The following sermon was preached in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of St James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr, by Dr Harold Ristau, 23 October 2018. The text is Matthew 13:54-58.
Often we Christians adopt an “us” versus “them” mentality with the world. Those unbelievers. They kill babies. They pervert godly sexuality. They hate the true God and persecute His church. Yet the Gospel lesson holds a warning for us as well. After all, Jesus’ own people were astonished at His Word, His teaching, and begin to doubt and question His identity and authority. “Who does he think he is? Where did he get all this? Is he not the son of a mere carpenter? Isn’t his mother some un-esteemed girl called Mary?… Nobody special really.” And they took offence at him. Instead of rejoicing and thanking God that he had honoured them with such a prophet, those of his own hometown, took offence at Jesus; offence which inevitably leads to belittlement: “This Jesus … nobody special really.”
Jesus responds: “A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and his own household.”
And we—the church as His hometown and household—get offended by Jesus too. (Now, more accurately, the word is “scandalised”; when you find something absurd, and stumble over it, can’t get past it. Our faith comes to a halt, and can’t move forward. For unbelievers, that Jesus is both man and God, uniquely: scandalising; that he is God incarnate, His Wisdom enfleshed, and yet crucified: scandalising. For Jews: that this Prophet was not a political hero but dies as a common criminal: scandalising. For Muslims: that this prophet dies such a shameful death: scandalising.)
Now for us, it is not as dramatic, but more subtle: “I don’t like what I just heard from the Bible. Did He really mean it? I know of a better translation … less offensive.” “The pastor said that, I know, but that’s his idea …. It’s all a matter of personal interpretation anyways!”
Believing that Jesus is God and that His Word is true, matters. Otherwise why take His word seriously? Why share it with others—never mind dying for it? Jesus is both son of man (born of Mary) and son of God (born of a virgin) who comes to strengthen our faith in Him with His life-giving Word, a mighty work indeed. But when we question His word—“forever settled in the heavens”—we doubt whether He truly is God. Jesus and His word go together, hand and hand, inseparable, as He is the Word made flesh. When we doubt that He is truly God, we question His saving Word as divine. God, after all, has the ability to speak clearly and write truthfully, and doesn’t need OUR interpretation as a help!
Sometimes the problem is that, as His family, we get so comfortable with the idea of Jesus and His Word, so used to the idea that He is our friend—at the exclusion of being almighty God and king—that we start to think of Him as our buddy. Familiarity breeds contempt. The worship of some churches doesn’t help. The fact that we are on holy and sacred ground is belittled. In more ways than one, not realising it, we put him on equal footing with ourselves. And then, when we don’t like what He has to say, we find ways to belittle Him in our lives.
We believe that He is smaller than He says. Otherwise we would always hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it, receiving his truth and wisdom with thanksgiving, even when its teaching in truth and purity insults us. Just prior to this text, Jesus makes some uncomfortable and offensive distinctions between the company of heaven, and those headed to hell. For the doubters of His authority, in spite of all that He says about people being precious treasures to Him, and so forth, they neither receive His rebukes in repentance, nor embrace His promises with joy: “who does this guy think he is, anyways?”
From both the synagogue of our sanctuary, to the Bibles in our homes, we read and hear things from the Holy Scriptures that make us blush, and reveal rather embarrassing things about ourselves, things that are naturally offensive to our Holy God and Creator. Instead of confessing these sins, and repenting of them, and letting His Word cleanse our hearts and govern our thoughts and actions, we find clever ways of belittling those words, or justifying our sinful behaviour and ideas: The way we use our money doesn’t trouble us as much as it used to. We think that the rebukes of God were just intended for someone else: “Jesus talks in these extreme ways … but he doesn’t really mean it.” We cross the lines with our boyfriend or girlfriend, “we’re engaged after all, or at least will be, so God understands,” or we make those excuses for our kids and grandchildren. We confess our sins, but “know” that we really have no intent of not doing it again: it’s “just” my buddy Jesus after all: guidelines really. “We know his family. He’s just like us. Nobody special, really.”
When it offends, we question the pastor’s advice to us, and treat is at one equal opinion with ours (“We know this guy’s family, isn’t he just a recent graduate from the seminary? I remember when he was just ‘this high’. Nobody special really”). We belittle Jesus when we belittle his messengers, to whom he says “he who listens to you, listens to me. He who rejects you, rejects me”. We are our worst enemies. His word after all is for our own good. Greed of money can destroy faith in Christ and block our entrance into heaven. Fornication twists a gift intended for our good into a devilish instrument of our spiritual and even bodily destruction. Neglecting to tell our kids and grandkids the truth about Jesus may likely result in them not sharing eternity with us. Offended at our Redeemer’s Word, and we cut ourselves off from His mighty works that come from those very words: such as the forgiveness of our sins. Before we know it, we cut ourselves off from our truest family, start skipping church, or looking for a congregation that will tell us what we want to hear about Jesus.
