SERMONS - MARCH 2007
4 March 2007 - Lent 2 -Luke 13:31-35
We are no doubt discouraged when we share our faith with a friend or loved one, and the response we get is either callous indifference, or patronizing condescension, or mocking ridicule. We know that God is almighty, so that he could, if he wished, cause our friend or loved one to become a believer. We wonder, therefore, why it didn’t happen. But there is no fully satisfying explanation.
We are, however, able to understand that we - and our unbelieving friends and loved ones - are a part of the human race, which was created in the image of God. And even after humanity’s fall into sin, the traces of this divine image can still be discerned. One of the marks of our humanity is our capacity to be saddened and anguished over disappointing events that are outside of our direct control. And, that’s also one of the ways in which we show ourselves to be a part of a race that was originally created in God’s image.
We are, as it were, “savable.” God wants to be in fellowship with us, and to be glorified in our lives. Certainly the other animals in God’s creation do, in their own way, also glorify their Maker. My cat Homer, as one of God’s creatures, cannot help but to show forth the Lord’s glory by his very existence. But the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us, so that he will be glorified in our lives, is different than the kind of relationship he has with his other creatures.
Cats and other animals live by their instinct. God wants us to live by the love that we bear toward him. Cats and other animals are not capable of truly believing in anything beyond their own physical survival. God wants us to rely on him, and willingly to serve and obey him, on the basis of a heartfelt belief in his goodness. St. John expresses it well in his First Epistle: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”
St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy assures us that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And the Lord Jesus declares: “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.” God wants all people in the world to repent and believe in Christ, and to taste and experience the salvation that he has procured for them in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. God loves everyone. He wants everyone to love him in return, and to express that love also to their neighbors.
That’s what God wants. But that’s usually not what God gets. And so, God grieves over the spiritual self-destruction that people inflict upon themselves when they harden their hearts. And he is particularly anguished when those who have heard his Word over and over again willfully refuse to believe it. This is why God, speaking in the person of his incarnate Son, can say something like this: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
A very poor theology of faith and conversion permeates many of the churches and religious organizations of our time. In their attempt to answer the question, “Why are some saved, but not others?”, many preachers and teachers draw on their own human perception of what is happening when someone is brought to faith, and conclude that what seems to be happening is in fact what is happening: that in response to the invitation of the Gospel, some unbelievers decide to remain as unbelievers, and to reject God’s offer, while others decide to accept this offer, and thereby to turn themselves into believers by an act of their own will.
I looked on the Internet for an example of this kind of “decision theology,” to use as an illustration. It wasn’t hard to find. This is from the web site of a “Bible Church” in Illinois: “In conversion there are two parts. There is God’s part, which consists in His approach to us through Christ, and in His dealings with each of us as an individual with particular needs and possibilities. Here the initiative is on God’s side. Then there is our part, which consists in our initial dedication of ourselves to Him, with our acceptance of Christ and His forgiveness, in an act of will that is as complete and wholehearted as we can make it.”
Compare this to the words of Christ, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit...” Or to what St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Or in Second Corinthians: “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God...”
Because of the widespread popularity of this sort of man-centered doctrine of faith and conversion, Lutheran pastors usually emphasize, in response to it, that those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone, and not by their own efforts or decisions. Faith and conversion are gifts of God. The Holy Spirit instills and preserves a new spiritual life in those who are saved, through the means of grace. If a true saving faith is present in someone’s heart, it is because God in his mercy has caused it to be present.
But we cannot emphasize this in such a way as to forget that God genuinely wants all people to be saved, and that he is genuinely grieved when a sinner hardens himself against the Gospel. Those who are brought to faith are converted through a miracle of God, but this divine operation is not in the way of coercion or force. It is in the way of a new, inner birth, and of a deep, supernatural transformation. God does not coerce unbelievers to accept him, and he does not force his grace on the resisting will of the unregenerate. Likewise, God does not make people behave correctly, and obey his commandments.
