There’s a lot of law in today’s readings. You look at Leviticus and it’s like the second table of the 10 commandments written in an expanded form – with law about sexuality, stealing, courtroom justice, and more. It sums it all up, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And amidst the pleasantries of Paul’s greeting in Colossians 1, there’s some fine law, too, including the encouragement to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”.
And then you come to today’s Gospel reading, in which we have the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. We will get to that in a minute. But first notice that Jesus tells this parable in the context of a conversation with a young lawyer about – the law. The man asks that universal question of the human soul, “What must I do to be saved?” and Jesus refers him to the law – something he is, as a lawyer, well familiar with. He sums up the law perfectly, too – in much the same way Jesus once summed it up – Love God, and love your neighbor. Jesus even commends him for answering correctly.
But then the hitch: “Do this and you will live!” And here’s where the man should have stumbled. Here’s where he, and all of us, could fall down under the crushing weight of the law’s demands. Where we can and should admit, “I haven’t done this. I can’t do this. And for the most part, I don’t even WANT to love God and my neighbor as myself. I mostly want to love myself. Me first. You second, and only if I have time and if it makes me feel good. But I know that’s not right, and I know I should do better. If I have to do this law to live? Where does that leave me? Where can I go for help, consolation, mercy? Or am I simply doomed to die?”
But not this guy. Instead he does what sinners so often do: he seeks another way out. A loophole. An addendum or exception by which he doesn’t really have to do what the law demands. He seeks to define away, “who is my neighbor”. He presses Jesus on the question. And so Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now, many preachers and theologians have treated this parable from a rather law-oriented perspective. They see this Good Samaritan character as an example for us to follow, a standard of treating our neighbor in kindly ways when even the supposedly “good” people of the world do not. Loving the unlovable, those people who we don’t really identify with – as Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water. And so the sermons and bible studies that run this way end up heaping on more law, digging you further into the grave, because which of us can say we’ve been a good Samaritan? Which of us can say we’ve loved our neighbor even close to this?
But there is another perspective from which to see this parable. And that is to consider Christ. Where is Christ, you say? Well look a little closer at this figure of the Good Samaritan.
Here’s someone who comes from the outside. Here’s someone who brings healing, binds up wounds, shows compassion. He takes the poor man to the inn and provides for his ongoing care. And he promises to come back. Do you see Jesus?
And then think again about the man left half-dead in the ditch. Maybe you can identify with him. For we are beset by enemies far worse than robbers. We are under the assaults of the devil, the sinful world, and even our own sinful flesh. We are far worse off than half-dead. The ditch in which we lie is far deeper.
And yet our Good Samaritan comes and pulls us up out of the muck and mire, heals our every wound with the balm of his grace and mercy, and brings us to the church, where his appointed servants care for us. And Jesus doesn’t pour oil on us, but he does wash us in Holy Baptism. And he gives us wine and bread that are his true body and blood.
In fact our Good Samaritan goes even further, for he takes our place. He becomes subject to beating and theft and indignation in our place. He goes to the cross, obediently, in our place. He becomes the one who is beaten and bloodied and left for dead, in a borrowed tomb.
All this to show his mercy to sinners. All this to win for us healing and wholeness. Thanks be to God!
And seeing Christ and his work for us first – and coming to the parable in a Gospel framework – now the example of the Good Samaritan can stand for us – not as a terrifying indictment of our failures, but as an encouragement to do likewise for so Christ has loved us.
So who, then, is your neighbor, Christian? We now ask the question again, but not from the stance of, “How can I wiggle out of this?” but in faith, “how can I serve, who can I best serve, who would God have me love and serve?” And the answer might surprise you.
Some Christians might answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” by simply saying, “everyone!” And while there’s a good intention there – and I think it’s well-meaning, it isn’t quite right. In fact it makes the word “neighbor” mean nothing. Rather, your neighbor is simply whoever is near you. That’s the only qualification.
While in a very tenuous sense the starving beggar thousands of miles away who you don’t know or know of is your neighbor – for he’s a fellow human on the same planet – he’s not nearly your neighbor like the needy friend down the street, or coworker in the next cubicle, or your fellow church member, or even family member.
We might want to qualify who “deserves” to be our neighbor, but that’s not how it goes. Don’t love people because they deserve it anymore than we deserve Christ’s love. But we do it simply because we are given to do it. The Samaritan in the parable didn’t plan on helping the man who was robbed – but God placed him there and so he did what he could. What neighbor has God placed before you?
And then think also of the question, “who is my neighbor?” through the lens of vocation. This can help us discern not only who is my neighbor, but how I might serve him. Am I a father, husband, brother or friend? A mother, daughter, co-worker, or citizen? A pastor or hearer, an office or magistrate, a solider or nanny? Each vocation has its appointed neighbors to serve, and its way of serving.
I saw a bit of humorous wisdom this week: a sign said, “Forget world peace; visualize using your turn signal!”
And maybe the point is made well: Christian love and mercy for the neighbor begins with the simple, the everyday, the lowly forms of love and service. It means caring first of all for your family, raising children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. It means supporting the grieving, encouraging the fearful, even just listening with a friendly ear. It might mean a denarius out of your own pocket here and there, or a little of your own oil or wine. But whatever the means of service, and whoever the neighbor, you’ll never do it better than the author of the parable who is the ultimate Good Samaritan from above.
Which really brings us back to Paul’s prayer for the Colossians, and a good prayer for you and me, that we would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Are you a country boy or a city slicker? Do you like life in the great big open sky, or does the hustle and bustle of people and traffic really ring your bell? Are you more like “welcome to the jungle” or “take me home, country roads?”
Today our readings set before us a number of different cities – Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre and Sidon, Sodom, and Jerusalem. And in each of these cities, Holy Scripture instructs us in matters of faith. Let’s consider this morning, “life in the city” from a biblical perspective.
The first city mentioned in Scripture was founded by Cain. After he killed brother Abel and was cursed to wander, he eventually settled down and build the first human city – naming it after his firstborn Enoch. Once a farmer, and we saw how that ended – now the children of Cain are described for their achievements and inventions. But what they lack is the seed of promise – that inheritance now passes through Seth. And so for all of his notoriety, and for all of his descendant’s successes – they end up missing that one thing most needful.
The next city mentioned is Babel, with its tower. Another exercise in human pride that brought the judgment of God and now the scattering of peoples and confusing of languages. So far cities aren’t doing so well in Scripture.
There’s Jericho – a city of pagans that God’s people conquer by God’s action alone – knocking down the walls with trumpet blast. It is the first of many pagan cities to fall as the Israelites conquer the promised land.
There’s Nineveh “That Great City”. Capital of the infamously cruel Assyrian empire. The prophet Jonah is sent there to preach a short sermon, “yet 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed”. Only four words in the Hebrew! And yet, these wicked people declared a fast from the king to the peasant and even the livestock. And God relented of the disaster he had planned for them.
