“We celebrate the most despised: the death and cross” Wednesday of Lent 4 2024

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13. March 2024

Lent 4 Midweek

Matthew 27:32-44 – We Preach Christ Crucified

The Apostle exhorts the church and her preachers this way: “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (1 Corinthians 1:22–26).

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This Lent, we have been considering how Jesus the Crucified blesses us with the mind of Christ, shows us the power of Christ, and reveals the wisdom of Christ. But this is not and can only be known without the preaching of Jesus. And not just any Jesus but the Jesus was crucified for you for the forgiveness of your sins. This cannot be known apart from it being revealed to you in the Holy Scriptures, proclaimed to you from outside you in preaching and teaching, and faith worked in your heart by the Holy Spirit through that Word in baptism, absolution, preaching, and the Holy Supper. 

Now, you’ve heard all that before. You’ve heard every faithful pastor assert it over and over. It may have become a cliché and boring to you. Now, move on to other things, especially helpful ones. Tell me what to do, how to live, how to speak. But you notice we never move on from preaching Jesus crucified for you. Why not? Can’t we somehow learn about God’s mind, power, and wisdom by other means?

First, we preach Christ Crucified because Jesus dying on the cross of Golgotha on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago is the focus and apex of all human history. Every good news Gospel promise from Eden to Patriarchs and by the Prophets is accomplished there. And every work God would accomplish in you is a fruit of faith in Christ Crucified. Indeed, all history, this congregation’s history, and even your personal story so far would make no sense without it. You would have no explanation for the suffering, loss, shame, tragedy, heartache, sickness, or death you experience. And you would not have the antidote of life that is Jesus’s shed blood for you, the only way you can genuinely endure all things with hope.

Second of all, the Bible is a vain, pointless book without Jesus dying for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Not only is the cross of Jesus the key to the Scriptures, but without it, you would never know what God thinks about you, not really. If you judged this world by experience and human expectations, you’d be left in doubt as to whether Jesus truly loves you. Reason and experience contradict that truth. It would seem to you as if the power of God is arbitrary and capricious, smiting some and lifting up others, choosing some for salvation and damning others. And without the cross, you pursue only what is foolish (worldly strength) instead of embracing true wisdom (the weakness of giving oneself wholly and fully to the other). 

But we have still another problem. The entire message of the cross is upside-down, ironic, and paradoxical. In the contentment of faith, or perhaps in apathy and boredom, we forget how utterly insane preaching Christ Crucified is. Avoiding Jesus on the cross is natural to all people, regardless of whether they prefer signs or seek wisdom. As a sign, the cross is scandalous, a stumbling block. To hearts seeking wisdom, it is utter foolishness. Those three groups that mock Jesus are right and yet completely wrong. They reveal to us the objections to Jesus that we can expect to hear and those we are also tempted to believe. We might not be so bold as to mock and ridicule Jesus as unbelievers do openly, but we certainly try to hide from the cross just as Jesus’s own disciples did.

First, we have those who passed by blaspheming Him. These mockers said, “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Why is Jesus subjecting Himself to this, especially since He’s already demonstrating His power over everything? St. Matthew tells you it’s blasphemy, though, meaning that they are mocking the very work of Israel’s God. They’ve made God their enemy, wagging their heads at Him. They know Jesus as one who claimed authority but how can that authority not extend to His life? Of course, they completely misunderstand the purpose of His authority. He has not come to save Himself. He has come, in fact, to save His people from their sins. Since He is the Son of God, He must stay on the cross. For that purpose, Jesus has been given over to be crucified.

Next, the chief priests, scribes, and elders are mocking Him: “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him come down from the cross now, and we will believe Him.” The crowds connect the “destruction of the temple and rebuilding in three days” with His death, but they miss that it is His body that will be torn down and raised again. It is not that He cannot save Himself, but that He gives Himself willingly for others only.

Again, they cannot see what can only be seen by the eyes of faith given by the Word proclaimed and the Spirit breathed. The truth is that the true Christ is the crucified Christ. Ironically, then, their epigraph is not false. Jesus is the King of Israel and the King of all. But His kingdom does not come with earthly strength, might, bureaucracy, and weapons. He wins for Himself a kingdom with His royal subjects through weakness, shame, ignominy, suffering, and death. 

It is the height of demonic delusion to mock Jesus for who He is, namely, the Son of God and the King of Israel. You recall that Satan tempted Jesus the same way in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God,” and even the demons address Him in the same way. The temptation here is for Jesus to take the easy path and wield His authority to save Himself. But true sonship means trusting in the Father, eschewing personal comfort and protection, and worshiping and serving the Lord His God alone—no matter where that path might lead.

The cross is where His name is to be known and defined: He saves His people from their sins. He is the true Israel in the place of a failed people. He came to be the authentic Son on behalf of us, the rebellious son. Now, on the cross, Jesus is giving His life as the ransom payment in exchange for the many. “Not to be served but to serve, and to give his life…” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The mockers cannot see what is happening or who it is displayed before them. But they speak the truth even as they reject God’s plan. This is God’s son. He is the true Israel, the people of God reduced to one Man. Precisely because He is such a one, He does not come down from the cross. As He was Israel’s champion against Satan’s attacks in the wilderness, now He is Israel’s (and the world’s) Savior on the cross. He will not come down. He will not save Himself. He will save us.

The story is stark and unrelenting. It’s hard for us to hear. Surely our sins are not so great, the world’s corruption that deep, and the demonic attacks so fierce. Maybe there’s another way or another story we should tell? So, the anonymous passerby blaspheme Jesus. Religious authorities ruthlessly pursue Him and dog His heels. Even the two robbers who also were sentenced to the cruel death of the cross join in the merciless mockery. Jesus is abandoned to His enemies. And in that abandonment, He is carrying out the Father’s plan to save others, to save even those who hate Him. He is who He says He is. The King of Israel. The one with the authority to save. The Son of God.

Contrary to all thought, we celebrate the most despised: the death and cross. His death is our highest good. What is mocked and shameful to the world is a treasure and joy to the Christian. So, don’t run away. Don’t be scandalized. Don’t look elsewhere to know the mind and wisdom of God. Look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2).

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin