Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Like a Lion and Out Like a Lamb

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“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure you’ve heard that old phrase about March weather that goes, “In like a lion and out like a lamb.” Well, according to the late stargazer Jack Horkheimer, it appears that the phrase got its imagery from the two constellations, Aries—the Ram or Lamb, and Leo—the Lion. A long time ago, someone noticed that their movement in the March skies coincided with the fiercer weather at the beginning of the month and the milder weather at the end of the month.
“In like a Lion and out like a Lamb.” That could describe Jesus’ movement as He comes into Jerusalem for Holy Week. As we just were reminded by the procession of palm waving children, Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday like a lion—with all the pomp and circumstance of a mighty King. By the end of the week, Good Friday, He goes out as the meek and mild sacrificial Lamb.
To see this tie-in between Palm Sunday and the Passion of our Lord, we must go back in ancient Egypt, for it is there that we first hear of the Lion and the Lamb. Nearly two thousand years before Christ, twelve brothers gather around their dying father’s bedside. And one by one, he speaks a blessing or woe upon them. The father is Jacob, and these are the brothers of Joseph—Joseph whom they sold into slavery. Judah waits his turn, and he ought to be worried. Jacob has spoken to three of his brothers so far, and each one has received an ominous curse.
Clearly, Judah can’t claim sainthood. Along with the betrayal of Joseph, there’s some public immorality that has brought shame upon the family. He’s fathered a child by his eldest son’s widow. Of course, Judah has a “good” excuse: he had gotten so drunk that he mistook her for a cult prostitute. But even worse, his transgressions put the birth of the promised Seed in jeopardy. Yes, Judah’s sins are well known, and he certainly does not deserve a blessing.
Having finished with Simeon and Levi, his father turns to Judah, who must brace himself for the worst. If a curse comes, he’s got it coming. But incredibly, Jacob speaks not a woe, but rather a blessing. He says, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you” (Genesis 49:8).
Jacob’s words involve a pun, a play on words, since the Hebrew name Judah means “praise.” This son will be praised by his brothers since God will accomplish wonderful things through him and his descendants. The covenant blessing, which God had given to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, will now be carried forward through Judah. Judah will assume the position of leadership that his three older brothers have forfeited for their selfish weakness and violent natures. From Judah’s line through David will come Israel’s kings and the Messiah.
Jacob continues this blessing, prophesying about the future age of the kingdom of God. Judah and his offspring are described with contrasting images of war and peace: “Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine, and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine, and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk” (Genesis 49:8-12).
From Judah’s descendants, prophesies Jacob, a Lion will arise. This Son of David will be King, a son of the royal line that bears the scepter in Judah throughout the ages. He will come to His people; and when He comes, He will be called Shiloh—that is, He will be called “peace,” because this coming King is the Prince of Peace who removes the strife of sin. He will be Shiloh—the Rest-bringer—who brings eternal rest for weary souls.
This King shall be the obedience of the people. Where they—like Jacob and Judah and David and you and me—have failed to keep God’s commands, the One who comes as a Lion will obey God for His people. While many of Judah’s descendants who sat on the throne in Jerusalem were not interested in Israel’s messianic hope, and did not deserve to be kings, this is the One in whose hand the royal scepter belongs. His will be a magnificent and universal reign, “and He will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). When sinners are brought to see this and believe it, they will bow before this righteous King in glad obedience.
This descendant of Judah will come with donkey and colt; and He will bind them to a vine. And having come, He will wash His garments in wine, in the blood of grapes. For Judah and all of his sons and daughters, Jacob announces hope: The Lion will come and bring peace, riding in like a ruler mounted on a donkey. He stops, ties up His mount, and walks the vineyard, tasting the wine and smiling joyfully. His garments are dyed scarlet purple—the color of wealth and rulership.
As I hear Judah’s blessing, I can’t help but think of Palm Sunday and the days of the Holy Week that follow. Jesus Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), rides into Jerusalem of Judea on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He is the righteous Son of God, obedient to His Father in all things for your sake. He is the Son of David who comes in the name of the Lord. He comes to bring peace with God by defeating sin. Thus, when the crowds cry out “Hosanna!” or “Save now!” they are crying for the peace that He brings with them.
