Divine Irony

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:10 mark.

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

Irony is using words or actions in ways contrary or opposite to their natural or literal meaning. One of the ways this happens is in literature when someone in the story says something, and the reader knows that the meaning is other than how the character intended it. The reader has more information than the character, and so can see the real meaning of what the person says.

This happens in the Scriptures as well. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, Pilate washes his hands and says that he’s innocent of the blood of Jesus. The crowd says, “His blood be on us and our children!” On the surface, it means that the crowd will take the responsibility of the guilt of Jesus. And the passage has been used in that literal way, sometimes to condemn or harm Jews. But the true and faithful reader of the Gospel knows that Jesus’ blood on us means not guilt or condemnation, but life and salvation and forgiveness. Faith makes those words ironic.

Or in the Gospel of John, after the raising of Lazarus, the Council gathers in order to figure out how to get rid of Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest, says that it is better for one man to die, than for the whole nation of Israel to perish. On its surface, it means that it would be better to get rid of Jesus now, before there’s more trouble and Rome comes in and destroys Israel. But the true and faithful reader of the Gospel knows that Jesus is dying precisely in the place of and on behalf of the people of God. He dies not to preserve Israel physically, but to save them forever. Faith makes those words ironic.

And there’s a lot of irony here in Luke 20 as well. There’s irony in the fact that Jesus tells a parable, the scribes and chief priests take offense because they understand He’s telling it against them, and then instead of doing something different based on their own understanding, they proceed to do exactly what the parable says they will do: try to get Jesus turned over to Pilate for the purpose of killing Him. There’s irony in the tenants saying that if they kill the heir, then they will get to keep the inheritance. The reader knows that they will absolutely not get the inheritance. You don’t get the inheritance by killing the heir, but by being the heir. No, the inheritance will be taken from them. There’s irony in the vineyard owner’s words, that “perhaps” or “probably” they will respect or have regard for My Son. There is no evidence whatsoever that they will treat the Son any differently from how they’ve treated the other servants. The reader knows they will not have any more regard or respect for the Son than they’ve had for the servants.

But the greatest and most significant irony is what happens as a result of the rejection and killing of the Son. Jesus says, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. That is opposite of how it should be. It looks like the end, not only of the Son, but of everything. Why should the vineyard owner give the vineyard to anyone else? Is there any evidence at all that anyone will give to the owner the fruit that He desires to have? Barren vineyards, rotten fruit, empty fig trees. That’s all there has ever been. It is certainly not that the Jews failed and now the Gentiles will succeed. No one has given God any reason to believe that some people will do better than others.

No, the rejection and killing of the Son ought to be the destruction of everything, the scrapping of the whole project—and not only for those who were around at the time when He was actually crucified, but all those before and after whose sin He bore. On the surface of things, everything points to our destruction. But instead, the rejection of the stone, the rejection of the Son, is the victory of God. The greatest crime against God ironically becomes the very means by which He saves and forgives the criminals. You are saved by this irony. God will have His people and His building, and the stone rejected by the entire world is the foundation on which He will build the whole thing.

The image of the rejection of this stone is of builders looking for stones to use, examining one, observing it, considering it, and rejecting it as unworthy of using, so they throw it on the garbage heap, with all the rest of the stones that can’t be used. But then God, the builder of all things, picks up that stone and makes it the cornerstone. Or it is the stone in the middle of the arch that keeps the whole thing from falling down. Finally, there are no other buildings. There is only Jesus, and apart from Him all things fall apart, not only the Church but the entire creation. He is the one through whom all things were made, and He is the redeemer of all things in His body. He who was rejected and killed is exalted to the right hand of God, and then He in whom all things hold together is given as head over all things to the Church, which is His body; He is the fullness who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22).

And it is no different today with His body than it was with the Head. Because the Church is still considered, observed, examined, and rejected—very often, of course, because of the way the other stones behave. The Church is not considered something essential to anyone’s life. It is worthless, value-less, discarded. But neither the useless stones, who work at cross-purposes to the Builder of the Church, nor the rejection of the building, will keep God from having His people and His building. He has, in fact, chosen broken, worthless, stones of sin to build His Church. He picks them up from the garbage pile, washes them in the baptismal blood, cuts them, fits them, and puts them into place. He builds it all together on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:20-21). In the weakness and defeat of Christ on the cross, God did His powerful work of salvation, and raised Jesus from the dead. In the weak, clay vessels of people like us, He stores the powerful word and Gospel of Jesus’ salvation. The weaker and more powerless we are in the world, the more powerful is His saving Word, because it is proven without a doubt that God’s salvation is not dependent on us.

So His Christians are rejected, persecuted, martyred. And no matter how many times it happens, God irrationally keeps sending more messengers. He keeps sending His Son, with the Word of salvation, out into the world, including to people who have rejected the Son and don’t think they need to be saved anyway. They have the entire world, the created vineyard of God. What do they need with Jesus? But God keeps sending Him, keeps speaking, keeps baptizing, keeps absolving, keeps feeding. And He will until the end of this world.

You are saved by the divine irony of God’s work in Jesus. Take refuge in that irony. When it appears as if God’s word is doing nothing, as if God Himself is doing nothing, His promise is that His Word is always doing its powerful work. When the Church appears unsuccessful and ineffective, Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, is being proclaimed, and His power is made perfect in weakness. Let His blood be on us and on our children forever, because the One Man of God has died on our behalf. God has done this; He ironically makes all our sinful words and actions into forgiveness and salvation in Jesus. This is the work of Yahweh, and it is marvelous and wonderful in the eyes of faith.

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, 4/2/22

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