The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in observance of Holy Cross Day, 14 September 2021.
God chisels us (John 12:20-33)
There’s an old praise song which goes: I want to see Jesus … to reach out and touch him … say that I love him …. And so too, some came to Philip and asked, “we want to see Jesus”. But you may not like what you see. Because to see Jesus is to meditate on His passion, His suffering and death since “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus is that kernel of wheat, who came to produce other seeds (i.e. believers) by His suffering, life and death.
In Holy Baptism, we are planted in Jesus and begin to grow into wonderful trees that bear much fruit. Yet that seed is watered and nourished at the cross. When our Lord was pierced on Good Friday, St. John tells us that both blood and water flowed from our Saviour’s side. The Church understands this as an image of the Holy Supper and Holy Baptism.
So it is only by meditating on Jesus’ passion and death, that we remain a seed rooted in the side of Christ, a branch grafted on this tree, Jesus and His Cross. After all, just as His death bears much fruit, so too our dying to self bears much fruit. Meditating on Christ’s passion includes meditating on our own helplessness, and death. Only then can we be rightly prepared for the ways in which His death brings us life.
Yet this is not easy. It is not easy to see Jesus. It is disturbing to meditate upon His passion, because Jesus is hidden from our eyes by a rock solid wall that we have built around ourselves of sin and self-righteousness.
Many of the Greeks wanted to see Jesus because He was popular, intelligent, a miracle-worker, and in some sense a celebrity; yet they were not prepared for what they were about to see: a crucifixion. Neither are we. And so God needs to tear us down and build us anew.
During recent earthquakes in Haiti, many poor souls were trapped underneath heaps of rock and concrete. They couldn’t see a thing. They couldn’t move. They could barely breathe. Without the rescue teams chiselling them out, through some very extreme and painful measures, they died.
You are all familiar with a chisel. A chisel is a building tool. In the process of building something new, it needs to chip away the old. God’s Word is a chisel. And we can’t see Jesus from behind the Rock of self, having no freedom, suffocating to death. So we must first let ourselves get chiselled away; let this rock wall, be broken down and removed. Albeit, it is a painful process.
God must chisel away at us to get rid of sin in our lives; He needs to chisel away at this rock solid heart of ours, to give it a new shape. He must crush us to pieces before building us into something new. He needs to chisel everything that blocks our view of him, and then rescue us from the rubble, so that we can be set free, breathe freely and have new life.
Through the Law, the preaching of all the holy commands of God, which we are unable to keep, even when we try our best, God chisels away the rock that blocks us from seeing Jesus, the Gospel. The Law reveals how desperately trapped under the rubble heap of our sin and self we are. We want to see Jesus for all the wrong reasons. We come to him to get what we want, looking for a wise guru, a spiritual helper or temporal and eternal security net.
Over this last year and a half, we have wanted to see a Jesus that approves of our personal decisions and positions on various topics surrounding the pandemic. One who approves our smug decisions and false humility on how we have handled the pandemic “so responsibly and obediently”. Or we wanted to see a Jesus who pats us on our heads affirming our self-righteous opinions that “we were right” and our opponents “just lacked faith”. Yet what do we get instead?Look at the cross and see a Lord who hangs there in silence, with no clear word praising or condemning us.
No word is more difficult to wrestle with, isn’t it? Yet his silence prompts us to always respond to life’s complexities with repentance. That is the only way that His Spirit is able to start chiselling away at us. If the pandemic is judgement upon our nation, and thus entirely part of a spiritual battle, then our response starts with repentance and prayer. Then we are sure to hear a word, such as “Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Letting God chisel us means rejecting our wisdom and strength, goals, dreams, desires, attitudes, skills and status. And fixing our eyes upon the crucified one.
Yet, still, the old stubborn man in us doesn’t want to see him on the cross because that sight itself is a word, a message, and it’s not the one we want. It’s no eye candy for a soul seeking approval, encouragement, happy thoughts. The miracle, success, victory and joy found in the image of Christ and Him Crucified, is a hidden one, revealed only to those who meditate rightly on the cross. For precisely through our meditation on the passion—that image—God, chisels away at us from the cross, getting us ready to receive her fruits.
So though the chiselling is painful, it is not an end in itself; from the rubble pile and ash heap arises a new creature, a new structure. Once you become aware of your sins and are completely terror-stricken in conscience, then your sins are released from that conscience, they are shaken free.
Instead, cast your sins from yourself upon Christ. Let the Rock gather your rocks at the rock upon which He was slain, and believe with a festive spirit that your sins are His wounds and sufferings, that He carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Is. 53:6 says: “Jehovah hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all;” and St. Peter in his first epistle 2:24: “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree” of the cross.
To paraphrase Father Luther, who put it so well:
Upon these and other Gospel passages you must rely with all your weight, and the more your conscience accuses you, the more you must hold onto these verses. For if you do not do this, and not let your heart be stilled by the Gospel, then you will never rest in peace, and will fall into despair. For if you continue to hold onto your sins within your heart and conscience, they become much too strong for you to deal with and they will live forever. But when you see that they are laid on Christ and that He has triumphed over them by His resurrection and you fearlessly believe it, then they are dead and have become nothing to you. For upon Christ they cannot rest. There they are swallowed up by His resurrection, and you see now no wound, no pain, in Him, that is, no sign of sin. In His sufferings, He took our sins and crucified them; but by His resurrection He makes us righteous and free from all sin.
In other words, at soon as you are sorry for your sins, don’t think of Christ’s sufferings any longer; for they have already done their work and terrified you; but press through all difficulties (and that enormous rock pile) and see His friendly heart, how full of love it is toward you. Then will your heart be loving and sweet toward Him, and your faith be strengthened. Then ascend higher through the heart of Christ to the heart of God, and see that Christ would not have been able to love you if God had not willed it in eternal love, to which Christ is obedient in His love toward you; there you will find the divine, good fatherly heart, and, as Christ says, you will be drawn to the Father through Him. Then you will understand the saying of Christ in Jn 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” etc. The sight of the single seed of Christ’s death and resurrection, will produced many seeds of living faith in you.
By the chiselling of the Law, we are set free and rebuilt by the Gospel. If Jesus is the magnet of our sin, first they must be shaken loose, chiselled free, in order to be drawn unto Him.
Do you want to see Jesus? Your beautiful Saviour? To reach out and touch Him, to say that you love Him? Well first you must meditate upon His ugliness, the crucifixion, and then you will see a more beautiful Saviour than you have ever beheld before. You will then touch and receive Him and truly be refreshed.
Only those who are sick require a doctor; only the lost sheep is found; only the captive is free; only the wounded is healed; only the chiselled are rebuilt, and it all happens at our Lord’s Holy Cross and the benefits that He has earned for you there by His innocent suffering and death. Amen.