1 April 2020 - Midweek Service - John 11:17-27, 38-53

People sometimes say the right thing, but with the wrong intended meaning. And people sometimes do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.

Something like that happened after Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from death, soon before his entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. In his Gospel, St. John describes this miracle for us, as he tells us that Jesus

“came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone.”

“And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.”

So far St. John’s account.

Jesus had performed the astounding miracle of resuscitating a man from death. Lazarus was not just in a coma, or unconscious. He was physically dead, and had been in his tomb for four days. But Jesus called him forth from death, and restored to him his bodily life. This made a huge impression on everyone.

For many, it drew them to Jesus, with great expectations of what he could do in the future also for them, and for Israel as a whole. But for some - the chief priests and the Pharisees in particular - it caused them to ratchet-up their opposition to Jesus, and to start trying to figure out in earnest how they could get rid of him for good. They saw Jesus as a threat, and not as someone of whom they should be in awe. And so, St. John tells us that

“The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’”

“But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’”

Jesus’ enemies had been thinking about a way to kill him for a while. But only now do they begin to talk about it openly. They knew that many people - including many of the Jewish leaders with whom they were now deliberating these matters - would be somewhat troubled in conscience, to be plotting a man’s death. And so Caiaphas tried to salve the consciences of these people, and to justify his desire to get rid of Jesus, by using a “lesser of two evils” kind of argument.

Caiaphas’s argument went like this: It might be distasteful to kill this misguided and naive rabbi. But it would be much more distasteful to watch the world in which they all lived - and their power and influence within that world - come crashing down, as the result of a brutal Roman reprisal against the instability and insurrection that they expected Jesus to stir up.

So, Jesus would be offered as a sacrifice to Rome, as it were, so that they, and the rest of the Jewish nation, could continue on in their status, and survive.

What Caiaphas and his unprincipled coconspirators were doing was utterly reprehensible, and wickedly sinful. It was an obvious breach of both the letter and the spirit of the Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder.

And turning one of their own countrymen over to the pagan and idolatrous Romans for execution - which is the way they pulled this off - was a deeply disgraceful betrayal of whatever honor they still may have had as leaders of the Jewish people.

But apart from Caiaphas’s evil meaning and motive, in a way that he did not realize, the words that he spoke - in themselves - were nevertheless true. And at a level deeper than he, in his spiritual blindness, could see, Caiaphas’s evil plan for the death of Jesus was a part of God’s good and gracious plan.

Caiaphas’s words and actions were instrumental in fulfilling God’s eternal purpose and will for the redemption not only of the Jewish people, but of all peoples. From God’s perspective, what was at stake if his Son the Messiah did not die in the stead of the people and as their substitute, was not just that they might perish physically at the hands of the Romans; but that they would perish - they would all perish - in the fires of hell.

We correctly state in one of our prayers of confession: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

The chief priests and the Pharisees justly deserved such punishment. But you and I also justly deserve such punishment. We, too, have sinned.

We have been deceitful, and uncaring about the rights and needs of others. We have made decisions that resulted in harm to others, for self-serving reasons. We have disgraced ourselves before God and man, in word and deed, and have brought dishonor upon ourselves by our betrayal of human trusts and divinely-given duties.

If Jesus had not died as the atoning sacrifice for all human sin, then your human sin would remain eternally un-atoned for. But he did die. The words of the high priest were fulfilled. And so, you are forgiven by God, justified before God, and reconciled to God, all because of Jesus.

This saving truth gives you a divine invitation to go on to say, in that prayer of confession: “But I am heartily sorry for [my sins] and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You, of Your boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

And, this saving truth then allows you to hear from the now-risen Jesus - by means of the lips of his called servant - these words: “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

As you hear these words, you believe them, because Jesus was betrayed by the leaders of his own nation, and was killed unjustly by his pagan executioners.

In the sermon that St. Peter preached to the crowd of Jewish people in Jerusalem on Pentecost, he said: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed, by the hands of lawless men.”

The sinfulness of the Jews’ turning over of Jesus to the Romans, and the sinfulness of the Romans’ killing of Jesus, is not erased. Everyone who was involved in that whole thing, directly or indirectly, needed to repent, and to acknowledge how wrong it all was.

But God was aware of all of it, and he used all of it. What they did was evil, but God turned it to a good result, for our salvation - and for the salvation of any priest, Pharisee, or Roman who would later believe in Jesus, and receive his pardon and peace.

