The Scandal of the Cross

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 6:1-13

Dear people with miraculous faith: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

What is it about Christianity that turns people off? If you ask a million unbelievers, you may hear a million different reasons. The music is not exciting enough. The church building is too old. The people in church are too old. The pastor is too odd. Certainly, when scandals appear because a pastor or congregation has fallen into some sin which even the world finds distasteful, that is used as a reason why Christianity turns people off.

However, these are all excuses. They are not the real reason people are not interesting in being Christians. They real reason in Christ. They are offended by Christ, His Word, and what He has done.

Accusations can be made that a particular pastor was not winsome enough, friendly enough, or pleasant enough. He didn’t use the right words or say them in the right ways. That accusation cannot be made against Jesus, however. Yet, Jesus offended people. The people recognized His mighty works and His wisdom. They said, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” They still took offense at Him because He just appeared as an ordinary man, and from their own hometown and even household. Jesus marvelled at their unbelief.

Jesus is no god dreamed up by men. The gods dreamed up by men are superheroes with superpowers who cannot die. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, Ares was the god of war, Hades the ruler of the underworld, and Athena the goddess of wisdom and courage. Men dream up gods in their own image encumbered with their own desires. Indeed, one Greek philosopher wrote in the 6th century B.C. that such writers attributed to their gods “all that is shameful and disgraceful among men; they steal, commit adultery, and deceive one another.” (Xenophanes of Colophon)

The gods invented by men do not die. The true God, Jesus Christ, took on human flesh and did die.

There is no greater scandal to the world. First Corinthians calls Christ crucified a stumbling block and folly; it is foolishness to those who are perishing (I Cor. 1:18, 23). The world doesn’t want a God who suffers and dies, so they are scandalized by Jesus. The world wants a god who fosters and encourages them to follow and fulfil the shameful and disgraceful desires of their hearts, so they are scandalized by Jesus.

It’s not like churches haven’t tried to remove the reasons people give for being turned off Christianity. They’ve thrown away the ancient liturgy and hymns and moved to music that entertains. They’ve built multi-million-dollar buildings, attracted young people, hired charismatic pastors, and hidden their sinful scandals.

Do you know what they’ve thrown away in the process? The scandal of the cross. The scandal of Christ crucified. You could sit through their services and never hear of Christ crucified, which is the very centre of our faith. Nor will you hear the other Scriptural truths that accompany the message of Christ crucified. You won’t hear that Baptism saves – that too is a scandal to the world. You won’t hear that Christ absolves sinners through Absolution spoken by pastors – that too is a scandal to the world. You won’t hear that Christ gives forgiveness of sins with His true body and blood to eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper – that too is a scandal to the world.

Christ’s message of truth will always be rejected by many. Jesus Himself taught in Nazareth and even performed miracles there, but they rejected Him, and Jesus marvelled at their unbelief.

When Jesus sent out His ministers two by two to bring to other towns the same message He Himself was preaching, Jesus knew that not everyone would receive the message. Thus, Jesus told them, “if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus prepared them to accept the fact that their preaching of repentance would be rejected; that their preaching of Christ would be rejected; that God’s Word would offend many.

Jesus doesn’t instruct His ministers to cater to what the people want to hear. He doesn’t tell them to be friendlier if their preaching is rejected. He doesn’t tell them to water down the preaching so that it will be palatable to the populace. He doesn’t tell them to be more exciting or entertaining if the people don’t hear. No, Jesus says that if they don’t listen, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them. Matthew records that Jesus continues by saying, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Matt. 10:15)

Watering down the message of the cross will not save anyone. Entertainment and catering to people’s desires will not save anyone. Preaching about Jesus as if He’s a god dreamed up by man will not save anyone. That is why Jesus sends His ministers with the task of preaching the cross.

Only the preaching of the cross of Christ saves. That God took on human flesh and became man is scandalous to unbelievers, but it is nevertheless true. That God the Son died on the cross for the sins of men whom He created is scandalous to unbelievers, but it is nevertheless true.

And yes, the forgiveness that was earned on the cross is given to us in the ordinary water used in Baptism, in the words of Absolution spoken by a sinful man, and in underwhelming bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper.

God intentionally chooses ways and means to save us that are scandalous to human reason so that we would realize that our salvation is a miracle. It is not something that we do, but something that God has done for us.

God has given us the gift of faith. We didn’t discover the faith by our own efforts or in-depth studies. All our efforts would only lead us to see the cross as a scandal. However, God has miraculously opened our eyes to the truth of the cross.

God initially gave us faith in Baptism. This truth which scandalizes unbelievers saves us. God continues to strengthen and nourish our faith through Absolution and Holy Communion. This truth which scandalizes unbelievers saves us. God became man and died for our sins. This truth which scandalizes unbelievers saves us.

