Lenten Midweek 2: “Behold the Man! A God Beaten”
March 20, 2019
Text: John 18:19-24
So you think you need a god who meets you in the garden alone, who walks with you and talks with you and tells you that you are his own. You need a god who walks with you on the sand and picks you up (figuratively speaking, of course) from time to time when the going gets too tough for you to handle. You need a god who makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside because you know he’s always silently, invisibly rooting for you and maybe miraculously engineering a break for you now and then, and who will take you up into that great golf course in the sky someday. In other words, you need an ethereal god, a not-really-real god, designed by you in your own head, though not all that original… the god of American civil-religious piety. Or, at best, the god of Greek philosopher, Plato. But that is not the God of the Bible. That is not the God who puts His skin in the game, becomes flesh of your flesh, to suffer in the flesh, to save you, body and soul.
Jesus is a God who can be punched. It’s right there in our Holy Gospel. “When he had said these things,” that is, when He had simply and honestly answered the High Priest’s questions, “one of the officers standing by struck with his hand” (John 18:22; ESV). Now, whether it was a punch or a slap (and undoubtedly our Lord suffered both in His Passion), God has human flesh to receive blows from sinners. He has a cheek to be struck, skin that bruises and bleeds… Maybe He ended up with a fat lip. And why is this important? It is one aspect, seemingly insignificant, often missed, but one aspect nonetheless of His suffering for the forgiveness of your sins. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for this very purpose, to receive this unjust blow for you, to suffer and bleed and die for you, to reconcile you to God, to atone for your sin, to give you eternal life. This episode before Annas fulfills the Scriptures, our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). It fulfills God’s will of accomplishing our salvation by the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus.
Indeed, it was the officer whose hand reached out and struck the Lord. But it was more. Our Lord Jesus Christ is stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Is. 53:4). This is God’s punishment of His righteous and holy Son. And why? He has not sinned. He deserves no punishment. But He has taken our place. “(H)e was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (v. 5).
The Church Fathers, pastors of the Church in earlier times, teach us, as they do so well, the full import of this. Hear the preaching of Cyril of Alexandria, who was a pastor in the early to mid 400s. “He was scourged unjustly, that He might deliver us from merited chastisement; He was buffeted and smitten, that we might buffet Satan, who had buffeted us, and that we might escape from the sin that cleaves to us through the original transgression. For if we think aright, we shall believe that all Christ’s sufferings were for us and on our behalf, and have power to release and deliver us from all those calamities we have deserved for our revolt from God. For as Christ, Who knew not death, when he gave up His own Body for our salvation, was able to loose the bonds of death for all mankind, for He, being One, died for all; so we must understand that Christ’s suffering all these things for us sufficed also to release us all from scourging and dishonour. Then in what way by His stripes are we healed, according to the Scripture? Because we have all gone astray, every man after his own way, as says the blessed Prophet Isaiah; and the Lord hath given Himself up for our transgressions, and for us is afflicted. For He was bruised for our iniquities, and has given His own back to the scourge, and His cheeks to the smiters, as He also says.” Thus far Cyril.
Notice here that our Lord, who commanded us, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39), does even more than this. He does not respond to the officer in anger, though He could have responded in divine wrath, calling down fire from heaven, or commanding the earth to open up and swallow the offender. Like those Sons of Thunder, James and John, we may well wish He had done just that. But He doesn’t. He calmly speaks the truth… “if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23)… and then offers not only His other cheek, but His whole body to be beaten, scourged, abused, pierced, crucified, killed. For the man who struck Him! And for you, who have pierced Him with your sins.
St. Augustine, the great pastor and Bishop of Hippo, who was a contemporary of Cyril, reflects of this truth and what it teaches us: “If we consider who it was that received the blow, might we not well feel the wish that he who struck it were either consumed by fire from heaven, or swallowed up by the gaping earth, or seized and carried off by devils, or visited with some other or still heavier punishment of this kind? For what one of all these could not He, who made the world, have commanded by His power, had He not wished rather to teach us the patience that overcometh the world? Some one will say here, Why did He not do what He Himself commanded? for to the one that smote Him, He ought not to have answered thus, but to have turned to him the other cheek. Nay, more than this, did He not answer truthfully, and meekly, and righteously, and at the same time not only prepare His other cheek to him who was yet again to smite it, but His whole body to be nailed to the tree? And hereby He rather showed, what needed to be shown, namely, that those great precepts of His are to be fulfilled not by bodily ostentation, but by the preparation of the heart. For it is possible that even an angry man may visibly hold out his other cheek. How much better, then, is it for one who is inwardly pacified to make a truthful answer, and with tranquil mind hold himself ready for the endurance of heavier sufferings to come.” Here ends Augustine.
