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Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
“Who is this that comes from far, With his garments dipped in blood, Strong, triumphant traveller– Is he man, or is he God?”
So goes the first half of a splendid short hymn known as “Bozrah,” written by the late-18th, early-19th century Congregationalist minister, Joshua Spalding. Who is this that comes from far? Is he man or is he God? This is a question that has come up a lot lately in our readings. Just last week we had Thomas’ confession of who he understood Jesus to be. Now this Sunday we hear Paul asking Jesus who he is when he meets him on the road to Damascus, and we have the disciples afraid to ask who Jesus is because they recognize him on the shore after they go fishing. But it’s the reading from Revelation that I want to look at today. Who is Jesus here?
Revelation (the “Apocalypse of John”), it goes without saying, is a weird book, probably the weirdest book in the Bible, at least from a modern perspective. It’s not easy to read or understand; it’s a work of prophetic and apocalyptic literature that does not lend itself to modern American eyes and brains. We lack a lot of the secondary knowledge (what linguists call a secondary vocabulary) needed to know just what John is talking about. We might be able to understand some of the more sweeping narratives of the book, but much of it is cryptic, the imagery bizarre, the supposed referents of the prophecies disputed. Even its inclusion in Scripture and the authorship of the book has been disputed, though historically, the Church has believed and taught that John the Revelator is the same John as John the Gospel-writer, the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. So what is John telling us about who Jesus is in Revelation, specifically Revelation 5?
In today’s reading from Revelation, we see John experiencing a vision of heaven in which he is standing in the midst of the heavenly court before the throne of God, surrounded by ranks of angels and strange looking creatures. I’ll read the verses preceding those we heard in our Epistle reading this morning so you have the full context:
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits z of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:1-7, NIV)
God holds forth a scroll and a challenge is given. Can anyone open the seals on it? Is anyone worthy to do so? That is to say, is anyone, anywhere, able to do so? There is no one, in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth who can. Not one, and if no one is worthy, then the seals will not be opened and the prophecies associated with them will not be spoken. And when he hears this, John weeps, because the prophecies will not be spoken. How can God’s word come to pass if there’s no one worthy to unseal the scroll and read the prophecies therein, and by means of reading, bring them to pass?
John’s vision of heaven here reminds us that no one, anywhere in the universe, in all of creation, is worthy to stand before God for any reason, let alone to open the seals on a scroll. And this isn’t the sort of worthiness where a person has to tick all the right boxes, as if he or she fulfilled the requirements of a job interview. There is no one who is intrinsically worthy in any regard to open the seals on this scroll–no one by reason of his or her person, power, or qualifications is worthy–and that is because these seals are fit to be opened by the ruler of all creation, the pantokrator, the “over-all-ruler.”
But what makes the rest of creation unworthy? Ignoring the angels, who serve the will of the Almighty, the rest of creation is tainted by sin. No creature is immune to sin itself or to its effects. Thus, all people are sinful, and all other creatures have been damaged or marred by it, such that creation groans and desires deliverance. Sin separates all people from God, and prevents them from being able to live according to his precepts, and it’s not just the big sins. We’ve seen some bigs sins lately in the news, most recently at Chabad Poway in Escondido, California, but also the church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka and the campus shooting in North Carolina. We even had an armed robbery at the 7-11 up the road here from us in Fairfax the other evening. But the “little” sins also make us unworthy. Have you ever said something unkind about your neighbor? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. Have you ever thought about someone inappropriately? **BRRT** You are not worthy to open any such seals. Have you stolen? Have you not paid for something you ought to have, or borrowed an idea without attribution? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. I could go on. No human being is worthy to undo the seals on this scroll and to speak God’s prophecies into being. Sin makes that impossible.
And sin taints all of creation. Because of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3, all of creation has been fractured, damaged, broken, and so all creatures feel the pain and suffering that our first parents brought into the world. Before the fall, all of creation lived in harmony. Now the world is dog-eat-dog, and where there was once paradise, death now reigns. Indeed, the world is chaotic, and we’re so used to the idea of the world being in the constant flux of chaos and terror that we’re largely blind to thinking about it. In fact, the chaos and evil that afflict the world are so normal to us that they’ve become central to a lot of our entertainment. How many of our video games reenact war? (And I say this as someone who enjoys historical war-games, for what it’s worth.) How many games and movies glorify crime and violence and the degradation of others? Game of Thrones, anyone? How about music that does that? Our culture is fascinated by this chaos that comes from sin, and in feeding our fascination, we’ve forgotten that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. In fact a lot of us function as if this fallen world is as it is supposed to be, some kind of “best of all possible worlds.”
