Sermon: Lent 2
God in Unexpected Disguise
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
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The Lord be with you.
Martin Luther wrote: “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
This is one of points Luther debated in a meeting of the Augustinian Order in 1518, the year after he had posted his 95 Theses. At the heart of his argument was that the Church in his day had been overtaken by what he called a “Theology of Glory,” whereas God has revealed himself and brought us salvation through what Luther called the “Theology of the Cross.”
When I was new to the Lutheran way, I met with a Lutheran pastor, and we discussed some of the unique contributions the tradition has to offer to contemporary American Christianity. The one he felt most important was the theology of the cross. He spoke eloquently about how much that passes for “faith” today is in reality little more than “positive thinking.” People are attracted to this upbeat message, but when things start going wrong, when the bottom drops out of their lives, suddenly they discover that clichés and platitudes are not enough to sustain them.
In contrast to that kind of teaching, which continually promotes a “victorious Christian life,” the theology of the cross proclaims that God reveals himself in the most unlikely disguises.
Martin Luther loved the Christmas story for this reason. In a most unexpected manner, God took on human flesh and was born in an obscure village to an unwed mother, laid in a manger among farm animals, and acknowledged only by rough and simple shepherds.
Then there was Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus did not live a “successful” life in worldly terms. Riches, power, luxury, wide influence — he knew none of these. He had nowhere to lay his head. He walked on dusty paths in forsaken regions of the empire, far from the halls of power. Even the religious leaders in the small land of Palestine dismissed Jesus as a small-time pretender from the sticks.
We also know how Jesus’ story ends. Betrayed by one of his closest followers, convicted through a mockery of a trial, tortured, abused, and publicly shamed by his captors, he was executed as a criminal on a Roman cross. And this is our God!
The cross is also the key for us — if we are going to live Jesus-shaped lives.
For example, the Apostle Paul testified, “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’”
Paul wrote these words to his friends in Corinth because they had fallen for a theology of glory. They had become attracted to an impressive religious show. Some leaders Paul called “super-apostles” had come to town peddling services and preaching that would knock your socks off. It featured impressive testimonies about their spiritual credentials, experiences, and victories. They promised a “power religion” that overcame weakness and trouble. They preached a faith for winners, with no room for losers. Paul, however, said to them that he determined only to boast in those things that revealed his weakness, because that’s how God had revealed himself in Jesus.
Many churches in the U.S. today follow similar “power religions.” They unabashedly call people to a “faith” that values big, impressive buildings and programs, whips up spiritual enthusiasm, spectacle, ecstatic experiences, promises people “abundance,” “victory,” “prosperity,” and “deliverance” from suffering. It despises weakness, struggles, doubts, and helplessness. But…
What happens when enthusiasm fades? When the spectacle that’s supposed to wow us is no longer exciting? When you “crash” and can’t find that spiritual “high” anymore? When prayers for deliverance aren’t answered? When poverty replaces abundance? When healing doesn’t come? When your marriage falls apart or your children go astray? When all the principles and methods you were counting on to bring success are ineffective? When your claim victory by “faith” but it doesn’t make a difference? Or when you just seem to live an ordinary life in which nothing spectacular ever happens?
Where is God in all of that? Is he in any of that? Yes, that is exactly where he is. This is the life in which God is present and active, for this is the God who hides himself. This is the God of the cross. Our God is the One who meets us in our sorrow, our pain, and our weakness. In fact, he is present and active in every experience of our ordinary, mundane lives. He hides himself in the midst of humanity. That is the meaning of the incarnation. He hides himself in suffering. That is the meaning of the cross.
And just as Jesus said yes to the cross as the way God had for him, so must we. Baptized into Christ, we reject the way of glory — the way of human power, wisdom, technique, control, and manipulation — and we embrace the way of the cross — the way of humility, trust, receptiveness, and the freedom to be human, weak, and vulnerable.
As today’s Gospel reminds us, the Lenten journey takes us on the way of the cross, not the way of glory. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Amen.
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Photo by Georgie Pauwels at Flickr. Creative Commons License