Sermon for Pentecost 5(c)
Zechariah 13:7-9 + Galatians 3:23-29 + Luke 9:18-24
“Cheer up! It’s the cross!” That was the theme of the keynote address at our AZ-CA district convention two weeks ago. My old college professor, Pastor Dan Deustchlander gave the presentation. He just wrote a book called “The Theology of the Cross.” Highly recommended, for pastors and for lay members alike!
But really, “Cheer up! It’s the cross!”? What sense does that make? It’s what Jesus told his disciples in today’s Gospel. It’s what Zechariah prophesied, too. There’s a cross of suffering in store for Christ, the Shepherd, and for his sheep. Christ, salvation, the forgiveness of sins – and suffering – the Bible ties them all together and says, “You can’t have the one without the other.”
And – that’s a good thing. Let’s focus on that text from Zechariah today and consider what the Holy Spirit teaches us there: Good news! The cross is coming! 1) It’s good news when the Shepherd is stricken, and 2) It’s good news when the sheep are afflicted.
IT’S GOOD NEWS WHEN THE SHEPHERD IS STRICKEN
Back in chapter 9, probably the most famous chapter in the Book of Zechariah, the prophet had predicted the Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, humble, riding on a donkey. Now, in chapter 13, he fast forwards to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. He starts off the chapter talking about how cleansing from sin would be accomplished in a single day. And then he writes, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the Lord Almighty. Bound up together with the prophecy about the cleansing from sin was this terrible prophecy about the striking of God’s shepherd with the sword.
You know, when you look at this parament on the altar that says, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” you should remember this prophecy from Zechariah. God’s shepherd would be stricken by the sword – which symbolized death and execution – a symbol of the cross. When you picture Jesus, the Good Shepherd, you should picture a man full of scars from where the wolf dug its claws into him, from where the sword slashed him and pierced him. You should remember not just Psalm 23, but also Psalm 22, as we sang this morning. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Because, you notice where that sword – that cross – was going to come from? Yes, men would be responsible for Christ’s execution, and Satan would be behind it, but God was the one who called upon the sword to “Awake!” God was the one who ordained the suffering, the sword, the cross, against “the man who is close to me!” God says. The Shepherd, Jesus, wasn’t some renegade man or some rebel who had wandered away from God’s house or from God’s flock. He was close to God. Perfectly obedient to God, in a close relationship with God. Now, just how close he was, well, who would have thought? The very Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father – that’s the one against whom God the Father would send the sword – the cross. That’s what it meant it be the Christ.
Why? Zechariah doesn’t say why, but Paul does in Galatians 3 – that we may be justified by faith. Faith in what? Faith in God’s Shepherd stricken, faith in Christ crucified for our sins.
Isn’t that ironic? God would send the cross upon the one who was closest to him, the Son whom he loved and who loved him back, in order to save those were far, far away from him, who loved him not at all. That was Jerusalem. That’s the entire unbelieving world. That was you and I, too. You think your sins are minor offenses at worst? You think it doesn’t matter how you treat your neighbor? How devoted you are to learning and living God’s Word? How many hours during the day your thoughts are stuck on what you want, what you crave, how hard things are for you? You’re sinners. Not kinda-sorta sinners, but really bad sinners. And so am I. We’re not good enough. We must change and become a different kind of people.
But take heart! There is good news! The cross is coming!, Zechariah says. The Shepherd would be stricken. It’s the cross of Christ where God poured out his anger. He called the sword out against the one closest to him in order to reconcile you who were far away. See how much he loves you! He struck down the shepherd in order to order to make you all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. See how much he loves you! The one who was obedient, God struck down in order to pay the price for your disobedience and clothe you with Christ when you were baptized. Without faith in him, you’re stuck having to pay for your own sins, and there’s no way you can. But through faith in Christ, God already counts you as one person with Christ Jesus, and that means righteousness and forgiveness and eternal life with God. It’s good news when the Shepherd is stricken, because that’s how the sheep are kept safe.
But that doesn’t mean the sheep will have an easy time of it this side of heaven, just as Jesus promised his disciples. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” Oh, how awful! How dreadful! Who could bear it? But for as awful as it seems, our text presents the suffering of the sheep as a good thing. Good news! The cross is coming! It’s good news when the sheep are afflicted.
