Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011
Text: Jer. 15:15-21; Matt. 16:21-28
Beloved in the Lord, Martin Luther wrote: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” There are two competing theologies within Christendom, the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. One is true and one is false. One comes naturally to us, the other we are by nature incapable of believing. And unfortunately it is the theology that comes naturally to us, the theology of glory, that is false. The true theology, the theology of the cross, revealed by God in the Holy Scriptures, is foolishness to us by nature. We can only come to believe it when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in it. St. Paul says something of this when he writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14; ESV). The Spirit, given in Baptism, leads the Christian to believe what he would otherwise, by nature, regard as folly. But even so, even as baptized Christians, the old sinful flesh in us rejects the theology of the cross. It is a constant struggle to hold the true theology, because it is so contrary to our human way of thinking. The theology of the cross is the theology of the things of God. The theology of glory is the theology of the things of man. We must say to the theologian of glory within each one of us, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).
The thing about the theology of glory is that it sets up an unbiblical standard to measure that which is good. It is good, says the theologian of glory, if I never suffer, if I am in good health, wealthy, comfortable, entertained, happy. It is good if I have everything I’ve ever wanted. It is good if everyone likes me and wants to be like me. In fact, says the theologian of glory, it is a sign of God’s favor toward me when everything is going right. It is a sign of God’s displeasure with me when things go wrong. But beloved, remember, a theologian of glory, which is to say, you by nature, calls evil good and good evil. Because the theologian of glory, you by nature, does not understand that God disciplines His Christians precisely because He loves them, that He graciously gives them over into suffering for their good, that His foolishness is wiser than men and His weakness stronger than men (1 Cor. 1:25). God displays His wisdom and His strength precisely in what is foolish and weak, God in the flesh, God on the cross, sinful men and women redeemed as saints, sinful pastors speaking His Word, words on a page, words and water, words and bread and wine. The theologian of the cross must get past the appearance of things and, with trust in God’s Word, call a thing what it actually is. In God’s way of operating in the world, foolishness and weakness are good. Christianity as a bed of roses, as a program for success, as a method of achieving health, wealth, and prosperity, is exceedingly evil.
The Prophet Jeremiah was by nature a theologian of glory. But like it or not, in the school of YHWH, he would become a theologian of the cross. We encounter him in our Old Testament lesson complaining bitterly. He was good at that. He even wrote a second Old Testament book called Lamentations! In our text, Jeremiah complains that in spite of his faithfulness to God, his profound love for God’s Word, his indignation against the evil of his people, and his dynamic preaching, the people were still unfaithful. They did not repent. They did not convert. Instead, they persecuted the prophet! “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart,” says Jeremiah, “for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). Yet “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (v. 18). Every Christian pastor knows this heartache. He buries himself in God’s Word and finds great delight in devouring the Word of life as he studies and prays and meditates and prepares. With great joy, as well as a little fear and trembling, he brings this Word to the pulpit to proclaim it to his flock, revealing treasures old and new, knowing beyond all doubt that this sermon will get results. The people will repent of their sins and amend their ways. They’ll never miss a church service or Bible class again. They’ll all bring their friends and neighbors and the church will be filled to capacity with the faithful. Offerings will be at an all-time high. No one will complain anymore. No one will dissent. No one will question. All will dwell together in perfect peace and harmony. Oops! That’s a theology of glory. Because what really happens when the pastor preaches is that some do repent and amend their sinful ways and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, to be sure. That’s the power of the Word. But some do not repent. Some do not amend their sinful ways. Some do not believe. The church is never filled to capacity. Many of the faithful have other things to do on Sunday morning. And there are complaints and dissents and questions, because the Church is full of sinners. For after all, the Church is only for sinners. The perfect need not apply. So as such, let us call the thing what it actually is. It is good that only sinners are here, sins and all. Because the Church is a hospital for sinners, dispensing the medicine that is our Lord Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, for the forgiveness of sins.
Do you know what the LORD says to Jeremiah for his complaint? Do you know what the LORD says to your pastor when he slips into the theology of glory? Do you know what the LORD says to His Church when she thinks she can grow herself by gimmicks and achieve success by following the right method? Do you know what the LORD says to you when you think everything should go well for you if God really loves you, and when you despair because you are called to suffer? He says this: Repent! You do not have the mind of the LORD. You do not have His wisdom. You do not see how He is working all things together for your good, in spite of appearances, because you are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). You do not see that His grace is sufficient for you, because His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Nor do you understand that He does not owe you an explanation for your suffering. It is enough for you to know that it is finally for your salvation and your eternal good that God allows bad things to happen to you. Look to Christ and His cross. There, in the ultimate evil, the LORD accomplishes the ultimate good for you and all people as the sinless Son of God suffers unjustly for the sins of the whole world, for your sins and mine. You cannot begin to understand His plan. So don’t lecture Him about how His plan is foolish. Do not say with St. Peter concerning the cross: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). You don’t know what you’re saying. Just get behind Jesus. Take up your cross and follow Him, all the way to Calvary. Trust Him. There’s resurrection ahead. But the only way is through the cross and death.
The LORD says to Jeremiah, in the midst of his theology of glory: “If you return, I will restore you” (Jer. 15:19). Get behind me again and go where I lead you and I will make you my faithful preacher once again… “you shall be as my mouth” (v. 19), which is what every Christian pastor is. He speaks for God when he faithfully speaks the Word, in season and out of season, even if it gets him persecution and a broken heart. But the results are up to God. The Spirit works when and where He wills in those who hear the Gospel. The LORD doesn’t tell Jeremiah what the results of his preaching will be. He promises that He will finally deliver Jeremiah from his afflictions, but he doesn’t say how. We know how, because we have the benefit of historical perspective. Here is Jeremiah’s deliverance: He died as a refugee in Egypt. A theologian of glory would say that that is a bad deliverance if there ever was one. A theologian of the cross will call it what it actually is: God’s wisdom, God’s deliverance. Jeremiah died a reject. But he now beholds the face of God with great joy. And what he didn’t know as he suffered persecution for his preaching in this earthly life, is that through his divinely inspired writings, he still preaches Christ to the people of God. He is preaching to us today. And how many people have come to faith through his record of the Word of the LORD? He never knew it in his lifetime. He could not see the LORD’s wisdom in his ministry and his suffering. The theologian of the cross simply trusts that God is working His good will in what appears to be very bad. The theologian of the cross looks to the cross of Jesus Christ and clings to his crucified Lord for help and deliverance, and for eternal salvation.
Beloved in the Lord, crucify the theologian of glory in you. Deny yourself. Die to yourself. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. But of course, you can’t do any of that by your own power or your own works. So here is the good news, though it will sound anything but good to your flesh. The Lord will make you a theologian of the cross, by His Spirit, by your death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, by His Word, by the Supper of His crucified body and blood. And by your suffering. And as a theologian of the cross, you can confess that suffering as His good gift to you, and recognize that His suffering sanctifies your own. And as you suffer, you know that He carries you, all the way to your final deliverance on the Day of Resurrection. A great blessing! That’s what the thing actually is. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation, AE 31:40.