front and center. I want to shine a spotlight on it. I don't wanna put it on a pedestal. I want you to think about it everyday. I want it to dominate your life. I want you to talk to your friends and neighbors about it. I want to brag about nothing but the cross". Because here's what's amazing; if anybody had a reason and a right to brag about themselves it was a guy named Paul. Because take your pick, greatest preacher in the world, check. Greatest missionary of the church, check. Greatest apologist in the world, check. Greatest theologian the world's ever seen, check. Greatest religious author of the New Testament, check.
If anybody ever had a right to walk up to you and say, "Would you like my autograph"? It was Paul. And yet Paul makes this statement looking at the cross that's just mind-boggling. Listen to what he said. "May I never boast". Now this is rockstar Paul, superstar Paul, Mount Rushmore Paul. "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world". Now, let me tell you why that's such an amazing statement. I want you to imagine, that my beautiful wife Teresa sitting on the front row, that my beautiful wife Teresa walked in today and she had this beautiful gold necklace. And you walked up to her to brag on that beautiful gold necklace, and hanging around that necklace was an electric chair. Why are you wearing that? And then she comes back next Sunday because she could tell you didn't like that one.
So next time she comes and it has an atomic bomb on it. And you don't like that one either. So she comes back the next Sunday and she has a machete on it. You're going, "What in the world! Why are you wearing these symbols that are all about execution and all about death"? And yet that's exactly what Paul said. Paul said, "That's what we ought to do, that's what I'm going to do, that's what we should all do". We should keep the cross front and center. We ought to brag about nothing but the cross, but we should brag about the cross. There's a reason why I'm glad our church is called Cross Point. I want us to point to the cross, I want us to be people of the cross.
Any you say, "How in the world? Why would Paul say that"? Well, he gives us three tremendous reasons in this simple little verse, why we should forever put the cross front and center and we should always brag about the cross. Number one, we should boast about the person who died on the cross. We oughta boast about the person who died on the cross. Now, Paul normally would have been the very first person that you would have expected to say, "Look, nobody ought to boast about an instrument that was used to kill people, hang people, officiate people, torture people". Why in the world would you brag about something like that? I mean, who in their right mind would brag about a symbol of what is still today maybe the most horrific way you can execute a person?
Well, here's why. This was no ordinary cross Paul was talking about. Listen to what he said. He said, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". There's the difference. Jesus is mentioned 45 times in six chapters in Galatians. One out of every three verses talks about Jesus. Listen, it wasn't the cross that captivated Paul, it was the person that died on the cross that dominated Paul. Here's what I want you to understand. It is not the cross that makes Jesus Christ so special, it is Jesus Christ that makes the cross so special. He said, "Here is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". Paul said, "Look, I'm not proud of across, I'm proud of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ".
And here's why. Every other religious symbol points to that religion. The lotus flower points to Buddhism, the Star of David points to Judaism, the star and Crescent points to Islam. The cross does not point to a religion, it points to a redeemer. It doesn't point to a philosophy, it points to a person. And it doesn't point to a belief you hold in your head, it points to a Lord that you carry in your heart. 30,000 Jews were crucified by the Roman Empire. Jesus was one of them. A crucified Jew just wasn't that big a deal, but there was a day when a man named Jesus was crucified. And on that day, He wasn't just another criminal, dying on just another cross for just another crime. He didn't die for what He did, He died for what we did. And that's what makes the cross so completely, totally different. What makes this cross the cross of Christ, not like no other cross, is who died on that cross.
That's why Paul refers to it as the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, "You know who died on that cross"? First of all, He is the lord of the universe. Number two, He is the savior of the world. Number three, He is the Jewish Messiah. He is the Lord; that is, He is God. He is Jesus, the word Jesus is from Joshua, means Jehovah his salvation. He is the Christ. He is the one promised Messiah. So what he's saying is, on that day the one that died on that cross was no less and no other than the Jewish Messiah, the savior of the world, the Lord of the universe. That's why out of 30,000 Jews that were crucified in history the only one we can name is Jesus, 'cause He wasn't just a guy, and He wasn't a criminal. He wasn't just a man, He was one in three and three and one. I am the Son of God, I am the Lord of the universe, I am the Jewish Messiah, I am the Savior of the world.
See, every other Jew, 29,999 Jews died in their sin. Jesus died for our sin. And that's why Paul said, "When I brag, I wanna brag on the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ". That's why every time you look at the cross, you ought to think about what God has done for you. That cross should always point to Jesus. You know, the first half of our mission statement is we all know, is to point people to Jesus. And here's the point. When we point people to the cross, we're not pointing people to two pieces of wood where they used to nail Jewish prisoners to the cross. We're pointing people to the person who died on that cross for our sins.