But it’s not. Sin still plagues the earth, and just as you cannot cure the common cold with the further application of the common cold, sin and its chaos cannot be cured by the application of the efforts of sinful people. And so something–or someone–needs to come in from the outside to cure sin’s disease.
So if there is no one above the earth, on it, or below the earth who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that God holds forth on his throne, who is? No one is worthy— no one, save one. “How’s that,” you say–“how can one person be worthy if no one is worthy?” John receives the answer to this question from the elder who is with him. Like a good pastor, this elder who has gone on before John to the courts of heaven, points him to the One who can save him, the one who can break the seals on the scroll:
“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals. “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Rev. 5:5-8, ESV)
The Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Root of David. The Lamb Who Was Slain, Jesus Christ. He alone is worthy to open the seals of the scroll and to reveal its contents. He alone has the power to defeat sin, and has conquered it. He is truly man and truly God, and for this reason, sin cannot touch him; he came down from heaven and took on flesh so that he might defeat sin through the medium in which it dwells. And now ascended and exalted at God’s right hand, it is made apparent to all in the court of heaven that he alone has power and authority over all creation. His power is signified by his eyes and horns, not in the sense that he has seven physical eyes and seven physical horns— no lamb has those. But rather, the horn is the symbol of power and might, and the eye the symbol of wisdom and intelligence. All strength and wisdom belongs to him, and the number 7, the number of God (3) paired with the number of creation (4), indicates that he indeed is the pantokrator who has dominion over all things. Only he, the Messiah of all, has perfect might and perfect understanding, and because of this, he has conquered sin and destroyed its power. He has conquered sin and death. The twenty-four elders sing:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”” (Rev. 5:9–10, NIV)
Christ’s death and resurrection secured the victory. Christ’s death and resurrection ransomed all people for God, no exceptions, and his coronation here in the court of heaven (because that is what we are really seeing here with John) has sealed it. This is demonstrated to John, but it is something that has been demonstrated for our benefit as well. Christ is worthy because Christ has saved. The hosts of heaven sing:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12, NIV)
Christ has saved us from sin and death, too, and we see him as he is, exalted and at God’s right hand, the savior who now rules all of creation. You no longer need fear or despair when you recognize your sinfulness—Christ has rescued you. When the chaos of life seems overwhelming, and you see no end to the violence, hatred, and exploitation that seems so commonplace, you can rest assured–Christ has rescued you and all people, and he is worthy to wield all power and authority over all things. He has you in his hand. He will not abandon you. For he, whom the hosts of heaven and all the saints adore and acclaim, has ended the power of sin in your life. It may rage against you. It may try to entice you. It may even try to kill you. But when you trust in the one who is king in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, you will not be left to be destroyed by sin, because sin cannot destroy or harm those whom Christ has made his own. The One who alone, by his death and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals on the scroll will protect you, and in the fullness of time, will bring you to dwell with him in peace forever. No power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth can separate you from his love.
So who is this that comes from far? Who is this Jesus? He is your savior, exalted in heaven and given power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise. To him be praise, honor, glory, and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.
First-year seminarians are often asked a lot of questions about what they believe in their beginning theology classes. It makes sense. Professors want to know just how off-base some of the beliefs might be which their students hold so that they can deliver helpful correctives to false ideas or nip some would-be heretics in the bud before they take their own theories to a more dangerous conclusion. The seminary is kind of like the army— a group of people show up from different backgrounds and life-experiences and are re-formed over four years into an effective preaching-and-teaching force who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, preach well, and faithfully shepherd God’s church, among other things. So asking questions of first-years is a great way for the professors there to weed out would-be pastors’ misconceptions and pet heresies while focusing them on what they should know.
So it generally comes as a shock to many seminarians when one of the first questions they are asked by their systematic theology professor is, “Who is your God?” It’s a big question, and a scary one. Initially, you feel pretty sure of yourself and your beliefs. “I know who my God is!” But then, doubt sets in. That confident attitude you had suddenly starts giving way to unsurety; the sense of security you had five minutes ago starts to slip away. “Who is my God?” “Who do I really say God is?” “Who do I really think God is?” You think it’s the Triune God, but is that who you’re really worshipping? Is this a trick question? Is there some hidden idol in my life I’ve been worshipping all along? The faithful young seminarian is suddenly subject to an existential crisis.
You might say that this is a question that is tacitly posed to the disciples when Jesus died on the cross. “Who is your God?” Is he this carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth with whom you have traveled for three years, or is it someone else? John tells us in John 20:9 that on Easter morning, none of the disciples truly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection, and when they found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think of it. Who was their God? Where had Jesus gone? Did the Romans steal him? Did they spend three years roaming Judaea with him for nothing?
