Numbered With the Transgressors

Audio here.  Video of the service here, here, and here.

Bulletin here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nine months. Nine months from today, in which we hear the mystery of our Lord’s death, we will hear again the mystery of His birth. Which means that today, March 25, is celebrated as the mystery of His incarnation, His conception in the womb, in the flesh, of His mother. It is called the Annunciation: the Word spoken to Mary by the angel took flesh and all the fullness of deity dwelled bodily within a woman whom God had graced with His undeserved Presence. Every person before and after Him was conceived in the union of a man and a woman, taking flesh from both a father and a mother. Jesus alone took flesh from His mother only, the only time the Scriptures ever speak of “the seed of the woman.” How is that possible, the biologist asks? Just as possible as God’s Word bringing all things into existence. The Word of God is creative and living, and what He speaks happens. The skeptic asks how such a thing can happen, what is the mechanism by which this conception could take place, and God refuses to answer—perhaps not because it is contrary to reason, so much as it is beyond reason. God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His words are not our words. His Word, strangely, is spoken into flesh, hidden there for all the world to see. And His Word is spoken by a mouth that smiled just like His mother smiled, in a language He learned from His parents, to people who lived in a particular place at a particular time. His body, which He received from His mother, grew strong with the years, and He was baptized in that body, declared by the Father to be His beloved Son. He was tempted like Adam and Eve, like Israel, like us, but He refused to hear any word, follow any path, but His Father’s.

The single faithful son, the individual Israel, the Image of the invisible God, was numbered by sinners as one of themselves. And sinners die; so Jesus, under the crushing weight of the world’s sin, dies. The crucifying of Jesus in His flesh is no less a mystery than His conception in flesh. As Isaiah says, “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” Who would believe that creatures would crucify their creator? Who would believe that humans would reject the one who came to save them? We are appalled at violence, appalled at the callousness of people, appalled when people commit crimes unbelievable in their cruelty. We find it hard to believe that such horrific sin lives in the hearts of people; and we find it even harder to believe that it could live in our hearts. We’re not perfect, we’re all sinners; but we’re not that bad. We don’t believe naturally that we are sinful from conception, that we hate God, that we are His enemies—by our choice, not His. We like to believe that our will is in line with His, our goals are His goals, our ways are pretty much what He would do. But we are wrong: not only about God, but about ourselves. The cross bears eternal witness to this fact. If sin were serious, but not too serious; if sin deserved anything less than eternal death and damnation; if sin were simply a problem that could be solved with a little—or even a lot of—divine help, then the cross is certainly not necessary. If Jesus really is the Son of God in flesh, then behind His crucifixion is the full, brute force of who we are and what we do. We—truly, it is unbelievable—reject, mock, spit on, and kill our God. This is the stronghold that sin has on us, that we are our own most jealous gods: we will have no other gods before us, even the true God. This isn’t something we know naturally; it has to be revealed to us. And the way it is revealed is by Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. “Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load; ’tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God” (LSB 451:3).

But that is not all. Would the Father of Jesus allow judgment, wrath, and death to be the last word spoken over His Son? No; the crucifixion is not only a witness to how monstrous is the evil in human hearts. It is a witness, even and ever more, to the eternal love of God for those same sinners, where God takes the worst—including the worst that we call the best—and turns it to the greatest Good in His Son. That Son, eternal in the Trinity, takes on flesh in time; He is not unwilling to be crushed by the Father’s wrath against sin. Here, the mystery of the incarnation create separate statements that seem to contradict: He lays down His life, and takes it up again, and no one takes it from Him. And, at the very same time, He prays, Not My will, but Thine be done. He comes for the joy of redeeming slaves to sin and making them His own; but He submits to our sin, and our death, and the wrath that rightly comes on the world.

I will admit that the words, “Jesus died for my sins,” often become so familiar and comfortable to me that I speak them and hear them without any wonder at all. But this mystery must become larger and larger, not smaller and smaller. It ought to grow with every hearing so that it begins to encompass everything. So that what Paul says of his preaching might be true of our faith: we will know nothing except Christ and Him crucified—not because everything can somehow be reduced to that, but because it includes everything. Jesus’ crucifixion, because He is raised from the dead, is my life in the midst of death. Jesus’ cross is the shape of the Christian life and of the Church in this world: trouble, affliction, persecution, and death, because we are joined to the One who suffered all that. The entire promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation is bound up in the flesh in which the Son was both conceived and crucified: although He was numbered as one more criminal, one more sinner receiving the wages that sin pays out, He was not. His body was not subject to sin from His conception, as ours is. His body was not cursed by death from His mother, who inherited the curse from her mother Eve. He chose to be numbered as a sinner; He willingly went forth from His mother’s body to be stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He knew His baptism would be in the filthy water of confessed sins; He knew His life would be spent among the sin-sick and dying; He knew His cross would be among thieves, while real criminals went free; He knew His grave would be among the wicked, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth. And the will of His Father prospered in His hand, because He was the perfect and eternal offering for guilt, and His days would be prolonged in resurrection, that He might be the firstborn from death of many brothers: you, and me, and all who believe. And the one who bore the sin of many still makes intercession for transgressors, for you, and me, and all.

Today, at this striking crossroads of the Church’s calendar and the yearly calendar—one that will not occur again for 141 years—the point at which Good Friday meets the Annunciation, nine months before we celebrate His birth: today we see more clearly the perfect life of love from the creation of His flesh in the womb of Mary, to His death in that flesh on the cross. The creator becomes a creature; the one concealed in the womb of His mother is concealed in the tomb; the flesh He takes from her, He carries to death and, raised from the dead, He gives that same flesh to us, that we might live His life. Eve ate the fruit that the serpent offered her, and found it poisoned with death; so the Son of God became the fruit of Mary’s womb so that death might be poisoned with life, so eagerly it devoured the One who appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh (paraphrasing Ephraim the Syrian, Homily On Our Lord). By the tree the devil once overcame the man and the woman; today, by a Tree the devil is overcome for the sake of men and women. Today there is no mistaking the Trinitarian intention in why the Word takes flesh; no separating the conception from the crucifixion: Jesus, conceived in His mother’s flesh, was born to die. Born to die for you who are born and who die. Born to be raised from death for you whom He will raise. “O perfect life of love! All, all, is finished now, all that He left His throne above to do for us below” (LSB 452:1).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/22/16

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s