There’s Babylon – another imperial capital, where the Jews were taken in Exile. It boasted of many wonders, and was known for its famous Hanging Gardens. But it, too, becomes a symbol of wickedness and opposition to God’s people – “Babylon, the whore” as she is called in Revelation.
Athens, Corinth, Rome – so many cities in Scripture, we can’t mention or describe them all. But few are as infamous as the two Jesus mentions in Luke 10: The Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. Cities near Capernaum in the north, and those three together are sometimes called the “gospel triangle” for there Jesus focused much of his teaching and preaching. Indeed, he also did many miracles among them. You would think that such familiarity and the blessings of miraculous signs would mean they embraced Jesus with great faith! But you would be wrong. On the whole, they did not receive him. On the whole, they did not believe. So much so that Jesus takes this very unusual step of placing a curse on them.
He remarks that if he had done all the miracles that he did there, in say, the gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, that they would have repented long ago! And Capernaum! Don’t think you get off easy. You, too, will receive your share in the judgment, and be brought to Hades!
History knows little of Chorzin and Bethsaida, beyond this, that they rejected the Christ. Actually, they’ve done some archaeology in Chorazin, and unearthed a synagogue with some strange carvings there – it seems a representation of Medusa was carved into the synagogue wall. Thus, at least at one point, it seemed they mixed their Judaism with Greek mythology. Perhaps this is a hint of the spiritual problems from which they suffered – seeking to be like the world, rather than receiving the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ?
In a similar way, the villages and towns where the 72 preached – some received the word with joy! And some rejected them, and were subject to the shaking off-of-foot-dust. What was the difference? Repentance and faith. Yes, the disciples did heal and cast out demons. But this doesn’t impress Jesus. He’s rather concerned with people having their names written in the book of life, in Heaven. He wants sinners to repent and be forgiven, to turn from sin and live in him.
And so, in the most general sense, when Scripture speaks of a city, a town, or a village, it’s really focusing on a gathering of people there – who many times act as one. And what’s always most important about them is spiritual. Either repentance, or unbelief. Either in receiving Christ, or rejecting him. And we all know which side we’d rather be on.
But if there’s one city worth studying in all of Scripture, it’s Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets. The city that would also condemn and crucify the Christ. Jerusalem, the home of the temple – but also of kings who though themselves greater than the King of Kings. The city made into a capital by King David, and the city which hailed the Son of David with their “hosannas”.
Jerusalem. Built on Mt. Zion. It stands, in Scripture, for the sum total of God’s people. And depending on whether the passage is speaking in judgment or mercy, showing forth law or gospel, the tone of Scripture can really change. Take our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, which compares Jerusalem to a nursing child, comforted by her mother, carried on her hip. Rejoicing. So it is for God’s people in Christ. But that same Jerusalem can also be a byword, a curse, smoke in God’s nostrils, when they turn away from him in faithlessness and sin.
Jerusalem, finally, serves as a picture of the Church in her glory – as we saw not too many weeks ago in our Easter readings from Revelation. The Bride of Christ, the Holy City, beautifully adorned for her husband and presented to him, Jesus Christ, for an eternal union. What a picture of our future, Christians, in that holy city.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the secular world has picked up on this imagery and used it in service to civil religion. And maybe that’s not too far from our minds on this 4th of July weekend.
Some have borrowed this language about Jerusalem and sought to apply it to these United States: The “City on a Hill”, for instance. To speak in terms of America as they imagine it should be – or maybe is – a bright gleaming example of goodness for the world to see.
And while it’s certainly no sin to love your home country, or to be patriotic, some would go so far, to make national pride into a idol itself, or blur the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Make no mistake, the Church of Christ has existed long before the USA and will exist and remain long after. Nations rise, kingdoms fall. But the word of the Lord remains forever.
And when we see with clear eyes the many flaws of our nation – not just the deteriorating culture and morality, killing the unborn, sexual perversions, but also the shrinking churches and declining number of Christians – perhaps we ought to be more concerned. For if Jesus curses Chorazin and Bethsaida for their unbelief, what would he say about a nation that has been blessed as we have, and yet seems to appreciate so little?
Pray, Christian, for your country, your state, your town, your church, your family – whatever “city” you find yourself a part of – pray that we would all repent of our sins, turn from our wicked ways, receive Jesus Christ and live. Individually, and as a whole!
Some years ago, Brenda and I drove through a small town in the southern part of Michigan. And upon entering, a large sign proclaimed this town’s “claim to fame”: “Home of the 1989, Division 2, Women’s Volleyball 3rd place finishers” (or something like that – the story has been exaggerated over the years).
I wonder what Keller, Texas might be known for. I wonder even more, what Messiah, Keller might be known for. What’s our claim to fame? May it be this: that we are repentant sinners whose names are written in Heaven, written in the blood of Jesus Christ crucified. That’s worth noting. That’s worth rejoicing over. That’s why this place matters. For in this gathering, we are gathered into Christ. And in Christ, we have life, forever. Let us therefore be that city on a hill for all who would come here, and as we go out from here. Gathered to Christ, there is always “life in the city.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the mission of the church, and those workers in his kingdom, are always on the move. You look at the Gospels, and Jesus doesn’t set up shop in one place and make everyone come and hear him there. But he goes from town to town, village to village, preaching the kingdom. He says, “that is why I have come”.
It’s not like the Old Testament temple, where Jews would come from hundreds or even thousands of miles away to make their pilgrimages. Jesus discussed this with the Samaritan woman at the well – since Jews and Samaritans argued over which place was the proper place to worship. And Jesus told her that a time was coming when people would worship in spirit and in truth.
The Christian faith has never been about sitting on our hands, resting on our laurels, keeping what we have, and simply being comfortable. Rather, we have a mission – and we plant churches, send missionaries, and seek to fulfill the great commission – making disciples of all nations, even to the ends of the earth. We give witness to Christ in our own vocations, to family and friends. By our words when we can and by our actions in all things – we send a message, we live a message, that proclaims and exhibits the hope within us. People ought to, and many people have, become open to hearing more about Christ because they’ve seen the love and faith-in-action of Christ’s followers. Of course it can’t just stop there, but it’s always good to remember. And so, no one is a private Christian. All of this happens in full view of the world. We confess Jesus before men, and he confesses us before his Father who is in heaven.
But it’s not always easy. Look at Elijah. He had just had this great success. A moment on the mountaintop – both figuratively and literally – as he defeated the prophets of Baal in spectacular fashion. Their idol-god was silent, but Yahweh sent down fire from heaven. A miracle. A triumph of faith. Glory be to God! But then wicked queen Jezebel found out about it, put a contract on Elijah’s life, and he fled into the wilderness in fear. Now hunkered down in a cave, he throws himself a pity-party and wallows in the false idea that he’s the only one left. Poor Elijah. Boo hoo.
