The final sermon of Rolf D. Preus before his retirement from pastoral ministry, August 9, 2020. Following the service, he no longer will be my pastor. Too sad for words.
Below is the sermon fittingly titled, “We Preach Christ Crucified.” This has been the theme of his preaching and ministry. You will find that in A Year of Law & Gospel Preaching: Postil of Sermons on the One-Year Lectionary, hardcover here, and paperback here, Christ for Us: Catechism Sermons of Rolf D. Preus, Kindle edition here, and hardcover here, and the rest of his sermons, papers, lectures, and presentations at his website Christ for Us.
A sound under-shepherd to the Great Shepherd of the Sheep is a source of security. We sheep tend to error and wandering. When the Office of Public Ministry preaches the Gospel in purity and administers the Sacraments rightly, the sheep are drawn to the safety of truth. This has been my blessing and the blessing of my family through the ministry of Pastor Preus.
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
August 9, 2020
“We Preach Christ Crucified”
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” [Isaiah 29:14] Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What kind of a religion do you want? Do you want a religion of power? Or do you want a religion of wisdom? Sign seekers opt for power. We want to see a miracle! During his ministry, Jesus was besieged by people seeking signs. They wanted him to prove himself by doing powerful miracles. Well, it’s not as if God doesn’t demonstrate his power. After all, God validated the preaching of the prophets and the apostles by miraculous signs. Remember how Moses did greater miracles than all of Pharaoh’s magicians? The miraculous crossing of the Red Sea was a powerful demonstration!
Others seek after wisdom. They’re infatuated by it. The word philosophy means friend of wisdom. Philosophers down through the ages have reveled in their own intelligence, their ability to debate and prevail, and their great insight into the nature of things. When it comes to wisdom, God provides it. Indeed, Solomon in the Proverbs identifies the second person of the Trinity as Wisdom. St. John calls him the Word. If you want wisdom, Christianity is the religion for you! God’s power and God’s wisdom are both revealed in Christ. God’s power and wisdom are revealed in the preaching of the cross. The hymnist writes:
To me the preaching of the cross
Is wisdom everlasting.
Thy death alone redeems my loss
On thee my burden casting.
I, in thy name, a refuge claim
From sin and guilt and from all shame.
Blessed be thy name, O Jesus!
This is God’s wisdom. This is God’s power. The world thinks it is foolishness. Those who are being rescued from the imminent destruction coming upon this world hear the message of the cross as God’s power. Those who are perishing with the world think it is foolishness.
Some years ago when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by our house my wife was busy (we had several small children at home at the time) and decided to give them the triple whammy right off the bat. She met them at the door and said, “I believe that Jesus is God and that he died on the cross so I wouldn’t have to go to hell.” As you may know, the Jehovah’s Witnessed deny that Jesus is God, deny that he died on a cross, and deny the existence of hell. So they were a little bit shaken, but not so much that they couldn’t respond with a question: “If Jesus is God, how can he die?” Dort replied, “God can do anything.”
Now you may not think of Jehovah’s Witnesses as particularly wise on account of some of their strange teachings and practices, but in fact their religion embraces the wisdom of this world quite well. How could God become a man? How could he be crucified and die? God who by his very nature as God is eternal and immortal and not subject to death became a man and died? Impossible! So says the world in its wisdom.
Power and wisdom are both highly valued commodities for religious people. Check out the religious section of books at Walmart and browse through the titles. They promise such things as power, victory, or a successful life. “How to” Christianity sells. People want to be empowered. If Jesus can do it, they’ll try Jesus. And folks want wisdom. They want solutions to besetting problems. Social and economic problems that cause terrible distress never seem to go away. So they make Jesus into the premier social engineer who can replace systemic evils with peace and justice.
Sign seekers and wisdom seekers want the same thing: control. They want a religion that puts them in the driver’s seat. They look to their religion to solve problems. But their wisdom and their power are not from God. The preaching of the cross doesn’t put you in the driver’s seat. It makes you weak. It makes you a fool. It teaches you to cherish the power and wisdom of God as your greatest good. But God’s power and wisdom are weakness and folly in the eyes of a world that is perishing.
