I believe in Jesus Christ: The Backstory

Texts: Josh 2, Ps 76, Rom 15, Matt 1.1-17

How do you get to know a person? By hearing their story. The OT is the backstory of Jesus Christ. Without it, you might know him as an acquaintance, but you won’t ever know him well. Just for starters, his name: “Jesus” = Joshua. Moses has to die on Mount Nebo before Joshua leads the people into the promised land. For the law came through Moses, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ alone (John 1.17). Plus, Joshua = YHWH saves. “Christ” = the anointed King, the Messiah.

1. The Unfolding of the Promise. Rom 15.8-9: Christ became a servant all the way to the cross, in order (1) to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, & (2) to bring a mercy to the nations so rich it makes ‘em sing for joy. Starting in Gen 3.15, the promise builds like a crescendo. It also develops, like a theme in a symphony. Here are a few of the promises given to the patriarchs:

(a) To Adam. Gen 3.15: the first promise of the Messiah, the Serpent-Crusher  

(b) To Abraham. Gen 12.1-3: the curse of Adam will be undone, when the nations are blessed through Abraham’s Seed. No accident that:

(1) in Gen 15, righteousness comes through faith in God’s promise.

(2) In Gen 22, the sacrifice of the only Son, the provision of a Substitute, the promise of God’s Lamb.

(c) To Judah. Gen 49.10: “The Scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the Ruler’s Staff from between his feet, till tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 

(d) To David. 2 Sam 7.12-16: “12. I will raise up your Seed after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14. I will be to him a father, and he will be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15. but my steadfast love shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before you. 16. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before Me.”

Notice: (1) v. 12, David’s royal Son will come from his very body.

(2) vv. 13 & 16, his kingdom is eternal.

(3) v. 13, he will build a “house” for God’s name, i.e., the Church.

(4) v. 14a, he will be the true Son not only of David, but of God.

(5) v. 14b, he will be a sinner, and he will suffer punishment from God’s own hand. For though he was innocent, the LORD laid upon him the iniquity of us all: and by his stripes, we are healed, Isa 53.5-6, 1 Pet 2.24, 2 Cor 5.21, Gal 3.13.

(6) But v. 15, unlike Saul & Solomon, God’s steadfast love will never depart from Jesus Christ. He will emerge the Victor over the awful Goliath of Sin & Death, because he had no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.

(e) To Isaiah. The book is so chock-full of prophecies of Christ, it’s long been called “the Fifth Gospel.” In Rom 15.12, Paul quotes Isa 11.10. The whole chapter is about Christ. vv. 1-2: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.” Then vv. 6-9, cosmic restoration and peace: the wolf dwells with the lamb, the nursing child plays with a cobra, the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. Why? v. 10: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal to the peoples: of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

Notice: (1) vv. 1 & 10, The Messiah is David’s son, born of the root of Jesse like a sapling growing out of an old dead stump.

(2) When Christ is lifted up on the cross as a signal for the nations, he will draw all people to himself, John 12.32.

(3) His resting place is glorious, at the right hand of the Father.

2. The Ancestors of the Redeemer (Matt 1.1-17)

(a) Of genealogies. Not phonebook lists of names, but stories. The whole OT is summed up here in 17 verses. Jesus Christ is Abraham’s boy, David’s boy (v. 1).

(b) Did you notice the women? v. 3, Tamar; v. 5, Rahab & Ruth; v. 6, the wife of Uriah. Their stories.

(c) Why didn’t the Holy Spirit leave these nasty bits out? Matt 1.21: “Mary will bear a Son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” When the time came for the Word to become flesh, he sunk himself deep into the flesh of sinners like Tamar and Jacob, Rahab and Uriah and David. Because the Son of Man, the Last Adam, came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19.10).  

3. Two applications

(a) Roots. In a rootless culture searching for a story and a place to belong, we have both. Our roots are ancient, they go deep into the mists of time. The Bible is our story. The Church is the place we belong, our family, our home.

(b) Grace. If the Son of God took Tamar’s flesh as his own, do you think he is ashamed of you because of your sin? Yield to the scandal of the gospel of this God – the untamed God of the Bible, who chose a motley crew of prostitutes, adulterers, and all-around screw-ups as his ancestors according to the flesh – and his grace will set you free. 

The Scar

In case you haven't noticed, Phil's been preaching through the Creed this summer. Trinity, creation, the image of God, the fall and, in this sermon, original sin. Next week, we'll turn from the first article of the creed to the second: "I believe in Jesus Christ."


Texts: Gen 6.5-6, Ps 51.5, 130.3-4, 143.2, Prov 20.9, Eccl 7.20, Isa 64.5b-7, Jer 17.5, 9, 31.31-34 (= OT lesson), Ps 51, Rom 7.7-8.1, Matt 5.1-20.

 Introduction

(a) My intimate experience with the subject of this sermon

(b) A paradox: the one doctrine that’s empirically verifiable is the doctrine our hearts – and often our churches – refuse to accept.

1. The Wound

(a) A few verses about original sin:

i. Rom 5.12: “Sin came into the world through one Man, and Death through Sin.” v. 19: “By the one Man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners.” 1 Cor 15.22: “In Adam, all die.” John 3.6: “Whatever is born of the flesh, is flesh.”

(b) What does this mean? Just this: we don’t become sinners if and when we sin. Rather, we sin because we are born sinners.

i. We are born bent, broken, sick, twisted, wounded, corrupt. Humans are made of two parts: souls and bodies. Sin brought “death” to both. Our bodies, of course, are subject to decay and finally to death. But so are our souls. Sin darkens our minds, so that by nature we do not know God. Sin hardens our wills, so that by nature we do not submit to God. Sin warps our affections, so that by nature we do not love God. Head to toe, body and soul, we’re sin-sick “flesh” of Adam’s sin-sick flesh. And the bentness of our race ruins everything we touch.

ii. We are born guilty. Rom 5.18: “The trespass of one Man led to condemnation for all men.” Eph 2.3: “We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

(c) How could this be? Like Trinity, this too is a mystery.

i. Adam was the head of our race in two ways: one, organically; two, as our legal representative in the covenant of works (Gen 2.16-7, Hos 6.7). As the act of a king affects all his people, Adam’s deed affects us all. But more than this: somehow, we were “in” Adam; his deed isn’t only his own, but ours.

ii. Examples: a diseased root & a barren tree. A poisoned spring & a deadly stream. Generational sin.

2. The remedy

(a) Grace has taken us out of the first Adam and grafted us into the Second. Jesus Christ is the head of the new human race that is his Body, the Church.

i. Christ is our head legally in the new covenant grace he sealed with his blood. As Adam’s sin made us sinners, so Christ’s righteousness makes us righteous. Rom 8.1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Mark each word: Therefore, given the sober reality of Rom 7. Now, in the midst of sin. None at all, because the perfect righteousness of Christ’s is ours.

ii. Christ is our head organically, because his Spirit has grafted us into him. We are members of his body. We are branches in this Vine. Through the Spirit, his life flows into us and makes us whole, i.e., holy. Rom 8.2: “The law of the Spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death.” 2 Cor 5.17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come.”

(b) Holiness is a battle line. Rom 7.22-23: “I delight in the law of God in my inner man, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

i. Real saints remain real sinners in this life. 1 John 1.8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But the saints grieve over their sins, faults, weaknesses, vices. They pray for the Spirit to heal their souls more and more and more. They trust, not in their own righteousness, but in Christ’s.

ii. If you aren’t aware of the sin that clings so closely to you, be careful. If you think you’ve arrived, you haven’t. If you think you’re holy, you aren’t. If you think you know it all, you don’t. If you think of yourself as a spiritually strong person, you’re actually weak. If rich, then you’re really poor.

iii. But blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed are those who mourn their sinful flesh, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be full (Matt 5.3-6). Blessed are the poor saints who know they’re sinners, for in God’s sight they are truly righteous in Jesus Christ. And blessed are the limping and gasping who know they are wounded & sick, for God the Holy Spirit is making them whole.

(c) Church is a field hospital. “Gospel. Community. Mission.” What’s that mean, really? It means being a church of sinners saved by grace alone. A people who love and forgive one and uphold another from the heart, because God in Christ loves and forgives and upholds us. A people so grafted into Christ, the Tree of Life, that they bear fruit that nourishes and revives the broken people who take a bite from it. The father has run to meet his wayward son. The fattened-calf, that is the Lamb of God, has been slaughtered for us. The wine is flowing freely. The new song of the gospel is playing. The dance has begun. Oh please, please, do not be an older brother on the outside looking in. Leave your old self behind out there, and come join the party of grace and love that is the Church of Jesus Christ. I hope you’ve got your dancing shoes. And I hope you’re hungry. Because you’re not going to want to miss out on this party. 

The Rebellion

Texts: Gen 3, Ps 24, 1 Tim 2, Luke 4.1-13

1. The trial

God gave everything to Adam and Eve. He made them in his own image and likeness, pure and glad and good, and offered them a creaturely share in his life of love, glory, and peace. He gave them Eden, a palace fit for the King and Queen of all the earth. They lacked nothing. They feared nothing. If you’d told them about the everyday realities we know and suffer and cannot escape from – of pain and loss and sorrow, of guilt, shame, and regret, of betrayal and loneliness, of fear and cowardice and cruelty and death – they wouldn’t have understood a single word of it. It’d be like trying to explain what cold and darkness are to the Sun. Because Adam and Eve were holy, they were free. Because they had no sin, their only experience was abundance and joy. Their whole life was a song of praise to God. Best of all, they walked with God, and God walked with them. Adam and Eve were unbelievably alive because they lived in perfect communion with God.

One thing he required of them. Gen 2.16-17: “And the LORD God commanded Adam, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Why did God give Adam this command? To test him; to try his obedience, his loyalty, his love. In Gen 22, the Lord tested Abraham by commanding him to offer his only son, Isaac, in sacrifice on Mount Moriah. What did Abraham do? He bound his son and raised the knife to slaughter him on the altar. By obeying the Word of God – incomprehensible as that Word must have been to him – Abraham proved he feared, trusted, and loved God with all his heart.

In the Garden, God tested Adam and Eve by requiring a simple act of restraint. If they listened to God’s command about the Tree and obeyed it, it’d prove they loved God as their kind Father, trusted him as their wise Maker, and submitted to him as their sovereign Lord. It’d prove they accepted the fact that they were creatures of dust, and that the Lord alone is God. In fact, it’d prove they enjoyed being creatures, that they wanted God to be God, and that they considered this arrangement of things – God as God, Man as Man – exceedingly good. If they passed the test, content being small in the presence of the God who is great, they would never taste death.

But what if they failed?

Deep in our flesh, each of us thinks God was too severe to punish our race with death “just” for eating the apple from the tree. But the fact that we resent the just judgment of God, and even blame him for our punishment, and plead mitigating circumstances in defense of our race – all this only goes to show how deceitful our hearts became (Jer 17.9) the day we rebelled against the One who gave us everything because he is kind. Do you really think the Judge of all the earth (Gen 18.25), whose throne is built on righteousness and justice, would sentence his image-bearers to death for a mistake about a piece of fruit?

The sin at the tree consisted a coup, a putsch, a power grab, the willful refusal of creatures to remain creatures, the delusional attempt of beings made from nothing to replace God with their “selves.” The awfulness of the first sin beggars description: unbelief, ingratitude, envy, rebellion, treason, idolatry, blasphemy, all wrapped up in a bundle held together by pride. In Adam and Eve, our entire race looked God straight in the eye – God, who had given us everything as the free gift of his love – and said to him what the prodigal said to his father in Luke 15: “Dad, I wish you were dead, so that I could get my hands on your stuff.” It was the independence day of our race – the day we chose to reject communion with God in order to pursue life, liberty, and happiness on our own. But we need to look into this a little further.

2. The Rebellion

First, the Serpent. This is no mere reptile, but an animal possessed by the Dark Lord himself. Like every other being in the first creation, the Devil was once noble and good: a mighty angel of God. But he did not stand fast in the truth (John 8.44), exalted himself against God in pride (Isa 14, Ezek 28), and incited rebellion against the Lord (Rev 12.4). Here in Genesis 1-3, however, there’s not a word about Satan’s former glory or his present power. All we hear is that, rather than fighting Adam face to face, the coward slithers into the garden in disguise and attacks the human race, the image-bearers, the kings of all the earth, not in the king but in the queen, not in Adam but in his Eve. To use the proper theological term: Satan is a real dirtball.