Basically, God does not treat you like an animal which lacks the capacity for faith and love. God doesn’t make you trust in him and love him. The idea of forcing or coercing someone to love another is repugnant to the very concept of “love.” So, it is not God’s fault that many of those whom he loves refuse to love him in return. It is not God’s fault that many of those whom he invites to receive his salvation run away from him instead, as fast and as far as they can.
We are, of course, dealing here with a mystery. “Why are some saved, but not others?” There isn’t one unified answer to that question. Instead, from the perspective of Scripture, each half of the question has its own answer. “Why are some saved?” Because God in his grace saves them. “Why are others not saved?” Because they harden their hearts against God and reject the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
The Formula of Concord - one of the Confessions of our church - speaks to this: “For few accept the Word and follow it. Most have contempt for the Word and do not want to come to the wedding. God’s foreknowledge is not the cause of such contempt for the Word; the cause is instead the perverted human will, which rejects or perverts the means and instruments of the Holy Spirit that God presents to the will when he calls: it then resists the Holy Spirit, who wants to exercise his power and be efficacious through the Word, as Christ said, ‘How often have I desired to gather you, and you were not willing.’”
The Formula also says: “the Word of God, when preached and heard, is a function and work of the Holy Spirit, through which he is certainly present in our hearts and exercises his power there. ... For Christ...offers his grace to all people in the Word and in the holy sacraments, and he earnestly desires that people should hear it. He has promised that where “two or three are gathered” in his name and are occupied with his holy Word, he will be “there among them.” If such people disdain the tools of the Holy Spirit and do not want to hear, no injustice is done to them if the Holy Spirit does not enlighten them but lets them remain and perish in the darkness of unbelief, as it is written, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
And how does this impact you? Maybe in this way: If you, as a professing Christian, make deliberate decisions in your life that are out of harmony with God’s will, do not in those moments comfort yourself with the Biblical message of salvation by grace alone. If you turn your heart away from the Lord in order to cozy up to the idols and pleasures of this world, do not in those moments comfort yourself with the Biblical description of salvation as an unearned gift from God. Instead, in those moments, think of the grief and anguish of your divine-human Savior, as he laments over Jerusalem. In those moments, think of the grief and anguish of your Savior as he laments over you and what you are doing.
If you harden yourself against his Word and Spirit, and wilfully depart from his paths, he will be deeply anguished over it. But he will, in his divine grief, allow you to do it. God will not force you to remain in the faith. God will not coerce you to obey his commandments.
But, when you repent of your sins, and when the Spirit of God turns your heart back to the love of your Father in heaven, then you can rejoice in the unchanging desire of God to save you, his beloved child, by his grace alone. Then you can and will be comforted by the free and complete forgiveness that Jesus won for you on the cross, and that he bestows on you without measure in his Word and Sacraments. God himself gives and renews the faith that joyfully receives the pardon pronounced to you in Christ’s Absolution. God gives and renews the faith that “sees” Jesus where he has promised to be for you, in the bread and wine of his sacred Supper. God gives and renews the faith that confesses and welcomes your Savior, as he comes to you in the name of the Lord.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Amen.
11 March 2007 - Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9
Stories of deliberate acts of human cruelty that result in death, and stories of natural disasters and accidents that likewise result in death, will always make it to the evening news broadcast and to the front page of the morning newspaper. We find these stories strangely compelling, because they make us think about larger moral and ethical issues - issues of justice and injustice; issues of good and evil. And such stories have captivated human interest for a very long time - from long before the advent of evening news broadcasts and morning newspapers.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about two such stories that were making the rounds among the people of Israel, and that were stimulating a certain amount of moral and ethical reflection among the people. One of these stories was an account of a vile act of Pontius Pilate - whom Jesus would soon meet face to face - involving the murder of some Galilean Jews in the temple, so that their blood was mingled with the blood of the temple sacrifices. Why would God allow this kind of sacrilege to take place? What kind of horrible sins had those Galileans committed, so that God would make use of Pilate’s cruelty as an instrument to punish them? The other of these stories was an account of a tragic disaster - a tower unexpectedly falling on a group of eighteen people, killing them. How had these people offended God, so that he would, in his anger, cause something like this to happen to them in response?