But then, he appeared to them, and he showed him his wounds and let them touch him. He was real! But John doesn’t tell us what they said when they saw him, merely that they were glad. We don’t necessarily know what they were thinking when Jesus appeared in the room in their midst. But we do know what Thomas, that apostle called Didymus, “The Twin,” thought when he saw Jesus risen from the grave. John recorded his confession. “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas is, as a member of the apostles, kind of an odd duck because we remember him by calling him “Doubting Thomas.” He’s the only member of the Twelve who’s given a negative epithet (apart from Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treachery). We could just as easily call Peter “Denying Peter” because he denied his being one of Jesus’ followers, or we could call Mark “Streaking Mark” because he ran away naked from Gethsemane after his tunic was pulled off by an attacker. But we don’t. Only Thomas is remembered for his apparent skepticism at hearing the report of Jesus’ resurrection.
Except Thomas wasn’t the lone doubter. All of the apostles doubted that Jesus had come back from the grave— they disbelieved the testimony of the women at the tomb; they thought the women were speaking nonsense—, and Jesus gave them the same proof that he gave Thomas. Thomas just happened to not be there. But only Thomas is recorded by John to have stated, upon seeing these proofs that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord is a big and important thing. It’s big and important because it means a number of things for the one who confesses it.
To say “Jesus is Lord” is radical. It’s life changing. And it means that the person making such a confession believes certain things about Jesus. It means that one believes that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is identified with the God of the Old Testament as well as the New. It means that when we read the explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and we say “We should fear, love, and trust God that we may do X,” we’re talking about Jesus there just as much as we are talking about God the Father. It also means that we really believe what we say about Jesus in the Creed, saying with Luther:
“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
Concordia Triglotta—English: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, electronic ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 545.
This is how we relate to Jesus if we say that “Jesus is Lord.” When you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are saying that you believe what he says and what he has done, and that you are with him in all things. Dr. Joel Okamoto at Concordia Seminary says this about the act of confessing one’s faith:
“When one confesses, one declares a commitment. The act of confession is like “stepping forward” or “standing up and being counted.” You step forward for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to the person. If he goes down, you go down. You stand up for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to that person. If she goes on, you go on. Similarly, you confess your faith in someone, and by that act you commit yourself to believing in him. If he comes through, you come through. It is striking that simply by the act of confession—by saying certain words—you do something. Those who utter the sentence: “I confess that Jesus is Lord” have confessed. Those people have by their confession committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Confessors commit themselves to Jesus Christ, putting themselves under his disposal, and positioning themselves in a certain way against everybody else.”
Okamoto, Joel P., “Making Sense of Confessionalism Today,” Concordia Journal Winter, 2015: 40
We live in a world that does not confess Jesus as Lord, nor do we live in a world that really has a single understanding of who God is. In our modern world, especially here in the west, the word “God” has become a placeholder. It can mean whatever we want it to mean. Think about the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. Ignoring the fact that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War years to indicate that we, unlike the Soviets, acknowledged a deity, who is the “God” meant in “under God”? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The God Jesus called God? We don’t know— the pledge is vague. Maybe it’s Ba’al or Ishtar or Woden or Zeus. It could be Allah, or Krishna. It could be a bunch of them all together, seeing as some see all deities as reflections or manifestations of a single, divine reality. My point being that in the modern world, “God” can be anything. “God” could be your smartphone. I know I pay obeisance to mine far too often. That owl on Duolingo is really demanding.
But in this day and age, when the normal operating procedure for most people is to live as nihilists, “God” can even be yourself. Why not, if the idea of God has been made devoid of all meaning and we operate as if God doesn’t really affect our lives? And when “God” becomes a placeholder, it really means that you are placing yourself in the place of God. It means that you become the one who chooses what or whom is worthy to be called God. It makes God subject to your will and your understanding. But when you do that, you break the first of all the commandments of God by making yourself God, and in that, you stand condemned. For when you break that first commandment, you break them all.
And this is a universal problem for us. According to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, a god is anything we put our trust in for our safety and salvation. We’re sinful human beings, and the first sin our first parents, Adam and Eve, ever committed was, indeed, to place themselves above God by trusting their own judgment over his and making God subject to their own reason. We make our own gods every day. We put our trust in governments to care for us and do what we think is best for us. We tie the fate of our nation and indeed our own lives to various politicians’ campaigns. Or we make a god of science and technology— “this new energy technology will save the planet and save all of our lives!” Sometimes we make gods of our possessions— our vehicles, our weapons, our food, our money. Think of all the time we spend counting our money, tallying our expenses. But all these things ultimately will fail us. They won’t deliver us from our sins. They won’t save us from death and hell. There is no constancy in them.
