Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson which was previously read, the parable of the “Prodigal Son.”
When the celebration for the return of the Prodigal Son happens, rather than joy from the Elder Brother, we hear of anger and a demand to remain outside. Jesus describes this in the parable saying, “But he was angry and refused to go in.” He was enraged and did not desire to enter. Can you blame him? After all, this brother had come and asked for the inheritance. This meant that it was the equivalent to telling the father that he was as good as dead to him. Right? Isn’t that when one gets an inheritance? They don’t inherit it during the lifetime of the father, no it’s when death comes. But this younger son in his greed and impetuousness wanted it now. And this was complex, apparently. By that I mean this wouldn’t have been as simple as just opening up the checkbook and giving the son a note to deposit in his bank account. Nor would it be as simple as opening up the treasury and taking out the coins. No, as I read about this, apparently the division would have had to be accomplished by selling the land and all that was on it, according to the father’s instruction.
Now, traditionally, the eldest son would receive double the next oldest, and so on and so forth. There would also have been a dowry taken out for the daughters to be married. In this case there are no daughters mentioned, and no explicit discussion. But there property was divided. And with the impetuousness of the son, this seems like it could have been a fire sale. He wanted to get out of there. All the more—again from what I read—the buyers likely wouldn’t have been plentiful. The people around would have been appalled at the insult this child perpetuating against his father, and many potential buyers would have demurred from adding insult to the father in that way. Low demand, likely a low selling price, right?
Then there’s one more thing that makes this hard for the brother—coming back to the day of the story, to his anger and refusal to enter—now that the younger son is back—and he’s back in the family if you can’t tell; he’s got the family robe, the family seal, the shoes, the status, he’s back—and now that he’s back, he’s back on the inheritance list, again! Right, the inheritance of the father isn’t going to just skip over him, no this father is so wasteful in his generosity that there’s no stipulation. The son is back. And think about it. The land is at best a third less than before, unless the father’s that crazy that he gave half of it for the son to sell. So it produces at least a third less every year. Then when the father actually is deceased, that division is going to happen again. And who gets the short end of the stick in all this? The Elder Son. It’s coming out of his part now. The insult to the family the first time was bad enough, but at least the Elder Son had what he had. Now that’s getting eaten into. So, it’s understandable that the Elder Son is mad. I think we can all relate when it comes down to brass tacks, can’t we? We can understand why this son isn’t exactly excited to go dance and feast at the return of this brother of his—or as he puts it his father’s son, can’t we?
But we get the clear point from Jesus that this anger is problematic, don’t we? In fact, what we see is that his description of the Elder Son makes this point even clearer. When the father, who is so obviously gracious, comes out and tries to bring the Elder Son into the joy of the feast, what does this son say? “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Now, I think that captures the intent well enough, but I’d like to paint the picture a little further. This word for service is that which is used for slavery. “Look how many years I slaved away for you, Dad! Look how many years I toiled like a servant for you.” And there’s more. The word for having not disobeyed your command there is to say literally, “I never let a command of yours pass by.” Or “I never let a command of yours be slighted by me.” It’s like he’s had his checklist. “Look at the son I am. Dad said to do x,y, and z. And I did x,y, and z. Check. Check. And Check.” This was his job. He was there to make sure he saw through to just how much he would be obedient. And what was the problem with that? He missed the love of the father through it. “Dad, I did all of this, all this time, and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” But he missed it, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. Son, this isn’t about what’s mine and what isn’t for you. Son, I love you and all this is mine is for you too. Son, I want you to love me as a son, not serve me as a slave.” But the son missed it. You see he’s enslaved to his legalism.
You know, we often focus on this passage about how we are those younger sons, about how we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And that’s absolutely right of us. We should. We should see the immense mercy that God has for us in our sin. But those of you that read “The Prodigal God” with us a couple of summers ago, might remember from that that I’m taking a page out of that book here—or more than a few pages, almost literally, out of that book. It’s good for us to look at this Elder Son too and make sure we’re not that. I say this because it’s so easy to be both sons in different ways.