Yahweh has no time for such drama. He has work for Elijah to do. Speaking not in the wind or earthquake or fire, but in the tiny whisper, God sends Elijah back and gives him his marching orders. Anoint this one, anoint that one, and get your successor Elisha ready. Swords will be drawn. Blood will be shed. There’s no time for this despair, Elijah. God is on the move. Full forward.
And then you get to our Gospel reading, where Jesus is gathering followers. He sends his disciples into a Samaritan town, and they are rejected. James and John do not take this well. They want to start dishing out the judgment. They want fire and brimstone. They want this town to get a whooping. How dare they reject us, Jesus?! Do you want us to call down fire from heaven, like Elijah did? Can we go all Sodom and Gomorrah?
But instead, Jesus rebukes them. We don’t know the exact content of that rebuke, but knowing Jesus, you can imagine it. Don’t be so quick to judge, James and John. Don’t be so quick to condemn. For with the measure you apply, it will be measured to you. And you’re not free from sin, either. You don’t follow me like you should, either. You deserve your own portion of that fire and brimstone. And of course we all do. Rather than beat a dead horse, harangue sinners who’s hearts are already hardened, Jesus just moves on. He keeps preaching. He casts the seed into other soil, where perhaps it will take root and produce a harvest. No looking back.
There’s much to learn here, for us individually, and as a church, even a church body. Don’t be surprised when Jesus is rejected, when people spurn the Gospel. Don’t be too keen to mete out the judgment that belongs to God alone. But don’t get bogged down when they reject you, or the Bible, or common decency, for they’re really rejecting Jesus. And don’t dwell on the failures of the past, the sins of the past, the unfinished business. The kingdom of God moves ahead; it has an aim, a hope, a future. Faith looks forward.
And then Jesus sees these other people, who at first, at least, want to follow him – but with strings attached. “I’ll follow you wherever you go!” Oh, will you? Where do you think I’m going, to a palace? To a great throne? Of course you’d want to follow there. But I don’t even have a home to rest my head. This following may not be what you’ve cracked it up to be, friend.
And then there’s the fellow who wants to go bury his father, and Jesus gives what seems like a callous reply. Did he mean, let me wait around until my father dies? Perhaps. It was considered the oldest son’s duty to bury his father, and then to receive the inheritance. Or was he interested in waiting around for a year to re-bury the bones, as was the custom of some Jews (and as is even done in New Orleans today)? Even though the 4th commandment teaches us to honor our parents, the 1st commandment tells us who ought to come first. Following Jesus is more important than following the traditions of man, however honorable they may be.
And finally there’s the one who just wants to go back and kiss his family goodbye first. And even for this man there’s a gentle rebuke from Jesus! “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God!”
Jesus sees the heart. He knew what each of these men needed to hear. Of course he answers well, even if it seems strange or harsh to us. But the Holy Spirit also inspired Luke to write this dialogue for us, and for all Christians. We, too, need the reminders to put Christ first, to let the dead world bury its own dead, and to keep our eyes forward and hands on the plow for service and life in his kingdom.
Of course, we don’t do so well. Quite often, we’re like Lot’s wife, looking back to our former way of life. Like a dog that returns to his vomit, we, too, return to the sins from which Christ has freed us. To the sin that so easily entangles us. The Old Adam and the New Creation in us strive and struggle for supremacy. Who will win the day? Who will set the agenda? Will we go forward, or are we stuck looking back?
Enter Jesus, the one who never looks back. The one whose face is set toward Jerusalem. And he’s not just going there for a picnic. He’s not going there even to celebrate a solemn feast with his disciples, or teach in the temple. And he’s certainly not going there to call down the lightning and fire of judgment. He knows what lies ahead for him. And so do we.
Jesus is dead-set on the cross. His hand is on the plow, even when they drive in the nails. His face, sweating blood, never turns aside from his mission. He will not pass this cup to any other. Jesus Christ, Son of God from eternity, has an appointment with death just outside of Jerusalem. And he will not be deterred, distracted, talked out of it, or hindered in anyway. Not even his beloved disciple Peter can turn him aside from that cross, instead he says, “Get behind me Satan!” No, Jesus is only going forward, forward, ever forward to Calvary, Cross, and death.
For all your turning back and turning away, Jesus stays the course. For all your conditions and strings attached – Jesus gives his grace freely. For all your half-hearted, hard-harted, self-righteous and self-deluded attempts to find your own way – you can come up only lost. But Jesus knows the way. And he rescues the sheep. He cries out to us in a clarion call of mercy that invites us forward with him. “Follow me”.
“Follow me” is not just an invitation to go for a walk, or even on a long journey. It is the call to faith. But it also entails going where he goes, at least in some sense. Jesus goes forward to his cross, but he also calls us to take up our own crosses. Jesus passes through the grave and gate of death, and so do the sheep who follow him. But Jesus also leaves death in the dust, breaks open the grave, and rises never to die again. So too we those who live and believe in him – even though we die, yet shall we live. And Jesus even promises a place for us in the mansions of his Father’s house.
Follow Jesus. Believe and trust in him. And never look back. Your future is secure in Christ. May your eyes ever be fixed on him. Amen.
A Blessed Pentecost Sunday to you all. I have fond memories of this Sunday in the church year, especially as a child. It meant summer was beginning, school was probably just out, and vacation time was here. It was also a fun story to imagine – what must it have looked like, sounded like – this miracle of God? The tongues of fire on the disciples’ heads. The various people from so many different nations. The sound of the mighty rushing wind. And the cacophony of dozens of different languages being spoken. It was a sight to see and a sound to hear. A miracle unlike any other. But we must also ask the question that some of the onlookers asked in verse 12, “What does this mean?”
I have to admit, as a kid, I didn’t quite get it. I knew it had something to do with the Holy Spirit. It seemed like, somehow, this was something pretty important. Like a step forward. But I couldn’t quite articulate just what was going on. And I have to say, that after formal seminary training and 20 years of teaching and preaching – I still have some wonderment at this whole thing. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is this. The best place to go for answers about Scripture – is – Scripture itself. And today, we don’t have to go too far to get started.
First off, the reading itself points us in the right direction. It tells us the content of all the multi-lingual conversing that was going on. They weren’t just talking about the weather, or comparing different customs, making small-talk or anything like that. They were “Telling the mighty works of God” Ah, but which mighty works might those be?
The people gathered here from the various nations were already quite well-versed, we should think, in the Old Testament. They were God-fearing Jews from all over the world. And they must have taken their faith seriously to come all this way on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It’s not crazy at all to assume they knew what God had revealed through Moses and the Prophets. That they knew the creation account. The stories of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Exodus from Egypt. The conquest of the Promised Land, and the glory days of monarchy under David and Solomon. The sad days of the exile, but also the joyous return and rebuilding of the temple. And of course, all along the way, the covenant promises of the One who would bring salvation. The one who would crush the head of Satan. Be born of a virgin. Be born in Bethlehem. Suffer and die for the people. Be raised on the third day, and reign over his enemies in ultimate triumph.
