Divine Irony


This is dramatic irony. A woman thinks her boyfriend is acting weird because he is about to propose marriage. The audience knows, however, he’s acting funny because he’s about to run away with another woman. Another case is when horror movies have hapless teens running into a house where the audience knows the ax murderer is. Our text is like that. Only it’s not dramatic irony but divine irony.

Here’s an example: A recently resurrected Lazarus raises talk of death and brings enemies together. First you have to know the reference to “what Jesus did” is referring to Him raising a 4-day dead Lazarus. Remember how Jesus’ trial brought Roman ruler Pilate and Jewish King Herod together though they had been enemies heretofore? Chief Priests, being Sadducees, were normally at loggerheads with the Pharisees. The common enemy, Jesus, brings them together in our text. And it’s ironic that unlike all those people with near death, after death, experiences who talk, talk, talk, we don’t hear a word from Lazarus who was dead 4 days. Only the raised Widow of Nain’s son sits up talking, but Scripture doesn’t record a word of what he said. And Paul says that when he was in the 3rd heaven, he saw things “no one is permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4). 

A risen Lazarus without saying a word brings Jesus enemies together. As for Lazarus he’s headed to Jerusalem for the Passover party. Life is good, great. Now hear Darth Vader’s’ “Imperial March” or hear the music for the evil woman who hates Toto. Then read Jn 12: 9 & 11. “Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead…On account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him.” Great news, right? Think again. Jn 12:10 says, “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well…” You and I know this; Lazarus doesn’t. This is Luther saying that if you could see how many spears, knives, and arrows Satan has aimed at you every moment even on good days, you’d die of fright. This is Divine Irony.

So is an unbelieving high priest faithfully prophesying. Divine Offices are powerful. The pastoral office is a divine institution. The High Priesthood was too. Until the great High Priest, Jesus, arrived, the OT Church had to have one. God commanded it be a lifetime appointment. The Romans, however, appointed and deposed them at will. Still it was a divine office. Even lesser offices and ‘church’ positions were to be obeyed when they used the word of God as Matthew records: “Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach’” (23:1-3). The Greek emphasizes the divinity of the part where John says, “Jesus would die for the people”. This is a Greek word denoting an action that necessarily follows a divine decree (BAG, mell?, d). And here we have an instance of Verbal Inspiration. Caiaphas said exactly what God wanted him to say here. If the Spirit can do that in regard to an enemy of Jesus, surely He can do that for John, Paul, all the writers of Scripture.

Have you ever heard the saying that if you want to make God laugh, just tell Him your plans? Caiaphas thinks his plan will preserve their place and their nation. In reality, it will destroy both. Jewish scholar and Christian clergyman, Edersheim, said, “With the sentence of death on Israel’s true High Priest prophesy died in Israel, [and] died Israel’s high-priesthood’” (Buls, Exegetical Notes, Gospel A, 70). This is superb dramatic irony: The plan they adopted for maintaining themselves, brought on the very calamity they meant to avoid. Rejecting their true Messiah led to their temple and their capital being demolished by Roman fire and sword, and their nation being scattered to the ends of the earth.

But all Caiaphas can see is that it’s better for one Man to die in place of the whole nation than for the whole nation to die. The Holy Spirit through the pen of John takes this into warp speed. John remarks: Caiaphas “did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” And where Caiaphas had used people, laos, to refer to the Jews as God’s special people, the only real people, the Holy Spirit corrects that to ethnos. They were no longer God’s peculiar people but just one of the many ethnos, ethnic groups, like all the other nations. Still this is an emphatic Gospel promise: John says, “and not only in place of, on behalf of, the nation alone but on the absolute contrary so that the scattered children of God should be gathered into one.” Jesus’ death is way more powerful than Caiaphas thinks. The text says the chief priests and Pharisees were gathering together, soon-ag'-o, to kill Jesus. He in fact by dying would gather, soon-ag'-o, all the scattered children of God. This is not only Divine Irony; it’s delicious irony.