These were the questions and speculations that were circulating among the people, and that Jesus wanted to address. Notice that the people were using the occasion of these events to sit in judgment on the people who were killed. What had they done?, everyone wondered. Today, in our more blasphemous and ungodly age, people who hear about such cruelty and destruction would probably be inclined to sit in judgment on God, questioning his goodness and justice when things like this occur. Back then, people assumed that God was inherently righteous and above criticism. So, what needed to be figured out was what the human victims had done to deserve this. Now, people assume that the human victims are inherently innocent and undeserving of any kind of divine punishment. So, what needs to be figured out is what kind of God would allow bad things to happen to good people.
I vaguely recall a news report from several years ago about a man who was injured in a fall on a city sidewalk that had been undermined by a flash flood, or something like that. He sued the city, but was told by the court that the city was not liable because his injury had resulted from an “act of God.” That traditional legal term reflects the old idea that God is the one who is acting, and fulfilling some kind of purpose, when natural disasters happen. But the man in question wasn’t deterred. He then sued God, and attempted to haul the various Jewish and Christian clergymen of the city into court as the purported representatives of God. That legal stunt was a reflection of the modern attitude of human arrogance over against divine and holy things.
Jesus does not endorse either of these approaches. He certainly would not endorse the modern frivolous spirit of human pride and rationalism, which seeks to hold God accountable to our standards and expectations. He would agree with the words of Ezekiel: “your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just.” But Jesus also did not endorse the attitude of the people to whom he was speaking in today’s Gospel.
To be sure, it is proper for us to use the occasion of shocking human and natural tragedies as an opportunity to reflect on deeper moral and ethical issues. But we are not to sit in judgment on the victims and their supposed failings, or on God and his supposed failings. Instead, according to Jesus, events like this give us a reason to reflect on ourselves, and on our failings.
Jesus says: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” We should not wonder why other people suffer and are killed. Instead, we should wonder, in all seriousness and humility, why we are spared.
As Isaiah the prophet says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” St. Paul adds that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” And St. James speaks the truth about the demands of God’s law when he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
God will not be mocked. Human beings consistently overestimate their goodness, and they consistently underestimate God’s holiness. Ever since the so-called “enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, when man’s reason and understanding became the measure of all things, it has not been culturally or intellectually fashionable to believe in original sin, in the depravity of human nature, or in the inherent corruption of all people. But God didn’t get the memo. He still believes in all these things. Or, more precisely, he still knows what we are now often unwilling to admit: that all of us deserve death and destruction, in spite of the high opinion we may have of ourselves.
We should never ask God to be “fair” in his dealings with us, or with mankind in general. If he were fair, and if he treated us as we deserve, we would all perish. And so, there is no injustice when, once in a while, death and destruction do trickle down and have an impact on the lives of some. When that does happen, we are not to look upon either the victims, or God, in a spirit of judgmentalism. Those who are killed in tragic circumstances are not more guilty of sin than we are. And God is certainly not guilty of anything. Rather, when things like this happen, we are called upon to look at ourselves, to take stock of our life, and to be grateful that God has given us the time we need to get right with him before it is too late.
Do you have a hard time seeing yourself in these unpleasant terms? If so, then that’s another reason to be thankful for the time God gives you to come to your senses, and to learn how helpless you would be without him and his grace. Use the time that God has given you wisely. Look at the Scriptures. Look at yourself. And let God teach you how to be honest about what you see, as painful and difficult as that may be. It’s a lesson you will never regret learning. And the benefits of learning that lesson are quite simply this: the full and complete forgiveness of all your sins; a total and unqualified reconciliation with your Creator; and the sure and certain hope of everlasting life.
The greatest injustice that was ever experienced in human history was the death of God’s Son on the cross. He who was without sin suffered and died as if he were the greatest of sinners. God himself did this. God did this. From the virgin Mary, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity had taken to himself a sinless human nature. And in the person of Jesus Christ, God then placed himself under the wrath and judgment of his own law. He did this so that he could be true to his own holiness, and at the same time deflect his holy wrath away from the sinful yet beloved human race. Away from you. He did this so that you could be delivered from eternal death, and from captivity to the fear of death.
