March 25, 2009

I Was There: Simon of Cyrene - Mar 25, 2009

I Was There!
Mark 15:20-21

Grace and Lenten peace be multiplied unto you, Amen. This evening's brief text is found in the 15th chapter of Mark, verses 20 and 21:

And when they had mocked Him, they took the purple off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him out to crucify Him. Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross. Here ends our text.

In the Name of Jesus, Who bids us "bear the cross," Dear Fellow Redeemed,

When the subject of conversion comes up - the experience of becoming a Christian - we're used to hearing stories of enthusiastic converts. People who heard the Gospel, believed it right away, and immediately dove body and soul into the work of the Lord. But history has also shown us a number of very reluctant converts, people for whom becoming a Christian was the last thing on their minds, people who had to be dragged kicking and screaming (as it were) into the kingdom of God. Saul of Tarsus comes to mind, as does St. Augustine and Martin Luther. I read the other day about a man who is now a pastor in the midlands of England

Two weeks ago we had a first-person discussion with the disciple who betrayed Jesus, Judas Iscariot. Today we'll hear another voice of the Passion speak to us - this time, a very reluctant convert. In his own words he'll tell us his story. It's the story of how he met Jesus Christ, not in the pages of Scripture, but on a street in Jerusalem. His, too, is a story of reluctance and struggle -- a story all of us share, to a greater or lesser extent. This morning's theme:

A Conversation With
The Reluctant Convert

from -- I. A man reluctant to bear the cross,
he became -- II. A man who willingly embraced the cross.

My name is Simon of Cyrene, and I was there. I mean, I was there in Jerusalem when they crucified Jesus of Nazareth. I just happened to be walking down the same road as He was, and I literally ran into the most important Man in history, on the most important day of His life. That chance encounter changed my life forever.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I'm called Simon of Cyrene because of my home town. Cyrene was a seaport on the northern coast of Africa, in the area you now call Libya. My family was part of a large colony of Jews who made their home in Cyrene. It was a thriving Jewish culture we had there. We had our own synagogue. We raised our children in the best Jewish tradition. But we never forgot that it was the blessed land of Israel, 800 miles to the east, which was our real, spiritual homeland. That's where we believed the Messiah, the great King of the Jews, would one day make His appearance.

Yes, as far as we were concerned Israel was the center of the world, and Jerusalem was the center of Israel. That's why those of us Cyrenean Jews who could afford it would make the yearly trip to Jerusalem for the most important of Jewish festivals, the Passover.

That's what brought me to the holy city, and that's how I ended up carrying Jesus' cross. -But there I go jumping ahead of myself again! Let me tell you how it all happened:

Jerusalem was filled to capacity for the festival. In the dusty streets could be heard the shouts of the vendors catering to the jostling mass of visitors. Naturally, with all the foreigners in town for the Passover, there were no rooms to be had in Jerusalem itself, so I'd found lodging out in the country. Anyway, it was Friday morning, about nine o'clock, and I was on my way into the city to worship at the Temple. I turned a corner, and to my surprise, I saw a big crowd headed toward me in the opposite direction! At first I was just annoyed, wondering how I was going to get past them in the cramped quarters of the narrow street.

But then I became curious. Why the Roman soldiers? Why the jeers and the hissing from the crowd? This was no parade, no religious procession -- Why, this was a death march! It finally dawned on me that these people were on their way to an execution. At the center of the group walked the condemned Man, beaten and bloody. He was staggering under the weight of a large, rough-hewn cross. I read the sign they were carrying in front of Him: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews," it said. King of the Jews? I thought, They must be joking! That term referred to the promised Messiah, and this man, from the looks of things, had to be some kind of notorious criminal! I was indignant. If this was a joke, it wasn't very funny. In fact it bordered on outright blasphemy!

But I must admit my thoughts were a little confused at the moment, because while I was thinking this I was also frantically casting about for an escape route. I don't mind telling you, I just did not want to get involved. I saw this crowd of people headed toward me, and all I wanted to do was get out of the way. If only there were an alley I could run down, or a doorway I could duck into!

But it was too late. At that moment the condemned Man stumbled and fell. He was exhausted. Even the soldiers could tell immediately that the no cursing or whipping could make Him stagger on. And that's where I come in. Mark's Gospel records for history what happened next. Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross. They didn't give me a choice, you see - they forced me to pick up the cross where Jesus had fallen under its weight. I didn't want to do it. To say I was reluctant to bear the cross is a gross understatement. I wanted nothing to do with Jesus. I just didn't want to be involved. But like it or not, I was involved now! Suddenly I found myself turned around 180 degrees. Instead of a quiet walk to the Temple, now I was part of the dreadful death-march of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yes, I was reluctant to bear the cross. And I've got plenty of modern counterparts in your 21st Century world: people who are confronted with Jesus Christ in their lives, but want nothing whatever to do with Him. A friend or a relative tries to tell them the Gospel - that salvation can be found just by trusting in Christ, but they don't want to hear it. To them it the story of the cross is foolish and naïve and offensive, and they'd simply rather have nothing to do with it. Just as the Scriptures say, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." 1 Cor 1:18. Like me, they'd rather not get involved.

