Friday, March 25, 2005

Isaiah 53:1-7,9,11-12 - “The Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted Savior That We Need”

(“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” – Lutheran Worship #116)
For text of hymn, click here and scroll down to hymn title

Good Friday
Friday, March 25, 2005

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Stricken, strike, struck with the blows of disease and sin. Smitten, smite, smote, smiting, suddenly injuring and killing with a heavy blow. Afflicted, afflict, bringing severe trouble causing persistent, lasting suffering and anguish.

This Jesus now hanging on the cross has been struck with the blows of disease and death—the consequences of sin. The soldiers smite him with their fists, whips, and swords. He is afflicted, suffering on that awful afternoon. How disgraceful! This Jesus must be so beneath us.

It’s as if you saw Jesus in the alleys picking up trash. How disgraceful! Is Jesus actually going to unclog my toilet? Is Jesus picking out lice from hair and wiping up vomit? How disgraceful! Is Jesus cleaning up our pus-filled wounds? What awful, dirty, difficult work—Jesus, out there touching all of our human waste. This Jesus must be stricken, smitten, and afflicted, punished by God for some terrible act.

Isaiah’s right, it’s easy to consider Jesus to be “stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted.” It’s easy to sing those words in the hymn, “stricken, smitten, and afflicted,” because you think of the cross, you think of this poor, ugly creature being put to death, and you think, “Surely, Jesus must have been disgraceful for the people to choose to crucify Him. Jesus must have been distasteful, disfigured, disrobed, disappointing, disagreeable, dishonorable.”

What a strange man, this Jesus, who came and took on people’s infirmities and sorrows. I suppose it just sort of looks like Jesus was being punished and suffering for His own wickedness. Little would we guess that he was picking up our trash in the alleys, our vomit, blood, pus, and waste. When Jesus dies on the cross, it looks like His own suffering, His own crime, His own death. It’s easy to say that Jesus was simply dying for Himself. Yet, if we say that, we’re missing the spiritual reality.

Jesus was stricken by God with the blows meant for our sins. Jesus was smitten by God to the death we deserve. Jesus was afflicted with the severe trouble we’ve brought about in the world. All of our sins were given to Him, so that He died in punishment for those sins. All of the consequences of sin—all of the diseases, troubles, broken down places, and death—was given to Him, so that He took on those consequences.

On the cross, Jesus did more than share in our suffering; He actually bore our suffering, carried it, lugged it, fell under its weight. He actively came seeking to take our suffering onto Himself.

Imagine Jesus walking around, plucking away the suffering from people in the world, and adding them to His own body. That’s what happened on the cross. Imagine Jesus taking your colds, your flu, and your pneumonia. Jesus just opens up His own body, starts collecting the world’s suffering and taking it into Himself. That’s what happened on the cross. He took the tumors and implanted them in Himself. He contracted AIDS. He lost His hand in a roadside bomb. He drank the poisoned water.

All of our suffering was poured into Jesus when He died on that cross. We may look at Jesus as the most luckless, hapless, sorry excuse for a Savior, because He came preaching victory and then He dies. Yet, in that death, He collected all of our suffering, all of our punishment, our full amount of death and separation from God. There’s no failure in this. This is what He meant to do.

As Isaiah says, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.” There could be no peace without punishment, but instead of us being punished and dying forever, Jesus took that punishment Himself. As Isaiah says, “By His wounds, we are healed.” Jesus takes the blows, but through this, there is healing for us, forgiveness for us, salvation for us.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Those that don’t know about Jesus would look in here today, hear what we’ve read from the Bible, hear about our God being put to death on a cross, and they’d say, “Your God is stricken, smitten, and afflicted.”

Yet, they’d hear us singing, “Christ, the rock of our salvation/His the Name of which we boast.” They’d hear us proclaiming that Christ is still our King and Savior. They’d hear us worshipping and honoring Jesus. They’d hear us applying His Name to ourselves, calling ourselves Christians, reminding ourselves that we’ve been baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Rather than trying to distance ourselves from this stricken, smitten, afflicted, disgraceful, dishonorable figure on the cross, those that would observe us today would see us trusting and believing and praising and loving and tying our hopes to that figure on the cross.

