Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Stench of Death, the Fragrance of Life

Texts: 2 Corinthians 2:12 - 3:6; John 11:55 - 12:11

Have you ever heard of dramatic irony? It occurs in a novel or movie or TV drama when the reader or the audience knows more about what's happening to the characters than they do themselves. It's especially ironic when you see the characters reacting to a situation or another character exactly the opposite to the way they should. "Meanwhile, back at the ranch," says the narrator, or, "Little did she know, but . . . "

It's fun and exciting to be in the know like that. Though it can be frustrating watching your favorite characters get themselves into trouble they could've kept out of if only they'd had the information you do. But have you ever thought that you and I and all of us human beings are characters in a drama, too? And that our eternal destiny depends on what side of the dramatic irony we fall? God is the author of this story, and it's the drama of how He brings salvation to sinful humanity and achieves for Himself the glory that's His due.

That's what the whole Bible is about. What's more, in this salvation story, God the author has put Himself into it as the main character. As writer Dorothy L. Sayers put it, "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . (The) terrifying drama in which God is the victim and the hero . . (T)he terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death."1 And the greatest challenge for us is, What do we make of the irony of the Cross? What do we think of Christ and Him crucified? Does His cross bring to us the stench of death, or does it cover us with the fragrance of life?

We may be attracted most to the stories of Jesus' ministry, how He fed the hungry and healed the sick and welcomed children and outcasts. But in all four gospels the direction of the divine drama is always towards the cross. That's where Jesus was headed ever since the angel Gabriel told His mother Mary that He would save His people from their sins. Dying for us was the Son of God's purpose in life ever since eternity, when Christ was declared by God to be the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

In our reading today from the gospel according to St. John, the momentum towards Calvary is stepping up. This chapter in the divine drama begins with ordinary Jews coming up from the countryside to Jerusalem for the Passover, wondering if Jesus would appear for the Feast. What did they hope for from Him? A military savior, someone to overthrow the Romans, most likely. The cross was not in their plans! For them, Jesus being crucified like any other insurrectionist would have ruined everything. They don't understand that their true liberation could come only from the death of their Messiah.

The chief priests and Pharisees, on the other hand. They wanted Jesus crucified. They thought that would get Him out of their way forever. Little did they know that Jesus' death would lead to His rising to new and everlasting life.

And then John moves us to the village of Bethany, a short way out of Jerusalem. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are giving a dinner in Jesus' honor, to thank Him for raising Lazarus from the dead. What do Martha in her serving and even Lazarus, reclining at the table, know about the cross? Did they have any idea that the Lord of life would have to die?

Probably not. Why shouldn't He remain and usher in the kingdom of God, just as He was?
But then Mary-- Mary, who always seemed to do the thing that was so unexpected and so right, rose and took a whole pint of pure nard, an extraordinarily precious and expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. It was an offering of devotion and service to Jesus. For raising her beloved brother from the dead. For teaching her and supporting her and respecting her. Just for being Jesus, her beloved Rabbi. Jesus deserved all this and more. But did Mary herself understand what her deed had to do with the atonement Jesus would win for her on the cross? We'll see.

But Judas, now. Judas ought to have understood. There should have been no dramatic ironies with him. He was an apostle, one of the Twelve. For the past few months Jesus had been teaching him and the others that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and be killed and then rise again on the third day. He'd heard Jesus say that to please God and have eternal life you must eat the broken flesh of the Son of Man and drink of His shed blood. And Judas, unlike so many others, hadn't abandon Jesus when He said that. Judas should have accepted that Jesus was heading for the cross and to some extent, understood why. Judas Iscariot should have been in tune with the divine plan that Jesus had revealed.

But instead, he fails to recognize or acknowledge or honor who Jesus truly is. He (and other onlookers) are shocked and astonished! "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?" he exclaims. I'm pretty sure that this line wasn't original. It sounded like a slogan then and it sounds like a slogan, now. For isn't it ironic, how so many people even today who insist on that behavior aren't talking about their own money and possessions at all, but those of somebody else. And as John reveals, Judas wasn't really concerned about the poor at all. He wanted more coins in the money bag so he, as the group treasurer, could embezzle them.

