When the sun falls behind the old church steeples, the abandoned buildings, and the Ambassador Bridge, southwest Detroit takes off its mask. It becomes a different neighborhood, controlled by a different entity. It’s a regular Jekyll and Hyde. But among this concrete, tangible darkness, there sits a small church, Family of God Detroit, lit by flickering streetlights, the glow of the nearby pizza joint, and the occasional headlight.
By day, it is a refuge to the neighborhood’s crack addicts, heroin users, drunkards. It offers comfort for the lonely, the struggling, and the restless. By night, it listens to the voices of the community: to cries for help, sobs of distress, and longing for relief. While the surrounding blackness creates chaos, it also allows for light to penetrate through, for the light is not overcome by darkness. And every night, as Evening Prayer comes to life, light “scatters the darkness, and illumines the church.” This light shines upon a painting.
Not too long ago, Pastor Jim Hill (Senior Pastor at Family of God) had a brilliant idea to bring some vibrancy to the church building. Paint was chipping off the bricks, graffiti was tagged all over the alley, and stains from years of dripping water cluttered the back wall that faces our small parking lot. So Pastor Hill had a picture of complex beauty painted on this wall, adding to the myriad of murals on other buildings up and down the street. The painting shows Jesus - beaten, bloodied, crowned with thorns - with the white tunic that had been stripped from him and cast lots for draped across his lap. Preparing for his death, he is sitting on the cross, the mighty weapon that God ultimately uses to destroy the enemy and swallow up death. He is in utter darkness. Tangible, concrete darkness. He is completely alone.
This painting captures our understanding of the Theology of the Cross, as Luther says in his lectures on the Psalms: “The cross alone is our theology.” But there is one major thing that I think gets overlooked whenever we talk about Jesus on the cross, dying for our sins, taking our place on the cross, and giving us forgiveness. We forget a vital part of the crucifixion that is essential to God’s character and what that means for us, which begins before Jesus even takes his first steps.
In Exodus 33, after Moses has asked God to “please show me your glory” (v 18), God responds to him by saying, “you cannot see my face for man shall not see me and live (v 20).” Man cannot see God because God cannot look at sin without acting. God is an enemy of sin. God opposes sin. And because God is righteous and just, sin must have a penalty: death (Rom 6:23). This is precisely why God mourns for the people that drown in the waters of the great flood. The corruption and wickedness of man grieves God to his heart (Gen 6:6). Sin must be avenged.
When light shines on this painting, the neighborhood sees more than just Jesus on the cross. It sees more than just a man who “took my place.” When you look at Jesus, what you see is a man who not only took your sins away, but as St. Paul says, “made him to be sin” (2 Cor 5:21). On this cross, as he bows his head and bends his knees to the Father’s will, Jesus becomes the drug addict. Jesus becomes the alcoholic. Jesus becomes the guilt-ridden mother. Jesus becomes the loud-mouth jerk. The sinless becomes “sin-full.”
Jesus is completely and utterly alone with your sins and mine, rejected by not just those who crucified him, but by God the Father himself.
And because Jesus on the cross was sin in its entirety, God cannot look at him. He turns his face away, causing Jesus to cry out in utmost agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). When God the Son is on the cross, dying for the sins of the world, God the Father is nowhere to be found. He can’t be. Jesus is completely and utterly alone with your sins and mine, rejected by not just those who crucified him, but by God the Father himself.
Because God is righteous and just, he demands payment for sin. He abandons Jesus. But, because God is also loving, forgiving, and desiring for all of you to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), Jesus is baptized in the wrath of God, and in turn, we are given his righteousness in the greatest scandal in history.
When you look at this image of Jesus carrying and becoming your deepest and darkest sins, know that justice has been served. Sin has been killed. Death has been swallowed up. And Jesus has endured the wrath of God so that you would never have to experience separation from God the Father.
“I am crucified with Christ.” The writing on the wall, inspired by Galatians 2:20, complements the story within the painting itself. We are united to Jesus in his death and his resurrection. It is the crucified Christ, now living Christ, that dwells in us. This is the truth that the little church on the corner desires to proclaim to a neighborhood that, by every aspect of human logic, looks like God has abandoned it. But he hasn’t. This is the furthest thing from the truth. He is here every Sunday in the bread and wine that the people consume. He is here in the way that people serve one another. And he is there when the shadows creep in when the sun goes down and darkness begins to swallow the neighborhood.
It is then when that picture is lit up again, reminding us that it was in the darkness on a Friday when God did his best work on a cross. Sacrificing Jesus for you. Forsaking Jesus for you. This painting, this Light, “shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).