For example this week I read the story of a man named Eugene Debs. Now Mr. Debs was a man who was known for his work as a political activist, a trade unionist, and who was a candidate for president in five elections. Interestingly, he was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and died just over in Elmhurst. But none of this is pertinent to the story. From what I read about Mr. Debs, he saw himself as a very dedicated follower of the example of Christ, and the causes he supported were in large part in view of that example. He wanted equity for peoples because he saw Christianity as demanding this. In fact, what I read said that he hated organized religion because the people were too hypocritical in their own following of Jesus. He was quoted to go so far as to say, “I never darken a church door,” because of the hypocrisy of those inside.
This is the spirit of the Elder Brother, and I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I’m sure you’ve met someone who wouldn’t go to church because the people, or maybe even the pastor was too much of a hypocrite. I remember a friend from college who stepped away from the faith because he didn’t like the thought that it was possible that if Hitler repented between the moment he shot himself and his soul exited his body, then he would be with Christ. It really, really saddened me. Yet this is legalism. This is checking off the list in order to show my own righteousness, how I’ve done x,y, and z, and look at how they’re not, over there.
Of course, if it’s not obvious we live with the spirit of the Elder Son all around us right now. We live in an Elder Brother culture. Watch the news. Watch Social Media. Watch how everyone is lynched if they don’t stand firmly to the company line. And this goes all ways. It’s right, it’s left, it doesn’t matter. And why? Because then I can justify myself and feel good about the person I am. I can feel good about how right I am. If you wear a mask, then you’re a good person. If you don’t wear a mask, then you show your enlightenment. If you say black lives matter, you show you really love people. If you say all lives matter, you show you really love people. We’re all righteous in our own sight today, aren’t we?
As I say that you might not think that’s the case because society is turning so much from God. And it is, it’s turning away from God’s commands. And in that way that we’re turning away God’s Law, we’re becoming what’s called Antinomian. But I had a professor in seminary who always said that if you scratch the surface of an Antinomian, someone who opposes law in general, or God’s Law in particular, then you’ll see a legalist. And look at the law that’s out there. Look at how someone like J.K. Rowling-the author of the Harry Potter books, not someone who is a staunch social conservative by any means—look at how she can express concern for how transgenderism will affect women, and she’s slaughtered by people who owe their careers to her, because she’s not sensitive enough to the plight of those who see their sex and gender as different. There’s a law there and if you don’t follow it, you’ll pay. It’s a grand spirit of legalism.
But Christians, this legalism isn’t what is needed. The spirit of the Elder Brother of this story isn’t what is needed. No, a different spirit is needed. What’s need is the spirit of the father in this story. The spirit of the one who is wasteful in generosity. What’s needed is the different older brother. Again taking a page from Keller’s book “The Prodigal God,” what’s needed is the generous older brother who willingly sacrifices for the younger. I mentioned how this inheritance would be taken from the Elder Son, taken from his portion for the younger. Well, Jesus is our Older Brother. He is that One who willingly sacrifices Himself for us. He was the One who was willing to bear the cost of our plundering our Father’s house and wasting His gifts on wild living and reckless spending. He was the One who was willing to bear that cost on the cross in His mercy and in His generosity of spirit.
And look at the joy this brings, by His resurrection. Look at the celebration that’s happening because the Father is so ecstatic about the Younger Son’s return. Jesus is the perfect Elder Son who carries that same generosity for us. That’s the One who enters into the feast with us when we repent of our sin. And He’s more joyful about it than we are! He’s the One who has all of the righteousness in Himself, yet rejoices to give it to us, to share it with us where we fall short!
In fact, it’s in this spirit that I love what is said to the Elder Son by the father in this story. He says, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Now you might be thinking that I’m going to comment about the beauty of the dead being made alive and the lost being found, and that is beautiful. That is beautiful to us when we see our own resurrection from the dead, our own rescue from the lost estate in sin. But now, what I love, and what’s the point of this whole chapter is the first part: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad.” The word there, again, paints a clear picture. It was fitting, but the connotation could even be that it was necessary. It wasn’t just fitting to celebrate this repentance from the son and be glad. No, it wasn’t just fitting, it was necessary. It had to happen.