We preach Christ crucified. The crucifixion of Jesus starkly displays before our eyes the devastating nature of our sin. Look at him suffering! He is suffering for you! Who is he? He is your God and your brother. Why should he be suffering so? It is on account of your sins. He has taken your place. The wounds, the stripes, the thorns, the mockery, the pain of both body and soul, the overwhelming sorrow of being forsaken by God – he bears this for you because he loves you. The message of the cross is a stumbling block to those whose god would never become incarnate, and would never die for sinners.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are so smart and well educated that they’ve managed to define sin – at least their own sin – out of existence. This world doesn’t know what sin is.
We know. God’s command to love him first and most is clear. Who can argue with it? God’s command to love one another is equally clear. Who can argue with it? But can you claim to have loved God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind? Can you claim to have loved your neighbor as yourself? What about your sins? Don’t make excuses. Don’t project upon others. Don’t change the subject. What about your sins? They are either on Christ or on you. Either Jesus is crucified for you or you must bear the burden of divine punishment.
Look to the cross and see what God says about sin.
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.
Look to the cross and see what God says about the forgiveness of sin. He says in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He says in 1 John 1:7, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” He says in Romans 5:8-10
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
The preaching of the cross doesn’t deny sin. It confronts it squarely. Sin makes God angry. It makes us God’s enemies. It voids us of any spiritual power. The preaching of the cross faces these bitter truths and proclaims God’s wisdom and God’s power. His wisdom, which the world thinks is folly, is the only solution to our deepest needs. Only the God-man crucified for sinners can take away their sin. Only by Christ bearing the sin of all sinners can God’s anger against us be set aside. The only way we can be reconciled to God is for God to join us, take on himself our human nature, suffer for our offenses, and bear our guilt. This is how God takes away our sin, satisfies his justice, fulfills the promise of his grace, and rescues us from death and the power of the evil one.
We preach Christ crucified. It’s what we preach. It’s not who does the preaching. Preachers come and go. They’re just like those to whom they preach. They are sinners who have failed to love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves. The law they preach to you they must first preach to themselves. They, like you, must live under grace, under the shelter of the cross.
My father was a good preacher who loved good preaching. He told us the story about a Norwegian Lutheran pastor who was preaching to an assembly of Norwegian Lutheran pastors among whom was a bit of, shall we say, confusion about the nature of the gospel. The preacher taught, as the Bible teaches, that the gospel is true before we believe it. Jesus really did take away the sin of the world. Your sin was forgiven when Jesus died for you. We are justified by Christ’s blood. While we don’t receive forgiveness personally until we believe the message of the cross, the message of the cross is that all sins of all sinners are forgiven and that God has justified the entire human race in Christ. Some of the Norwegian Lutheran pastors present didn’t believe that. No, they said, God doesn’t forgive you until you believe that he forgives you. This sends faith in search of itself instead of looking to Christ’s crucifixion where our sins were taken away. So the preacher decided to address the issue directly. He looked out at the congregation of pastors and declared: “I am righteous!” Then, after a pause, he said: “Do you believe it?”
Weakness and folly. Look at the cross! What power do you see in him who cries out in thirst asking for a drink of water? What wisdom could there be in watching the holy God become a holy man only to be treated as a criminal and subject to abuse and scorn? The world watches in amazement and turns away in disgust.
We cherish it. It looks like God’s great weakness but it is his almighty power. It looks like God’s great foolishness but it is his eternal wisdom. The crucifixion of the Son of God is where the power to destroy all of our enemies and the wisdom to enlighten our minds is revealed. The world in its wisdom cannot know God. He reveals himself in the suffering and death of Jesus. Here in this place God brings the cross to where we live. The gospel sounds forth. Baptism joins us to Christ’s death and resurrection. In the Lord’s Supper God feeds us, body and soul, with Christ’s body and blood that take away our sins. Here in this place the life-giving death of Jesus is put into our hearts. Even as he rose from the dead, we have new lives to live.
These lives are lived under the cross. The power and wisdom our sinful flesh desires cannot last. It cannot satisfy. The power and wisdom of Christ’s crucifixion sets us before God as perfectly righteous saints who can defy Satan, death, and the grave, and claim with confidence that for Christ’s sake we are righteous – clothed in the spotless righteousness of the Son of God. Amen