'The Beauty of the Cross'
Pentecost Friday | May 2008
I bring you greetings from Aurora Colorado and all the Lord's people of Hope Lutheran Church and especially our own LWML ladies. When I told them I was coming to visit you all they said, “O Pastor, you'll have so much fun.” Which I think meant, “O Pastor, you better watch out. You never know whats going to happen when you get 300 Lutheran women in the same place for three days!” Well I know that wonderful things happen, especially when the Lord comes with His Word and promises.
The theme from the Scriptures for this convention is “The Beauty of the Lord” from the end of Psalm 90, this most ancient Psalm of Moses. We'll consider then, things beautiful and things ugly, and most especially: the beauty of the cross.
I have had the privilege of seeing a lot of beautiful places and things in my life. I spent my summers in High School working in the Australian outback, and I remember one visit to the coast where we hike through the Daintree rain forest to Cape Tribulation, this beautiful tropical beach with palm trees coming out of the white sand and this bright blue water and the dark green rain forest climbing up the mountains. It was like a scene from one of those old pirate movies. Beautiful.
Or about a year ago I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa and Botswana with a delegation from the Rocky Mountain District. There's a seminary there that's training pastors to serve Lutheran congregations all over the continent, and our district is raising money to support the seminary and two other mercy projects, an orphanage in Botswana and a cattle treatment project along the coast of the Indian Ocean. You know the picture of Africa as a barren desert? That's not how Pretoria is. When we were staying there we could walk up the street and out to this beautiful green garden with exotic flowers that overlooked the city, and I was standing there with pastors-to-be looking over the city with the skyscrapers there and the African hills as a backdrop. Beautiful.
Or how about this, three years ago I graduated from the seminary in Ft Wayne, and there at the call service we received this call: Bryan Wolfmueller, Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, Colorado. Colorado? This is where we would go for vacation, and now we get to live there. I still remember driving from Indiana to Colorado, and the Rocky Mountains with their snow-covered peaks start to rise out of the flat horizon, and keep rising and rising and rising. Beautiful.
Or perhaps the most beautiful of all. Almost nine years ago when I was standing at the altar and the most beautiful woman of all came down the aisle to say “I do.” Beautiful.
But even more beautiful than all of these created things is the beauty of the LORD our God. In fact, His beauty and splendor is so great that we human beings can't endure it. If we were to behold the glory of the Lord it would wipe us out. Remember how it was with Moses, when He wanted to see the Lords face, and the LORD says to him, "you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." [Exodus 33:20]
Now why is this? What's wrong with the Lord's face that it is deadly to look upon? The answer is that there's nothing wrong with the Lord's face, there's something wrong with our eyes. There's nothing wrong with the Lord; there's something wrong with us. The Lord is beautiful beyond all description, and we are ugly. Horrendous, really. This doesn't mean that you all don't look nice. I think you all look fantastic. (In fact, next time I'm giving a sermon about beauty I might talk about the 2008 LWML convention.) But we are sinners, poor miserable ones, fallen, dying. We were all conceived in sin, and we've been conceiving sin ever since, plotting to serve ourselves instead of our neighbor, instead of speaking to each other and about each other with charity and love, we gossip and bite each other in the back, or what ever it is. You know your own sinful flesh, the temptations you are plagued with, the things you are ashamed of.
We can all say with St Paul, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells.” [Romans 7:18a] Nothing good, nothing holy, nothing beautiful. Our sin makes us hideous; our death makes us ugly. And standing there before the beauty of God in the ugliness of our sin is simply impossible, dangerous, we can't do it. "You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." [Exodus 33:20]
Now we're in trouble. Not only is it going to be a bit of a problem of having this convention about beholding the beauty of the LORD if we can't do it, but more. What does it look like for each of us if we ourselves are completely unworthy to stand before the Lord and be in His presence. This is, after all, the definition of hell, and it's what we've deserved. We said it together, we'd deserved and earned “Your temporal and eternal punishment.”
But dear saints of God, the surprise our God has for us, His good news, is that He doesn't give us what we deserve. This is why we have to consider the first lesson from Isaiah which speaks, and we have to pay attention to this: which speaks of the ugliness of the Lord, of the Messiah. This is a promise about Jesus: “He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him.” [Isaiah 53:2]
Did you catch that? “There is no beauty that we should desire Him.” Here we are in a sermon about the beauty of the Lord, but we have before us a text that says the Jesus wasn't beautiful. Now I've heard that this normally means that Jesus wasn't that handsome, kind of a normal looking fellow. But let's get the context. This whole section is a famous passage for Lent and Good Friday. It's about Jesus' suffering and death, His bleeding and dying, and His carrying our sins.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
And as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised,
And we esteemed Him not.
4 Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions;
He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
And with His stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:3-6]
Jesus is bearing our sins. He is carrying our sorrows. He is bearing our grief. He is dying our death. Do you see that on the cross Jesus is taking our ugliness upon Himself, our sin, our suffering, our punishment, our death, the wrath of God that we deserve? Jesus dresses Himself with our hideousness; He is made our ugliness, and becomes so reprehensible that God cannot look upon Him. Three hours of darkness. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” [Psalm 22:1] The beauty of the Lord crushes and destroys our ugliness on Jesus. Our sin, our death, on the cross we are forgiven and given life and salvation, and are made beautiful.
The cross of Jesus is the ugliest event in all of human history. The perfect and holy Son of God tortured and ripped to pieces and stripped and nailed to a cross. And yet, in the mysterious ways that the Lord loves us, the cross is the most beautiful thing in all the world. On the cross the Lord took our sin and gave us righteousness; He took our captivity and gave us salvation; He took our death and gave us life; He took our ugliness and makes us beautiful.
Last week I went to visit a member of my congregation. She is dying of cancer, has been on hospice care for a few months, and just was moved out of her apartment to assisted living. If she gets out of bed she falls. Stuck in bed, when I visit she apologizes for her hair. “Sorry pastor, I don't look very good.” So last week I sang to her the hymn that we've just sung together.
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness, My beauty are, my glorious dress.”
And as I sang those words she covered her face with her hands and wept.
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness, My beauty are, my glorious dress.”
Our beauty, dear saints, comes from the blood of Jesus, His cross, His death, His forgiveness. He has clothed us with His righteousness, covered our ugliness and shame, declared us perfect and holy and, listen, in the forgiveness of all our sins He had made us fit to behold His beauty.
So as we pray this prayer from Psalm 90 together, we know what we are praying for.
“Let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us.” [Psalm 90:17]
Let the beauty of the Lord's cross be upon us. Let the beauty of the forgiveness of sins be upon us. “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness, My beauty are, my glorious dress.”
May the Lord continue to keep us in the beauty of His blood, His righteousness, His forgiveness, until He returns and brings us from death to life, where we will behold the beauty of the Lord in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
LWML Convention | Medford, OR