They would have, they should have known all of this. So the mighty works they’re hearing about must be something even more. It can only be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The one who fulfilled the Scriptures, accomplished salvation, and conquered even death for the life of the world. The apostles were witnesses of these things – all that Jesus taught and all that Jesus accomplished. Here, at Pentecost, their work of proclamation begins in earnest. Here, at Pentecost, begins the disciple-making of all nations. Here, by the power of the Spirit, who works through the Word, and calls sinners to faith in Christ.
The people were perplexed. They wanted to know, what does this all mean? And so Peter interprets further: This event is what the prophet Joel foresaw. This miraculous pouring out of the Spirit on “all flesh” – or at least on a representative portion of all nations – this special revealing of prophecy and vision – the beginning of the signs and wonders that would confirm the apostle’s witness is all driving toward one purpose: that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”
And that Lord is Jesus Christ.
And so we see, in the context of the New Testament, and of the Gospels, and of the witness of the apostles, that the whole point of Pentecost is not to wow us with wind and fire and spirit – but that the name of Jesus must be proclaimed so that all can hear, believe, and be saved. In this way, Pentecost is really not that different than any regular Sunday morning at church. It’s really not that different from any time the Gospel of Jesus Christ is set before sinners from any and all corners of the earth, so that the same Spirit works through the same word to bring the same salvation in the same strong name.
So, Christian, you who were born 2000 years after Pentecost, halfway across the world, you might as well have been there. For the same Jesus that was proclaimed there is proclaimed to you here and now.
Scripture also interprets itself for us when different passages are placed side by side. And today, we can see the wisdom of those who selected the appointed reading from the Old Testament – the Tower of Babel. At first, you might think there’s no rhyme or reason to go digging around in Genesis for this strange story. Where the pride of mankind sought to build a tower to heaven, and make a name for themselves. Where God came down in judgment and confused their language.
But then it starts to make sense when we see these two events – Babel and Pentecost – side by side. It’s as if they are mirror images. Babel is judgment, Pentecost is blessing. Babel is confusion of language, Pentecost overcomes the confusion. Babel is a scattering of peoples, Pentecost is a bringing together – a unification of various peoples in Christ. And if Babel was all about “us” making a name for “ourselves”, Pentecost is all about calling on the Name of the Lord.
At Babel they sought to raise themselves up to heaven by their own will, their own work, and their own strength. But at Pentecost it’s all God’s action – the Holy Spirit comes down – and gives them the strength and ability to do His work – not for themselves, but for others.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, you see, is the ultimate antidote for the ultimate ailment of sin, and in Jesus we have the reversal of all things harmful right down to death itself. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was crucified for sinful human flesh, to raise that same flesh up with himself. The only name under heaven strong enough to save us, the only message of salvation worth our attention, the only promise you can stake your life on, even your eternal life. The message of the Spirit, the message of Pentecost, the message of the church today, the message that will continue for eternity – Jesus Christ died for you, rose for you, lives for you.
And he builds his church. A far grander and more impressive structure than any measly tower humans can put together. The Church of Christ, the whole people of God, with Christ as our cornerstone. The Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies this church. The Lord Jesus reigns over it with divine providence. And the building continues, living stone after living stone, as more believers join our ranks by baptism and in faith. As more sinners come to repent and believe. As the Gospel continues to go forth making disciples, even unto the ends of the earth, and Jesus is with us to the end of the age. This church which he builds – the gates of hell cannot prevail against it – against us.
A Blessed Day of Pentecost to you. May the same Spirit who was poured out on that day strengthen you and your faith, as you continue to grow in the word, and trust ever more in Jesus Christ. For you have heard the mighty works he has done, and you have salvation in his name.
I think most of us can appreciate when things are “new”. A new baby is a joy like nothing else. A brand new article of clothing. That new car smell. A new job. A new home. A new store. Even a new friendship. There’s an excitement when something is new. A whole new set of possibilities is opened up. But also, in contrast to something old, there’s no baggage. That new baby hasn’t made the mistakes of life we have. The new car hasn’t had anyone spill coffee all over it yet. I like the new Walmart where everything is still relatively clean and fresh. The new friend doesn’t know all your flaws and failings, and wasn’t around all those times you did something embarrassing.
And in spiritual terms, it is much the same. When God made the world, when everything was new and fresh – it was perfect. Creation was without a flaw. God even declared it “very good”. He made everything and every creature according to its kind, and with perfect purpose. And finally he made man, and also a helper suitable for him. A perfect match. There was no sin – and so there was no disease, no corruption, no chaos. Nothing broken down and in need of repair. Nothing worn out. No crying, no pain, no death.
Furthermore, their relationships were also unbroken. They had perfect communion with God and each other. There was no sin or shame to mar the “very goodness” of it all.
It’s hard even to imagine such a world, what it must have been like. “Paradise the blessed” we sing about it, but we can barely conceive of it.
Because our everyday experience is with the broken world that followed. We know only the corrupted and chaotic world that is stained and shattered by sin. This old thing. Age has not been kind to this creation, now under the yoke of death. Nothing good seems to last forever. Things wear out. Things break down. So much of today’s world is disposable – we just throw things away when we’re done with them. You drive a new car off the lot and it instantly loses much of its value. You start a new job and you find out it’s not all you’d hoped it would be. You marry a spouse and you start finding out they aren’t always so easy to live with. Or you buy a new home and you find yourself longing for the place you left.
Jesus describes this phenomoneon so poetically in the Sermon on the Mount, where we warns us not to get too attached to this world:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19-20)
It’s true. This side of heaven, moth and rust destroy things. Thieves break in and steal things. Nothing good seems to last forever, but it fades, it falls, it breaks, it dissolves.
And you and your coffee mug might say, “some things get better with age!” And of course it’s true. Wisdom comes with age, sometimes. But so does the accumulation of a lifetime’s sin and that thing we call regret. Experience and confidence may come with age, but so do the aches and pains of a body that is giving in toward the grave, inching ever closer to its end. So while there are joys and blessings of old age, they are tinged with bitterness and marred by decay and imperfection.
What it comes down to for us, is that our predicament is so bad that we don’t just need a spiritual makeover. We need a complete and total do-over. We need a full and perfect renewal that is just as thorough as the corruption under which we labor.
Thank God we have a Jesus who does it for us. And by the way, the promise of Jesus in our Gospel reading - to send the Spirit who will declare the things to come - is fulfilled, at least in part, by our reading from Revelation 21, where John is blessed to see in his vision a future day when all things are made new. And that day is the day of Christ’s return:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
Along with Christ’s second coming, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the dead – we have this other detail about the last day: This world will pass away. Scripture speaks in various ways about it. The world will “pass away” (our text), also Matthew 24:7, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
“The heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment” (Isaiah 51:6)
2 Peter 3 puts it this way: “then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”
But far less important than exactly how it happens is that this broken, fallen, corrupted world will not simply be “fixed” or made better. It won’t be healed or patched up. God is starting anew. Afresh. From scratch. So complete will be the change, it is an entirely new re-establishment of creation – and we will live there with our resurrected and glorified bodies, in perfect communion with our Triune God forever. The pictures of John’s vision continue:
And I saw athe holy city, bnew Jerusalem, ccoming down out of heaven from God, dprepared eas a bride adorned for her husband.