In the book of Acts, St. Paul encourages the bishops or pastors of the church in Ephesus with these words: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The shedding of God’s own sacred and sinless blood was the greatest of tragedies. At the same time, the shedding of God’s own sacred and sinless blood was also the greatest of blessings - a blessing with eternal and wonderful consequences for you, as you repent of your sins, and as you believe in Christ your Savior.
No matter how bad you come to see yourself to be, God’s righteousness, which covers you in Christ, is greater. No matter how much you have stained and defiled your conscience with hypocrisies and deceptions, the deep, cleansing power of God’s own blood is stronger. No matter how far you have plummeted in a life of secret or open sin, the protecting hands of God’s Spirit are still under you, to catch you as you fall and lift you up, to restore you to the joy of his fellowship.
That’s why God wants you to repent. As Ezekiel tells us, he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He also takes no joy in the misery of a penitent sinner’s guilt. But he wants you to acknowledge your guilt, so that he can immediately set you free from it, on the basis of his Son’s death on your behalf. He wants you to seek his pardon, so that he can immediately grant it, through his Word and Sacrament. He wants you to admit the spiritual emptiness that there is without him, so that he can immediately fill you with his life and love, as he abides with you to sustain and protect you.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In Christ, dear friends, you who have repented will not perish. In Christ, you who have been brought to faith in his saving Gospel will live forever. Amen.
18 March 2007 - Lent 4 - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
The Bible describes God and his thoughts about us in various ways, because there are indeed different facets to what God has revealed to us about himself and his dealings with us. God’s thoughts are, of course, infinitely higher than ours. Most of what God thinks is hidden from us, not only because God does not want us to know these things, but also because our minds are not capable of processing such data. But God has revealed in his Scriptures those things that we are capable of grasping, and that he does in fact want us to grasp and believe.
From the perspective of God’s holiness and purity, and the corresponding standards for holiness and purity to which he expects us to conform, God has made know to us his expectation that we will obey his commandments and show respect and concern for others. And, accordingly, from the perspective of God’s holiness and purity, God has made known to us how displeased he is when we fail to live according to his will. During the season of Lent, which is a penitential season, we tend to reflect on God’s judgment of human sin, and our need to turn away from our sin, more intensively than at other times of the year. It is probably good for us to emphasize these things from time to time, in view of the fact that we live in a world where tolerance of sin, and moral indifference, have become the norm.
But during this season, expectations of obedience and judgment against disobedience are not the only thoughts of God that we hear about and ponder. In today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians we see a totally different aspect of God’s thinking about the human race. We see a different facet of how God views the conflict and disharmony that characterize his relationship with fallen humanity.
In the first century it was not customary for there to be permanent ambassadors stationed at embassies in the capitals of different countries or empires, representing the interests of their homeland on an ongoing basis. Rather, ambassadors would generally be sent from one ruler to another only at a time of conflict or potential conflict, in order to negotiate an end to war, or to threaten war if certain demands were not met.
If, for example, an aggressive king who had been waging war with a neighboring country were to have a change of heart, and seek to be reconciled with his enemy, he would send an ambassador, or a delegation of ambassadors, to the enemy capital to speak on his behalf, and to offer terms of peace. The ambassador would seek to win the trust of the enemy ruler. He would tell him, in effect, “My king doesn’t want to fight against you any more. So, please stop fighting against him.” An ambassador on such an occasion would try to represent the feelings and wishes of his king as faithfully as he could. If the king who was suing for peace wanted to bring the war to an end in the strongest possible way, then the ambassador would be as conciliatory as possible in his pleadings for a cessation of the conflict.
This is the kind of image that St. Paul places before our eyes in today’s text. In this epistle he mentions the ministerial colleagues who had been working with him in preaching the Gospel to the Corinthians: Timothy, Silvanus, and Titus. They, with the apostle, were all public ministers of the Gospel, who had been carrying out the same fundamental task: preaching the message of Jesus Christ.
