I Believe Jesus is God Precisely in the Worst Places
Kind of strange having an Advent theme in Lent. Advent's the time we talk, celebrate, adore that Jesus is God. It is marvelous to think of God in the Womb of the Virgin. God in the manger. There's a sweetness, a preciousness to this. Not so with God naked, nailed, and dead on the cross. That's enough to make one turn away, or worse yet deny that Jesus is God. Yet, we believe that Jesus is God precisely in the worst places.
However, this is not without controversy among us. Just who is dead on the cross at the end of tonight's Passion reading? Up until our red hymnal in 1941 we sang first in German then in English, "O sorrow dread! Our God is dead." The Lutheran Hymnal changed it to "O sorrow dread! God's Son is Dead!" In 1982 Lutheran Worship adopted the rather silly translation "Darkest deep the pain! God's Son is slain!" By the way, the new hymnal is returning to the original, correct, "O sorrow dread! Our God is dead!"
TLH was trying to protect us from Patripassianism. This teaches that God the Father (patri) suffered (passian) on the cross too. This is an error that arose in the 200's. However, by trying to avoid an ancient error we've helped people adopt a modern one. That Jesus is God's Son or Jesus is the Son of God with the emphasis being on the word 'Son'. This denies what we confess in the Creeds that Jesus is "true God begotten of the Father," and "very God of very God," and "of one substance with the Father."
Just who is dying and dead on the cross is the point at issue in our text too. The passers-by challenged Jesus just as Satan had in the wilderness. At that time Luke tells us that the devil left Him until an opportune time. Now is that opportune time; here's Satan again in the mouths of the passers-by saying, "If you are the Son of God." Satan's also in the mouths of the Church leaders saying, "Let God rescue Him now if He wants Him, for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" Only a centurion, the very one in charge of nailing Jesus to the cross, the one who had sat there and watched Jesus die drip by hellish drip, can see God in such a painful, wretched situation as this. That we might have no doubts that this is what the centurion is doing, St. Mark opens his Gospel with the words, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." In the end Mark quotes the centurion saying, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"
Don't think I don't know what some of you are doing. When you hear Jesus' enemies say and the centurion confess that Jesus is the Son of God, you think maybe they only mean it like modern people do who say, "Jesus is the Son of God." But the Jews didn't want people dead for claiming to be a son of God. The Old Testament uses that expression. The Romans too would speak of sons of god, but not the Son. The Jews explain how they understand Jesus being the Son of God in John 5:18, "The Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him because He...was calling God His own Father making Himself equal with God."
Who's suffering, dying and dead on the cross in tonight's Passion reading? If it's not God on the cross, then His suffering and death can't save anyone. If this is not God's blood being spilled, God's tears being cried, God's voice crying out, then this is only the sufferings of a man. Can the suffering of a man pay for sin or satisfy the wrath of God? Say Jesus was just a perfect man like Adam without original sin or actual sin. Could an ordinary man, even a perfect one, satisfy the wrath of God? Works righteousness says, "Yes." If a person just suffers well enough, long enough, and painful enough, they can satisfy God's anger. If that were true then God didn't need to send His only Son into our flesh. He could have just created a perfect human.
But wait a minute. Where would you get a perfect man from? A perfect man couldn't come from the union of a man and a woman since all mankind fell in Adam's sin. God couldn't create a perfect man out of the dust or any other created thing either since that too was ruined when Adam fell. Okay, God could just speak and call a perfect man into being. Yes, He could, but such a Man would not be related to us. He would not be flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He would look like us, talk like us, but he would not be of us.
In order to be of us Jesus had to be born of a woman as we all are, but in order to be a perfect Man, He couldn't have a human father. If He had a human father, He couldn't be perfect, and then what you see on the cross tonight would be Him suffering and dying for His own sins. If the wrath of God was going to be satisfied, only God could do it. If the wrath of God against human beings was going to be satisfied then only a Human could do it. Jesus must be both Man and God.
