The following article was first given as a speech at the Singspiration held at Hudsonville church on November 23, 1969.
Twilight softly shadows the city, silently aloof on its hills. Towers stand gently gilded in the setting sun, for this is Jerusalem the golden. In the ravines and valleys, even to the plain beyond, stand the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Mammoth war machines surround the embattled city. Jerusalem is under siege.
Inside the saffron city a people is dying. The last bastion of Judaism will soon fall. Yet, worse than the degradation of defeat is the erosion of the people from within. Morally, the people are nearly destroyed; their leaders have betrayed them, abdicating their authority. Starvation has driven even the strongest into deeds of sinful desperation.
A people is dying, a promise is fading. Yet, among the emaciated remnants of a great nation remain a few with a vision, the vision of Jeremiah. It is a dim vision, blurred by years of silence and confusion, but to those who cherish it, particularly in desperation, it is a vision of hope. For these few are the children of God, the covenant seed, and their vision is the cross. Dimly, through the curtained mists of time, the indistinct outline of the salvation of the cross is seen. Their vision of hope in the time of death is the shadow of the cross.
Thick-soled sandals encrusted with dirt, mighty legions marching across the worn hills: The armies of the great Caesar rule the land.
Flame-lit marble echoes to the subtle sound of an oriental flute. Salome dances before the lustful eyes of Herod the tetrarch. In a nearby prison, a man waits, filthy, hungry, totally drained. In a matter of moments his head will ride upon a glistening platter.
Alone, forsaken, but not desolate; frightened, yet emboldened; he is John the Baptist, and he has seen the Christ! John has seen the Christ and in Him he saw salvation. He has been touched by the shadow of the cross.
A chill wind sweeps across the barren Judean hills. On the summit of a rocky hill just outside of the city gates a man shivers, binding his cloak more tightly around him. Above his head hangs the Christ, dead. Christ is dead, and in him this cold, empty man has been filled with life. Raising his head, he is shadowed by the agony of victory which is the cross.
On a care-worn hovel, affixed to an unnoticed side of a door is the crude drawing of a fish. Inside a cluttered work room, a man labors diligently at a potter’s wheel. A thousand men in as many cities? No, for this man has been touched by the shadow of the cross.
It is a time of persecution. Christians daily are being burned at the stake or thrown to the lions, for dissolute Nero rules Rome. It is a time of persecution, yet, for those embraced by the covenant line, the sign of the fish is a symbol of security, of unity. It is a reminder of the binding hope fulfilled for them at Golgotha; it is a symbol of the purpose of their being even in a time of death; it is an assurance of the glorious eternity that awaits them at journey’s end. Still, more than all this, the sign of the fish is a brilliant light from Christian to Christian, reminding each one that he is under the shadow of the cross.
Hair streaming like wet twine down jaundiced faces, “love” beads embossed upon dirty shirts, bare feet slapping against damp pavement: The “now” generation rules the headlines.
Flickering blue television light emanating from row upon row of similar houses; ideas, ideals, idiosyncrasies, pressed and impressed upon the Church.
It is a time of persecution, but there is no sign of the fish.
Social justice, social love, socially-oriented church…Live for your fellow man…God is dead (or at least dying)!
It is a time of persecution. Oh, we seldom realize we are being persecuted. We speak of the day when persecution will scatter and decimate our churches, barely aware that the subtle persecution of the world around us has already begun. It is a persecution in the minds and hearts of the Church; it is a pollution and a distortion of morals not only, but of truths and ideals.
The persecution is an altering of judgment, so that we find ourselves judging ourselves by the world’s standards, not by our God’s. The persecution is a muting of awareness, so that we unconsciously slip into the habits and desires of the evil world.
It is a time of persecution, a persecution more severe and more subtle than any the Church has experienced before. Yet, the hope and promise, both given and fulfilled, which has sustained the Church through countless generations, is still ours today, for we are under the shadow of the cross.
The body of Christ which is the Church; what glories it receives, what agonies it endures! For untold millions, the shadow of the cross has been the staff of life. The cross: a vision dimly seen through curtained mists of time, a vision touched but not realized. The cross, a reality witnessed, a shadowy, but really functioning promise fulfilled. The cross: The agony of victory which has preserved the Church in time and given it eternity. The cross: coloring and hueing our lives with its glorious promise; our reason for thanksgiving.
This is not to ignore the rich abundance of this earth’s goods with which the Lord has graciously blessed us. We have been given blessings far beyond that which we need and want. In the cutting cold of winter, we will be warm and comfortable. Again with the miracle of the harvest, the Lord has promised us security.
Still, were the Lord in His wisdom to remove all of our human securities, we would still have the most vital reason for our thanksgiving.
For all our lifetimes, brief though they may be in the scope of eternity, we have lived under the shadow of the cross. This cross is not a dead shadow, it is not an idolatrous crucifix on a wall; it is a vital, functioning reality.
The shadow of the cross is a symbol of the being of the cross on Golgotha. It is a living reminder of Christ’s conquering hell for His own. The shadow of the cross is the memory of this agony of victory borne in every child of God.
Yet, the shadow is more than that; it is also the living reminder of the promise of Golgotha. Christ, the God-man died. He conquered hell for His elect and by conquering hell, by being raised on the third day, by ascending into heaven, He gave us not life only, but Glory!
The shadow of the cross, often dimly seen and yet more vaguely realized by the people of God, is the heart of our thanksgiving. We do not stand blind and ignorant before the cutting cold of the world’s persecution; we do not bow to the onslaughts of the devil, subtle though they may be, for we are God’s children, shadowed and sheltered by the cross and the promise it bears.
Jerusalem has long since fallen, its gilded walls darkened by the passing of years. John the Baptist is dead; his work finished. The cross stands no more on Golgotha outside the city gates. The sign of the fish is all but erased from the memory of the Church. We are engaged in a new kind of defense against persecution, a more vital kind.
Soon it will be Thanksgiving again, and we will sincerely give our thanks in our thoughts and hopefully in our lives. Yet this is only the bare shell of what we ought to be doing in thanksgiving. We ought to be standing in an awareness of the shadow of the cross which marks our beings. We ought to wear this cross emblazoned on our hearts and minds. We ought to live in obvious appreciation of the victorious life this act of the cross gives us. To give thanks for the cross and all God in Christ has given us in it is to live every day in a yearning toward God.
A cross once stood on a barren hill. Christ hung there, windswept, desolate, forsaken. He went through the agonies of hell on that cross; He died there so we might live. For that cross and for the shadow of promise it has given us and our Church for century upon century, we give our thanks.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 8 December 1969