What John sees next is a strange but joyous thing – a mixed metaphor of sorts – it is a vision of the church as both a city and a bride. All of this is simply a picture of the church in her glory. The sum total of all believers in Christ, ushered into our blessed eternity. A New Jerusalem – and just what was wrong with the old one? It was corrupt. But not this one – as John later sees its magnificence – pearly gates, streets paved with gold. And adorned as a bride – the Bride of Christ, that is! Holy, blameless, without spot or blemish. The entire people of God united with Christ for eternity. And if an earthly wedding is a time of great celebration, how much more the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom that has no end? And by the way, also, we get a foretaste of this in the Lord's Supper even today!
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, fthe dwelling place1 of God is with man. He will gdwell with them, and they will be his people,2 and God himself will be with them as their God.3
Perhaps the greatest sadness of the fallen creation is that it separated us from God. But now all that is changed, reversed, overturned. In the New Heaven and Earth, God dwells with man once again. They are his people, and he is their God – without anything to get in the way of it. Perfect unity. Perfect communion. A perfect relationship and the privilege of his perpetual presence.
4 hHe will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and ideath shall be no more, jneither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
All the troubles that flow from sin are wiped away with the very tear from your eye. And what a tender and intimate picture, of God wiping away your tears – like you’d dry the eyes of a little child. All the hurts are now “former things” and they are passed away – never to bother us again.
5 And khe who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I lam making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for mthese words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, n“It is done! oI am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. pTo the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 qThe one who conquers will have this heritage, and rI will be his God and she will be my son.
He reiterates these promises – he who makes all things new – that is, the Alpha and Omega, that is, the beginning and the end, that is, Jesus. The one who declared “it is finished” at the cross, is the one who declares here, “it is done!” For us, it’s a future promise as good as done – we rest so secure and sure in the promise of all things new – because we have heard the news of Jesus – who conquered death by death and brought life that death cannot destroy.
And of all the things he makes new, it begins with you. The New Creation that he has made you in baptism. The daily renewal he works in you by repentance and faith. The New You still wrestles with the Old You, and that’s nothing new. But it won’t last. A time will come when even our Old Adam is entirely destroyed, and only the New will remain. Whether by the gate of death, or should we live to see the last day – either way – God will bring us to this fulfillment.
Far better than that new car smell is the promise of the new heaven and earth. Far better than this old corrupt creation is the eternal home God will provide for us all. A blessed promise from Jesus, who makes all things new. John saw it, and we believe it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Revelation 5: (1-7) 8-14 Easter 3 – Early Service May 5, 2019 “Worthy Is the Lamb”
Our appointed readings in the Easter Season bump out the regular Epistle selection for a sampling of the book of Revelation. I’ve heard many Christians over the years express discomfort with this last book of the Bible – not knowing what exactly to make of it. And I can understand that – it’s a different type of literature. It’s apocalyptic. It is, for the most part, a written version of a vision that St. John had when he was “in the Spirit”. The voice told him, “John, write what you see!” and he did so. And the things that John saw were, frankly, spectacular. They are fantastic and otherworldly. They are at times frightening. But most of all, they are just so different from what we are used to seeing in the pages of Holy Scripture. And that leaves you and I to ask the question, what does it all mean?
Well, I certainly can’t, in one sermon, teach an entire course on how to interpret the book of Revelation. But I can tell you that it is not meant to scare the pants off of Christians with horrid and frightening predictions about what the judgment day will be like, or to give us an encoded roadmap of how the timeline of history will unfold. Instead, these visions paint pictures of heavenly realities. They show us eternal truths in symbolic and representative ways.
For instance, it’s not that God is or will be, necessarily, literally sitting on a throne. But to picture him this way shows us that he has absolute reign and rule over all things. And the descriptions of the plagues and destructions described, the locusts, the famine, the war and pestilence… is a picture of all of human history in these last days before Christ’s return. The message is this, though, that God’s people are saved through it all, sealed and delivered, and by the end of the vision, we see a glorious picture of our eternal home in the New Jerusalem. We will live with God forever! Thanks be to him! That’s the great comfort of John’s Revelation!
But now specifically on to our text. Chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation are sometimes called the “Heavenly Throne Room Scene”. It depicts our Creator and king in a show of majesty reminiscent of Siani – with lighting and thunder about him. A jeweled throne surrounded by an emerald rainbow. And the seven torches, that is the seven spirits, a depiction of the Holy Spirit of God. It shows the great distance between the Creator and his creation, pictured as a great, peaceful sea. The four living creatures representing the swiftest and strongest and fiercest and wisest of all creation in praise of God. And the Elders, the representatives of the church in both the Old and New Testaments – throw their crowns down before the sea in honor of the Father, that is, the true king. We sing about it in “Crown Him with Many Crowns”, how they’re “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea”.
But there’s a problem. Chapter 5, verses 1-7, right before today’s reading, describe it:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne ha scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
First, what exactly is this scroll? It is symbolic of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. It is the most essential knowledge, the most important thing to know. It is in his right hand, that is, it comes from his power and authority. And we know that this plan was in place even from eternity. But it is sealed up with 7 seals. (Seven is the number of holiness and completion). And because of this, no one is found in all of creation, on heaven or earth, who can open the seals, that is, no one who can know, and also accomplish God’s plan of salvation. There is no one to complete the mission. No sinful man. Not even a powerful angel. And to John, seeing and understanding all this, it causes him to weep.
And here we stop and ponder a bit. Why so sad, John? Is it just your morbid curiosity gotten out of hand? You really wanted to know the answers, and God’s keeping his secrets and that’s making you emote? No, it’s something deeper. John’s an old man now, the only apostle not to die a martyr’s death. He’s been around. He’s been preaching and teaching. He knows the problem of the human condition. He knows the corruption of sin. He knows the stink of death. What John is facing, in his weeping, is the hypothetical “what if?” if there was no one worthy to accomplish salvation. Because John’s not doing it. You and I can’t do it for ourselves. By ourselves, we are helpless and hopeless. Our natural condition – our fallen state is a true cause for weeping. If we could truly see, the clear and full picture of just how bad our predicament is, just how grievous our sins really are – we’d be weeping and wailing all the time. We need help. We need hope. We need a savior.
And John knows it has to be someone worthy – powerful – righteous – and who can get it done and make it count for the world. Someone who can trample Satan down under foot and snatch fallen humanity from the jaws of death.
