Sunday, March 13, 2005

Sermon: Lent 5 (Judica)

13 March 2005 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA

Text: John 11:47-53 (and Ezek 37:1-14, and Rom 8:11-19) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The fifth Sunday in lent is traditionally known as “Judica.” It comes from the Latin from today’s Introit from Psalm 43: “Judge me, O God: and plead my cause against an ungodly nation.”

King David seems a little confused. First of all, who would pray for God to “judge” him. In most cases, being in front of a judge is not a good thing. Seeing the sirens in the rear view mirror is not something we typically welcome. Being sent to the principal’s office usually means something bad is about to happen. So why does David ask for God to be his judge? And furthermore, why does David ask for God to be not only his judge, but also to “plead my cause.” Doesn’t David know the difference between the judge and the defense attorney? Even without access to Court TV and Judge Judy, one would expect a political leader of the caliber of King David to understand how a courtroom operates.

And what does any of this have to do with today’s readings? In our Old Testament lesson, we have God breathing life into dead bones, putting flesh on them, and making them awaken from the dead and become an army. In our Epistle text, St. Paul promises that just as Jesus was raised in the flesh, so shall he “give life to our mortal bodies.” And in our Gospel text, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and as a result, the chief priests and the Pharisees have determined to kill him.

So what is the connection between death and judgment? Why do we join David’s 3,000 year old prayer this morning: “Judge me, O God”? But more importantly, what is the connection between judgment and resurrection?

Dear Christian brothers and sisters – this link between judgment, death, and resurrection is what ties Lent (a time of repentance for our sins) with Easter (a time of joy for the forgiveness of our sins). This connection binds Ash Wednesday’s somber “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” to Easter’s triumphant: “I know that my Redeemer lives.” But even more importantly, this judgment that David, and we, ask of our Lord – which connected to physical death and physical resurrection – is the central teaching of Christianity, and the most important thing in the universe.

Holy Scripture opens with Paradise. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 know nothing of sadness, sorrow, pain, mourning, disease, worry, war, natural disasters, nor even death itself. According to God’s original creation, death is an unnatural and repugnant thing. It is no normal part of the “circle of life” – but is rather the “wages of sin.” And likewise the Bible ends with this Paradise restored. Revelation 21 and 22 know only joy, happiness, blessing, health, wholeness, harmony, and everlasting life. Death doesn’t even exist anymore.

And yet, we find ourselves right now, this morning, in this time and place, trapped between the Paradise of the past and the Paradise yet to come. We are stuck in a dying, polluted world, filled with violent, sinful, rebellious people (including ourselves). We are like the rotting bones in Ezekiel. We are like Paul (speaking only a chapter before today’s lesson), “wretched” men stuck in a “body of death.” Since the time of Genesis 3, and right up to the yet-to-come Revelation 20, we are an infected universe made up of broken people, leprous, and dying with sin. Man and animal hate and harm each other. Housefires destroy families, criminals shoot up courtrooms, tsunamis and hurricanes rage, bringing the judgment of death upon thousands. And even if medicine and technology can forestall death (and these are indeed great blessings of God) – they can only forestall the inevitable. Like all men, from Adam right up to the children around the world being born this very second – we are all mortal, we are all afflicted, we will all die.

But in spite of this universal condition of man, this terminal illness from which we all suffer, called “sin,” this is not the end of the story. Many people look around at the hopelessness of this world, of their own struggles with temptation, with pain, with addiction, with illness – and conclude life is meaningless. Since there is no God, no rhyme or reason to life, since we all have evolved from blobs of protein and will cease to exist once our bodies fail, what is the point? One is either led to depression and despair, or to a thrill-seeking life that never finds contentment.

But what does the Word of God teach us? The bones Ezekiel saw were not left to rot in a purgatory between Genesis and Revelation. God told Ezekiel to “prophesy” to them, to preach to them. To tell these lifeless corpses to “hear the Word of the Lord!” God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to leave the bones a tract, or give them a Gideon’s Bible to read, or try to convince them to walk around through reason. He doesn’t tell Ezekiel to give them a motivational speech or entertain them. He does not tell Ezekiel to give the bones a drug, or clone them. Rather, it is the faithful preaching of the Word of God that gives life! As a result of this proclamation, the “breath” of God, that is, his Holy Spirit entered into what had been without life, and the bones were transformed into flesh-and-blood soldiers in a resurrected and born-again army! And then God tells Ezekiel to preach to all of us: “I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves… I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live.”

