Faith and the Theology of the Cross

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

30 years ago, this March, Irish rock band U2 released its fifth studio album. The Joshua Tree. The album’s theme was based off the wide-open spaces of the American west. The album, which has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies, truly does bring out a sense of vast openness throughout its 50-minute length – particularly in the second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s still up in the air what exactly the song is about. There are references to the devil, to Jesus, and heaven. But, we’ll leave it to song critics to discuss it more. Whatever it means, the song brings out this idea of searching; of longing for something you know is there…but you haven’t found it yet.

Our text today from Genesis finds Abram in a similar situation. In the Bible, three chapters pass between when God first came to Abram and called him out of idolatry, promising to bless him and make a great nation out of him. Three chapters pass, but in time it’s about a decade between these chapters, maybe a little more. It’ll be more than that, still, before Isaac is born. Isaac, the child promised in our text. As we’ll see, Abram was a little fearful about his situation, about whether the things God had promised would actually come to pass. Then God appeared to him. He reassured Abram that the promise was not forgotten. Abram believed God, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. St. Paul said that these things were written not for Abram’s sake alone, but for ours. Today, we confess that, like Abram, the righteous live by faith in God’s promises – and they are not disappointed.

I.

We should all know the story of Abraham, but let’s recap it for a moment. The Flood happened in Genesis 6. Noah entered the ark with his wife, his sons, and their wives. 8 souls in all. Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the Flood, the three sons all spread out and had children. Abram is a distant descendant of Shem. Abram and his family lived in a place called Haran and they had become pagans. They were unbelievers who worshipped idols. Then, in Genesis 12, God called Abram. He called him out of idolatry to worship the one true God and to go where the Lord would lead him. The Lord promised to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So, Abram went.

Abram went as the Lord said, but it maybe wasn’t as straightforward and easy as he might’ve liked. There was a famine, so they went down to Egypt. While they were there, Abram did do somethings that were sinful. He doubted God’s promise; yet God forgave him. God also kept His promise and blessed Abram, who came up from Egypt a rich man. He amassed a large household and many servants – but no children. Abram rightly understood God’s promise to make him into a great nation required a son. But, as time went on, no son came. Abram started getting into trouble with neighboring nations, and with no son to inherit if he were to die, Abram began to fear and doubt whether this promise would pan out. In other words, Abram still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”[1] As Abram began fearing for his future and doubting the promises of God, the Lord spoke to him in a vision. The Lord told Abram not to fear. For, despite appearances, the Lord was with him. Abram was sure that the Lord had reneged, or at least was second-guessing His promise. Abram said to God, “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”[2] What Abram meant was: God promised to make him a great nation, and so far, that hadn’t happened. Sure, Abram was wealthy; but with no son by birth, that wealth would pass from his name to someone else. No great nation.

Then the Lord said, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”[3] Abram was misled by his own conscience and felt that God wouldn’t make good. Things appeared to be the opposite of what God had promised. Abram felt abandoned. Then God made Abram another solemn promise. It wouldn’t be Eliezer of Damascus who would inherit him, but a son from Abram’s own body. Then God took him outside, and told Abram to number the stars. So, would his offspring be. Our text concludes with one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, “He believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[4]

II.

The readings this week direct our minds to this idea: Even when it appears to the contrary, God doesn’t go back on His promises. God promised to make of Abram a great nation, and this nation would come from a son of his own flesh. The rest of Scripture – and history – tells us that, of course, this promise came true. Isaac was born when Abram was 99 years old. Isaac fathered Jacob, from whom is descended – according to the flesh – Jesus. St. Paul tells us that God’s promise to Abram was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and the great nation, now of billions, who have believed in His name. Abram believed God’s promise, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. God counted his faith as righteousness. Eventually, Abram did find what he was looking for.

If Abram, that great patriarch of our faith, was fearful and doubting God’s promises, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves suffering the same temptations. Like Abram, we have each been called out of pagan idolatry. We were all by nature born sinful and unclean, desiring to be our own “God.” But we were called out of that in the washing of Baptism. At our Baptism, the name of the Triune God was spoken over us and we were made heirs of the promise of Christ. Namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that are found through faith in Him. At our Baptism, we were made heirs of the promise, and we are continually reminded of it through God’s Word – yet we are filled with doubts and fears.