Pay close attention to how Satan murders righteous souls: by telling lies (John 8.44). Gen 3.1: “Did God actually say?” Then as now and until the Last Battle, the Enemy sows the seed of rebellion by attacking the Word of God (Matt 13.18ff). There are two stages in the assault. In v. 1, Satan piously quotes Scripture but twists it just enough to make his argument compelling. Eve withstands this first attack, barely (vv. 2-3). But the Serpent’s winsomeness, Eve’s desire to keep the dialogue going, and Adam’s silence open the door for the direct attack that follows in v. 4: “The Serpent said to the woman, You will not surely die.” This is sheer blasphemy – a direct contradiction of the Word God spoke to Adam in Gen 2.17: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” How do you harmonize that? The difference between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and the lie, is out in the clear; a child three years old can tell you, the Word of God (“You shall surely die!”) and the word of the Serpent (“You shall not die”) can’t be reconciled.

But Eve has traded the simplicity of a child for the sophistication of the wise. And as for Adam, who’d heard the Word of God about the Tree with his own ears and preached it to Eve after her creation from his side: Adam just stands there and does nothing while the Evil One encircles his bride (2 Cor 11.2-3). Like Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4.1-13), the first Adam ought to have drawn the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Eph 6.17), and cut off the Serpent’s head before the murdering Liar got to the end of v. 1. But in awe of the serpent’s wisdom, and unwilling to displease his wife, he leaves Gen 2.17 in its sheath and looks on as Satan positions himself to enslave the human race in the chains of sin and death.

The snake sees the opportunity and seizes it greedily. In v. 1, he twisted the Word; in v. 4, he denies it outright; in v. 5, he explains that God, whom Eve thought was such a good father, is really an evil, ungenerous Scrooge: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” In plain English: “God is withholding something from you that’s so good, he feels he must keep it to himself. Just look at you: a pitiable talking beast who thinks this garden is a palace and honestly believes your servitude is a kingdom! Truth is, God’s given you hotdogs and Cool-Aid for supper and kept the filet mignon and the wine for himself. He doesn’t give a fig about you, and unless you’re incredibly naïve, you’ll have to start looking out for yourself.” An insidious lie. But Eve is like a freshman in philosophy class bedazzled by wisdom she’s never heard of before. And as for Adam the King – inaction, silence. Eve makes the final call: she takes the fruit and eats it, then gives some of it to her husband, who submissively eats some too (v. 6). And death, and Auschwitz, and hell itself are the result.

For the first time, Adam and Eve feel naked. Before, innocence was clothing enough. Now, earth’s fallen king and queen contrive to patch up the nakedness of guilt and shame with the leaves of a fig tree. Hours ago, the presence of the Lord was their highest joy; now, they flee from him in terror. The truth of God’s Word – which had seemed so out-of-date and revisable just moments before – comes rushing back to their bruised consciences with a vengeance: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Of course they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. They thought he was coming to kill them; and truth be told, had he done so, he would’ve acted within his rights. But this is where the story takes a turn the troubled hearts of Adam and Eve couldn’t possibly have imagined. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more (Rom 5.20). On the day God might have executed a swift but just sentence of death and damnation, instead he spoke a promise of grace.

3. The Promise (Gen 3.15)

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Because of this promise, the Church exists. Because of the invincible strength of this promise, the gates of hell fall before us as we advance by faith to tear them down. For in this verse, God turns a deaf ear to the silly excuses of Adam and Eve – “She made me do it! You are the one who made her in the first place! The Devil made me do it! It’s not my fault, but his!” (vv. 12-13) – God ignores all this nonsense, looks the Devil right in the eye, and promises that the day will come when the destroyer will be destroyed, when grace will drown sin in an ocean of blood and righteousness, when death itself will die.

This is the first time the gospel was ever preached, and God himself was preacher. His dear Son Jesus Christ is the “seed” or Son of Eve, the Last Adam. “His heel was bruised” beyond recognition: his feet and hands run through with nails, his head torn by thorns, his side pierced by a spear. But then, after the Devil had given Jesus his best shot, our Lamb roared like a Lion, trampled down death itself beneath that bruised heel of his, and crushed the Serpent’s head.

This is our gospel: the good news of real grace for real sinners like me. So – to quote Martin Luther – don’t worry about looking like a sinner, or even being one. For the strange, undignified God we hear of in the Bible – the God who handpicked women like Eve, and Tamar, and Rahab, and the wife of Uriah to be his grandmothers according to the flesh – is the God who is great in mercy and abounding in steadfast love. He thinks little of proud saints, but rushes to be near the humble sinners whose hopeless cause he made his own at the cross. 

Do you understand that through the gospel, God draws near to you in the midst of your sin and shame and fear, speaks this same promise of grace, and dares you to stake everything on his word? Because of all the scars in your soul, you think you have to cover everything up. But God sees straight through your fig leaves, and he loves you. His grace is stronger than you’ve yet dared to hope. Strong enough to forgive everything. Strong enough to heal your soul, your marriage, your family, your church.

Do you understand that because of the gospel, you are invincible? To be sure, the offspring of the Serpent have raged against the Church from the dawn of time, and will keep at it till the bitter end. The Evil One would like nothing better than to sink the ship of this church before we even get out of the harbor. So be it. We are in Christ the Serpent Crusher. We might get dinged up a bit now and then, but in the end, nothing can touch us. And even in the midst of cross and suffering, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom 8.37). Jesus Christ has crushed the Serpent. You are in Christ. Grace makes you unstoppable. “The God of peace will soon crush Satan beneath your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom 16.20). Amen! Amen! 

The Man and his Bride

Texts: Gen 1.26ff, 2.5ff, Ps 45, Eph 5.20-33, Matt 19.1-15

The Church has always faced opposition to the Word of God. Today our teaching about human nature is the issue of our time.

1. Modern Gnostic Return

In Colossians, 1 Timothy, and 1 John, the apostles Paul and John drew the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Eph 6.17), to fight against a heresy called “gnosticism” that threatened to overthrow the truth of the gospel from within the bosom of the Church herself. The heart of gnosticism was a denial of the Incarnation. Against this, St John lays down a clear rule: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4.2-3a). Why do you think the gnostics denied God became flesh? It’s because they taught the real part of the human is the spiritual part, the soul. Bodies are bad. They limit us, they’re ugly and filthy, they divide humanity into two halves, and in the end they putter out and die. Bodiliness is what Christ, the Divine Spirit, came to redeem us from!

Hand-in-hand with the ancient gnostic teaching about what humans really are went a teaching about how humans ought to live. Well, two of them actually. Some said since we’re really spirits enslaved in flesh, we ought to deny our bodily desires in a radical way and live for heaven only. Others said just the reverse: since our bodies aren’t our true selves, we can do whatever we want with them. Let us eat and drink and live like Desperate Housewives, for tomorrow we shall be set free from these prisons and leave our bodies – and the stuff we did in our bodies – behind us forever. Asceticism and licentiousness, self-denial and self-indulgence, were two sides of the same gnostic coin, upon which was stamped the image of the real human as pure disembodied spirit.

One way to interpret our time is that it’s a return of ancient gnosticism in a new cultural form. Modern gnostics teach that the real part of the human is neither the body nor the soul, but the feeling “self.” As for the body, that is the male or female body, and what we ought to do with it, the road forks violently into two oddly familiar directions. For modern gnostics, either there is no Man or Woman at all, or the difference between Man & Woman is reduced to erotic desire. 

(a) In professional culture, male or female biology is a thing indifferent. Having boy parts or girl parts doesn’t matter; all that counts is the ability of the achieving self to succeed in its chosen field. Let’s be clear: in itself, this isn’t entirely wrong. Some women make fine doctors, and some men fine nurses. But in order to make this work, over the past century what’s happened is that the natural difference between Man and Woman had first to be sidelined and then suppressed, so that now it is altogether denied. In the name of justice and/for for the sake of enhanced productivity, modern professional gnostics are neutered into interchangeable, sexless selves. The difference between men and women is banished from the workplace, the battlefield, the pulpit, and the public school bathroom, in order to make way for the triumph of the emoting, achieving, unisex self. In process, “Man” has been emasculated and “Woman” vulgarized before our uncomprehending eyes.

In profane popular culture, the same holds: you are who you feel yourself to be; the sexed body you’re more or less stuck with has nothing to do with the gender you chose to identify with. There is no male and female.

(b) The big exception to this is if we’re trying to sell something: movies, Packers tickets, car insurance, blue jeans, beer, whatever. Then, Madison Avenue empties your wallet by alluring the disordered sexual desires of your heart. In this case, images of “man” and “woman” are on explicit display. The image of “man” used to sell you deodorant is The Perpetual Adolescent defined by his swagger and sexual conquests. The image of “woman” used to sell you pretty much everything else is The Foxy Object of Man’s Desire and nothing more.

We live at these extremes: either the prim neutered existence of the office or the pornographied fantasy of the bedroom.

Truth is, it’s gotten so bad that even in the Church we’re not quite sure any more what it means to be the creatures God made in his image as Male and Female from the beginning and predestined to be restored to the image of his Son at the End (Gen 1.26, Matt 19.4, Rom 8.29). Our culture’s incoherent vision of neutered and hyper-sexualized humanity shapes us far more than we realize. As we come to the Word, we must take care to come not as wise people who’re in a position to teach, correct, and liberate an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy God, but as a foolish, sinful people who need to be taught, corrected, and liberated by Him.

2. The goodness of Man and Woman

In his Word, God teaches that the difference between Man and Woman is natural and therefore, “very good” (Gen 1.31). The sexual difference written upon our bodies and evermore radiant in holy souls is not an obstacle to overcome, but a gift to receive, a goal to grow up into, a mystery to marvel at.

(a) In the first place, we know this because of Gen 1.27: “God created Man in his own image; in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” The Lord Jesus himself quotes this verse at Matt 19.4, to show that the sacred and permanent union of one man and one woman in marriage is part of God’s good purpose for us “from the beginning.” Far from being a burden to cast off, our embodied being together as men and women is a chief part of the goodness and glory of our nature, for it forms an integral part of our creation in the image and likeness of God. God is not Neutered Unisex Sameness. God is love: the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself proceeding from Both; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is the God who made us in his image. When he did this, he gave us the gift of sexual difference – “Male and Female,” v. 27c – in order to ennoble our common nature – “Man,” vv. 26-27ab – to reflect in a creaturely way the Difference-in-Unity and Unity-in-Difference that he is as the living and true “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

(b) We also know the difference between Man and Woman is natural and good from Gen 2. For at v. 18, we hear for the first time that something is not good in unfallen creation. “The LORD God said: It is not good that the Man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” What to do? Patiently, the Lord creates all kinds of beasts and birds and parades them before Adam the King in holy procession; but not one of them does the trick (vv. 19-20). So the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and took a part of his very being out of him in order to make a partner fit to share his holiness and joy in the image of God. Can you imagine Adam’s astonishment when he awoke, and the Lord presented him with his Bride? “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She shall be called ‘Woman,’ because she was taken out of Man” (2.23). Adam is ‘a man,’ ish, and Eve is ‘a woman,’ isha, but because she is taken from him and made for him to share life together in communion with God, both alike are equally human (adam), creatures of dust bestowed with spiritual life and called to radiate the glory of God. They are perfect for each other. Adam is no longer alone, for he has his Eve: two different, complementary, fit-for-one-another, happy human beings united in one flesh. And it is very good.