St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, sets forth a general principle that we can always believe to be true, even when we cannot see empirical evidence that it is true. The apostle writes: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

God, who is much more clever than the devil, is able to make good come from evil. This does not mean that the evil ceases to be evil. But it does mean that good is stronger than evil, and will ultimately prevail over evil, because God is good, and because God is God.

Many things happen to us in this world that are plainly bad things. And more often than we usually care to admit, we ourselves do bad things that violate God’s law; and foolish things that are out of harmony with God’s will for us.

We pray for patience and fortitude as we endure painful and distressing things that come upon us in this world through no fault of ours. But we don’t have to pretend that these things are not actually painful and distressing.

And our own sins and errors are always to be regretted and repented of. We are always to have the wish that we had avoided words and actions that were contrary to God’s goodness; and we are always to have the intention not to repeat these mistakes.

But at the same time, God often brings something that is ultimately helpful and beneficial out of otherwise painful circumstances. And God is even able to bring something good out of the evil we have perpetrated against him and against others.

The ancient church leader Tertullian once said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The torturing and killing of Christians by the Roman authorities was certainly an evil and wicked thing. But God used the faithful confession of Christ that these martyrs made as they died - together with their obvious bravery in facing death - as his instruments in converting many who witnessed these martyrdoms.

And it is also often the case, that when people see a Christian die well in our own time - without fear, and with an unswerving confidence in God’s gift of eternal life through Christ - they are moved by this, and are drawn to Christ themselves.

The Bible teaches us that the sting of death is sin, and that the wages of sin is death. Death is a curse - a curse that has rested upon all of Adam’s descendants since his fall in Eden. But for God’s redeemed people, who know the forgiveness and resurrection hope of Christ, God brings something good out of death. For us, temporal death is the portal to eternal life.

Psalm 116 comforts us with this thought: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Jesus also once said: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

As we are now enduring the restrictions and uncertainties of the various quarantine policies and stay-at-home orders that are associated with the current pandemic, and as we are stressed to consider that our own lives may be taken from us by this virus, think also about the good that God will bring out of this, for his church as a whole, and for each of his children.

The sinful corruption of this world is ultimately what stands behind this death-laden pandemic. But out of these circumstances, God is able to bring something that is ultimately life-giving and beneficial for us. We’ll just have to wait to see what this will be, as we trust in him, one day at a time, during our journey together through this difficult period.

God’s goodness and mercy, and his gift of life in the midst of death, may not come in dramatic and highly noticeable ways. But God will give his gifts to us, and he will show his goodness and mercy to us. Of this we are most certain. And so, not only now, but at any time, when you are going through a trial, or when something genuinely bad is happening to you, do not lose your faith in God.

Do not surrender your hope to the difficulties of today; because tomorrow, God will bring something good to you. You don’t have to pretend that the crummy thing you are going through today are not really crummy. In this fallen world a lot of crummy things, and a lot of evil things, do happen. But God brings good out of evil.

Even if you lose your life because of some evil force that attacks you - a disease that arises from the corruption of nature; or a willful act by a sinfully corrupt person - remember that the resurrection awaits you on the other side of death. An eternal and joy-filled fellowship with Jesus awaits you. And that is a very good thing! Jesus tells us:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

And, when you reflect on those regrettable occasions when you were not the victim of evil, but were the perpetrator - like the high priests and Pharisees who plotted Jesus’ betrayal and death - know that God can bring good even out of the evil you have caused.

God’s wrath is indeed provoked by our callousness, our rebellion, our selfishness, our hatreds, and our envying. We cannot and must not justify our sins with the rationalization that since God will forgive them, and bring something good out of them, therefore we can just go ahead and keep on sinning.

But when we hate these sins, turn away from them, and repent of them, then we can be comforted to know that God will forgive them. In Christ, these sins are forgiven.

And for the truly penitent and the truly believing - as God cleanses their conscience of the guilt of sin, and liberates their will from the power of sin - God will, in his own way, and in his own timing, also make something good come out of it.

You may never see the good that God brings. You may see only the harm that you have caused. But God’s Word gives you the promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Somewhere, somehow, God will keep that promise. At the very least, I think we would all agree that a painful lesson learned, is a lesson learned well; and is a lesson that will not soon be forgotten as we desire, with the Lord’s help, to amend our life.

