We Believe in the God who Dies
I could re-preach last week's sermon replacing "suffers" with "dies," and it would be true. However, I wanted to examine closely our faith that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried." Everywhere we have crosses and crucifixes so much so that the death of Christ can seem like it should have happened.
The death of Jesus should shock you. It should be as shocking as the sun not shinning in midday. You've seen movies where a primitive tribe has its first encounter with an eclipse. How unnerved they are. The sun that is always there is suddenly covered. You've even experienced something like this on a stormy day that turned too dark to be still called day. It bothered you; it was foreboding, but even that's not shocking enough. Imagine a clear, cloudless, day. Suddenly the sun's light failed. Think brownout heading toward black out. It isn't an eclipse where the sun's rays halo the moon. It is what poets ode and songwriters sing: The sun has refused to shine; the sun has fallen from the sky. That's the death of Jesus.
The death of Jesus should shock you to the extent that you ought not to be able to confess it without choking a bit. It's as shocking as that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Toto, the dog, exposes the great and terrible wizard for what he really is: just a man. It's a shocking as when the Twin Towers fell. What I never dreamed could fall, fell quickly, floor by floor in a matter of minutes. The death of Jesus is as shocking as the scene in a movie where a person always wearing a mask removes it.
The death of Jesus would take our breath away if we rightly dwelled on it. It's as shocking as an open tomb. Down on the bayou below New Orleans is the little fishing town of Lafitte. It's outside the hurricane protection levies. In storms flood tides come in. Fishing there after a storm, lazily drifting past the town cemetery, half asleep, I see to my surprise caskets strewn like shoeboxes after a sale. The high tide had unearthed graves that were never meant to be opened. I saw the same thing in a city cemetery where vandals had broken into crypts long sealed. The death of Jesus is as shocking as violently opened tombs.
Do you get it? Do you get how shocked you should be every time you utter the words, "I believe Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried." It should startle you as much as Jesus saying tonight, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." It should astonish you as much as Jesus asking that God's cup of wrath pass Him by. The death of Jesus should astound you as much as angel from heaven strengthening Almighty Jesus. It should dumfound you as much as "a large crowd armed with swords and clubs" being knocked over by Jesus simply saying, "I am." Yes, as amazing as a severed ear being healed by a simple touch, that's how amazing the death of Jesus is.
All of these comparisons I've made come from Jesus' life. They're meant to show you how extraordinary Jesus' death should be to you, but they're also meant to give you a greater appreciation for what His death means.
When Jesus tells Peter, James and John that His soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, we see that Jesus is true Man. The prospect of His soul being separated from His body bothered Him even as it bothers us. What God has joined together can't be separated except by exceptional violence. Jesus faced death as a Man, and I don't mean manly but as a creature, as a person who could feel His heart beat and knows the thump, thump, thump is all that is between Him and the grave.
Jesus is true Man so much so that an angel from heaven could strengthen Him. This has bothered people in the Church ever since St. Luke recorded it. How can this be? Jesus the one who raises the dead, casts out demons, and is Lord of angels is strengthened by an angel? Because like Daniel in the O.T. who too was strengthened by an angel, Jesus is 100% true Man.
Take great comfort in this totally shocking truth. When death overwhelms you with sorrow, you're not at a place Jesus has never been. When you feel it's impossible to go on and you need to be strengthened by angels, you're not where Jesus has never been. There is no place no matter how weak, no matter how overwhelmed, no matter how sorrowful a man, woman, or child can be that Jesus hasn't already been. You can say all you want, you can fret all you want, you can wail all you want, "No one understands" as long as you add "except Jesus."
Your Savior is true Man, but He is also true God. The Jesus you see in the Passion history, the Jesus you confess in the Creed is God in flesh. When Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, he kisses the face of God. When the soldiers lay hands on Jesus to arrest Him, they are laying hands on God. That's why Jesus can flatten the large crowd with just two words. When the crowds say that want Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus doesn't reply, "I am He." No, He says, "I am." "I am" is the name Jehovah uses at the burning bush. I can say, "I am a pastor; I am a father; I am a husband; I am an American," but I can't say, "I am." Only the God who has no beginning and no end can say that. Only the God who always has, always does, always will exist can say, "I am." Jesus says it.