Christian, that’s the beauty of this story, our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rejoice in our repentance. They rejoice, they celebrate. It’s necessary for them to do so. Why? Because they can’t help their joy that we are in the family. And as we hear this familiar story again, it’s good for us to be reminded that this is the case for the prodigals and the ones it’s easy to mad at because of their sin. But it’s also beautiful that the father comes out and pursues the Elder Son too. We see there, that He’s not just trying to pull in the bottom of the barrel sinners to the feast. He wants everyone there. He wants you there when you’re the Younger Son and He wants you there when you’re the Elder Son. And as we consider ourselves in that Elder Son role today, thanks be to God that despite the fact the Elder Son was enslaved in his legalism, our perfect Elder Brother made the sacrifice for us that we can rejoice in the kingdom as is fitting. As is necessary. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson, previously read.
I was looking through some files on my computer this week when I came across a file of a handout from when I was an RA in college. You see, as an RA in the dorms, we had to undergo certain additional training, and one session I attended was on the topic of sexuality and religion. This was a session facilitated by the campus ministry, which made the issue that much more frustrating. To begin the discussion, the leaders—again from the campus ministry—distributed this handout. It’s title: “True or False? The Bible Says… Quiz.” Sound innocuous, right? Isn’t it good for us to have some trivia about what the Bible says as we’re going to talk about religion and sexuality? If that were all, that would be one thing. Even if the intent were to lay out the really hard things the Bible says about sexuality and sexual ethic it would be challenging. That is, after all, Law, and the Law brings guilt to each and every one of us. For example, when Jesus speaks of not even lusting after someone or they’ve committed adultery, it’s clear that far more than a super majority of humans stand condemned. But no. That wasn’t the tack. The tack, even more deviously was to utterly undermine any authority the Scriptures would have to speak on any topic, period. This was done by questions like, “The Bible contains only one story of creation, and it is the book of Genesis.” Which they said was false, because they counted Genesis one and two as two separate accounts of creation. Then there were questions that actually weren’t about what the Bible said at all, “The anti-Semitism documented throughout history and most tragically demonstrated during the Holocaust of Nazi Germany has been justified using select passages of the New Testament.”
I’m sure you can see the connection, right? If the New Testament can be undermined then we don’t have to take into consideration its teaching. It doesn’t matter that Hitler wasn’t a Christian, that He was actually Anti-Christian and persecuted faithful Christians who spoke out against the Third Reich. No, it’s better to show how people that that very Bible calls sinful and broken misuse its words to justify terrible and sinful things than to acknowledge what it teaches. And as I say that, let that be a warning to us to be careful in our reading of the Scriptures. It can be easy for us to think we are justifying something good when we aren’t by its words. On the flipside it can be easy for us to despair of being able to find the true meaning as we look at how it is misinterpreted. But as I say that, at a point we trust that the Holy Spirit humbles us before even the hard sayings, and that He leads us as we study passages, interpreting one by another and examining the context in which these things were written to understand them. It’s also part of the reason God gave the Pastoral Ministry. That’s not to say you can’t read the Bible on your own, you better be reading it on your own—we are Lutherans after all! No, but it’s to say that God has placed it especially upon me—by His Grace—to study and know what these things mean. But I digress. Coming back to the undermining of this authority, we then say, why would this happen? Why would they seek to undermine the Scriptures?
Well, in part because the world is always going to be opposed to this Word. As Jesus describes how the world hated Him and so it will hate us, we should never be surprised. It shouldn’t surprise us that the “tolerant” environment that we live in would be intolerant of the teaching of the Scriptures which challenge so many views in the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Word that teaches that our salvation is not by our own goodness, but by the mercy and goodness of the God who is so loving He sent His Son into the flesh of man, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God to become man that our sin could be crucified in His death, that this Word would not be tolerated. It shouldn’t surprise us that the sinful world does not tolerate the revelation of the God who calls them sinful, who calls them to repent, who calls them to His mercy. It shouldn’t surprise us at all because we should see in our own hearts that very rebellion that is tempered by the mercy of that God through the grace of His Holy Spirit.