But look at how St. Paul describes this preaching, in terms both of its content and its character: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
St. Paul and his ministerial colleagues were not religious hucksters in a traveling road show. They were not spiritual entertainers vying for the approval of an audience. They were ambassadors. They represented a heavenly king who was, as far as he was concerned, at peace with humanity in Christ, who had carried the sins of the world to his cross and fully atoned for them there. And this king, in his love for the world, wanted a still-hostile humanity now to be at peace with him.
Humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden plunged our race into a dreadful war against God. Fallen humanity is at enmity with the true God. Throughout human history, our ancestors - and we - have been very adept at inventing non-threatening idols to worship. At the same time, we have, in our sin, tried with all our might to push the true God as far away from our consciences as we could, and to oppose him at every turn.
But God, in Christ, has now made it clear that he no longer wants to be our enemy. He is suing for peace. And he sends his ambassadors to us to speak with his own divine authority: to plead with us, and to implore us, to be reconciled with God. This is an image of God, and of God’s thoughts about us, that we may not often consider. But it is a very important image for us to understand, if we are to understand what the Gospel is, and if we are to understand how earnestly God wants us all to believe it, and to be saved from the conflict and destruction in which we are enmeshed.
It might seem undignified for the representatives of God to plead with sinful and rebellious men to stop their warfare against God’s holiness, and to be at peace with him. But God is not as concerned about his pride as much as he is concerned about the souls his Son came to save, and for which his Son has already died.
The work of human salvation has been accomplished. The terms of peace between God and man have been established. And generous terms they are. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” What Christ has accomplished for the world, and what God offers to the world, is the complete forgiveness of all sin; immediate adoption into the family of God; full citizenship in the kingdom of God; and the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to guide, protect, and comfort. These are the terms that God offers, and that he implores us to accept. Why would anyone not do so?
Well, there is a perverse part of each of us that enjoys the warfare. The sinful nature is irreconcilable, and hopelessly rebellious. Like a fanatical insurgent lurking in the shadows of our life, it will never accept God’s terms of peace and reconciliation. And so, this sinful nature must be beaten down within each of us. It must be drowned in the waters of Baptism by daily repentance. It must be defeated through faith in Christ, so that our lives will not go to ruin even in the face of God’s loving offer to bring hostilities to an end forever.
And the weapon that we have at our disposal to defeat this internal insurgency - which would otherwise prevent us from being at peace with God - is the apostolic proclamation of Christ. The love of God in Christ toward us is stronger than the hatred of our sinful nature toward God. God’s Word of truth, which the divinely-sent pastors and preachers of our day still proclaim to our renewed minds and regenerated hearts, is stronger than the lies of Satan which sustain the old nature in its rebellion.
And God does indeed still send out his official ambassadors, who are still, on his behalf, seeking peace with rebellious humanity. Through his ambassadors he still calls everyone to faith in him, and he still implores everyone to be reconciled with him. Certainly God wants all Christians to testify of their Savior in their respective callings, and to share the Gospel with those they know according to their ability. But in addition to this, God continues to send fully-authorized ambassadors to the church - and to the human race - to perform publicly the full ministry of Word and sacrament that he has established for the benefit of us all. This takes place in the context of the worship life of the church, but it also extends beyond it, in mission work of all descriptions.
Listen to what the Apology of the Augsburg Confession has to say about this important calling: “the term ‘liturgy’...does not properly mean a sacrifice but rather public service. Thus, it agrees quite well with our position, namely, that the one minister who consecrates gives the body and blood of the Lord to the rest of the people, just as a minister who preaches sets forth the gospel to the people, as Paul says, ‘Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries,’ that is, of the gospel and the sacraments. And 2 Corinthians 5:20, ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’”
These pastoral ambassadors are placed in office by God himself, through the voice of his Son’s own body the church. Therefore, as the Apology says elsewhere, they “represent the person of Christ on account of the call of the church and do not represent their own persons, as Christ himself testifies, ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me.’ When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ.”
If you need to be especially assured of God’s peace and reconciliation in Christ, because of a troubled conscience or an ongoing struggle with sin, then listen to what God’s ambassador has to say to you. In Christ, the message that this ambassador has been authorized to proclaim to every penitent sinner is, and will always be, a message of forgiveness and acceptance.
