Where is Christ for Us?

This is the Maundy Thursday service which commemorates and spotlights the Lord’s Supper, because it was on this night the Supper was instituted. These sermon ponders for a bit Bonhoeffer’s question from his last days in prison: “Where is Christ for Us?” His answer only really comes to us in outline for from letters. And it includes a few phrases that I think cloud the picture for those who picked them up and ran with them. What he was talking about in those letters was the cross. Christ for us is always found at the cross. And Lord’s Supper – the body and blood of Christ – is one place we always find the cross. The sermon meditates on this.

The Light of the Cross

Biblical Text: John 3:14-21

There are Sunday were you look at the text have trouble finding any hymns to go with them or any themes that are preachable…and then there is Lent 4 series B. You could preach a year on these three texts. And there are at least 3 services of great hymns usable, and another 3 that nobody would complain about.

Jesus explicitly connect the cross to the episode of Israel and snakes in the wilderness. The pastor’s corner this week (scroll down) wrote that up more fully. But this sermon brings some of that in. What is Jesus connecting to directly? There are a couple of things that the lifting up of the snake does. It is a picture of the toxic nature of our sin. It also makes completely clear the sin and the environment we live in rife with “fiery serpents.” This sermon makes the connections between that OT lesson (Numbers 21:4-9) and the cross. It then examines how the cross goes further. How this is one of the rare places God answers some “why?” questions. It finishes with the encouragement to live the Christian life and our hope stated so clearly by John – eternal life. The cross is the light by which we can see all this.

Seraphic Vipers

The Old Testament Reading this week is one of those too strange not to be true stories.  Israel is wandering in the desert and it is probably quite late in their 40 years of wandering.  The high priest Aaron has died, although exactly when it is in that time frame isn’t possible to pin down. But not much has changed.  They are impatient.  They speak against God and Moses.  They make comparisons to how good it was in Egypt. They want food and water while despising the manna and quail. (Numbers 21:4-5).  It’s a replay of the greatest hits. Nothing has changed. Sinful human nature remains a constant.  40 years in the wilderness has taught them nothing.

The LORD’s response this time is not the slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love character.  Neither does he give Moses a chance to negotiate.  The LORD sends fiery serpents among the people. That descriptor itself is interesting. The word translated as fiery is simply Seraphim, as in the Cherubim and Seraphim.  The LORD sent seraphic vipers. The leap to fiery is that the Seraphim are those angels closest to God.  They are the ones who take burning coals to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:6).  The serpents bite, so maybe the fiery is meant to capture the sting of the bite.  But, it is still evocative.  When we are grumpy and giving in to anger and complaining to God, how easy are our tongues and actions given over to Screwtape and his sort – Seraphic Vipers. Even if they aren’t demons, it’s evocative.  And maybe a reminder of the world we live in – visible and invisible.

And when we are suffering the slings and arrows of fortune or Wormtongue what is our prayer?  Take it away.  “We have sinned, we have spoken against the LORD and against you.  Pray to the LORD, that he take the serpents from us. (Numbers 21:7).”  Put us back on the top of the wheel of fortune. Remove the thorn in my flesh. Make things perfect again. Restore it like it was.  Yes, we will admit our sin.  We might even mean it.  But what we desperately want is the peace we forfeited.

And God’s answer to their prayers is instructive.  Does he take the serpents away?  No. He instructs Moses to make an image of one of them, put it on a pole, and tell everyone bitten to look at the image. “When he sees it, he shall live. (Numbers 21:8).”  Israel is not restored, but enabled to live in the midst of the Seraphic Vipers. Another reason I’m not so confident of just calling them snakes.  Because they never come up again in the story, but they are not driven away either.  They just go to the background.  While the pole with their image is in the foreground.

