The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
“God works in mysterious ways.” We know the saying well. We probably even believe it. And yet…I’ll guarantee that we’ll never truly understand or comprehend just how mysterious the ways of God truly are. Just look to the events in our Old Testament lesson. Here we find the Israelites swallowed up in terror (a terror brought on by their own hard-hearted, selfish, and thankless sin). Regardless of the cause of their suffering and death, they do confess their sins and call upon the Lord (through their mediator, Moses) to deliver them; to save them. God’s response is swift and sure. He commands Moses to construct a bronze serpent and put it on a staff—a cross—in the middle of the Israelite encampment. He then attaches His holy Gospel promise to that earthly vessel. “Everyone who is bitten, when they look at that bronze serpent, will be saved.”
Notice: Your Lord never promises the Israelites that they won’t be bitten. He never directs them to a life that is magically absent of all suffering and death. Rather, in the midst of all that suffering and death He directs them to focus on His promise of life. And even here, that promise is attached to the very image and likeness of the very thing that was killing them. Talk about mysterious and strange! God didn’t have Moses build a bronze rainbow or a big bronze happy face emoji or golden loaf of bread or massive dollar sign. No! This promise was attached to a serpent; to the very image and likeness of the death that was terrorizing them. Anyone who was bitten—sentenced to death—and who looked upon that image and likeness of death, looking on in faith, trusting in the Word and Promise of God attached to that gruesome image of death, would live. They would not die. God would make good on His promise. This looking was an act of faithfully holding God to His promise for life, deliverance, and peace.
Fast-forward fourteen-hundred years, and we find ourselves in the upper room with Jesus on Maundy Thursday evening, mere minutes before He leaves the upper room and goes out to the Garden of Gethsemane. He speaks these words to His disciples, then prays His High Priestly prayer for them, and then goes out to the Garden…and you know the rest of the story. “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave Me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with Me. I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat or soft-sell His impending betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. He doesn’t sugar-coat or soft-sell the disciples’ terrified and selfish response to all the terror they’re about to witness. They will flee. They will deny even knowing Him. They will utterly abandon Him. And yet…Jesus bespeaks His peace to them. And that’s something worth noting too. The peace that Jesus bespeaks them isn’t a reminiscent peace grounded in the “good old days” that they shared together over the past three years, nor is it a peace that’s built upon a magical, pain-free, tribulation-free “someday” in the unforeseen distant future when they finally leave this veil of tears and go home to heaven. Nope. It’s a peace that’s focused squarely on His cross and suffering. “Take heart. I have overcome the world.” Jesus points them to and focuses them on His cross, assuring them and promising them that in that cross—that image and icon of wrath and judgment and death—He has overcome the world, once and for all time. It is finished. He’s won. Their peace will be found in trusting, not in their eyes and their feelings—not in their own reason and strength—but in the Word and Promise of God; the Word and Promise of God Himself in the flesh, who was lifted up and nailed to a cross for all the world to see; the very epitome of gruesome suffering and death.
Fast-forward another two-thousand years, and here we are. Nothing has changed. We still confess and cry out for deliverance, and your Lord still desires nothing more than to give you His peace. He desires nothing more than to deliver you from the sin and death all around you. Notice: He never promises you a peace that is absent of all suffering and tribulation, at least not while you reside on this side of eternity. He never promises “easy street” to anyone living in this fallen and sinful world. “Take up your cross and follow Me….” Rather than asking that we be removed from all suffering and temptation, He prays for us while we still reside in the midst of suffering and temptation. He gives to us His peace in the very midst of all this tribulation and suffering and sorrow. “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.”
Nothing has changed. We’re still being directed to focus on our Lord’s Word and Promise; the Word and Promise that saves us and delivers us and gives to us His peace. This Word and Promise, first and foremost, is attached to the very image and icon of God’s wrath and judgment against sin [the cross]. Talk about mysterious and strange! This is not a contradiction; salvation and life being found in the epitome of wrath and death. No! Here is God’s wrath against all sin for all time, and at the same time, here is God’s unconditional and incomprehensible love for you. Here is death and damnation, the due wage for your sin, and at the same time here is God’s grace and mercy for you; His undeserved gift of life—your life. Here [the cross] is where our Lord Christ declared victory—your victory! Here is where all your sins were paid for, in full. “It is finished!” I know this looks like defeat in every sense of the word. By any worldly measure this does not look like One who is overcoming or winning anything. And yet…our Lord tells us and promises us that this exactly what is going on here. Faith looks to this cross and hears and believes…and is saved.
And our Lord also knows our sinful weaknesses and doubts, especially when trials and tribulations kick up. We do believe…and yet we also get stupid sometimes. We do doubt. We do despair. We do grumble and complain and worry and lament. And this is why our Lord continues to attach His Word and Promise to very real and tangible elements, as lowly and unassuming and ordinary as they may be. He gives our faith real and tangible things to look to and hold on to.
Look no further than the font. Today we witnessed God in action, bringing to little Jonah His undeserved yet necessary gifts of life and forgiveness and salvation; gifts that He purchased with His own lifeblood on His cross. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized have been baptized into His death and resurrection?” We can’t go back to the cross, which is why our Lord brings His cross to us. Here [the font] is where God has made you His own. Here is where you became His child; a child of grace, borne from above. You now bear His victorious and holy name upon your head and your heart.
I say all this because your Lord knows the fallen and sinful world we live in. Death and suffering and despair is all around us. We live in the very midst of the shadowy valley of death. “Fear not, for I have not abandoned you or forsaken you.” Our Lord remains true to His Word. “I am with you always.” He still directs our focus and our faith to Him and His Word. Like the choir will help us to sing in just a minute or so, return to the promise given to you by God Himself in the waters of your baptism. No matter how bad things may seem, return and remember the eternal and unchanging promise that God Himself has already made to you; the promise that God Himself has put upon your head and your heart, marking you as one of His own. Return to the waters of your baptism into Christ…and be refreshed. Be at peace, for when your Lord looks at you, He only sees one who has been covered over in Christ’s perfect robe of righteousness; one whose robes have been washed and made clean in the blood and water of Christ; blood and water which flowed forth from His riven side for your life and salvation. Take heart and be at peace, for you are a baptized child of God, and nothing and no one can ever take that away from you.
May our heavenly Father, by the working of His Holy Spirit in and through these humble means of His mysterious and undeserved grace, guard and keep your hearts and minds in Him, and may you have and may you ever hold fast to the cruciform, baptismal peace of Christ.
To Him alone be all the glory, all the praise, and all the honor.
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