God’s faithful ambassador will not threaten a troubled conscience with divine wrath or anger, or with the resumption of hostilities between God and man. The only message he has been sent to share with those who seek to be at peace with God, is that God has already sought to be at peace with them, and is already, in Christ, reconciled with them. Your sin and its guilt have already been carried to the cross of Christ, and the gift of Christ’s righteousness has already been won for you.
Because the pastor whom God has sent to you speaks for God, and not for himself, he is called to announce in the Holy Absolution that he speaks - either publicly or privately - only what God has given him to speak. He may not impose on you his own opinions about whether God should or will forgive you.
In Christ, to penitent sinners, this will therefore always be what he says: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Amen.
25 March 2007 - Lent 5 - Luke 20:9-20
In his teaching and preaching, Jesus used a lot of illustrations from the common experiences of the people. When he wanted to illustrate a joyous or happy thought, he used a joyous or happy illustration. For example, he told a story about a woman who finds a lost coin after much searching, to illustrate God’s delight in finding us, and restoring us to a relationship with him. He told a story about a prodigal son being welcomed back to his father’s home, to illustrate God’s willingness always to forgive us and receive us when we repent and believe in him.
But sometimes the imagery that Jesus’ words conjure up in our minds is not so cheery or pleasant. He uses those kinds of illustrations when he wants us to ponder some sober and sobering truths. The discourse recorded in today’s text from St. Luke was one of those times.
Jesus had told a parable about workers in a vineyard who rebelled against the owner, who treated the owner’s agents disrespectfully, and who ultimately killed the owner’s son in an ill-conceived attempt to take possession of the vineyard for themselves. The scribes and the chief priests knew that Jesus had told this parable against them, and against their rejection of Christ. In their rage they began to plot against Jesus, and to look for an opportunity to get rid of him.
But I’m not talking about that particular parable today. I’m talking about the shorter illustration that Jesus used after he told this parable, and after he got a strong reaction to the parable from the scribes and priests. “When they heard this, they said, ‘Surely not!’ But he looked directly at them and said, ‘What then is this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’”
There were no labor unions or government labor laws in those days, to guarantee the safety of construction workers. In the ancient world, the labor force on a major construction project was often comprised of conscripted workers, who were forced to their jobs by the government. On other occasions the workers were slaves, who certainly had no choice in the matter.
And the lives of these workers were generally not valued very highly by those in authority who were supervising the construction project. Injuries and deaths on the job were frequent. Measures to promote safety and prevent accidents were few. When workers were hurt or killed, there were plenty more available to take their place.
The kind of tasks that are done today by one man operating a massive crane were done in Jesus’ time by hundreds of men, pushing and pulling large blocks of quarried stone across improvised roadways and up improvised ramps. When it came time to drop one of those huge stone blocks in place, well, everyone had better make sure he was out of the way.
Because of the physical momentum of hundreds of men pushing and pulling, combined with the foreman’s obsession with meeting his construction schedule, you could be pretty sure that if you slipped at just the wrong moment, and ended up under the block, the descent of that block would not be halted to give you time to crawl out from under it. Quite simply, you would be crushed. If you were at the wrong place at the wrong time on such a job, there was no mercy for you. There was no way out.
Throughout the entirety of Jesus’ lifetime, the temple in Jerusalem was continually under construction. Even though the main part of it was finished and in use, there were still parts of the larger temple complex - especially the outer courts and outer walls - that were unfinished.
Jesus was in Jerusalem for the events described in today’s Gospel - when he spoke of himself as the stone that the builders had rejected, and when he spoke of what would happen when this stone would fall on someone. The temple was visible from almost anywhere in the city. The kind of construction accidents that no doubt happened there from time to time would immediately have come to the minds of Jesus’ listeners when he spoke of these things.
These were horrible incidents. Those who witnessed them, and those who heard about them, would shiver with trepidation and anguish to consider what the poor man who was crushed in such a way had gone through. Jesus deliberately called forth such images with his words. He wanted his listeners to think soberly about what it would be like for an impenitent person to be crushed by the irreversible momentum of divine justice.