All the more, that shouldn’t surprise us because as we read this passage, that’s exactly what we see. We see how this world goes about making excuses constantly. Look at what happens. There’s this man who’s having a feast. He sends out the invitations, he prepares the meal. Then he sends out the servant to let everyone know the feast is ready. And what happens? Jesus says, “they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’” They all began to make excuses. Literally in the Greek it says, “And they began from one all to make excuses.”
Now some of those excuses seem pretty good. In fact, they’re even mentioned in the Old Testament as valid reasons not to enter military service. You don’t have to serve if you are just married. You don’t have to serve if you bought land and haven’t overseen the harvest of its fruit. But what’s the point? We make these excuses, don’t we? And you can hear the connection from my training, can’t you? The Bible has been used to justify evil things, I won’t believe. The Bible doesn’t explain the world how I’d like to understand it, I won’t believe. Jesus says that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that no one comes to the Father but through Him. I won’t believe that.
And what is your excuse? The Law isn’t for us to apply to those people out there, it’s for us to apply to our own hearts, so what’s the excuse you make for not hearing the Word? For not learning it? What’s your excuse for not “coming to the feast?” Or what is your excuse for doubting so that you are in essence hemming and hawing about the invitation? Do you question God because of the evil you see in the world? Because of Coronaviruses and suffering and illness? Or because of Hitlers and Stalins and Zedongs?
As I ask that, we have to make sure this whole conversation is ultimately one that resounds in sympathy, don’t we? I’m sure it’s not sounding like it as I have been speaking to an extent, but we have to be sympathetic. When we look at the suffering we see, when we look at the evil we see, in human terms we can understand why God’s goodness is questioned. We can understand with how hard things are in the Bible to understand why God’s goodness is questioned. To be sure, God is God and He doesn’t owe us justification of His actions, He doesn’t owe us justification of how He works, but in the doubt and brokenness of sin we can understand how people wrestle with these things. But what I realized with this passage is just how sad this should make us.
Now as I say that you might wonder why this passage of all passages would sadden us so. After all, look at last week when we spoke about mercy and about the suffering we saw with the rich man. Why with that, bring this sadness up now? Because of the way this passage makes it clear that the host of the feast—which if it isn’t obvious represents our Father in heaven—it makes it clear this host wants the people to come!
Look at it. To start, look at the call of the servant: “at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.” Those of you who have been able to watch the devotions I’ve been posting may recall that I mentioned there that the Greek could be translated to say, “Come, already prepared it is!” Now that’s a subtle difference, but hopefully you can hear my point. Sure the point is it’s ready, it’s ready for them come eat, but you see the encouragement of those words, “it’s already prepared.” You can hopefully hear it, “Come on in! The host wants you to come, it’s already ready for you! It’s prepared for you now to come enjoy! Please come enjoy!”
Then, there’s more. When the people don’t come, what’s the next step? Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame. God wants us at His banquet. He knows just how poor, crippled, blind, and lame we are in our sin. He wants to help us in that state. He wants you to understand that your sin is taken away from you in Christ. It’s washed in your baptism and placed in His tomb, crucified in His death. And so He wants you there. He wants the people to come.
And it continues when that invitation is extended: Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in. Compel people to come! The host, our Heavenly Father, wants people in so much He’s telling this servant to compel people. This is interesting because this word here is the same root as the word that spoke of the necessity to go out and see the field that was just bought. It’s the same necessity. You must be there, come! He wants you to see that necessity! Why? Because in His goodness He wants to share His feast with you!