When we belittle Jesus, we belittle His family. “Nobody special really.” In our text, Mary and Joseph are treated dishonourably with Jesus. And yet, who was it that was found at the cross on that holiest of Fridays, when all else abandoned him? Only St John and the Blessed Virgin, along with a few others. They were family in the truest sense of the word. Jesus says elsewhere, “who are my mother, sisters and brothers, but those who hear my word and do it”. They embraced His teaching, letting the law and gospel work as it must, and didn’t judge Him as little, even though He was from their hometown. They did not let their familiarity with Jesus as “friend” get in the way of confessing Jesus as Saviour and worshipping him rightly as Lord. Yet when we insult Jesus, we insult His family too. We end up belittling the value of our church family, neglecting to see Christ and His Word at work in them and for us. When a loving rebuke is in order, or Bible-driven advice, our response is “Its none of their business …. They are ganging up on me …. Who do they think they are, anyways? I’m leaving! I’ll find another church, with the Jesus of MY making; my buddy, who won’t … offend … me…… Nobody special really.” We even belittle ourselves, who God finds so special, that He gave up his life.
Yet in spite of all this, brothers and sisters in Christ, our Lord is not offended by us his dear children. Although He alone has every right to be, believe it or not, He is not scandalised by us! Though we are faithless, He remains faithful since He cannot deny himself. We remain His holy family, with almighty God as our dear Father whose quickness to forgive our sins, is driven by His immense compassion, and mercy; a mercy that drove Him to nail all of our sins onto the cross of His One and only Son, our brother Jesus the Christ: a beautiful sight to Him, not offensive in the least, because His cross was the means by which we, His beloved, are redeemed and made His holy family; kept His holy family.
Our old self is offended, stumbled by this family tree, with one small cross, long ago, affixed on a tiny hill, laughable, insignificant and beneath our dignity. But the new man rejoices in the grandeur of that glorious, enormous and timeless cross forever established on the pinnacle of the mountain of history; a blood-stained tree that casts a cruciform shadow upon every single family tree of every nation and ethnicity upon the earth. Our faith is empowered by the majesty of the cross, every time we gather at its foot, here, along with the rest of the family of God both in heaven and here on earth. Even our doubts cannot change the fact that we have been baptised into Christ crucified, into a God who is “for us, not against us”; by a God who forgives us for all of our belittling of Him and His cross. Family is family, after all. Thank God.
Today we commemorate St. James, Jesus’ brother; “brother”, well, in a way, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, and James was not (more like a cousin really). But James too took offence at Jesus, growing up with him in the same household, as brothers do. And, it appears that he doubted Jesus identity, and thus questioned His Word. For it was only until after the resurrection, that he recognised his brother as Lord. Then filled with missionary zeal, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he thought Jesus so big and honoured Him so much, that he wanted to make sure the whole world knew it; and, back then, not just the Jews. The other disciples struggled with making salvation conditional on observing certain Jewish Laws, like circumcision or dietary laws, which meant excluding many Gentiles from the newly created family of the New Testament. By making grace contingent upon these things though, they made Jesus small while not even realising it; OR they made others small, their neighbours less important, by subordinating their salvation to their own “Jewish” household. In both ways, the true cross became somewhat of an offence to them. The cross claims that there is nothing good inside of man to make us, or keep us right with God—even those we perceive as the “best” of us. Yet by the Holy Spirit, St James was able to convince the others in the household, that grace meant no conditions, that God loved everybody the same, and that everything necessary for our salvation was accomplished solely in Jesus the Christ. “James the Just” was later martyred at the hand of those he offended with the Gospel message. He spilt his blood for the One who poured out His blood for us all, as he boasted Jesus and made Him big in his witness.
And so our brother James is an example of how the family of God functions when we let Christ’s cross, fixed before our eyes, become beautiful, clinging to it, looking at it for all good, and wisdom, instead of at the worldly inclinations of our carnal thoughts and hearts. Though sometimes it takes some time for the family to get there, as it did with St. James, and among us too. But St. James reminds us of how the things that offend us are shattered (immediately and eventually) by that very cross, where our sins of offence, once confessed, are crucified and forgiven. The stumbling block of our offence is the means of our justification.
The other disciples were humbled by James’ words and way, and embraced them in the end, after realising that the Jesus of their making, was a product of their old Adam’s offence, the offence at how simple and beautiful the Gospel words are for those who know themselves to be sinners; words such as: “come and rest; be still, and take heart, take and eat.” The words of Jesus, almighty God and saviour, friend and yet still king, inspire us to love His family as He does, even those who have not yet joined the fold. The New Adam listens and accepts, with humility and a truly open heart and mind to His Word, a holy and clear word, as spoken and “interpreted” by your called and ordained ministers in their preaching and teaching. They are words for you, life giving words. God has taken great measures, extreme measures, and yes, even offensive measures, to get them to you, His beloved children (and without any hesitation, whatsoever).
After all, the greatest honouring of Jesus, is returning to Him, at His home, in His household, eagerly hearing and gladly receiving His Word, with our truest family, your brothers and sisters, “those who hear God’s word and keep it”. And, yes, as long as we live in the world, and struggle with the old Adam, we will inevitably take offence at His Word. Yet at the same time, those instances offer us the opportunity to once again stumble towards His cross, in repentance, from which we find ourselves washed in the blood of Jesus’ righteousness. We, kind of, stumble from one word, and into another, a Gospel word, where we find new life, hope and peace for humbled souls. The mightiest work of God is the creation of faith in us, after all; faith in spite of offence; even (when understood rightly) faith because of offence. For with faith we truly honour Jesus and His family, the church, and by faith, God and His Word reign big in our hearts … in a way that even our unbelieving neighbours can’t help but notice. Amen.