The knowledge of God’s faithfulness in this respect gives us peace. And these words, also from Psalm 116, likewise give us peace:

“The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!’ For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Amen.

5 April 2020 - Palm Sunday - Matthew 27:11-66

A few minutes ago, we heard St. Matthew’s version of the story of the passion of Jesus. This story is, of course, about Jesus. But it is not just about Jesus. Other people are also mentioned.

Today I would like to draw your attention to two of those other people, and to how their story fits into the bigger story of Jesus’ suffering and death for our salvation. And I would like to invite you to consider with me how the story of each of those two other people can, in a certain sense, be seen also as our story.

First, we have a description of Barabbas, a criminal who deserved crucifixion under Roman law. He was an insurrectionist and a murderer. The fate of Barabbas was sealed, as far as Roman law was concerned.

He was destined for a cross on Calvary, where he would suffer and die for his misdeeds. But something unexpected happened, which diverted Barabbas from the pathway he was on. St. Matthew tells us that

“At the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ ... The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified!’”

Barabbas had been slated for death. But now, he will live. In his place, Jesus will be nailed to a cross. It would not surprise me if the very crossbeam that had been designated for Barabbas’s execution, is the crossbeam that is now immediately re-designated for Jesus’ execution. Barabbas would no longer be needing it.

He was not going to die, as he deserved. He was not even going to stay in prison. He was going free.

But Jesus, who had done no evil, was going to die as if he had done evil. He was going to die in the place of Barabbas, on Barabbas’s cross: for Barabbas’s murders, for Barabbas’s insurrection, and for all of Barabbas’s sins.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was surprised that the crowds had asked for Barabbas to be spared, rather than Jesus. Under the law, it is always a surprise when the guilty go free, and when the innocent are punished.

But that’s what happened in a Roman court that day, in Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years ago. And that’s what happened in God’s court.

After the crowds began to call for Jesus’ blood to be shed, rather than the blood of Barabbas, Pilate asked, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Pilate then did something quite cowardly, and contrary to his duty as an administrator of Roman justice. St. Matthew tells us that

“he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”

Pilate could not so easily relieve himself of responsibility for the death of an innocent man at the hands of Roman executioners. The blood of Jesus was still on him.

And the blood of Jesus was on the crowds that had demanded his death. They were all guilty of a great human injustice.

But the blood of Jesus was on them in a different way, too - a divine way. The blood of Jesus was likewise on all the descendants of the Jerusalem crowd, and on Barabbas, and on all the nations of humanity, and on you and me.

For all for whom Jesus died, and for all who are now invited to believe in him as the Son of God and Savior of the world, the blood of Jesus is a covering for sin, and an atonement for sin.

St. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And St. John the Apostle, in his First Epistle, tells us that “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

In regard to Barabbas, and all the other sinful and unrighteous human beings who have ever lived - including you and me - St. Peter explains in his First Epistle that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

Barabbas was and is a part of the story of the passion of Jesus. And through Barabbas, so are you.

The condemnation that your sins have earned has been born by another - by Jesus. He was without sin - as even Pilate, a pagan, could see.

If Jesus had not been without sin, he would have needed a savior. But since he was a man without spot or blemish, he could be a Savior, so that his bearing of sin could be, and was, a bearing of the sins of others.

It was the bearing of Barabbas’s sins. It was the bearing of your sins. And because of Christ, Barabbas, and you, now go free. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” - as we are told in the Epistle to the Romans.

There is forgiveness for you - to be believed, and received by faith. Christ, and his gospel, have diverted you from the pathway to damnation that you otherwise would be on.

Someone else was nailed to your cross. Jesus was nailed to your cross, as he carried your sins to that cross. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” as St. Paul explains in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

Insofar as the cross is an emblem of God’s judgment against your sin, there is now no cross for you who know Christ.

There is no death - or more precisely, no eternal death - in your future. There is life in your future: eternal life, in Christ, who takes away your sin, and who reconciles you to God forever.

But there is a different kind of cross, that you will now bear: not a cross by which your sins are punished and atoned for, as on Calvary; but a cross by which you are drawn ever closer to Christ, and by which you are identifed as a servant and follower of Christ.

As a disciple and follower of Jesus, you represent Jesus, in and to the world. And so, for as long as you live on earth - in one way or another, and to one degree or another - you will bear the cross of the persecution and opposition that this fallen and corrupt world heaps upon you: because you are in Christ, and because Christ is in you.

