The Sunday of the Passion – Vicar Bartelt
Passion Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a/John 12:20-42
Today once again we return to old man Isaiah, the great prophet of Israel, and the Apostle John. I’ve had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time thinking, reading, and preaching on Isaiah and this year would have been incomplete if I didn’t preach on this text. Even though it’s short and doesn’t impress or dazzle this is the third of the servant songs of Isaiah and especially when combined with our text from John ought to capture our NT minds and take them captive to thoughts of the cross and the person of Christ just as the previous servant songs of Isaiah did. And what we end up seeing in both very strongly is a singular focus on the humiliation of Christ as this week we walk to the cross.
The first point of humiliation may not ring like humiliation to our ears, but to the Son of the Most High God this was certainly a step down. One of the ways that Jesus first humbles himself as a man is that he becomes a student. He, as the omniscient God who foresaw the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the whole world, who knows this creation like the back of his own hand, was its maker, and walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, had to learn how to take his first steps while holding onto Mary. He had to learn how to speak his first words even though he was the Word that in the beginning made the heavens and the earth. Instead of glorifying his Son by giving him all wisdom and knowledge and understanding, God the Father gave his Son “the tongue of one who is taught”, or as I’d translate it, “the tongue of a catechumen.” Instead of beginning his earthly life as master of all earthly and heavenly mysteries, he was awakened by the hand of God, the hand of Joseph, morning after morning to hear the word of God like our 8th grade catechumens do every Saturday and to study the catechism, the basics of the faith, like the shema, the ten commandments, and the Psalms. The Son of God awoke every day to faithfully study his Father’s words, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.
This humiliation of Christ ought to likewise humble us, especially we who have been Christians for a very long time or even from birth. We who are most familiar with the word of God are also the most likely to despise it as something light, something that we have conquered and understood completely. But as Luther says in his preface to the Large Catechism, how can we claim to have mastered what God never finishes teaching us day by day? Daily God awakens us to be faithful hearers and receivers of his word so that daily, by the power of the Word, we would be brought to confess our sins before God, acknowledging his goodness and our own unworthiness, and also so that we would be brought to the fount of all life, forgiveness, and salvation that is Christ crucified. Daily being interpreted by the word as a sinner that God died for to redeem and to sanctify.
And this work of being interpreted is most certainly something that happens to us, and not something we can do on our own. Isaiah also says that it is the Lord, Yahweh himself, who must open the door of our ears to hear God’s word of Law and God’s word of Gospel, the commands and promises of the Lord. Without God’s work of opening our ears, we would remain stubborn and recalcitrant like a mule without understanding. We would remain in open rebellion against God and turned away from him like a child throwing a temper tantrum with her arms crossed. But when God opens our ears to hear his word, everything else is already done. By this hearing comes faith and by faith every good deed without ever hearing anything else than the promises and gifts of God. By this faithful hearing and believing of God’s promises our own Lord gave God his due, and by our faith-filled hearing and receiving of God’s promises the work of God is done among us.
Unfortunately the humble life of faith that Christ lived and that we live in him is not one of ease. In the Gospel of John Christ says truly in this world you will have trouble! And be not surprised when people revile you and persecute you for my namesake. Christ prophecies all the manner of troubles that we will endure and Isaiah likewise predicts the very troubles that Christ would have to endure on the cross. He says that the servant’s back will be given for whipping, his cheek for beating and pulling, and his face for spitting and mockery. And with our Lord, in the midst of our own suffering and anguish we cry out to God in faith, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With the Psalmist we ask, “How long O Lord?” “Where does my help come from?” With John we cry, “Hosanna! Save us!”
For the answer these three Isaiah, David, and John agree. My help comes from the Lord. The Lord GOD helps me and therefore I will not be humiliated forever. And since I know that the Lord GOD is my help, my strength and my song, I can endure all sorts of bodily shame. I can set my face like a flint stone and let the blood fly like sparks as my enemies strike me. I can do all things because the one who justifies me, Jesus Christ, is near to me, in my mouth and in my heart as Moses says. He is in our mouths in the sacrament of the altar which forgives all our sins, strengthens us in the faith, and grants life and immortality. He is in our heart by faith in the promise that in Christ all powers that afflicted us, the Devil with all his tricks, death, law, and the gates of hell are no more.
Therefore in this world our enemies will not only not prevail, they have already lost. Christ has indeed gone down into the earth as John says, he has indeed died like a grain of wheat, but in so doing he has cast down the ruler of this world. By being judged, condemned, and killed Christ judges, condemns, and kills all our foes. Therefore, dear Christian you can boldly preach against these powers with Christ our Suffering Servant, “Who will contend against me? Let us stand together. Who is my judge? Let him draw near!” And in Christ, the answer to these questions is no one and nothing. The shame and suffering that happened on the dead wood of the cross has born the fruit of salvation for all the world whom God loves. By the Word of the Cross Christ has gathered you to himself today, gathered you around to consume his Word for the forgiveness of your sins and to preserve you unto life everlasting in the new creation.
In Christ all our shame, fear, and sin are taken away from us so that now we stand perfectly free Lords of all, subject to none, whom God will glorify on high on the last day. On that judgment day we will stand victorious with Christ without fear because in Christ, our humble suffering servant, our dead and living Lord, it is finished.