The Wisdom of the Cross

Audio: Trinity V

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” St. Peter writes, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Peter said this to assure his audience, his beloved fellow Christians, about the message they received from him. There had been people coming to them charging that the Word of the Lord they received through St. Peter and the other Apostles was nothing but a myth: a sham, a tall-tale delivered by charlatans to deceive the simple-minded. No, St. Peter said, the things they heard, the things about Jesus – that He is God in the flesh, that He suffered, died, and rose from the dead for the forgiveness of sins, and that salvation is totally by His work alone – these things are not made up. And, by this message of the cross, they have been saved.

Perhaps you’ve heard the same argument. Maybe not personally, but definitely in some way, you’ve encountered opposition to your faith, and especially the BIble. There are all sorts of complaints out there: it’s poorly-written, hard to understand, culturally-bound to its period, unethical, unloving, full of lies and myths, a purely man-made document – and a shoddy one at that. And, there’s more out there. Some of these things are advocated by those who would call themselves Christians or have the responsibility of teaching in Christian colleges and seminaries. St. Paul explains today why God’s Word encounters such hostility from the world. He says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The Word of God receives such hostility from the world because it runs against everything the devil and the Old Adam preach. The Bible says that all human beings are sinful – sinful not just in actions, but in word and thought as well. Moreover, humankind is so depraved by nature that there is not one single thing or thought that we can contribute to our salvation. Not one single thing. But, out of His great love for us, God sent His only-begotten Son to die on the cross for the sins of the whole world. He gives forgiveness of sins as a free gift through faith, apart from any and all works. Faith itself is also a work of God the Holy Spirit who, through the preaching of sinful men (pastors) and through the administration of the sacraments by those same men, creates a holy people for Himself and gathers them into the Holy Christian Church. All of this runs contrary to the wisdom of the world. The preaching of Christ’s cross is foolishness to the world, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I.

The text begins, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more Christians in the world? Have you ever had long, heart-felt conversations with someone about the Christian faith, where you were sure that the seed of God’s Word had been planted and was very likely to sprout, only to see the person totally reject that seed the very next day? Why is that many people become Christians after seemingly chance and random encounters, while many others, who had been raised Christians, fall away and become vehement enemies of Christ? These are the questions that St. Paul is answering in out text.

He sets the record straight for us on why there aren’t more Christians, why so many never come to faith, and why so many others fall away once they leave home. It’s because, St. Paul says, the word of the cross is folly to the world. The word that Paul uses is μωρία (moria), where the word “moron,” comes from. To the sinful nature, the BIble does not make sense. Jesus doesn’t make sense. Think about the Trinity for a second. The Bible says that there is one God, an omnipresent, all-power being. It stresses the oneness of the deity, and yet there are three persons. Or, how about that this divine being that transcends the physical world, became flesh and died? That is one major reason why Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. They do not believe that God could possibly become flesh, or interact with creation in any intimate way, like how Christ unites Himself to us through the supper of His flesh and blood.

To us, these things do make sense. We might not understand the Trinity totally, but we believe it because it’s what the Bible says. We don’t understand how the Incarnation works beyond the words of the Creed, “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” but we believe it because we know it’s what the Bible says. In Genesis it prophesied that an Offspring of Adam and Eve would defeat the Devil. In Isaiah it says that a virgin will conceive and give birth to the Son of God. We don’t totally understand how the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, but we believe it because the Bible says so. Because the Holy Spirit has come to us through the preaching of the Word and in Baptism to create in us the gift of faith, we believe God’s Word and so are saved.

But to the world, this is all moronic and we are all morons. St. Paul lists two reasons why the world believes this. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” These two groups are specific groups for Paul and the Corinthians. Throughout Jesus’ ministry the Jews demanded signs of Him, to demonstrate His power. They were seeking an earthly king who would throw off the Romans, and by mighty powers and wonders restore the glory of Israel. Some expect that still today. Others scoff at our faith and say that they would readily and happily believe in God if He would first put an immediate end to all evil. He will, of course, but not according to our timeline.

Others are like Greeks, who in Paul’s day were obsessed with wisdom. They would occupy themselves with long conversations about philosophy and rhetoric. They were opposed to Christianity not because of the miracles, for the Greeks were a religious people, but because of its perceived simplicity. As St. Paul said, “When I came to you, brothers, [I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

II.

