The Miraculous Death of God
Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Sermon on Matthew 27:50
Midweek Lent Services, 2011
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA; March 23, 2011
Apostles Lutheran Church; San Jose, CA; March 30, 2011
THE MIRACULOUS DEATH OF GOD
Sermon Series: THE MIRACLES OF LENT
Example #1: You just sang the hymn, "O Darkest Woe," an old German hymn often associated with Good Friday. In stanza two of the hymn you sang, “O sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead!” The original hymn seventeenth century German text for that stanza says, “O große Not, Gott selbst ist tot” – literally, “O great distress! God himself is dead!” The hymn writer says that God actually died, but our hymnal, Christian Worship (1993) translates it in a way that it doesn’t sound quite that direct: “O sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead!” That is also the translation included in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), the hymnal that our congregations commonly used before our current hymnal. If we go way back to the Book of Hymns (1916), our synod’s hymnal from 95 years ago, you’ll find out that we used to sing, “O sorrow dread! Our God is dead.” Which translation is the best way to express the death of Jesus?
Example #2: In Acts 20:28, in his farewell address to the leaders of a church that he founded, the apostle Paul said this: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Paul says that God bought the church with his own blood—God’s blood. If we take the time to look back at the ancient, handwritten copies of the New Testament that are still preserved for us today, we discover that a number of scribes were so thrown off by this expression about God’s blood that they actually changed the word “God” to “Lord” so that Paul wouldn’t actually be speaking about God’s blood, and, consequently, implying God’s death.
Example #3: The late Dr. Siegbert Becker was a longtime professor at our synod’s Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Dr. Becker once told a story about a Good Friday sermon he preached in a Milwaukee area congregation. After the service, a gentleman from the congregation approached him and politely suggested that perhaps he had misspoken during the sermon. Dr. Becker asked the man if he could point out what the misstatement was, since it was possible that he may have said something incorrectly purely by accident. The man said that he thought Dr. Becker misspoke when he stated during the sermon that God died on the cross. Dr. Becker was quick to point out that that was exactly what he wanted to say: on Good Friday at the cross on Calvary, God died.
These three examples reveal the Lenten miracle that we are going to talk about in tonight’s sermon. The miracle we consider tonight is not a miracle in the same way as several of the other miracles in this series – visible signs from God that testify to a greater truth. But what we are about to consider tonight is a miracle in the sense that it is a mystery beyond our limited human understanding, yet it is entirely factual and true. Tonight we look at the miraculous death of Jesus. We will not be looking at the events surrounding his death, or the process of crucifixion. We're looking at the mind-boggling, logic-defying truth that when Jesus died on the cross, God died. That's what makes this statement in Matthew 27:50 so miraculous: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.”
Jesus died. So what? Who doesn’t? “He died” is the constant refrain found throughout all of Scripture. Open up to the first book of the Bible, and only five chapters into Genesis you can read a genealogy of our first parents and their descendants. Each person lived, had a son, lived some more, “and then he died.” That refrain tolls like a bell at a funeral. “And then he died.” The story is the same for every person in every generation since then. “And then he died.”
So why should Jesus’ death be any different? He’s a human being like the rest of us. Of course he died! Well…Jesus is truly a human being, but he is no ordinary human being. Christians confess and Scripture teaches that Jesus is the divine Son of God who took on our human nature at his conception and birth. He is totally, completely, 100% God and he is totally, completely 100% man, miraculously united in one person. This truth is what the apostle Paul had in mind in Colossians 2:9 when he says, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
This man, Jesus Christ, is God. And if God is to be found fully in Jesus Christ, that means that when Jesus died, God died. That almost sounds wrong, doesn’t it? But it’s true! That’s why Paul talked about God’s blood in the verse from Acts 20:28 that we looked at earlier. That’s why Peter told the crowds in Jerusalem, “You killed the author of life” (Acts 3:15). That’s why Paul said in another place that “the rulers of this age…crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Maybe you’ve never thought of Jesus’ death that way before. It is one of those biblical truths that makes your mind feel like it’s turned into Jello after you’ve spent even a little time thinking about it. God is eternal. He has no beginning or end. He can’t die. But Jesus is fully God, and Jesus died. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to us.