This Jesus that the world would see as defeated, we have seen as victorious. He is the stricken, smitten, and afflicted Savior that we need. Through the Holy Spirit working in the Word of God and working in our hearts, we’ve been given a glimpse of the spiritual reality. We hear Isaiah report God’s words, “I will give Him a portion among the great.” When God the Father sees God the Son die on the cross, the Father declares that this makes the Son truly great, truly honored, truly at His right hand of power and glory.

We rejoice today. We call today Good Friday. We do the complete opposite of what people would expect us to do, because there was something more going on when Jesus died, something more than meets the eye. Jesus “bore the sins of the many.” Jesus was “sacrificed to cancel guilt.” There is victory in His death, and that’s why we sing praises today—a day of suffering and death. That’s why we raise the Name of Christ—a man many would simply despise and reject.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted. “A man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” There’s an old traditional song called “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” using a phrase reminiscent of Isaiah’s words. The song’s lyrics are applied to someone going through tough times, but many of the sorrows in the song could also apply to our Lord Jesus. “I am a man of constant sorrow/I've seen trouble all my day…I have no friends to help me now…Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger/My face you’ll never see no more./But there is one promise that is given/I’ll meet you on God's golden shore.”

Jesus knew constant sorrow—seeing His world, His people rejecting His message from God the Father. Jesus knew trouble all His day—crowds and leaders looking for ways to trick Him and use Him and kill Him. When it finally came time for His arrest, Jesus had no friends to help Him now—deserting Him, running away scared, denying Him, hiding.

Then Jesus speaks hopeful words to the thief on the cross. “Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger/My face you’ll never see no more.” Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Maybe your fellow thief thinks I’m just a stranger, a disgraceful man, a dishonorable, despicable man, someone he can make fun of and mock. Maybe your fellow thief thinks that you can do this to me, because we’ll die and you’ll never see me again, but I’m telling you, I’m telling you that there is one promise given, I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.” Today you will be with Me in paradise. In My Father’s house are many rooms.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and still this man, this Jesus is speaking hopeful, promising words on the cross. Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and yet, that’s exactly why we’ll meet on God’s golden shore, why we’ll be with our God forever. Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, but it’s a good strike, it’s a good smite, it’s a good affliction. It wasn’t good for Jesus; it was the unabridged suffering for all mankind of all time. It wasn’t good for Jesus, but it is good for us.

Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and so now, we will not be stricken with eternal death. We will not be smitten by Satan’s fatal blow. We will not be afflicted with hell’s disease.

So thank God for this stricken, smitten, and afflicted day. Thank God for this stricken, smitten, and afflicted Lord. That’s why we sang the hymn, singing of the hopes we have in Him: “Here, my soul, your Savior see./He’s the long-expected prophet,…/He’s the true and faithful Word…/Here we have a firm foundation; Here the refuge of the lost.”

He is not what we expected, but Jesus is the Savior we need.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Psalm 92 - "The Little Cedar That Could"

Palm Sunday (A)/Confirmation Day
Saturday, March 19, and Sunday, March 20, 2005
Written with the help of the Confirmation students

God’s in the business of taking seedlings and making them into strong, huge trees. Obviously, God’s got to do this. Even if we plant the tree, water the tree, make sure it has the sun and space it needs, even then, we can’t make the tree grow. God uses us to help in the process, but the seed, the sprout, the first shoots, the first needles, the photosynthesis, the roots drawing water out of the soil, all of that is the marvelous, wondrous, miraculous work of God.

