February 7, 2016|Quinquagesima Sunday|St. Luke 18:31-34
Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken.
When I was a boy I would sometimes forget to do what my mother told me to do. When I appealed to my forgetfulness as an excuse, Mom would counter with the observation: “You forget because you want to forget.” I was, of course, offended by the accusation. But in retrospect, I have to admit she was right. Our will and our memory are closely related.
So are our will and our understanding. We don’t understand what we don’t want to understand. Christ’s disciples were a bright group of men. Nothing in what Jesus said was beyond their intellectual understanding. Going up to Jerusalem was easy to understand. That the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament should be fulfilled was likewise easy to understand. That Jesus would be handed over to the Gentiles and would be mocked, insulted, spit upon, whipped, and killed was so offensive to them that, while their minds could grasp the concept, they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. That the only perfectly good man any of them had ever known would be treated in such a disgraceful way was simply unthinkable.
But we must think about it. Our topic for today is faith. Faith entails three things: knowledge, assent, and trust. The disciples had knowledge. Jesus laid the truth before them. But they couldn’t assent to it. They couldn’t agree with it. And so they couldn’t trust in it.
But true faith, the faith through which we are forgiven of our sins and saved from death and hell, must not only know that Jesus suffered and died for us, it must also agree with it. Faith trusts in that suffering and death. Those who won’t ponder the passion of Christ are faithless. They are not Christians.
Jesus, I will ponder now
On thy holy passion
With thy Spirit endow
For such meditation
Grant that I in love and faith
May the image cherish
Of thy suffering, pain, and death
That I may not perish.
Lent begins in three days. It is right that we should observe this holy season. It is right that we should ponder the suffering and death of Jesus. On the basis of our text for this morning, let me offer you three reasons why we should ponder Christ’s passion:
First, because Christ’s suffering was planned by God himself;
Second, because without Christ’s suffering we could not have forgiveness of our sins and eternal life;
Third, because faith in Christ’s suffering bears the fruit of genuine love.
We should ponder the suffering and death of Jesus because it was planned by God himself. God wants us to think about it, otherwise he would not have taught us about it from the beginning of time. Right after our first parents’ sinned, God promised a Savior who would suffer and die for them. God cursed Satan after he led Adam and Eve into sin. God told him that the seed of the woman would crush his head. A woman, of course, has no seed, but the Virgin Mary gave birth to a baby without ever knowing a man. Her baby, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, was born to fulfill the promise God had given to his people repeatedly for thousands of years.
Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.
When it comes to pondering Christ’s suffering, we must not interpret it sentimentally as some sort of human tragedy. It was not a human tragedy. It was divinely ordained and divinely executed. St. John refers to Jesus in Revelation as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” God planned it. God wanted it. It was God’s idea. In writing about the Servant of the LORD who went to his suffering silently as a lamb to the slaughter, Isaiah said, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him.” God planned and promised that Jesus would be delivered to the Gentiles, mocked, insulted, spit upon, whipped, and killed, and on the third day rise from the dead.
The offering of Isaac on Mt. Moriah foretold it. Isaac wasn’t sacrificed. Jesus was. The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament typified it. A thousand years before his crucifixion, the psalmist spoke Christ’s words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We should ponder the suffering and death of Jesus because God planned it.
Secondly, we should ponder the suffering and death of Jesus because without it we would not have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It was necessary that Jesus die. It was not necessary for him. He had no need to die for his own sake. It was necessary for us. Apart from the sacrifice that he offered up to God on Calvary, the sin of the world would have remained on the world. When the righteous One bore the sin of the sinners and made it his own, he gave to the sinners his righteousness so that it would be their own. Jesus took our place. He took the blame for our sins and gave us the credit for his righteousness. This is where our forgiveness comes from. This is how we are justified by God.
There is no other way we could be forgiven. There is no other way we could become righteous. Sinners cannot make themselves righteous. It is impossible. Sinners sin. That’s what they do. That means that their good deeds are also sin. So while they may think they are offering good deeds to God, they are actually offering their sins to God. They act as if their sin is righteousness that God should reward. They insult God.
Works-righteousness is the false teaching that we can become righteous by doing good deeds. God demands genuine righteousness. God is love. He demands love from his creatures. Jesus is the only human being who has loved purely. He thought, said, and did those righteous things that make one righteous before God. He is the holy God. He is the holy man. The holy God is the holy man. Only his suffering can take away sin. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ to God on the cross is the only way sin could be forgiven. Apart from the suffering and death of Jesus, nobody is forgiven by God and the whole human race is lost forever. We should ponder the suffering and death of Jesus because it is the only way we can receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Third, we should ponder Christ’s passion because faith in Christ’s suffering bears the fruit of genuine love.
Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. Faith knows who Jesus is and what he has done for us. It knows that he was handed over to evil people to be mocked, treated with contempt, and crucified. It knows that he rose from the dead. Faith knows this and assents to it. Faith agrees with it. It agrees with Jesus taking our sin and suffering for it. It trusts in this forgiveness. To trust in Jesus is to trust in the forgiveness of sins he alone can give. Faith doesn’t make forgiveness real. Jesus does. What so offended the disciples when Jesus told them about it – that he would be shamed, ridiculed, whipped, and killed – is what we trust in. All that Jesus suffered, he suffered for our benefit.
When you ponder the passion of Jesus you are pondering God’s love. It is love that put him on the cross. His love does what is required of it. The great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created a character by the name of Brand in a play by the same name. Brand was a crusty old preacher with no illusions, whose wife chided him for his lack of love. Here is what he said in response:
Of what the paltering world calls love,
I will not know, I cannot speak;
I know but His who reigns above,
And His is neither mild nor weak;
Hard even unto death is this,
And smiting with its awful kiss.
What was the answer of God’s love
Of old, when in the olive-grove
In anguish-sweat His own Son lay
And prayed, O, Take this cup away?
Did God take from him then the cup?
No, child; His Son must drink it up!
Divine love is hard. It is purposeful. It doesn’t shrink from doing what must be done. Jesus drinks to the bitter dregs the cup of divine wrath against all sinners. Love decreed it. Jesus did it. Faith trusts in it. And this is what makes faith the source of love in our lives. Love flows from faith and is impossible without it.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
It’s not just that we look at Christ’s passion and imitate the love he there displayed for us. It goes deeper than that. Faith receives mercy. The blind beggar cried out for mercy. Jesus showed him mercy. Receiving mercy and giving mercy go together. You give what you have. You cannot give what you don’t have. Faith and love must be distinguished, but never separated. We must distinguish between our faith and our love. Faith is directed to Jesus where he suffered and died for us. He rose from the dead. His resurrection brings eternal life to us. Faith trusts in what Jesus has done for us.
Love is what God works in us, through faith. It comes from faith, but whereas faith trusts in what is perfect – Christ’s suffering for us – love is never perfect in this life. It is stained by the sin that clings to us. We don’t love as we ought. This is why we don’t trust in the love within us. We don’t ponder the passion of Christ to see how perfectly our love conforms to Christ’s love. We ponder the passion of Christ to see how his love destroys our sin and reconciles us with God. At peace with God we can live at peace with our neighbor. Forgiven, we can forgive. Loved, we can love. The source and strength of our love is the love of God that sent his dear Son to be mocked, insulted, spit upon, whipped, and killed. There love triumphed over hatred. Christ’s resurrection proves it. Faith knows this, assents to it, and trusts in it.
Rolf D. Preus