(c) Last but not least, we know the difference between Man and Woman is natural and good, because St Paul explains this mystery is deep and refers not only to the gift of nature, but to the higher gift of grace in Jesus Christ and the Church (Eph 5.32). It is good for Man to be Man, because Jesus Christ is not an emasculated “self” with a fluid sense of gender identity but the Last Man – the Bridegroom. It is good for Woman to be Woman, because the Church Jesus redeemed for himself at the price of his blood isn’t his partner, but his Bride. You see, the creation of Adam and Eve in Gen 2 isn’t just history, but prophecy. The wedded bliss of our First Parents points ahead to the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19). God made us Male and Female from the beginning of time, because in his eternity he’d long since purposed to unite sinners to himself through Jesus Christ by a strong grace, as a most beloved Bride made one flesh with her Husband in a most ardent, pure affection (Eph 5.29-33). And that’s why, in the middle of Time, the Second Adam was put to sleep too. The first Adam fell asleep peacefully, for he had no sin. The Last Adam suffered the violent death of the cross, because he bore our sins in his innocent body (1 Pet 2.24). And while his corpse hung in the deep sleep of death on the life-giving tree, our new Adam’s side was opened up too, not by the gentle hand of our Maker but by the cruel spear of a soldier. Out of it flowed blood and water (John 19.34), so that Christ might cleanse his Eve with the grace of baptism and the gospel of his atoning sacrifice (Eph 5.26). We his people, his Church, his Bride, are formed out of the mysteries that mercy extracted from the spear-pierced side of the Lamb.

So you see that because of nature and because of grace, because of creation and because of redemption, because of the Two Adams and their Two Eves, Man is Man and Woman is Woman. And in the sight of God, our Maker and Redeemer, this difference – which opens up the space needed for intimacy, love, and fruitfulness to abound – is exceedingly good.   

3. How do we explain this to our neighbors?

We can’t explain this at all; when we talk of such things, we might as well be speaking Chinese – or Arabic. And I warn you in love, the time is coming when the world will start treating people who speak the new language of the gospel like terrorists, for the single reason that we have heard and believed the Word of God and refuse to twist the truth about the goodness of being human as Man and as Woman. What then shall we do? Through repentance, and simple trust in the grace of God to forgive our failures through Jesus Christ and to empower us to come alive in love by the gift of the Spirit of life, we will live the truth of Man and Woman, boy and girl, in the Church of God. The culture can’t hear us anymore. But the real people who live next door can still see. Show them what it means to lead a human life. Show them the goodness, the beauty, of Man and Woman, and in time they will come to see its truth too.

(a) Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord (Eph 5.22). Dare to defy what the culture tells you is true. Submission is not the path to slavery, but to freedom. See to it that you respect your husband. Embrace the goodness of being a woman, a bride, a mother, whether in the flesh or in the spirit or both. If you have been called to the exalted vocation of motherhood, do not be ashamed when the world thinks you are mad. If you’ve been called to a career outside the home, don’t forget that your first calling is to serve the priest of your domestic church and the congregation of little people God has given birth to through you. If you’ve been called to holy singleness, never forget that you have a Husband who cherishes you. Remember that by his Spirit, he makes you exceedingly fruitful in faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim 2.15).

(b) Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5.25). Christ calls your wife to submit to your godly leadership. He calls you farther still. He calls you to lay down your life in love as a sacrifice for your bride. Christ calls you to love and serve your wife just as passionately as you love and serve your own desires. Learn how to cherish your wife. If she wants to talk, listen. If she asks you to mow the lawn, mow the lawn. If she’s had a crazy day and you’re eating fish sticks for supper, be thankful. If she’s worried you’re working too much and neglecting the kids, make a change at work – and if that doesn’t work, get a new job. Your wife matters more; your kids matter more. Show them you really believe that.

In sum, Eph 5.33: “Let each one of you love your wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Do this humbly and joyfully by grace, and your neighbors might still think you have some pretty crazy or even oppressive ideas about the different goodness of Man and Woman. But they won’t be able to deny the beauty they see in your life together with their own eyes.

Do you know what a trysting place is? It’s like the scene in the Disney Robin Hood, when at last Robin and Maid Marion are able to be alone and to hold and kiss one another behind the waterfall. The Holy Eucharist is a trysting place. The Lover of our souls comes to be close to us and gives himself to us in holy love and grace, and we his Beloved come to him and give ourselves to him in faith, and we become one flesh, one body, with Him. Eat his flesh and drink his blood in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving, and don’t you doubt for a minute that he nourishes and cherishes you as his very own flesh. You are his Beloved. Come, Beloved, and open up your heart to receive the One who loved you to the bitter end, and who loves you still, and will never let you go. To him be glory forever, Amen.

What are human beings?

Texts: Gen 1.26-31, 2.4-24, Ps 8, Eph 4.17-24, John 20.1-23

The Church has always faced internal & external opposition to the truth of the Word: in the 4th c., the doctrine of the Trinity (championed by Athanasius); in the 5th c., grace (Augustine); in the 16th c., justification by faith (Luther). In the 21st c. it’s our teaching about human nature that offends the world & tempts the Church to compromise and conform. This is the issue of our time. Three sermons on Man: unfallen nature as God purposed it to be, Man & Woman, and fallen nature. No quiz, but we will be tested on this, day in and day out, for the rest of our lives.

1. Is human nature real? Is there something given, solid, sacred about being human that’s there whether any one of us happens to like it or not, and that summons each of us to live into and up to its nobility and its grandeur? Is there a law of nature that orders the lives and laws of men? Is there a purpose for our race that we don’t invent from within, but receive from above?

(a) Culture says, “No.”

i. Anthony Kennedy’s definition of freedom: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In short: human nature isn’t something given to us or defined for us by God, but something we create and define for ourselves.

ii. “Nature” isn’t a gift to receive, but an obstacle to overcome. The great imperative is therefore: be true, not to someone else’s law, but to your “self.” Not God, not truth, not virtue, but the feeling, emoting “self” is the high god who alone is to be feared. Everything is to be sacrificed at the altar of the self. If you feel you are a woman trapped in a man’s body, then it is so; you must take courage and offer up your body to the surgeon in order to be true, not to your given bodily existence, to your true, inner “self.” If you feel you are trapped in an unhappy marriage, then it is so; you must take courage and run away with another woman and sacrifice your family in order to be true to your “self.” And so on, and so forth. Besides smoking in public or judging people, the only great sin in the culture ruled by this deity is to fail to be true to your “self,” to be “inauthentic,” to conform.

iii. Now, serving the god of the self is exhausting work. For in reality, what being true to your self boils down to is picking some in-fashion image of the good life and living up to that. The Ripped Athlete. The Sexy Supermodel. The Successful Businessman. The Flawless Mom. The Put-Together Family with No Problems At All. If I become one of these, I will be happy! First, I just have to decide for myself which self to become. Whichever self I choose, “authenticity” comes with a high price tag. It takes time, money, hard work, and usually a strong lie or two to secure the appearance of effortless perfection in the image of the authentic “you” you’ve chosen for yourself. But it’s worth it – we are told – because if you do find it – we are promised – you will find happiness at last.

(b) Against the insanity and sorrow of our culture, the Church teaches that human nature is real. For of course (!) we aren’t self-created gods, but creatures of the true God. We know this for two reasons: first, because of Gen 1-2. Second, because of Christmas. Human nature is so very real, that the Son of God united it with the divine nature in his person; and having once taken it to himself, and raised it from the dead, and glorified it even to the right hand of the Father, we can rest assured that human nature – redeemed and transfigured in Christ – is here to stay. So be at peace. Not even an infinite number of Supreme Court opinions or Presidential edicts or reconstructive surgeries can avail against the true humanity of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Now before we go on, I want to be clear about one thing. We instinctively bristle against the teaching that as humans, we are creatures, and that as creatures we are subject to a design, order, law, and purpose that Another besides and above ourselves has sovereignly set for us. Partly, because we heavenly exiles are much more worldly than we realize or care to admit. Be vigilant! You can’t check Facebook without being catechized into the cultural dogma that human nature is an illusion and that there’s no reality besides the self and the stuff the self can buy. But more importantly: we bristle against this teaching, because we are sons and daughters of the man who refused to remain a creature subject to God and instead pursued life, liberty, and happiness on his own. It’s deep in our spiritual DNA – the “flesh” that rots away our hearts – to refuse the reality God’s given us and instead to create universes that revolve around ourselves. Justice Kennedy didn’t have to read any philosophy books to write his Obergefell opinion; he just had to listen to his heart. The law of our land is just the law of rebellion or “sin” that’s written on our hearts from our mother’s wombs – the law still written in the awful bits of flesh that fester in our hearts long after baptism dealt them a death-blow. This means that when we come to the Word of God, we come not to correct and teach God, but to be corrected and taught by him.

 

2. What are People, and what are we for? (Gen 1-2)

(a) Noble creatures. On the one hand, like everything else that is but is not God, by nature we are literally nothing at all. But look what great care God took to make us! First, he prepares everything else in all creation: the light, the seas and the heavens and the earth, plants and trees of every kind, sun, moon, and stars, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Only then, when everything’s been prepared for us, does he make Man on the sixth day to rule on God’s behalf as a noble king over all creation. And only in our case did God pause for the Three Persons to take counsel among themselves, before declaring the awesome words: “Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1.26). We see the same dynamic of lowliness and glory, weakness and dignity, in Gen 2.7. On the one hand, we are of the dust; we are made of mud; we are earthy, biological creatures that share quite a bit in common with monkeys and for that matter, mice. But on the other hand: to make Adam, the Lord took this lump of clay into his own hands and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living creature. We are neither just beasts or just angels but men, unique, amphibious creatures that straddle the division between the realm of matter and the realm of spirit and hold them together in our own persons. Which is why, in the fullness of time, God did not become a monkey or an archangel, but a Man, in order “to unite all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1.10).

(b) The high glory of our nature is especially clear in the fact that God made us in his own image, after his likeness (Gen 1.26). What does this mean? It means that like God, we were made to know and to love, to hear the voice of another Person besides our “self” and to regard his Beauty and to respond to his Gift. The God who made you in his image is the God who is Love because he is God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. He endowed you with the precious gifts of reason and will and affections, of head and heart and chest, of the power to think and to chose and to delight, so that you too could share his joy.

(c) But he didn’t only make us to live in his company. He also made us Man & Woman in order to enjoy the company of one another. “In the image of God he created them: male and female he created them” (Gen 1.26). He did not make us neutered beings, because he made us for love: ordered, holy, love between men and women who live together in his image, after true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.24), in his Church, either in holy singleness or in holy marriage, the permanent union of one Man and one Woman for the sake of holiness, fruitfulness, and mutual delight. But more on this next week.

(d) He didn’t even only make us for other humans: he made us to be gardeners and kings. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, for the man he formed from the dust and filled with spirit and life (Gen 2.8). This wasn’t an all expense paid trip to Aruba: in other words, not the lazy, self-indulgent kind of place that we imagine when we hear the word “Paradise.” Adam had work to do: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2.15). We were made to work. Toil is part of our punishment, but work itself is a gift God gave unfallen Adam – and it’s a gift he gives to you. In the first place, Adam was charged to care for the garden: to tend it, to lend it his creativity and skill and God-given green thumb in order to increase its beauty and its fruitfulness; to keep or protect it from any evil that might slither into it. For the Evil One had already fallen, and this Garden was a sanctuary set apart for God to dwell with Man and for Man to dwell with God. But then in the second place, Adam received an even higher commission than caring for the garden of Eden. Gen 1.28: “God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In Adam and Eve, God made us kings of all the earth, and charged us to go out from the palace of Eden and turn the whole world into a garden. Did you know that’s what he still says to you, at the end of our liturgy each week? The Church is our Eden. Here in this garden, through preaching and sacrament, the Lord feeds us with the tree of life: I mean Christ himself, who gave us life by dying for us on a different tree. Then he sends us out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, in order to turn it into a garden. 

(e) That’s what it means to be a human being. Since Adam and Eve refused this gift, only One has ever yet fully experienced what it means to live a rich and full and truly human human life. Because when they rebelled, with their own fists they smashed the image of God into pieces like a broken mirror. But the very day we fell, God promised to send the Redeemer (Gen 3.15). In Col 1.15, St Paul teaches that Jesus Christ is the Image of the invisible God. In him, the shattered mirrors each of us are because of sin are being put back together again because of grace. Don’t weary of coming to him in repentance, and you will be renewed in the spirit of your minds. Put on the new, real, true “you” you already are in Christ. Pursue holiness by his grace today, and you will become a little more human than you were yesterday, recreated after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.22-4). And on the last day, when we see his face, we will be just like him (1 John 3.2, Rom 8.29), and full of joy, and free at last. To him be glory forever, Amen.