St. Paul repeats this promise in our Epistle. Notice that Christianity does not teach (as do Pagan religions) that the body is bad, and must be discarded, while the soul is good and immortal. For this is a double lie. First, the entire man is corrupted with sin – not merely the body. And second, the entire man – body and spirit alike – will be judged and the physical body will be resurrected. And those who have been restored by the Word of God will be raised to eternal life on the ultimate Day of Judica.

But notice how the world reacts to such good news. Our culture sees death not as an enemy to overcome, a judgment given to us for our rebellion against God. It does not see Jesus as the one who conquered death by dying. No, our culture embraces death. Death is natural, and even worse, death is a solution! Death is the answer to inconvenient pregnancy. In some countries (the ones considered the most “humane” and “progressive”) death is the solution to end a person’s suffering – with or without the person’s consent – even if the person is a newborn child. Death is the solution to expensive treatments and a lack of “quality of life.” And even many Christians (who every Sunday confess the creed: “I believe in the… resurrection of the body and life everlasting) actually believe that when the Christian dies, he is some disembodied spirit floating around the clouds, or coming back to earth as a ghost to help people. Some even believe the dead saints become angels. A well-meaning educator in the LCMS recently told her children that when we die, our bodies become like a candy wrapper to be thrown in the trash. We do not stress the physical resurrection the way we should. We preachers don’t emphasize it enough. We preachers and hearers alike need to repent of this watering down of the Gospel.

Such a view of death and of the body is to deny God’s power, that he can indeed restore our bodies to life as he has promised. It is to forget that God made all of creation and declared it “good.” It is to overlook that there is a Revelation 21 and 22 in which fleshly people eat and drink and enjoy physical delights unto eternity.

Why is it so important to Satan to deny the fleshly, literal, physical resurrection? In our Gospel reading, why do the chief priests and Pharisees seek to kill Jesus? It is because, as they say in our text: “If we let him alone like this, everyone will believe in him.” Indeed, the fleshly, physical Jesus who goes around raising people from the dead causes belief, that is “faith.” Satan knows that if he can destroy the physical Jesus, he can destroy faith. If he can get “Christian” scholars to deny the historical resurrection, he can destroy faith. If he can get Christians to deny their own literal bodily resurrection, he can destroy faith. If he can get Christians to deny the Lord’s physical Flesh and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, he can destroy faith. If he can cause people to see physical baptism as a mere symbolic act (since water is only physical matter, and can’t save people), he can destroy faith. If he can get people to deny that a physical flesh and blood minister can forgive sins, he can destroy faith. If he can convince people that preaching cannot call dead bones to life, that instead sermons are either Christian-based entertainment, or information seminars, or a means of getting prospects in the door, or appeals for money, or pep-talks designed to excite people about purpose-filled living – well, you know what I’m going to say. Preaching exists for one reason – to proclaim the Word of God, that is Christ himself, to dead bones to make them come to life.

Dear brothers and sisters, in a few moments, our Lord’s resurrected and living Body and Blood will be placed in our mouths for the forgiveness of our sins, to bring our sinful dead bones to life, just as the body of Jesus was raised and made glorious. The judgment for which we pray this Judica Sunday is not for condemnation – as Jesus did not come into he world to condemn it, but to save it. Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world! The Judge who has mercy on us! The Judge who grants us his peace! The Judge who also serves as our advocate! The Judge who not only declares us “not guilty,” but who also recreates us to be innocent!

Another way to translate our Introit’s first word: “Judge” – is the word “vindicate” (as does the New King James Version). For a judgment in our favor is a vindication. When our Lord was resurrected, his claim to be God was vindicated, proven true. And when our Lord calls us forth from our graves, we too will be vindicated – not by our own deeds (which surely condemn us), not by temporary medical breakthroughs or self-delusional appeals to see death as natural or beneficial. But rather we will be vindicated by him of whom the corrupt high priest correctly prophesied that “one man should die for the people” and as a result would “gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad” – scattered like dry bones in a valley.

We too have been enfleshed by God’s Word and raised by God’s Spirit, called forth to stand by God’s preachers, taking to our feet as an army of the redeemed and resurrected. Let us look forward to our own resurrection, our own vindication with as much joy and hope as we await the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection and vindication on Easter. Let us pray confidently with King David: “Judge me, O God: and plead my cause against an ungodly nation.”

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

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