We live in a time that definitions of words can’t be taken for granted. People use the same word but often have radically different meanings. That is the case in this text for the idea of Christ. Jesus and the Father have a definition that centers on the cross. Peter’s Christ can’t include the cross. That must be sorted out. Likewise understanding was The Cross means for Jesus and what it means for his followers is important discipleship stuff. This sermon attempts to make clear what Christ and the Cross mean for the Christian.
The gospel text today is the end of Jesus’ missionary sermon, and it contains one of the hardest sayings of Jesus. “I have have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is actually understandable from Matthew’s Gospel, which I hope the sermon brings to life. It is just that we are more used to Luke’s Christmas story. Understanding peace and swords is the first part.
The second part is about why anyone would take up the call and what that means. It is an expansion on what should be the greater phrase, but we go ho hum to “the one who received you receives me, and the one who receives me receives the one who sent me”. What that phrase tells us is that we get God. We get the Father. Our reward? God. That should be stunning.
I had to re-record this, sorry. I forgot to hit start.
The theme here is the mission and work of Jesus accomplished when he “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. All of that gets applied to us by grace, through faith. But it is a graceious and faithful call. A call not simply to a mental activity, like those sly foxes, nor a call to simply industriousness, like the bird. It is a call to follow Jesus. To set our faces for Jerusalem. We often walk toward and earthly Jerusalem that does to us that same thing it did to Jesus, rejects us. But we are always walking toward the New Jerusalem. By faith we can see that city, whose builder is God.
The text is a juxtaposition of a couple miracles of Jesus. One a seemingly minor healing, and the other a resurrection. But this juxtaposition soon sucks in not just the miraculous but everything we like to think about. It is status, popularity, wealth and health, faith and doubt, fear and courage. In other words it is a juxtaposition that cleaves to the marrow of life. It is also a message that cleaves a tough spot in my faith. I accept, but I don’t really understand God’s use of actual miracles. I have an intellectual understanding, but my heart still doesn’t like it. This sermon is my attempt to express both that intellectual understanding, but also to reach for something that might begin an emotional peace. I don’t know if anybody else has such a similar problem. I also don’t know if I succeeded. But here it is. A meditation on signs and wonders.
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating character. Nobody would ever believe me, but I once wrote up a Character Study of the guy for school that was titled – “Historical Libel”. The thesis was what she did for the man much better. Anyway, one of her lines she gives him is “Choose your prince carefully.” It is a fascinating insight to the character and the time. Mantel’s books don’t have much theology, well, because Henry’s Reformation wasn’t really about theology, but that phrase I think is surprisingly deep theologically. This sermon starts there. But moves into a meditation on Jesus’ words that the son of man cam not to be served but to serve. There are plenty of moralistic sermons about how we can serve God. I get some of that in here riffing off our Hymn of the Day – “Go to Dark Gethsemane”. But for me the much more fascinating pondering is choosing what we serve. Thinking in gentile lines we are aiming not to serve but to Lord it over. But the truth is that these deals with the devil, the world and our flesh always end in serving them. It is only Jesus whose yoke it easy. Because his hierarchy is inverted. The greatest was the slave of all. So Choose Your Prince, carefully.
The brass snake the Moses elevated in the desert has an interesting post history. The little snippet is 2 Kings 18:4 where after hearing nothing about it for centuries, we get the notice that King Hezekiah destroys it as part of a leveling of the “high places” because Israel had been sacrificing to it. An example of how items of piety can migrate into idolatry. But that is not even in the sermon.
The sermon poses a question at the start. What is our response, how do we act, when life hits us instead of we hitting life? What do we do when we are the objects and not the subjects?
It then ponders that question through the light given both by Moses’ bronze serpent and its greater fulfillment the cross. We really have two options, either that of faith, or that of anger and despair. As comfortable perceived justified as anger, despair and victimhood might feel, they are all venom. We must leave them at the foot of the cross to live, to enter the promised land, to not die in the wilderness.