Paul said, "We ought to brag about the person who died on the cross". 'Cause even that Roman centurion when Jesus drew His last breath, even that Roman centurion said, "Surely this was the Son of God". We ought to brag about the person who died on the cross. Number two: We should boast about the purpose that was demonstrated in the cross. Say, "What was the purpose"? Understand this, that was no accident, that was an appointment. As a matter of fact, one of the disciples named Peter who was nearby both before and after the crucifixion, here's what he said, talking about the crucifixion, he said, "This man was handed over to you," he was talking to the Pharisees. "This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge".
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, God had a plan and God had a purpose to die on that cross. You say, "Well, what was the plan, what was the purpose"? There were two. First of all, the reason why Jesus died on that cross was to demonstrate what real love is all about. Because you don't really understand what love is. Hollywood doesn't have a clue what love is. Shakespeare had no knowledge of what love is apart from the cross. As a matter of fact, the cross is the greatest answer to one of the greatest questions people ask about God. They're asking about it right now. I cannot believe I prepared this message five, six weeks ago, what happened yesterday? And you're gonna hear this over and over and over.
Okay, wait a minute now you preachers out there, so 29 people get shot, 29 people son of people get killed and you're telling me there's a God? And you're telling me there's a God that loves us? And you're telling me there's a God that cares about us? Because people are not dumb and I'm not either. They look at the newspaper, they read the magazines, they get on the internet, what do you see? Rapes, stabbings, killings, bombings, assassinations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and over and over and over you hear it every single time. So where is the God of love? And where is the love of God? Well, I'm not trying to be flippant, I'm just being honest. The reason why they can't find the love of God is because they're looking in the wrong place.
I want you to hear me. There was one thing I got settled a long time ago as a young man, and you better settle it yourself. The one thing that got settled in my mind a long time ago is this; no matter what happens, no matter what happens to my wife, no matter what happens to my kids, no matter what happens to my grandkids, no matter what happens to me, that cross tells me there's a God that loves me, there's a God that cares about me, there's a God that wants me to have a relationship with Him. That cross does not say, I'll always understand why things happen, that cost doesn't tell me I'll always like everything that happens, that's not the point. But there's one thing that was settled once and for all, God loves me.
As a matter of fact, the disciple named John wrote these words. He said, "This is love:" you know what love is? "Not that we loved God, but that He loved us". How do you know that? "He sent His son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins". And the same Apostle Paul wrote in a letter to Christians in Rome earlier, he wrote this, "But God demonstrates," i.e God's proven. God has not shut up, God is put up. God demonstrates His own love for us in this? What? While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Let me tell you something. There's only one answer to what happened yesterday, and you're looking at it. Because I defy you, you take this out of the picture, how do you explain yesterday? How do you do or what happened yesterday? As a matter of fact, can I tell you something?
What happened yesterday was unspeakably evil, and I'm not downplaying it at all, but the most evil thing that was ever done in the history of this planet, was when the innocent Son of God died for something He didn't even do. The one who is Lord over life and death, experienced death for us. And what God has proven beyond at a shadow of a doubt at the cross is this; in spite of the evil in the world and there's plenty of it, and in spite of the evil that is done in this world, even to His own Son, He loves this world. He loves you, He loves me. You see, there are only two officers for the human race, only two. Either we're gonna die in our sins and for our sins or someone's gotta die in our place for our sins. And that's exactly what happened at the cross.
When God sent Jesus to the cross, He said to the human race once and for all, "You can doubt a lot of things about me. You can doubt what I do, you can doubt why I do it, you can doubt why I let things happen, you can doubt why I don't make things happen, you can doubt my omniscience, you can doubt my omnipotence, you can doubt a lot of things about me, but don't you dare look at that cross and doubt my love for you. Don't do that". I've said the last word and for all, I love you. And what's even more real, amazing, there's another purpose. God didn't just let Jesus died on the cross to prove what real love is, He let Jesus died on the cross to prove what real life is. 'Cause let me tell you this, Jesus died that we might live through Him, Jesus died that we might live for Him, and Jesus died that we might live with Him.
The greatest news that's ever been heard which is the gospel is very simple. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, lives the perfect life, dies on a cross, comes back from the dead. Why? So that He might come and live in us, to live His life through us, so one day He could live eternally with us. So you know this, you remember this; the God who brought you into this world, the God who created this world, the God who created the Sun and the stars and the moon and the galaxies and the solar system and the entire universe, here's what this God said at the cross. You ready for this? He said, "I'd rather die for you than live without you. That's how much I love you".
