Sermon preached at First Alliance April 15, 2013 (audio here).
Last week we were taken into the Great Commission to see how the Gospel ended, only to discover that it did not end. It came to a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and the commissioning of disciples, and with the promise that Christ would be with the disciples to the end of the age—well beyond the life-span of the initial 11. And thus it ends with an invitation to the disciples in every age to live into the story of the Gospel to respond to Great Commission.
It may come to us as a surprise, however, when we discover that this is not the only commission that was prompted by the resurrection, nor is it the only invitation into a story that continues to this day. Matthew appears to end with a fork in the road, like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books we used to read, with an invitation into one story from Jesus and an invitation into another story from the religious leaders.
- Text: Mt. 28:11-15. This is after the two Marys and discovered and the soldiers were confronted with the truth of the empty tomb, so that both went to tell their respective authorities the truth about what had happened.
- “While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Mt. 28:11-20).
The cross of Jesus Christ had been the intersection of two competing plots of two competing stories: the people’s plot to destroy Christ and Christ’s plot to save the people. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ put to rest any question of which story told the truth about Christ and the truth about the people, of which story God had vindicated. We should expect, therefore, that everyone who believed that the resurrection happened would align themselves accordingly. Those who had Jesus crucified presumably did so because they did not believe he was the Messiah, but after being told about the resurrection and thus being confronted with the truth that Jesus was indeed God’s messiah—and they did know it was the truth, because you have to acknowledge the truth to tell a lie—we should expect that when the soldiers told them all that had happened that they would have repented and turned to the one who had declared their forgiveness from the cross… “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).
But instead: Tell the people, ‘His disciples came by night, stole the body, hid it away’. But instead, they lied. They made up a story. They said that the disciples themselves had lied and hidden the truth, which of course begs the question: If it wasn’t the truth about who Jesus was that kept them from turning to him, then what was it? I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that it is certainly much easier to believe that Jesus died for sinners than to say, “I have sinned.” Was it that they were hiding the truth about Jesus as much as it was that they were hiding the truth about themselves?
Do you remember the first time you hid the truth of your guilt? According to my dad, I was 5 years old, old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, old enough to know the difference between what is mine and what is not mine, but also old enough to know the difference between chocolate and spinach. And I swear my mom made me eat spinach every night of my life. And my Dad refused my request when all I asked for was a Peppermint Patty. And besides, Bob Thornburg, the owner of our small town grocery store, had a seeming endless supply. Every time we went, the box was full. So what did it really matter? I would just about give Steve Elliot’s life savings if I could get an audio of the internal dialogue going on in my young mind that day as I gravitated toward that shiny silver wrapper, whose desire was for me, mine for it (cf. Gen. 4:6-7).
But I have to wonder: “Did Dad really say, you cannot eat from any of the food of the market?”
“Did God really say, you cannot eat from any tree of the Garden?”, the serpent asked the woman, who stood there with her husband naked and unashamed (Gen. 3:3-7; cf. 2:25).
“No, no, no. In fact, we have dominion over all of the trees of the Garden and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field and everything that creeps upon the earth, Snake—just not this tree. This is God’s tree. It’s here for the reminder that though we have dominion over creation, we don’t have dominion over the Creator. Though we have are kings and queens of creation we are not gods! He put this tree here so that we would know that our lives are contingent, that we depend on God for the very breath in our lungs (cf. Gen. 2:7). To liberate ourselves from this God would be like a scuba diver liberating himself from his oxygen tank in the name of freedom.”
But the serpent appeals to the dream becoming more than mere human rulers. They could be as gods themselves (Gen. 3:5). It’s the same naïve dream every child has at some point: the dream of having no Father to answer to, the dream which immediately exposes itself as a nightmare for all those children for whom it comes true.
But it worked. We fell for it. We all did: Eve, who gave to Adam, Adam who gave to all of us. And I took it. I took the forbidden candy that day.
The eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. No longer unashamed, they, they looked something like lepers, so they hid themselves (Gen. 3:7). They were diseased with a sickness that would spread throughout their entire family tree. It was a sickness called Sin, and it was terminal.
The road did not fork at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, it forked here—off of the tip of the serpent’s tongue. The two stories have continued to this very day (cf. Mt. 28:15) and will continue to the end of the age (cf. Mt. 28:20). The two stories the Bible tells divide precisely on the point of how humans deal with the truth of their sin and how God deals with the truth of their sin. Driving the human plot is shame, which deals with the truth of sin by hiding it, so that it won’t be rejected. Driving the divine plot is guilt, which deals with the truth of sin by exposing it, so that it can be forgiven. The goal of the serpent is to imprison the human family in shame, because shame protects the most powerful lie in the history of the world. It is the lie that we all have believed; many of us believe to this very day; many pastors will preach this lie throughout pulpits across the world this morning unwittingly not knowing that it is a lie, because it sounds so close to the truth. The lie is that Sin separates us from God.
