Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on 1 Peter 3:18
April 22, 2011
Sermon Series: THE MIRACLES OF LENT
Lent is not the time of year that we normally think about Jesus’ miracles. Our annual review of Jesus’ suffering and death usually does not bring to mind the word “miraculous.” But in seven previous weeknight services this Lenten season, we have seen quite a few miracles of Lent. We have considered a number of miracles that happened in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion and death—miracles like the midday darkness on Good Friday, the tearing of the temple curtain, the earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death, and the deceased saints who were raised to life when our Lord gave up his life on the cross. We even considered another type of miracle—the mind-boggling miracle of the death of God, for when Jesus died on the cross, it was no one less than God who died.
Tonight we return to the scene from our past weeknight services and sermons during Lent. We return to the foot of the cross to meditate on one more miracle. But this time the miracle is not an outward sign or a mind-boggling truth. This time the miracle is the result and the ramifications of Jesus’ death. Tonight’s miracle is the “why” of Good Friday. Tonight, in a simple half-verse Scripture reading, we will discover the purpose of Jesus’ death and what it means for you and me. Tonight we consider the miracle of Good Friday that the apostle Peter describes in these simple words from his first letter: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
The sermons we have heard during the weeknight services in Lent have all been based on rather short sections of Scripture—no more than two verses, sometimes as little as a half-verse. A sermon like that has the advantage of focusing strongly on one particular point. If there is a disadvantage, it is that we might forget to consider the context of what we are studying. Tonight’s reading helps to remember the context with the little word also: “For Christ also suffered.” Our verse comes in the midst of a discussion of Christian suffering. Saint Peter told his readers that they should expect to endure suffering even though they are Christians and live godly lives. And from that context, he now shifts into a discussion of Christ’s suffering. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
There is an ordinance in many Midwestern cities that cars cannot be parked on the street overnight during the winter months. The reason is so that snow plows can clean the streets overnight without driving around parked cars. One night when I was still a teenager living at home, within a year or two after getting my driver’s license, I forgot to park the car off the street. The next morning there was a parking ticket on the windshield. Lesson learned! The ticket was only $10.00, affordable even to a teenager, and so I went to the police station to pay it. When I came home, my dad said that he would have paid the fine for me. And if he had gone down to the police station himself, I suspect that they would have accepted his payment, even though the ordinance violation had been committed by someone else.
That illustration gets at the Good Friday miracle that Peter describes in this verse. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” The miracle of Good Friday is that the righteous and holy Jesus suffers for an unrighteous and unholy humanity. There on the cross is the sinless Son of God, whose enemies could not concoct a logical thought or reasonable charge against him. There on the cross is the sinless Son of God who was convicted by a ruthless regional Roman ruler who recognized Jesus’ innocence but sentenced him to crucifixion, just to quiet the angry mob whose unruliness threatened his political stability. There on the cross the only truly sinless person who ever lived willingly and intentionally suffered the hellish punishment that the rest of humanity should have endured as a result of its sinful rebellion against God.
But why? Why should the Son of God endure an unjust punishment for unholy people? Read the final phrase in our verse for tonight. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Christ endured an unjust punishment on behalf of unholy people so that his payment would bring us back in favor with God.
If we take the Word of God seriously, we quickly see what a great gulf exists between God and humankind. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things” (Isaiah 59:2-3). And in the New Testament, Jesus said that on the Last Day he will turn toward those who reject him and say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Sin results in a condition that we are all too familiar with: Death. Sin leads to physical death, that is, separation from the physical blessings of God. Sin leads to spiritual death, that is, separation from the spiritual blessings of God. Sin ultimately leads to eternal death, a permanent separation from all of the blessings of God.
But now look to the cross! Look to the miracle of Good Friday! There Jesus endures physical death for the world’s sin. There Jesus endures spiritual and eternal death, separation from all of God’s blessings which led him to cry out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus pays the penalty and suffers the punishment, and he does it all to bring about the greatest miracle and to accomplish the most stunning purpose: “to bring you to God” – to reunite us to the Father from whom we had strayed, and to present us to God righteous and forgiven. Peter says here in his own Spirit-inspired words what Paul said elsewhere in his own equally inspired words: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
What a “Lutheran” thought for Good Friday! Jesus paid the price for our sins to bring us back in fellowship with God the Father. What a beautiful, Lutheran thought! And yet what a familiar Lutheran thought! This is the hallmark of Lutheran preaching. If you haven’t heard that, you haven’t heard a Lutheran sermon. By “Lutheran,” I mean a message that faithfully and accurately presents the reality of sin and the greater reality of Christ’s forgiveness—in other words, law and gospel. After all, if you’ve been around the confessional Lutheran church for a while, you have probably come to expect that in the preaching and teaching you hear.
Because this message is so familiar, it is all too easy to take for granted. It is all too easy to forget the serious and sobering sacrifice our Savior made on this Good Friday. It is all too easy to trivialize this message as the same tired old truth we hear week in and week out. It is all too easy to turn forgiveness of sins into a perverse freedom to sin—because after all, Jesus already died for me, right? How quickly our old sinful nature forgets the seriousness of sin and that sin ought to permanently divide us from God and permanently confine us to hell.
It is all too easy to forget the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice and suffering. But it is just as easy to forget that when we realize the great guilt of our own sin. “How could I have done that? How could God possibly forgive me for that? No, Jesus’ suffering couldn’t apply to me. You wouldn’t tell me I’m forgiven, pastor, if you know what I’ve really done.”
As painful as that guilt can be, it puts us in the very place God wants us to be. Only when we take sin and its consequences seriously will St. Peter’s words make any sense to us at all. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Jesus suffered “once,” and in that word we hear two-thousand year old echoes of his triumphant cry, “It is finished!” Jesus suffered “for sins,” and so he suffered on behalf of sinners, making a full and complete payment for our sin so that we now stand before God completely righteous and fully forgiven. Jesus suffered “to bring you to God,” and so his hellish separation from God on the cross now assures you, dear Christian friend, that you will not be forsaken by God, who loved you to the point that he sent his Son to rescue you from hell.
Perhaps this miracle of Good Friday doesn’t seem like much of a miracle. The normal definition of a miracle implies some kind of outward sign. Most of the “miracles of Lent” that we discussed in previous weeks fit that category—the Good Friday miracles of darkness, the torn temple curtain, and the others we discussed in past weeknight services. But if we broaden our definition a bit, and if we define a miracle as something only God could do, then Good Friday’s miracle of forgiveness is truly an astounding miracle! No, there is nothing miraculous-looking about a suffering, bleeding, and dying man enduring a first-century Roman execution. But when we see our Lord on the cross, we see how he brought about this greatest miracle of Good Friday. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” May we never take this miracle for granted! Amen.