And here we learn from our Lord what St. Peter teaches us in our Epistle (1 Peter 2:18-25), that we should endure unjust suffering by faith in the One who unjustly suffered punishment for our sins. It is a gracious thing in the sight of God. We’ve been called to it. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (v. 24), that we might die to self and offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (cf. Rom. 12:1). That is why we turn the other cheek, not in self-righteousness, but as those who are given to suffer for the sake of Christ, who suffered for us and by His suffering won our redemption.
The god of “In the Garden” cannot do that. But the God who is flesh and blood can, and does. That is the God you need, a God who can be punched, slapped, beaten, scourged, crucified, in His body, for the forgiveness of your sins, to save you, body and soul. You need a God with skin in the game. You need Jesus. The real one. From the Bible. With meat. The Crucified One. The One bodily risen from the dead. The One who lives and reigns in human flesh and blood with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. You need the God who gives you that flesh and blood under bread and wine in the Sacrament. Ethereal meetings in gardens make for saccharine poetry, and by the way, if there are two pairs of footprints in the sand, as in your favorite poem, it’s only because yours are running the other way. But the flesh and blood God is the One who really can hold you, in His very real, very pierced hands. Our God was beaten… to death… for our salvation. And we wouldn’t, indeed, couldn’t, have it any other way. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Based on Jeffrey Hemmer, Behold the Man! (St. Louis: Concordia, 2018).
 Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate 113.4, NPNF1 7:419-20. Quoted in Hemmer.
Third Sunday in Lent (C)
March 24, 2019
Text: Luke 13:1-9
It is the perennial question: Why do bad things happen? If God is good, and He loves me, and He is almighty, and can stop bad things from happening, why do they still happen? Jesus asks a similar question of His hearers in our Holy Gospel this morning, and it is not because He doesn’t know the answer. It is rather to teach them and us particularly what the answer is not. Those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices… Were they worse sinners than all the others? After all, think of the sacrilege. It is not unlike if a shooter were to come into Church and mow us all down with a machine gun during Communion, mingling our blood with the holy and precious blood of Christ. If that were to happen, God forbid, would that mean that we are worse sinners than all the Christians whose churches were not a target? Of course not. That’s the point. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell… Were they worse sinners than all the rest living in Jerusalem? It is not unlike those in the Twin Towers on 9/11 who lost their lives when the towers came crashing down. It is safe to say that among the nearly 3,000 who lost their lives that day, over 2,600 of whom were in the towers, there were some faithful Christians who knew the forgiveness of Christ, and who lived relatively virtuous lives. By the way, I was pastor in Michigan to a couple whose daughter was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. This text was very real to them. And a man in our congregation worked at the Pentagon and survived. This is a very real point of contact for all of them, a vital question. Was God out to get them? Were they being punished? Jesus answers with an unequivocal “No.”
But it is a call to us all to repent. It is often the case that we cannot answer the specific reason why a particular bad thing has happened. But we can know this: Every natural or man-made disaster, large or small scale, is a call specifically to you and me to repent. It is not the case that bad things happen because God is out to get sinners. Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame is simply wrong on this. He’s a false prophet. It is true that some sins have direct consequences. For example, if I drive drunk (may it never be), I may end up injuring someone, or taking someone’s life, or taking my own. I may lose my license and have to go to jail. I may tear apart families, including my own. There are always consequences to sin. Adultery may end in divorce. Promiscuity may end in disease, and always in broken relationships and broken hearts. Not honoring my father and mother will undoubtedly end in foolish behavior on my part, which will lead to ever more and greater consequences. But it is not the case that these consequences are God pouring out His wrath on me because I’m a greater sinner than somebody else.
We have to get over this. Like Job’s friends, we’re always trying to connect the dots in ways God hasn’t given us to connect them. We drive past someone who’s been pulled over by a policeman, and we delight because he had it coming. Something bad happened to my enemy at work? She deserved it! Look at all the bad stuff that guy has done. Now he’s terminally ill. Just goes to show you, what goes around comes around (that is not a Christian idea, by the way. The idea of karma comes from Hinduism, and it’s a false teaching, so no more saying that, okay?).
But we do this to ourselves, too. Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Or worse, why is God doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? God must be punishing me. Beloved, that is a lie of the evil one. Do not believe it. The truth is this: God punished all the sins of all people of all times, including all your sin, every bit of it, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross. There God’s righteous wrath is at an end. It is spent. When a bad thing happens to you, it is not God punishing you. God is not out to get you. When you are tempted to think that, look at a crucifix. And remember that your whole punishment happened there. In Jesus. And tell the devil to go to hell. He has no business robbing Jesus of what He has accomplished for you on the cross.
Look, bad stuff happens, and there is no avoiding it in a fallen world. The world is out of harmony with man since the fall into sin. It doesn’t work as it should. There is chaos and disorder now as creation groans, awaiting her redemption (Rom. 8:18 ff.). Creation doesn’t recognize man as her reason for being, nor you for the Christian that you are, and much of the bad stuff that happens seems to be random. The devil has his purposes in it, and God has His, and God wins, because He is God, and devil is not.
