And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day. Matthew 20:17-19
This is the third time Jesus has told his disciples he is going to be killed. As I read these passages I am disturbed by how casually and pedestrian they ring in my ear. “Yes, yes, we know this, it’s the gospel, very good, next!” But there is something unnerving, something within me that springs to life saying, “Wait! Don’t just pass over these verses, don’t let them rush by.” The casualness of how I receive them is condemning. Is it not a grave injustice to the gift of God’s revelation when His Word becomes nothing more than a nod of the head or a thoroughfare by which we search out more interesting passages?
My intuition tells me that those passages that too often fail to stimulate or arouse our suspicion and curiosity (because we apparently have figured them out) stubbornly reveal our ingratitude as well as our foolishness. Perhaps the story of Christ’s suffering and death has become so well rehearsed and repeated that it fails to evoke us anymore? We are so tired of hearing it but too ashamed to say so. Maybe this was already happening in the time the passage was written? Earlier, in Matthew 16, Jesus’ prediction stirs a horrified Peter into contumacious protest, “Far be it from you Lord!” But here in Matthew 20, the third prediction is made, stuck between a parable and a mother’s request for glory. No commentary, no objections, no disciple rallying a frenzy of anxious objections. There the verses sit, and we move on with the same silence of the disciples who have been taken aside and given a great promise. “Yes, yes, we’ve heard all this before…”
Of course, it seems equally dangerous to infer that being an emotional ninnyhammer, who conjures up the affections because they falsely assume it affirms their love and appreciation of God, is any better. God neither wants stoics nor unhinged fanatics, and I have failed to find the verse that prescribes any specific emotive response to God’s Word. Instead, it demands a careful hearing which is much better and useful than worrying about feelings.
But I am less talking about feelings so much as I am observing my indifference. How could the very promise of God giving his life to me, graphically and horrifically tortured, for me, become so commonplace? When did the gospel start becoming normal and my gratitude morph into relaxed familiarity? And does that matter?
It does matter because when the gospel becomes commonplace, when the Word of grace becomes banal, when we shrug with indifference and priggish nonchalance at the news that our sin has been taken away and death’s defeat accomplished, when we treat the reality of everlasting life with insouciance, the gift of adoption with uninspired assent, and the glorification of our bodies with a stoic coolness, we reveal more about ourselves than the content of the Word.
And what does all this reveal? Is it not that, just like most other things we learn, the gospel is embraced as a lesson to master, a piece of knowledge to believe, a bit of data to assimilate? And if the gospel is just that, just a mere collection of propositions to be mastered, then why not move on once we’ve understood it? And often we do, to our shame. Do we really believe that the right and good preaching and teaching of the Word is the foundation of healthy church? Or do we want more? Do we not seek after good music, good community, good life groups, good bible studies, Sunday school, coffee hour, attendance, ministries, giving, prayer meeting and so on? If we were honest, would we not say that what we want most out of our churches and spiritual lives is a lively and exciting, life-changing and inspiring experience? And if that is so, if we are idolatrous for a certain way of life, how can we then hear this: they will condemn him to death…and he will be raised on the third day? He knew….He knew he was going to die.
He was condemned for us. For us. Friends….for us. It is all fine and well for the Church to worry about contextualization and striving for excellence in all it does. But what good is any of that if we lose the wonder and sheer awesomeness of the gospel? By treating the gospel as mere knowledge to believe instead of a promise to grab on for dear life because we believe, we inevitably begin to find the word of the cross boring. But grab hold of the gospel as promise, as a word of love issued from a Father and Brother in which you live, breath and find your being, in which you find an endless source of comfort, life and strength, and the word of the cross will make its secrets known: God is on our side! I close with just a few (just a few!) of the ways gospel-as-promise is so much more life-giving than gospel-as-knowledge.
~ If the gospel is a promise that means God has taken responsibility for me. And if God has taken responsibility for my well-being in salvation, certainly he will care enough to help me in my earthly needs. The gospel reminds me that God is on my side.
~If the gospel is promise that means it is not yet finalized. I am not yet raised to new life and so though I receive the benefits of the gospel-promise now, the full realization is awaiting me in the resurrection. This means the gospel is not past news of things formerly done, but living news of God’s active and lively work of grace in the world and in history-even my personal history.
~If the gospel is promise that means it is essentially relational. It stands that the nature of any promise is that it’s only as good as the one who issues it. Promises are opportunities to build and confirm trust. By making the gospel a promise, God puts his own self into the equation. Trusting the gospel means trusting God. Learning to live in the promise of the gospel means having the privilege to experience that God is faithful.
~If the gospel is promise then there is hope for every loved one and apparently “unsaveable” type of person. We are saved by grace through faith. Everyone comes to believe by miracle. No one—not one—is beyond God’s power to save. Sometimes we don’t evangelize because we think, “that kind will never believe in the Lord.” Not true! God’s Word is powerful and life-giving. Every conversion is a miracle. So we trust the promise of the Word to work. We trust in the God of miracles because we are that miracle.
~If the gospel is promise I need not have all my questions answered. It is natural to ask “why?” especially in the midst of suffering. But when the cross is received as gift and God’s love is seen through Christ’s sacrifice, the “why?” (however incessant)becomes less important. The God of the cross has both proved his altruism and benevolence to us. I need not demand more even if I don’t understand his ways. What I can understand is what God clearly tells me: That he loves me at the cost of his own Son, and that he will never leave or abandon me. Gospel as promise reminds me that of all the accusations I can render against God, I can never say He is not my advocate. The holy God of all creation has made it known that He is obsessively in love with me, and you.
And this is never boring…
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.