Then finally, He says, “that my house may be filled.” That my feast may be full. He wants the people there so much, He wants it filled up. This is good for us to hear when we’re speaking about why people don’t come. It’s good because it makes us realize that the rejection isn’t on the part of God, it’s on the part of people. Sure some of the excuses might seem valid, but ultimately the call is the same for all—“pick up your cross and die to your sin because it’s bad for you, and come to the feast because it’s good for you. I want you there because I love you.” And on an individual level, then we can hear the ways that we have fallen short of His commands and realize that He wants those forgiven. That’s why He sent Christ. If we reject that promise of His love and goodness, it’s not His fault, it’s ours.
In other words, as we look at a world which will make handouts undermining the authority of the Bible, as we look at the excuses that people make for denying the faith, as we look at our own doubt and sin, we see something. We see that we all make excuses and we see this is sad. It’s sad, because God wants us at His banquet. In His love, He wants us there. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Christians, cast off that sin, your excuses, because God in His goodness is calling you to His feast. Hear that call and know that feast will be better than anything else you could think of. It will be good, because He is good. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our merciful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.
As we hear this story of Lazarus and the rich man, we see this great contrast between the two men. There is the rich man, clothed in the finest of raiment, enjoying the most sumptuous of fare. But right outside his door is Lazarus. Lazarus the suffering, cursed man without crumbs to eat, and who has the dogs licking his wounds. Then when death comes for both, Lazarus receives the comfort he did not have, and the rich man is denied the comfort he refused to give. As it says, “he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ ’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” And what could we say is the point of this? I had notes in the margin of my bible that I think said it well: “The mercy he refused to give, he is refused, and the begging he should have done he is now doing.” In other words, there is a call to us to have mercy.
As I say that, I think mercy is something severely lacking in our time and place. In fact, I have been reflecting a lot on this not only this past week for the past few, especially with all of the conversations that have been occurring with regard to race relations. As I say that, this is such a pertinent topic for our time, it requires conversation and application of the Word of God to it. Before I begin, I want to point out that this topic is utterly politicized in our current context. I have no intention of speaking politically. If you feel that I end up doing so, I ask for your forgiveness. My intent is to speak theologically. Sadly, sometimes theological conversation is interpreted for a political position. On the flip side, rightly, theology does need to influence our politics. And as I say this, there is blame and accusation to go around on all sides. In fact, I will likely say something that either strikes your heart or that you may even not agree with as I address this. That’s good. The Law of God should always point out our sin and that will always make us uncomfortable.
To start, it’s imperative that Christians understand the context for our conversations right now. I don’t mean the racial context per se, I’m going to address that a bit more in a minute, but the cultural context. A great deal of the conversation right now is framed according to something called Critical Theory. I read a fascinating article this week by a gentleman name Neil Shenvi. I had never heard of him before I was pointed to this article, but its insight was fascinating. He made the point that as we look at what’s happening in our culture and even in the church we see how more and more people are adopting this underlying understanding of Critical Theory. He also noted that he’s witnessed Christian after Christian who has adopted this ultimately moving away from the orthodox teachings of the faith relatively quickly. His intent was to understand why. So he examined it.
His note was to say that if you look at the foundational worldview, that is the foundational understanding of the world, for Christians, the Scriptures tell us we are created by God. They, then tell us that we have fallen into sin. However, they finally tell us that in God’s love He has redeemed us, forgiven that sin by the life, death, and resurrection in Jesus, and now we have atonement, salvation, and eternal life in Him. Critical Theory, however, begins with a worldview of oppression. From there, it says that there must be activism, thence will come liberation. So you have creation, fall, and redemption contrasted with oppression, activism, and liberation.
Now to be sure, the concern for oppression is one that all Christians must have. Again, we’ll talk more about that in a second. But as we look at this Critical Theory, what it does is to divide everything into organized groups of those who are oppressed and those who oppress. In fact, this can even apply to an individual. They might be a person who is female, but what’s called cisgendered. That means they are a woman by sex and see themselves as such. This puts them in the realm of having been oppressed by men, but oppressing those who don’t see their gender according to their biological sex. This view of thought stems back to Karl Marx who divided the world into the oppressive economic class of the bourgeoisie and the oppressed economic class of workers, called the proletariat. This division was later applied to cultural categories as other thinkers saw what they called “Cultural Hegemony”—a rule where cultural oppressors set the rules of what was right, or “common sense” for a culture. In other words, the oppressors set the tone for the conversation, so the job of activism is to throw that out so that liberation can happen for the oppressed.