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” The sinful nature demands signs, wonders, and wisdom. But, we preach Christ crucified. That is, we preach that Jesus Christ, the Son of God from all eternity – equal to the Father and the Spirit in glory, power, and majesty – humbled Himself, by taking on frail human flesh. He fulfilled the Law of God by His perfect obedience, and He died as the payment for our transgressions. Heaven is real, but our attempts to get there ourselves will condemn us to hell. Instead, Christ bring us into His kingdom and gives us forgiveness totally by His own initiative and action, without any merit or worthiness within us.

All of that is folly to the world, but, St. Paul says, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Meaning – this is the God-approved method of salvation: Jesus died on the cross for our sins, then the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of Christ’s cross to create create faith and save people through it. That’s it. There are no works to contribute to our salvation, no good intentions, no lofty words of wisdom, just Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is how God saves us. God says in our text that He will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning. How? By using the weak to shame the strong. It pleased God to grant us salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross. In the ancient world the cross was scandalous, a criminal’s death, not worthy to be spoken about in polite society. But, this shameful death, is how God saves – contrary to all the glorious ways we could think of.

St. Paul wrote, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” Literally, the word of Christ’s cross is moronic to the world. But to us, it is the power of God for salvation. For it has pleased God to save the world and us through the preaching of that moronic word. Therefore, if the world considers the cross foolishness and those who believe in it to be morons, then let us be morons. Let us listen to the still, small voice of God in His Word. And, when Christ calls, let us cast our nets, for He provides a miraculous catch. Above all, let us pray to the Holy Spirit that He lead us to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified. Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Be Ye Merciful

Text: Luke 6:36-42

“Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself.” That seems to be a popular sentiment nowadays. True, it always has been, and always will be. Usually what’s meant by it is that, in our enlightened postmodern society, no one has any right to say anything about anything that anyone else is doing. Doubly so, if what you have to say is critical of someone else’s behavior. It doesn’t matter if your criticism is meant to help them or to, say, direct them towards the proper conduct of a Christian. It all breaks down to this: you can’t judge me. Is that what our text is about today? Perhaps.

Well, we’ll get it right out of the way – When Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” He’s not excluding any and all judging. Example. The author to the Hebrews says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We as Christians, as brothers and sisters, are to exhort each other in love towards good conduct and away from sinful behavior. St. James says it like this, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Jesus Himself also does not completely exclude judging from His ministry, for He regularly distinguished between His own teaching and the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But, even then, Jesus says, “If anyone hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him…the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” The Word, Jesus says, is what judges. It’s not that we as individuals pass our own judgments on others to condemn them, but we let God’s Word bear witness. That is also how were are to judge false teachers and the false doctrine they spew, by measuring it against God’s Word.

But, to bring us back, when Jesus says in our text, “judge not,” He’s illustrating His previous sentence, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” That is the key verse in our text, from which it all flows. Jesus is teaching us today about the Christian life. The Christian life is not one of judgment and hypocritical condemnation. Rather, the Christian life that we have been called into through Baptism is a life of mercy and forgiveness flowing from the love that we first received from God.

I.

Our text begins with Jesus’ words, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” We’re getting towards the end of St. Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, called the “Sermon on the Plain.” The exhortation to be merciful really sums up the whole of Jesus’ teaching there. He taught the people to feed the hungry, to visit the sick, to comfort the mourning, to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, for so God sends rain on both the just and unjust. So, the Christian life is one of mercy. And this mercy is rooted in the mercy that we have first received from God.

We already talked about one way to go off the rails on this passage, but it’s also easy to fall off on the other side, too. This certainly was the case in Luther’s time, where it was commonly taught that in order to receive forgiveness from God, you must first forgive others. But, we aren’t so different. We are often tempted to focus on the “be” rather than the “is.” Before we even have the opportunity to be merciful and show mercy to others, our Heavenly Father is merciful and has shown mercy to us. Our Father in heaven is full of grace and love. This is extolled throughout the Scriptures. In James it says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth.” (1:18). St. Peter says, “According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” St. Paul says, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.” Jesus says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”

All of this is to say that God, in His mercy, overlooks the multitude of our transgressions, and He hurls our iniquity into the depths of the sea. Not because of us – not because of our works, our mercy, or our love – but because of His love for us in Christ Jesus. His love caused Him to send forth His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us – we, who by our sinful nature despise Him. But, the sinful nature was crucified with Christ and clothed in His righteousness in Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die to sin and rise to new life with Christ. So now, when God looks at us, He sees not our sinfulness but the righteousness of His own Son that has been given to us. This is our reality. We no longer live, but Christ lives in us. What does that look like?

