Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lent 5

Sermon on John 8:42–59
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
March 29, 2009 (The Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“Vindicate me, O God, plead my cause and deliver me.” With these words the Introit for today sets the tone for the last two weeks in Lent. The cry for God to vindicate, voiced by the Psalmist in Psalm 43, is the cry of Jesus Christ Himself as He is falsely accused, harassed, vilified, and ultimately captured, tried, convicted of crimes He did not commit, and put to death on the cross. Vindicate Me, O God! Christ appeals to His Father to vindicate Him, to be the true Judge against Whom there is no appeal, to defend and uphold the claim of His Son to be the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. Over against all the criticism of the Jews which is recorded in our text and elsewhere, over against an unjust conviction and the bitter mockery He endured during His hours of suffering and dying, He cries out, “Vindicate Me!” “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Why don’t you rise up to defend Me and declare Me innocent? Why do you let these blasphemers have their way? Why don’t you speak out in My defense? Vindicate Me!

The word “vindicate,” can also be translated as “judge” or “justify.” The meaning is, “to declare righteous or innocent,” as in a courtroom where the verdict of innocence is handed down. That’s what it means to vindicate someone. Even though we don’t use the word vindicate very often, we all are involved in the activity of vindicating ourselves all the time. How often have you heard statements like these coming from the lips of your children or your co-workers or your spouse, or maybe even yourself? “It’s not my fault.” “You would have done the same thing if you were in my situation.” “But Mom, she hit me first!” “That’s not my job.” “I didn’t do it!” “At least I’m not a murder or an adulterer like some other people.” “You’re no better than I am, so you have no right to criticize.” And so on. As we go through life we are constantly trying to vindicate ourselves, or to justify ourselves, to make ourselves look good in the eyes of those around us. We are constantly trying to shift any blame for what happens around us away from ourselves to other people, to circumstances, to life in general. But it never seems to be finished. Every time we turn around it seems like we have to justify ourselves again. Even if nobody else accuses us, our own conscience is there, still accusing us of our sins. The conscience doesn’t buy it when we try to vindicate ourselves, and it keeps bothering us. In fact, the very act of trying to vindicate oneself is a tacit admission that our conscience isn’t satisfied with our behavior, even if everyone else around us is.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t try to vindicate Himself. He doesn’t try to argue with the Jews to prove that He doesn’t have a demon. In fact, He admits that if he tried to honor Himself, to justify Himself, it would amount to nothing. Everyone tries to justify themselves and honor themselves, and so if Jesus went that route He would be just like the rest of us. Even though He really is the perfect Son of God and without sin, it’s not His place to prove that to the Jews. Either the Holy Spirit works through His words to create faith in the hearts of those who hear Him, or their hearts are hardened in unbelief. They are not His judge. The only one who can truly vindicate Jesus Christ is God the Father. He is the only Judge to whom the Son of God is truly accountable. Jesus does try to preach to them, not because He is trying to justify Himself or do defend His message, but simply because they are among those lost sheep whose salvation is Jesus’ mission. God is the one who judges. Jesus appeals to Him as His vindication.

But it doesn’t seem like God vindicated Him, does it? After all, the Father allowed Jesus to be captured, tortured, falsely accused, falsely convicted by a court that had no real authority over Him, and put to death despite His innocence. Is this the kind of vindication that God the Father is going to provide? How cruel and perverse! In fact, some unbelieving, blasphemous liberal theologians have said that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is really a horrifying example of child abuse on the part of God the Father. But, as hard to believe as it may sound, Christ’s vindication is to be found there on Good Friday. It is precisely in giving Himself up to death for His creatures that Jesus Christ is revealed as the true God. It is precisely on the cross that Christ reveals Himself as God to the eyes of faith. After all, if God is love, there is no higher expression of love than to give up one’s life for others. His vindication comes from the fact that He seeks not His own good but rather the good of His creatures. He is vindicated because instead of saving Himself, instead of trying to vindicate Himself, He allows Himself to be condemned, for our vindication. As He says, “He who seeks to save his own life will lose it, but he who loses his life for My sake will save it.”

Here is the answer for us who are constantly seeking to vindicate ourselves and who are never able to get rid of the accusations against us. Here is vindication for us. We can’t vindicate ourselves. God, the true judge knows better. But He has taken our sins and our guilt away from us and put them on Jesus Christ. We are vindicated, not because we are righteous, but because He is righteous, and His righteousness covers our sin. We are declared innocent, not because we have been innocent, but because Someone else was declared guilty in our place. Our vindication, our justification, is not in what we do, or how well we argue our case and try to make ourselves look good. Our justification is in the fact that Christ has borne our punishment and given us His righteousness.

And so, when your conscience accuses you of sin, or when others around you accuse you of some fault or some sin or some mistake, what is your response? The natural response of our old sinful selves is to try to vindicate ourselves. The natural response is to try to come up with some excuse or reason why it’s not really our fault or why what we did or intended to do is not really that bad, or that the other person has no right to accuse us because he’s just as much of a sinner or because he didn’t bring his accusation in the right way, or whatever. But the response Christ enables us to make is to confess our sin, our fault, our blame for whatever it is that happened. The response of Christ Himself was to suffer instead of trying to vindicate himself, because He knew that His Father would vindicate Him. Our response to our sinfulness and our guilt is to confess rather than trying to vindicate ourselves, because, “If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Our vindication is not found in ourselves but in the forgiveness which is ours through Jesus Christ. Our vindication is found in His innocent suffering and death, and it is proclaimed in His glorious resurrection. Our vindication, our declaration of innocence is found in the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Just as Christ’s vindication came from above, from God, so also our vindication comes from above for the sake of Christ to Whom we belong. If we try to honor ourselves, our honor is nothing. It is our heavenly Father who honors us, by forgiving us our sins and granting us the gifts of eternal life. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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