Now, Shenvi in his article, said it’s actually not helpful to throw that name of Marxism around for this, but I think it’s important to know because Marxism actually inherently says that there will be this constant push and pull between oppressors and oppressed until the end of time. In other words, within its own understanding there will never be peace. I think people need to know that. To Shenvi’s point, it’s not helpful to throw that up on a Facebook post, but it needs to be understood if not named explicitly. That said, to the point of this sermon, this division between peoples also leads directly away from mercy.
I watched a great presentation by a gentleman name Voddie Baucham on this this week. It was called “Ethnic Gnosticism.” It’s about an hour long and if you have the time I suggest you watch it, because Dr. Baucham very articulately explains the challenges of our context. And he makes this point: there is not forgiveness. There is not mercy. And yet that’s exactly what we need.
Now as I’ve made this point and am criticizing this Critical Theory for not fostering mercy, the opposite reaction has not been merciful either, and that must be noted. The other side has not responded mercifully in so many ways as well. I think we could say that there has been an utter lack of mercy all around. But again, that’s exactly what we need is mercy.
Now, as I say this, that’s a broader cultural conversation. It’s an application of this Law of mercy to our culture. Maybe it’s applying to you, and if it is, you need to hear it. Our Lord calls to you, be merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful. But directly, I think we also need to look at ourselves. We are the rich man in so many ways, aren’t we? Consider yourself. That’s something that I have said has been good for me. It has been good for me to reflect upon ways that I have not been as sympathetic as I could be to how our black brothers and sisters, or brothers and sisters of other cultures and colors have experienced life. We had our regional Zoom meeting with other pastors in the district, and one of them, a black man discussed how his sons described experiencing an increased likelihood for being pulled over for not having done something wrong. He was very gracious as he said this, he was very gentle about police as whole—a tone we need to hear more of. He was not vindictive toward them, but he just explained that this really is a problem. That has been good for me to hear that I would be more sympathetic to things I haven’t experienced.
In short, then we need to see how we have been unmerciful to those who are less fortunate that we are. We need to see how we have been unmerciful to those who have less than we do. We need to look at the needs of those around us and see how we could be more caring. We need to repent where we have been racist. And this applies to all, whoever is watching. As Dr. Baucham pointed out either in the presentation I mentioned or elsewhere that I saw, racism is not just an issue for white people. We all need to repent.
You see, we all need to repent because the issue is that we are all sinful. The issue is that in worldly terms, we are the rich man, but in spiritual terms we are Lazarus. Before God, we are poor. We are beggars. We are in dire need.
But Christians, as I mentioned that we are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful, He is indeed abundantly merciful. As we heard in the Epistle Lesson, we love because He first loved us. As unmerciful as we are, as undeserving of His mercy as we are, as broken, divided and sinful as we are and have made this world, He has still loved us. He has looked upon your sin, the deepest and most hidden hatred that you have for someone who disagrees with you, or who angers you, or who you might oppress or might experience oppression from, and He loves you. He has carried that sin, that lack of mercy to the cross, bringing it to its death.
You see as I mentioned this contrast between the rich man and Lazarus and the contrast between their opposite fates, this theme in Luke is often called The Great Reversal. You see it more in his Gospel than the others. But there it is. The reversal, the one who has now does not have eternally. The one who does not have now is given eternal comfort. This points to the greatest reversal of all. That’s the reversal that shows the mercy of God, the reversal of Jesus.
Jesus is that One who had more than the rich man ever had as He dwelt in the comfort and joy of heaven, as He dwelt in the purity and righteousness that was there. However, in the Greatest Reversal, He willingly sacrificed all of that and entered into the realm of sin. He bore that sin in His body. He gave up riches to have nowhere to lay His head. He, who is life itself, gave up life that we could know the mercy of forgiveness, life, and salvation in His resurrection.
