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LSB Holy Cross Day Sermon – John 12:20-33

September 17, 2014

September 14, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

[Jesus said:] “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death He was going to die.

“The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” That is the way Paul describes the message that the Church proclaims. What does the Church preach? “We preach Christ crucified.” That is the heart of our faith. It is the heart of your belief. The focus of the Creed that you recite is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. To the Corinthians, Paul says that this is of first importance. He notes that every time we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

The message that Paul proclaimed was not original to him. He delivers what the Lord Jesus had entrusted to His apostles. Jesus repeatedly speaks about the necessity of His crucifixion. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus makes multiple statements about His death that are all about the same. Matthew summarized this in one of the recent Gospel Readings for this year: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

John’s Gospel also includes multiple statements by Jesus about His crucifixion. They may not have been as straightforward. In fact, Jesus’ statements can be somewhat cryptic: “Destroy this Temple, and in tree days I will raise it up…. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life…. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” Each of these statements can rightly receive John’s comment: “He said this to show by what kind of death He was going to die.”

These statements of Jesus and the narratives that record what transpired form the heart of what the Church still proclaims to the world: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.” This is preached because of what has been promised from the Lord concerning what these actions would accomplish. That you heard in the Gospel Reading for this Holy Cross Day: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus’ statement indicates that there is a benefit to what He endures. Without His death, there would only be one Man who stands righteous before God. But with His death, there are many who will be granted that status—that is the fruit which He bears.

But such teaching and preaching is foolishness to the world. Perhaps in fiction, the death of someone would accomplish great things like that. Hope in a salvation wrought by a Man who was killed by ancient people in a brutal way seems outlandish. The Church’s proclamation still receives all sorts of mockery and scoffing, just as it did in Paul’s day. It can be highbrow: deep philosophical considerations about the exclusivity of any one religion; questions about whether the scriptural accounts are accurate; attempts to find distinctions between what the various biblical authors wrote. But it also can be cheap: Jesus is no more real than Robin Hood or other literary characters; only fools trust in the writings of Bronze Age nomads or 1st Century illiterates; Jesus’ death is the worst case of child abuse ever. When hearing these responses, the words of Paul are confirmed: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

What you believe is seen as folly to those who are perishing outside of the Christian faith. But that is not new. At the heart of this is unbelief and doubt: does God actually promise something and is it true for me? Such unbelief and doubt was seen in the actions of the Exodus people as they grew impatient with Moses and the LORD: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” The rejection of the LORD, His promise, and His actions was put on full display there in the wilderness. The trek from Egypt to Canaan seemed foolish. Moses looked like a failure.

In His anger, the LORD sent the serpents to strike the Hebrew people. It was meant to drive them to contrition and repentance. That goal was achieved: “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that He take away the fiery serpents from us.’” And the LORD provided the way that the people could live: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”

Think about that. Moses is told to make a serpent and lift it up on a cross. The divine promise is made: look at it and you will not die; the serpent’s strike will no longer kill. When hearing that, the consideration arises that this is entirely foolish to do. The venom’s effects are felt; they stand as real. How is looking at a sculpture of a snake on a pole going to help? How will that halt my impending death? Where is the antidote that is desperately needed? Is it really hanging on a pole? For those who would think and believe that way, who would continue in doubt and unbelief at the LORD’s word, the instruction would be foolish. Moses’ word of the serpent on the pole is folly to those who are perishing.

But the account tells us that many of the Israelites received and believed the promise that the LORD made concerning the serpent on the pole: “Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” They received the LORD’s intended result for them. For them who believed and were saved, Moses’ word of the serpent on the pole was the power of God.

For you who have received the narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion and the statements that He made about it, who have heard the Church’s preaching of Christ crucified, the “[word of the cross] is the power of God.” Jesus on the pole is the antidote to the Serpent’s strike that you feel. The curse of death that sin brought into the world and that you suffer are removed. This is what the Church always proclaims. And it is especially the message on this Holy Cross Day: “Jesus Christ, our Lord, accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.”

Is this message folly? For some who hear the message, it is. But for you it is not. You have been drawn to it. Jesus has pulled you to faith in His work: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” Not only has Jesus been crucified for the sins of the entire world, it has happened for your sin. His death has taken place to remove your guilt, your fault, your iniquity. With that done, you stand in right status before the LORD. Jesus does not hold that status alone; He shares it with all whom He has drawn to believe in His works and receive its benefits. He has died and borne much fruit: all of you who have been made righteous and holy before the LORD.

“The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul’s words stand true: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” What may seem to be foolish to the world is actually the way that Jesus has brought the righteous judgment to the world. What may seem to be foolish to those who are prominent in this world is how Jesus has cast out the ruler of this world. What may seem to be foolish to those who are dying is actually the only method by which true life is given.

The Son of God has been set on the pole of the cross and all who look upon Him shall be saved. Your eyes have been drawn to Him. This is how you see Jesus and live. For the LORD has not brought you into the wilderness to die. No, He has made the promise: “Where I am, there will My servant be also.” So it shall be for you who have died and risen with Jesus, placing your trust not in the wisdom of the world but in the wisdom and power of God—the word of the Holy Cross.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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