During the week, Jesus pounces on the moneychangers and drives them away, and no one can lift a finger against Him. He eats supper with His disciples; and during that Supper, He binds them to wine and Blood, along with bread and Body, for the forgiveness of sins. He does all this, and no one can do a thing to stop Him. His power and authority are evident. Truly, this entry into Jerusalem is a triumphal entry. Jesus comes as King. He comes as Savior. He comes in like a lion.
Five days later, Jesus goes out like a lamb. He goes out like the Lamb of Isaiah 53: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”
In Old Testament times, the Passover Lamb was bound for four days before its slaughter. Christ, the Lamb of God, is bound to four trials (one each before Caiaphas and Herod, two before Pilate) leading up to His death. After four trials, He is found guilty of no sin; in fact, His innocence is only reinforced. Like that Passover Lamb, Christ remains blameless and without spot. He has done nothing to deserve this fate. Although He is accused of many sins, He remains silent and opens not His mouth. He is not there to defend Himself, but to redeem you and me.
In Egypt, the Passover lamb was sacrificed to save the firstborn sons of Israel. It suffered plague and death instead of them. This is why Christ leaves the city that Good Friday. It is not that the stray sheep are driving the Lamb out of the fold, but that the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all on Him, and He is going to destroy it on the cross. Rather than have us suffer plague and death for our sin, Christ shoulders the sin, takes the judgment, suffers God’s holy wrath and the torments of hell, and dies in our place for them. Like the Passover Lamb, He is the substitute—the Sacrifice for our sin, so that we might have forgiveness and life.
Now, to be certain, lambs don’t have the fearsome reputation of lions. In fact, they’re helpless, meek, easily defeated. But do not be dismayed or deceived by the weakness you see in the Passion of our Lord. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, saves you there. He bears your sin and weakness to the cross, suffering for it there. Risen again, He declares that you are forgiven, that He has forgiveness for your sin and strength for your weakness.
So as you have heard the reading of the Passion of our Lord this day, ponder again Christ, the Lion and the Lamb, the Victorious Victim and Conquered King, who knows your weaknesses and carried your sins. He is your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Take heart; you need not fear. The Lord of hosts has defeated all of your enemies, including sin, death, and the devil. And if those greatest of enemies are under His feet, you can be sure that those afflictions of the unbelieving world and your own sinful flesh that you experience now have also been overcome by the Lion and the Lamb.    
Affliction would seek to render you so weak so as to believe that not even God could help you. At such times, remember Palm Sunday, how Christ comes in like a lion to defeat His enemies, and yours. Remember that Shiloh comes with peace, to save now, and do not be dismayed. He comes to bring peace to you, to give you His strength and salvation.
Guilt would seek to have you say, “God is indeed powerful, but I am far too sinful for Him to care about me.” Remember Judah, who though sinful and undeserving, received his father’s blessing and the promise of the Lion of Judah, the Savior who would come from his own line and open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. When your conscience is heavy, remember the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For if He has taken away the sins of the world, then He has taken away your sin, too.
Rejoice in His cross. Hear His Word of peace and forgiveness. Cling to Christ the vine, who gives you wine and Blood, bread and Body for your salvation. The palms and Passion, the life and the death, the Lion and the Lamb, the cross and the empty tomb, are all part of the Lord’s work for you. All that you may be sure of your salvation. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Foolishness of the Pole

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It doesn’t make sense. It’s a crazy way to save. How could looking at a bronze serpent hanging on a pole bring healing? It’s a severe challenge to faith. It smacks of superstition, magic and mysticism, maybe even crass idolatry. And just how gullible do you have to be in order to try it? Gullible or very desperate.
But here’s a greater mystery: Why would God save a people who are so opposed to Him? Why would God send any sort of healing for men and women so wicked and rebellious that He must send fiery serpents to chastise them in the first place? Why? The answer is short and sweet: sin and grace. The foolishness of the pole is all about sin and grace.
Let’s admit it up front: the world and the majority of people in the world will deny this truth. The reality of sin and sinfulness is generally rejected, but especially in our time. Sin is dismissed as “a mistake” or “a bad choice” or “none of your business” or “an alternative lifestyle,” rather than a transgression of God’s holy Word and will. It is considered more a matter of a minor indiscretion than a spitting in God’s face kind of thing. So, it should not be surprising that where there is no recognition of sin there is no recognition of the need of grace either. There’s no application of forgiveness necessary in a world where sin is denied.
However, this morning we are not speaking of the world out there. We are speaking of those called by God to be His people. They have been delivered from bondage through their baptism and are on their way to the Promised Land. They are on their way, but they have not yet arrived, and life is not easy as they wander in the wilderness until the proper time. I’m sure you can probably relate.