So, we ought to boast about the person who died on the cross. We ought to boast about the purpose that was demonstrated at the cross. God gave us love and God shows us life. But there's one last thing. We ought to boast about the power that was delivered by the cross. Now this is something you don't hear very often, so I want you to hear this, 'cause we leave this out. There's a power that comes, when you come to the cross, you don't just get salvation, you don't just get pie-in-the-sky, you don't just get a home in heaven. When you come to the cross and you accept the person who died on the cross, you get a power nobody else has, you get a strength nobody else has. When you trust the person who died on the cross, and you accept that purpose, you get a power that no one else has.
And let me tell you why. It's got all to do with the world that we live in. And I don't the physical world, I mean the moral world. I should say the immoral world. I'm talking about the world of sin and success and wickedness and wealth and greed and gold. Here's what Paul said: "You know why I brag on the cross? You know why I'm so proud of the cross? Do you know why my life is dominated by the cross? Do you know why I live in the shadow of the cross every single day? Because the cross gives me victory over the world that I live in". Because listen to what he said, what's this, we miss this part.
Paul said, "May I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," the person of the cross, the purpose of the cross, hey he loves me, gives me life. But listen to this, "Through which," and this is really interesting, "The world has been crucified to me". And what does that mean? What do you mean? I understand that Jesus died on the cross, well, what do you mean when you say, "The world has been crucified with me"? Watch this. When Jesus died on the cross, God also made sure that the world was crucified on the cross. And I don't mean again the physical world, I mean the moral world, the ethical world, the philosophical world, the world that's an enemy of God, the world that's reject the authority of the Son of God, the world that turns his back on the Word of God.
I'm talking about the world of Hollywood's Fame, and Wall Street's money and Washington's power. He said, "That's all been crucified to a follower of Jesus". The world is dead to you. But then he goes on adds this, and after the world. What? Hear me all. When I gave my life to Jesus as a nine year old boy, I didn't realize all that happened to me, and I still don't realize all that happened, but I'll tell you one thing I realized now that happened. The moment I gave my life to Jesus two things happen, two things died. The world died to me and I died to the world. Now let me tell you why that's such a big deal. The biggest difference between a follower of Jesus and a non follower of Jesus is this; we all live in this world, but a follower of Jesus is dead to this world, and the world is dead to this follower of Jesus.
So, we really do march to the beat of a different drum, we really do walk a different path, we really are citizens of another world. And that's why the cross is the one place you can go to and you can lay at its feet all of your thoughts and all of your flaws and all of your failures, you can nail them there, you can leave them there and you can find complete forgiveness and victory in this life. Let me tell you how practical this is. Some of you know this month full last actually. Theresa and I went to Washington DC. Our congressman Rob Woodall invited me to come up there and to pray at the House of Representatives, some of you may have seen that. And so we were invited just a second time I've got, it's really cool it's kind of neat. So well we flew up there, spent the night the next day we went met with congressman Woodall.
And so I'm going to pray, and I mean, you can just feel the power. It's a grand place. And what I'm about to say, let me just say this, let me be real careful. I thank God for our public servants, and we have a lot of wonderful fine people serving in public service. And so for our senators and our congressmen and our representatives and our governor's and our mayors and city councilmen, thank God for all of them, I'm not trying to be you know condescending when I say this. So please keep that in mind before I tell you what I wanna say. Let me tell you something. There's a lot of people up there that feel like they're a big deal. I mean, there's enough ego in that room to sink 10 battleships. So, when they ask you to pray, you have to submit your prayer in writing and you have to stick by that prayer, right? So, they don't want you saying crazy stuff. So you have to submit your writing in prayer. So, I actually prayed, I've never prayed over a prayer before, but you pray over a prayer.
So you guys know me and you can go listen to if you want to but I mean I prayed the gospel, that's what I did. I mean I got up and I said, "First of all, in the name that's above every name," and then I talked about, Lord we come to you in the name of the one that died for our sins and came back from the dead, and I talked about, man, I pray they'll keep the Golden Rule. And I mean, I'm throwing the book at 'em and I'm preaching everything I know to preach in one minute. I mean, I'm giving it to 'em, right? So, we're walking through the Rotunda, and I just had mentioned to Rob. I said, "You know, I don't know, I'd like to meet Nancy Pelosi". I just you know, she's been Speaker of the House for a long time and she's kind of a celeb. And whatever you think about it, she's an unbelievable politician, and I'd like to meet her.
It hadn't been five seconds and here comes Nancy Pelosi, walking across the Rotunda. So Rob said, "Hey, there's a speaker let's go meet her". So I go over there, madam speaker, it's an honor to meet you and introduce Rison And he said, "Madam Speaker this is James Merritt and he was..." She said, "Oh yeah, you're the chaplain for the day". I said, "Yes ma'am". She said, "I stopped what I was doing and I listened to your prayer". And I said, "Oh boy". She said, "What a blessing that prayer was. I wanna thank you for the words that you had to say". And I say all that to say this, for just a moment, for just a second, I thought to myself, maybe she got it, maybe she understands there is more power in the cross than in every government that's ever existed in the history of this planet. And I can say this to you 'cause I'm not running for any office.
