Lent 5 – March 29th, 2009
In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
As a pastor who talks to other pastors, I hear about all sorts of complaints about the Church and its preachers. “You know, churches today are just too mean.” You are of your father the devil. “We should be more understanding of the trials people face, let them deal in their own way. We shouldn’t be so judgmental.” And your will is to do your father’s desires. “Who are you to tell me what is right or wrong, I can do as I please!” He was a murderer from the beginning and has nothing to do with the truth. “Well, that might have been how they did things back in Jesus’ day, but things are just too different today.” There is no truth in him. “I don’t know why you are so harsh, we are pretty good people after all.” When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. One of the burdens we face today, dear friends, is the simple fact that this world, at least as we know it in America, is becoming more obviously and openly opposed to Christ and His Church. In reality, this is the way it has always been, but we see it more now. We see people rejecting the Church – and we panic. We think, “What will we do – we have to do something.” This is nothing new. In the 50s the big catch word was “relevant” – we have to make the church relevant to the people, in other words, whatever we think people want. And there have been other things – the 60s and 70s gave us the folk masses set to acoustic guitar, in the 80s there was the big push to make the Church and worship more exciting, in the 90s the big focus was on trying to meet “felt needs”, a few years ago everything was “extreme”, now a big one is being authentic, keeping it real. In a few years there will be some other gimmick. People aren’t coming – *we* have to do something.
All of this is so unneeded. There is a simple truth that we in our vanity, in our salesmanship mentality have forgotten in the US – people don’t reject the Gospel because it isn’t relevant, or it doesn’t hit their felt needs. The problem isn’t that we don’t package the Gospel rightly – it’s something much simpler than that. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. People are terrified of the truth. This is what we see in our Gospel lesson. Jesus is discussing things with the Pharisees, and He has just told them that He is the Messiah who comes to bring truth, that the Truth will set them free from sin. Just prior to our text, our Lord said “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And the Pharisees don’t want any of that. And Christ calls them on it. Why do they not understand? Why do not they not care? It is because you cannot bear to hear My Word. This is the simple fact – that sinful folk do not like to hear God’s Word. The Pharisees didn’t like it in the text – they even plan to stone Jesus. People don’t like it today, either.
Why? Why don’t people like hearing God’s Word? A lot of it has to do with the Law. God’s Law is an unpleasant thing. You want an example of God’s Law being unpleasant – look at our Old Testament lesson. Hear what God commands Abraham to do – Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering. . . . That’s a statement of Law right there. Isaac is going to die. And he deserves death. Abraham can’t argue against it – Abraham knows that he himself hasn’t done anything to earn this child – in fact, as we have been studying in Sunday morning bible class on Genesis, Abraham has been doing almost anything and everything but what God wants him to do when it comes to his family and children. Abraham can’t gainsay God here – if God wants Isaac dead, well, that’s the wages of sin.
That’s hard. That is hard to bear – that is a harsh truth. We don’t like the truth. Think about how much work and effort people will put into justifying themselves, into escaping the blame for something – and even when there is no punishment, really, even when admitting that you’ve done wrong only might mean that someone doesn’t think as well of you for a few days. We will duck and dance – it’s not my fault. Oh, how we will dance and dodge. And what about when something doesn’t go right in our life - We will get angry and rail – how can you do this to me God! I don’t deserve this. Eh, that’s not true. Your toil in this life is nothing – you deserve death. That’s what the truth is, that what God says in His Word. That’s what gets the Pharisees so steamed at Jesus.
Abraham trusted the Lord, though; Abraham knew that God’s Word was more than just a word of Law – but also a word of Gospel, a word of mercy. That’s why he’s bold to take Isaac, that’s why he tells the servants who stay behind that they both will come back down the mount – Abraham trusts in God’s mercy – God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice. And we see that God does do so – a ram is given to take Isaac’s place. Imagine the joy that Abraham would have had at being stopped, at looking up and seeing the ram and knowing that his Isaac would live. This is the joy that Christ speaks of in the Gospel – Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad. Of course Abraham rejoiced – because God would spare Abraham’s son Isaac at the cost of His own Son, Christ Jesus. This is the heart of the Gospel – not that there are no consequences to sin, not that our sin doesn’t matter or doesn’t deserve death – but rather this – Christ Jesus has come and has born up the weight of sin in our place, that He suffers and dies for us upon the Cross, that with His death and resurrection He sets us free from sin. This is the great and wondrous word of the Gospel – this is what the Gospel truly is – that you are forgiven by God not on account of your works, not on account of your effort, but on account of the precious death and resurrection of Christ Jesus your Lord.
