April 3, 2007

Sermon for Palmarum: Matthew 26-27

All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night.” +INJ+

Sinful people suppose that they know better than Christ what makes for happiness. So they continue to do what they imagine will satisfy, even though it never does, not in a lasting way. So one persists in drinking too much or eating too much; gossiping, complaining, wallowing in laziness; gazes lustfully at people or images; dreaming of revenge; overcome with resentment for not being respected. All these things cause us to stumble.

But this is not even yet what Jesus means when He says, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night.” The crucified God is the greatest scandal, the greatest offense, the most foolish thing in the history of the universe. We stumble at it because we are afraid that confessing Jesus will lead to trouble for us. Our god is our popularity, or at least our well being; we fear men more than God. Religion is supposed to give a boost to our spirits and supply help for our day-to-day problems, but singing hymns to an executed Jew from two millennia ago doesn’t have any immediate effect on our relationships or our bills. We prefer rejoicing over repentance, therapy over theology. But the biggest stumbling block of all, within Christianity as well as without, is that this death on the cross was necessary, because punishment for sin is necessary.

You will deny Me,” says Jesus to Peter; and the damning words apply to us: I have denied Him, you have denied Him. Not just by failing to speak when we were given opportunity, but we deny Christ by every one of our transgressions. “You will deny Me,” says Jesus, meaning, “You will pretend you have no relationship with Me.” “You are not one of His disciples, are you?” That is the question that is put not just to Peter but to you, repeatedly, constantly: “You are not one of His disciples, are you?” The voice says:

  • You are too busy to pray; reading that book or watching that program would be more interesting than the Bible, wouldn’t it?”

    • You are not one of His disciples, are you?”

  • Go ahead and slander your neighbor – after all, he deserves it!”

    • You are not one of His disciples, are you?”

  • Look at how you are treated! It isn’t fair. Why should you forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it?”

    • You are not one of His disciples, are you?”

  • Don’t you accept all points of view as equally true, all lifestyles as valid choices?”

    • You are not one of His disciples, are you?”

And so question by question, temptation by temptation, you slink away from being a disciple. No one has to put a gun to your head and demand that you deny Christ. For you deny Him daily as you strip Him of His lordship and make yourself the lord.

Is it not true? Whose servant are you? Can it really be said, as your life is reviewed, that you have been a servant of God? Mother Church puts palms in our hands each year on this day not so we can play-act, but to remind us that we are that crowd which sang the praises of Jesus one day, yet by the end of the week was urging His slaughter. We serve ourselves. Our god is our belly; we glory in what pleases us; we will not accept from God the bitter with the sweet, even though we deserve nothing but a bitter death.

But it is Jesus who dies the bitter death, forsaken by God. Jesus dies the death of a rebel, accused of trying to take the kingdom away from the king.1 And it is fitting that Jesus dies the death of a rebel, for that is what our first parents were. The first man Adam and his wife sought to be like God, to take the kingdom for themselves. And that is your sin each day. You will not let God be god in your life; instead, you want the world around you to be your servant. You are the rebel who seeks to usurp God’s place. So when Jesus dies the death of a rebel, He is dying your death.

And that death is necessary. Here is the uncomfortable fact: Jesus dies because of the wrath of God. You make your sins out to be light things; you dismiss them as mistakes, or justified because of the circumstances. But they are not justified by you or society or any circumstance; they cannot be justified by anyone except God – for only He can justify. The holiness of God demands sin be punished; for unlike us, He cannot dismiss it. His righteousness demands justice; sin must have its consequences.

But as deep is His holiness, so deep also is His love. He will not leave His creatures in misery and death, so He takes it upon Himself. This was the purpose for the birth of Jesus, this was the purpose for the incarnation of the Son; that is why the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent was the same story we heard today: Jesus entering Jerusalem to die our death. God took on your flesh so that He could suffer the wrath of God in your place. God the Son becomes the shepherd of the sheep so that He could be struck down as that shepherd; as it is written, “I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” As St. Augustine said, “One divine person … suffers from another.” The death of Jesus is God’s own answer to His wrath.2 There we see on the cross the incredible extent of God’s wrath, and at the same time the profound depths of God’s love. Jesus took the wrath of God on Himself so that God could be both just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.

So when you look at the cross and see that it is your sin that caused it, your rebellion, your hatred, your adultery and covetousness and self-idolatry, it is the most horrific thing imaginable. We can never fully understand the depths of our own depravity that caused this death.

You are guilty – but do not feel guilty about His death. He went to it willingly for you. He went to it not to make you feel guilty, but to make you forgiven, to declare you righteous, innocent, holy, pure. Christ our Shepherd stepped in and took the blow intended for you. “I will strike the Shepherd,” said the Father, “instead of the sheep.” So rejoice, O daughter of Zion! Rejoice, O children of God! For this great and holy week is for you. His death is for you. His life is for you. His forgiveness is for you. +INJ+

1 David Petersen.

2 David Scaer