Like many of their fathers and mothers some forty years earlier, some of God’s people become impatient and they begin to grumble. And as you know well, grumbling can be one of the most contagious and pernicious infections in the congregation. The chorus of complaints crescendos. And because God seems so far away from them, their ire is directed against God’s servant, their shepherd, Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Notice what is happening here: The people of the congregation are not having their felt needs met and they are in the process of rejecting God and God’s servant of the Word. Certainly this is a sin against the Lord God—the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Commandments. They are not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. They are not calling upon God’s name in every trouble, praying, praising, or giving thanks. And they are certainly despising God’s Word and preaching, failing to hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.
As often happens, such rampant rebellion and unbridled unbelief is manifested by the sin of coveting. The complainers want what they do not have and do not want what they do have. You know what I mean. You’ve probably been there yourself. As Jake Owens sings in his latest country hit: “We all want what we ain’t got.” The grumblers long for “the good ol’ days” back in Egypt. They covet the rations of bread and water that they had back in the land of their bondage; and they detest the bread that is graciously given to them from heaven and the water that pours forth freely out of the rock. Each one of them would be more than willing to go back to Egypt, climb into their own fetters, throw away the keys, and die under the influence of other gods. In the New Testament, Peter describes this natural sinful inclination to depart from the presence of the Lord and go back to bondage with a pair of pithy proverbs: “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and “a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:22).
The Lord sends venomous snakes. Many die because they are bitten by the snakes. At this point, the improved attitude of this new generation can be seen. Sure, they bellyache just as loud and long as their parents, but when chastised they quickly confess their sin and boldly appeal to the Lord’s grace through Moses: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.”
God cannot simply take away the sin without there being the punishment of the sin paid. Even as He displays His grace, God’s justice must be satisfied. So listen to what happens next. It is strange indeed, but it is marvelous to our ears. Probably the last thing any of these people want to see and last thing they expect for a cure is another fiery serpent—a reminder of their sin and its consequences. But that is exactly what they need. “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
What Good News! Here, life is given where death ought to be. Here one is restored to God when that one deserves to die forever. It sounds too good to be true, this “foolishness of the pole.” I mean, think about it. A bronze snake fastened on a pole. It’s not even alive. How can it save anyone? But before you dismiss this lifted up one, take a closer look. For this one does not bite and from its mouth no poisons issue forth to kill. God Himself, in His Word of promise, provides the way to escape, just as He will with the Lifted Up One and His cross, the crucified Christ, to whom this bronze serpent and pole point and foreshadow.
Dear baptized, lift up your eyes and see the One lifted up in your place. “His name is Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  He is on the cross and He spits no venom; rather He is absorbing the fiery wrath of God into Himself. The Son of God does not use His mouth to bite; rather He speaks to His Father concerning your forgiveness. And, in order for you to have life with God, Jesus the Christ must die. This is “the foolishness of the pole.”
It’s a plan so outlandish that it could only be hatched in the mind of a mad man, or a con man… or in God Himself. It’s a plan that could never work—unless it is the very Son of God Himself who, out of love and grace, hangs on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. The cross is the place where our sin and God’s grace meet. It doesn’t make sense, does it? It’s a crazy way to save. It smacks of superstition, magic, or even crass idolatry. And how gullible do you have to be in order to believe it? Gullible or very desperate. But that’s just it; we are that desperate. It’s just that we are born so dead in our sins and blind to the truth that we don’t even realize our plight until the Lord opens our eyes, reveals our rebelliousness, and patiently draws us to look up to His cross.
In his blog, The Flying Scroll, Chad L. Bird tells of reading a book to his young children that foreshadows his own rebellion and restoration. I remember reading “The Runaway Bunny” to my own children and having some of the same thoughts about how it reflects God’s love for rebellious people like you and me. But Chad tells the story so much better that I’ll just use his words.
My daughter was on my left, my son on my right, as I began to read. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.”
How was I to know that I was reading my future to my children that day?
The story continued: “So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.” ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’”
I didn’t even bother to tell my Father that I was running away. I just did. Packed up my things, wrote no note, left the door hanging wide open. Never looked back. How was I to know that my Father said, “I will run after you”?