Luther, considering this passage, failed to come up with an answer as to why God orders our lives in such a way. At times, we say that our suffering we endure teach us to rely on God or another lesson. Sometimes, we plumb the depths of reason and empathy to find a reason for our suffering. We know that suffering comes as a result of sin. But, more often than not, we fail to find an answer to, “Why me?” Then we begin to doubt, to fear, and to be angry that we also still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul did write, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”[5] Meaning, this passage of Scripture wasn’t written for Abram’s sake alone, but for our benefit, also. We are meant to look at Abram’s suffering and fear, and Lazarus’, and find in them fellowship. Abram suffered, Lazarus suffered, our Lord suffered, we suffer. Abram suffered, at times thinking the Lord would not fulfill His promise; then He did. So, will He also fulfill His promise to us. What promise? The promise to remove our sins from us, which He has done in Christ. The promise to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, foreshadowed by the Promised Land and fulfilled in the New Creation. The promise to bring us through this valley of the shadow of death, and feed us beside still waters. The Lord spoke these things and others to Abram. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith as righteousness.

God grant that we also, by that same faith, would continue to be counted righteous. Scripture does say that the afflictions of the righteous are many, but also that the Lord delivers them out of them all. At times, it does feel like we aren’t finding what we’re looking for. But, God’s promises are sure and will ever stand true – even for us. Abram believed the Lord’s promise of deliverance, God counted His faith as righteousness and did deliver Him. He will deliver us, too. Amen.


[1] Gen. 15:1, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 15:2-3.

[3] Gen. 15:4.

[4] Gen. 15:6.

[5] Rom. 4:23-24.

“Love Bears All Things,” Luke 18:31-43

Text: Luke 18:31-43

“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind…[it] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

Since ancient times this epistle reading has been paired with our Gospel reading from Luke 18. Already from St. Augustine, who died in 430, we have sermons combining these texts, demonstrating the depth of Christ’s love for us. In the Gospel, Christ demonstrates a love beyond comprehension, that defies understanding – a love that endures all things.

These past weeks leading up to our Lord’s Lent, we’ve been looking at grace and salvation from a few different angles. First, we had the parable of the Vineyard, where all the workers received the same wage. Second, last week we heard the parable of the Sower. In it Christ sows His Word like a seed. Where it takes root, it bears fruit a hundredfold – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This week, as Jesus nears the final week of His earthly life, He again teaches what will soon happen to Him. He will be betrayed, mocked, humiliated, spit upon, flogged, and killed – all to accomplish what was written in the prophets concerning our salvation. But, as we read, the Disciples didn’t understand. This is our focus this week.

The grace of our Lord is given freely to all who believe in Him. It comes through the preaching of the Word. And, this week, we confess that – apart from the Holy Spirit – our minds cannot understand or believe it. Despite our sinful flesh, Jesus willingly went to endure suffering, so that all that was written concerning our salvation might be accomplished.

I.   

Our text this week comes from Luke 18. Here we find Jesus nearing His final ascent to Jerusalem. It’s been a long journey. He began this journey in Luke 9, where it says, “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This whole time He’s been preaching and teaching and healing and raising the dead, but with this end in sight – He is going to Jerusalem to die and rise. This is what Scripture has always been about, and it’s where the forgiveness of sins comes from. And, this is exactly what Jesus preaches in the text.

St. Luke writes, “Taking the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise.’” If you look at this text in the Bible, you’ll find that this is now the third time that Jesus has predicted His death. Each time He’s mentioned that He’s going to die, and before that be betrayed. This time, though, He opens it up and teaches just what is going to happen to Him before He dies. Again, He’ll be handed over. But, also, He’ll be mocked and treated shamefully. He’ll be spit upon. He’ll be flogged. And then, then they’ll kill Him.

I was reading in a book not too long ago about the concept of crucifixion. Crucifixion was a barbaric practice – quite painful – but also, humiliating. It was meant to be a humiliating death. That’s why people were crucified in public places with signs above their heads. It’s also why it was against the law to crucify Roman citizens. But, what I learned is this: In every picture I’ve ever seen of Jesus on the cross, He had has some sort of cloth on Him. You know, covering His private parts. However, considering that crucifixion was purposefully humiliating, and that Scripture tells us that they gambled for His clothing, it’s most likely that Jesus was crucified totally naked.