But then one of the Elders encourages him. Weep no more. For there is one who can open the scroll. The Lion of the tribe of Judah! That’s Jesus. The Root of David! That’s Jesus. The Lamb who had been slain, but is now alive – that’s Jesus! Jesus, and only Jesus can know and command and fulfill and accomplish God’s holy plan of salvation!
This picture of Jesus is an odd one: A lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes. That means he has perfect and holy power – and perfect and holy knowledge. And from him issues forth the Holy Spirit of God to the ends of the earth. Only he can approach the throne of God. Only he can take what is at God’s right hand (for it is also his). And only he can bring the contents of the scroll to bear for the blessing of his people.
The Lamb has been slain – of course, that’s Jesus! Who laid down his life on the cross for the salvation of the world. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as John the Baptist clearly confessed. But it’s not the Lamb who remains slain, or the Lamb who is still dead and buried. It’s the Lamb who was slain but is now alive! This is why we get this reading in Easter. You see a dead Jesus is no good to us without a risen and living Jesus. A dead Jesus doesn’t fulfill the plan inside that sealed scroll – but only the Jesus who unsealed the grave itself.
And it is in light of all THIS that we get to verses 8-14. The new song of praise. In chapter 4, all those gathered around the throne sang the praises of God the Father, echoing the song of the angels from Isaiah 6, that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy”. But now, with the Lamb in view, Jesus, they sing a new song:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
You see, Jesus isn’t just the object of our praise and worship because he’s God, though that alone would be enough. But even more, he is our savior. He has accomplished salvation for us by his blood, and ransomed us, and all people. This divine work of redemption he adds to the glory of creation. And likewise, while the throne of God is his by right, he is exalted by the Father for the very same reason – that he considered equality with God not something to be grasped, but took on the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. …
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here, in the throne room scene of Revelation 4 and 5 we see these words of Philippians fulfilled. It is a spiritual, and an eternal reality.
And, as the song goes on….
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!
We join our voices to that very song. We even sing it in our liturgy, in one of the newer pieces in our tradition, “This is the Feast”. Like so many other liturgical texts, drawn directly from Scripture, we join our words and voices with the song of the ancient believers, Simeon, Mary, Zechariah, Isaiah and the Seraphim, David, even Moses and Miriam, along with so many others. We sing to the Lamb who once was slain but who now lives. To the only one who is worthy to receive all these accolades – worthy in his perfectly lived life, worthy in his perfectly offered sacrifice of death. Worthy alone, but sharing that worth and value, the holy precious blood and the innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own.
What a day it will be when we all gather together around the throne of God and join in that heavenly song. But the warm-ups have already begun. Every Divine Service is a preview of that eternal concert, that heavenly chorus. Even now we begin to sing our faith – in response to all his good gifts and blessings. Worthy is the Lamb! Now and forevermore. Amen.
So often historical things happen, and people don’t truly understand the significance and the implications until well after the fact. Sometimes, these events aren’t even well-known to the public.
Take, for instance, the attempted assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. "Joe" Zangara, an Italian immigrant, and an anarchist, fired his handgun at Roosevelt, who was in Miami giving a speech. But Zangara was only 5 feet tall, and needed to stand on a wobbly metal folding chair to get a good look over the crowd and aim at his target. His first shot missed, and as he was then grabbed by the crowd he got off four more wild shots. But that first shot instead hit another target – Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago at the time – who later died from his wounds.
Had Zangara been a little more accurate, or perhaps a bit taller, and killed his intended target Roosevelt, it’s hard to imagine how history would have been different. Had Roosevelt been assassinated, his conservative Texas running mate, John Nance Garner, would most likely have come to power. "The New Deal, the move toward internationalism — these would never have happened," says one historian, "It would have changed the history of the world in the 20th century. I don't think the Kennedy assassination changed things as much as Roosevelt's would have."
We look back, today, on a much more important event that is far more well-known and changed far more of the course of history. It is also a life-and-death story, or rather a death-and-life story. We mark, of course, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is just as real and historical as any other thing that has truly happened. The body of Jesus was never found. There were hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ. And his followers spread the news of it to the corners of the earth, at great personal cost and often in the face of their own persecution and death. People don’t become martyrs for a lie. Large groups of people don’t share hallucinations. The resurrection really happened! Christ is truly alive, truly rose from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. Christ is risen!
And oh how the world would be different today if Christ had not been raised! No Christian Church with all of the blessings that it has brought through the ages – advances in science, social improvements like the abolition of slavery, the establishment of hospitals and schools, much, maybe even most, of the fabric of Western Civiliation owes its existence to the Christian church and its people. But more than that. It’s not just history on the macro-level. It matters to each of us, individually. It’s quite personal.
St. Paul interprets the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In other words, if Jesus isn’t alive, if he didn’t rise from the dead, then:
Your faith is futile. It’s useless. We might as well burn down Notre Dame completely and all the other Christian churches. Make them something more useful. Throw away your bibles. Pastors will have to go find a job at Home Depot. We can all find something better to do on Sundays like go fishing or sleep in. If Jesus isn’t alive, none of this matters. But you are here today. At that means that on some level, it does matter to you. And whether your faith is strong or flagging, whether you are an every Sunday Christian or not so sure or committed… Jesus Christ is still alive, and the faith is not futile.
Paul goes on to say, if Christ hasn’t been raised: then you are still in your sins! See, the whole point of Jesus dying on the cross was to pay for, cover, take away your sins. All the things that you do that break the rules, offend God and hurt your neighbor. It’s a long list, friends, if we could even begin to count our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, though, we’d be stuck holding that stinky bag. We wouldn’t know for sure that God forgave us, that he loves us, or that Christ’s death was good enough to wipe those sins away. But Jesus is indeed alive, and that means that everything he said was true, and every promise he made is entirely trustworthy. We don’t have to worry about God judging our sins – because Christ is risen!
And finally, Paul says, if Christ hasn’t been raised, then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. There’s no hope for them. Who wants to live in a world where there’s no hope beyond the grave? That’s it, lights out, you just are no more. What a nihilistic, dead-end of despair. And yet that is where the secular world would point us, to the gaping black hole of death from which no one or nothing ever returns. Thanks be to God that’s not how it is. For us who are in Christ, we go where he goes. He conquered death. And we too will rise. Our loved ones in Christ are safe in his care, even now, and we will meet them again face to face, in the flesh, at the resurrection on the last day.
If Christ isn’t raised, if it all ends here, if this life is all there is – then Paul concludes, we are to be pitied more than all men. And quite frankly, many do find Christians to be pitiful. Or worse. For those who deny the resurrection, who don’t believe that Jesus lives, they see us as backward, deluded, brain-washed, superstitious, anti-intellectual, holier-than-thou, mind-numbed zealots who place our faith in a fairy tale. They see all this Christianity as a waste of time at best. They pity us, or they mock us, or they marginalize us as they see fit.