My daughter and son listen as I read on. “‘If you run after me,” said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’ ‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’”
If God ran after me, He would not like what He found. He’d have to go slumming, poking around in the gutter, digging through the dunghill to find his runaway boy. And God wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t mean that much to Him.
I turned page after page. The little bunny became a rock high on a mountain, so the mother became a mountain climber. The bunny became a crocus in a hidden garden, so the mother becomes a gardener. The bunny becomes a bird, so the mother becomes a tree that her little bird could come home to.
I was beginning to think I’d never outrun God. To my surprise, and disappointment, I couldn’t seem to get away from Him. I became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man, but every place I went, soon I’d look over my shoulder and see Him bearing down on me, in hot pursuit.
Finally the little bunny says that he will become a boy and run into a house. And the mother responds. “If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.” To which he responds, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
But it was too late for me. I had already left. This was no cute conversation between me and my Father in heaven. Some what-if scenario. I had turned from being a little boy into being a serpent. Crawling on my belly in the dust. Slithering from sin to sin. Poison on my lips. A bite that could wound and kill. I was coiled in anger, looking through two slit eyes that saw the world from the perspective of prey and predator.
And I knew that pursue me though He might, God would never stoop so low as to become a serpent. No, not even to find and bring home his little lost boy. God wouldn’t go that far.
And then one day I heard these words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15). And my mind drifted back to the story of Moses, how God told that old man to make a bronze serpent and fasten it to a pole, so that all the Israelites who were bitten by the fiery serpents might look to that bronze serpent and be healed.
And I wept, a serpent of a man shedding tears in the dust that I had made my home. I looked up at the cross and saw what God had become to bring me home. He had become what I was. He who knew no sin became sin that in Him I might be become that righteousness of God. Jesus became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man—He became all of me on the cross, all of what was wrong with me, all of what was wrong with our fallen race. He became a serpent, and was lifted up, that He might draw all men to Himself.
We meant that much to Him. He would go that far. He would go to the gutter to find and bring us home, transformed back into His children.
Now, every night, my heavenly Father tucks me into bed, kisses me on the forehead, and says, “You’re home again. My son, my child, you’re home again.”
How far would God go to save you? He would become a serpent! He would soak up all of your sins into His holy, righteous body and carry that awful load all the way to the cross. Hanging on that cursed tree, He would suffer the taunts and jeers of a world that refuses to believe in such foolishness as sin and grace. Betrayed and abandoned by His own disciples, and forsaken by His Father, the sinless Son of God would suffer God’s fiery wrath as the just punishment for your sin and rebellion. Contrary to reason and the laws of nature, Jesus would rise from the dead three days later, proving all His Word and promises are true.    
What’s more, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus keeps saving you in ways that the world considers foolish and weak—His means of grace. He speaks through the mouth of His called and ordained servant, a fellow sinner who is just as much in need of the Word of sin and grace he proclaims to you as you are. In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, Christ shares His own death and resurrection, granting you the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. In His Supper, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
 Call it the foolishness of the pole or the folly of the cross. I call it the grace of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake—His suffering, death, and resurrection—you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Saturday, March 7, 2015

We Preach Christ Crucified

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“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
There is a church in Connecticut with an interesting cross. “Pretty” is not a word that one would use to describe the cross. It is 10 feet tall, made of raw, untreated wood. But it’s not that the cross itself is unique; it’s the positioning of the cross that is truly unusual. It’s not behind the altar, but bolted down into the concrete floor, right in the middle of the aisle, between the pews and the altar. To the casual observer it seems like an obstruction. The pastor’s words have to pass through it. And the congregation always has to look through it. And everyone who come to the baptismal font or to the Lord’s Table has to come by it. And so, I guess, symbolically, it is really much more like a doorway than an obstruction.
Perhaps we would do well to have such a cross here too. It could help remind us of the importance and centrality of the cross to our Christian faith. Surrounded by a world that knows little of the true meaning of the cross, we, too, can easily fall into the trap of a religion that ignores or downplays the cross. We can easily forget that in the middle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ stands a cross—an ugly instrument of execution—on which our Savior lived out His undying love for us by willingly giving Himself into death for us there.
That’s why St. Paul’s words are so important for us to remember: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
In the verses prior to our text, Paul argues that while preaching is important, a preacher’s reliance on his skill as a speaker can rob the cross of Christ of its power. You see, it’s not the ability of the preacher that gives power to the Gospel; it is the Gospel that gives power to the preacher’s words. It is the substance of the preaching that brings saving faith—Christ crucified.