The Maker of heaven and earth

Texts: Gen 1.1-2.4, Ps 104, Col 1.15-20, John 1.1-5

 1. Of the Maker himself

Let’s start with Gen 1.1: “In the beginning, God.” Stop right there. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth or the world, from everlasting to everlasting he is God (Ps 90.2). Who is God? We know his name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What is this God? He is the perfect One, great beyond measure, lacking in nothing, full of being, joy, and life. In the beginning was this God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. In addition to him, alongside him, in competition with him, arrayed against him … there was nothing at all. Nothing. And you know what? God was “ok” (!) without galaxies, and oceans, and daisies, and men. In fact, to misquote Mrs. Darcy, he was “completely, and perfectly, and incandescently happy.” For God is the Holy and Happy Trinity, and the Holy and Happy Trinity is God, the great, glad, glorious God who sent me here to preach his gospel. Before the beginning, when there was nothing but himself, he wasn’t alone. For God is the Father who delights in his Son, and the Son who rejoices before his Father, and the Spirit who enlivens the joy of the Father and the Son and perfects their peace in a bond of unbreakable unity and love. Nothing was needed to perfect this joy; nothing could be added to enrich this happiness; no creature had to be made in order to complete the infinite ocean of being and reality and life that the God who is, eternally is. “From everlasting to everlasting, You are God!”

Do you know the movie The Bachelor? At the end the guy who plays Robin in Batman tells Renee Zellweger: “You complete me.” When God finished creating the world, he didn’t look at it and say: “You complete me.” There’s not an instant in God’s eternity when he isn’t already complete in the fullness of his being and mirth and life as Father, Son, and Spirit. This means – contrary to what many in the Church teach, and to what each of us believes in the dark recesses of our flesh – this means God did not create us because he needed us, and he does not need us now. We are not the center of God’s universe; if he were hungry, he would not tell us (Ps 50.12). He does not exist to serve us; we exist to serve him. He does not need us to complete his joy, but we know nothing but sorrow until he completes us in himself. This is a bitter pill to swallow for a Selfie-taking, self-absorbed people. But until you embrace the humbling truth of the entire enoughness, the perfect completeness, the complete perfection, the radiant joy of God the Three in One apart from his creatures and quite apart from you, you will never come to have any dealings with the true and living God. But once you do swallow it, bitter as it might taste going down, you will find that the truth of God’s completeness warms your whole being from the very bottom of your soul. For being “needed” is a petty thing indeed, and in the gospel we hear the almost unbelievable news that we are something far, far greater than “needed.” We are loved.

If God the Trinity didn’t need us, why did he make us? In the Bible, there are basically two answers to this question. The first is in Ps 19.1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” In himself, our God is already fully clothed with splendor and majesty and glory (Ps 104.1). That’s why, the night before he suffered for us, God’s incarnate Son prayed to his Father: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17.5). He doesn’t need our tattered praises to patch up the robes of his glory. Instead, he created creatures out of nothing at all, so that we too could know and experience and declare his immense glory. All God’s critters have a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher: but together, we sing the high praises of God and declare his glory just by being the creatures he made us to be. When St John was given to see the courts of God’s glory, he saw & heard the elders and the angels saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Rev 5.12). But then he says this: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Rev 5.13). Everything exists to sing this song. You exist to sing this song.

I hinted at the second answer to the question before: and that is, that God in his boundless goodness and huge-hearted generosity and immense love didn’t begrudge the gift of being to we who are not. God is so great that he didn’t jealously possess the treasure of being and life; he didn’t cling to it and say, “My precious!” Rather, he who alone is secure in his completeness and rich in mercy and great in love freely and generously resolved to give us nothings a share in the gift of being and life. He did not create us out of nothing because he needed us, but because he loved us even when we were not. Creation isn’t the forced result of necessity, it’s an outburst of delight. “And God saw that it was goodvery good!” “For the LORD delights in you” (Isa 62.4). “He takes pleasure in his people” (Ps 149). “He rejoices over you with gladness” (Zeph 3.17). It’s Father’s love that summoned creatures out of nothing into his presence by his Word, as it is Father’s love that calls his chosen ones out of the nothingness of sin into the new creation of grace through his Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. 

 

2. Creation

The first thing to say on this score, is that we can’t even begin to imagine – let alone understand – the awesomeness of what God has done for us by creating the heavens and the earth. The LORD once asked his servant Job, who’d begun to think he knew more about being God than God himself, this question: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38.4-7). Rather like Job, I wasn’t there when God laid the foundation of the earth; and though I heartily wish I could’ve heard the angelic choirs shout for joy as light dawned upon the first day of creation, I didn’t hear it, and neither did Einstein, and neither did you. The creation of the world is shrouded in mystery; it is high, and I cannot attain it. In our ignorance, the safest route is to let God himself teach us in this matter, to hush our mouths and open our ears and listen to him in his Word.

Our teaching comes to this: God created everything out of nothing by his Word and through his Spirit.

Let’s begin with the “out of nothing” bit. Isa 44.24: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.” When God created the world, he acted alone. For there was absolutely nothing there at all besides him. Heb 11.3: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” When a human artist sets about sculpting a work of some kind, the clay he’s going to fashion is already there. He “makes,” but in the strict sense of the word, he does not “create.” When God set about the work of creation, he didn’t just fashion some pre-existing stuff that was already there alongside him. He didn’t go to a cosmic lumberyard to get pre-fab materials. He started from complete scratch, that is, with literally nothing at all. And because he is great in wisdom and power and skill, he did this effortlessly. That is why the Bible’s creation story is so very different from ancient near eastern sagas of creation. There was no primordial struggle for existence. God didn’t have to tame the raging of the sea, or kill the chaos monsters, or even break a sweat in order to create the universe. He just spoke the word, and it came to be. That’s why the Bible begins with a sentence that is majestic and incomprehensible and glorious in its simplicity: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1.1).

Did God the Father work alone? No, the works of the Three are undivided; what the Father does, that the Son does likewise (John 5.19). The Spirit is the one who gives us life and makes us holy; but he is sent to do this great work by the Father and the Son, and he does it by bringing us through the Son to the Father. The Son alone became incarnate; the Son alone shed his blood for us; but the Father sent him to do it, and the Spirit anointed him to carry out all his redeeming work as Messiah. In the Creed we say, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” and it is true that the Father is in a special sense the Maker of all things, because he is the origin-less origin of all reality. All things come from him; he is in the strictest sense, Father. But in the beginning, with the Father, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; and all things were made through him, and without him not one single created thing was made (John 1.1-3). Paul teaches the same thing in our NT lesson: “By Jesus Christ, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities—all things were made through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1.16-7). Now isn’t this an awesome thing? The One who became a zygote in the womb of a peasant girl named Mary was there in the beginning, making angels and mountains and oceans and men with his Father (Heb 1.2-3). The Spirit was there too, working hand-in-hand with the Father and the Son, hovering over the face of the deep (Gen 1.2), giving life to all things, bringing peace and joy and harmony to the symphony of creation, furnishing beauty upon the works of God’s hands. For it is by sending forth his Spirit that creatures are created, and he renews the face of the earth (Ps 104.30).  

In short, everything that lives and moves and has being, lives and moves and has being because this God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, called it into being out of nothing (cf. Rom 4.17). Nothing that is would be apart from him; everything that is depends upon his generosity to uphold it in being and preserve it from the abyss of nothingness from which he summoned it; everything that is as it ought to be, everything that abides in the order, place, and station that God appointed for it, is good (Gen 1), for it forms part of the masterpiece fashioned by his love, wisdom, art, and power; everything that is belongs to him alone by proprietary right; everything that is, oceans and planets and mice and men, exists to sing the praises of his glory.  

 

3. The joy of being small

How do we apply the truth about God, the Maker of heaven and earth, to our lives? One way to explain what “sin” is, is to say that it’s a creature’s refusal to be a creature. Gen 3.5: “God knows that when you eat of it you your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Lucifer was the most glorious creature of all; but being a creature – however glorious – wasn’t enough for him. He grasped in vain for the high glory that belongs to God alone, and when he exalted himself, he fell from heaven like lightening. For the God who gives grace to the humble knows how to humble the proud. When Adam & Eve ate the fruit, we drank the poison of demonic pride down into the deepness of our hearts. From Gen 3 forward, the story of the human race is the story of creatures denying that they are creatures and refusing to let God be God. Rom 1.21-22: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but their foolish hearts were darkened; claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

Do you know what God’s law is? The law of God is a short-hand summary of what it means to be human: a very precious gift indeed. Run through the Big Ten, and you’ll hear not just what you ought to do but who you were made to be – and best of all, who you are becoming in Christ by the grace of God’s Spirit. To worship the true God alone; to glorify his holy name; to keep his Sabbath holy; to honor your father and mother; to be kind and generous to all people; to be faithful to your spouse or chaste in singleness in thought, word, and deed; to respect and defend the property of others; to tell the truth whatever it costs you; to be content with what you have: this is what it means to be fully and abundantly alive as the kind of creature whom God created after his own image and likeness, in true righteousness and holiness (Gen 1.26, Eph 4.24). When we hear God’s law and pay attain to it and obey it, we aren’t just keeping random rules. Rather, in the deepest way, then we acknowledge that we are his creatures, and confess that he alone is God, and accept in reverent joy the truth that as our Maker, Father knows what is best for us better than we do ourselves. This is the little way that leads to joy. For to know this God is eternal life, and to serve him is perfect freedom.

The reverse is also true: when we sin, we are saying to God: “God, you are a fool, but I am wise; you are evil, but I am good; either you are ignorant, and do not know what is best for me, or you withhold it out of envy and meanness of spirit, because you’re a killjoy and don’t want me to have any fun; I am lord, not you; I am free to make myself whoever I please, in the image of my desires and after the likeness of what I feel in my heart. Who do you think you are you to tell me who I am! It would be better if you did not exist. In short, I wish you were dead.”

This is the lie our culture is built upon: the very same lie the serpent whispered in Eve’s ear so long ago. But the hard truth is that it’s a lie we’ve listened to as well. In our sinful flesh, I want my name to be hallowed, and my kingdom to come, and my will to be done on earth just as it is in my fantasy world. Long after our baptism and countless struggles with the raging passions of our flesh – and not without a few victories too – we remain passionately devoted to ourselves; for the most part, we’re only really interested in serving God so long as he demonstrates his unwavering interest in serving us. Not exactly holy angels, are we? To our dying breath, we blood-washed saints of God very much remain sinners, saved by a sheer and strong grace alone. That is why we pray day by day: “Dear Father, holy be your name; forgive us our trespasses.” And oh, do we suffer! for sin robs us of the joy and freedom that is ours in Jesus Christ by the strange right of mercy and grace (John 1.12).  

Do you want to be glad, and free? Then repent, and in true faith and holy fear and humble love dare to become again the creature you are. Abdicate your throne, and acknowledge that the LORD, he is God. Embrace the limits he has set for you. Have the courage to become small. Fear, love, and trust God alone, and keep his commandments, and honor him not just with your lips as your Savior but with your whole life as your Maker and Lord. And in your littleness you will discover that in the awesome presence of your Father, you have found joy. To him, together with his Son and the Holy Spirit, be endless glory, now and forever, Amen.

The Greatness of God

Texts: Isa 40.6-31, Ps 145, Heb 12.18-29, Luke 12.4-7, 32-34

This week I join St David in declaring the greatness of God. Three points: 1. What is God? 2. The greatness of God 3. Fear

 

1. What is God?

The question is too deep and too simple for most adults to ask; but children want to know, so they ask, “What is God?” The best answer is probably: “The One who made everything, the great Artist, the Source of all being and life.” But if you think about it, that isn’t exactly an answer either. What is this Maker? Is he a giant old Man, with a long flowing white beard? an especially mighty angel? some kind of fifth element, pervading all things? What is God?