One post preaching reflection. I think this is a very effective and necessary sermon. But there is one thing that I know I did which is homiletic gold but on shaky exegetical grounds. The snakes are completely spiritualized. The venom is the effects of that sin that we must live with. I think that this is justified as the fruit of reflection. But if there are any homiletic practitioners who give this a read/listen, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
We are often pretty good at realizing when something that shouldn’t be at the center of our life is, and when something that should be isn’t. We just aren’t that good at changing. That is part of the message of the Cleansing of the Temple which the evangelist John makes the theme of the ministry of Jesus. We are not good at centering the right things, but Jesus has come to cleanse us and to keep us centered. The Temple was supposed to be at the center of the life of Israel, and of course it was a “true myth” in Lewis’ terms. God really was in the temple at the center of Israel. But we are very good as creating distance and de-centering the things that should be there. Jesus cleansed that temple and pronounced the new one. The temple of the new covenant would not be made of stone, but of living stones. The cornerstone which would be Christ. This sermon thinks through what it means when God comes to the temple – both old and new.
The first natural reaction to suffering is simple avoidance. Run away from it and anyone associated with it. But life is too tough for such a simple strategy to work forever. And too many people suffer for the spoils of society to go to cowards. The second reaction is more nuanced, more full of wisdom, but I’m not sure it is greatly different. We turn our reactions to suffering into a merit game. The merit going to the one who handles and by their handling avoids feeling the suffering. This is partly what is going on in virtue signalling and victim culture. This also goes on in religion and philosophies as diagnosis of problems turns to recommended paths. The sermon highlights two examples.
This is not the way of the cross. Christ did not seek to avoid sufferings, but he embraced it. He did not come to tell us a path, but to give us the way to walk. Not around Calvary, but with it. This sermon attempts to speak without being trite or overly simplistic about that way of the cross.
Looking at the word cloud I hope I didn’t abuse the pulpit today. When a name is bigger than Christ or Jesus or even a generic God, I get worried. That and nobody knows the Iliad, and the Brad Pitt movie didn’t really help, although Brad Pitt was the absolute perfect Achilles. Anyway, this sermon is a little more reflective of the text which is the last judgment. The last judgment scene tells me two things: a) what Christ is looking for from his sheep and b) the reality of final causes or end goals. It is these two things that are almost 100% in opposition to what the world at the time held out as reality. It is these two things that are becoming increasingly at odds with out world. What Christ is looking for is love of God expressed in love of our neighbor. Seeing Christ is the least. And what we do here matters, because we are made to meet our maker. We are made for glory, not fame.
In our current environment that call feel disappointing or oppressive, but that is the nature of life under the cross. The excellence of the Kingdom has nothing to do with the excellence of the world. The weight of the Kingdom is eternal while fame blows away.
So, this sermon might have been a little too narcissistic. I might have needed to hear it more than anyone else. But I do think it preaches the text in an honest and deep way, if not a direct way.
I had something to say here, but I don’t know if I got it across. Maybe that is because it is more of an intuition that something that can be fully expressed. If I try and summarize it:
1. Measurements temporal are like constant correction while driving, sure to get you in an accident. Only eternal guidelines keep you on the narrow way.
2. The happiness of God is to save sinners, which requires the cross. Christ was happy to walk to Calvary.
3. We have a God who can be found. The only place we find him is on that cross, and under the cross.
4. The paradoxical truth is that to find God, the only place we can be truly happy (have shalom, experience rest), is when we deny ourselves and take our place under the cross.
That might sound masochistic, but look at the world. Is anyone who chases their temporal self-actualizing goals ever really happy? Look at those who have given up claims to “my goals”, a) how happy are they and b) how often do they get everything else?
Worship Note: I left in our final hymn, LSB 333, Once He Came in Blessing. It is listed as an Advent hymn, but as I think I’ve stated elsewhere Advent is most akin to our experience and that section in the hymnbook is stacked. The four stanza progression is just a gorgeous simple statement of what the text was expressing.