Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016

            Beloved in Christ, when the prime ministers of Great Britain and Canada talk about the political parties that are out of power, they usually refer to them as “her Majesty’s loyal opposition.” By so doing David Cameron and Justin Trudeau are acknowledging that Queen Elizabeth had asked them to form their respective governments, but that the parties not in power are still loyal subjects of the queen, even if the government will not always take their ideas into consideration. However, all parties concerned would recognize that there is such a thing as a disloyal opposition. It would be the people who would try to overthrow the government by bullets and bombs, not the ballot box.

            Well, in the same way not every disagreement among Christians makes a person disloyal. Christians may legitimately disagree with each other about the best way to organize a congregation or which activities in a local church will have precedence over others. Some will want to decorate the church one way and others another way. Christians ought to listen to one another and weigh those ideas. But at some point a decision will have to be made, and one idea will prevail over others. In that case, those in the minority are invited to be “the loyal opposition.” They will loyally support the decision of the majority for the sake of Christian love and peace in the church, just as they will ask the reverse to hold true when they happen to be in the majority.

            Today’s Gospel, however, does not introduce us to the loyal opposition, but rather to the not-so-loyal opposition. Just as any country faces the danger of those who would overthrow it, so we as faithful Christians must recognize that there are people who oppose Christ and desire to thwart the coming of God’s kingdom.

            Some of that opposition comes from people like Herod—tyrants who see Christ and Christianity as a threat to their government. They do not want citizens who might be beholden to a higher power. They do not want to have to deal with people who live by a different standard than their edicts and laws. But people like Herod are rather crass in their opposition to God and to the Christian faith. They use rather crude instruments such as executions and imprisonments to stop the spread of Christianity. And their rather crude measures usually fail in the end because they cannot deal with something like the gospel, which is so radically different than the political machinations that they are used to dealing with. And so some of the real opposition Christians face comes from worldly powers, and we must acknowledge as much.

            But, interestingly, it isn’t the worldly powers-that-be that pose the greatest danger to the church. Instead, the gravest dangers come from those who pass themselves off as godly and pious while in reality they are rank unbelievers. It is so easy to focus on wicked people like Herod and to overlook seemingly pious Jerusalem. The Pharisees thought that the real showdown would take place between Herod and Jesus. After all, Herod was a self-indulgent, heathenish, two-bit tyrant. Surely Herod was our Lord’s enemy and Jerusalem was His friend. But Jesus saw Herod as a sideshow. The real contest would be in Jerusalem. It was Jerusalem that had murdered the prophets. It was Jerusalem that had rejected God’s attempts to win her over. It was Jerusalem, not Herod, that would crucify Jesus. To be sure, it would be Pontius Pilate—the governor—who would execute Christ, but only because the religious leaders in Jerusalem had demanded it. One must remember that Jerusalem wasn’t a political capital at that time. Rome was the capital of the empire, and Caesarea was the local power base for the Roman government. It was only because of the Passover that Herod and Pilate were in Jerusalem. Thus, Jerusalem wasn’t a political capital, but rather a holy city, a religious place—the center of godliness, of Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes.

            Now our Lord did recognize that Herod posed a threat. He was a sly fox. He may very well have sent some Pharisees—people Herod normally would not have stomached—to warn Jesus to flee. This way Herod wouldn’t have any blood on his hands, as he had after he had killed John the Baptist, and he would still have gotten rid of Jesus. Our Lord knew that Herod was a crafty one and you had to watch him as you would a fox. But it was Jerusalem that was our Lord’s great enemy. You see, the craftiness of the heathen is not as dangerous as the hypocrisy of the pious.

            God detests those who simply go through the motions of being religious while having completely unrepentant hearts. We call this “formalism.” It is the belief that all that matters is having an outward form of godliness, all the while letting our hearts think and do anything they want. It says that we can “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ,” “with minds set on earthly things,” as long as we utter pious platitudes now and then. The problem isn’t the words. The problem isn’t the outward forms themselves or the patterns of piety. After all, we will always have to use one form or another. The problem is that we do not listen to what the words are saying.

            As the apostle Paul writes in today’s epistle, Christ had come so that He could “transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” He didn’t come merely to go through the motions. He didn’t come to pretend to redeem the world by pretending to die on the cross. He came to deal with our death by undergoing a real and agonizing death. He came to deal with our sin by handing Himself over into the hands of sinners. He came to deal with our separation from God by undergoing an intense feeling of loneliness on the cross. He came to deal with a broken world by allowing Himself to experience its brokenness at its worst. And He came to bring us healing and life by rising from the dead. He didn’t appear merely as a ghost when He rose. He came back with flesh, blood, and bones. He didn’t doff His body as if He had had it only to go through some motions here on earth for three decades. He still dwells in that body. He will always be the Son of God who has taken on human flesh throughout eternity. He stays forever the God-Man because He is seriously committed to us human beings and He wants to “transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body” when He returns and raises the dead.

            Where does that leave us then? We do not want merely to be going through the motions.  But what is the cure? It is to cry out, as our Lord tells us to, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” There are two things going on when we do that. We recognize that He is the one who comes in God’s name in order to save us. And we confess that our hopes depend upon Him, for He is the blessed one. If that is our understanding, then we will do what Paul tells us in our epistle. We will be heavenly-minded instead of earthly-minded. We will imitate godly people who have lived before us rather than just living for our bellies.

            Above all, we will approach God’s Word differently. Ultimately, the problem with Jerusalem was that it was a “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” And, ultimately, that is the problem with us when we are going through the motions, when we are pretending to be religious but are not listening to the Word of the Lord. Every time we open the Scriptures or come to church, we should say, “God is speaking to me here. Let me listen as if my very life depended upon it, as if all of eternity was at stake. He calls me to recognize my sin and to repent. I will do so as if I were fleeing a bear that was intent on devouring me. He calls me to trust in Him for my salvation. I will do so as if I were clinging to a branch and if I were to let go, I would fall off a cliff. He comes to transform me. He will raise me on the Last Day and give me a glorified body, just as His body was glorified after His resurrection. But in the meantime, He wants to still transform me in this life. He wants me to grow to be more like Him. And so in the time I spend with Him, I will let His Word have its way with me so that I know Him better and have a mind no longer conformed to this world, but transformed and renewed.”

            This is the attitude that we need to maintain all the time. It is an attitude that we must especially cultivate if we are like Jerusalem, people steeped in years of acquaintance with God. We may think that we know it all and have done it all. But each and every day, each and every week we must approach God’s Word as if we were coming to it for the first time and hearing its life-changing word for the first time. May God grant us to do this during this Lenten season! In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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