Graduation Sermon

President Paul Wendland preached this sermon at graduation:

 

Romans 1:14–17 (NIV)

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, especially you brothers in the preaching ministry:

So no doubt you went into the preaching ministry for the prestige, right?

I’m guessing, not so much.  By now, I’m sure, you’ve had one of those conversations with a stranger in line, on a plane, on the street, or at work.  You chat away.  He tells you what he does.  Then he asks, “And what do you do?” And when you tell him, he gets this funny look in his eye.  You’ve seen it before.  Like if you’d just told him you were a voodoo witchdoctor.  These days, maybe saying you were a voodoo witchdoctor might actually garner some respect.  So if you’re lucky, when you tell him you’re a preacher, he’ll just smile and say, “Ah well, that’s interesting.”  End of conversation.

I mean, who really wants to be a preacher?  On TV they’re portrayed almost universally as shambling out of touch losers who mouth inanities for a living.  Or simpletons who play the guitar and act like Mr. Rogers.  Or (if I get this new show from AMC right), a devil incarnate.

And what is worse, the name of preaching itself has a bad odor to it.  Who wants somebody to preach at them?  God forbid!  Who wants someone to actually claim to speak the truth to them?  Teach absolutes!  Lay down the law!  God forbid!  That’s divisive!  Unenlightened!  You’re being a Judgy McJudgalot if you act that way.

But all of that is really nothing compared to what Paul mentions as the thing that he was doing that caused the people who first heard him to shake their heads and say, “Paul, you’re crazy!  Clean out of your mind!”  Far more than simply preach the law, Paul said, “My duty, my debt, my privilege, my eager desire with all people and on every occasion is to preach the gospel.  You may think I’m crazy.  But I am:

Not Ashamed of the gospel

of a crucified God
because it is God’s mighty power to save

 

  1. “Not ashamed.” Now the first question we need to ask is, “Paul, why you should be ashamed of the gospel? Isn’t the gospel a good thing—as you say, a ‘saving thing’?  Why would it even occur to anyone to think that the gospel be a shaming thing?”  A good start to answering this question comes when we consider a parallel passage.  To the Christians in Corinth, Paul describes the message he preached.  He says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

 

There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Paul is saying.  The fact is, if you’re going to be a preacher, if you’re going to preach the gospel, it has to be the gospel of a crucified God.  God must be found on the gallows.  If you don’t find him there, if you find him elsewhere, you’ve got an idol, not the true God.

 

And you can’t domesticate what Paul is saying into something nicer.  After centuries of Christian tradition surrounding it, the cross has become a central focal point for Christian art and architecture.  It has become jewelry we wear around our necks.  A fashion statement on our t-shirts. We’re almost proud of the cross. But the plain fact is the cross was a terror tactic the Romans used to keep their subjugated empire, well, in subjection. “Here’s what’ll happen to you if you cross us.”  It was an ugly death, a shameful death, where a man was literally hung out in public.  As that old philosopher Cicero once said, “The very word cross should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts’.”  No proud Roman could naturally submit himself to the gospel of a crucified God.  What kind of God could that be?

 

Nor could any Jew buy into the idea that King Messiah ended his earthly life nailed to a pole.  Such a man was cursed, not blessed, as the Torah itself said.  The whole idea was rank foolishness.

 

Finally, the truth is, nobody from any culture naturally wants the truth God gives you to preach.  It truly is a shameful message. It’s unreasonable. The message of a crucified God asks us, on the basis of Scripture, to look for God in a place where logically he cannot be. It summons us to trust in a God who promises things we cannot see. It asserts that we can only truly know who God is when we stand and look at him hanging from a cross. It tells us that we cannot build a ladder to God by our own efforts. In fact it condemns every human effort and all human striving that tries to do so. It labels them as exhibits “A” and “B” of human perversity. It makes the amazing assertion that human beings are really at their worst when they are trying to be at their spiritual best.

 

Don’t be ashamed.  Don’t hold back. This is what you must preach, “Let God speak! if you want to know God—the true God—then there’s only one way to proceed. Listen! Listen! Listen! Silence all the empty human chatter. Look at the cross and there find your God.”  Let Paul’s words be your motto, your mantra, your whole understanding of yourself as a preacher.  Not ashamed, we are not ashamed of the message of a crucified God…

 

  1. because it is God’s mighty power to save. The essence of the cross is this mighty answer to this vital question. Where can a man find God as his Savior, and truly know that God’ loves him.  Nowhere else but Golgotha.

 

The Word of the cross teaches and our heart believes that he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the punishment that brings us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed. Right there, right there where God seems gone he is most powerfully present to forgive, to heal, and to save. The only thing that holds him there is the heart of a Father who spares not his own Son, but gives him up for us all. The only thing that holds Jesus there is the mighty strength and resolute force of his unconquerable love for you, a love that will prove stronger than death itself, than the Devil’s might, than your sin.

 

In creation I can touch God’s hand. But at the cross, I’m looking into God’s heart. If I cannot see God at the cross, then I will truly find him nowhere.  Either he is God or there is no God, as Luther once said.  Yet when God gives me the heart to see him hidden under the face of the Suffering One, then I see him everywhere—even in those dry and arid places in my life where he may ask me sometimes to walk. If God is for us, who can be against us? If he gave us his Son, how will he not along with him freely give us all things?

 

There’s one more thing I need to say before I leave you preachers alone.  I want you to understand that it is not just the content of the message of a crucified God that is foolish.  It’s also the delivery system. Preachers and the act of preaching itself.   The gospel, in its very nature, conjures up cultural pictures of announcers, messengers, proclaimers.  Men who are given good news to tell and who tell it, far and wide.  Paul is not ashamed.  Not only of a crucified God, but of a preached God, that is, a God who comes to people through the word of preaching.

 

It really doesn’t seem all that impressive.  A guy standing up behind a pulpit, or not behind a pulpit, and preaching Christ from a text in God’s Word.  It seems so unimpressive, brother, that I know that you’ll be tempted, as we all are, to jazz it up with gimmicks and tricks.  I’m not saying that preaching methods don’t matter.  And I’m sure not saying that you shouldn’t care about communicating as best you can to your hearers in their own life situation.  I’m just thinking that all these considerations can cause the one thing needful to get shoved into a suitcase.

 

Who are you?  You are preachers, proclaimers.  You don’t invent the news.  You proclaim the good news.  You don’t make up your own stuff.  You want to do your best in your studies for Sunday to think God’s thoughts after him, and then say those thoughts out loud, knowing—as you do—that they all find their center in the cross.  People with their itching ears may want something different.  People today want tons of things from their preachers.  They maybe want news you can use.  They may love jokes and entertainment.  Funny, pithy illustrations and homey applications to everyday life.  No one is born with a craving to hear what God has given you to proclaim.

 

The center of Lutheran preaching is not to point to our listeners and say, “Here’s what you can do for a better, happier life,” but to point to the cross and say, “Done!”

 

But if someone comes up to you and says, “Preacher, give me more!” (and it’s not so much more Christ that he’s looking for.  No what he’s really saying is, “Give me more of stuff I really don’t need.”)  Then you say, “Ah well.  I am determined to know nothing while I’m with you, except Christ, and him as the crucified one.  Because I’m not ashamed.  Not ashamed of preaching the crucified God, because it is God’s mighty power to save.

 

Amen.

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