You can hear and see that a Man is on that cross. Hear Him groaning; hear Him crying; see the blood, sweat, and tears flowing. But if this blood, sweat, and tears is not God's, then this is just the suffering and death of one more man in a horrible way. This is nothing but the tragedy, albeit a noble one, of one more man dying for something he desperately believes in. Patrick Henry died nobly for us. Many men who've died in war have too. Yet, we don't have their images on our altar or imprinted on our hearts; we don't turn to images of heroic men for comfort when the nails and spears of life are piercing us. We don't gather together every year to read the account of their dying. Why? Because their suffering and death no matter how noble, no matter how selfless, doesn't pay for sins or eternally save anyone.
But before us tonight not just a good, noble Man hangs and dies on a cross, but God does. Bury these passages deep in your hearts, Colossians 2, "All the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ." Romans 9, "Christ is God over all." I John 5, "Christ is the true God." And in response to that unbelieving, unchristian taunt, "Jesus never called Himself God." Remember this. That's true in the sense Jesus never said, "I am God" in that exact way, but God the Father called Jesus God. Hebrew 1:8, "But of the Son He says, "Your throne O God, is forever and ever."
Yes, Jesus is God right here in this text amid the sinfulness, wretchedness, and evilness of men and this wonderful, Scripture-testified, Spirit-taught truth drives my day to day life. If God is on this cross paying for my sins, then my sins must be paid for enough. If God is here covering my sins with His blood, then no one must be able to uncover them again. If God is here carrying away my sins, then they must be far, far away from me. If a mere man like myself had said, "It is finished," how would I know he was right? Men make mistakes all the time. But when God declares it finished, no one can start it again. When God declares a sin paid for, no one can charge it again. When God says someone will be in paradise they will and not even a sinful life, a painful death, or the gates of hell can prevent it.
Believing that God hangs crucified on the cross, drives my life because if God is here on this cross, then He will be in the worst situations of my life. God in Christ suffered the pangs of hell on the cross; therefore I can be sure He will be there when all hell breaks loose in My life. God in Christ stared death in the eye and felt it's hot breath and sharp teeth close around Him; therefore I can be sure He will be there when death comes for me. He didn't give up my humanity when death came to swallow it, so he won't give up this human either. And finally God in Christ knows human family tragedy. He sees His mother wondering what will happen to her after this. In the midst of paying for her sins, He sees to it that John will takes care of her. The God who did this as a Man, will be with me to help when tragedy strikes my family.
No matter where you are in life, no matter how wretched, shameful, distasteful the situation; no matter how much sin is involved, pain is present, or suffering hangs in the air, you can know that God remains in that situation for you. You can know that because of what you see in this Passion reading. God remained "for you" in the Person of Christ when your sins brought eternal suffering, shame and pain on Him. God remained "for you" in the Person of Christ when all hell came upon Him because of you. God remained "for you" in Christ when all of divine wrath came against Him because of you. God was "for you" in Christ in every drop of blood He shared, bead He sweated, and tear He cried. So dear friend, He won't, He can't abandon you now, no matter how alone you might feel.
But if God is with me and for me in Jesus, why do I feel so alone? Because God works in Christ differently than you expect. There's a difference between God outside of Christ and God in Christ. God outside of Christ powerfully destroys His enemies. By a Word they are smoked, toasted, defeated. God in Christ, rules in the midst of His enemies. God in Christ prepares tables for His sheep not in the absence of their enemies but in the presence of them. So in our Passion reading, when it looks like the forces of darkness are in charge and winning, they were not and did not. Jesus finished in the midst and presence of His enemies the work He came to do. He didn't do it by power and might but by suffering and dying.
And so it is with us. God in Christ doesn't bring us victory over our fears, troubles, and sins by power that we can feel and the world can see. No, God in Christ works under and through the cross. He works in shameful, painful, weak, and foolish things and ways. Rather than remove the worst things in our lives, He uses, shapes, and blesses them, so we overcome enemies while still in their midst and receive care while enemies are still present. Stop looking for God only in the good feelings and places. God in flesh and blood, Jesus, teaches you that it is precisely in the worst places when ordinary men can only feel bad that you are to believe, confess and rejoice that God is at work for you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek VI (3-16-05); Passion Reading VI