And Christian, you must know that He has given that mercy to you as He has baptized you, as He has continually absolved you, as He has proclaimed that mercy in your ears, and as He has fed you with the very sacrifice which atoned for your sins in His body and blood. Be merciful as He has been merciful. Love because He has loved you.
It’s not often that I will bring such a stark command in this close to the end of a sermon, but we all need to hear that command right now. Love because He has loved you. Love without regard for race, for culture, for creed, for sex, gender, or any other classification. To be clear do this in the way that Scripture describes and not in the way that world understands it, that is love in view of the Ten Commandments. But love. Love because our God has loved you. He has loved you and been infinitely merciful to you. He has exchanged His life for yours. There is indeed no greater love. There is indeed no greater mercy. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read especially its last verse and the verse following the reading which together read: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Nighttime. Darkness. This is the picture John paints with Nicodemus coming for what appears to be a sort of reconnaissance mission. He’s going and asking the questions. Seeking the information. Is he doing this for himself? Is he doing this for the council, the Sanhedrin? It’s unclear. But he starts, “Rabbi, WE know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Of course, the conversation takes a turn undoubtedly unexpected by Nicodemus from there. It takes a turn that shows just how lacking Nicodemus is in his understanding. It shows that the darkness surrounding Nicodemus isn’t just the literal nighttime around him. No, there is the darkness of a lack of understanding. There is a darkness of unbelief.
But we know what surrounds nighttime and darkness, don’t we? Those of you with children know all the more. There’s the fear when the light goes off. There’s the worry about what’s really there that we can’t see. There’s anxiety about what could come in the midst of darkness. And what’s the real issue? It’s unknown what is there.
In our current time there’s a lot of darkness. We have the darkness of the coronavirus which has been weighing on us for months. There’s the darkness of what this will mean for the economy. There’s the darkness of having been secluded from one another for this time of orders to stay at home. And in the last few weeks we’ve seen the darkness of the effects of racism rearing its head. That being compounded by the darkness of looting and rioting.
Something that struck me this week is how this is all nothing new. You see, we have a darkness that also surrounds us that we don’t recognize. That’s how dark it is. It’s so dark, it’s like Nicodemus where we often don’t recognize it. That darkness is that we actually think we’re exceptional in our day. We think that we have actually come to the point where we are so much smarter and further—I don’t know if this how many would say it, but it seems to be the perception—further evolved than those who have come before us. And to be fair, technologically we have a lot of advances and aids we didn’t have before. This sort of improvement can easily delude us into thinking we’re somehow truly more enlightened than those who have come before us. For sure this means we do have insight that was not present before. Certainly we also have capabilities that were unavailable to previous generations, especially medically. But the reality is we aren’t exceptional.
For example, as we look at something like the current situation occurring with racial tensions, the reactions of people in terms of violence is not new. And as I say this, I want to be clear that we understand racism is always a sin whether it’s white people being racist toward black people or toward Hispanic people, or any other group, as well as the reverse. This is always a sin. I also want to say that destruction of the property of another is sinful as well—and as I say that, I’m not talking about protesting in and of itself. As Americans we are guaranteed the freedom to assemble peacefully, just as we are to practice our faith. But as I say all of that, as we look at what’s going on, this sort of tension is not something new. We’re not exceptional.
Case in point, I was reminded this week of the Peasant’s Revolt at the time of Luther. If you aren’t familiar with that, what happened is that a lot of people interpreted Luther’s resistance to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church as a go ahead for their own resistance. Finally, groups of peasants determined to band together and rebel. When news of this came to Luther, he wrote a work condemning their rebellion. In fact, he condemned it in the harshest of terms. With that the rulers saw him giving them an OK to dismantle the rebellion without prejudice. The result was over 100,000 deaths. To be fair to Luther, he did say this ultimately was too harsh, but the damage was done. What’s my point?