When the Confirmands went away with me for their retreat to help plan this sermon, they read Psalm 92 as one of the options for a sermon text. The image of the Cedars of Lebanon really captured their attention. They liked the picture of a young seedling growing into a strong cedar tree, part of a huge forest of amazing cedars. I don’t think they got excited about this image because they’re destined to be landscapers, horticulturists, or owners of tree nurseries. I think they got excited about this image, because they knew that it was about them, me, and all of you. Seedlings becoming the Cedars of Lebanon.

cedar seedling
Look at the cover of your bulletin. There’s a picture of a seedling, just beginning to grow. Then there’s a picture of a cedar forest, full-grown trees stretched out to the sky. The confirmands loved how Psalm 92 celebrates how God works in the world, especially how He works to grow faith in our hearts. He takes us weak, unprotected, small little souls, souls that would be lost if He didn’t watch over us, He takes those small souls and grows us into spectacular trees, takes our souls which didn’t know Him and builds our knowledge and understanding of Him. The Cedars of Lebanon

When the students understood Psalm 92 was celebrating how God puts faith in our hearts, they knew that that’s what they wanted you to hear today. They want you to believe that you are cedars of Lebanon, that God is growing your faith to the sky.

Perhaps, though, you’re like the confirmands and I were when we first read Psalm 92. Growing like cedars of Lebanon sounds pretty good, but what does it really mean? Why cedar trees? Why in Lebanon? Well, the confirmands, along with our retreat leaders, Beth Groddy, Dawn Horswill, and Penny Schneider, had to do some research to find out.

National Flag of Lebanon
Probably the easiest way to explain it is with a comparison that one of the students made. The Cedars in Lebanon are kind of like the bald eagle in America. The bald eagle is the symbol in America for our strength and freedom, a national symbol for everything we take pride in. Like that, in Lebanon, the cedar tree is their pride, their strength. On the cover of the bulletin, you’ve got modern day Lebanon’s national flag with a cedar tree right in the middle of it.

Today the cedar forests of Lebanon have largely been destroyed due to overcutting and environmental changes, but in biblical times, that’s what Lebanon was known for. If you wanted to build something that would last a long, long time, if you wanted the building to be beautiful and strong, you’d use the Cedars of Lebanon. That kind of reputation led the Israelites to choose cedars from Lebanon when they built the temple. To build the house of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, to build His temple on earth, there weren’t any better building materials than the cedars of Lebanon.

So it’s no mistake that Psalm 92 gets specific and says that God will make us to be like Cedars of Lebanon. The writer didn’t just choose his favorite tree. He chose a symbol for beauty and strength; he chose the tree used in the construction of the temple. When the psalmist says we’ll be like Cedars of Lebanon, everyone who heard that psalm would know, “Oh, God’s going to make me strong and beautiful. Cedars are the pillars of the temple, and God’s going to make me a pillar in His kingdom, a person who is strong in the faith among His people. Just like how the Cedars were used to build the temple, God will build His kingdom using me.”

When the confirmands figured this out about the Cedars of Lebanon, they quickly realized that that’s what they had been learning in DJs, Disciples of Jesus, our Confirmation program. They’ve been learning how God has made them into faithful people, put faith in their hearts, helped them to trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. God’s made them into Cedars of Lebanon, strong and beautiful people of faith, pillars of God’s kingdom.

Today is about these 16 students looking at their lives and realizing that God has made them into Cedars of Lebanon, has given them a strong and beautiful faith. God is going to use you in His kingdom, use you to tell others about Christ, to support God’s kingdom, to share God’s love in so many different ways. Confirmands, it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, because God made you into Cedars of Lebanon.

Even as we celebrate today that God’s got these 16 cedars in the forest, today is also about celebrating and praising God for the cedars that have been around these students. Their parents, grandparents, family, and friends who have taught them about Jesus. The people in this church who make it possible for us to have intensive ways to teach the faith in Sunday School, DJs, RYMS, and worship services. Confirmands, you look up today and look back see how many of the Cedars in this forest have supported you, taught you, helped you to grow, were used by God to teach you about Jesus. Confirmands, it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, because you are surrounded by a forest of cedars, a forest of faithful people.

Yet, today these 16 confirmands want the rest of this forest to know you’re a forest. They want you to know that God has given you a strong and beautiful faith. So the people of God gathered in this place, it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, because God has made you into Cedars of Lebanon.

May this congregation see these students sitting up here, and realize that these students are 16 cedars of this congregation, 16 pillars in God’s temple, 16 young people that God can use in your life to help point you to the hope and forgiveness we have in Jesus. So the people of God gathered in this place, it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, because you are surrounded by a forest of cedars, including these 16 cedars here today.