So what was Jesus to Judas? A leader to be proud of and feel good about following? A chance at power and fame? A handy source of spare income? Maybe. At this point, the idea of Jesus going to the cross would be anathema to Judas. Why, that would ruin everything!

And then Jesus speaks. "‘Leave her alone,' Jesus replied," as it says in the New International Version. Literally, the Greek reads something like, "Jesus said, ‘Allow her.'" Whichever way you put it, His word is a rebuke to Judas and all the others who do not understand who Jesus is and why He came to earth. I wonder, is this when Judas turned against Jesus and decided that delivering Him over to death might be a good idea?

"Allow her," says Jesus, "in order that--" (and this is the literal translation)-- "for the day of my preparation for burial she may have kept it." Jesus is the only one who is not caught in the dramatic irony. He's the only person in this pericope who knows exactly what is going on and is Master of the situation. Jesus alone is fully aware that He is going to the Cross to show His infinite love for Mary of Bethany and all God's elect. And so Jesus took her act of human love and sanctified it to Himself. In 1st century Jewish culture the bodies of the newly-dead were anointed with precious oils and wrapped in spices. At Jesus' word, Mary's anointing of His feet is a prophecy in action of what she and the other women would soon do for His whole dead body, and the preciousness of the nard perfume pointed to the how precious His death would be for us who believe.

It's hard for us to grasp how ironic, how against all convention it would have been for the people of Jesus' day to consider that anyone's crucifixion would be a source of life. Crucifixion is probably the most painful and hideous form of public execution known to humankind, and the Romans had raised-- or should we say, lowered-- it to a science and an art. The stench of death from the bodies of criminals and rebels hung on crosses would pervade the air outside city walls all through the Roman empire, as a warning to all who would defy Caesar's law and power. How could a crucifixion-- one Man's crucifixion, cause the cross ever after to exhale the fragrance of life? Isn't this the supreme cosmic irony? Little did we know what God was doing when Jesus Christ hung there on Calvary, but now we can know and trust that He did it for you and me.
But what of Judas' objection, that Mary should have sold the perfume and given the money for distribution to the poor? Jesus continues, "You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

Never interpret this as Jesus saying we can neglect the impoverished among us, especially the needy who are in this very church. Nor can we take this to mean that it's God's will that poverty should exist and we should do nothing about its causes. Just the opposite. For Mary of Bethany, there was a time to aid the poor. But that time was not now. Now it was time for her to perfume the feet of Jesus against the hour of His death.

Perhaps it seems ironic to you that Jesus would put things this way. It might be thought that Jesus, the humble lover of the poor, would always put them first! Isn't it self-aggrandizing of him to say He was worth all that He takes priority here?

It would be, if He were only a man. And that is what many people in His day thought. It's what most people in our day believe as well. But once we know that He is God in human flesh, we gladly acknowledge that first honor belongs to Him. Mary with her poured-out perfume was worshipping Him in His incarnation. Jesus by His life, death, and resurrection makes everyone rich; everyone, that is, who comes to Him in faith. Jesus by His cross turns the stench of death into the fragrance of life.

But now, in this divine drama, it seems that the camera zooms out again and gives us a look at the "large crowd of Jews" who'd come to Bethany to get a look at Jesus and at Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. Just as with the Jews in Jerusalem at the beginning of our reading, they admire our Lord's supernatural power. They might even come to believe in Him as Saviour and God given the influence of the Holy Spirit. But as of now, their thoughts and desires are all of this world. They would be appalled by the idea of Jesus and a crucifixion.

And finally, we come again to the high priests. They want the stench of death for Jesus of Nazareth, for He and His teachings and miracles are a stench to them. There is a massive irony here, for they had been appointed to be the very custodians of the righteousness and grace of God. And here they were conspired to destroy God's ultimate messenger of grace, His only-begotten Son.