IT’S GOOD NEWS WHEN THE SHEEP ARE AFFLICTED
Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. Jesus told his disciples that this prophecy would be fulfilled on Maundy Thursday, and it was. When the Shepherd was stricken, the disciples scattered. They abandoned him. They all ran away. They saw the cross coming toward Jesus and they were afraid. They saw the cross coming toward them, if they stayed with Jesus, and they wanted nothing to do with it.
They realized, after the fact, what cowards they were, and Jesus, in his mercy, restored peace to them after his resurrection from the dead.
But what’s this, that God will “turn his hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the Lord, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish”? Two-thirds isn’t meant to be an exact number here. The fact is that most of Jesus’ followers abandoned him toward the end of his earthly ministry, and most of them never returned. Most of the world still rejects Jesus and always will. And since they don’t believe in the only one in whom an innocent verdict is found in God’s courtroom, they will die in their sins. They will be struck down and perish eternally.
But those few, that remnant, that remaining one-third – what about them? This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. There’s the cross! That cross that Jesus calls upon each one who would come after him to take up daily. A refiner’s fire. It’s hot. And it’s painful.
What is it, this cross, this refiner’s fire? It’s a special kind of suffering for Christians only. How about that as an advertisement for our church? “Come join us and you’ll get to suffer, too!” There’s lots of suffering in this world already – pain, sickness, loss and death. Those things aren’t crosses in and of themselves.
But when the devil takes advantage of those things to tempt you to blame God for them, to tempt you to despair in your affliction, to tempt you to curse God and die, there it is! That’s the cross! That’s the refiner’s fire.
Or, you may suffer persecution for your faith – ridicule, slander, your career ripped away from you, your friends turning their backs on you, immorality all around you, and it hurts and you mourn. There it is! That’s the cross! That’s the refiner’s fire.
Or, you may have temptations swirling all around you, maybe a special temptation that affects you more than others. Sexual temptation, a difficult marriage or family situation that isn’t going to get any easier, an angry temperament that isn’t going to just go away. You know what God wants you to do, but you see in yourself a deep desire to do the opposite, to satisfy your own self, to make your life easier or happier. There it is! That’s the cross! That’s the refiner’s fire.
But for as painful as it is, for as enduring as it is, God says it’s good news. It’s good news for you, because he knows that you need it. You need these struggles. And you cry, “NO, I DON’T!” And God says, “Yes, my child. You do. You need this cross, this refiner’s fire, just like gold and silver need the fire to strip away the worthless bits.”
There’s a story of a shepherd, a badly scarred shepherd at that, who always had one little lamb practically attached to his leg. It followed him so closely that someone asked him, “Sir, why is that lamb so attached to you?” He said, “Because I broke its leg.” “You did what?” “You see, this lamb would always wander away from the flock, get lost in the woods, get stuck in the thicket. It was always in danger of being picked off by a predator because of its wandering. So I broke its leg so that it couldn’t wander, and then set it, and then cared for it and comforted it and fed it with my own hand until it healed. Now it knows that I am the one who cares for it, and it never leaves my side.”
There it is! That’s the cross! That’s the refiner’s fire. Your Shepherd, stricken for you, knows you so well. He knows how quickly you would wander away from him and his Word if the cross weren’t there to keep driving you back to him and his Word for comfort and strength. That’s the 4000-year history of the Old Testament, the 2000 year history of Israel, and the experience of the whole New Testament Church. When there was no cross, they quickly wandered. When there was a cross, they returned to God for help. Don’t think that you’re the great exception who doesn’t need the cross. You do.
So even though your sinful nature hates the cross, you believers in Christ, put that sinful nature to death every day and trust in your Shepherd and the cross he sends. And give thanks for him, and give thanks for it. It’s good news when the sheep are afflicted. See, God knows how it will turn out: They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”
And so it must be throughout this life that the sheep resemble the Shepherd, branded as we all are by the symbol of the cross. So it must be until you shed that wandering-prone sinful nature when you die and kiss your crosses goodbye. So it must be until Christ returns and shows us how he used the cross to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom, first his cross, and then ours. Until then, here is his Word to sustain you. Here is Baptism where he clothed you with himself and promised to be your life-long Shepherd. Here is the Lord’s Supper where he feeds you with his own hand, with the strength of the one who bore the cross for you and rose again to glorious life. You, too, shall rise after bearing the cross for a little while longer. You may not see now the benefit of the cross you bear as a Christian. You just have to take God’s word for it that the coming of the cross means good news for you. You just have to trust the Shepherd when he tells you that the cross is a good thing. Amen.