On the edge of the city was a small hill of death. It stunk of death and caused those entering the city to quicken their step.
It was the place where you would put someone in order to make certain they were forgotten. But, not forgotten in the “put them away in a dark corner” sense. Rather, it was the place where you would stick them on a cross so that everyone who was coming in or out of the city could see.
And, with that striking sight and smell of death, people would quickly avert their eyes, cover their noses, and promptly disregard anyone hung there to die.
When you were hung on a cross, you were actively forgotten by the world in full view. Friends would run away, nowhere to be found. People would weep at a distance…a long, long distance. It was as if you were hung in hell, forgotten, alone. The Romans liked it that way.
The apostle Paul makes the bold claim in his letter to the Romans that this stench ridden place of death and forgotten souls is the true center of the temple of God. Golgotha, the place of the skull, is the true holy of holies in the center of the temple where the high priest would come once a year to make atonement for all the people that they might be forgiven.
But, do you want to know the only high priest who dared enter this rotting holy of holies? Jesus.
Jesus lays himself on the altar, otherwise known to us as the cross, and sacrifices himself as if he were a goat or a lamb, in order to atone for the sins of the world. The stench of his death rises to the heavens as incense. And, in an instant, hell of earth had been transformed from the most reviled place on earth into the most beautiful temple of salvation that one has ever seen.
We still construct monuments to its beauty even today in our churches. The cross of Christ, an instrument of death, was transformed from something terror inducing into a symbol of hope and central devotion.
God can transform any rotting hill of death into something beautiful. God can transform your rotting hill of death into something glorious.
That is what Paul is claiming anyway. Paul wants to convince us that if God can transform Golgotha into the mercy seat of God, then God can take a group of Godless, idol worshiping, depraved gentiles, and make of them a glorious people through faith.
Those who think otherwise can shut their mouths, Paul declares, because they are no better than those depraved gentiles.
After-all, everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one follows the law of God as they should. Everyone holds to a false God in one way or another. Everyone fashions an idol in their own image in some way. Everyone deserves death. Everyone has wandered into the place of the skull, the place of death, Golgotha.
Now, I understand that today we do not despise the gentiles, because most of us are gentiles. We know that we have been saved. We know that we have been included in God’s salvation history. Most of us no longer feel like the outsider, desiring to get in.
But, there are those out there who do. There are those out there who feel forgotten, abandoned, and hopeless.
There are those who struggle with substances for instance. The shame of the struggle makes them feel as if they were sitting in the place of death where everyone walks by without a glance.
There are those who do not have their citizenship papers and feel as if they must hide out in the place of death for their own safety. Will anyone care about them; the stranger in a foreign land?
There are those who have lost contact with someone they love, because of something stupid they did a million years ago. They too sit alone in the place of death.
There are those who have the wrong skin color to be included in the good things in life. They were hauled into the place of death and just left there.
And, there are multiples upon multiples of us who have been deformed or mutilated by this thing that we call life, and we hide secretly in the place of death, hoping no one will see us or our pain. We pray to be promptly ignored so that we never have to see the face of pity thrown our way.
There is so much pain and struggle in life. Some of it is self-inflicted. Some of it is thrown upon us. All of it stinks…it just stinks of death.
Paul has something to declare to those people this morning.
Paul has something to declare to you this morning.
God can take that pile of stench, stick a cross in the middle of it, and transform it into a place of salvation.
The place of death that you think is the end can be transformed by God into the place of a new beginning. The cross after-all is the place where the old dies once and for all so that something new can rise up.
Whatever you fear; whatever your struggle; whatever your sin; whatever holds you captive has died a real death on the cross with Jesus Christ, and God is now transforming your hill of struggle into a hill of strength and salvation. Your hill has a cross, and it is a thing of beauty.
What about those who point to you and bring you down again? What about those who point to you and tell you to work harder and harder though you have worked harder; to be better though you have struggled to make things better; to save yourselves because no one else will come to save you.
Paul says that those people can keep their mouths shut.
They are no better than anyone else. They too live in a pile of stench that needs to be transformed by the cross.
What if that voice of accusation is your own conscience?
It too can keep quiet.
All have fallen short of God glory, therefore all of us rely on the grace of God to make us right again. In the end, all of us trust in God’s mercy and in God’s ability to create something great out of something that is not.
I, therefore, declare to you once again that your hill of pain, sin, and shame has a cross in the middle of it. And, because it has a cross, it will be transformed.
We are a people who carry crosses. But, our crosses are not heavy burdens. Far from it; the cross is a thing of freedom and new life. We carry our crosses so that God might heal and make new everything and everyone we encounter.
It is as if we were all priests, who carry the hope of God wherever we go.
It is as if we were all priests in our schools, in our places of work, in our homes, on the soccer, football, and baseball fields.
It is as if we were priests who carry crosses of grace everywhere we so that no one might be left out.
It is “as if” we were all priests, because we all are priests.
All of us carry crosses, just waiting to put them down onto people’s hills of death and struggle wherever we go.
All of us are priests who carry God’s grace to everyone we encounter on the road.
I do it with a collar. A teenager may do it with a backpack. Another may do it with a joke. I know one guy who does it on a motorcycle and still another who dies it in a semi-truck.
It does not matter how we do it, we all carry of the joy of the truth: we have been saved by grace and it is a gift from God to us who once resided on a hill of despair, but now reside on a hill of salvation.