Repent lest you likewise perish. There is a lot we cannot say about why a particular bad thing has happened, but we can always know that through the bad thing God is calling us to repent. Repentance means a turning. It is a turning from sin, from your hell-bent rebellion against God and His Commandments, from your captivation to the things of this world and the pleasures of the flesh and the works of the devil, to God in faith that for Jesus’ sake He has forgiven you all your sins and gives you eternal life. And repentance is not a single act. It is not just being sorry for this or that bad thing you’ve done, or this or that good thing you’ve failed to do, although it is that. But more than that, it’s a way of life. In the first of his 95 Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Now, strictly speaking, repentance has two parts. The first is contrition, which is to say, sorrow and the terrors of the conscience that result from the knowledge of sin. And the second is faith in Christ born of the Gospel, the Word of Absolution, that for Christ’s sake God forgives our sins. Then we may also add a third part, which is not repentance strictly speaking, but rather, the fruit of repentance, and that is the life of love and good works (Cf. AC XII). This repentance and its fruit is the gift of the Holy Spirit working through His Word and the Holy Sacraments. And it’s a daily thing. It’s a way of life. It is living in your Baptism. It is daily death to self, daily resurrection in Christ, daily clinging to Christ.
The stress of our Holy Gospel this morning is that now is the time of repentance. Today. The time is short. There is not a moment to lose. Because you don’t know when Pontius Pilate or a terrorist will mow you down and mingle your blood with the holy Sacrifice for sin, the blood of Jesus. You don’t know when the Tower of Siloam or the Twin Towers will fall on you. In other words, you don’t know when you’ll die. Nor do you know when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. You don’t know, so be ready. Repent. Your whole life should be one of repentance.
This is not, by the way, repentance in the sense of good old-fashioned Lutheran guilt, like David Letterman likes to talk about. That kind of guilt is anything but Lutheran. It’s false. This is true repentance, which, in practice, means honest self-examination. How do I stack up against God’s Commandments? Look at the Commandments. Look at yourself. You’ll be horrified. So then you go to confession. You speak the sin before God. Sin that is spoken aloud loses its power to accuse you. And then you hear and cling to the Holy Absolution, which is to say, you live every day, every moment, by faith in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and is risen from the dead. His is the voice you hear in the Absolution. He forgives your sins. And He gives you life. Repentance means always a turning from yourself to Christ. Repent, lest you likewise perish. In your sins, apart from Christ, you die. In Christ, you live. You are safe.
Christ is the answer to all the bad things that happen. I don’t know why you have to suffer cancer, or why your mom died, or why Christians had to choose between jumping to their death or being incinerated on 9/11. God knows, but I don’t. But I do know what God has done about it, and so do you. He sent His Son. The real bad thing happened to Jesus. We all deserve whatever bad happens to us, and worse. We all deserve hell. But not Jesus. Yet that is precisely what He suffers, for you, for me, for the world, most of whom reject Him, for everyone who has suffers or dies as a result of natural or man-made tragedy… for all people. Jesus did not deserve the cross. But that is what He got. That is what He took upon Himself willingly. There, on the cross, He suffered God’s wrath. There, on the cross, He suffered hell. There, on the cross, He suffered the injustice, to accomplish justice against our sin, and justify us sinners. And all the bad that happens now is baptized in His blood. He turns it. You might say, He repents it. He uses it for our good and for our salvation.
There is the parable of the fig tree in the second part of our Holy Gospel. For years, the tree has not borne fruit, and the owner wants to cut it down. The vinedresser pleads for mercy for the tree. Give it one more year. What does he hope will make the difference? Manure. Let me dig around it and throw manure all over its roots. That should do the trick. It will be fruitful then. For as the manure rots and stinks, it enriches the soil with nutrients. Well, the Lord has a way of making you fruitful, too. When God looks for the fruits of repentance, Jesus suggests to His heavenly Father that they pummel the dirt around your roots and throw manure on you. It happens. The manure is the bad stuff that happens. And it brings you to the end of yourself. You have no help, no alternatives, no other resources. That is exactly what God needs to work repentance in you. And Jesus is not a God who is afraid to get His hands dirty. He gets down in the manure with you to work it for your salvation. The manure is the call to repentance, the turn from sin and all that is not Christ, to Christ alone for help and salvation. And God’s call imparts what it says. He says repent. That gives you repentance. He says believe. That gives you faith. And that repentance and faith in Christ brings forth the fruit of faith, the evidence that you are a living tree in God’s Vineyard.
So when bad things happen to Christians, we call it a cross. It hurts. It is painful. It is tragic. It is deadly. But you give thanks nonetheless, because you know the cross is always for your good. Manure, to help you grow. Manure, to drive you to Christ. For His cross is the Tree of Life. And by His cross, you know Almighty God, who is good, and who loves you, does all things well. And He does all things to give you life in His Son. We don’t know why bad things happen. But we know Jesus. And that is enough. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957) p. 25.