But the preaching of Christ crucified is not easy for the world to accept. No matter how well you dress up the Word of the cross, the world will always find it unpalatable. For, the world marches to a different drummer. Its enthusiasm is always for whatever seems attractive and successful. Our world, which disdains absolute truth and loves “diversity,” finds the cross too harsh and narrow-minded.
St. Paul divides the non-believing world of his day into two groups—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews demanded miraculous signs from Paul and the other apostles as confirmation of God’s support for them and their message. They demanded such signs from Jesus, too. We see that in today’s Gospel, where they challenge Jesus to prove His authority to cleanse the temple. Jesus points to His death and resurrection as the only sign they will receive. “Destroy this temple, and in three day I will raise it up.” The cross and His open tomb will be the sure sign that Jesus’ Word is true. The Greeks, for their part, looked for wisdom. They were zealous for every kind of learning. Paul could speak from firsthand experience about this, having encountered the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens.
But in direct opposition to these Jews and Greeks, who continued their quest for divine power and wisdom, Paul proclaims with joyful certainty the gift that had already been given to them: “We preach Christ crucified.” The expression “Christ crucified” seems to non-believers to be an oxymoron. The title “Christ,” “the Anointed One,” denotes a person of royal dignity. To describe Him as “crucified,” denotes the very opposite—an executed criminal, stripped of any claim to human dignity and status.
To Jews, a crucified Christ was a stumbling block, an obstacle to coming to faith. While there was a great diversity of opinion about what the Messiah would be like, those expectations consistently were for a powerful figure. Moreover, anyone who had been crucified was considered cursed by God. For Jews, the cross was an offense to their sensibilities, the most shameful death imaginable.
The Greeks trusted in wisdom. It seemed foolish to them that God would come to earth as a man, let alone, that He would allow Himself to die by any means. And the power-hungry Romans, found the notion of a crucified Messiah abhorrent. The Roman statesman, Cicero said: “May the very name of the cross be absent not only from the body of Roman citizens but also from their thinking, their eyes, and ears.” Another philosopher of the day spoke of the foolish Christians who “worship a dead man.”
But Paul’s sad description of the rejection of the Gospel by Jews and Gentiles gives way to a note of joy. By God’s grace, a third group of people has been formed, called from among both Jews and Gentiles. For them, Christ and His cross is neither an offense or foolishness, but God’s power and God’s wisdom. Paul is saying: “If you are a Jew looking for signs as a display of God’s power, you will find that power displayed in Christ crucified. If you are a Greek on a quest for wisdom, you will find God’s wisdom perfectly revealed in the cross. If you are a Roman looking for power, you will find no greater power than the power of forgiveness and eternal life made possible in the cross of Jesus Christ.
By the cross, God outsmarted and overpowered all human wisdom and power. He doesn’t need to consult human beings for their input—not even the wisest philosophers, the savviest politicians, or most recent public opinion polls. God has a better way. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Unfortunately, the message of the cross seems no more reasonable to the world today than it did in Paul’s time. And it is no less a scandal, either. Many say, “Who can really believe that everyone’s eternal destiny depends entirely and exclusively on a personal relationship with a Jewish man who was shamefully executed under Roman law almost two thousand years ago? If Jesus really was the holy Son of God, how could He die? For that matter, why would His heavenly Father send Him to die? What kind of love is that? How is that righteous or just?”
To be sure, the world has little room for a suffering Savior, a crucified Christ. Sinful human nature looks instead for a theology of glory. But those who look elsewhere than the cross miss the Gospel that alone can save sinners. They miss the true comfort and peace that God, in His grace, wishes to give to everyone. For the grace of God can only be found in the things—like Word and Sacrament—that appear weak and foolish to the world. That is why we preach Christ crucified.
Pastor Dean Kavouras, an LCMS pastor and FBI chaplain, knows firsthand how important this message still is in our day. On Saturday, September 15th, 2001, he was sent to Somerset, Pennsylvania to carry out chaplain duties for the personnel investigating the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93.
Arriving at the crash site, Kavouras found that the Pennsylvania State Police had erected a huge cross, about 16 feet tall, made with two sturdy 8” x 8” beams, and draped with a white shroud. When one person objected to the cross, a trooper said to him, “We’re in charge here and that’s how it is.” In his report for that day, Kavouras writes: “The cross still stands. It is a reminder of the blackest, most unjust and tragic death of all history, that of the innocent Son of God. It is also the reminder of humanity’s finest hour, for on that cross the sins and guilt and curse of all the world, of each person no matter how great their transgression, was expunged. On the cross, death and hell were conquered. In Christ, God opened His loving arms and embraced the whole world.”