Last week, I preached the Church’s answer to the related question: “Who is God?” The true God, the Maker of all creaturely being and life, is not an anonymous spirit. He has an identity—a Name. That name is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19). Now, we know who God is, not because we are clever, but because he has told us himself. Above all, we know him to be the One who sunk his Son into the depths of our flesh to redeem us, and poured out upon us his Spirit to give us life, because he is our Father, who loves us.

Still, the child’s question remains: what is this God? What does it mean to be “God”? Would it surprise you if I said this was the most practical matter you could ever think about? In reality, we all have our ideas about what God is, and for good or ill our “theologies” shape our lives powerfully; for we live in light of what he think is true about God. Aren’t quite ready to buy what I’m selling? Consider five common gods who’re running rampant in the Church of the true God.

(a) There’s god the Cosmic Cheerleader, who watches my life unfold from the sidelines. I allow him to be positive and encouraging, but if he can’t say anything nice, best for him to not say anything at all. Because god the holy Cheerleader cannot rebuke me, I remain firmly in control of my life. This god might be jolly, but he isn’t good. He might be likeable, but he isn’t the LORD.

(b) Then there’s god the Cosmic Therapist. He provides the solutions I need to manage my emotions; and because he is jealous for my sense of self, he never calls me to account for my sin. This god might be sensitive, but he isn’t kind; he might be insightful, but he isn’t wise.

(c) Then there’s god the Great Sugar Daddy in the Sky. He’s always there for me, to get me what I want. He will never lead me into the wilderness of suffering; and if I do suffer, well, surely that proves god isn’t real after all. This god might be resourceful – at least, we can pretend he is till the money runs out – but he is not the almighty God Job learned to fear.

(d) Or perhaps god is the Stern Judge, ruthless in his uprightness. (This god has gone into hiding in the culture, but is still found among church people.) He is useful to secure the moral high ground I need to judge other people; but the self-righteousness he props up keeps my proud soul from ever tasting the sweetness of mercy or feeling the tenderness of love. This god might be strict and severe, but he is not actually holy; he might make a fine drill sergeant, but he’s a failure as my Father.

(e) Today above all, the god our culture permits us to worship is the All-tolerant Affirmer, who wouldn’t hurt a fly and certainly wouldn’t dare judge anyone, ever, because he is a god of “love.” There are three unforgiveable sins against this, the spirit of our age: smoking, not recycling, and worst of all, judging. Of all the false gods, this god is the cruelest of all. For his indifference to truth robs me of my chance to gain freedom through repentance, and his apathy toward righteousness obliterates grace. This false god has nothing to do with the God who is love, who sent his Son to atone for our sins (1 John 4).

Do any of those gods sound familiar? I dare say, each of us tends to favor one or the other. Left to our own devices, tugged by the pull of culture, deceived by the Evil One, as a rule we prefer our own ideas about “god” to the truth which God himself has spoken through his Word. That is why we American Christians lead such worldly lives, lives marked not by truth, courage, and sacrifice but by complacency, self-indulgence, and sloth. For all our affluence, we lead impoverished lives, because we serve such poor, small, paltry gods. Mark this well: The reason we lead such small lives is that we think so little of God. That’s why I said before that there’s nothing more practical than theology. Here’s a good rule of thumb: the smaller the god you serve, the smaller your heart & your life will be; the safer & tamer your god, the more fruitless your pilgrimage. On the other hand: the secret to true greatness, the key to living a life that is big, the anchor that holds fast the kind of life that actually requires courage, is this: to know, fear, and adore the God who is great—so great, St David says, that his greatness is unsearchable (Ps 145.3).

 

2. The greatness of God

What do we mean by the greatness of God? Ps 145.3: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.” In himself, the being, life, glory, and joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is so perfect that the depths of his greatness cannot be fathomed by anyone but himself (1 Cor 2.10-11). In the first place, when we confess that God is “great,” we mean quite simply that there is none like Him; no creature can be compared to the LORD God, the Almighty.

That’s what Hannah sang after the Lord answered her prayer for a son: “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam 2.2). God is great: that means God is in a class all his own, peerless, incomparable, infinitely precious, holy. God is not, as an odd song once sang, just a slob like one of us. Strange as it might sound at first, God is not even just a being among beings. If he were, then even if we wretched bipeds couldn’t compare with him, at least the angels, or the archangels, or the seraphim could. But in his Word, God teaches us that there is quite simply none like Him (Exod 15.11, 1 Cor 17.20, Ps 86.8, Jer 10.6f). For he is not just a being, but the infinite source of all being, the inexhaustible Fountain from whom flows all that is, and all that lives, and all that is good, and all that is beautiful, and all that is noble, and all that is true. You see, in our finitude and sin we tend to imagine a great scale of being, with God up at the top, then angels just a bit lower, then us bipeds, then beasts, and plants, and microbes. God is really big, and microbes are super small, but at bottom they’re basically similar because they’re beings, things that “are.” So we tend to think, for if God is just a really big being, then we’re not really that different from him after all. Who knows? We might even become a god like him one day ourselves! (as Mormons think). Here is a theology to flatter our pride; and before we know it, our “big” God has shrunk into one of the very small gods I preached against before.

But that’s why we love St Michael so much! For his very name means: “Who is like God?” Except for when he’s off giving the Devil a throw down (Rev 12.7-11) – by the way, does that make him the original WWF wrestler? – St Michael the Archangel stands to minister before the Lord God the Almighty in the courts of his glory. He of all people knows that in all his real but borrowed glory, he is much more like a microbe than he is like the true and living God. For archangels and microbes and men are all made out of nothing, and if God drew back his hand, back to nothing Michael himself would fall. Michael’s name reminds us that we creatures live at every moment on the knife-edge between existence and the abyss, our borrowed being upheld at every moment by the mere generosity of God. But he, the LORD, is the same, and his years have no end (Ps 102.27); he is the one who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 1.8); and from everlasting to everlasting, He is God (Ps 90.2); for he is the Great I AM, who swept inquisitive Moses off his feet with the simple & majestic reply: “I am Yahweh; I am who I am; I will be who I will be” (Exod 3.14). And that is why, after he’d seen the fiery God of the slaves redeem his people by engulfing Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea, Moses sang for joy: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in deeds, and doing wonders?” (Exod 15.11). Years later, when the time drew near for Moses to breathe his last, the God who met him in the fiery bush and delivered him in the waters of the sea spoke one last great prophecy of his incomparable greatness: “I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound & I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32.39).

That is what we mean when we confess that God is great. Here is a Mountain no mortal can climb, an Ocean no diver can fathom, a Lion no master can tame, a Symphony the angels themselves cannot sing, a Sun that blinds the eye of the creature who dares to gaze upon its radiance, a Fire that consumes all impurity in a white-hot kiln of holiness (Heb 12.29). In his sheer greatness, the God who is is unsearchable; and instead of trying in vain to explain him – or worse yet, to tame him (!) – the safest route is to bow down flat on your face in the dust, and adore him. Because we are far more frail than we care to admit, and because God is far greater than we’ve even begun to imagine, he is greatly to be praised (Ps 145.3).

Now, because the God who is is so huge and deep and vast and wild and fierce and gentle and good as to be unsearchable in his greatness, in his presence we small, sinful ones find that we can’t say much at all, and simply cry out: “Glory!” (Ps 29.9). Perhaps you’ve experienced this before? Perhaps you’ve felt the weighty glory of the LORD, and fallen on your face in a puddle of holy tears, and found yourself speechless apart from the simple cry: “Glory!” or, “The LORD: he is God! the LORD: he is God!” (1 Kgs 18.39) or, “Faithful, faithful God” (Ps 31.5). If you haven’t yet, I hope you soon will. For we are dust and ashes, and sinners on top of it, and in the presence of the holy God, whose name is great and whose heart is kind, our impurity and puniness – like the prophet Isaiah’s – is overwhelmed. If you remember, the glory Isaiah glimpsed was so great that in its radiance and purity and power the seraphim themselves veiled their faces before the Thrice-Holy, their jaws dropped, their pure hearts overwhelmed, and cried out: “Holy, Holy, Holy LORD, God of power and might: heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Isa 6). Amen! Holy is he!

And then, if you stop to think that this God became small for us, and clothed his omnipotence in our weakness, and wrapped up his immense glory in our untold shame, and suffered for us on the hard wood of the cross: I admit, I do not see how you can see that and not fall in love with such a God as our God. For though it is true that no one has ever seen God (John 1.18), it is also true – and if I may be so bold, it is even more true – that we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, in the dirty, blood-stained, tortured face of Jesus Christ (John 1.14, 2 Cor 4.6). Glory to him! Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

3. Fear

Jeremiah 10.6-7: “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all there kingdoms, there is none like you.”

The truth is, you are afraid. We’ve all been scared to death since Adam & Eve ripped us out from our only safety: communion with God. Gen 3.10: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.” If you’re like most of us, your entire life is structured by fear. You fear poverty, so you work hard. You fear failure, so you work even harder. You fear exposure, so you hide the truth of your sin – past and present – from God, from others, even from yourself. You fear being penniless in old age, so you don’t tithe. You fear rejection, so you don’t speak up for the truth even though in your heart you know you should. You fear your dreams won’t come true, so you shrink them to a more reasonable size. You fear your dreams haven’t come true, so you pretend you never had them in the first place. You fear that God’s dreams for you aren’t even close to your dreams for yourself, so deep down, you resent him bitterly. You fear that if you went all-out in discipleship, and followed Jesus no matter what it cost you, you would lose out on something worth having. You fear suffering. You fear persecution. You fear death. All these fears loom over you in their imposing greatness; in comparison to them, you feel weak and small; and so, you obey them. You do what your fears dictate; they enslave you, but it seems a price worth paying to ensure that the illusion of security is prolonged a little longer.

What is the solution to the problem of fear? Not to get rid of it, but to rightly order it. Fear itself isn’t the problem; the problem isn’t that we fear, but what we fear—or better, whom we fear. In short, we fear Man; and because we fear Man, we trip over ourselves to please people even if in so doing we displease God. Freedom from the fear of Man is hard to come by; it involves infinite risks and bitter suffering. But it’s worth it. How do you get hold of it? How do we exchange our timidity for the heart of a lion? Freedom from the fear of Man only comes by daring to ignore your fears and daring instead to fear God alone.

“I tell you friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I warn you whom to fear: fear Him who, after has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I say, fear him!” (Luke 12.4-5). I didn’t make that up; those are the very words of Jesus Christ. But then, what happens if we overrule our fears about what people might say or do to us with a greater fear, a deeper reverence, a total regard, an entire, fierce, jealous obedience to God alone, the God who is great? “Fear not, little flock! For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12.32). You see, “the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Prov 29.25). For whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ is righteous. He has come back into the safety Adam lost in the Garden. He lives with God in Christ, and Christ lives in him, and because he lives in the Rock of Ages by faith, he is as immovable as the Rock himself. Ps 112.6-8: “The righteous will never be moved … he is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD; his heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.”

Learn to fear God, and you will find strength you never knew you had to give away your possessions to the poor, or to put your hard-earned job on the line for the sake of truth, or to offer up your body into death for the name of Jesus, or to give up your pride by telling the truth about your sin to your wife, or to yourself, or to God. For in the presence of the One who alone is to be feared, you will find that his grace has made you fearless, and free.

To the great God, the fear of Isaac (Gen 31.42), who alone accomplishes this fearlessness in us frail ones by his strong grace, be glory forever. Amen. 

On the Holy Trinity

Introduction: building the Ark

(a) Our Noah moment. Heb 11.7: “By faith Noah, having been warned concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the salvation of his household. By so doing he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Just as in the days of Noah, so now, it’s only a matter of time before divine judgment falls upon the earth. Our ark of salvation is the Church of God. I have been sent here as a shipwright of Jesus Christ to build it up by preaching the truth.

(b) How do we build the kind of ark that will stand fast in our generation? When a football team starts to struggle, the coach brings his players back to the “fundamentals”: blocking, tackling, holding on to the ball, etc. For us, this translates to the four parts of the Catechism:

(1) the Christian life = 10 Commandments

(2) the Christian Faith = Apostles’ Creed

(3) Christian prayer = Lord’s Prayer/Psalter

(4) the Christian mysteries = Baptism & Eucharist.

