Okay. I admit it. Growing up, I loved Sunday night church. Less formal. Relaxed. Sitting with friends instead of parents. And singing. Lots more singing.
In the church I attended with my family, that meant hymns. Pastor would lead a song service and, each week, the gathered faithful called out their favorites. Everybody grabbed a faded hymnal from the wooden rack attached to the pew in front of him or her and, as the organ music swelled, we would belt out our praises. The Brooklyn Tabernacle choir we weren’t, but, oh, how the folks in our little church would (and could) sing! What a precious memory.
But there is another memory I have of those evening services. In our little town, there was a ramshackle, dingy, long-term care facility, one that had somehow slipped off the radar of any respectable agency’s oversight. I hated when my dad made us go there to sing or pass out cookies to the neglected and forgotten residents. It was dark and creepy…and I choked on the rancid smells of stale urine and filth.
Each Sunday night, Mary would show up from that “home.” I don’t to this day know how she got there, but she would march up the aisle and sit royally down on the left side, front row. She carried a carpetbag of sorts, and after she settled in, she would pull out a spray can of deodorant, lift up her arms, and “shower.” Or eat a drippy sandwich. Or roll curlers in her hair. Or turn on her beat-up transistor radio to a rock station… which, back then, could have been the Beach Boys. Can you picture this? It was so cool! She fascinated me, to say the least. Every kid’s eyes were fixed on her. We did not want to miss anything she did. Every parent’s eyes were glaring at the kids, warning them to be polite and pay attention to the pastor. Seriously? Could anybody really ignore that front row entertainment?
Mary was toothless and old---old in an unkempt and uncaring way. Her unwashed hair was piled on top of her head and corralled by a droopy and holey hairnet. She squinted at the world through a thick pair of men’s horn-rimmed bifocals that made her smallish face appear a bit owl-like. She sported a colorful and mismatched wardrobe of hand-me-downs on her tiny and wrinkled person, but, best of all, she had the amazing ability to swallow her face. You will have to use your imagination here because I can’t possibly explain it, but ask any kid that grew up in that church with me, and they, after chuckling at the mention of it, will verify that she could. What an incredible talent! I still wonder how she did it.
Mary was restless and fidgety, seemingly preoccupied with anything but the evening service. But the minute Pastor asked for favorites, she was immediately alert and focused. Before anyone else could respond, Mary would be shouting boldly, “52!” Ask any kid that grew up in that church again. He or she will still remember that page 52 of our well-worn maroon hymnal was “The Old Rugged Cross,” Mary’s favorite. We sang it with her and for her every Sunday night. How that wizened, dear face would light up, transformed by a deep gratitude to and love for her caring Savior and King! To this day, I can’t sing that beloved hymn without smiling to myself as I fondly remember Mary. And then I wipe away the tears...
Pastor Greg Laurie tells a true story about a well-to-do couple browsing in a jewelry store. After examining a variety of cross necklaces, the woman turned to the proprietor and smiled, “I like these but do you have any without this little man on them?”
That’s exactly what people in our culture today want: a cross with no Jesus. A cross with no offense. A cross that will simply accessorize an outfit or bring good luck. But two thousand years ago, in its original context, the cross was a horrific and bloody symbol.
The Romans employed crucifixion because it was designed to cause a slow, torturous, and humiliating death. Blood-spattered crosses lined the roads leading into Roman cities, serving as a warning to anyone daring or foolish enough to come against Roman rule.
If there were any other way, do you suppose that the Father would have allowed His Son to die on one of those vile crosses and suffer the excruciating pain that He did? If there had been ANY other way we could have been forgiven, surely God would have found it. If living a good moral life or tithing or going on a mission trip would get us a free pass into heaven, then Jesus never would have died for us. But He did. There was and is no other way.
He was “subbing” for you and me. He was satisfying the just demands of a holy God. He was taking God’s wrath for our sin. He was paying the price that God’s holiness requires so that we can be forgiven. OUR blood should have stained the ground that day, but Jesus hung as our WILLING substitute. At the Cross, Jesus purchased the salvation of the world. He purchased salvation for Mary. He purchased salvation for me.
Ever tempted to doubt God’s love for you? Even for a second? Why not take a very long, hard look at the Old Rugged Cross? Nails didn’t hold Jesus to that Cross. His love did.
Little, old Mary knew that. Do you?