Where would you have stood in this portion of God's drama? Would you have understood that Jesus was born to die and that His cross brings everlasting life?

No, you wouldn't have, and neither would I. For it is only by the ministry of God the Holy Spirit that our minds can be opened to grasp and accept and kneel before the mystery of redemption that Jesus achieved on Calvary's hill. Until then, the death of Christ is an absurdity. A tragedy. A sad mistake. The Holy Spirit must give us the mind of Christ, so we can step outside our story and see the Cross from God's point of view.

When you see the Cross from God's point of view, you understand that it was for you that Jesus died. It was your sins, and my sins, that put Him on that tree. Yet in spite of all that-- no, because of all that, He allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured, and finally, crucified. And somehow, out of that terrible death, comes our glorious life! Somehow, by the wonderful plan of God, Jesus' suffering made Him the minister of a new covenant, sealed not with the blood of bulls and goats, but by the sinless blood of the very Son of God.

Isn't that ironic? That creatures like you and I will someday be translated into the very throne room of almighty God! But that's what Jesus did for us on His cross.

The essence of dramatic irony is that the characters don't realize what's happening to them, or they consistently misperceive and misinterpret what's going on. They do that because they're stuck in the story and can only think of their own human motivations.

But you, Christian friends, are not stuck in the old human tragedy of sin and death. You no longer regard the cross of Christ as something negative to be shunned or laughed at or abhorred. It's not that you or I have grown so wise that we can of ourselves make the right decision about Jesus and His atoning death; rather, Jesus Himself has made His decision for you. As St. Paul writes, He chose you to be like the perfume that Mary of Bethany lavished on Jesus' feet.

Everywhere we go, "We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." To those who persist in their sins, we are the stench of death, but to those whose hearts are open (by the power of the Holy Spirt), we are the fragrance of eternal life. This comes from the irony of the cross, that somehow, by God's sovereign plan, the worst thing in the world could produce the best thing in all eternity for us, even the salvation of our souls. In the end, we may never fully understand how it can be. And so, like Mary, let us simply pour our adoration at the feet of Jesus, and worship and adore.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What God's Word Can Do

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-5

Good morning. It's day number 73 of the year of our Lord 2010. Do you know where your New Year's resolutions are?

Beginning of this year, I heard a lot about people resolving to read the Bible through by the end of next December. If you're one of them, I hope you're keeping to your plan.

There's one problem with Bible reading resolutions. It's how we can think of it as something meritorious we do-- or something guilt-inducing that we fail to do. Ever catch yourself falling into that trap? I have. That's the time to have a good laugh at ourselves. Boast about reading God's holy Word? We may as well brag about eating our dinners and enjoying them! God gave us food for the body to satisfy and nourish the physical man, and He gave us His God-breathed Scriptures to nourish and sustain our souls. They are His gift to us, and they come with virtue, strength, and power that proceed from His very throne. When we receive them with thanksgiving we see for ourselves what God's word can do.

Before anything else, He opens our hearts to receive the Scriptures as the Word of God. The sixteenth and seventeen verses of the third chapter of Paul's letter to Timothy read,

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Greek word New International Version translates as "God-breathed" is theopneustos. Other translations render it as "God-inspired." In the latest issue of Modern Reformation there's an article by Michael Allen, who teaches systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale. Prof. Allen writes,

The Greek word theopneustos has been studied up and down, left and right. The image is that of God breathing out, a notion surely informed by the creation account when God breathed life into the dust and made man (Gen. 2:7). Just as God created by his word in Genesis, so God brings about the new creation by the proclamation of the gospel. To that end, God inspires or breathes out life into and through the writings of the apostles. The picture is not of texts, already written, now receiving blessing; rather, the notion is of texts produced by God's very breath.1

Since this is the case-- since all Scripture has been produced by God by the power of His Holy Spirit, it has divine power. Power to convict us sinners of our sin; power to apply the saving blood of Jesus Christ to our soul; power to give us new hearts and new minds and set us in the paths of eternal life through that same Jesus Christ. And once we belong to Him, all that is written in this book has power to teach, to rebuke, to correct, and to train us in righteousness, so, as verse 17 reads, "the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

Does this term "man of God" refer only to the preacher? True, in the Old Testament God's designated prophet is often called "the man of God." But we live in New Testament times, and we are people of the New Covenant. God Almighty has called us all to be people of God, called by His Spirit and washed in His Son's precious blood.