*We do the Four Parts each week in the liturgy. That’s no accident: the idea is that through this “catechetical” worship, we’re molded into discipleship. For the summer, I will preach the Christian Faith, i.e., the Creed (cf. Eph 4.11ff).

(c) Why preach the Creed? Because we need rock-solid Christian truth more than air to breathe or bread to eat. For Americans, the question that counts is not: “Is this true?” but “Does this work?” or “Does this feel good?” For Christians, truth is all: it is our meat and our drink, our purpose and our joy, our reason for living and (if called upon) our reason for dying. To know the truth of God, to confess his truth, to rejoice in his truth, to live his truth is more precious than life itself. Truth is what holds the ark together, and keeps it from breaking into pieces when the stormy waves of a truthless age rage against the Church of God. This summer, we will preach, confess, and celebrate together the core truths that make for the structural integrity of the ark of salvation: the doctrine of creation, the fall and sin, the Old Testament, the person & work of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, the Last Things.

Today we begin with the most important truth of all: the Holy Trinity. Three things: 1. What is our teaching? 2. Is this biblical? 3. Why does this matter?

1. What is our teaching? (Gen 1)

Before the beginning, from everlasting to everlasting, the God who is, and who was, and who is to come is the Holy and Happy Trinity, one God in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Gen 1.1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But the God who did this is never and has never been and never will be alone. For he is the eternal Father. There was once a time when I was not yet a father. Then, when Mary Clare came along, I became one. But God never “becomes” anything; there is no shadow of turning with him (James 1.17). He is the eternal Father, for he has always been the everlasting Father of his endlessly beloved Son. So the Son himself declares in Prov 8 (vv. 23f, 27, 30): “Before the beginning … I was brought forth … When God established the heavens, I was there … I was beside Him like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” So the Father delights in his Son, and the Son rejoices before his Father. Before the beginning, the God who made all things and time itself was infinitely happy, because he was not alone, but accompanied by his Son. And not only this! The delight, the joy, the love, the peace, the friendship that Father and Son share between them – the Father for his Son, and the Son for his Father – is so infinitely real and glorious and full of being & life that “it” is in fact a “He,” a Person, the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as the Love that flows as a River of Life from the great heart of the eternal Lover, the Father, to his eternally Beloved Son, and from the glad Son back to his radiant Father. These three different persons, the Great Lover, the true Beloved, and Love itself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are the one true God: the God who, according to St John, is love (1 John 4.8).

2. Is this teaching biblical?

The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the truth of the Trinity is present from the very first page. In the beginning, God created the heavens & the earth: the Father (Gen 1.1). And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep (v. 2). And when the time came to bring light out of darkness, how did God make light? By his Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (v. 3). For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and all things were made through him” (John 1.1-3). The Father made everything out of nothing by his Word, his Wisdom, his Son. And as for the Spirit, he is the Lord and the Giver of life. Ps 104.30: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” David wraps all this up in one verse, Ps 33.6: “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the ruach, the breath or Spirit, of his mouth.” Yes, the Trinity of Persons is the Lord of Creation; and that is why at Gen 1.26, when the time comes to make Man in the image of God, God said: “Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness.” Not my image: our, for the Father made Man by his Word and Spirit. But these three persons are one God, as St Moses explains in v. 27: “So God created Man in his image.” Do you hear that? Plural in v. 26: “us … our.” Singular in v. 27: not our, but “his.” For the three different persons are hinted at in v. 26, and the one undivided essence is confirmed in v. 27. You see, people who think they’re rather clever because they know the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible fail to see that the truth and reality of the Trinity is literally taught from page 1. This, on the basis of the Word of God, is our catholic faith in the Holy Trinity.

3. Why does this matter? (Eph 1.3-14) 

(a) To be honest, the question is not really a good one. Suppose a man wants to marry a woman because she’s rich, and doesn’t give a hill of beans about what she is like. He doesn’t want to know her, because he doesn’t love her; he just wants her stuff. That’s how we often relate to God. We don’t really want to know him, because we don’t really love him that much at all; we just want his stuff. But if a man loves a woman, he wants to know her. He regards her. When she tells him about who she is, he listens eagerly and marks every word. If you love God, then press on to know him. When he speaks to you in his Word, and reveals to you who he is, listen eagerly to him and mark every word.

(b) Even so, I do think it’s important to explain one reason why the truth of the Holy Trinity matters. In reality, nothing makes sense apart from the truth of the Holy Trinity, because the Holy Trinity is God, and nothing makes sense, nothing holds together, nothing – to quote Switchfoot – is sound apart from him. But above all, the truth of the Holy Trinity matters because if we lose hold of this doctrine, we will lose hold of the truth of the gospel. That is the conviction that drove men of old like Athanasius to fight against the heresy of Arius (who denied that Christ is true God) with all their might. It’s really that simple: if we do not confess the true Faith of the catholic Church in the Holy Trinity, then we will have no good news, no gospel of grace, to preach at all.

(c) St Paul makes this crystal clear in Eph 1.3-14, for the gospel is the good news of the love of the Father, the blood of the Son, and the promise of the Holy Spirit.

(i.) The gospel begins not with Christmas or the cross, but with the eternal, free & loving purpose of the Father. Hear in v. 4 the good news of a grace that is stronger than you are. Before he laid the foundation of the world, Father had more important business to attend to. He chose us for salvation in Christ, not because he foresaw that we’d make ourselves holy by our works, but because he resolved to make us holy by his grace. St Paul explains this further in vv. 4c-5: Father predestined us for adoption as sons through his Son, Jesus Christ, not because we earned this, but because he loves us with an everlasting love (Jer 31.3). If that’s true—if my salvation does not depend upon my will or my effort, but upon the purpose and grace of the God who chose to become my Father for the very, very simple reason that he loves me—if this gospel is true, then there is hope, even for men as deeply sinful as me.

(ii.) If the gospel begins with the eternal love of the Father, the heart & soul of it is the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ. The Father so loved the world, that he gave his Son. Hence vv. 6-7: all the riches of grace Father lavishes upon us are heaped up in his Son, the Beloved; it is in Christ, by his shed blood, that we have redemption, the forgiveness of all our sins.

Now, all this is tomfoolery if our confession about the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God is not true. Think about it. If Jesus Christ were not true Man, how could he have suffered for us in our place? He’d have no blood to shed, and no reason to shed it, if he were not a Son of Adam. But if he were not also true God, how could his blood possess the power to atone for the sins of the whole world? Maybe your sins aren’t quite as sinful as mine. But I assure you, if God himself hasn’t taken my flesh to die in my place, I am a dead man. Without the truth of the Trinity, the cross is a tragedy and not a triumph, and we are still in our sins. What about the resurrection? If Jesus were not true Man, how could he rise again from death? But if he were not also true God, how could he destroy death’s power? Without the truth of the Trinity, the tomb is still empty, death still stings, and we have nothing to hope for.

In sum: If an extraordinary Man died for a good cause or even rose again from the dead, I suppose that might be very interesting. But it wouldn’t do us a lick of good. But if the blood of God has paid the debts I owe, then I am free. And if the perfect life of the living God has vanquished death itself in his own tortured body, then even if I die, through faith in the first-century Jewish peasant who is also the second Person of the eternal Trinity I will live forevermore.

(iii.) Ah, but how does this love and grace come to me? The Father, you say, chose me before the foundation of the world; Jesus died so long ago; how can this have anything to do with me? The gospel really comes into its own when we hear the good news about the Holy Spirit and his grace and power. For the Spirit is the One who takes the redemption prepared by the Father in eternity and won for us by the Son 20 centuries past and makes it powerfully effective in our present here-and-now.

When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2.5). How? By giving us the gift of his Spirit, who is the Lord and Giver of life (John 6.63). The Spirit is the One who, by an act of almighty power, causes still-born sons of the first Adam to be born all over again in the Last Man, Jesus Christ (John 3.3-8). The Spirit is the One who opens up our blind eyes, so that we can see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4.4-6). And by bringing us to Christ, the Spirit leads us by the hand to the loving embrace of our Father (Eph 2.18). For he is the Spirit of adoption. He is the One who pours Father’s love into our hearts, and it’s the gift of this fatherly affection that knits up our scarred hearts & emboldens us to cry out to the Ruler of the universe, “Abba, Daddy, My Father, my dear, dear Father!” (Rom 8.15, 5.5). And as it is the Spirit who first brings us to the Father through Jesus the Son, so it is the Spirit who keeps us in this grace and love to the very end. Hence Eph 1.13-14: when we trusted in Christ, we were “sealed” with the promise of the Holy Spirit. It’s his presence, grace, and power in us that guarantees to us that we really are the children of God (Rom 8.16). And if children, then heirs. And if children of such a loving, kind, faithful God as this—who has given his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to reassure our wavering hearts—then most beloved children whom Father will never cast off.

It comes to this: we weakling Christians will persevere, because the Spirit will preserve us; and this Spirit is no weakling, but the Third of the Three, the Lord God, the Almighty. Because the Spirit is Lord; because Christ’s grace is strong; because Father’s love is unflinching: we beggars rightly boast that nothing can separate us from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13.14, Rom 8.39).

This is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it, and give glory, laud, and honor to the God of all grace, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Freedom of the Church

In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was hanged by Nazis six years later, and now reigns with Christ in paradise) wrote an essay explaining American Christianity to his fellow German churchmen. The title: "Protestantism without Reformation." At some point, I think I'd better flesh that out a bit here on this blog. For now, check out these timely paragraphs:


"America calls itself the land of the free. Under this term today it understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech, and action. In this context, religious freedom is - for the American - an obvious possession. Church preaching and organization, the life of the communities can develop independently without being bothered by the state. Praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere, coupled with the sharpest condemnation of any limitation of such freedom which has taken place anywhere. Thus 'freedom' here means 'possibility,' the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the Church."

That was then, this is now. But Bonhoeffer goes on to explain why the loss of this kind of 'freedom,' i.e. the right to the free exercise of religion, is not actually tragic for the Church; for religious liberty, while a good in some respects, is not in fact the real freedom of the Church.

"If the freedom of the Church is understood essentially as this 'possibility'" - i.e., the kind of freedom that is vanishing before our eyes today - "then the idea of freedom is still not properly discerned. The freedom of the Church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the Church is not a gift of the world to the Church, but the freedom of the Word itself to gain a hearing. The Church's freedom is not an unlimited number of possibilities. Freedom only exists where a 'must,' a necessity, compels it on occasion against all possibilities" - see St Paul in 1 Cor 9 on the 'necessity' laid upon him to preach the gospel; Bonhoeffer is saying that we are only truly free when the utter urgency of the gospel compels us to preach this liberating Word. "The praise of freedom as the possibility of existence given by the world to the Church can stem precisely from an agreement entered upon with this world in which the true freedom of the Word of God is surrendered. Thus it can happen that a Church which boasts of its freedom as a possibility offered to it by the world slips back into the world in definite ways - that a Church which is 'free' in this way becomes secularized more quickly than a Church which does not possess this 'freedom' as a possibility. 

In other words, a church like the confessing Church in Nazi Germany which preaches the true Word of God is actually more 'free' than a Church in America which holds back from preaching the truth in order to protect the 'liberties' that the federal government sees fit to grant it. Which is why we must be careful not only to lament in these dark days, but to hope.

"Freedom as an institutional possession" - i.e., religious freedom as we have known it here in America for three centuries or so - "is not an essential mark of the Church. It can be a gracious gift given to the Church by the providence of God; but it can also be the great temptation to which the Church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the Churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God. Only where this Word can be preached concretely, in the midst of historical reality, in judgment, command, forgiveness for sinners, and liberation from all human institutions, is there freedom of the Church. But where thanks for institutional freedom must be rendered by the sacrifice of the freedom of preaching, the Church is in chains even it believes itself to be free."

That is the question: which kind of freedom will we choose to enjoy? Make no mistake: if we capitulate to the creeping totalitarianism of culture and government by toning down and carefully qualifying the truth of the Word of God, we will be in chains. But on this Pentecost, we rejoice in the truth that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3.17). Come Holy Spirit, revive the preaching of the Word of God in this land. Amen.