But it t is not our sin that separates us from God. What separates us from God is our unwillingness to tell the truth about our sin, indeed, our unwillingness to tell the truth about ourselves: that we, each of us, are guilty, condemned by God to death, each for our own sin. And in any other world with any other God we might associate sin and guilt and death with separation, but in a world where God was himself “made to be sin who knew know sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2. Cor 5:21); in a world where “God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering to condemn sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3-4); in a world ruled by a “Lamb of God that was slain from its foundation” (Rev. 13:8): In this strange world whose history is pierced with the infinite intersection of a crossbeam that extends its hands to span all eternity—so that a holy God would never have to separate himself from tables of sinners and tax collectors—the only thing that can separate us from God is our unwillingness to receive his grace. It is shame, which hides from grace. It has to, because it hides from guilt.
When they saw their guilt they hid themselves, sewing fig leaves together (Gen. 3:7), hiding from one another, because the “other” in a fallen world threatens to expose the truth of our guilt, so shame began its mission to divide the human family, for fear of exposure. It was the first divorce.
They heard God walking in the Garden and they hid among the trees—for fear of exposure (Gen. 3:8). It was the second divorce they had separated themselves from God, hiding from the only one who could save them, because of the Lie that he wouldn’t save them, that they were not worth saving. This is Storyline number one, and it is a story that continues to this very day (cf. Mt. 28:15).
I was hiding in the living room that day, trying to hide my guilt beneath some couch cushions, but Dad came in and exposed my guilt. Somehow Dad knew. To this day I don’t know how he knew, but Dad always knows. They were hiding in the trees, trying to hide their guilt beneath some fig leaves, but God came in and exposed their guilt. God knows.
“Who told you you were naked?” Adam nervously points down at his wife—exposing her guilt in an attempt to hide his own. “It was the woman, whom you gave me!” (cf. Gen. 3:12). The first sin has made the first smart ass.
“What have you done?” The woman, desperate, shows us that even when you’re at the bottom in this now staggered world, you can always blame the devil. “The serpent deceived me. The devil made me do it” (cf. Gen 3:13).
The husband and wife, who had become as gods, knowing good and evil but unlike God not consistently choosing good, began creating a story-world of their own, with their own rules. In God’s story-world it was one sin to condemn us all (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). “No one is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:11; cf. Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But Adam’s story-world is a world of ladders. Righteousness is achieved by climbing above lesser righteous—it’s a relative righteousness. But it’s all under the illusion that we are getting closer to God as we climb and further from the devil.
But God looks down from heaven like the moon looks down at the waves of ocean, all climbing up but ever crashing down in their desperate attempt to reach its cosmic shores. But from the highest title wave of the sea to the smallest ripple in a pond, there’s really no difference. None stand a chance…unless the moon itself falls from the heavens to drown itself in the heart of the abyss.
God looks down at us fumbling around on our ladders and sees that we’re really all at bottom, with the devil. Our only hope that he falls from the heavens to and takes on our “righteousness” so that we can take on his (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). God came down to the sickly couple and looked at their pitiful, tattered fig leaves, barely able to withstand the Garden breeze. And he said to them, “Come to me. I need to see how bad it is. Take off your garments.
“Is it bad?” they ask nervously. He doesn’t respond but calls a Lamb (cf. Gen. 3:21)—the whitest Lamb in the Garden, a Lamb without spot or blemish (cf. 1 Pet. 1:19; cf. Ex. 12:5). It obeys. It comes in silence (cf. Isa. 53:7). They want to look away, but he would not let them look away. They had to see the cost of grace.
A Lamb of Sorrows: Your transgressions, his wounds; his chastisement, your peace; his stripes, your healing. You’ve strayed, but he has come to be slaughtered for your iniquity; innocent, but numbered among sinners (cf. Isa. 53:3-12). The whitest wool in the Garden now forever stained in a dark crimson dye that would forever now remain the color of guilt and the color of grace: the color of the intersection: the intersection where God unites with sinners, where human guilt is covered by the sacrifice of God.
God formed an entire nation around this intersection. It is this intersection that dominates storyline number two.