This is why Thomas’ confession is so important for us to hear. When Thomas calls Jesus his Lord and his God, he is siding with Jesus, making his identity with him, and trusting in him above all others. Thomas subordinates himself to Christ— his will, his desires, his hopes— they are all subject to Christ and what he has done. And Thomas trusts that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead; that he has died for the sins of all mankind and risen again to demonstrate to his disciples and all people that he has been victorious over the powers of death and hell and had freed all people from bondage to these terrible entities. Thomas and all the disciples received proof of this, in the flesh. They saw Jesus, risen from the dead, standing physically among them, and they believed. Jesus had done just what he said he would do, and they could put their faith in him. All of their misconceptions about Jesus were now disproven. Like Thomas, they could see Jesus and say with Thomas that he truly was not just their lord and master, but their God. They could see that he is the one who gives them real peace, who gives them the Holy Spirit to be their guide and helper, who forgives their sins, and who chooses them to be his ambassadors to the world. And so, Thomas’ confession becomes the first great confession of the church. Jesus is Lord and God. He is not subject to the world. The world is subject to him.
And Thomas’ statement of faith in Christ as his Lord and God is a testimony for us. Thomas tells us who Jesus is. We can make Thomas’ confession our own because Jesus’ promises for us are trustworthy and true. His death and resurrection are for us just as much as they are for his first disciples. But how do we who live so many centuries removed from this know that Jesus is Lord? Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen him in the flesh and who yet believe are blessed and happy. John then writes to us directly–“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” We are those who Jesus calls blessed–we are those for whom John has written his Gospel. We haven’t seen Jesus bodily like Thomas and the other apostles had, but we do have their testimony, and we have Jesus’ promises to us recorded in God’s word. Not only that, but we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus sent to us, and we have the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in which we encounter and receive Christ in his body and blood. And when we trust in these things, that Jesus died for us on Calvary and rose again for us on the third day, we can say with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God,” and receive his peace, his forgiveness, and his sending. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can trust confidently that he has saved us from the power of death and sin. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can confidently tell others about what he has done and share the good news of our salvation in him with them. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can have peace with God, and live as his redeemed and beloved children. When we believe that Jesus is Lord and God, we can “be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”
And if you are struggling in your sins, or find yourself looking to inconstant, earthly things for your salvation, Christ’s forgivness and peace is for you, too. Though Jesus did many things after his resurrection, the testimony you have heard this morning is for you so that you might come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is your Savior and God. He desires that you have his peace, dwell with the Holy Spirit, be his ambassador to an unbelieving world, and live a life of forgiveness in him. So have faith in him— he will bless and forgive you, “that you have life in his name.” This is most certainly true. Amen.
Preached as part of a Tenebrae Service at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
The Second Word from the Cross:
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV)
In an hour of purest pain, agony, and despair, a sinful man has heard the greatest words that could ever be spoken to any member of this sinful generation. A highwayman has been given hope where he once had none; he was given a tremendous gift when he did not expect it. For this criminal, condemned to death by the sword of the Law, has been given the Gospel in all its sweetness from the mouth of his Messiah. He knew that he had deserved his punishment, though what he did, we do not know. Mark says he was a robber, Luke, a “criminal,” and as such he may have been guilty of murder and terrorism as well. Nonetheless, he knew that he must suffer death under the Law for his sins, but he also knew that the carpenter crucified next to him deserved no such fate, and so he confessed his sin and proclaimed the carpenter beside him blameless: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Did he merely think of the messianic kingdom the one crucified next to him had spoken of as some far-off event, or perhaps as something figurative? It really doesn’t matter, because what he assumed would happen in the future would actually happen in the here and now, that very day. Having acknowledged his sin and his need for a Savior, and having placed his trust in this man beside him— “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”— his Lord spoke to him the promise of salvation. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Not tomorrow, not next week, not ten years from now, but today. Christ’s promise to him is instantaneous. He will be with Christ; he, the first to embrace Christ as the one who saves others, will know his saving power, and live with him in blessedness in the salvation he won on the cross.
And it is the same for us. We, too, are sinful and deserve nothing less than death under the law for our sins. We may not have done what the “thief” on the cross did, whatever it may be, but we nonetheless are guilty, and the sentence is the same. But Christ speaks this promise to us as well when we turn to him in faith, and while the criminal on the cross trusted that Christ would do what he said, we know that he has done it. Christ’s work of salvation has been completed for us, and in him our sins no longer count against us. We, too, have the promise of forgiveness of sins and paradise with him today, tomorrow, and for all time.