Ascension and the politics of the kingdom

The deck is stacked against this sermon. For one thing, isn’t ascension all about Jesus abandoning earthly things for heavenly? For another: religion & politics are best kept separate, and in any case both are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation. Ah! but the gospel is not about polite conversation, it is about the truth; & we who gather to hear the preaching of the gospel are not a polite society, but a real church of real sinners redeemed by the real grace of Jesus Christ. When we hear the truth of his gospel & receive it in repentance & faith, it changes everything about life in this world, including our politics: perhaps especially our politics. Of all the doctrines of our faith, probably none is more political than the bodily ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

1. On the enthronement of the Son of Man

(a) Jesus’ bodily ascension 40 days after Easter stands between his past bodily resurrection & his future bodily return to raise the dead, judge, & make all things new. Ascension is not about the glorification of Christ in his divinity—for the glory of the Son of God, the glory he had with the Father before the world began (John 17.5), is infinite, and can never be increased—but in his humanity. At last, a Son of Adam—the Son of Adam—reigns on high. This is the meaning of the Ascension.

(b) What is he up to in the meantime? He is our Priest, Prophet, and King.

(i.) Dan 7.13f = the enthronement of the Last Adam: “Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and he came to the Ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

(c) The now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom. On the last Day, the ascended King will return in glory, vanquish every opponent – including Death – and establish his kingdom in all the earth (1 Cor 15.21-8). Now, Jesus reigns in two ways:

(i.) He reigns in his Church, through preaching & sacrament. This kingdom of grace is both revealed & hidden. John 3.3: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We catch glimpses of it every time we see redemption happen: every time grace transforms life. When we baptize a child, forgive an enemy, listen to the Bible, pray as a family, Jesus the King invades the realm of darkness and establishes his kingdom of grace and life.

(ii.) He also rules over the nations, though this is deeply hidden …

2. On Revelation 1.5

(a) Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr, the firstborn of the dead, is “the Ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1.5). Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Hitler, Reagan, Bush, Obama, & whoever might be US President #45: the Jewish peasant executed under Pontius Pilate c. AD 30 rules over them all. Eph 1.20-22: God “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule & authority & power & dominion, & above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet.”

(i.) This is and remains true, above all when we cannot see how it can possibly be true. Heb 2.8, explaining Ps 8.6’s prophecy of the rule of the exalted Son of Man, might be the greatest understatement in the Bible: “In putting everything under subjection to the Christ, God left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” When the bodily eye sees nothing but injustice & death, the eye of faith see the lordship of Jesus the crucified Christ. Maximilian Kolbe, 15 June 1941: “Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because the good God is everywhere and provides for everything with love.” After sacrificing his life for a husband & father of three, he died 14 Aug 1941.

(b) Jesus Christ is the Man appointed to judge the rulers of the earth. He will do this finally & fully at the end of time, but he also does this in the midst of history. With sovereign power, Mary’s Son raises up men & nations to serve his purpose, but scatters the proud in their conceit and casts down the mighty from their thrones in justice and judgment (cf. the prophecies against the nations in Isa, Jer, Ezek, etc.). He has a long, sharp sword protruding from his mouth, and when the time is ripe, he wields it to strike down evil nations and rule wicked rulers with a rod of iron (Rev 19.14). Kolbe’s emaciated body was incinerated in 1941, but his soul was safe with Christ and his ashes will be raised to immortal glory on the last day. By 1945, Hitler’s fat body, together with his pathetic Reich, had perished—to say nothing of the eternal wrath that engulfed his evil soul. Jesus Christ, who was judged for us on the cross, will judge for us on the last Day. For he is the King of kings. He will see to it that all is put to rights.

(c) Use: St John wrote to a persecuted church, to assure them that despite all appearances to the contrary, the ascended Jesus is in fact Lord. Amidst political chaos, the Christian has every reason to be calm. Isa 33.5-6: “The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high”—ascension!—“he will fill Zion with justice & righteousness, and he will be the stability of your times.” John 16.33: “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have conquered the world.”

3. The politics of the kingdom

(a) The first political imperative for the Church: be the Church. We are a royal nation, a holy people, a kingdom (1 Pet 2, Rev 1.6) of monarchist exiles scattered amongst the nations & fiercely loyal to Jesus the King (Phil 3.20-1).

(i.) With creativity, courage, and joy, we must resist our culture’s privatization of Christianity into a purely “spiritual” affair. If our hope were disembodied bliss, the Church could afford to be a private, personal, religious club. But because we hope for bodily resurrection in the kingdom of God, we the Church are a public and embodied people. Politics has to do with ordering the common life of a people. We are the people of God. The Spirit has gathered us together to share a common life in Jesus Christ. We Jesus people (!) are a counter-politics, the kingdom of Jesus taking shape here-and-now through the saving power of his gospel. For this reason—

(ii.) The biggest political act of resistance you can make: keep the Sabbath holy, in order to worship God. Refuse anything that tugs you or your kids away from being the Church, i.e. from being the holy people who know, fear, and love the holy & true God, and who therefore ascribe ultimate worth (worth-ship) to him, and to him alone. Refuse to let TV, social media, or soccer coaches catechize your family. When we pray together, listen to the Word of God, talk to each other instead of texting, we perform revolutionary acts that subvert the values of our culture and bear witness to the truth of the kingdom of God.

(b) If the Church is a political reality – an exile people – it begs the question: how does this holy nation of exiles relate to the earthly nations in which it sojourns? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the church/state problem.

(i.) Error #1: Fuse church and state into one: the nationalistic captivity of Christianity.

(ii.) Error #2: Separate them so that your public politics has nothing to do with your personal faith (JFK: Don't worry, Catholicism will have nothing to do with my presidency).

(iii.) Truthful Christian politics. America is not, never was, and never will be the Church—& we the people of the kingdom must navigate how to engage politics as faithful servants of Jesus the King while we sojourn in the democracy named America.

(c) What does that look like? Christians always hold dual citizenship – this never changes prior to the resurrection of the dead – but the circumstances of the earthly cities we sojourn in is always in flux.

(i.) If the host nation welcomes God’s exile people, we work together with it for its welfare. Jer 29.7: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We do this in “quiet” ways: strengthening families, neighborhoods, etc. Doing good work with skill, nobility, and generosity, not just to serve our appetites but to serve Christ (1 Thess 4.11). Col 3.23: “Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord, and not for men.” Engaging the political life of the cities we dwell in, not just to secure our interests but to minister justice and peace.

*Above all, for as long as it lets us, we serve the earthly city well when we live & speak the truth about what it means to be human, defending the vulnerable and speaking up for people who can’t speak for themselves. Prov 31.8-9: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”

-Past examples: Wilberforce; George Bell; Oscar Romero; Mother Theresa.

-Today: unborn people are people; so are old, economically useless, dying people; so are immigrants. “Man," Man and Woman, Marriage! – which is our segue …

(ii.) If the host nation tells lies about its ultimacy and demands unconditional allegiance, we suffer martyrdom: for we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5.29). The three young men did well to serve in the Babylonian bureaucracy. But when push came to shove, Dan 3.17f: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

(iii.) In USA at present, we’re living the transition from kindly host nation to hostility & persecution. This calls for discernment and courage. Like the Jews inBabylon, engage culture, politics, etc. wherever it is good and right to do so as a citizen of the kingdom of Christ. But bow the knee to Christ alone. Do not doubt that our nation is under judgment. Do not expect liberation to come from any son of Adam or from either political party. Do not be afraid. Put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Ruler of kings on earth. We don’t need America to be a Christian nation, for we are the Christian nation, the holy catholic Church of Jesus Christ.

(iv.) In short, make the Eucharist the center of your politics. In the Supper, we gather publicly as the people of the King of kings. We proclaim our allegiance to Messiah Jesus and to his kingdom, and the King of glory fills us up with the food & drink of our homeland. The martyred body and blood of the risen King gladden our weary souls and strengthen us even to the point of giving up our bodies into death for his name. He who will have no communion with Christ in his death will not come to share in the glory of his resurrection. But whoever feeds on his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life, and Christ will raise him up on the last Day (John 6.54). To him be glory forever, Amen.

And now, let us pledge allegiance to the true God in the words of the Nicene Creed.

The Living One

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! On earth, there is no joy greater than the joy that comes to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The darkness of Good Friday, the grey sadness of Holy Saturday, makes the light that shines on this first day of the week, which is also the first day of the new creation, all the more radiant and bright. The law is fulfilled. The wrath of God is satisfied. The power of sin is broken. The devil is bound. Hell is plundered. Death itself has died. Rejoice, dear friends. Whatever sorrows you carry, whatever sins you bear, whatever hidden chains of shame hold you bound, Rejoice, and be glad. For Jesus Christ is risen today, and in him you’ve received the gift of unconquerable righteousness, life, and joy. Alleluia! Alleluia!

1. The Reality of the Resurrection

Mary Magdalene and the other women went at dawn Sunday morning to attend to the corpse of Jesus. Doesn’t that ugly word, “corpse,” drive home the brutal reality of it all? Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. He truly suffered for us under Pontius Pilate. His limp, lifeless corpse truly was taken down from the cross and deposited in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. “But when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (v. 3). The tomb was empty! The corpse was gone. Why? Because just as truly as Jesus died for us on the cross, so he truly, really, bodily rose again on the third day. “He is not here,” the dazzlingly dressed angels explain, “He has risen!” (v. 6). Dear friends, the Easter gospel is not a timeless truth about how new life arises from death. It is not a poem to inspire vague hope that somehow everything will work out in the end. The Easter gospel, the Easter message, is about what we might call “cold hard facts” if the facts in question weren’t so terribly warm, gladdening, and sweet. Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is alive; the tomb is empty; death is undone in the real, risen, nail-pierced body of Jesus, the Son of God.

2. The Living One

Now look at Luke 24.5. In most Bibles it says “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” and that’s not a bad translation. But another way to put it is: “Why do you seek The Living One among the dead?” or The One who lives. And that doesn’t just tell us something about Jesus’ condition, i.e., that he is alive; it tells us about who he is, that he is The Living One. That matches how Jesus described himself when he appeared to St John in Rev 1.17-18: “I am the First and the Last and The Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and hell.” Jesus rose again from the dead because he is the Living One, and it was impossible for death to hold him bound (Acts 2.24).

He is the Living One for two reasons:

(a) He is the Son of God. He says truly what only the everlasting God could possibly say: “I am the First and the Last.” As the eternal Son of the eternal Father, he is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5.20, 1.2), and the author of life in every creature (Acts 3.15). Everything that lives and moves and has being, lives and moves and has being through him (John 1.1-4). In him was and is and always will be life. That is why he is the One who lives. And better to look for snow in the Sahara than for the One who lives in a tomb. We mortals die out of weakness. The Living One laid down his life into death as an act of sovereign grace and power (John 10.18), not because he couldn’t avoid death but in order to destroy death, to make all creation new, and to bring us mortals immortality and life through his gospel (2 Tim 1.10).

(b) He is the Last Adam. “By a man came death, and by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15.21). Death is the fair wage of sin. But this Man, Jesus Christ, is the Righteous One. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary in order to renew in himself the nature Adam’s folly plunged into corruption and death. To his dying breath, this True Man did nothing but love his Father, love his friends, love his enemies (“Father, forgive!”) with his whole heart. Death has a just claim on each of us, but it had no right to take this Man. Adam and all his children became mortal through sin. This last Man is the Living One because he is the Righteous One. Death had no right to kill this sinless Man, and overplayed its hand at the cross, and lost everything in the end. Death couldn’t hold Christ bound in its cruel chains, and it cannot hold the weakest Christian who puts his trust in him.

(c) That’s the power of the glorious words: “I have the keys of death and hell” (Rev 1.18). You “have the keys” to something if you own it, if you have full right, authority, and power to dispose of it as you wish. That is what Jesus Christ, true God and Man and thus the Living One twice over (!), has, possesses, and enjoys in his own Person: complete authority over death and hell. Even before the cross, Jesus cast out demons with a single word (Matt 8.16). Then in the greatest battle of all time, our true David triumphed over death, devils, and all the dark powers of hell once and for all. Now, as King of kings and Lord of lords, Mary’s Son rules with full authority over the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, over life and death and hell itself. He is the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David in his nail-pierced hand. He opens, and no one will shut; he shuts, and no one will open (Rev 3.7). Such is the immense power of the One who lives.  