And you! You're here today, listening to me, because you are a follower of Jesus. You will no doubt say that you have already committed yourself to being His disciple. But I wonder if you realize the true cost of being a disciple. Jesus said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." Mt 16:24. Are you really willing to "bear the cross," as Jesus says you must do -- or are you reluctant? Perhaps you've found that you're a lot better at indulging yourself than you are at denying yourself.

Are you willing to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from Christ -- or are you reluctant? Do you allow other activities to get in the way of your relationship with Him?

Are you willing to suffer the jeers and taunts of the unbelieving world because of your faith -- or are you reluctant? Do you hide your faith when you're with others? Do you conveniently forget your Christianity when it would be awkward to bring it up? -Maybe you too have attempted to duck down a few spiritual alleyways in your life. Well, I couldn't escape. They compelled me to bear the cross -- and I will be eternally grateful to God that they did!

By the time I delivered my grim burden to the top of Calvary, there were some questions to which I needed answers. I needed to know Who this bloody, beaten Man was. What terrible crime had He committed to deserve this cruel, hideous death? A fellow standing next to me volunteered the information. He sneered, "Why, this Man claims to the Christ - the promised Messiah!" But could it be true? Obviously, my neighbor didn't think so. "Just look at Him now," he said with contempt.

So I did. I took a good look at Jesus. A couple of things were obvious. From all I could gather, He was an innocent man, undeserving of any punishment, much less this terrible sentence. He was clearly suffering terrible pain. He was enduring the shameful jokes of the passersby, there beneath the cross. I heard something that stunned me - I heard this Jesus ask God to forgive these very people who were casting bitter curses in His teeth! No, this was something strange, and wonderful. And things became even stranger and more wonderful as the afternoon wore on. I stayed to witness the unearthly darkness that blanketed the land. I felt the ground heave and buckle in the earthquake which struck so suddenly. I heard Jesus' last strangled cry, "It is finished." I saw Him die.

And somehow I knew! Somehow the Lord revealed to me that the sign over Jesus' head was literally true - this was indeed the King of the Jews, the promised Redeemer! Here was the One we'd been waiting for for centuries! That Good Friday morning, the soldiers forced me to turn around and head in a different direction. But that same afternoon, when I saw Jesus die, the Holy Ghost made my life turn around and head in a different direction. He made in into a Christian!

And let me tell you, my life was never the same after that. From a man who was reluctant to bear the cross, I became a man who willingly embraced the cross. The Lord opened my eyes to see that the blood Jesus shed on that cross was shed for me. All my sins were atoned for on that cross of His. Sure, I carried the cross, but He's the One who really bore it's weight. He bore the sins of the world on His shoulders. He took upon Himself the weight of our many transgressions and offenses, and redeemed us from them all. As the Apostle Paul said, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace." Eph 1:7.

My fellow Christian: like me, you too have surrendered yourself to Jesus. Like me, there is no doubt much reluctance in your past - many failings, many lost opportunities, many sins. But by the power of the Spirit you too have embraced the cross of Christ. And Jesus, on that cross, made up for your every failing. He fulfilled God's Law perfectly for you, and He made perfect atonement for your every sin. How blessed and happy you and I are, as the redeemed of God! Just as the Psalmist says, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered." Psa 32:1. Rejoice with me, believer!

In the Bible you can read the evidence of my conversion to the Christian faith. Alexander and Rufus, my sons, were later well-known to the early Church. Other passages give hints to my progress in the faith. However, you really won't hear a lot more about me in the Bible after this episode. But that's alright. It's alright if you just remember me as the reluctant convert who finally came to embrace the cross willingly. If you want to hear the rest of the story, I'll tell it to you myself one day. For you're going to meet me in the flesh one day - me, Simon of Cyrene - and together we'll praise our Savior's name forever. And maybe those of us who had to be compelled to come into the kingdom, maybe we'll be singing the loudest praises of all. For although we may have at times been reluctant to bear the cross for our Savior, it is His eternal glory that He had not the slightest reluctance in bearing the cross for us! May we ever offer praises to His glorious name, AMEN.

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