The Fifth Word from the Cross:
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28, NIV)
“I thirst.” Jesus spoke these words from the cross knowing that all things have already been finished, in order that the Scripture might be accomplished. And what Scripture might that have been? No clear prophecy exists— the Psalms speak of suffering with no relief, of horrible pangs of thirst, yet here Jesus’ thirst is slaked. What words are fulfilled? Jesus knows all things have been accomplished. The strife is over, the battle done; he has felt God the Father’s full wrath on the cross and has suffered the agony of separation from God for three hours in darkness, but now, that act is over. All that Scripture foretold has come to pass regarding his suffering for the sins of mankind, and so Christ asks for drink so that he might preach the good news of his work’s completion. He cannot make his final cry with a cracked and dry throat, and so he asks for a drink so that all those present at Golgotha might clearly hear his proclamation and he might rest from his labors. He does not ask for drink in desperation, but merely so that the whole world might know that the Scriptures concerning the work of the Son of Man have been fulfilled: “It is finished!”
And he asks for drink so that we too may hear his final preaching ringing down to us across the ages. For all of Christ’s work has already been finished for us; as it was then on that hill far away on an old, rugged cross, so it is now for us. We were to have suffered the greatest of punishment for our sins, but Christ took our sins upon himself and bore it all. And with it all having come to be finished, he asked for something to drink, and with his thirst quenched, shouted out the confirmation of Scripture’s fruition so that all people, we included, would know that he had indeed saved us from our sins. He drank vinegar so that we might know that we have been reconciled to the Father through the suffering and death of the Son, so that we might hear his call and come to him to receive the water of life and thirst no more.
Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
In the name of Jesus, amen.
Today is Palm Sunday, which means that today is also the beginning of Holy Week. We remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem today, and with that, the beginning of the “end” of his ministry prior to his crucifixion. So there is a lot “riding” on today’s commemoration. Jesus, the King of the Jews and of all Creation, is entering into his capital city, and his subjects are receiving him with loud shouts of “Hosanna” and with palm fronds waving. He’s here! The king is coming!
What would we have seen, were we there that day? Jesus, a man with little to distinguish him, riding on the back of a colt, a young donkey; no saddle, just robes cushioning the ride. And in front of him, people laying their cloaks on the road before him. No red carpet here. And the crowds, cheering out, “Blessed is the coming King in the name of the Lord; peace in the heavens, and glory in the highest places!” Cut palm leaves waving. But not a procession with pomp and circumstance, at least not by the standards of the first century (or of our century, either). There was nothing very kingly about this procession, nothing opulent or triumphant, even though many of our Bibles title this section of Luke’s Gospel “The Triumphal Entry.” For an outside observer, there was little triumphant about this procession at all. Instead, they saw a carpenter riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, surrounded by his followers.
Those of you who are students of Roman history probably know what I mean when I say “triumph,” but I want to define it more clearly for those of you who don’t. A triumphus was a special kind of Roman military victory parade, originally awarded to victorious generals and later reserved only for emperors once Augustus had been awarded the title for life (and thus would have been for the emperor alone by the time of Jesus’ ministry). The parade would have gone through the city of Rome, ending at the temple of Jupiter, where the victorious conqueror would dedicate the spoils of his victory to the honor of that god. The emperor would have been dressed in a costume that made him look like statues of Jupiter, too, wearing a purple and gold toga, red boots, red face paint, and a wreath upon his head, and he would have ridden in a four-horse chariot decked in charms to ward off envy. Before him would march the captives and slaves he had taken in his campaign, as well as men carrying the booty and spoils he had seized, and behind him would march his armies for the whole city to revue. The closest modern analog I can think of is a on old ticker-tape parade after the World Series or a Soviet military parade in Red Square. And amid all the cheering of the crowds and the accolades, the victorious emperor would, it is said, have had a slave or companion riding next to him in the chariot, whispering or declaring to him, “Remember you are mortal!” A triumph was the closest a Roman general or emperor could come to being a king, or even, a god, for a day.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lacked all the pomp and circumstance of this sort of procession. He didn’t look like an emperor, he was riding a donkey rather than in a beautifully appointed quadriga, “no tramp of marching soldiers’ feet” behind him or humiliated captives in chains before him. He wasn’t dressed up, either. So what made Jesus’ coming into the capital triumphant?
Triumphs aren’t a Jewish thing, but other observers would have seen the parallels between Jesus’ entry and the description of Solomon’s coronation:
So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:38-40 ESV)
But even noting those similarities, to the observer on the ground, Jesus’ entry still is not the same as that made by a Davidic king back in Judah’s glory days. There was no visible passing of authority to him from another king, no anointing with oil by a high priest. If bystanders expected something of an earthly king here, it would have been harder to find. The Pharisees took it to be a mockery. What did Jesus mean by this procession? Who was this Jesus? How dare he act like some sort of wannabe king?