In the shadow of that huge cross, Chaplain Kavouras preached the Word to a number of people suffering in ways and to such a depth that most of us cannot begin to imagine. And he spoke to individuals afterward; including one trooper who was especially overtaken with grief.  Kavouras talked with him and told him that Christ died on a cross like that one. He died for the sins of the world and on Easter Sunday rose from the grave. He told him the Good News that all who put their hope in Christ will also rise to everlasting glory. He went on to explain to the trooper that in his baptism God had made an everlasting covenant of peace with him and would never let him go—not ever. As people like this trooper were soothed with the words of the Gospel, the cross proved to be a great comfort to those who mourned. There is no other hope and no other message in the entire world that can help in such a time.  
But unfortunately, the Gospel was not always preached with such clarity. Kavouras wrote a few days later of his frustration: “As far as I can tell, few if any Christian clergy here or anywhere else are preaching the one true faith that imputes the righteousness of Christ to us by faith and delivers men from eternal death. Christian priests, pastors and ministers are preaching about an unknown, unpredicated supreme being, who is without true name, true form, or any sure word upon which we can rely in the hour of our deepest need!  ‘You may know him,’ people are told ‘as Allah or Yahweh or Jesus or Buddha!’”
In a later report, Kavouras writes: “I had very strong words with two Christian clergymen today, upbraiding them and telling them that there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12); that further, there is only one God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all others are imposters; that there is no other word which can heal these poor people than the words of Christ our Lord. I reminded them of John 6:68, the words of Peter. ‘Lord, to whom shall we go, for You have the words of eternal life.’” 
Pastor Kavouras pulled no punches as he chastised these timid would-be shepherds: “I told them that while the flowery orations of the world may soothe one’s psyche for a few minutes, only the Word of God as found in Scripture can heal their souls and restore to them some modicum of peace.”
The inescapable message found in Chaplain Kavouras’ reports is this: “the Word works.” He preached the Word clearly and let it work in the lives of those affected by the tragedy. There were no gimmicks, no confounding of the truth, no empty platitudes, just a straight pronouncement of the Word. And that Word gave hope to the hopeless and the promise of eternal life to those working in the midst of death. The preaching of Christ crucified strengthened the fragile faith of those who heard it.
That Word of Christ crucified works in our lives as well. In the most difficult times only this Gospel of salvation can heal hurting hearts and soothe suffering souls. Only that Word brings the peace that passes all understanding. Only that Word brings the light of hope on the darkest days of despair. Only that Word steels backbones bent under the pressure of political correctness or the impossible goal of avoiding all offense. Only that Word saves sinners. And so, we preach Christ-crucified, even though it isn’t, never has been, and never will be, a popular message. By faith, we acknowledge that what we believe is foolishness apart from faith. But we proclaim it anyway. Why? For all sorts of reasons.
We preach Christ crucified because we can—because the Lord has given us the privilege of declaring His praises. We preach Christ-crucified because, even though it’s foolishness to the unbeliever, it is the power and wisdom of God for salvation to all those who believe. We preach Christ-crucified because that is where and how God most shows His love for a world of sinners. On the cross, Jesus was cursed by God in our place; there He redeemed us from our slavery to sin; there He fulfilled all righteousness, suffering the just penalty for our crimes.
We preach Christ crucified, pointing to Holy Baptism because that is where Christ makes His cross ours. By faith, we gladly declare, “That isn’t water only; Christ crucified and risen is present there to wash away our sins. We proclaim that Gospel in the Absolution and sermons, because that is how the Holy Spirit works faith. We point to the Supper and gladly declare that it is more than just a symbol or a demonstration of how we treat one another; rather, there in the bread and the wine the crucified/risen Savior is present with the forgiveness of sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ has died on the cross for your sins and Christ is risen again, that you, too, might have life, eternal life. That is what we proclaim, because that is the power of salvation for all those who believe. The devil, the world and your own sinful flesh will work overtime to convince you that it’s nothing but irrelevant foolishness and weakness, but by the grace of God you know better: it is only because Christ was crucified that you are forgiven for all of your sins. 

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

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...