I bring this up because Jesus knew this full-well. He knew entirely what would happen to Him, indeed, what must happen to Him. He knew how shamefully He would be treated, and He did it anyway. All so that Scripture would be fulfilled and we be saved. Jesus died exposed so that our sins might be covered. Jesus didn’t just allow this to happen to Him, but He willingly did it for us. Luther wrote on this passage, “Whoever looks at His suffering without seeing His will and heart in them must be terrified at it rather than rejoice in it. But if we see His heart and will in [His suffering], this produces true comfort, confidence, and joy in Christ.” “Love is patient and kind…love bears all things…endures all things.”

II.   

Here we have our Lord pouring out His heart, telling how much He loves us and what He is willing to endure, so that we might be reconciled to God. But, how is it received by those nearest to Him? “But they,” the twelve, “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Jesus demonstrated the depth of His great love for us, the vastness of His mercy and grace, while the disciples showed the Holy Spirit to be right when He caused St. Paul to write, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law.”

It still had not set in for the disciples that Jesus’ suffering is absolutely necessary for our salvation. Without it we cannot be saved, and apart from faith in Christ’s suffering there is no salvation. Even though, in this same chapter, Jesus welcomed the little children, called the rich young ruler to follow Him, and healed the blind beggar, they still didn’t quite get it. Neither do we. 

By that, I mean that we are all by nature Pharisees. We all by nature try to center our salvation on something inside of us, something we do. Whether it’s feeling that we are saved because we go to church, or because we consider ourselves good people, or because we do some good things – our sinful nature doesn’t understand that relying on those things is like going up to the cross and pulling Jesus down. Our sinful nature rather not look at the cross.

But look to the cross, we must. We must look to our dear Jesus, naked and dying on the cross, because that is where salvation comes from. All of Scripture leads us there. It is there that we see how much, how deeply, how seriously God loves us. Though it is hard, no, impossible, for our sinful flesh to understand, Jesus’ suffering is the prime demonstration of His love for us. By His suffering He accomplished what was written in the prophets and secured our salvation.

III.  

St. Paul did write that the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God. Then he wrote, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” Thanks be to God for the great gifts that He bestowed on us in our Baptism. We were all by nature Pharisees and children of wrath. We were unable to see in our Lord’s sufferings the fulfillment of Scripture and our salvation. We were mired in sin. But now, all of that has been washed away. Instead of leaving Adam and Eve naked, God clothed them in flesh. Instead of exposing our secret and shameful sins, Jesus has covered them up by His suffering in our place. By our Baptism, the Holy Spirit has given us faith to believe and eyes to see in our Lord’s blessed wounds the fulfillment of the Scripture and the source of our salvation.

As our Lord continued His journey toward Jerusalem to suffer and die for us, He was met on the road by a blind beggar. He cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stopped, spoke, and the man’s sight was restored. Immediately, he began praising God. Thanks be to God for the great love with which He has loved us. Jesus Christ suffered humiliation on the cross so that Scripture might be fulfilled and we be saved. In Baptism He opened our eyes to see and believe the same. 

Sola Gratia: Sealed and Delivered

Text: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17

“Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen from the cares which keep us in prison. We are still in a dungeon living, still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; our undertakings are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.”[1] These are the first two stanzas of the hymn “Oh, How Blest Are They,” #679 in our hymnal. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This day was set aside by the Church many centuries ago to commemorate those who have preceded us in the faith. We do so not by invoking them, but by giving thanks God for the faith that He gave to them and to us and for the grace that we have all received in Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for their great example in the faith and the forgiveness they received, but we would be remiss if we ignored one major thing.

One thing we can’t ignore today is that all the saints that have gone before us have done exactly that – they’ve all died. Though they were forgiven their sins and covered in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, they still died as a consequence of the sinful condition which we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. But now they have been freed from all that. As the elder says in St. John’s vision of the throne room, they have come out of the great tribulation. Those who have passed from death to life stand before the throne where there is no hunger or thirst, no death, for the Lamb of God is in their midst and wipes every tear from their eyes. But what about us? We live amidst a culture of death; what about us? When will we get what the saints now enjoy? The answer to that is now, actually. At Holy Baptism God signed and sealed you as His, and He continues to keep you until, by His grace alone, He delivers you into His eternal kingdom.

