5th Sunday in Lent, 2010
Readings: Deut. 6:1-25; Ps. 25; Eph. 5:1-14; Luke 11:14-28
21 March a.d. 2010
DEATH & LIFE by Franklin Sanders
Let the words of my mouth, & the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength & my redeemer. AMEN.
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23.
That is the meaning of today’s Gospel & Epistle. That is the point of this sermon. That should be the subject of all your thoughts as we near Easter.
Today is Passion Sunday and with it we enter Passiontide, the last two weeks in Lent when we contemplate Christ dying on the Cross, focus all our attention on his Passion, and banish the world and all its distractions. That especially holds true for Holy Week.
The title of today’s Sermon is “Death and Life”. How do we pass from death to life? How do we sinners escape the sentence of death due us? How do we find life, both now and forever? And once we think we have found life, what guarantee do we have that we really have found it?
Today’s readings offer us the same picture from two angles, declaration and commentary. In the Gospel, Christ is proclaiming himself God to the Jews. What else can he mean, saying “Before Abraham was born, I am”? The Epistle offers a commentary explaining what that means for us.
In the Gospel Christ rebukes the Jews for not believing on him. He says they refuse to hear him because they are not of God. Insulted, the Jews accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a devil. Then Jesus repeats what he has before told them, that if any man believes on him, he “shall never see death.”
The Jews hop on that, thinking they have boxed Jesus into a corner. Why, Abraham is dead, and all the prophets, and you say that if anyone believes on you, he’ll never taste death? Are you greater than Abraham or the prophets? They’re all dead. Who are you making yourself out to be?
Christ answers them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and did see it, and was glad.”
That’s too much for the Jews: Why, you’re not even 50 years old, and you’ve seen Abraham?
Jesus answers, “Before Abraham was born, I am.”
“I am.” He uses the present tense, with no beginning or end. He uses the name that God gave to Moses when Moses asked what name he should call God when he went back to the Israelites: “Tell them `I AM’ has sent you.”
The import was not lost on the Jews. Jesus was claiming to be God, and they understood him. That’s why they took up stones to stone him, because they thought he was speaking blasphemy and death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy. But it was not yet Jesus’ time to die, nor the way he wanted to die, so he hid himself and evaded them.
What does this Gospel teach us? Jesus is God.
But what exactly does that mean to us? St. Paul explains in Hebrews 9. Before this passage he has outlined the inability of the Old Testament system to remove sin. All the sacrifices had to be repeated over and over. Once every year the high priest had first to offer sacrifice for his own sins, then go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple to offer blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. But that couldn’t finally take away the sin, because it had to be repeated over and over.
But now Christ is come as the high priest of the eternal things promised, and not by a building made by human hands but in his own body, not with the blood of bulls and goats but with his own blood to purge your conscience, to deliver you from unceasing anxiety and guilt, and to bring you new life in God. So by his death Christ has become the Mediator of a NEW covenant, so he could redeem all sinners since Adam, and so that those whom God had called might receive the eternal inheritance God had promised.
As St. Paul puts it, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
KNOWING & KNOWING
Our experience teaches us that there is a difference between “know” and “know.” It is one thing to know something abstractly, and quite another thing to live it. When you first met your wife or husband, you knew that you loved that person. After you got married, though, you discovered that it is quite another thing to live that love.
You cannot observe Passiontide or contemplate Christ’s suffering or celebrate Easter or enter into a new life in Christ unless you know that Christ is God and what that means for you.
I don’t mean “know” as an abstract fact like you “know” that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, but I mean “know” wholly, intimately, and without doubt as the bedrock fact of your soul, as you know the light of the sun creeping over the hills at dawn, driving away all darkness and lightening the whole world and feel it on your face and know the blessing of it as it penetrates your flesh and heart and soul and searches out your inmost soul.
This is that “peace of conscience” Christ delivers, not known distantly and abstractly but intimately, working in our own persons.
This is that peace of conscience that Calvin calls the most precious gift of God in our salvation.
This is that peace of conscience that St. Paul mentions today in Hebrews 9, saying that the “blood of Christ who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to the living God, purge[s] your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb 9:14).
This is that blood of Christ that not in theory but in fact, in practice, in your own experience, in your own knowledge, reconciles you to God once and forever, every day, and creates in you a new life in Christ, purging you of the guilt of sin, freeing you from the power of sin, and securing for you eternal life.
THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH
But before your conscience can be purged you must know and understand and believe that the blood of Christ can cover your sin, or why any blood is needed cover your sin.
The Old Testament law required blood sacrifice for sin. That was not an innovation with Moses. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all sacrificed animals to God. When he first got off ark, Noah sacrificed. Before him Abel sacrificed an animal, and even Adam knew sacrifice for sin.
Adam? Yes, God had warned him that in the day he sinned he would surely die. (Gen. 2:27) Adam learned for himself that the wages of sin is death when he sinned. But after the Fall, we see that “God made coats of skins and clothed them.” (Gen 3:21) Where did those coats come from? God killed animals to make them, covering Adam & Eve’s sin with the blood of sacrifice.
No point is made more often or obvious in Scripture than “the wages of sin is death.” What do the sacrifices tell us? That sin is death, and only life can take away death. In Leviticus 17:11, God says, “The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” Whose blood is he talking about? The animal’s? Or some other blood?
BUT THE GIFT OF GOD
IS ETERNAL LIFE THROUGH JESUS CHRIST
And no point is made more often or obvious in Scripture than that Jesus Christ came to bring life to poor, ruined sinners through the sacrifice of his own blood.
Christ fulfilled the promise of the sacrifices practiced from Adam through Moses not with the copy-cat blood of bulls & goats, but with his own blood, taken not into the holy place (Holy of Holies) on earth that only symbolized the Holy of Holies in Heaven, but into the heavenly Holy of Holies itself. All the blood of bulls and goats and calves was merely a copy of the heavenly original, but Christ is that heavenly original that fulfills every promise the copies held out.
And if that is true, Christ’s sacrifice has in fact, in present reality, finally obtained for you what was only promised before, namely, forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
Now God, to whom belong the cattle on a thousand hills and doesn’t eat meat anyway, doesn’t need any sacrifice, but the fallen human race does need life. Somehow, some way, above all else we need to replace the living death of our lives now and the eternal death coming with new life that only God can give.
Every ancient sacrifice forced this confession from the sacrificer, “O God, I deserve the death that this innocent animal has died, but take his life for mine, his blood for mine, for the debt I cannot pay.”
These readings today teach us that Christ’s sacrifice perfected and fulfilled these sacrifices by saying, “O Father, I offer my life for theirs, paying with my own perfect blood the full price that the blood of animals or sinful men could never pay. I offer my life to replace with new life that life that mankind has lost to sin, so that those who live in me will live forever, together with you and the Holy Ghost.”
Now therefore the Great Sacrifice is done, perfected once for all, and we make no more sacrifices, as if that were possible next to Christ’s. But we can and do offer back to God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. (Hebrews 13:15 & Romans 12:1)
We say, “Thank you, Father, that through our Lord Jesus Christ we have new life that we did not deserve and could never obtain on our own. We now offer back to you our new lives, not as a sacrifice for sin, but out of thankfulness for our salvation, offering and presenting to you `ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.’ And out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice and our new life, we submit ourselves to you as your loving children by adoption and grace, to serve the living God.”
CONTEMPLATING CHRIST’S PASSION
To our minds it makes no sense that death could bring forth life, but it is true. And the deeper we enter into the contemplation of Christ’s death, the deeper we enter into our new life in him. The more of Christ’s Passion we share, the more life will be in us.
In the next two weeks you have a fight before you. Your fragile flesh will tire of contemplating Christ’s passion, and assure you that you have already drained that cup dry and don’t need to go back for another sip. Your flesh is wrong.
The devil will tempt all your interests and do his best to pull you away from pondering his defeat and Christ’s sacrifice. The devil is a liar.
The world will distract you from contemplating Christ’s passion. Many worthwhile projects will call to you, urgently to come finish them. Your work will call you away from Christ’s passion. Events will erupt to intervene between you and Christ’s suffering on the cross. The world will wait.
Yet in spite of all that, Beloved, the best possible use for the next two weeks is that you so fill yourself with Christ’s death that you also find yourself overflowing with the new life that he gives us, by this one perfect sacrifice of himself. ?
Glory be to the Father,
& to the Son,
& to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
Is now & ever shall be,
World without end, Amen.
Collect for Third Sunday in Lent
WE beseech thee, Almighty God,
look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants,
and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty,
to be our defence against all our enemies;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Ash Wednesday
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God,
who hatest nothing that thou hast made,
and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent;
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.