Who did Jesus think he was by doing this? Who did the people in the crowds think he was? A king or warlord, come to kick out the Romans and reestablish a Jewish kingdom? To “Make Judea Great Again”? The wrath of God coming with his winnowing fork to destroy the status quo and initiate a new world order in the here-and-now? A mighty prophet come to call out Jerusalem’s wickedness and the wickedness of its new Italian overlords? I’m sure that many in the crowds ascribed these titles and functions to Jesus when he came in to the city. They wanted him to be someone who fit their hopes and dreams when they saw him riding into the city. They wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, or they saw him for who he was but could not accept him as such (for example, Judas Iscariot).
But, more importantly, when we see Jesus going into Jerusalem, who do we think he is? Folks in modern America (and throughout the world, for that matter), try to fit Jesus into certain moulds that make him into someone or something he isn’t. Sometimes we make Jesus into a therapist who is there to make us feel better about ourselves. Other times, we make him into some sort of patron or sugar-daddy— we expect him to give us things when we ask for them (but there’s no guarantee!). Or, we make Jesus into a moralist or a security blanket. You might have seen posts online that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular American political categories or camps— pictures of American statesmen bowing before Jesus as a sort of admission that America is, by design, a Christian nation, or posts demonstrating how Jesus would be a fan of single-payer healthcare or building the wall, among other political postures. Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do. And in addition to these false views of Christ in American Christendom, there is also the view held by those who deny Jesus outright, which holds that he’s a nobody or a loser and certainly cannot be God because God doesn’t die.
And who thinks this way? A few months ago I was having dinner with an elderly friend who is agnostic, and he told me of an experience he had seeing a roadside crucifix as a child growing up in France. When he saw the image of Christ on the cross, he thought to himself, “This is supposed to be my God? And he can’t protect himself? This can’t be my God.” I’m not sure my friend realized that he was holding opinions in common with Friedrich Nietzsche and the prophet Muhammad, but this is the world’s view of Jesus. The world doesn’t think that God can become a man or die and rise for the remission of sins. It’s as C.S. Lewis once wrote: Jesus is either a liar, a madman, or exactly who he claims to be, the son of God. And the sinful world sees him as the first two options. But only the third option is the correct one, and we often get led astray into creating a false Christ who conforms to our hopes and desires, or into listening to the world’s appraisal of him. And when we do that, we’re like those Pharisees at his entry into Jerusalem, who didn’t recognize their Lord for who he actually was and who told him to shush those disciples of his who did. To cling to a false Christ or to deny him in toto is to reject him wholly and to deny that he is indeed the king, the coming one. To deny him like this is to replace him with an idol of our own making.
But Jesus always defies our expectations of him. Just because his entry into Jerusalem isn’t a military triumph or a procession akin to Solomon’s coronation parade doesn’t make it lose its triumphant tone, nor does it deny that Jesus, the king of the Jews and indeed of all people, makes the beginning of his redemptive work here in his entrance into Jerusalem. Indeed, this entry into Jerusalem is the beginning of the end of… the END. The “big exit.” Death. And though Jesus hasn’t yet been crucified, sin, death, and hell’s days are numbered. Jesus rides on in lowly pomp to die and destroy death by its own mechanism. He’s the king, coming incognito, to take back his kingdom from the inside, coming directly to his people who need him and have been waiting for him to come to them. The moment his foot crosses Jerusalem’s threshold, it’s game over for the forces of darkness, and his disciples know it.
If you’ve spent any time online in the world of Japanese animation or memes, you’re probably familiar with the protagonist’s signature phrase from the anime series, Fist of the North Star, “Omae wa mou shindeiru!”– “you’re already dead!” In this series, the protagonist is the practitioner of an ancient martial art that, when used, causes an opponent to literally explode from the inside. One touch from him, and his unsuspecting enemies are truly “already dead.” Three steps, and *pop*, they’re no more. The same is true of the powers of sin, death, and hell when Christ comes into Jerusalem. The powers of the Enemy and the world see Jesus coming in and they try to cast him as a pretender or a guru or a mere man, but Jesus’ entry spells their doom, and when he comes into Jerusalem and his disciples proclaim him with loud cries, “Blessed is the coming one, the King, in the name of the Lord,” he comes as he is, as the Son of God, and no matter how hard they try to cast him as something or someone different, he is still the Son of God, the Blessed One, the Coming King. Even the stones would proclaim this were God to command them to do so, and when Jesus dies and rises at Easter, all who rejected him and his heavenly kingship will receive a correction to their folly. But his disciples who trust in him will see the fullness of his triumph. They will receive the fullness of life in him, and will be his people forever. They trust him to be their king and God in the flesh, and so he is.