II.

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” As we’ve already discussed, it’s not consistent with the whole Biblical witness to make this text say that God forgives because we forgive. Rather, even as God forgives us our many sins, so we too forgive others. It says in the Large Catechism, “He has promised that we shall be sure that everything is forgiven and pardoned, in the way that we also forgive our neighbor. Just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbor.”

Because our heavenly Father is merciful toward us, mercy is also the character of our attitude toward others. When Jesus says to judge not, He’s not excluding all judging, but the hypocritical judging that all sinners like to do by nature, which is why Jesus says right after it, “condemn not.” This is the type of judging that we do when we measure others against ourselves and declare that we are really not so bad, or at least not as bad as that person over there. That is precisely what it means to see the speck in your brother’s eye, but not notice the beam in your own.

It says in the Psalms, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.” Beloved, if God does not count our sins against us, if He in fact covers it up, and we appreciate so much, thusly also we should do to others. Let’s be real: God does not blab our sins to everybody else. He knows we’re sinners and He forgives. So should we. In fact, the sin that we see in others, should first be an opportunity to confess our own sins. Then, and only then, having learned to repent and be forgiven of our own sins, are we able to show mercy to our neighbor by forgiving them also and encouraging each other toward good works.

III.

But, even as we are called to live in mercy as our Father is merciful, and even as we are Baptized Christians, we still find ourselves playing the hypocrite. The word literally means a pretender or an actor. And so, we often are: faking our love for us, feigning forgiveness, and pretending like we are less a sinner than those around us. For these things we should rightly be ashamed. Therefore, we confess our sins and He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Hear, then, these words “He is merciful.” Our Father in heaven is love, mercy, and grace. He is also the perfect standard of justice and righteousness, and for that reason He demands punishment of sin. But, He has had mercy on us by sending His Son to take on flesh, suffer and die for our transgressions, and rise from the dead for our justification.

As forgiven saints of God, the Spirit of Christ is in our hearts to lead us in lives of love and mercy. The model of the Christian life is one of forgiveness and mercy. We forgive those who sin against us, we have mercy on those in need, we encourage one another toward good works, and we love – because He first loved us.

The Lord is My Shepherd

Audio: Trinity III Sermon

Text: Luke 15:1-10

St. Peter wrote in his first epistle, “[Cast] all your anxieties on [the Lord], for He cares for you.” Likewise, St. Paul wrote in our epistle text, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. This past week at St. John we have hosted our annual Vacation Bible School. The title this year was “Barnyard Roundup: Jesus Gathers Us Together.” It was based on the verses of Psalm 23, and our readings this week perfectly capture that theme. Particularly, this morning we will be looking at our Gospel text, which contains some of the most beloved and comforting words in all Scripture.

In our Gospel Jesus pictures Himself to us as a shepherd. Though He’s in charge of a multitude of sheep, He does not hesitate to drop everything to seek and save the one sheep gone astray. When He finds it, rejoicing, He places it on His shoulders and gathers it back into the fold. Jesus also commends Himself to us in the parable of the Lost Coin. There a woman who has ten coins loses one. She drops everything, lights a lamp, and searches till she finds it. And, like the shepherd, she rejoices. So, we see, the Lord is our shepherd who seeks us out, who saves us, and gathers us through His Word.

I.

Our Gospel reading is building on a theme in Luke’s Gospel. One of my commentaries calls this section of Luke the Table Fellowship section. In this whole chunk of Luke, Jesus is reclining at table in the house of one of the head Pharisees. One of the key themes of this discussion is shared between Jesus and John the Baptist – a theme we usually take up in Advent – the importance of repentance in the life of a Christian. You know the words of John the Baptist’s ministry, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It was the midst of that meal that Jesus spoke our text last week about the Great Banquet.

