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.

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.”

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Text: Matthew 17:1-8

The theology of the cross is one of the main things I love about Lutheranism. The theology of the cross says that the depth of God’s for us is not found primarily in the high points of life, such as wealth or comfort – things that are temporary. Instead, it is found in the humility, shame, and suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us this in John 14 when Philip asked Him to show them the Father. He responded that he who has Jesus has seen the Father. Jesus was teaching His disciples about His suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins. He who has seen the Son of Man dying on the cross for the sins of the world has seen the love that God has for us. Martin Luther once wrote, “True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.”

The phrase, “theology of the cross,” comes from one of Luther’s writings. Luther found himself in hot water after posting the 95 Theses. He was branded a heretic; and, though not excommunicated yet, Pope Leo X moved to silence him early on. He sent word down the line until it reached Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz. But, instead of silencing of Luther, Staupitz invited him to speak, in order to convince others to align themselves with Luther’s cause. In the midst of this Luther wrote one his most famous passages: “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

What Luther means is this: the love, grace, and mercy of God are shown to us – above all other things – in the suffering and cross of Christ. That is what the Transfiguration of Jesus is all about. In His Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus‘ heavenly glory, a foretaste of what awaits us in the life to come. But this glory, which Christ will share with us, only comes through the suffering of the cross. At the Transfiguration, Jesus gives us a glimpse of His resurrected glory, which He shares with His Church, but it comes only as the fruit of His cross.

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The text from St. Matthew’s Gospel begins, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” St. Matthew writes that the Transfiguration happens six days after something. The context of this passage is that Jesus and the Disciples are traveling south from Caesarea Philippi, up toward Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was a Gentile area, but there St. Peter gave the great confession of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” From that moment on, Jesus began to show the Disciples what being the Messiah meant. Just before our text, Jesus explained for the first time that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise from dead. He is the gloriously majestic Son of God, but His glory is wrapped in the suffering and shame of the cross.

And just as Jesus’ life was full of suffering, so are the lives of His followers. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The life of a Christian is thus a hard one. After we are washed by the blood of Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit to deny ourselves, to deny the sinful wants and desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. We carry the cross of Christ, which is foolishness to the world, upon our shoulders, around our necks, and in our hearts. We do this because, now that we have been crucified with Christ, we no longer live; Christ lives within us.

After teaching the Disciples this, Jesus took three up the mountain with Him and was transfigured before them. His face shined like the sun and His clothes were as bright as light itself. We see a picture of the glory that awaits the Church. We see the glory that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before all time, which He will share with us – but only after His crucifixion. The Transfiguration confirms that what Jesus has been saying all along about His suffering and death, and about the Christian life of self-denial, is true. Moses and Elijah also bear witness to this. Moses represents both the Law and the Prophets, which speak about Jesus. Elijah’s presence likewise confirms the promises which God has made of old. Notice that neither Moses nor Elijah are dead. In fact, they’re very much alive. So shall we be in the resurrection, for God is not god of the dead, but the living.

  1.   

But then, St. Peter interrupts. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Perhaps as a representative of the group, Peter interrupts the scene – just like he did before when Jesus explained that He was going to be rejected, suffer, and die. It didn’t suit Peter’s sensibilities for Jesus to suffer, be rejected, die, and rise again – even if it were the forgiveness of sins – because that means he would have to suffer as well. Peter’s desire to remain on the mount of the Transfiguration is quite understandable, and in some ways is good, right, and salutary. Though, if they remained on the mountain as Peter desired, that would be a problem. Then Jesus wouldn’t be going to the cross as payment for our sins.

Peter proves St. Paul to be right when he says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” The idea that the suffering of Christ is where we see the love of God flies against every fiber of the Old Adam within us. The idea that, because we are united with Christ in Baptism, we will also suffer in this life and be hated by the world, all the while striving to deny our own sinful passions, is absurd to natural reason.

Like Peter we sometimes get glimpses of Jesus’ glory: the baptisms of our children and grandchildren, their confirmations, in the sacrament of the altar, in those times where we see prayers answered before our very eyes. But life, unfortunately, isn’t all glory; there are also the crosses we bear. We trudge through our daily lives. We struggle to teach our children the faith, knowing that the world will do everything it can to rip it from them and us. We are hated by the world for actually believing Christ and His Word. But, the suffering of Christ means that He is with us. Last week we talked about how Christ became united with us in Baptism. He is united with us and we with Him, as closely as a vine with its branches, even (and especially) in the suffering of this life. As St. Paul wrote, “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.”

  1.  

While [Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” The words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism are echoed here at the Transfiguration. But, now they have something added to them. Jesus is God’s Son; we’re supposed to listen to Him. That’s an added emphasis for Peter, the Disciples, and us. We are to listen to Jesus – not the devil, not the world, and not our own sinful flesh. All of those want us to strive after the good life, the comfortable life. They want us to do anything other than look at the cross and remember our Baptism. Looking at the cross means remembering that in Baptism we are united with Jesus in His suffering and death. And quite frankly, that’s not always so fun. It means we are going to struggle in this life. We’re never going to be perfect. We’ll never be rid of our sin. We will never reach a point where we are not wrestling with our many temptations.

But, being united with Christ doesn’t just mean we are united with Him; He is united with us. It means that, in those times where you just can’t take another day, where life is killing you, where your heart just says, “No more,” Jesus is there. He is with you. He bore your sins on the cross; He suffered for you, to win for you the forgiveness of sins. Through the Word and Sacraments, He continually makes good on His promise to be with you always. Then, when this life is finally over, glory begins. Jesus was Transfigured to assure us of the truth and as a preview of the glory to come. This glory, though, only comes through suffering. That’s how it was for Jesus – He stepped down from His eternal throne, to suffer, die and rise for you – and that’s how it will be for us.

St. Peter wrote in our Epistle text, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In the Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory, glory that He will share with us in the resurrection, but it comes only after the cross. Peter teaches us to pay attention to it as to a light shining in a dark place. We are theologians of the cross. We know that without the cross, there can be no glory. Without the cross, there can be no forgiveness. But, in the cross of Christ we do glory and to us it a shining beacon in this dark world. It shows us that nothing in heaven or earth, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This love will be with us always, all suffering life long, until we are raised anew to live in the glory of Christ at His coming.