And Jesus is ourGod and King, too, though here on Palm Sunday we don’t see his coronation. His entry is not triumphant in the sense that it marks the full completion of a battle or war, but in that it marks the beginning of the successful final campaign against the enemies of God. And we now live as beneficiaries of this triumph, and have seen Jesus, risen from the grave, as he is, the One who has destroyed the hold of sin, death, and the grave, and who gives new life and salvation to sinners, among whom we are numbered. When we look to Jesus riding into Jerusalem, we see him as he is, coming in a manner that defies our expectations, riding in lowly pomp, not to be crowned with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. Not to sit upon a golden throne, but to be nailed and hung upon a cross. Not to offer sacrifices, but to be sacrificed, our sacrifice. Not to sit above his people, but to go to them, serve them, and die for them. On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes to us and shows us his power made perfect in his humility and weakness, as our king who comes to us, seeks us out, and brings us to live with him through his final, triumphant battle of which this is the opening salvo. That is where the triumph lies today, and it is a triumph we now all celebrate with him. So let us sing with Henry Milman:
Ride on, ride on, in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die. O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin O’er captive death and conquered sin.
This sermon was originally preached as the fourth part of a Lenten sermon series at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, focusing on “Holy Sleep,” looking at the ways sleep is discussed in the Bible and how God works through it or uses it.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Have you ever fallen asleep on the job? When either from lack of sleep, fatigue, or pure boredom you’ve found yourself nodding off at your desk, only to wake up and realize that you either let something slide or missed something important? I remember having trouble staying awake as a teaching assistant during my early morning class sections because I consistently fell asleep between 2 and 3 AM and had to be in the classroom at 8 AM every day. There were many mornings where I had to really fight to stay awake and on top of things, and sometimes sleep would still get the better of me for just a few seconds, even if I was chugging coffee. Falling asleep on the job, drifting off when I needed to be paying attention. Has this ever happened to you?
This is what happens to the ten young women or virgins in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s Gospel this evening. The bridegroom was on his way to the wedding banquet and they had one job to do: be ready to meet him when he comes. They knew he could arrive at any time, even late into the evening, and so these ten young women had to be prepared to meet him and usher him into the banquet hall. They set themselves up outside the house and waited for him, and in the event that it got dark, they brought along olive oil-burning lamps, perhaps like this one, to let them see his coming.
Now, in this parable, half of these young women didn’t think about how long it might take for the bridegroom to arrive, so they grabbed their lamps and ran off to the meeting place without bringing enough oil to keep them burning in the event that the bridegroom was delayed. They just figured they had enough and weren’t terribly worried. The others might share, right? Jesus says that they were “foolish,” or perhaps more pointedly, according to the Greek, “stupid.” The other five virgins, on the other hand, thought ahead. Jesus says that they were “prudent,” or “wise.” They remembered to bring extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom came later than they expected.
And so they lit their lamps and waited, for a long while. The bridegroom was running later than expected, and they all fell asleep and their lamps burned down, perhaps some went out. All ten of them. Not a single one of these women stayed awake while waiting for the bridegroom. They all fell asleep on the job. Only when someone shouted to them that he was coming did they wake up and trim and relight their lamps. Only now, the foolish virgins realized that their lamps were sputtering and going out. What to do?! Could they ask their friends to borrow some of their fuel? No, because then there wouldn’t have been enough oil and everyone’s lamps would go out, and how could any one of them greet the bridegroom properly? That wouldn’t be showing him the proper respect he deserved. The five foolish ones had to go find some oil somewhere else, so it was off to the shops, even at this late hour.
But while they were gone, the bridegroom came, and he took those prudent women into the banquet with him and shut the door, leaving the foolish virgins outside. And they called to him to let them in, but he replied that he knew them not, and did not allow them to join in the wedding feast. Therefore, says Jesus, his hearers should keep watch, because no one knows when the Son of Man shall come.
Parables are, by nature, a difficult genre of biblical literature to interpret, and this one is no exception; that is to say, there are multiple ways that we can interpret this parable. On the face of it, we could say that this parable is just about sitting up and watching for the coming of the Son of Man, but that doesn’t really tell us much about what the kingdom of God is like. Of more interest is the oil. Why is it so important? Is it even oil? What is going on here, if this is all a parable about what it will be like when the Son of Man comes?
This parable reminds me of something that happened when I was in the Boy Scouts. One spring, my troop went on a two-day hiking trip out west of here in the Shenandoahs on a trail known as Little Devil’s Stair. I was our patrol’s grubmaster, and so to make life easier for everyone, I gave all the boys in our patrol my own version of an MRE or C-ration, which contained all the food they’d need for the entire weekend. Some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cup noodles, jerky, GORP, instant oatmeal, and other things. But after being on the trail for only about two hours on the first day, a bunch of the boys in my patrol had already eaten half their rations (and a few had eaten everything that didn’t have to be cooked!). While the Boy Scouts’ motto is Be Prepared, these guys weren’t thinking about that terribly hard. And while it is true that they weren’t shut out of any sort of wedding feast, they were forced to go hungry for a good part of the trip when they would have been otherwise satisfied had they been wise about their snacking.