But reality is just the opposite. Those who are truly to be pitied are those who don’t know or can’t see or won’t believe the truth of Jesus Christ. They are without hope. Their future only leads to despair. We have a hope that does not fail, and a life even beyond death!
Paul unpacks so much of the meaning of this day for us, but on that first Easter morning, it was all so bewildering. Nobody knew what was going on. They were running here and there. There was weeping and grieving and hiding. They were confused and fearful, and yet…
The joy of this shocking realization began to hit them in various ways. The stone was rolled away, and the body was gone, and the women are “perplexed” we are told. What does it all mean? Then, even more strangeness, two men appear out of nowhere. Who are they? Angels? Their dazzling apparel testifies. And their words all the more…
“Don’t you remember his words?” His words – we should all, always remember his words. Jesus knew this would happen. He told them it would happen. He started already, way back in Luke chapter 9, the Son of Man would be crucified… and on the third day rise!
The women told the men, and the men didn’t believe it right away. They thought it was an “idle tale”. Maybe you can relate to that, too.
So often, even today, we Christians hear the words of Christ but they don’t make sense, they don’t sink in, we don’t understand them, or maybe we just don’t believe them. Maybe we heard them long ago, but we don’t consider that they are very relevant today. But then something changes – a circumstance of life, a shock to the system, or sometimes just plain old maturity, and the Holy Spirit enlightens us so we can see. “Oh, THAT’s what this was all about!” For the women, for the apostles, they all had their Easter “aha” moments.
So let the words of the angels and the words of our Lord and the account of the apostle Luke remind you, also, today, of the blessed resurrection!
Why are you seeking the living among the dead? That’s what makes no sense, after all. Let it sink in, friends, Jesus is alive! Death couldn’t hope to stop him, or even contain him. He has swallowed death up in victory. By his death he has destroyed death, and by his life he has brought life and immortality to light. He lives, he lives, he lives! Christ is risen!
And that is the best news for you, dear Christian. Because he lives, your faith is not in vain. Because he lives, your sins are no more. Because he lives, death can’t contain you either. Oh, it will seem to, for a little while. Your friends and family will cry at your funeral. But your rest in the grave will be like Christ’s – a temporary arrangement. Your resurrection is on its way. Where Christ has gone, we will follow.
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,
“They divided my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
His friends betray, forsake and deny him. The crowd turns on him. His enemies finally seize him, try him, and mock him. The sentence is given. Jesus is stripped of his freedom, his dignity, and now, even, his clothing. Finally he will give his life.
Clothing is one of those basic needs of life we all tend to take for granted. Food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home… clothing is just one thing in the long list of daily needs that God provides for the righteous and the wicked alike. It is, as we say, a First Article gift, part of the blessings of creation bestowed by God the Father. We certainly live in a land of plenty when it comes to clothing. One estimate says the average American spends about $1800 on clothing. We are richly blessed.
Clothing is worn for both form and function. You dress in a certain way because, at least partly, you like the look of it. There are, of course, also the social conventions. Clothing also keeps us warm, though that’s not so important in Texas. And it can also serve as a signal of the occasion (like a wedding or prom dress) or of the particular job you do (a uniform).
But Christians know that clothing was invented in response to sin. Adam and Eve made the first clothes – crude coverings of fig leaves – hastily chosen to cover themselves in shame, when sin had changed everything. No longer was nakedness the norm. From this time forth, humans would cover our nakedness.
It’s no accident, either, that God provided clothing of animal skins for our first parents. No, your own coverings will not do. Only God can cover sin. And so the first blood shed in the freshly fallen creation was a sacrifice of sorts, animals slain, in order to cover the sins of humanity. A foreshadowing of a far greater sacrifice to cover the sins of Adam and Eve and all their children.
Jesus, who was like us in every way, yet without sin… and so he had no need of clothing to cover his shame. Yet he followed the customs and norms of his day. It began when he was wrapped, as a baby, in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. He certainly didn’t dress in finery – those who do so are in king’s palaces. He had nowhere even to lay his head, no earthly riches, and so he would not have been the type to show off fancy garments and rich clothing. This one special garment of his, woven without seam, was likely a gift from one of the women who followed him. Like the ointment they used to anoint him even before his burial, a special gift given in faith and devotion.
But even his humble clothing seemed affected by his divine power. Remember the woman with the flow of blood – who found healing by touching the hem of his garment? Jesus felt the power go out from him, and commended the woman for her faith. Perhaps it was this very garment for which they cast lots! Perhaps it was also the garment that became brighter than any bleaching – shining with all the radiance of his Transfiguration – giving us a glimpse of the true nature of his glory.
And so, these events took place, as part of his Passion, in order to fulfill prophecy. All the scriptures must be fulfilled. Jesus, even in his death, leaves nothing undone – he accomplishes it all. Every last detail. Psalm 22, quoted here by John, shows both the dividing of the garments and the casting of lots for the seamless coat or tunic. The soldiers would have likely plundered anything else they could from their victim, if Jesus had anything. They didn’t bother to give it to his mother or his disciple John who were nearby. They had only selfish intentions. They tore apart the less valuable cloth, presumably for rags, but decided to gamble on the more valuable woven outer coat.
Some of these same soldiers had mocked Jesus by clothing him with another garment – a scarlet robe – along with his crown of thorns and scepter of reed. They played and jeered at his kingship in this way, not recognizing the irony. For he is indeed the king of all kings, but he had put aside his kingly vesture to take on the form of a servant, even to dress in the humble garb of a peasant, now to have even that stripped from him.
And the last piece of his humiliation – his burial. At least they wrapped his body in grave clothes, and provided a linen for his face. Some small dignity for a hastily prepared burial before sunset and Sabbath began. But those grave clothes he wouldn’t need long. At his resurrection he left them behind, neat and folded, the job done, everything put back in order.
What about you, dear Christian? Have you considered your own attire? What about the filthy rags of your supposed good works? How about the stain and soil of sin? Do you think you can cover up the shame with a fig leaf of rationalization, or maybe you try to shift the spotlight to someone else’s imperfections? Maybe, God forbid, you’re even tempted to embrace your sin, wear it like a badge of honor? Our robes need washing. They need more than bleach or soap. They need the only detergent that gets out the stain of sin that is so deeply set in. We need the blood of Christ.
Remember the multitude of Revelation 7, holding palm branches and shouting, “worthy is the Lamb”? A uncountable multitude from every tribe, nation and language? Who are they? Sir you know, and the elder said, “These are they who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
So here it is. Jesus is stripped of everything, including his clothes, and even his life – and in exchange – washes you clean, makes your robes white, gives you his everything, even a share in his resurrection.
Isaiah spoke about it already in his day: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels”. (Is. 61:10)
Paul puts it another way – “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)
That is to say, in your Baptism, Jesus covers you. He covers you so completely and thoroughly, that you become identified with him, united with him. Buried with him and raised with him. When God the Father looks at you, he doesn’t see the shabby rags you were wearing, or the shame of your nakedness. He sees Christ and only Christ! He sees the righteousness that shines forth like it did on the Mount of Transfiguration. He sees robes washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. He sees one who is holy, beloved, with whom he is well pleased.