Matter of fact, I think all I'd do is run from it, I'm not running for anything, I'm really not. You couldn't give me any job in Washington DC, you could give it to me. But why do you think we've been in existence a quarter of a thousand years, just about, why do you think all these laws that we passed and all these amendments we've given to the Constitution, all of these decisions on the Supreme Court? And let's just be honest, a lot of ways we're in a bigger mess we've ever been. Never been more divided, can't get along. Everyday you wonder who's gonna get shot next, who's gonna get blown up next, who's gonna do this, who's gonna do that? And I'm just being honest. Because you're not gonna find the solution to our biggest problems in any government, you're gonna find it at the foot of that cross right there, there's no other place to go.
This cross can solve racism in a heartbeat if we get under it. It can solve our biggest problems. It's the one place you can go to and know I'll always be accepted. It's the one place you can go to and you can say, "I failed," and He'll say, "I know it, I forgive you, let's move on". It's the one place you can go to and know I'm always gonna find love and grace. So because of the cross, we can overcome the flaws of this world, we can overcome the power of sin, we can escape the trap of temptation, we can even resist the devil himself. That's why the second half of our statement is not just a point people to Jesus, is to inspire them to live the cross-shaped life. What is that? It's the life where you say to the world, "You don't own me, you don't run me, you don't direct me, I have one God and you're not it".
I've died to you, you've died to me. So I don't need the world's applause, I don't need the world's success, I don't need the world's fame, I don't need the world's fortune. It doesn't matter to me what the Gallup polls say, it doesn't matter to me what the Congress thinks, I'm here to do God's will, I'm here to do what's right not do what is wrong and live for His glory. And I'm telling you, when you do that, you are free at last. Totally free. So, I want you to think about these three last questions 'cause I've tried to answer every one of them. Who died on that cross? When you get that straight, you won't see the cross the same way. Why did He die on that cross? When you understand that, you won't see the cross the same way. And what has the cross done and what does the cross do for me?
When you understand that, you will not see the cross the same way. That's why we put the cross front and center. You'll understand there's something about the cross, it both kills life and it gives life. What do you mean? Oh it kills. it kills the joy of sin. It kills the thrill of temptation. It kills the pleasure of doing wrong. But what does it give you? The desire to be holy. The desire to be godly. The desire to be kind. The desire to be gracious. The desire to be righteous. So you know why I put the cross front and center? Because this cross is the dividing line between the world and every follower of Jesus. 'Cause let me tell you something. You're on one side of the cross or the other.
Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian wrote these words, it's heartbreaking. He said, "I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice and a divine teacher. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept". He has now. I promise you. Too late, but he has now. Because the cross is front and center for everybody. For those who come to it, it is a fountain of eternal life. But for those who don't, it is the condemnation of eternal death. Now just let me just say this we're done. It's a fascinating story. George HW Bush, not George W but the father, he's pres of the United States. He's going to have his first meeting with Vladimir Putin. So he asked for materials to be brought in to study upon Putin to kind of find out what kind of guy he's dealing with.
Well, one of the books they gave him, in that book there was this long interview that President Putin had given, and it was about his mother. Evidently his mother was a devout believer, and she had actually gotten a Christian cross, she had it blessed in Jerusalem and she had given it to Putin. So when President Bush met with Putin, he brought this up. And this is the conversation that they had. This is Bush talking. I said to him, "I found that story very interesting. You see President Putin I think you judge a person on something other than just politics. I think it's important for me and for you to look for the depth of a person's soul and character". Then I said, "I was touched by the fact that your mother gave you the cross".
He was dumbfounded when Putin told him a story in return. When his mother gave him that cross, he began to wear that cross. Took it everywhere he went. Well, he was in a beautiful house, he was visiting with someone a very important, and he happened to put the cross down on a table and he forgot it. Well, the house burned down. And Bush then recounts the conversation. He said, "Putin said to me, 'the thing I was most worried about was I lost my cross that my mother had given me.'" He said, "About that time a worker came up to me and I was going to tell the worker, 'Go find the cross, I lost my cross.'"
And about that time the worker had walked up to me, put out his hand and ended up and he was holding that cross. Putin said, "It was as if something was meant for me to have that cross". At that moment president Bush felt that Putin was basically saying, there must be a higher power up there. And then to his credit President Bush leaned forward, took him by the hand, looked him in the eye and he said this, "President Putin, that's what it's all about, that's what life is all about, that's what you are all about, that's what the world is all about. It's all about the story of the cross". And I want to tell you something. President Bush was so right. The cross is what it's all about. It should always be front and center. Because the only hope for this world, has been, is and always will be at the foot of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.