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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
We are ask “Why?” occasionally. The honest answer from the bible is that God just doesn’t answer “why” that often, at least not in words. He does provide an answer in the cross. But the Old Testament text for the Day from the prophet Habakkuk is one of the places where God stoops to give an answer to “Why?” This sermon is a proclamation of both the question and God’s answer. It might not satisfy all, but I find it a deep well.
In the text we have one of the notices of “great crowds”. The fame of Jesus’ ministry can be gaged by the modifier to the crowds. And when they get to “great” he always says something like he says in the text today. It’s always a warning about discipleship. Discipleship isn’t about numbers. It’s about the heart. The disciple of Jesus has to know that The Way is The Way of the Cross. And they have to reckon that way the way of life. Also a way that we have no ability to follow in and of ourselves. This sermon is about how the way of grace is absolutely free and terribly costly.
(Note: This was a piece I wrote while I was a pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran in West Henrietta, NY. I forgot to import it over to here when I brought over my sermon file. Luckily it was on the internet archive and I was able to recover it. It came to mind in bible study at Mt. Zion in Peoria, AZ when asked a question dealing with the flood and sheol.)
The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostle’s creed though states it “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the apostles, was clearer. That apostle’s creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring of the scriptural teaching. Not a loss but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.
Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on
one thing here. What Peter says is Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite is the hymn verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it. I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What descent into hell means is the victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we got ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.
You could say it is one of my pet theories of the bible – the order of seeing and believing. Most moderns would emphatically say that sight leads to correct belief. (And hence the high priests of modernity sneer at Christ.) I think the reality is that faith or believing comes first. What we believe about the world influences what we see. And let me extend that further, I think that having a solid ground (i.e. Christ/God) is very important to having a good grip on truth overall. Without Christ we are much more likely to see all kinds of non-truth as truth. (I get that from Romans 1 FYI.)
I don’t expound on it often because: a) the culture believes just the opposite so b) it is hard to get solid accepted examples for such a mystical point. But this sermon is an attempt at just that because the immediate past has three examples of belief influencing sight, some very poorly.
The core of the problem is that false belief is always an attempt to justify ourselves (and demonize the other). The secure ground is what John the Baptist proclaimed as the beginning of the good news – a baptism of repentance. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all sinners. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all saved not by our acts or the law but by the acts of God. God’s story isn’t pretty or immediately believable. It just happens to be true good news.
I guess this is the cliche/classic “what I did on my vacation” sermon. It centers around the contrast between father and son and the son’s surprising statement that re-centers the entire experience between fake and real, between (pseudo-) law and grace.