Christians are used to talking about other mysteries of our faith without balking too much. We believe that God is Triune, that he is three persons in one. That truth is just as mysterious, but we confess it each week in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, and so perhaps it seems a bit less shocking. The death of God on the cross is just as much of a mystery as the Trinity is, but we don’t usually speak about Jesus’ death that way, and so it almost seems wrong to talk about God’s death. But it is entirely true. “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” With those words, Matthew recorded the miraculous death of God. Johann Rist was correct when he wrote, “O sorrow dread! Our God is dead!” And Issac Watts was also correct when he wrote, “Well might the sun in darkness hide and shut its glories in, when God, the mighty Maker died, for his own creature’s sin.”
“Okay, Pastor Strey. I get your point. God died on the cross. Fine. But so what? This sounds like one of those pastor concepts that you and your pastor buddies discuss over your pastor lunches while you’re at your monthly pastor meetings. What you say is even interesting, but does it really mean much for me today? Does the fact that God died have any real relevance for real people?”
Remember that refrain from Genesis chapter five: “And then he died”? That refrain did not stop inside the pages and the timeline of Scripture. That death-refrain has continued throughout all of human history and time. That refrain is written on the last page of your biography even though the pages between now and then are still to be written and read. You may not like to hear that. You may not like to talk about death. But not only must we talk about it, we must also acknowledge with repentance why death is at the end of our life’s biography. The apostle Paul tells us quite clearly, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Sin is the reason that the refrain keeps tolling: “And then he died.” Sin, our natural-born condition and our daily failures to obey God, is the reason why death awaits us all.
But wait! If death comes because of sin, why is Jesus’ name included in that refrain? Why is the holy Son of God dead on the cross? Yes, Jesus became a human being like us, but when it came to sin he was not like us at all! He was and is innocent of all sin! Even his enemies knew that! The Jewish court convicted him of blasphemy, of claiming to be God. But he was God, so that was no sin! Pilate, the Roman governor, couldn’t find a thing wrong with Jesus. He only had Jesus executed to satisfy the angry mob that stood before his palace. So what is the holy, innocent God-man doing on the cross, suffering, bleeding, and dying?
Here’s the reason. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, the One who had no sin, became sin for us. The holy Son of God had no other reason to be on the cross than his determination to trade places with you in God’s eternal courtroom. That is why God became a man—so that he could take your place, suffer for your sin, and die your death. And that is also why your substitute had to be God—only God’s blood and God’s death would be precious enough to erase the world’s guilt and to pay the full penalty for your sin. This is hardly a stuffy, old teaching, that God died for you! Your eternal future is entirely wrapped up in this fact. Luther said it well when he wrote, “[The teaching that God did not die] will finally construct a kind of Christ after whom I would not want to be a Christian, that is, a Christ who is and does no more in his passion and his life than any other ordinary saint. For if I believe that only the human nature suffered for me, then Christ would be a poor Savior for me, in fact, he himself would need a Savior.”
The Bible truth that God died for you is not irrelevant. It is no more irrelevant than the life-saving medicine that keeps a dying patient alive! Think about it:
- When it seems like the world is out to get you, when it seems like no one is on your side, when it seems like even your close friends and family have turned their backs on you, you know that God still cares about you and for you. He proved it! He was not only willing to die for you; he actually did! You won’t find another person in this world who loves and cares for you that much!
- When you lay awake at night while the hamster wheel in your mind keeps spinning and spinning, and as it spins through all those thoughts you are again struck and bothered by that long laundry list of past sins that you wish you could erase but you cannot, you know with certainty that God not only can, but he has. God’s precious blood was shed for you, and his blood is valuable and powerful enough to erase that entire laundry list of sin.
- When someone throws back at you the hurtful things you have said and done to them, and while you acknowledge that there is no excuse that can explain away those actions, you also sense no forgiveness from the person confronting you, you know that you have forgiveness from God himself. God himself personally died on the cross for you to take that sin off the record book, and he himself forgives you in his Word and Sacrament.
“O sorrow dread! Our God is dead!” At first glance, it seems like that is a statement that only hardened unbelievers and atheist philosophers would utter. But even sixteenth century hymn writer Johann Rist could make that statement—though Rist and all who sing his words mean something very different than the unbeliever or the atheist who say those words. Like any mystery of our faith, there is no way we can fully wrap our minds around this mystery. But that is simply because the God who lived, died, and rose again for our salvation is bigger and greater than anything we can grasp with our little minds.
“O sorrow dread! Our God is dead! But by his expiation of our guilt upon the cross gained for us salvation.” What a mind-boggling, soul-forgiving, heart-comforting truth! Amen.