Now that you’ve all looked down and seen that you are Cedars of Lebanon, now that you’ve looked around you to see that you’re surrounded by Cedars of Lebanon, the confirmands wanted me to tell you a little story to make sure you really understand that you are Cedars, that God is growing you into the best tree, the kind of tree reserved for the temple of God.

The story is called “The Little Cedar That Could.” Perhaps you know the other version, The Little Engine That Could. In The Little Engine, there’s a small train engine that needs to pull some railroad cars up a mountain. He doesn’t think he could ever do it, but he sets his mind on it and says, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and sure enough, he motivates himself right over that mountain.

Well, our version, “The Little Cedar That Could,” is a little different. You’re like the seedling on the front cover, a little cedar tree that barely has roots. You’re told that you need to be a big and strong tree for God, big and strong in your faith. You don’t think you can ever do it, but you try to set your mind on it and say, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” but. . .it doesn’t work. You’re still a small weak seedling needing a lot of help to grow, needing sun and rain and soil and protection.

The Little Engine thought and thought and motivated himself to the top of that mountain, but the more you think about getting a strong faith, the more you seem to realize that you’re sinful, you don’t do what God wants you to do, you don’t always trust Him, you don’t always remember Him. The more you think, the more you realize how far down the mountain you are, how small of a seedling you are. You’re never going to get to be the Big Cedar this way. You’re stuck as the Little Cedar that couldn’t.

The Little Engine might have thought himself up that mountain, but trees don’t grow that way. No amount of thinking is going to make a tree grow, just as no amount of thinking makes people grow from babies to adults. That kind of growth needs God behind it, needs God to provide all of the resources, ingredients, all of the necessary stuff for growth to happen.

So that’s what happens for you, the Little Cedar, the seedling waiting to grow. God provides the seed, the sprout, the first shoots, the first needles, the photosynthesis, the roots drawing water out of the soil, all of that is the marvelous, wondrous, miraculous work of God. You are the Little Cedar that could, but the reason you can grow, the reason that you can go from seedling to big tree isn’t your own ability. It is the gift of God. You are the Little Cedar that could through God alone.

This is exactly what happens for us spiritually. No amount of thinking will give us a strong faith. In fact, no amount of serious thinking would produce faith in us at all. We can’t simply sit and say to ourselves, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can believe in a God who loves me and forgives me no matter what I’m like. I think I can trust that God will save me by His own actions and not just wait for me to save myself. I think I can believe that God will help me to serve Him, but that my relationship with God is based on God’s gift to me.”

You could sit for years and think all of that, but all of your thinking won’t produce faith. You can’t be a big tree on your own; you can’t get up this spiritual mountain by yourself.

You are the Little Cedar that could through Jesus alone. God speaks through His Word to create faith in you. God worked through baptism to create faith in you. God works through the Lord’s Supper to strengthen faith in you. God keeps teaching you and reminding you and telling you and shouting it out to you that Jesus saves you from your sins, and all of that is growing you from seedling to big tree, from small and weak to a Cedar of Lebanon.

You are the Little Cedar that could through God alone. Psalm 92 says, “They will grow like a cedar of Lebanon, planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of God.” You’re not on your own; you’re in the presence of God. You’ll flourish, grow, bear fruit, be fresh and green by being in the courts of God.

I want the confirmands to stand up right where they are. You were seedlings (arms at your side), but now you are Cedars of Lebanon (arms raised like trees). You were seedlings (arms at your side). You were weak, small, didn’t know God, but God has worked in your life to make you grow in faith, grow like Cedars of Lebanon (arms raised like trees).

OK, now I want everyone who’s able to stand up, because today isn’t just about the confirmands. Today the confirmands want you to go home remembering the same thing they know. So, you were seedlings (arms at your side). You were weak, small, didn’t know God, but God has worked in your life to make you grow in faith, grow like Cedars of Lebanon (arms raised like trees).

Go home today, you trees, walk around today and greet people by raising up your arms, and tell them, “God’s made me a Cedar of Lebanon, has put strength and beauty in my soul through faith in Jesus.”