What did they see when they saw it?  What do we see when we look at the cross? That man hangs there because of what we did. We put Jesus there. Risking a step out, it is the holy God that causes our pain.  Yes, we deserve it, but it is still suffering.  And when he came to us, we preferred to kill him.  “Here is the heir, let us kill him (Matthew 21:38)”  But when we look at the cross, if we see it rightly, we also live. God suffered with us.  He was raised up that we might see him rightly.  This one is not the Seraphic Vipers that divide us, but the innocent Son of God who loves us. Who loves us that even when we are living our greatest hits, died for us.  The sign lifted up for all the world to see.  Towering o’er the wrecks of time.  No, we are not delivered from the Seraphic Vipers.  But we can see them rightly in the light of the cross; see them rightly, and live.  

What’s in a Name?

Biblical Text: Mark 8:27-38

The text is what includes the confession of Peter, but in the lectionary context what I think it asks us to contemplate isn’t that confession, but what is in the name of Christ? The Old testament has “God Almighty” what the Patriarchs knew God by changing Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah. Names in the Bible mean things. Moses would learn THE NAME. Eventually it is revealed as Jesus the Christ, and Father, Son and Spirit. But what Jesus wants to know is “Who do you say that I am?” When you confess the Christ, does your Christ match the Christ who is? If you Christ can’t include suffering, cross and death, then you do not have the Christ. But also if your Christ is not the one who rose, you do not have the Christ. The answers that the disciples give Jesus aren’t wrong so much as coming up short. Which might be forgiven, because nobody had seen a resurrection. But we have heard and seen. The Christ is the one who works by death and resurrection. And he bids that we walk in the same way. Is this your Christ?


But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15

Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost. – Augsburg Confession 2

Most of Christianity up until the 20th century has a focus on sin as a personal thing.  The biggest change in vocabulary which picked up velocity in the late 20th century was the movement of sin away from the individual heart and toward systemic things. The Augsburg Confession article 2 uses a big but useful word – concupiscence – which is the tendency to sin.  This is what James is talking about when he says each person is tempted by his own desire. Sin lives in our members (Romans 7:5, 23).  They are constantly proposing things for us to think and then do.  And the Reformers considered this concupiscence itself to be sin. We are bound to sin.  It is the intervention of God through Baptism and the Holy Ghost that can free us or give us some control over that desire.  For the first time we can mortify it (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5). 

Contrary to that individual story of sin, the modern story tells us something much different. I think the modern story tells us that we ourselves are neutral, maybe even good.  It is evil systems that ensnare us.  Sin is not the result of us giving in to our own desires but participating in evil structures.  It is not that the bible denies such systemic evil.  It would call that the devil and the world, the powers and principalities of this dark realm (Ephesians 6:12). The big difference being that Christ is victorious over the powers and on the last day will condemn them to the pit.  Until that day, we walk in danger all the way.  We might be complicit with these powers, but they are not responsible for our sin. If you took natural us and placed us in the New Jerusalem with perfect systems, we would still desire to sin. Adam and Eve did, and they were not fallen.  They just had the potential to fall.  Our natural selves are bound.  And ultimately, when we have learned to remain steadfast under trial, those systemic structures would fall themselves.  When Satan and the World can no longer sway me, their structures blow away and are nothing.

I rehearse that for this reason.  If our sins are due to what is outside of us, the problem abides with God who placed us in bad places.  Yet James is explicit that “God tempts no one.” God desires to lead in green pastures and still waters. It is we who desire to push and shove the other sheep and make the green grass a mud hole. And God never changes in this desire. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above. (James 1:17).” And the real problem of a lifetime of sin is that we become defined by our pet sins. We are our sins. So when Christ offers his salvation, which is the exchange of our sin for his righteousness, it can literally feel like we are giving up ourselves. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is magical at this depiction.  The various souls on vacation from hell are all bound in some way to a representation of their sin.  And almost all of them refuse to give them up.  Their sin is ultimately too precious to themselves. And Pharaoh hardened his heart.

The one who will receive the crown of life recognizes that the concupiscence might be from within me, but it is not me.  Not in the good way God desired to make us.  And we must hand it over to Christ at the foot of the cross. My sin is no longer mine, but it is held for all of us by the crucified, where all sin dies.  That work of handing over what feels like our very life is the daily gritty struggle of faith.