My point is that we see this darkness not only now, but in similar fashion then. Certainly there are different causes and different concerns now. But we are not exceptional in seeing violence taken on both sides in both cases.
What’s my point in all of this though? My point is that this misguided exceptionalism that we have, this darkness that we are seeing in that, that we are seeing in so many circumstances, all points to this last verse of our reading and the verse just following it—the verses I read to start: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Now you might wonder how those words connect to the examples I was just pointing to. They connect especially in these words: God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world… but whoever does not believe in is condemned already. The connection is to say that when we look at this darkness, at our misguided exceptionalism and the darkness of the circumstances around us, it shows us the condemnation of the world. God didn’t send His Son into the world to condemn it. It was condemned already. It was condemned into this separation from God by sin. It was condemned to experiencing the consequences of sin. You wonder why we don’t have vaccines for every ailment? You wonder why new ailments, new viruses, coronaviruses, flus, super-bacteria, keep appearing? Because our sin bears with it the consequence that we experience death, and the death brings with it all of these manifestations. We’re not going to overcome it by our ingenuity. Sure we might someday create a computer program that captures the mannerisms and thought processes of someone, or we might someday find a way to revive Ted Williams’ cryonically frozen and preserved remains, returning animation to them, but we’re not going to permanently overcome death.
But Christians, as we look at this darkness, as we look at this condemnation, we do on the feast of Holy Trinity. And what we see on this day is that in a great mystery, our Triune God has seen fit to save us from a condemned world. Now, when we speak of this mystery, what we see is not only the mystery of our salvation, but the mystery of who our Triune God is. We see that there is the Father who created, who sent His Son. There is that Son, who redeems. There is the Spirit who is sent by Father and Son to sanctify.
In fact, as we look at this reading we see all three of those persons of the Trinity. Look at that verse we all know so well: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” There is the Father. The Father who loves this world so much, He sends His Son to it. This is the world that rightly stands condemned under sin, that world whose darkness shows itself as I’ve been talking about. Or as Psalm 51 puts it: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” This darkness and sin is just cause for condemnation and judgment. But what does the Father see? He sees His love for this broken world.
If you know the story of Hosea in the Old Testament, you see this. Hosea’s wife constantly leaves and commits adultery. And time and time again, Hosea retrieves her. He brings her back into his household out of love for her, and forgives her. That’s the Father’s love for us. And that’s what the Son shows by coming into this world. He shows it by bearing that sin on the cross. You see Him bearing the death that causes illness and coronaviruses. You see Him bearing the hate that underlies racism. You see Him bearing the hurt that motivates outrage and abuse of property. All of that He carries in His body. And think of the mystery that body is. There is the human body, bearing the fullness of the divinity within it. How so? We don’t know, but it’s there in Him. This mystery of our faith. The mystery of this holy God bearing our sin, being our Savior, and in that even overcoming death itself.
Then there’s the Spirit. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And that’s what this Spirit does. He gives you new birth in Christ. He rescues you from the darkness of the sinfulness of this world, and He recreates you in that image of your Lord. He brings that light of Christ’s life to you. He does this as He baptizes you, and makes you His own in that birth of water and the Spirit. Spirit giving birth to spirit.
And these three persons are all One God. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Father. The Father and the Spirit did not bear your sin on the cross, the Son did. But all three participate in the work of your salvation. And all three are one Being, One God. How does that work? We don’t know.
But what we do know is that by the work of the Spirit, we know the Son. And by the work of the Son, we know the Father. And what we see is what I said before. In a great mystery, our Triune God has seen fit to save us from a condemned world. It is mysterious, this great love for us. It’s a blessing, but a mystery. We are so broken, and we are so lost. Yet He still loves us. He still rescues us. And most of all, as we see this darkness I’m speaking of, His light shines through it. We might have our thoughts of our exceptionalism, we might have our wrestlings with trusting Him with everything going on. But He is the One who has all things in His hand. He is the One who brings light in this darkness. And He brings that light to each and every one of you by His grace. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holy, Holy, Holy. Amen.