Jesus warned us of this. He said:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

In St. Matthew’s telling of the passion story in today’s Gospel, this truth - this truth about bearing the cross of Christ - is illustrated by the story of Simon of Cyrene. The Evangelist writes:

“And when [the soldiers] had mocked [Jesus], they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.”

Jesus had been beaten and flogged so severely, that it is a wonder that he could walk at all - let alone carry his cross. And so the Roman soldiers compelled a man they happened to see standing there - Simon of Cyrene - to carry Jesus’ cross for him.

They imposed upon Simon a burden that was not his. He was not a criminal. Why did he have to bear this burden? But he was made to bear it.

Simon endured this injustice, such as it was. As he endured it, however, he was drawn into the larger injustice of Jesus’ passion: that is, Jesus suffering for Simon’s sins; and, for the sins of the world.

Simon was brought close to Jesus - not just physically, but also spiritually. In St. Mark’s telling of this story, he says that the Romans “compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.”

Mark identifying Simon by name, and even identifying the names of his sons, indicates that in the Christian community at the time of the writing of the Gospel, Simon and his sons were known persons. We have every reason to believe that by the time the Gospels were written, Simon of Cyrene, and his sons, were Christians. In fact, early Christian tradition reports that Alexander and Rufus did later become Christian missionaries.

Now, we do not know if Barabbas ever became a believer in Christ. There is no tradition that he did, and so probably he did not.

But in the larger story, he does still serve as a “stand-in” for those for whom Jesus died as a substitute, because Jesus died as a substitute for the whole human race.

Jesus died for those who would eventually become Christians, and who - by repentance and faith - would partake of the blessings of his death, for eternal life. And Jesus died for those who would never accept him; who would persistently harden their hearts against his gospel; and who would propel themselves - by their impenitence and unbelief - into hell.

The message of the cross of Jesus, is a message that is intended for all, and is proclaimed to all. The salvation from sin and divine judgment that was won on the cross, and flows out from the cross, is offered to all.

The fact that Barabbas, in his own person, was probably not a believer in Christ, is certainly not comforting to you. But the fact that Barabbas was invited to be a believer in Christ, and that the gospel was for Barabbas, does comfort you: because if it was for him, then it is for you, too.

Even if your sins are great and weigh heavily on your conscience, God will forgive them. In Christ, God has forgiven them. Indeed, as St. Paul writes to Timothy,

God our Savior...desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.

Jesus suffered in the place of Barabbas, on Barabbas’s cross. And at a deeper level, Jesus suffered in the place of the world, on the world’s cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

So, the reason why we can see ourselves in the story of Barabbas, is because the human race as a whole is embodied in Barabbas, and in his story within the story - even though Barabbas personally never became a follower of Christ .

Simon, in contrast, carried a cross, and a burden of service, as a follower of Christ. He literally followed Jesus on the “Via Dolorosa” - the way of suffering that Jesus walked, from the place of his judgment to the place of his execution.

We are able to see ourselves in the story of Simon, only because we, too, in our own way, are likewise followers of Christ. And just as Simon’s carrying of Jesus’ cross was for the fulfilment of a divine purpose that he may not have understood at the time, so too are the crosses that we bear.

In ways that are often hidden from us, God uses our suffering, and our afflictions as Christians, to serve this world, and to advance his kingdom. For example, St. Paul writes to the Colossians:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

And, God uses our suffering, and our afflictions as Christians, to purify and strengthen us, and our faith. St. Paul also reminds us in that Epistle that

“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Simon of Cyrene was, and is, a part of the story of the passion of Jesus. And through Simon, so are you.

When Jesus says to us, as his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” we are not scared by this. In faith we embrace this, because in faith we know that in this way we will be close to Christ, and he will be close to us.

The bearing of a cross in this way is not evidence that Jesus is not with us. It is evidence that he is with us. And so St. Peter writes in his First Epistle:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. ...if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

The story of the passion of Jesus, is about Jesus. That’s for sure. But it is not about Jesus alone.

It is about Jesus and those whose sins he bore, and for whom he suffered and died, on the cross. It is about Jesus and those who take up a cross to follow him, who suffer in this world for his name’s sake, and who are in this way drawn close to him.

The story of the passion of Jesus is about Jesus and Barabbas. It is about Jesus and Simon. It is about Jesus and you. Amen.