Labor Day

Biblical Text: Matthew 16:21-28

I suppose I should have used a title like “The Labors of Christ”. The text is what happens immediately after Peter’s confession of Christ. You have a confrontation over what that word means. Peter thinks it means something very earthly. Jesus corrects him. And then he invites everyone to see his definition. What is Jesus’ definition of the Christ? Suffering, death and resurrection. How are we invited? To pick up our cross and follow. Why would we do this? It is the only way past death. It is the only way we keep our life, to lose it. This is how God works. This is the labor of the Christ seen through the things of God, not the things of man.

Unpopular Truth

The creed is either true or false. Either God the Father is the creator of all things visible and invisible, or He isn’t. Either Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God crucified under Pontius Pilate yet sitting at the right hand of the Father waiting to come again in glory, or He isn’t.  Either the Holy Spirit does work through means like one Baptism for the remission of sins, are it is just simple water.

The truth or falsehood of something has little direct effect on its popularity or unpopularity. In fact, some things that are true can be repugnant.  Some things that are false can be very sweet. For example, it is true, even if unpopular, that the typical woman would not stand a chance in a fight against a typical man. Now if she had a gun that changes things, but that is not what Hollywood shows.  Hollywood shows us a 100 lbs starlet throwing around a 250 lbs man without messing up her hair.  Sorry, not happening. I don’t care how much Kung-Fu she knows. An example of a falsehood that can be sweet would be the idea that one can be a Christian without a church. There are lots of people who really like that idea.  You might see them at Christmas, but they will tell those who ask they believe in Jesus.  Which is how you get 20% of people in church on any given Sunday, but 70% proclaiming belief.  The problem is that Jesus said he was going to build his church. Me and my personal Jesus are nice, but not sufficient, because we are being built together into one body. The Holy Spirit works through means, the first of which is “The Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.”

When Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that I am?”  They answer him, “The Baptist, Isaiah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jeremiah is the real interesting one on that list.  The Baptist is the most recent prophetic voice.  Isaiah is the sweetest.  Saying one of the other prophets is just saying “he’s speaking truths in a powerful way.” Calling Jesus Jeremiah is calling Jesus “the man of sorrows.” There is a long history of the iconography of this Son of Man.  The two stained glass pictures nearby are a couple of examples.  One has the crown of thorns.  Many of the pictures will pick up either the reed that he was beaten with, or the crown, or some other element of the passion.  Another popular picture is the Garden of Gethsemane. But, it doesn’t require any of those elements.  Sometimes The Man of Sorrows is just portrayed with the melancholy downward look.  Jesus is not fully stoic.  His guts can be churned.

The Man of Sorrows sits in the unpopular truth square. We’d all like to be in the popular truth square.  The devil is pretty effective at herding us into the popular falsehood one.  I’m always surprised at the number of people who will stand in the unpopular falsehood square.  If you doubt me in that why are there so many people who insist that “real communism has never been tried.” But we have an instinctive horror at unpopular truth. Jeremiah prophesied for 40 years that Jerusalem was going to fall. This was the truth, but nobody wanted to hear the message.  We have little interest in being Jeremiah.

What God tells Jeremiah in our Old Testament Lesson (Jeremiah 15:15-21) is instructive.  “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.  They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.  And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze…for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD.” The Truth is precious.  Jesus calls himself the Way, The Truth and the Life.  Nothing that is not true comes from the mouth of God.  And I think we know that in the long run, truth outs. Of course we ourselves might not be there to see it.  At Keynes quipped, “in the long run, we are all dead.” But standing in the truth is standing where God is, and where he will save, and from where he will deliver.  The LORD has declared this.

The man of sorrows stood in that unpopular truthful corner. His own did not receive him. But the light still shines. Don’t mistake popularity or unpopularity for the truth.  Tomorrow will rearrange all of our categories, but the truth stands like a fortified wall of bronze.