It is not a pretty picture. When an unbeliever dies in his sins, he will not be able to get out of the way of the massive cornerstone that is being dropped into place for the construction of God’s kingdom. The weight of God’s judgment will come down on him more quickly than the blink of an eye. And all of his procrastinations, his excuses, and his self-justifications will be as nothing. They will be ground into dust.
That’s the kind of encounter a careless construction worker has with a heavy cornerstone, as it is being dropped into place. That’s the kind of encounter an impenitent and unbelieving person has with Christ, as he comes to his end, and as he is forced to face up to the reality of God’s righteous judgment. “When [that stone] falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
At a modern construction site we will usually see lots of sturdy metal scaffolding, and an abundance of safety netting, to catch a hapless worker who might lose his balance and fall. Not so at an ancient work site. The scaffolding then was made of wood, and could often be quite rickety. And the concept of safety netting had not even been dreamt of yet. And so, there were lots of falls at those old work sites. And when someone fell against the stonework, he would be hurt - severely so in most cases.
Thoughts of crippling injuries no doubt came to mind among the Lord’s listeners when he said: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.” A worker who has had such an experience will not be the same again. Broken bones did not often mend well in ancient times. For a crippled worker who had been injured by a fall onto a large block of stone, his self-sufficiency would be gone. He was, and in many ways would remain, a broken man.
None of these things are pleasant for people to think about. But according to Christ they are necessary for people to think about. They are necessary for you to think about.
We noted that in the case of a hardened unbeliever, God’s righteous judgment crushes and pulverizes him when Christ the judge falls on him. But an encounter with God’s law will not leave you unscathed either. If you break God’s law, you are the one who will end up being broken. When you thereby fall onto the hard, unyielding cornerstone, it will break you.
It breaks you, as Jesus speaks the demands of his law to you in the way he did in the Sermon on the Mount. He said then, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He still says this. And when he says this - when his uncompromising words pierce through to your conscience - your pride is broken. Your self-sufficiency is shattered. Your opinion that you are “good enough” for God evaporates in an instant. Your sins are condemned.
And these words also cause you to be truly sorry on account of sin, and to acknowledge your failures honestly and forthrightly. Through these words, Christ breaks down the lopsided and crooked structures of your existence that you have built up - by your own weak efforts and faulty wisdom - so that he can then rebuild your life in his righteousness.
King David picks up on some of these thoughts in his well-known penitential prayer, recorded in Psalm 51: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.”
“Let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” Unlike the hardened and obstinate souls on whom the cornerstone has fallen - crushing and pulverizing them with divine wrath - those who have fallen on the cornerstone, and who have been broken by that fall, can live on, joyfully, in renewed fellowship with God. God breaks us with his law, precisely so that he can heal us with his Gospel. Jesus disassembles the self-centered life that we have constructed, so that he can reassemble our life in his own image, and conform us to his pattern of love and truth.
Of course, God does not literally break our bones. But the inner brokenness of a heart that has been made to be humble before God, and that hopes in God’s forgiveness, is described by King David in this way: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And God certainly does not despise our yearning for God’s mercy and fellowship. He himself has put that yearning into us by his Spirit, and he willingly and lovingly grants us every spiritual blessing in Christ.
When we fall onto the cornerstone - that is, onto Christ - and are broken, we are in that moment no longer relying on our own goodness to “get us by” morally and spiritually. We are no longer presenting our paltry human works to God as a sacrifice that we presume will appease him. When we are truly broken in repentance, we cannot pick ourselves up from that condition. But God does pick us up. Christ does reconstitute us. The Holy Spirit does restore us and give us a new life.
Because of our lingering sinful nature, the law of God always accuses us. The law of God always judges us. The law of God... always... breaks us. But because of Christ’s sustaining and unending love for us, his message of hope and forgiveness always puts us back together in the right way. His Gospel always heals us and makes us whole again. His Word and Sacraments always renew and refresh us. We who were, by necessity, broken because of our sins, are made by Christ not to be broken any more, in his perfect pardon and salvation. Amen.