There is Divine Irony in the fact that a dead Jesus does more than a living one. Make no mistakes; from Jesus’ first year of ministry on His enemies wanted Him dead. John 5:18 says, “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him; not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” Then read John 7:19. Jesus says, “’Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill Me?’" Now at last in Holy Week those who wanted to kill Jesus for their purposes will be allowed by God to kill Him for His purposes.

We’re all about the death of Christ. We preach Christ and Him crucified. We believe as often as we eat His body and drink His blood we do proclaim His death until His Second Coming. We have crucifixes and make the Sign of the Cross – the very instrument of His death. Because by His death we live. By His death the sins of the world are paid for. By His death our death is redeemed. His death fills the Baptismal font with forgiveness, makes absolution in Jesus’ name possible, and makes eating His Body and drinking His Blood is life changing both now and forever.

Since before Luther, probably dating to the 400’s, the Epistle reading for Palm Sunday is Phil. 2:5-11. You’ll hear it next Sunday. Here I wish to highlight verse 8: “And being found in appearance as a man,  He humbled Himself  and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!” Last week. quoting the pagan Cicero, I showed you how detested the cross was to Romans. They didn’t want to hear of it, speak of it, or see it. But Christians early on, as early as the fish, used a cross as their symbol. A house buried by Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D. has the clear outlines of a metal cross on a wall (In the Fullness of Time, 324-5). Luther observes, "The custom of holding a crucifix before a dying person has kept many in the Christian faith and enabled them to die with a confident faith in the crucified Christ" (LW, 22, 147). The whole idea of ‘making your mark’ with an X seems to connect to the cross. Illiterate Jews arriving at Ellis Island refused to use X as their mark using instead a small circle. In Yiddish a kikl. Probably this is where derogatorily calling Jews "kikes" comes from (A Browser’s Dictionary, 75). 

Do you see the Divine Irony in a device designed to torture criminals or enemies of the State being the Christian symbol of comfort? The poem from post WW I, “Jesus of the Scars” expresses this. The last line of the first verse is, “We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars”. “It was during the plague of the Black Death in the 17th century that people flocked to the parish church of Monte Lupo. There was and is a horrifying crucifix. The cross itself is wretched and Christ is contorted in agony and covered with bleeding wounds. The secular author of this description wonders why would a community already full of tortured, suffering, and wounded people want to look on such a dreadful image” (sermon, 20060406)? You know why. For the same reason we sing even as Luther said, “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes” (Abide with Me, 5). Chesterton observed that the Eastern church was the land of the cross while the Western church, which we descend from, is the land of the crucifix. “The Greeks were being dehumanized by a radiant symbol [of an empty cross], while the [pagan] Goths were being humanized by an instrument of torture" (Aquinas & Assisi, 78).

Christians are comforted by a crucified Jesus because He gave His life willingly. He says, “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again  This command I received from My Father" (Jn 10:18). Jesus gives His life for the life of the world, but He doesn’t court death. As a result of His enemies plotting to take His life as verse 53 tells us, verse 54 says, “For that reason Jesus no longer appeared publicly among the Jews, but left there and retired to the district that borders on the wilderness” (AMPC). In Gethsemane as Death approaches for Jesus to not just die but to die a condemned guilty sinner, He prays that the cup of God’s wrath pass Him by. And He blurts out to disciples that His soul is overcome with sorrow to the point of death.

Earlier John says Jesus’ time had not yet come (7:6) or His hour (8:20). The Divine Irony is that it comes when the nations, represented by the Greeks arrive and say, “We would see Jesus.” That’s the setting of Jesus saying: “’I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’” (Jn 12:24). After the death of a young, promising actor, athlete, singer, even politician, there are lots of stories about how had he live what might have been. The Lord flips that around. Had Jesus not died there would be no redemption, no forgiveness, no Means of Grace. Only judgment, death, and damnation. This is why we don’t make Good Friday services a pity party or a funeral for Jesus. This is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on that day. This too is Divine Irony, and once more it’s also delicious. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fifth Sunday in Lent (20230326); John 11:45-53