Jacob gave his favored son Joseph a coat of many colors – an expensive and exquisite robe that symbolized his fatherly love and drove Joseph's brothers mad with jealously. They stripped it away, threw him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and told Jacob he was dead. They even dipped the robe in blood for good measure. But it was all a lie.
God the Father gives you a far better garment. An expensive and exquisite covering of righteousness that well shows his favor. Only he doesn’t just give it to you. He gives it to all people, and all who receive it in faith enjoy its benefits – they are our true brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus, who had his robe stripped from him, who was thrown under God’s wrath for you, became a slave of all to save us from slavery to sin. And Jesus was left for dead,. And by his blood our robes are made clean. This is the greatest truth we can know.
What a great exchange. His life to save mine. His blood shed for my bloodguilt. His humiliation to lift me up. His robe cast off, so that I am never cast off from God.. His righteousness for my unrighteousness.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Redeemed to stand before His throne!
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters,[d] and they gathered the whole battalion[e] before him.28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.
So far we’ve considered some of the major symbols of Lent. The ashes of repentance, as well as objects and items from the account of the Passion of our Lord. The crowing rooster that accompanied Peter’s denial. The 30 pieces of silver that remind us of Judas’ betrayal. And the scourge or whip, with which Jesus was punished before his crucifixion.
Today we consider the crown of thorns. In and of itself, perhaps, next to only the cross, the crown of thorns stands for the suffering that Jesus endured for us. Though it is depicted in Christian art in various ways, we don’t really know much about it. What sort of thorns were they? How was it fashioned? What exactly did it look like?
Taken together with the scarlet robe and the reed they placed in his right hand, you can see the intentions clearly. The crown of thorns was a part of the mockery that the soldiers inflicted upon Jesus. He who had claimed to be a king – they’ll show him! Here, your highness, a robe and scepter and a crown – fitting for a man of suffering. And so the crown of thorns, by its thorns, caused him pain, and by the mockery did him dishonor. And the soldiers seemed to take their glee in both.
But like so many details of the Passion, there is a rich and deep irony to be found here. For if anyone is a king, it is the king of kings. If anyone should wear a crown, it is the bright Jewel of God’s own crown. In fact we sing, “Crown him with MANY Crowns!” If anyone is worthy of the best, and of the highest honor and worship, it is Jesus, the Son of Man who is also the Son of God.
And he is also the Lord of Hosts. That is to say, that at a word of his whim, God would have sent 12 legions of angels to defend his Son. All the armies of heaven, from the Archangel Michael who cast Satan from heaven – to the lowliest of the rank upon rank – all the angels answer to him. The hosts, the armies, are his. He made them and he commands them. But here, at his passion, a battalion of Roman soldiers thinks they have him under control. The dare to mock him, strike him, spit on him. If they only knew.
More than that, the crown he deserves, the crown he laid aside to become incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary… the divine glory, honor, majesty and might… all of that, he temporarily eschews. He humbles himself. He takes on the form of a servant. Even though he had equality with God he considered it wasn’t something to be grasped, held onto, but rather he lets it go… at least for a time… steps down… to serve. Much like when he tied the towel around his waist and started washing feet. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He put aside one crown, to take up another.
But Jesus is a king, even in his suffering. King of the Jews, the inscription above the cross – ordered by Pilate – said so. Pilate, to whom Jesus had to explain, “my kingdom is not of this world”. Indeed, his kingdom is not limited to this world, but far surpasses all earthly rule.
Pilate, that representative of earthly authority, so puffed up in his own power – but Jesus isn’t so impressed. “You would have no power over me unless it was given you from above”. And Jesus doesn’t mean Caesar. All earthly kings and rulers serve at the pleasure of the true king. They are underlings and agents of the divine kingship of all. He raises them up and brings them low at his whim. Empires rise and fall. But the Lord reigns forever.
But Pilate isn’t the only sinner ever to get a little big for his britches. We have a long history, going back to the Garden, of sinners trying to push God off his throne so we can take his place. “You will be like God” Satan tempted. We want the scepter, the throne. We want the crown.
And it is because of Adam’s sin, and our sin that this good earth is so twisted. Sin twists everything good. It takes what is created good and holy and perverts it, makes it crooked and off-kilter. Sin doesn’t make up new things equal to the good that God creates – but it can only corrupt that which is good, break it, deform it. Sin does not create new. Evil isn’t an equal to the good. It is less than the good. A shabby facsimile. A fun-house mirror version of the perfect.
And then there’s the curse. The crown of thorns reminds us of this: That even the creation itself is cursed because of our sin. For from Adam, the ground is cursed to bring forth thorns and thistles. Yes, that crown of thorns that they placed on Jesus’ head wouldn’t have existed if it were not for Adam’s sin, and ours. But he bears, that, too, to the cross. And in the cross he not only destroys sin, but all its consequences. The thorns of the curse, the fallen creation itself will be renewed in Christ. How much more, then, the crown of his creation, the ones made in his own image, will be restored by this second Adam. And so the cross becomes a life-giving tree, and Christ’s body and blood, the fruits of the cross, the new “tree of life” for all who believe.
And so, in Christ, creation is restored, and you, the sinner, are restored. You are restored to the fullness of God’s intentions for a human – righteous, holy, and alive. In the resurrection we will see it all fully realized. And then receive the crown of glory.
Someone once pointed out to me that in all of Scripture, it’s only humans that wear a crown (except for the devil, in his false authority). But angels, as powerful as they are, are never crowned. Angels do not judge the nations, we humans do. Angels do not participate with Christ in his reign and rule in glory, but we humans will. This we, too, are given crowns.
One picture of this is in John’s vision written for us in the Book of Revelation. We see a glimpse of the heavenly throne room – with God the Father enthroned, but also the Lamb who once was slain at the center of the throne. And between God and his creation is a vast sea – calm like glass. And around all of this are the 24 smaller thrones, with the 24 elders, who themselves wear crowns. These are an image of the church, in her glory, represented as the entirety of the Old Testament (as in, the 12 tribes) and the New Testament (as in, the 12 apostles). And here they are, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.
Christ is, indeed, the King of the Jews, the King of the Nations, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. You could crown him with many crowns, and it wouldn’t even be enough. For he is Lord of all.
And he is Lord of all not only because of his power and might. But the reason he has the name above all names, the reason he is most glorified, the reason he is exalted high above every other power by God the Father, is because of his cross, his suffering, his crown of thorns.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11)
When you look at that crown of thorns, consider the crown that Christ set aside to bear this suffering for your sins. But hope, also, in the promise, that a crown of righteousness awaits you in his eternal courts. For the King of Kings is your king, your servant, your savior, your redeemer, your advocate, and your friend.
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.