The Latin name for this Sunday is Judica which means "judge." Its name comes from the first word in the Latin Introit. In King James it's "Judge me." Modern English captures that the plea is for God to judge between the godly and the wicked, so the godly plead, "Vindicate me, O God." But who really is vindicated on this Sunday Jesus is judged to be worthy of death?
This Sunday reveals that the church has serious problems. Though not mentioned by name in our text, the Sadducees are a big part of the problem. The chief priests and the high priest Caiaphas are Sadducees. Sadducees are the theological liberals of the Old Testament church. Acts outlines their doctrinal errors. They didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead, in angels, or in the spiritual realm at all.
Not only were the Sadducees enemies of the doctrines of the Church; they were friends with Rome. Their sin wasn't that they supported Rome. It was no sin to pay taxes, to honor officials, to teach obedience to the powers that be. Their sin was that they allowed Rome to manipulate the highest office in the Church: the high priest. This office was instituted by God. He said that the tenure of the office was life. The Holy Spirit tells us twice that Caiaphas was high priest "that year" highlighting their disregard for the office. Mentioning a group called the "chief priests," shows this too. These were men who at Rome's whim had been high priest for a time.
The problems that plagued the Old Testament Church in Her latter days plagues the New Testament Church in our day. Theological liberals abound. You won't find a mainline seminary that teaches the Bible is God's inspired, inerrant Word. The Jesus Seminar concluded years ago that Jesus didn't rise from the dead. His miracles are myths. The existence of angels? Please, theological liberals don't believe the Devil himself exists. Some deny the existence of the supernatural all together. Christianity isn't the result of the Spirit working in the world; it's just the natural evolution of religion.
You probably don't feel that threatened by theological liberals. You know enough to reject them out of hand. But what about the modern Sadducees who preach the Church must go along to get along in the world? What the world wants it gets. The world wants hymns dominated by rhythm and feeling? The church sings them. The world is turned off by labels; churches take denominational names off their signs. The world wants every religion to pray together, and churches obey. The world wants women in positions of leadership, and since the 1970s every denomination has put them there.
The prayer is, "Lord make be faithful, but not too faithful." And the issue is framed today the same way the leaders of the O.T. church did: It's a matter of the higher good. You want more people to be saved don't you? So why not give people the music they want? You care more about saving souls than the name Lutheran don't you? You wouldn't want people to think our Synod doesn't care enough to pray for our country, do you? You don't want to the world to think we think women are inferior to men, do you?
These are real problems in the Church, and they are the same in the 21st century as they were in the 1st century. What's the solution? The Pharisees had one. They belonged to the Jewish ruling council with the Sadducees but weren't part of the high priest cartel. We love to beat up on Pharisees. We love to point out what hypocrites they were, but they were the theological conservatives of their day. They believed in the resurrection, angels, and the spiritual realm. They took God's Word seriously. They attended Divine Services faithfully. They didn't think the office of the high priest should be a pawn in the hands of Rome. They didn't compromise theology to get along with Rome.
Pharisees believed the sins of their nation rightly called down God's wrath upon them, and they had a solution. They religiously followed all the Levitical Laws laid down my Moses and then some. They fasted twice a week though Moses only commanded it once a year. They paid a tithe on every thing they had down to herbs and spices. They did these good works not just for self but for the sake of the Church which was also their nation. They believed by being faithful they could God cause to turn His wrath away from their Church/nation. They believed they could be righteous enough to cause the kingdom of God to come to earth. Can you see where all this is heading? Can you see how the Pharisees, such staunch theological conservatives, could make common cause with the archliberal Sadducees?
No? Let me show you. Imagine how the words of Jesus smacked the comparatively faithful Pharisees more than the unfaithful Sadducees. He called them hypocrites, white washed tombs clean on the outside dead on the inside. He said their scrupulous avoiding of unclean foods didn't make them clean; they were still defiled by the filth flowing from their fallen hearts. All of their righteous acts, all their following of the law didn't turn God's wrath away from their beloved Church or nation but called it down on themselves. The kingdom they had worked, sweated, and hungered for came not by their efforts but came with Jesus and came to sinful people the Pharisees wouldn't even eat with!