Nor does verse 17 refer only to men. Greek has one word for a male person, another for a female person, and a third for a human being in general. Paul's word in this text is the third one. Are you in Christ? Then God's power in the Holy Scriptures is for you, working His grace so every Christian will be equipped to do what is wise and loving and holy as we serve our neighbor in His name.

Nevertheless, God by His church does set some individuals aside for special office, to be pastors and teachers, elders and deacons, missionaries and evangelists. It is their particular job to make sure that you who belong to Christ are equipped to do every good work He has foreordained for you to perform.

It's a solemn and weighty charge. See how Paul challenges Timothy in the first verse of chapter four: "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus." Even now, our Triune God is here, watching over and monitoring everything I say to you. It's my responsibility to preach not myself or my ideas, but the very oracles of God. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified! Woe to any consecrated and ordained Christian minister who fails to proclaim the living Word Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the written word of the Scriptures! Woe to us now, and woe to us when Christ shall sit and judge heaven and earth. Paul invokes the holy name of "Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead," reminding us that we will all stand before Him and give an account, and especially we pastors and elders and teachers who were charged with properly handling His word. Friends, the last thing I want on my tombstone is "Here lies an original theologian." I want to preach the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and if I ever get out of that path, I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to put me back into it.

For as Paul writes to Timothy, Christ will someday appear in the clouds-- maybe sooner than we think!-- and His kingdom will come perfectly and God will be worshipped as Lord over all. Even now, His kingdom is coming in power as faithful ministers and teachers boldly proclaim the God-breathed message of His word, which brings His new creation to life in formerly lost and rebellious souls. Shall we be excused if our preaching tears down the kingdom instead of building it up? No! We must use the Word rightly, and show the church and the world what it can do.

And so, says Paul, "Preach the Word." Proclaim Christ the living Word made flesh, crucified and risen for us. Yes, this command is addressed especially to us in the pulpit ministry. But all of us who bear Jesus' name must be prepared to explain the hope He has put in us. God gives us what we need to do that as His gracious gift: He gives us the Scriptures themselves to read and study. Faithful preaching to hear and imbibe. Bible commentaries written by godly scholars. Wise men and women in the church who understand the Word and can help us to understand as well.

And so God's word prepares us to proclaim it in season or out of season. Now, this phrase doesn't mean we should interrupt school or business or random conversations to exhort people to repent. But whenever the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts to tell someone what Jesus did on the cross to take away their sins, the Word makes us ready to obey, whether or not it's comfortable for us; whether or not the other person will receive the Gospel as good news.

Even so, the Holy Spirit in verse 2 addresses pastors and teachers in particular. The God-breathed Scripture "is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," and that is our special charge as we minister among you. The Word corrects. It moves the Christian who is carelessly going astray back into the right road. May Toby and I and every other pastor correct according to the Word, not from our own human judgement. The Word rebukes. It confronts Christians with their wilful sins. It puts the lie to false doctrine. It snatches the rebellious from the fires of Hell. May we pastors rebuke according to the Word, not out of our prejudices and fears. The Word encourages. It doesn't despise the day of small beginnings. It binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted and nourishes the weak and the young. May we pastors encourage according to the Word, with the power and grace of Jesus Christ, not with the sloppy sentimentalism of this sinful world.

