Advent 3 Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Are you offended, generally speaking, by a picture of a sea otter or a bunny rabbit or a marshmallow? No.
Are you offended, generally speaking, by a crucifix—a cross depicting the bodily sacrifice and death of Jesus?
But how about this: are you offended by a crucifix, immersed in urine, photographed, and awarded the top prize in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition?
Such a competition exists. Such a photo exists. And (I think it was in the 1980’s) that photo won that competition.
We’re not offended by innocuous things.
We are offended by hostile things.
Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 10:6).
He wouldn’t say this if He Himself and the Gospel, the Word and Will of God, weren’t offensive or hostile.
We don’t think of Jesus as offensive, but He is.
We don’t think of the Gospel as hostile, but it is.
In His Words to John’s disciples, Jesus directs them and us all to His own Word and Work.
That’s what you need to keep in mind today: Jesus points you to His Word and His Work, and He adds this beatitude: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
If we ask which works Jesus wants us to see, we might open to Isaiah.
Isaiah writes very clearly that in the day of the Christ, “the deaf shall hear…[and] the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor…shall exult in the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 29:18-19).
He writes, regarding the coming recompense and salvation of God, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a dear, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
That will happen, Isaiah writes, because “[the Lord’s anointed] will bring good news to the poor…bind up the broken hearted…proclaim liberty to the captives…the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).
These descriptions of the the day and work of the Christ are clearly fulfilled in Jesus.
The work He does identifies Him as the Christ.
But how is that offensive?
You might say that it’s not, but if you’re ever the one in need of a miracle—and Jesus doesn’t come through—you might think God not only wants you to suffer but to suffer alone, abandoned, without help.
That’s not the case, though.
We know that these works of the Christ, these miracles, these healings and restorations, weren’t the only works Jesus came to accomplish. We know that.
And if we ask which words Jesus wants us to hear, we might consider what Jesus has just finished saying.
Today’s Gospel lesson includes the first verses of Matthew chapter eleven. Here’s some of the last verses of chapter ten: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have no come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-39).
These words of Jesus identify Him as a strict and harsh teacher. And when it’s another man and his son considered, I’m sure it’s easy to agree with what Jesus says. But when these verses describe you, if you’re forced to choose between Jesus and your child or parent, if you’re forced to be faithful or familial, then these verses are offensive, because Jesus is hostile to sin.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6), Jesus says.
And even in our bruised-strawberry, offended-by-everything culture, no one’s offended by Jesus’ words, “Judge not” (cf. Matthew 7:1), because no one likes being judged.
Likewise, no one’s offended when Jesus overturns the tables at the temple, because all those hypocritical churchy people need it, too.
But how many of you bristle at Jesus’ words: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33)?
These words offend us when we have family or friends who deny who Jesus is—who don’t go to church—who think that all the churches are the same.
How many of you flat out ignore Jesus when He says, “I have not come to bring peace [to the earth], but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father…” (Matthew 10:34-35)?
These words offend us because, sometimes, we’d rather offend Jesus than our wife, husband, son, daughter, or friend. Or, if you don’t have a spouse, a child, or a friend, these words offend us because, sometimes, we’d rather offend Jesus than be inconvenienced.
Jesus says “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6), because Jesus is hostile to sin.
The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe in Jesus. That includes abusers, adulterers, democrats, republicans, your ex, and even you.
We’re happy when the Gospel saves us, but we’re also happy that certain people don’t sit next to us at church.
My friends, that should not be.
And while the Gospel is for all, it also requires all to forsake all that is not the gospel.
If you do not acknowledge Jesus, He will not acknowledge you. At times, that offends us.
And—just as offensive—the gospel—the power of God for salvation to all who believe in Jesus—requires the bloody and dead human body of a crucified God.
Baby Jesus and the Laughing Christ sell a lot more cards than the bloody, naked, tortured, pierced, and dead crucified God.
