Tuesday, March 7, 2023

When Christ is lifted up. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (A), preached on Sunday, March 5, 2023.

John F. Kennedy gambled everything on a war called the Bay of Pigs.  If it worked, Cuba would be an ally.  If he lost, America looked like a fool.  When it all went bad, the President responded, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”  He was only repeating the wisdom of Tacitus who said “victory is claimed by all, failure belongs to one alone.”  

We think that God would work best through great victories that inspire not only jealousy but ownership.  If God would just give us what we want from time to time, more of us would be loyal to Him.  So when Jesus speaks of being lifted up, we think He is talking about His coming again in glory.  Surely every heart would be melted by the image of a victorious Jesus riding into the world on chariots of fire heralded by trumpets and followed by legions of angel warriors.  But that is not what Jesus is talking about.

His lifting up will not be in glory but in suffering.  It is the appeal of His love driven to put Himself in our place upon the cross that will woo and win the heart of sinners.  His lifting up is not the final victory that ends the world but the final end to the reign of sin and the tyranny of death restores you and me and the whole world back to the God we left of our own free will.

Jesus had every opportunity to be the bread king and give the world what they want but when the people were ready to claim Him as king, He shrunk away toward the cross.  We tell people over and over again how good God is in the hope and expectation that they will learn to agree with us and see how God satisfies their every desire. What fools we are.  For God does not come as the mighty to be served but the mighty to serve the sinner even when that service means suffering and death upon a cross.  God’s goodness is not the reason we believe but because we believe we know and confess His goodness.

We all love that passage – John 3:16.  For God sooooooo loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Except that is not what it says.  The soooooo in that passage is not emphasizing how much God’s loves us but how that love is shown.  He could have demanded or condemned or compelled or bought us off.  But He did none of these.  What He purchased with His death were sins we refused to give up.

It is so sad that we have sentimentalized God’s love and turned His obedience into a victory lap where we can all meet Him in the winner’s circle at the end and claim part of the winnings as our own.  That is not what Jesus is saying or doing.  When the Son of Man is lifted up is Jesus saying I will die for you to set you free from a death you choose.  I did not come to condemn you but to save you.

The victor has many friends but the defeated is alone.  Think how that saying is fulfilled when all of those who followed Jesus including His closest disciples ran away from the cross in fear.  What they thought was the end, Jesus knew was the beginning.  Yet in order to know the victory of the end, you must know the suffering of the cross.  That is what we do every Lent.  We walk to the place where Jesus is lifted up so that He might draw all people unto Himself.  That place is the cross.  

Let me put it bluntly.  We think the way to win over people is to avoid talking about sin or acknowledging death.  We think that the way to win people for the Lord is to portray Him as some sugar daddy who pays so you can continue your sinful habits or Santa who says a mean talk about lumps of coal but who relents and gives everybody what they want at the end.  We think that if we have a God who respects our privacy, who allows us to live by our feelings rather than His facts, we will win friends for Jesus.  Well, how has that worked?  The gospel of accommodation is emptying churches faster than COVID did.

The cross offends not because Jesus condemns us but because since Eden we have preferred the comfortable lies to the uncomfortable truth.  Jesus is lifted up on the cross not because this is the way He chose but because it is only by the cross that we could be saved.  He wins over the hearts of people not with vain promises appealing to their self-interest but by the love that forgives, restores, heals, and gives peace to pass understanding.  The cross saves because here alone do we see the power of God’s love for us.  

Sin is a doctrine that needs no proof.  Read the newspaper.  Watch the TV.  Go to a movie.  Look into the mirror of your soul.  Yet it is sin that we dispute.  Jesus did not have to die.  Sin needs no proof but we reject it all the time.  We deny that our desires are wrong, that evil flourishes, and that we need help to fix what is wrong with us.  God’s love should not have to be proven to us and yet we reject the cross and ask God for other signs to prove He loves us, cares for us, and is on our side.  That is why faith is never a matter of a choice or a decision and always the work of the Holy Spirit.  That is why faith is never the logical outcome but the irrational trust in what is promised over what is seen.  That is why the cross is the means by which any who will be saved, shall be saved.

Nicodemus could not figure it out.  Who can?  But the Gospel is not given to us to comprehend or explain.  The cross is given to us to believe.  Where the cross is lifted up and Jesus on that cross, faith is born or nurtured or sustained.  It is that simple.  There are countless reasons why we should not believe in God or trust in Him and there is only one reason why we should.  It is the cross.  It is the Savior lifted high upon that cross.  At the last, when our journey finds its end, we will no more be troubled by questions or the quest to unpack God's mind.  Then we will learn to be content knowing that the Lamb who was slain has paid the awful price for our sin and because of His work of love in suffering and death, we will have everything that sin gave up in Eden and more.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  And when the Son is lifted up, He will draw all things unto Himself.  But most importantly, He will draw you and me.    In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

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