When we pastors faithfully preach the Word in season and out of season, it infuses you, Christ's body, with power to stand strong against the lies of the world and the wiles of the devil. It gives you backbone and mettle and a sure sword hand against anything that would tear you away from your salvation in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures faithfully preached give you Jesus Christ Himself, living in you by the power of His Holy Spirit, fighting and winning the good fight of God, regardless of who or what comes against you.

We pastors must show you clearly what God's word can do, for the time is short. Paul writes in verse 3, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine." I'm afraid this isn't just about the unbelievers Out There; it's also a warning about people inside the church.
We see it happening today, all around us. People aren't naturally interested in hearing the Word of God. The Scriptures hurt before they heal and kill before they make alive. The good news of Jesus Christ is not really good unless first we've heard and received the bad news of the Law. Sinful human hearts doesn't want to submit to that. We didn't want to submit to that, until the Word of God worked in our hearts to recreate us according to the image of Christ.

And so, in churches all over the world, men and women are flocking to preachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear. Pastor, give me a great "worship experience," but don't waste my time with preaching! Tell me how to get rich or how to have a better marriage, but don't say anything about the Cross! Convince me it's okay to say I'm a Zen Buddhist and a Christian at the same time, but don't claim that Jesus is the only way to God! Keep my church small and comfortable and family-like, but don't disrupt us with talk about the power of the gospel for the world! Tickle my ears with how I can feel good about myself by doing good deeds, but don't fence me in with your narrow-minded Christ-centered, cross-focussed, Law-and-Gospel doctrine!

In all these ways and more the people of our time turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. Any idea or belief that human beings make up to explain how things got the way they are and how they should be is a myth, and it's all a lie against the truth of the Word of God. And heaven help us, many formerly-faithful pastors are wavering in their convictions. Some of us are wondering if maybe it might be okay to let in a little-- just a little-- of these myths-- just to get people and their itching ears through the door-- and once they're comfortable in the pews, we'll hit them with the real Jesus. Don't we understand how false that is? Don't we realize that the only way to grow God's church is by laying the foundation of Jesus Christ dead and raised again according to the Scriptures? How can we be so weak as to doubt what God's word can do?

In our text you can feel Paul's concern to keep Timothy out of that trap. In 1 Timothy we learn of the false doctrines and false practices this young pastor was up against in his church in Ephesus. Both men and women were claiming all sorts of false things about Jesus Christ, or denying Him altogether. How easy simply to give in, to mix in a little of this and a little of that, just to keep the peace and attract more members. No, Timothy! No, Paul says to all of us pastors who hold to the reformed and evangelical Christian faith! "Keep your head in all situations!" The power of the word will keep us from being swayed by the temptations of the world. "Endure hardship!" Remaining faithful to Christ and His self-revelation in Scripture will bring us hardship, as pastors and as churches. Membership may well go down. People will call us bigots and fools, and some of those accusers will be fellow-members. "Do the work of an evangelist." There is to be no barricading ourselves behind the church doors and letting the world literally go to hell. Even against hardship and calamity God's Spirit strengthens us to go boldly into the world bearing the good news of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Holy Scriptures! And finally, "discharge all the duties of your ministry." Every one of us has a ministry to our neighbor to carry out in Jesus' name. Everyone of us is responsible for feeding ourselves on the Scriptures and showing in the world what they can do.

We pastors have special duties, and the first of them is to open to you this book, the Bible, trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in your hearts and reveal to you God's power. If we fail to preach the Word, we have nothing to give you. Without God breathing His power into our lives through the Scriptures, we can bring only worldly hope and human wisdom.

But God has given us His holy Word, and as Isaiah the prophet says,

It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures is certainly our duty. A duty, the same way it's our duty to sit down and thoroughly enjoy a generous, appetizing, and nourishing meal spread out for us by the Father who loves us most. Sit and eat, Christian friends. Learn firsthand what this book can do in you. And so, by patience, and comfort of His holy Word, may you embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life. Amen.

1. Allen, Michael: "Getting Inspiration from Inspiration," Modern Reformation, Vol. 19, No. 2, March/April 2010, p.19