Andres Serrano, the artist who photographed a crucifix in a jar of his own urine and won an art prize for it, says he meant no blasphemy by it, that he’s Roman Catholic, that he’s a follower of Christ.
He says his photo symbolizes the way Christ died. He says, “If [it] upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.”
I detest modern art. I despise the idea of immersing a crucifix in urine.
And—an accurate portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus should and does offend our sensibilities. In every depiction of the crucifix, Jesus wears some sort of cloth or covering, but He would’ve been crucified naked. He would have been stripped bare so as to publicly humiliate Him.
I’m not saying we should have a naked Jesus on the cross, I’m saying we should realize the depth of sin’s depravity—our depravity—and the length to which God went to save us.
An empty cross is not a symbol of the resurrection but of man’s squeamishness with and offense at the Gospel.
Lutherans like to believe that Luther would like to attend their church, but he wouldn’t because of how lax we are with doctrine, the Word and Work of Christ.
Christians like to believe that Christ would like to attend their church, but He wouldn’t because of how lax we are with doctrine, the Word and Work of Christ.
With what disdain do we treat the catechism and the hymns of our own church!
When Lutherans invite people to church, talk about what we believe, or the hymns we sing, it’s like a guy setting his best friend up on a blind date, who says, “She’s too slow, I hate the way she sounds, and I don’t want to date her, but you should.”
Why should anyone come if we don’t rejoice in what we have and who we are? And why don’t we rejoice?
With what disdain do we treat the Bible, our dust-collecting paperweight!
We have the words of eternal life, but we’d rather scroll through Facebook on our phone while binge-watching the newest season of some show we don’t actually like on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
We can list the great houses of Westeros, the Cubs’ or Cardinals’ starting lineup, and the lyrics to dozens of nonsense songs, but do we know the books of the Bible in order, the Ten Commandments, or even the names of the Apostles?
And with what disdain do we treat the attempts to teach the faith. It’s too simple. It’s too complex. I already know everything. I didn’t learn anything. It was boring. There was too much going on. I don’t like the teacher. I don’t like the time. There wasn’t any coffee. Pastor always eats the donuts I like. I don’t like sitting at church, talking about Jesus, I’d rather be by myself at home.
And yet Jesus says, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
If you don’t sing the hymns, if you don’t say “Amen,” if you don’t go to Sunday School, if your children don’t go to church—how do you—and how do they—acknowledge Jesus before men? That’s a real question.
Because going to Sunday school isn’t required, but confessing Jesus before men is.
Blessed is he who’s not offended by me.
All I’ve said is what Jesus says.
But let me also say to you what else Jesus has done and said for you: It’s not too late.
The preaching of John the Baptist—the preaching of Jesus the Christ—is one of repentance. A good Bible-trivia question is to ask what Jesus said in His first sermon. In Matthew chapter four, when Jesus begins His ministry, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).
It’s not too late. But for us all, it almost is.
That’s what I’ve heard. And I mean to say, that’s what John the Baptist, Jesus, and every Christian since has taught. Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
That’s what I’ve heard—I wasn’t there to hear and see Jesus say it, but here’s the marvelous thing:
Every single one of us has heard the gospel from someone who heard it from someone who heard from someone who heard it from Jesus Himself.
Whether it’s Jesus’ response to the question from John’s disciples or the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, or the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension, the matter is established on the account of two or three witnesses—which is a Scriptural requirement when someone’s life is on the line.
We’ve all heard what they saw.
It’s not too late, but it almost is.
Jesus—who gave sight to the blind, new legs to the lame, clean flesh to the lepers, perfect pitch to the deaf, life to the dead, and good news to the poor—this Jesus, the Christ, the Lamb of God took upon His flesh the penalty for our sin and sacrificed Himself for us—that all who hear and see Him—all who hear from those who saw Him—and all who are not offended by Him would be saved.
Jesus is hostile to sinners—to save them from sin.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).
In this, the poor have had the good news preached to them. That is, us poor, miserable, sinners have heard the Gospel, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe in Jesus. Blessed are you who believe it.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!