On Knowing Nothing But the Cross
Dear Jesus Christ, Lord from Your cross, and Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, rule our hearts through Your suffering cross and forgive us our sins, that we may become partakers of Your divine life; for you live and rule with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN
Text – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Mark was the apple of his father’s eye. His parents had seven daughters, and then came Mark. He was supposed to take over the farm, the center of all his father’s hopes and dreams. But then… At the time I was a 33 year old associate pastor. In the weeks before had done weddings for two of Mark’s older sisters. So I knew Mark fairly well. But then… there was this hot afternoon in July. The senior pastor was away. I was just coming home from visiting with another family where the grandfather, Johnny was his name, had died of heart disease at the age of 55. That didn’t phase me too much. At 55 you’ve lived most of your life anyway – right? That’s what I thought when I was 33.
But then… I was just coming home when my wife met me on the front porch, “Here, call this number. Something terrible has happened to Mark.” He had gone on a canoe trip with his girlfriend with the youth group of the neighboring congregation. He had fallen into a hole in the river and drowned. And now they couldn’t reach his parents. I found a daughter and son-in-law and drove out to the farm. How do you tell a father his only son is dead? The rest of the night was a blur, of crying out to God, of turning to His Word, then crying out some more.
Well, the very next day, after a long day of funeral homes, of visiting with both grieving families, I was coming home, and there was my wife on the front porch again: “You’ve got to go down to the hospital. Bobby has been electrocuted and they don’t know if he’s going to live.” I do remember pounding the dashboard of my car yelling at God: “Let him live! I’ve had enough death already!” But as soon as I came into the emergency room, it was clear that Bobby was gone.
Three terrible tragedies in three days. What happens to you when you meet with broken people? What happens when the ministry starts to break YOU? To what do we cling? When our hearts are broken?
St. Paul had not had an easy time of it before coming to Corinth. Beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. A riot and a nighttime escape from Thessalonica, followed by another hasty “gotta get outa town” from Beorea. Then the cool indifference in Athens. That must have been the worst of it. So Paul had determined to know nothing among the Corinthians, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He was with them, Paul said, in weakness, in fear and in much trembling. His message and his preaching were not in overwhelming words, or lofty rhetoric, but in the simple demonstration of the Spirit and of the power of God. In the foolish message of the cross, where God had hidden all His power, so that their faith might rest, not in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God.
What about you? Where do you not have an easy time of it? Where are you broken? Here I want you to think past all the outward signs of success – or failure for that matter – in the ministry. You see, we preachers have fine ways of fooling ourselves: How many are you worshipping? If there are more and more, wow! That’s great, we must be doing something right! Or perhaps your numbers are decreasing, but we’re being faithful! And the people left behind are the REAL Lutherans!
Forget about it guys! God can see through BOTH masks, even if no one else does. Those are both theologies of glory, not of the cross. Think about it. As a pastor, and as a MAN, where are you broken? What wakes you up at two in the morning and does not let you go back to sleep?
What if it’s not true? What if I have it all wrong? Why won’t they get it? How will we go on if this doesn’t happen? How will I get through to them? What about my family? My kids? Why are they wandering so far from God? What if my people discover I’m really a fraud, that I’m just as scared as they are? That I have questions – even doubts, as well? What about my failures, my sins? What about my own fear of dying?
Those were just some of the thoughts racing through my mind when I went with Mark’s mom and dad to identify his body in the morgue, and then go to help them pick out his casket. And later that same day to sit down with Bobby’s mom and his brother to plan his funeral. I felt like I had nothing to give. No more theology of glory left in me. I was empty. But God was thereby teaching me that in the cross of Jesus, I still had just what was needed. For those folks didn’t care what Pastor Mueller was thinking. They wanted to know what God was thinking!
And this is what God had for them in His Word: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified! Crucified and raised from the dead. It was for moments just such as this, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, hung on the cross and died. If you are looking for a sign that God is THERE, even in the casket room. That God is THERE at 2 a.m. That God is THERE whenever we suffer. That God is THERE when we are weak, when we are empty and our faith is just about ready to give up. Look no further than this: the crucified, bloody, dead, Son of God, hung on the cross.
Not only because we also know the victory to come on Easter, but because this is our Immanuel, our God with us, even in suffering, even in the worst of times. This is the Lamb of God, the mysterious power of God made perfect in weakness. And not just for your people, but also for YOU, pastors, and wives and church workers. FOR YOU! Here in the bloody body of Christ on the cross, is the power of God. Here is the place our faith rests in the power of God.
In a sermon on the words of John, “behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Martin Luther preaches to us:
This is an extraordinary comforting sermon on Christ our Savior… He assumes not only my sins but also the sins of the whole world, from Adam down to the very last mortal. These sins He takes on Himself. For these sins He is willing to suffer and die that our sins may be expunged and we may gain eternal life and blessedness. Who can ever give adequate expression to this? … Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb! So John points to Christ, to this Lamb, saying, ‘Do you want to know where the sins of the world are placed for forgiveness? Don’t look to the law! You will find sins there to terrify and damn you. But if you really want to find a place where the sins of the world are exterminated and deleted, then cast your gaze upon the cross.’ The Lord placed all your sins on the back of this Lamb. … There is no other comfort… for this Lamb bears the sins of the whole world. (Luther’s Works, Volume 22, Sermons on the Gospel of John, p. 162).