Christians don’t let the imperfections of their congregations keep them from hearing the Word of Christ. If there are imperfections with the music, the building, the people, or the pastor (which I assure you is always the case), Christians still come to hear the word of the cross. Foolishness to unbelievers, but for us who are being saved, the word of the cross is the power of God that saves us and brings us to life everlasting. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

The Word of the Cross

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany based on I Corinthians 1:18-31

Dear Christians: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christianity is a foolish religion by all worldly standards. Christianity doesn’t make you any healthier or wealthier than the rest of humanity. It doesn’t help you get ahead in life. In fact, if anything, it keeps you from getting ahead if you follow the Christian principle of loving your neighbour as yourself and thus look out for his interests also, not just your own.

Christianity is a foolish religion by all worldly standards because we believe that God saves us through water, that He feeds us with the body and blood of His Son hidden under bread and wine, and that He sends weak, sinful men to speak for Him.

Christianity is a foolish religion by all worldly standards because it worships a God who came humbly as a man to die for mankind. What kind of a God subjects Himself to torture and humiliation at that hands of His own creation? What kind of a God becomes a curse on a cross, rejected and betrayed? What kind of a God dies?

“The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” It is foolishness; it makes no sense to those who are perishing. It is a scandal to those who expected the Saviour to come as a powerful military conqueror and a great warrior. It is folly to those who think that in their wisdom they know a better way.

Some people think they can find God in signs. They look for signs high and low to see where they can find Him. They look for Him in great strong winds that tear mountains and break rocks into pieces. They look for Him in earthquakes that shake the foundations of the earth and in fires that consume everything in their path (cf. I Kings 19:11-12). They look for Him in nature – in a cloud that looks like a face, in a butterfly that lingers nearby, in a rainbow that seems to point to something. But you cannot find God in such signs.

Some people think they can find God in worldly wisdom. That’s what philosophy is all about. It is an attempt to find God in your own mind, deciding for yourself what you think God should be like and what He should and should not do. But you cannot find God in worldly wisdom. You cannot find God through your thoughts, however lofty they may be.

So, then we must go to the cross, right? We can find God in the cross, can we not? Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, who was the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, is claimed to have found, in the fourth century, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Fragments of this cross were sent to churches around the Empire to be relics which the Roman Catholic Church later taught could be venerated to receive forgiveness of sins. But God has given us no promise in the wood of the cross of Jesus. Even if these fragments were from the true cross of Jesus, what promise has God attached to them? None. Add to this the fact that if you add the supposed wood fragments from the cross together from all the churches, you’d have enough wood to build Noah’s ark, and you start to realize you cannot hope to find God in the sign of the cross. There is no certainty. There are no promises from God connected to such endeavours.

We do have two signs, however, where God has promised to be found: Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. In these two signs, you can find God. In these two signs, you receive all the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross. You cannot go to the cross to get these benefits, but you can come to the font and you can come to the altar. You cannot go to fragments of wood which might or might not be from the cross of Jesus and hope to receive anything. But you can come to the signs where God has promised to be found, and there you will find forgiveness of sins.

We also have the word of the cross. The word of the cross is the Gospel, that word which tells you that Jesus died for your sins and thus has set you free from the penalty of your sins; that word which tells you that all your sins were put on Jesus and He took the punishment for them in your place.

This word of the cross is foolishness to people who think they are not sinful. It is foolishness to people who don’t think they need forgiveness. It is foolishness for anyone who does not believe they deserve hell because of their sin.

This word is not foolishness to you. To you who are being saved, the word of the cross is the power of God. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). The word of the cross has the power to snatch you from hell and the claws of the devil and give you eternal life.

To the world, it may seem like foolishness and folly. It may seem like a weakness of God that He would die. But the cross does not show God’s weakness; it shows His power. Through the cross, to which He willingly subjected Himself, He saved us. He defeated sin, death, and the devil. He won as back for Himself, saving us from our enemies which we were too weak to defeat. He did not die to defeat these enemies for Himself, but for us, and He has given us sure and certain signs through which we can receive the benefits of this victory for ourselves.

God shows His power in saving helpless infants through the waters of Holy Baptism. So simple. So easy. So powerful. God shows His power in saving the helpless infirm on their deathbeds through holy Communion. So simple. So easy. So powerful. God shows His power in saving helpless you and helpless me through these same signs to which He has attached His promises of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

Christianity is foolishness by all worldly standards, but worldly standards don’t mean anything when it comes to salvation. The word of the cross is God’s wisdom and power. In His wisdom, He knew how to save us since we were too foolish to save ourselves. In His power, He did what we were powerless to do. Is this foolishness or folly? No, to us who are being saved, it is the power of God – the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.