Another thing that shows Jesus is true God is healing the servant's ear. The text tells us the ear was cut off. There is a large crowd; Peter lashed out with a sword. It is night; torches are the only light. Do you think someone called, "Timeout; lets look for the ear, so Jesus can heal it before we arrest Him?" That missing ear is lost to the darkness, the tramp of men's feet, and centuries of dead olive leafs. Yet, Jesus heals the ear. Where there is no ear Jesus places His hand and then there is an ear. What would take a man hours of meticulous stitching takes a touch from God.
The death of Jesus should shock us even as other things in the life of Jesus do, and such shocking things teach us about our Savior and our sins as they bring us full circle to the death of Jesus.
It was at the death of Jesus that the sun's light failed; the sun just quit shining and there was darkness over the earth as Jesus hung alone on the cross from noon till 3 pm. Paul tells us that God made Jesus to be sin, to be your sins. You know those times maybe they're few, maybe they're many when you can't stand yourself, when you see what a miserable, sinful, horrible wretch you really are? God help you if you think that you're feeling bad is some kind of answer, yet we all think so. But it's not. Bad feelings, moroseness, despair does nothing for our sins. God does everything. He makes Jesus to be your sin. Every square inch of Jesus' body is plastered thick with your sins, so God's created sun can't bear to give light to such a horrible sight.
You're not helped by you or anyone else telling you, "You're not that bad; you're a good person; you have a lot of good qualities." Do you think Paul would've been comforted by such drivel when he cried out in black anguish, "O wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death?" And when Jesus on the cross feels the full weight of all that you are and cries out, "I am a worm and no man," could He have been comforted by His mother saying, "Don't talk bad about yourself Son?"
And don't any of you try to find the "Christian" way out either. "God hates the sin but loves the sinner." Tell that to the millions He drowned in the flood; tell that to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah; tell that to His only beloved Son whom He punished as a sinner. You don't really need to tell yourself because you've never really believed that God only hates sins not sinners. You've felt the wrath of God; you've felt the hatred of God, and you've felt you personally deserved both.
So did God, yet He didn't bring His hatred or wrath against you sinner but against His own beloved Son who was sinless. The blood pressed out of Jesus' pores covers, atones for your sins; you can be sure that everyone of your sins, as black, as stinky, as bitter as they are were floating in that cup which God gave to His Son. Jesus turned away from it as we do from curdled milk, wine turned vinegar, because He saw all your sins there. He knew how bitter, how bad, how stomach turning they would taste, and that's why He asked to pass. But the cup kept coming, and Jesus drank down all the suffering, all the guilt, all the pain you rightly deserve. Far worse, more complete, and actually sin-atoning than any of your bad feelings or self- punishments is Jesus suffering on your behalf.
You turn away from this reality; you spurn the work of Jesus when you still regard your sins as needing to be paid for, suffered for, atoned for, made up for. If you think there's even a drop in the cup of God's wrath left for you to wet your lips with, you're saying Jesus didn't do it all. And what seals the deal that it's all gone is His death.
At the moment of Jesus' death 3 things happened: the sun started to shine again; the curtain that hid the holy of holies where God dwelled hidden from the view of all but the high priest was torn in two; and the tombs of saints cracked open. These three events show Jesus' death achieved the following: It makes the sun shine on you because your sins have been carried to the grave with Jesus and buried there. It opens the way to God for you because Jesus carried away any reason God had to shut His doors to you. And finally, Jesus' death opens your grave because when Jesus entered the grave Death couldn't swallow Him. It had to spit Him back out, and those joined to Jesus go where He goes.
Be startled, shocked, amazed anew every time you confess that Jesus died. Then claim the astonishing things Jesus bought for you by dying in your place. Step up out of the grave you have dug for yourself; step under the sunlight God pours down on you, and step into the gracious presence of God. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers II (20090304); Second Article, Passion Reading II