The nation was Israel, and he became its very King. He placed the intersection in the heart of their place of worship, in the center of the temple, behind the behind the curtain, where the tablets of the Law sat beneath the mercy seat (cf. Lev. 16)—the only seat fit for God in a fallen world. The Law was given to expose Israel’s guilt. That’s what Paul would later say: “Through law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “When the law came in sin increased, but where sin increased grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
So once a year the High Priest was sent behind the curtain, into the intersection with innocent blood dripping from his fingers that he would sprinkle on the mercy seat (cf. Lev. 16:11-14), so that the crimson flow would drip down onto the tablets of the Law and the people would know the truth about human guilt and the truth about God’s grace, which sought not only to forgive them of their sin but to free them from it. The world would look to Israel and see a people, naked and unashamed before God, meandering in and out of paths of righteousness, not perfectly but headed in the right direction, and only by the grace of God.
But sin had become a slave master, the human heart bent toward sin like an iron arrow; the Garden scene ever and again recapitulated. Every man was in Adam, Adam in every man. And eventually, Israel would want a human king (cf. 1 Sam. 8). They did not want God to rule over them—the Garden scene once again.
David, one of Israel’s worst sinners, was Israel’s greatest king, not because he succeeded in being righteous, but because he succeeded in being honest. The one who danced naked and unashamed before the Lord (2 Sam. 6) did to the tune of his greatest hit that we still sing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; renew a right Spirit within me; cast me not away from your presence; restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:10-12).
But I think we often conveniently leave off the lines out of which this Psalm was written: “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me…but wash me and I will be whiter than snow…Then I will teach transgressors of your ways, and sinners will return to you, because they have seen you deliver me from bloodguiltiness” (cf. Ps. 51).
David was not a hero because of his successes. He was a hero because he knew he was not a hero, and that God was a hero. He knew that if he would expose his unforgivable sins of murder and adultery that God would forgive them. “Sacrifices and burnt offerings you have not desired, or I would given them. The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit; a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. David might not have led the way in pure righteousness. But he did lead the way in humbly honesty.
Nevertheless, humans ruling on God’s behalf proved to be a disaster. Kings saw themselves at the top of the ladder as gods, rather than at bottom with the devil. So God created the office of the prophet to expose the sin of the kings and the nation—by pointing back to the Law—so he could forgive them. But they ignored the prophets, deported them, murdered them—anything to hide from the truth that they proclaimed (cf. Mt. 21:33-46). But another prophet was sent named Isaiah to speak of a greater judgment than they’d ever seen, and of a greater salvation still: A Man of Sorrows: Your transgressions, his wounds; his chastisement, your peace; his stripes, your healing. You’ve strayed, but he has come to be slaughtered for your iniquity; innocent, but numbered among sinners (cf. Isa. 53:3-12).
And he finally finds one. He’d been looking for a tax collector all day, because for a for a first century Jew there was hardly a lower type of sinner, having defected from Israel, collecting taxes from his own people for the enemy—for Rome—and overtaxing for his own sordid gain. It was Levi—a name given only to those from the tribe of priests, whose job it was to collect money for Israel’s religious institutions, and also the other name of the man who wrote this Gospel, Matthew. But Levi was not collecting money for God’s holy institution. He was as ironic and offensive a picture of a man a priest could ever achieve: a tax collector for Roman; a traitor; one of the first men that Israel’s king should kill, making an example of him. And he did make an example of him, an example that would be read about until the end of the age. He made him a disciple, an example of human guilt and an example of God’s grace. Why Levi? Because Levi was already exposed. There was no hiding his sin from the public. It was the public against whom he was so overtly sinning.
So Jesus calls him to follow—he begins numbering himself among sinners according to the prophecy (Isa. 53:12). Levi throws a party. A bunch of sinners come and, oddly enough, some religious leaders come, as well. What are they doing in the house of a sinner?
“Why do you eat and drink with sinners and tax collectors?” they demand (Mt. 9:11). The irony of this picture could hardly be exhausted, because frozen in this moment is perhaps the truest picture of the Church: The house of sinners gathered around the table of the Lord—the only ones who don’t share in the feast are those unwilling to be numbered among sinners. Those who separate themselves from sinners all unwittingly separate themselves from God.
“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13): because the difference between the righteous and the sinner is not one of guilt, but one of garments. Both are guilty, but only one is willing to confess it.
Jesus continues along the margins, contaminating lepers with his cleanness, the sick with his wellness, prostitutes with his forgiveness: to those already exposed to declare what God does with guilt: he forgives it; to declare what God does with broken people and broken spirits and broken hearts: he mends them back together.