And yet – the Pharisees in the text are still angry, still reject Christ after he explains this. People today still reject it. Why? Because the Gospel truth is this – that Jesus is our Savior. The Gospel makes sense only if we know and believe the Law. Jesus doesn’t get rid of the Law, He fulfills it to be our Savior. If Jesus is our Savior – it means that we need to be saved, it means that we lack, that we sin, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t perfectly fine as we are, that we always can and ought to do better. You can’t preach the Gospel without preaching the Law first – because the two go hand in hand. And that is why so many people reject the Gospel – they reject the truth of the Law – and so they reject the truth of the Gospel as well. When do the Pharisees want to stone Jesus – not just when He says that they are sinners, but when He reveals to them who He is – Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. The Gospel is that God gets involved in your life, that God is the one who saves you – and that involvement of God is something that man according to his sinful nature fears – that he runs away from, just like Adam and Eve in the garden after the fall.
So what do we make of all of this? We see that all too many people don’t like the truth of God’s Word. They don’t like the Law rightly preached – calling their sin what it is – sin, and pointing out that it is wrong and deserves punishment – temporal and eternal punishment as we confessed together a few moments ago. They don’t like the Gospel either – the truth that God and God alone is our Savior, without any worth or merit in us. First, we need remember that this applies to us as well. It is not just people out there who do not like God’s truth – your own sinful flesh will rebel against it – your own pride that still clings to you will rebel against it. That is why we have a focus on repentance, that is why we are to daily drown our old Adam and instead be focused upon Christ. That is why we are to come here and hear preaching, hear absolution, receive Christ’s Body and Blood for our forgiveness and the strengthening of our faith – so that we ourselves don’t fall away.
But also this. We are tempted, especially in this day and age, to soft sell God’s truth. To try and make it more appealing to sinful man, to accommodate and cater to people – thinking that if we just get them in the door, eventually, eventually they will learn. We are tempted to put what we think people want to hear over what God says. Then, they won’t be mad at us, or think ill of us. But dear friends – that is not the way. Consider you yourself – you were brought to faith and you have been kept in that faith by what – by God’s Word rightly preached and rightly taught. That’s the same thing the people who don’t believe right now need – the same thing your family and friends need as well. The truth is that they are in need of God’s love – and that God richly loves them and offers them salvation and forgiveness. Speak them the Word, over and over again, even if they don’t like it. That doesn’t mean be a jerk about it, but be honest and truthful, even when the truth is difficult and hard to hear. That’s what Christ does here – and the Pharisees certainly don’t like it. And He speaks over and over again – and some never like it – but because our Lord preaches again and again – some do end up believing. Because the Apostles preach God’s Word in its truth, some do end up believing. Because faithful Christians, Pastors, parents, friends spoke God’s Word in truth and purity to you, you believe. And we are part of that chain now – now we are called to speak God’s Word rightly, so that the people we know might know what God’s truth is, so that the Holy Spirit might work, not through the plans we dream up, but that the Spirit might work through the Word which He places upon our lips.
And we know this, we see this, we understand this when and only when we hear and believe the Word of God in its truth and purity. We have been brought to faith – we know the weight of the Law, even when we don’t like it – and so we know the sweetness of the Gospel – so we cling to Christ in faith because He has drawn us unto Himself by His Word. Let us continue to glory only in Christ and His Cross, His salvation which He won for us – and let us keep this on our lips, so that those we know might not be led astray by the latest trendy fad in the world, but that they might hear the Truth of God’s love for them. In the Name of Christ the Crucified +