The Pharisees who wouldn't compromise with the world compromised with the Sadducees who always had. The Sadducees hated Jesus practically. The Pharisees hated Jesus theologically. To the Sadducees Jesus must die so they can keep their place schmoozing with Rome. To the Pharisees Jesus must die because He taught keeping the Law didn't bring or help to bring the kingdom or avoid God's wrath.
The problem is you don't see their solution is ours too. In this era of anything goes theology, like the Pharisees we place the future of the Church and our salvation in our personal faithfulness, not salvation by grace through faith in Christ but salvation by being doctrinally right. And like the Sadducees we find salvation in being practical. Be politically savvy in the church. Don't concern yourself with narrow categories of right and wrong but with what works. Jesus is useless, not powerful enough, might as well be dead when we solve things this way.
This is our solution; what is God's? Let's go back to the original question. Who is to be vindicated on this Sunday of Vindication? If we are, if our plans for the Church are, then we better get cracking. But if God is the one to be vindicated who can do that but God?
God is the one to be vindicated. In love, He created a perfect world and gave it to perfect man and woman whom He loved. He promised that He would never allow evil to go unpunished in His world. How could He if He loved it and His people? Satan slithered in bringing evil with him. See the dilemma now? How can God be holy and not punish evil in the world? How can God be loving and punish His people who have done the evil? Those of you with no higher conception of God than a cosmic Santa Clause don't see the problem. God can just "ho, ho, ho" sins away. Turn a blind eye to them. A blind God is no God; a God who doesn't punish evil is no good God; a God who gives up His people to evil isn't loving, and since God is love, if He ceases to love, He ceases to be God.
Now behold the glory of God. All of you who think God must be in helpless, hopeless despair because of the theological liberalism of our day, all of you who think God must be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sin in our day, behold the glory of God. God puts to use His office of high priest, the office He created and that men had distorted almost beyond recognition. The Spirit of God prophesied through the mouth of a man who didn't believe in the spirit at all. God's truth came out of the mouth of a man who was in bed with the Pontius Pilate who ruefully said, "What is truth?"
The truth he speaks is this: "It is better for you that one Man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." The high priest's plan is to get Jesus out of the way. God's plan is to vindicate His holiness and save His people, and He will do it through the murderous plot of theological liberals who don't believe in Him and theological conservatives who believe He needs to be saved by them.
Jesus, God's only beloved Son, became a human being so He could take your place under all of God's laws. If you think you can keep any of God's laws at anytime, you have no need of Jesus. But if you know in deeds, in words, and in an unending stream of thoughts you break God's Laws, you need Jesus to do what you can't do. And Jesus did it. The Devil Himself must admit that Jesus was a perfect man keeping all of God's Laws. In Jesus there is not one single law that needs to be kept. In Jesus God's holiness is vindicated. Even when His enemies put Him on trail, they couldn't find one thing He ever did wrong.
But what about God's promise to punish evil and His undying love for people? Sins cry out to heaven for punishment. Since they are sins against an eternal God, they call for eternal punishment. You can't pay that. I can't pay that. Only God Himself could. By the fallen church deciding Jesus must die in place of the nation, they are providing the means for the payment. It's Jesus for everyone else. God can go on loving the world because His Son pays for its evilness. In Jesus God's love for people is vindicated. He holds on to that love by giving up His Son to face their punishment.
At the cross God's holiness and love are vindicated and sinners are saved. The plotting of evil, fallen man couldn't stop it. Thousands of years of the Devil working against it couldn't stop it. Nothing stopped it; it happened, but you can still walk away from it by not needing God's holiness in Jesus, by getting by with your own. You can walk away from it by scorning God's love for you in Jesus, trusting instead in your love for God. This is me, and this is why I pray, "Vindicate me, O God, and rescue me from a deceitful and wicked man," myself. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday in Lent (20080309); John 11:47-53