Remembrance and Proclamation

Text: Catechism Christian Questions and Answers 13-16

This is the 4th Lenten Midweek service. We have been working our way through the Christian Questions and their answer from the Small Catechism. These Questions and Answers are a model of “fitting preparation” to receive the Lord’s Supper. To me they run in expanding cycles. The first cycle is the simple proclamation of sin and salvation. The second cycle expands on that from the creed. This third cycle is very Lutheran. It always goes back to faith, but it also is not afraid to ask the question “why should or do I believe this?” The Lutheran understanding of the faith has an answer. That answer might not be satisfactory to all, but it has the advantage of being how the Bible talks about the origins of faith. And it has the advantage of being grounded in the cross. We remember and proclaim the cross as the ground of our faith. This sermon meditates on that.

What is Love?

Biblical Text: John 3:1-17

The Gospel text is the full text in which “the gospel in a nutshell” is found. Which usually means a springboard into some gaseous ramble about love. Now I’m crazy. The less concrete a word is, the more I hate it. And you don’t get less concrete today than love. This sermon is about say “What is love.” Which is pointing at the cross. You want to know love, look at the cross. That is a concrete as it gets. God works in his way – “The Spirit blows where it wills” – and “the son lifted up is His way.”

Three Points and a Poem

The old, by today very old, cliché about preaching was: three points and a poem.  I haven’t researched it, I’m too lazy to really establish it, but having read a lot of old sermons it strikes me as gaining its form in the late 19th century – a time when poets were still an important part of life.  And not just to egg-heads like me or emo-theater-kids, but the Psalms from the King James, and the Romantics (Byron and Shelley), and the occasional line from Virgil or Homer (or if you were more naughty from Martial’s epigrams) would be part of the common man’s existence.  They didn’t have TV to distract or the NFL to take away the day the church used to own. Those 19th Century divines, mostly Anglican, the Lutherans were still in German which I can’t read, would preach for an hour and wrap it up with a poem.  The form became the cliché in the mid-20th century.  By which time the preachers no longer had as much poetry memorized at their predecessors nor did they have a willing hour in the pulpit.  That and the demands of the parish itself were changing. Even if they were given an hour, the study necessary for that was no longer available.  The reasons are numerous, and we live after the deluge.

Personally I can’t imagine trying to create three points. As a homiletics prof said in an unguarded moment, “all we can handle is one.” And my stock of poetry is even less than my mid-century peers. I was only forced to memorize two poems in all my schooling plus the scattered verse I’ve assinged myself.  But I do have this stack of poems that I’ve saved along the way.  Saved dreaming of putting together a collection. But making no claim to being from a wide choice.  Most poetry, like most creative works, has meaning to you, your mother and maybe your wife. Editors of lit mags have favorites and favors to repay and sinecures to grasp hold of.  And my taste and desires are decidedly not the current lit mag editor’s taste. But a Dana Gioia, or a Mary Karr, or especially an A. E. Stallings occasionally passes through the filter simply on the power of their verse. 

And what is that power?  I’d say the same as the power of Scripture, capital T Truth.  Luther in his Heidelberg theses posits, “A Theologian of the Cross says what a thing is.”  He contrasts that theologian of the cross with a “theologian of glory” and the defining trait of the theologian of glory is to “call the bad good and the good bad.”  Why did poets fade from importance?  I’d say the same reason as pastoral theologians.  They stopped being vessels of truth.  They became masters of a colloquial phrase: polishing a…oops, I almost didn’t receive the call over things like that.  They put forward very pretty lies, because their faith in the Cross, and their faith in their audience to hear it, wavered.

A cry of the reformation was “Ad Fontes” – to the sources. To Luther and the boys that meant scripture and the original languages which they felt had been obscured by the pretty words of Philosophers and Scholastics and Prelates more concerned with paying for St. Peter’s than preaching the gospel.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to say pondering what we’d say stands in our modern way.  What pretty lies do we tell ourselves?  And are we willing to grasp our cross, and call a thing what it is?  Or does the recently departed Christine McVie still have the anthem of the age, “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”  Or as an old poet said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”