I.

We have in our text a vision of the heavenly throne room. We’re in an interlude in the outpouring of God’s wrath, as if to see how the saints are doing while the world is in tribulation. The period described in the text relates to us now. The 144,000 in the first part of the text are those who are coming out of the tribulation of the times, but are still in it. Those in the throne room are those who now rest from their labors. They are in the presence of Christ continually as they await His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. The camera pans and we see four angels with the authority to pour out God’s wrath on the earth and sea. Then we see another angel, who says to the first four, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”[2]

This is where we fit into the text. The 144,000 put before St. John and us is not a literal number of the elect, but a signifier of the completeness of the Church that will enter into eternal life. In Scripture the number 12 signifies wholeness or perfection. You multiple that by twelve and you get a number of completeness. Then multiply that by 1,000 – and you get the picture. Those who are sealed upon their foreheads are those marked as redeemed by Christ the crucified. Though they are now in the midst of trial and tribulation, they have received upon their forehead and heart the mark Christ, which signifies them as inheritors of eternal life.

The Church has long understood this passage, this sealing of the elect, as a reference to Baptism. The word for seal in the Greek is σφραγίζω (sphragizo), and it means to mark as a means of identification or to certify something for delivery. This is our connection to Baptism. In the ancient Church, at Baptism the pastor would take some olive oil, the sphragis, and make the sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart. This would be a sign to you and others that you have been claimed by Christ. In the same way we might put a seal on the back of an envelope, certifying that what’s inside comes from us. We carry on this practice today, though usually without the oil. When you were baptized the pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.

It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it? In Holy Baptism you are marked by the blood of Christ. You were given the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. You received eternal life and salvation in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And yet it doesn’t look like it. All around us we see death. We see the death of loved ones. We see long, protracted, painful illnesses. We live through the loss of jobs and closing of businesses, even the closing of churches. It says right here in Scripture the saints of God are before His throne and neither hunger or thirst, nor cry or suffer pain. When do we get that?

II.

The painful reality we live in is that, because of the Fall, we who are baptized into Christ are not only marked on our forehead and heart for redemption, but also with a target on our back. This is what St. Paul preached to the Christians at Iconium and Antioch. He taught them to continue steadfast in the faith, for, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”[3] You see, the devil hates you. This is why we suffer so many things. Ills of body and mind, broken relationships and lives, persecutions of various kinds – especially when we confess the pure Gospel of Christ against all false doctrine – these are all the result of the Fall into sin and the instigation of the devil.

Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation. But, “take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.”[4] When we look at our text from Revelation, and see those saints and the rest they’ve entered, where there is no suffering of any kind, and then we look at our lives, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We look at the pagans and atheists who prosper and cry out to God, when we will have what they (seemingly) have. When will we have eternal life and rest from our labors, when will we be free from the effects of sin? When we will come out of the great tribulation? Now. St. John wrote, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”[5]

By God’s grace alone, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and now share in the inheritance of the saints in heaven. One of the meanings that I shared with you for the word seal is to certify something for delivery. In Baptism you were marked as Christ’s, and by that mark He promises to you that you will enter eternal life. He promises that He will guard and keep you until the time when we all feast together in the new creation. How does He do that? Through the preaching of His Word and in His Sacraments. In Baptism He washes you and makes you clean, and daily you rise before Him in righteousness and purity. Through the preaching of the Word He reminds you of your sinfulness, but also comforts you with the fact that He died for you. In the supper of His own body and blood, He gives, again, the forgiveness of your sins and the faith and love to serve Him and each other. Through these things He guards and protects you as His own redeemed and inheritors of eternal life until we become the saints who’ve gone before.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate not because they were better than us or more perfect examples of the faith. We celebrate because of the grace and forgiveness that they received, as we do, through faith in Jesus Christ. They have passed from death to life and rest from their labors. Some from among us are there now, too. May Christ keep us ever steadfast in the one true faith, and may He always remind us that we are marked by His blood for the redemption of our souls until these words are said of us:

They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[6]


[1] “Oh, How Blest Are They,” Lutheran Service Book, 679.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 7:3.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 14:22.

[4] Jn. 16:33.

[5] 1 Jn 5:4–5.

[6] Rev. 7:15-17