3. What the Living One does with his keys

Now in the last place, let’s pay close attention to what the Living One did with those keys of his on the first Easter morning.

(a) He chose to bestow a great honor on Mary Magdalene: she was the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead (Mark 16.9). You see a hint of that in Luke 24, in the fact that she heads the list of the women who saw the angels and brought the gospel of the resurrection to the apostles (v. 10). In John 20 we get the full story. I’ll save the details for another day, but what counts now is this simple fact: the first person to see the Risen One, the first evangelist, indeed the one chosen to preach the apostolic gospel of the resurrection to the apostles themselves, was Mary Magdalene. We know from Mark’s gospel that Jesus had cast out seven demons from Mary (16.9). By tradition, she is the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7. Now why would Jesus choose her, of all people, to be the first to see him after he rose from the dead? Because the salvation that is through Jesus is by grace. By his grace, he liberated her from those demons, died for her sins, rose again to bring her life. By his grace, the risen King appears first to her, thus making her an everlasting token of grace. By that same grace, he appoints the Mary who had been a harlot (not the Mary who remained a Virgin) to preach his victory over sin and death to his faithless apostles. Now, if the One who lives used those keys of his to unlock the prison of sin and shame that held dear Mary bound, don’t you think he can and will do the same for you? If Jesus the King appointed Mary the prostitute to preach his gospel of grace, don’t you think that for the glory of this great grace he’ll find a way to put you to work too? 

(b) Then there’s Peter, dear, dear Peter. When Mary and the others told the apostles what they had heard and seen, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb” (vv. 11-12). Now why do you suppose he did that? I think Peter, out of all the apostles, was the one to get up and run to the tomb, because of all the apostles Peter had fallen the farthest into the dungeon of despair. Now it’s a rule of the Christian life (just read the Psalms!) that he who despairs little, hopes little, but the one who despairs much hopes much. The last we hear mention of Peter in Luke’s gospel is two chapters back, 22.61-2: after denying three times that he even knew Jesus, the Lord looked across the courtyard and made eye contact with Peter, “and he went out and wept bitterly.” I’m sure Peter thought it was all over for him; and perhaps, suffering bitterly under the conviction of sin, you’ve thought it’s all over for you. But Jesus is not dead: he is risen! the women say. And if Jesus is risen, then there’s a glimmer of hope in the darkness, even for Peter. I suppose the other apostles could afford to wait and see if further evidence might turn up to confirm the women’s idle tale about the resurrection. That, after all, is how most decent, sensible, middle-class people react when they hear the gospel. But Peter, that great sinner, takes leave of this common sense men’s conversation and runs to the tomb. Because he fell so far, because he wept in great bitterness, disgraced Peter knows (as the other apostles do not) that everything depends on whether Jesus is in fact alive. What does he find? Nothing but the linen cloths. The body is gone, and he heads back home marveling at it all (v. 12). Then in St Luke’s gospel there follows the marvelous story of Jesus’ incognito walk with the two men on the Road to Emmaus. Nothing about Peter. But when the two men come to tell the apostles that they’d seen the Lord and that he became known to them in the breaking of the bread, the apostles beat ‘em to it with this simple word: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (24.34). To Simon Peter, that is. What a glorious little detail, and St Paul confirms it in 1 Cor 15.4-5: “Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” The Living One knew Peter the Denier needed those keys of his in a very personal way, to set him free from the chains of guilt and shame that held him bound. So in his great grace, the Risen Jesus appeared specially to Peter, to unshackle his guilt-locked conscience and to fulfill his highest hope. The others got to see him too, eventually. But Peter the Denier received his own private audience with the King of glory. Do you hear the gospel of grace, real, solid, strong, free grace, in this gospel of the resurrection? If you do, then be sure to get up like St Peter and run by faith to the One who lives. He knows how to unlock and burst apart the strongest chains hell knows how to forge. Your Redeemer is strong: stronger than sin, stronger than death, stronger than hell itself. Your Redeemer lives, now and forevermore. Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Good Friday

The story of the arrest, trial, torture, and execution of Jesus, the Son of God, is overwhelming. I’m reminded of Hab 2.20: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” The Lord is betrayed, abandoned, mocked, spit upon, slandered, beaten, condemned, flogged, pierced with nails, hung up naked on the cross, pierced by a spear, buried in the earth: let all the earth keep silence before him. What word can the preacher hope to speak, when death shrouds the Word of God in silence? Even so, tonight we declare the praises of the Lamb who was slain through preaching the word of his cross. For on this very day about 1,985 years ago, under Pontius Pilate, the Son of God suffered and died for us. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!

1. The Facts

(a) What Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans. St John was there (18.15, 19.26f). He bears eyewitness testimony to the historical truth: “He who saw it has borne witness, his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth, that you also may believe” (19.35). This all really happened; that’s why Pontius Pilate’s lamentable name is forever etched in the Creed. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied him. Annas and Caiaphas, too holy to enter the house of Pilate on a feast day (18.29), contrived to execute the real High Priest and to slaughter the Passover Lamb (19.14). Pilate looked Truth incarnate in the eye and said: “What is truth?” (18.38). The soldiers beat Jesus, crowned him with thorns, arrayed him in purple, mockingly hailed him King of the Jews (19.1-3). Again and again, Pilate declared Jesus innocent (18.38, 19.4, 6, 12). But he was a coward, and out of fear he sentenced the Righteous One to death. The soldiers then scourged Jesus. That is, they tied him to a post and beat him with a leather whip laced with shards of metal and bone until his bones and intestines were exposed. Then they laid the rough wood for the cross upon the back they had torn open, and Jesus carried the instrument of his own execution out of the city to the place of the Skull. There, along with two criminals, the soldiers drove nails through his wrists and feet and hung him up to die a slow and agonizing death on the cross (19.17-18). He suffered for a few hours, saved the thief, provided for his mother, cried out in despair to his Father. As the end drew near, he took a sip of sour wine to moisten his parched throat, declared one single, precious word—“Finished”—bowed his head, gave up his spirit, and died (19.29-30).

(b) What Jesus suffered by the will of the LORD. In the prophecy of Isaiah, we learn that it was not only Pilate who handed over Jesus to be crucified. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53.10).

(i.) Jesus did not suffer physical torment alone. He was crushed and put to grief by a suffering far worse than any torture. For in the garden, when he trembled with fear, fell to the ground, and sweat great drops of blood, it was not death by crucifixion, but “the cup” he begged Father to take away that struck fear into the depths of his holy soul. In the OT the prophets speak of the “cup of the wrath of the LORD” that one day will be poured out upon the nations in judgment, e.g. Ps 75.8: “In the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” God’s Son came down from heaven to drink this cup for us, and on the cross he drained it down to the dregs. And the wrath of the Almighty which he drank from this cup made up the chief part of his agony and bitter sufferings. If God is for us, who can be against us? What harm can torture, crucifixion, and death do to me if God is on my side? But if the LORD GOD himself, in the awesome holiness of his wrath, should enter into judgment against me, then even if the whole world & every pleasure it has to offer is mine, I am doomed. And Isaiah is painfully clear on just this point: “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.”

(ii.) This is why Jesus asked Father to take away the cup. This is why cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you’ve ever suffered the pain of spiritual abandonment, ever felt forsaken and cast off by God, then you’ll be able to form a small idea of what it meant for Jesus to drink this “cup.” But the gravest spiritual sufferings the saints endure are at most tiny little sips from the dreadful cup that Jesus drained to the dregs. No, not one of us can fathom what Jesus suffered for us in his holy soul.

(iii.) But Isaiah explains why he suffered this agony. Jesus bore our griefs, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that brought us peace. By his wounds, we are healed. All we like wayward sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone of us, to his own way. Yet the LORD has laid all our iniquity upon him (53.4-6). For he is the Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world upon himself (John 1.29), into himself (1 Pet 2.24), suffering by grace what we deserved by right, and so setting us free.

(iv.) That’s why Isaiah’s prophecy continues in v. 11 to explain what will issue from the Messiah’s obedient suffering: “Out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied; by his knowledge the Righteous One, my Servant, will make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” The Lamb took upon himself the sins of his people for him alone to bear. Therefore, our sins lie upon us no longer. In fact, our sins (properly speaking) are ours no longer, but Christ’s: otherwise the prophecy of Isaiah and the promise of John the Baptist, that this Man is the Lamb of God and that he bears the sins of the whole world, are empty and untrue.

(v.) This is the very heart of the gospel, the gracious truth that makes this worst of all Fridays Good. The Lord weighed down his sinless Lamb with our sins and crushed him, in order to relieve us of the burden that would otherwise have crushed us. The Righteous One is accounted a sinner in our place; we sinners are accounted righteous. The faithful Servant of God is condemned; we faithless sheep, through faith in God’s Lamb, are justified. The goodness of Good Friday lies in this fact alone: that it was not only by the will of Pilate that Jesus was delivered up to be crucified. It was the will of the LORD to crush him. In an unimaginable act of grace and love, he did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all (Rom 8.32). These are the facts of the matter. This is what happened on Good Friday.

2. Finished

 (a) Finished. In his last sermon, Jesus needed just one word to preach the whole gospel: tetelestai, “It is finished” (19.30). The work of redemption is finished. The mission of the Son of Man, to seek and save the lost: finished. The debt sheet that stood against us with its legal demands—Christ has paid it all in full at the ransom-price of his his body and blood, so that that whole business is finished & done. There is not one more holy work, there is not one more ounce of bitter suffering, that remains to be done or to be endured by us in order to secure our own redemption. For it is all finished now. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has redeemed us by his blood.

(i.) That’s the big point in Heb 9 & 10. Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant of grace; by his death he has redeemed us from the transgressions committed under the first covenant of works (9.15). Finished. He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9.26). Finished. By his the perfect obedience of his holy will, we sinners have been sanctified by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all (10.10). Finished. When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God … for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (10.12 & 14). Finished. The very moment God’s Son drew his last breath and died in our place, the work of redemption was finished & done. 

(b) The spiritual conclusion drawn from this “finished” is confidence. Jesus Christ has redeemed us, forgiven us, justified us, set us free; it is all finished & done. Therefore, Heb 10.19: we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus. Jesus Christ is our High Priest, who has sprinkled our filthy consciences clean by his blood even as he washed our dirty bodies clean by the pure water of baptism. Therefore, Heb 10.21: we draw near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Come to him! Come boldly! Run to the throne of God with confidence as the throne of mercy and grace! Run along the path that Jesus has paved for you by his cross.

(i.) Now I want to tell you the tale of two Good Fridays. The first is about me. In past years, at a time when I didn’t understand the little word “finished,” and when I never could’ve preached what by God’s grace I have preached to you this holy night, I did what I could to crawl to the cross. I dared not presume to run into God’s arms. I tried to offer my own humility as a sacrifice that would earn his good favor and grace. I promised to do what I could to pay back the debt I still owed. What a poor Good Friday did I keep, then. I was so bound by religion that I did not know how to sanctify this day and keep it holy.

(ii.) A few years later I was in prison on Good Friday, to preach in the chapel service. I don’t remember at all what I said that day. But I will never forget how one of the inmates read the story of the Passion. When he got to John 19.30, he paused, and then cried out in a loud voice: “Tetelestai! It is finished!” That dear brother had come to know the power of the cross. With empty hands, by faith in Christ alone, he ran confidently into the loving arms of his Father at a time when I, an ordained clergyman, was still learning to walk. Perhaps it is easier for a convicted felon to receive the gift of the cross than it is for a seminarian, or a priest, or a pious man. My prayer this holy night is that the Holy Spirit come to teach each one of us to run boldly (like that holy prisoner) into the Holy Places of the Almighty, through faith in the blood of the Lamb. Amen, come Lord Jesus! Make St Michael’s a church of grace, a church that lives by your cross, a church of miserable offenders washed white in your blood & filled to the brim with confidence in the love and mercy of our Father. To Him, together with you and the Holy Spirit, be endless glory, now and forever, Amen.