Sermon audio here.
Evangelicals these days often talk about “being filled with the Spirit.” And usually by this they mean they can do extraordinary things, that they’ve been blessed with miraculous gifts. But in our hymn we just prayed that God would give us His Holy Spirit so that we might meditate rightly on Christ’s Passion: “Jesus, I will ponder now on Your holy passion. With your Spirit me endow for such meditation.”
Here, we see the Holy Spirit’s chief work is something we might not always think about. Everyone knows the Father is the Creator and the Son is the Redeemer, but what does the Holy Spirit do? We believe that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit’s work is to enable you to do just that, to believe in the heart and confess with the lips that Jesus is Lord, as our catechumens will do shortly. Nobody can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sends pastors and parents to teach God’s Word in the church and in the home, but the work of faith belongs to the Holy Spirit alone. This is a marvelous gift of God. To focus on the youth today is to miss the point. This confession of faith they will make today is the Holy Spirit’s work; to God be the glory.
So what does this have to do with meditating on Christ’s Passion? Think back to our hymn. There we recognized the need for the Holy Spirit if we are to have any benefit from hearing and pondering God’s Word. Sometimes we treat Scripture like it’s any other book. If we want to understand it, all we have to do, we think, is to read it and think about it. That may be true of other books, but that’s not the way it is with God’s Word.
Apart from faith in Christ—that is to say, apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit—Scripture remains a sealed book. This is why it’s good to pray for the Holy Spirit before you hear God’s Word. It’s not just any other book. It speaks of things to which you are by nature blind and deaf. God’s Word isn’t dry ink on a page or something that that’s merely read, it’s a living and active proclamation. The Holy Spirit uses this proclamation to create faith and raise the dead.
Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can you read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s Word. And He does this especially by Christ’s passion, which is the heart of the Gospel. When people don’t get anything out of hearing God’s Word and coming to church, it’s because they’ve closed themselves off to the working of the Holy Spirit.
This may be a new thought for us, but it wasn’t for the Christians of old. At the time of the Reformation it was a common practice to meditate on Christ’s Passion for extended periods of time. We get nervous about a 56 verse Holy Gospel, but they would hear and contemplate Christ’s passion for even 4 and 5 hours at a time.
The problem was, as they meditated on the suffering of our Lord, they began to feel pity for Christ and even become angry at those who crucified Him. When they looked at the cross, all they could see was God’s wrath. And that’s there, to be sure, but it’s not the main point. The cross preaches God’s boundless love, who was willing to give His only Son for your redemption. Above all, the cross preaches the Gospel.
But if you are to taste the full sweetness of the Gospel, you must first hear the Law in all its severity. When considered rightly, the cross inspires fear and trembling like nothing else in the world. It shows you how desperately sick your heart is, that not even the most precious gold or silver in the world could purchase your redemption. Nothing less than the Holy, Precious blood of Christ was needed. The terrible price of your redemption, which was on full display on Golgotha, is cause for fear and trembling.
We’re not used to looking at the cross this way, and there are any number of reasons for this. For starters, we’ve done a great job sterilizing the crucifixion. From the beautiful jewelry to the corpse-less crosses we see all around, we’ve made the cross look far too pretty.
This is only possible because we don’t see crucifixions in our country—and thank God for that. But even a superficial study of what happens during crucifixion will quickly dispel any romantic notions of the cross. The Romans had made turned into a fine art, and crucifixion was their magnum opus.
As unpleasant as it is, to skip over the agony of Good Friday is to ignore the purpose of the Incarnation. Jesus took on human flesh for the very purpose of having it brutalized.
So important is the crucifixion, Holy Scripture sums up the Christian faith by saying: “We preach Christ crucified,” (1 Cor 1:23a); The apostle resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except “Christ and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2); To the Galatians St. Paul wrote, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Gal 6:14). With Luther, St. Paul would have us begin our meditation on Christ’s Passion with the agony of the cross, not on a corpse-less or sterile one.
But the agony of the cross isn’t cause to pity Christ. As He was on His way to the cross, a group of women were weeping as they followed Him. Jesus told them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children,” (Luke 23:28). Weeping over Christ’s suffering and death is misplaced sorrow. Weep for yourself and your children. Weep over your sin and theirs. Repent. It was your sin for which Christ died.
Because of this, anger with those who crucified Christ is misplaced. As Isaiah said, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” If you have to be angry with someone over the crucifixion, be angry with yourself. Luther said, “When you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work.” What would be fair, Luther says, is that for every nail that pierces Christ, more than one hundred thousand nails should pierce you forever, and even more painfully.
But the cross preaches more than just God’s wrath. To mourn for too long or to look at the horror of the cross excessively is the work of Satan. We don’t romanticize the cross or minimize our wretchedness, but we don’t stay there, either. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we see the cross not merely as a sign of God’s wrath, but as the Bridegroom laying down His life for the sake of His Bride.
Those who worry that God cannot or will not forgive them either think too highly of their sin or too little of their Savior. The goal of the passion is to behold your sin resting in its rightful place, on the shoulders of Christ and overcome by His resurrection.
The Lord has laid on Christ the iniquity of us all. In His body, Christ has born your sin. When His Word is preached, He declares you holy, and so you are. He promises to raise up all who have feasted on His Risen Body and Blood and clothe them with incorruption and immortality. God has made him who knew no sin to be sin for you, so that through Him you might be made righteous.
There’s nothing quite like meditating on Christ’s Passion when it comes to proclaiming God’s profound love and receiving comfort for every affliction.
“If pain or sickness afflicts you, consider how paltry this is in comparison with the thorny crown and the nails of Christ. If you are obliged to do or to refrain from doing things against your wishes, ponder how Christ was bound and captured and led hither and yon. If you are beset by pride, see how your Lord was mocked and ridiculed along with criminals. If unchastity and lust assail you, remember how ruthlessly Christ’s tender flesh was scourged, pierced, and beaten. If hatred, envy, and vindictiveness beset you, recall that Christ, who indeed had more reason to avenge himself, interceded with tears and cries for you and for all his enemies. If sadness or any adversity, physical or spiritual, distresses you, strengthen your heart and say, “Well, why should I not be willing to bear a little grief, when agonies and fears caused my Lord to sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane? He who lies abed while his master struggles in the throes of death is indeed a slothful and disgraceful servant.”
It is by seeing Christ crucified, died and risen from the dead, and firmly believing this, that the Holy Spirit brings comfort to the wounded conscience. Behold, Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
This, then, is where we direct our meditation—to the God who loved the world in this way: that He gave His only begotten Son, so that you who believe in Him shall not perish, nor be terrified by sin, overcome by the devil, or conquered by death—but abide in goodness and mercy all the days of your life and dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
Adapted from “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion” by Luther (1519) and notes by Rev. Ralph Patrick
Sunday of the Passion, 2016
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