Denison Forum – How Martin Luther King Jr.’s last Sunday sermon speaks to us today

Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last Sunday sermon.

On March 31, 1968, Dr. King preached at the Washington National Cathedral. An overflow crowd heard him deliver “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” calling his listeners to join God in a movement that would bring righteousness to a culture divided by racial bigotry and endemic poverty.

In his message, he noted: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question: Is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: Is it popular? Conscience asks the question: Is it right?”

Then Dr. King stated, “There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Four days later, he paid for his conscience with his life.

Dr. King ended his sermon by invoking a hymn sung earlier in the service as a challenge to America, the church, and all of humanity:

Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

“God proved his love on the cross”

On this Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ choice “‘twixt that darkness and that light,” his “great decision” to bear the evil of our sin for the “great cause” of our salvation.

You and I have no ability to fathom just what this day cost our Savior.

I am convinced that his physical suffering, as unspeakably horrific as it was, was not the reason he pled with his Father to avoid Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The blood he would shed on the cross was not the reason he “prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

I believe that Jesus wanted with all his heart to avoid his crucifixion because he knew what would happen to him spiritually. He knew that he would bear the sins of humanity and thus be separated from his Father. And this was a cost beyond our comprehension.

Only if we were sinless could we understand the horror of bearing sin. Only if we were eternally joined with God the Father could we understand the unspeakable anguish of being separated from him on the cross.

The good news is that we do not have to understand Jesus’ love to receive it.

When he prayed for his Father to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34), he included you and me in his prayer. He was bound to the cross not by the nails of Rome but by the sins of humanity, including yours and mine.

Jesus could have called “twelve legions of angels” to prevent his suffering (Matthew 26:53), but they would also have prevented our salvation. The God who darkened the sky and shook the earth could have stopped this barbarous atrocity against his innocent Son (Matthew 27:45, 51), but Jesus’ freedom from the cross would have meant our eternal imprisonment in hell.

Billy Graham was right: “God proved his love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.'”

“The jewels of a Christian are his afflictions”

How should we respond to such incomprehensible love? By showing our love for Jesus in the same way he showed his love for us.

Our Lord was clear: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Consider this commandment: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

A cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or jewelry. It was precisely what it was on Good Friday: an instrument of death.

Charles Spurgeon noted: “To suffer for Christ is glory. The apostles rejoiced that they were counted worthy to do this. Just so far as the Lord shall give us grace to suffer for Christ, to suffer with Christ, just so far does He honour us.

“The jewels of a Christian are his afflictions. The regalia of the kings whom God hath anointed are their troubles, their sorrows, and their griefs. Let us not, therefore, shun being honored” (his emphasis).

What cross will you bear for Jesus?

In light of Good Friday, what cross will you bear for Jesus? What risk will you take to share your faith in him? What price will you pay to love someone as he loves you?

Martin Luther King Jr. was right: God calls us to stand for what is right because it is right. Whatever the cost, whatever it takes, wherever he leads.

Hear again the hymn Dr. King recited fifty years ago:

Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

 

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