But he had to eventually go to the city of the King, to Jerusalem, to expose the religious leaders hiding behind their temples and institutions; to expose them so that he could forgive them.
“Woe to you scribes and Pharisee…who tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Mt. 23:4), when my yoke is easy and my burden is light (cf. Mt. 11:30). “Woe to you, who shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces so that neither you nor they can enter into it…Woe to you…who travel across land and sea to make a single convert but when he converts, you make him twice the son of hell as you…you hypocrites…you whitewashed tombs…with beautiful garments covering dead men’s’ bones…obsessed with appearances, appearing righteous but full of hypocrisy…You who murdered the prophets God sent to expose you, so that he could forgive you (cf. Mt. 23:1-36, paraphrased).
“But now he has sent his Son and you will murder him too (cf. Mt. 21:33-46, Parable of the Wicked Tenants). And you will take up the basin with Pilate (cf. Mt. 27:24), and you will wash your hands of his blood, washing away the crimson flow of your forgiveness. You will hand him over to the idolatrous, pagan ruler. And he will go silently for you, like a lamb to the slaughter (cf. Isa. 53:7).
Pilate asks Jesus: “What is Truth?” Jesus remains silent, makes no defense (Jn. 18:38).
Like a sheep before its shearers—they flog him, removing his skin (Mt. 27:26)—he will not open his mouth (Isa. 53:7), he will give no defense. A lamb of sorrows…will go silently for you, whose fingers dripped with the innocent blood, wasted blood (cf. Lev. 16); you who, with Pilate, will take up the basin, and will try to wash your hands of it. But you cannot wash your hands of the blood of this Lamb. This blood will stain the world: with grace for those who confess they need it and guilt for those who don’t.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets, how often I’ve longed to gather you like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings [in a barnyard fire]” (Mt. 23:37; cf. Wright, 2004, p. 108). How I’ve longed to burn for you to save you from the coming judgment. But you hide from me in this temple. You hide from God in a burning house” (Mt. 23:37-39, paraphrase).
Jesus takes up the Basin. His hour had come. After exposing the truth about who people had become, it was time to expose the truth about who God has always been. He stands up from the table and removes his garments, bows down and begins crawling from one to the next (cf. Jn. 13:1-12).
They’re uncomfortable with what he’s doing. Peter crouches down in protest. “No Lord. Let me wash yours! You are the King of the great city!”
Jesus crouches lower—impossibly low. “No, Peter. If you want to find power and might and the pride of royalty, you’ll have to look to the highest ladder. But if you want to find God, Peter, you’ll have to look down, where he is finding you in this moment; down here with the devil…because the kingdom is about to be built on the purest foundation of the truth of God and the truth of this world. It’s going to be built on a cross, the intersection of the guilt of man and the grace of God.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).
“I will die for you!”
“No Peter, the cross is not about you doing something for me but about you confessing something about you: that you are guilty, that you will share in this guilt.”
The shearers come for him (cf. Mt. 26; Isa. 53:7). He is taken away. The disciples scatter (cf. Zech. 13:7). He is taken to the courtyard. Jews and Gentiles unite. The whole world unites to condemn this man. “We have no king but Caesar!” the Jews insist (Jn. 19:15). Pilate sits on the judgment seat (Mt. 27:19; Jn. 19:13) and pronounces the verdict and the sentence: guilty, condemned to death. They suit him up in a parody of royal garb and hammer the crown of thrones into his skull—the only crown fit for God in a fallen world.
The two stories come to an intersection. Three men, three crosses, two sinners, one King. One mocks the king: “’Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation…we are guilty; but this man is innocent” (Lk. 23:39-41). He turned to the man in the middle: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom…Truly, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:42-43). Both men sinners; both asked for salvation; one was saved, the other condemned; one united with Christ for eternity in heaven, the other separated from Christ for eternity in hell. The difference was not their sin—God was with them in their sin. The difference was their confession: “We are guilty…he is innocent.”
And with that, the Lord of life who gave us breath so that we could live stopped breathing so that we could live. Hanging there like a painting frozen in time against the backdrop of an overcast sky is the final exposure. The only thing moving in this frozen moment is the blood that crimson flow that trickles down to the foot of the cross and pools out to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, telling us, telling the world, the truth about God and the truth about us; the truth about a love that is furious enough to die for another and a shame that is furious enough to kill for itself.
The temple curtain tears (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Never has the mercy seat been visible to the public. Everyone looks, but to their dismay they see nothing—a desolate temple. They turn to the hill, to the dark silhouette of an intersection, and to their horror they see him. God had found a new mercy seat…outside the temple, outside the city, and we had put him there, allowing us to enthrone him in guilt so that he could take up a throne of grace.
