[Note on the Text: This sermon was originally delivered on 6 March 2013 (back in my seminary days as an intern) at St. Paul Lutheran Church, East Windsor, NJ.]
With today’s gospel lesson we’re approaching the end of Luke’s story. Only three chapters remain to be told. We’ve heard of Christ’s birth and youth, his baptism and temptation, his miracles and parables, his prophecies and disputes with authorities. We’ve even heard of his transfiguration and triumphal entry into Jerusalem. By now it’s evident Jesus lived an eventful life. It would be hard to deny that it was also a divisive life. So today I’d like to ask, what did it finally bring him? Well, let’s resume the story and find out. Jesus has just been betrayed, arrested, denied, mocked and beaten. And the day is not yet over. Now he is being tried. His prosecutors — they aren’t looking to negotiate a plea bargain. They aren’t offering parole with good behavior. No. They want Jesus dead. The charges — blasphemy and sedition. Jesus stands accused of dishonoring the two highest known authorities in the land: God and the emperor of Rome. These were intolerable offenses. The judges — Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea), Herod (the King of Galilee), and, as it turns out, the people of Jerusalem. None of these were known for showing mercy to God’s prophets. So the outlook is bleak. The verdict is foreseeable. But as readers of Luke’s gospel, by this point in the story, we should already know to ask at least these two questions. First, in whose hands does Jesus’ fate actually lie? And second, if our fates rest in those same hands, what kind of lives as Christians do we have to look forward to?
This trial is not the first time Jesus’ life has been in jeopardy. In fact, Jesus’ ministry has been threatened since its very start. We’ll remember that in chapter 4, after having started his ministry elsewhere in Galilee, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. It was not a welcome reunion. It ended in this way, “They [the Nazarenes] were filled with rage. They got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” This time, though, Jesus escaped certain death. As Luke puts it, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Not much later in the gospel (ch. 9) Jesus completes his ministry in Galilee. He then changes his course. He “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” and begins a march southward. The road south, however, proves just as treacherous. As he passes through one village, he’s warned, “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you.” This is the same Herod who killed John the Baptist not much earlier. It’s the same Herod before whom Jesus now stands on trial. If this isn’t dangerous enough, all along the way Jesus has been amassing opponents who are “lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” And there are rivals “looking for a way to kill him,” “to put Jesus to death.”
By now, Jesus could hardly be more accustomed to staring the prospect of death square in the face. It’s worth asking, how does he take it? What’s his consistent response? In his words, it went like this, “Go and tell that fox … today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” On three separate occasions Jesus warns his disciples about what future is awaiting him: “we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; he will be mocked, insulted, and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him.” Finally, in Jesus’ first trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest judicial body of the Jewish people, he delivers these arresting words, “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Jesus has just told his judges that he acts as an agent of God and therefore with God’s authority. To judge Jesus is to judge God. The Sanhedrin is infuriated by Jesus’ answer.
When we reflect on everything Jesus has been saying in this gospel, we’re clued into how Luke is interpreting Jesus’ last days. Jesus knows he must be on his way. He is destined for Jerusalem. No person or circumstance will impede his progress. All that has been written about him must be accomplished — till he is seated at the right hand of the power of God. Jesus knows full well what verdict awaits him. There are no surprises in store for him. From first to last, God has been the author of Jesus’ story. What Luke wants us to understand is this: it isn’t the Sanhedrin, it isn’t Herod, it isn’t Pilate, it isn’t even the people who cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion who are the ones who will decide what will become of Jesus. No, Jesus’ fate lies in God’s hands alone.
Now these are the same hands in which our lives rest. So we have to ask, is this a safe place to be? Well, how did Jesus fair? Though entirely under the care of God’s providence, Jesus still suffers injustice. He is convicted on false charges. He’s executed. God does not spare Jesus even from death. Neither, then, we must learn from this lesson, will God spare us from circumstances that we will struggle to accept. If you have been told that the Christian life is painless, you have been misinformed. As Christians, people whose lives take after the pattern set by their master, we should not be surprised if we have to pass through seasons soaked in tears, seasons plagued by uncertainty, seasons fraught with frustration.
Now if any of you feel trapped in such a season, I’d like you to hear this: in God’s calendar, no season lasts a lifetime. Though life may surprise you with its misfortunes, let me surprise you today with a measure of God’s grace. You may not have been anticipating it, but here it is nonetheless. There is a judge to whom all of us will owe an account. He is the one now seated at the right hand of the power of God. As you stand before him, your verdict is sure. Do not doubt it. For the rest of your days your fate will rest in the hands of Jesus Christ, hands pierced for you, hands that never fail to achieve their purposes. Let us be glad we belong to the Lord. Amen.