He told a parable about a man who gave a great banquet and invited many to come and feast. When the time was ready he sent his servant to gather those who had been invited. The way things worked back then, you would send out an initial invitation saying there’s a feast coming up. Then, when the feast had come, you would go and gather everyone up. But, when the servant went to do that, everyone turned him down. One claimed he bought a field and couldn’t come; another, oxen; another, newly married. The master then sent his servant to call people who had not been invited, first those in the city: the lame and crippled. These represent the tax collectors and “sinners” in our reading. Then, even those outside the city were compelled to come to the feast. These are those, like us, who were born outside God’s covenant people.

Here’s where we get to Luke 15. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” Jesus was teaching about repentance and faith. The tax collectors and sinners were hearing Jesus’ words in faith, confessing their sins and being forgiven. The Holy Spirit was working through the Word to create repentance and faith in them. They had learned to recognize their sin and believe in Jesus for their salvation. Meanwhile, the Pharisees were doing as they usually were. They were grumbling, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So, Jesus told them this parable.

II.    

He said,

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing…When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and us to show us just how much He cares about us and what He does for us.

First, Jesus seeks us out. In the parable Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. And like sheep, we are prone to wander. Not content to live within the fold of God, Adam and Eve began to wander, thinking grass would be greener in the field yonder. Ever since, we who have been born of flesh and blood also go astray. But, what does the shepherd do? He leaves the other ninety-nine in the care of faithful undershepherds, and drops everything to go and find the one lost sheep. This is what Christ did by emptying Himself of His eternal glory, which He shared with the Father and Spirit before all time, and taking on Himself our human flesh.

I read somewhere that when sheep get lost, once they realize they’re in an unfamiliar place, they will lay down and not move. Then, when the shepherd finds it, he has to physically pick it up and carry it, because otherwise it ain’t going anywhere. I wonder if that isn’t a good description of us, the sheep. As we walk through this valley of shadow, we do wander. We wander into all sorts of sins, physical, mental, and spiritual. And, sometimes we hunker down. We get lost in our sins and we forget that we’re sinning. Or, rather, we choose to persist in our sin. That is, until Christ finds us.

How does He search for us and find us? He seeks us out through the preaching of the Word. He works through the preaching of the Law to show us our sin and then He calls to us through the Gospel saying, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He sends pastors to share His saving Word and to administer the sacraments, so that the Gospel may have free course to create and sustain faith throughout the world. Then through Holy Baptism He puts us on His shoulders. In Baptism we are united to His death for our sins and the forgiveness that He won on the cross is given to us through that sacred washing. Just like the lost sheep may kick and fight at first when the shepherd picks it up, so the Old Adam in us kicks and screams within us as it is drowned in the water and the Word.

Through the preaching of the Word and in Holy Baptism, Christ seeks us out and saves us. He finds us and, rejoicing, puts us on His shoulders. Then, on His shoulders, He gathers us back to His flock – the Church. And, actually, that was theme of VBS this week – Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gathers us together. As Scripture says, all we like sheep had gone astray, yet He, in love, sought us. He took on flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. He died on the cross and rose from the dead so that we might live with Him (our shepherd) in His kingdom (the Church).

III.

The second parable in our Gospel is the parable of the Lost Coin, and has much in common with the first parable. In it a woman loses a coin. The number is lowered from one hundred sheep to ten coins, to two sons later. Jesus lowers the number to show us how important each individual lost sheep, coin, and son is to Him. After losing the coin, the woman lights a lamp and searches diligently until she finds it. When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her, since she had found the coin that she had lost.

If we keep in mind that the parable goes with the parable of the Lost Sheep and is about how Christ seeks out, saves, and gather each individual lost sheep, then we might also be able to talk about what it means to be found, saved, and gathered by Christ into the Church. King David sings in the psalms that the Word of God is a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Christ Himself is the light that shines in the darkness and He has given the lamp of His Word to His bride, the Church. Like the woman in the parable, we are called to shine the lamp of God’s Word into the dark places of the world to find the lost coin.

Our temptation is always to be like the Pharisees and scribes. The Old Adam in us wants us to point and scoff at tax collectors and “sinners;” but then we would be blind to the fact that we are all chief of sinners. We all like sheep have gone astray and need to found by Christ. And so we are. We confess in the Creed that we have been called by the Gospel. Through the preaching of the Word, Christ has sought us out. He sends His Word into all the earth to find each lost sheep. Then, through Baptism He places His lost sheep on His shoulders and gathers them into His fold. Having been gathered into His fold, we also seek to save the lost, sharing with them the hope and comfort that the Lord is our Shepherd and we shall not want.