He is buried. But God raised him from the dead, erasing any doubt about who this King was and where he came from; the truth of human guilt and the truth of God’s grace never again in question. But they wouldn’t tell the truth, not because they didn’t believe the truth about Him but because they refused to expose the truth about themselves. They lied about his resurrection for the same reason they arranged his crucifixion: to hide from their guilt. The storyline had not changed. But the disciples’ story did. They entered into God’s story and followed the one who had come to invite them into it: to be exposed so that they could be forgiven.
I would have never been able to do it, had he not come for me. But did come for me. And he assured me that the store owner was a gracious man. Would that everyone in this house know that the store owner is a gracious man! We didn’t drive. We walked. He led me there—back to place of my guilt, so that I could be forgiven. It was an intersection.
When I wrote and asked my Dad earlier this week what he remembered about that day, this what he said: “We went together. You told Bob. He forgave you. I was beside you holding your hand. I was prepared to take responsibility for you. I was not going to allow you to be punished. All I wanted as your father was for you to confess and Bob to forgive. Your question brought back what I felt that day. I was carrying your shame.”
It will be impossible for us to tell the truth about ourselves and the truth about God unless we see the one who has come for us to carry our shame (cf. Heb. 12:1-2), all the way to the place of our guilt, which he has made the place of God’s grace—all the way to the intersection, the cross of Jesus Christ, where Jesus speaks the final word about who God is. He is a gracious God.
Jesus has come to lead you, to walk with you to the intersection. It is there that God will tell us neither to hide nor to look away. We need to acknowledge our guilt and see the cost of his grace. But in so doing God will show us the greatest truth in a dying world, not merely that God is powerful enough to raise us from the dead, but that God loves us enough to die with us; yes, to associate with the likes of a sinner, so that the one who carries our shame is the one who crucifies it, as well, because if God loves me as I am, I can never again hate myself as I am. I can be forgiven. I can be changed, but only after I know that I am loved.
There are now two stories being told: both about God, both about Sin, both about us. Never believe the story or tell the story that sin is what separates us from God, not if you come to this table week by week. Those who believe that sin separates them from God will never confess their sins to him. They will only continue to hide their sins from him for fear of rejection. They will hide from the only one who can forgive them from the guilt of their sin and free them from the power of sin. In this strange world, it is not sin that separates us from God. It is only our unwillingness to receive his grace.
So if you carry his name, tell the truth about yourself, about God, about guilt, about grace. If you carry his name, never cease to forgive. Never make someone feel that they must hide the truth from you about who they are; that they cannot tell the truth about themselves for fear of your rejection. Not if you carry his name can you cease to forgive; not if you continue to avail yourself of his grace can you veil your grace from others. The Church must be the place where no one has to hide from their sin, because the one at whose table we are gathered has only come for sinners (cf. Mt. 9:13).
If you carry his name, never pass up the opportunity to humble yourself and say, “I’m sorry.” Does that line exist in the storyline of your home? Does your heart allow you to say it when you know that it is true, or is your tendency to hide? Tell the truth about your sin, because every time you shamelessly expose your guilt, you boldly expose God’s grace and declare that we live in a world where all there is is grace for the guilty who confess it.
Speak of the grace of God every day, as though it is the only storyline by which your life can be understood because it is the only storyline by which your life can be understood. Speak about it at the dinner table, at your office, on the jobsite, in the dugouts, so that everyone in your world knows that your world has been saturated with a grace that you believe has come for us all; so that our church, our homes, our marriages, and our lives will find such perfect alignment with this grace that there will be a univocal message embodied from this community: the grace of God has conquered all. And tell the truth of this grace like it is. Do not speak of the death of Jesus as something the world needs. Speak of the death of Jesus as something you need: “He died for me, because I have sinned.” The world is in far greater need of the grace perfect grace than a façade of the Church’s perfection. They will not expose their sins and turn to God’s grace when they see us pretending to walk above the need for grace. They will expose their sins and turn to God’s grace when they see us exposing our sins and turning to God’s grace. They will see that we actually believe what we so desperately want the world to believe: that the truth of our guilt has far less power than the truth of God’s grace.
So tell the truth of grace and live the truth of grace. because in the words of one of the greats who died just two days ago, Brennan Manning, “To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. And in admitting my shadow side I discover who I am and what God’s grace means….[that God has come for me].”
Benediction: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
[But] since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then boldly go to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:12-16).