Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers: (March 18, 2020)

This sermon was preached at Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church of Novi, Michigan while public services were suspended due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

MATTHEW 27:35-44

The King On The Cross

In the name + of Jesus.

     The chief priests, scribes, and elders presented Jesus before Pontius Pilate.  They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  And (Pilate) said, “Why, what evil has he done?”  But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22-23)  The religious leaders were so enraged that they were about to start a riot.  Pilate chose to keep the peace; so, he sentenced Jesus to be crucified.  He handed Jesus over to the religious leaders to do to him as they had demanded.  The problem was, Pilate needed to have a charge against Jesus.  Even though Pontius Pilate chose to do what would keep the peace and what would keep him out of trouble with the higher-ups in Rome, he knew that crucifying an innocent man would also get him in serious trouble with the higher-ups, too.  The Romans may have been brutal, but they did honor justice.  Pilate had found Jesus guiltless and declared so at least three times.  So, what charge could he file against Jesus?  What was worthy of crucifixion?  St. Matthew records it: Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37)
     The charge against Jesus was printed in three languages—in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek—so that all the world might know it: Jesus, the King of the Jews.  Jesus, the King on the cross.  Pilate posted it, but he did not believe it was true.  He did not think Jesus was really guilt of treason or insurrection.  The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people did not believe it either.  They were not hung up on legalities; rather, they rejected Jesus' claims that he is the Son of God and the Messiah.  By rejecting Jesus, they rejected the Scriptures and the God who gave them.  They raged against God himself and, finally, rejected their place in his kingdom.  Their damnation came by their own stubborn will and through their own most grievous fault.
     The mockery continued while the King was on the cross.  Those who passed by derided him..., “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  ...“He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.  For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:39-43)  
     Many who stood around the cross mocked Jesus by repeating the reports about Jesus—that he saved and healed other people, that he put his trust in God the Father, and that he is the King of Israel.  They repeated the claims that Jesus had made about himself—that he would raise himself up after three days and that he is the Son of God.  They all laughed at Jesus for these things.  But here is the catch: Everything they said was true.  They did not make up claims about Jesus; they repeated what was known.  He is the Son of God.  He is the King of Israel.  He saved others.  He would raise himself up after three days.  And after he fulfilled all these things, even then they would not believe in him.
     When the devil attacks our Lord and his people, he does not mock what is a lie.  He attacks, disputes, and distorts what is true.  The devil would always have us turn away from God's word and lean on our own understanding, our own feelings, and our own experiences—and from there make judgments about right and wrong, good and evil.  But our understanding, feelings, and experiences always are biased toward ourselves.  We are the hero of our story if we want glory, and we are the victim when we want pity.  We are smart; other people are idiots.  We are noble; other people are conniving.  We are honest; other people are frauds.  We praise ourselves; we condemn others.  We are full of ourselves, and we have nothing left for anyone else.
     Consider what people are saying about churches suspending services because of the COVID-19 concern.  There are some who feel that we were way too slow in suspending our services.  Their judgment?  We lack love for our fellow man by risking further disease.  Why?  Because they would have acted sooner.  Others feel that we never should suspend services.  Their judgment?  We lack faith in God's protection and lack love for people who crave God's word and sacrament.  Why?  Because they would have kept services going.  Each believes his opinions and feelings are the measure of what is good and right.  When we condemn others over a difference of opinion, that is arrogance.  When we exalt our understanding, experience, and feelings over God's word, it is blasphemy.
     Jesus had spoken clearly in the hearing of his enemies.  When they mocked him, they actually presented his claims pretty accurately.  Their problem was not confusion, it was unbelief.  In the same way, God has spoken his word very clearly in the Scriptures.  He tells us what is right and wrong.  Our problem is not that we are unclear about what God says.  Our problem is that we mock it with our lives.  We feel that God's commands are unreasonable.  Love your enemy and give to those who cannot pay you back (Luke 6:35)?  Ridiculous!  Who purposely invests in failures?  We reason that God's commands are out of touch with reality.  Practice self-control (2 Timothy 1:7)?  Ludicrous!  When times are good, we gorge.  When times go bad, we find value in vices!  We know what God says, but like the passers-by who hurled insults at Jesus, we are also influenced by the voices around us and thoughtlessly join in.  Our society eggs us on to mock God's word and to give way to what everyone else is doing.  So, we have defied the King's orders, which is treachery.  And because our King is God, it is also blasphemy.  Repent.
     There was a lot of talking going on while our King was on the cross.  Chief priests, common citizens, and even felons all joined to mock Jesus.  On the other hand, Jesus said precious little.  In our reading, he said nothing.  He was not talking; he was working.  He was fulfilling the will of his heavenly Father who had sent him to suffer for the disobedient.  Jesus was condemned for those who value vices.  Jesus invested himself completely into those who failed him.  Jesus silently bore the burden of guilt of those who mock his word.  Rather than respond to arrogant mockery, Jesus quietly set his mind and his heart to doing all that his Father had given him to do.
     God the Father loves you and wants you to be saved, so he sent his Son to save you.  Jesus loves his Father, and he was eager to do what his Father had given him to do—even if it meant he would feel the hatred of sinful men, experience the fiery wrath of his Father, and could reason that everything he was suffering was unjust.  But his focus was the will of God who never lies and never fails.  The King on the cross knows how to follow orders, and he fulfills his mission to bring you into a kingdom of grace.
     The King who hangs on the cross, crucified, appears to be worthy of mockery.  He is weak and bleeding and dying.  That is what what our eyes see, what our experience tells us, and what we understand from our observation.  But our Lord tells us what to believe, no matter what we feel, understand, or experience.  No matter how the COVID-19 pandemic makes you feel, God loves you.  He remains your good and merciful Father no matter what you experience.  Your understanding is destined to change with new reports—even conflicting reports—every day, but God's word does not change, and God himself remains faithful to you.
     God's mercy, love, and faithfulness is evident by the King on the cross.  While Jesus appeared bloody and beaten, remember that this is the battle to win you for eternity.  The fight was fierce.  The enemy had inflicted their blows.  But the King on the cross has overcome the enemy for you.  Even if the crucified King looks like a victim, do not be deceived.  He is, in fact, the victor.  He is, indeed, worthy of praise, honor, and obedience.  He lives and reigns over all, and his kingdom is forever.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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