This Lamb bears YOUR sins…
Your doubt and your fears? Placed on Jesus! Your sinful pride and the masks we use to cover up? All placed on Jesus! Your hateful thoughts, your frustrations, all the sins you hide? Yes, they are all laid on Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God. This is the remarkable, powerful wisdom of God. The One who is fully and perfectly God in our human flesh, saves us by becoming bloody, dead, hanging on a cross.
I lay my sins on Jesus! Says the Hymn, the spotless lamb of God…
He bears them all and frees us, from the accused load
I bring my guilt to Jesus, To wash my crimson stains
Clean in His blood most precious, till not a spot remains. (LSB 606, st.1)
No human being could have come up with this. But it is just what we need. God Himself takes on our deepest fear, the fear we have, if we are honest, of our own suffering and death.
So it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Three days, three funerals. The following Tuesday I had taken my two boys to a water park when there came an announcement over the PA that I had a phone call. I tried to ignore it, but it came again, so I answered the phone and discovered that a young man from our congregation – just over 30 years old, a seminarian, on vicarage – had died in an accident, leaving a wife and two little kids. Would I go see his parents?
This was the hardest one of all. To this day, I don’t understand it. So it turned out there were four terrible funerals in ten days. The congregation was absolutely rocked. And then the epistle for the Sunday after all of that was Romans 8:28, “God works everything for good, for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” I read the text, and then said, “Oh yeah?”
YES! What could be worse than the Son of God dead and buried? I asked. But surprise! God brought good out of that by raising Him from the dead. So God will also work good for you, raising Christ from the dead. Forgiving your sins. Walking with you alive through all the trials of this life. And raising also YOU to life in the resurrection He will give YOU! So that your faith does not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God, the saving power of Christ crucified.
Just this past Saturday afternoon, while driving home, I was listening to NPR’s program This American Life. Some kind of psychic was describing how she had been giving readings from tarot cards to people she met on the train she rode every day. Lots of people readily had her give them a reading. Then she described a man who ridiculed the process, would curse her, berate her, make fun of her.
But finally, one day, he asked for a reading, “Oh just do it!” So she did. And the reading was terrible, with all the worst cards, predictions of doom. Suddenly, this man broke down and cried in front of her, and in between his sobs, his story spilled out. He had heart disease, his wife was divorcing him and he was about to lose his job. And he felt completely alone. Now please, I’m not in any way condoning satanic arts like tarot cards, but the thing that hit me was this: The man exposed his deep despair. And all the tarot card reader could say was, “You know, how this all turns out … is up to you!”
All that did was to make his situation even worse! It just deepened his hopelessness. For that’s all Satan, the world and our sin will give: darkness and despair.
How absolutely DIFFERENT is the message of the cross. For on the cross, Jesus entered our suffering. On the cross, all our sins, all our failures, our death, were all laid on Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God. On the cross, God Himself took even our despair. So that now, in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, you have everything you need. Everything to give you hope, and enable you to bring hope into the worst despair. Everything to give you light, and also to bring light for the darkest soul. Everything to forgive your dirtiest sins, so that you also can speak Christ’s forgiveness for the sins others bring to you.
For you have God Himself, dead on a cross, so that you will know how great is His love. You have God in Christ, raised to life again, FOR YOU! For all, yes… but FOR YOU, too, dear pastor, especially when you are empty of anything to give. For this is how God works with us – by death and resurrection. First with Jesus, now with us in our Baptism.
We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may be raised with Him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).
God kills us by His law, so that in Christ, He is alive to raise you and me to life in Him.
Johnny was 55 when he died. Mark was 18. Bobby was 21. And Rick was about 32, with a wife and two little kids.
I don’t pretend to understand. But I know this. They are with the Lord, awaiting that last great day, when what Paul writes 14 chapters later in this same letter will come true: “Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. … Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory, O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57, selected verses).
What I learned that terrible week in July is that this victory in Christ crucified and raised from the dead, this victory is for pastors too. Pastors broken by sin and death. Pastors beset with despair and disappointment. Pastors discouraged and beaten down. Christ crucified is for pastors, too.
Though this proclamation of the cross may be a stumbling block to some, and rank foolishness to others, when you see yourself as empty, and realize you have nothing, then Christ, dead on the cross, but now raised from the dead. Then Christ becomes the sure sign that God has NOT abandoned you, that God is with you, that God is turning your face away from all those things that cannot help you, turning your face toward HIM, and Him alone. That Christ crucified is final assurance that He has taken all your sin and death, all your despair, into Himself. And that just as Christ has been raised from the dead, so does He forgive YOU, and so will He raise YOU to life with Him.
The Church may look like a weak and foolish thing, often times exasperating even the strongest pastor. But it is still the Bride of Christ, whom He loves and cleanses daily by the washing of water with the Word. Just as He does you! And in just a moment, we will gather here at His altar, for His Supper, to show forth His death until He comes again, and to receive His forgiveness. For every week, somewhere, somehow, for 2000 years, Christ has been giving His body and His blood, as He promised. So that He is now RIGHT HERE! Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, right now, FOR YOU!
In the name of Jesus, Amen!
(Sermon preached for the Northern Illinois District Pastoral Conference, February 8, 2011.)
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