The oil is kind of like the food in those ration packets. Just as that food was necessary to give the boys energy while being out on the trail in the woods for two days, the oil the virgins— that is to say, those who trust in Christ and wait for him— had for their lamps was necessary for their being ready for Christ the Bridegroom’s arrival, regardless of when he would come, either while they were awake (alive) or asleep (dead). As Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs at Concordia Seminary writes in his commentary on Matthew, the virgins didn’t know when the bridegroom would arrive. When he did, it would be sudden, and they wouldn’t have time to get ready for his arrival. They just had to be prepared, so that even if they had fallen asleep while waiting, they could be ready and on the ball when he came. And since this is a parable, the oil isn’t really oil. Instead, it’s whatever is needed to be prepared for when Christ returns in his glory.
Which leads to another question: are we prepared for Christ’s return? Are we ready? Have we been phronimoi, “wise,” in our preparation for his coming so that we will be ready for him whether he comes while we still live or when we have died and are raised up? Do we have what we need to honor our Bridegroom when he comes? That depends on what we mean by “prepared.” Dr. Gibbs again:
…[D]epending on a person’s situation and spiritual need, the oil may stand now for this Christian truth, now for that important reality. Repentance is obviously needed if one is to be ready to welcome Christ Jesus when he returns, and so is true and humble faith. Perseverance and courage will be the needed gifts at times, and many will be the times when humility will keep me ever watching. Willingness to suffer for the name of Christ and to deny myself (16:24) are key. Sorrowful awareness of the world’s brokenness and a longing for God’s name to be hallowed on the earth (6:9)– these, too, can be the oil, ever ready in our vessels. And the list can go on. Whatever it takes to be ready to receive and honor the King when he comes— the parable teaches us to desire those things.” (1323-1324)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, are we ready for the King when he comes, or will we be caught, having become complacent with the world around us, not having done any kind of preparation for his coming? Have we lost sight of who we are in Christ? Have we forgotten what Christ came to do and how that is mirrored in our life together in the church; that is to say, are we focused on preaching, teaching, and healing one-another? Have we neglected his word and sacraments? Have we become comfortable in our sins? Have we become unwilling to change and repent from the evils, large and small, that we do, actively overlooking the logs in our own eyes while we search for specks in the eyes of others? Have we ceased desiring God’s justice and become complacent with sin’s injustice in the world? Have we ceased to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8)? Are we just giving God lip-service? When our King and Bridegroom comes, there will be no time to do these things if we have fallen asleep— which is to say, if we have died or have been caught unawares. Jesus is pretty clear about this. Those who neglect any kind of preparation for his coming will be like the seeds that fell on the sandy ground— their faith will have no root. Their light will have no oil with which to burn. There will be no fuel with which to relight their lamps, no fresh wicks to trim. They will cry “Lord, Lord!” but he will not know them. The door will be closed.
This parable serves as a wake-up call to us. “Take heed unless you fall.” But as with all things, there is hope for us if we fear that we may be unready and unprepared. Indeed, being “ready” requires constant practice of the above, and we can do none of the myriad things that serve as oil to our lamps without faith in Christ our Savior and the help of the Holy Spirit. Christ died and rose again to break the bonds of sin, death, and hell that once bound us and made us entirely unworthy to enter into his kingdom, and when we trust that his death and resurrection was indeed for us and that he has saved us from our sins, he sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us in the way we should live, to lead us to the sacraments, those fruit which “make my soul to thrive [and] keep my dying faith alive” (to paraphrase the Apple Tree Carol). To drive us to repentance and to hear and receive God’s absolution. To hear and meditate on his word and receive comfort from it. To do good works for our neighbors and to lift one-another up when we stumble. To see the hurt and the pain in the world, and to pray to God, yearning for his justice and mercy. To be courageous in our faith when faced with adversity. To think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” To “call on our Lord in every trouble, to pray, praise, and give him thanks” (SC).
Only Christ can give us the oil we need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning as we watch for his final coming. When we trust in him, seeing what he has done and believing in the promise he gives, then he fills our oil bottles with whatever we need to be ready for his coming and guides us in our preparation, so that even if the sleep of death overtakes us in our wait for his arrival— even if we fall asleep on the job— we will be ready when he comes and will join him in his wedding feast. When we trust him, he won’t bar us from the banquet hall. Amen!