Consider yourself warned: if you plan a party for God—tidy up the house, frost the cake, and send out RSVPs—you’re in for a rude awakening. He won’t show up. Or rather, he will, but it’ll be a week or a month or even a year after the scheduled date. The leftover cake will be molding in the trash, the balloons wrinkled like old skin, and the guests gone about their business, long before the Almighty raps his knuckles on your front door.
Not German or Latin or Greek, but Hebrew is the language of the Church that preaches Christ crucified. In this language the last is first and the first is last. Everything is read from right to left, from end to beginning, from what will be to what is.
There was a certain rich man who was decked out in the finest clothing. Every day was a feast. His closest friends gathered round about him, delighting in his company, and he in theirs. This rich man led the best of lives, had the best things in this world. He was a blessed man. And this rich man’s name was Lazarus.
It can seem, in times of violence, when people are calling for political, cultural, and legal changes, as if the church is largely irrelevant. Worse yet, the church can make herself seem irrelevant if she embroils herself in political, cultural, and legal changes, and forgets her primary calling: the preaching of Christ and him crucified.
We don’t even know her name. She is remembered only as “the little girl.” The little girl who was ripped from the arms of her mother and father, kidnapped and carried away to a strange land. The little girl who was forced into servitude.
When Christians talk about the theology of the cross, they contrast it with the theology of glory. What's the difference between the two? Here's a brief explanation. It's taken from my booklet, Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing.
In Theses 19 and 20 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther separates the wheat from the chaff, the true theologians from those in the ranks of the wannabes.
Thesis 19: That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [or, “have been made” quae facta sunt].
Thesis 20: He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. (Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971], p. 40)
In other words, no man deserves to be called a theologian unless the entire corpus of his theology is crucified. The sham-theologian, Luther says, fools himself into thinking that he can perceive who God really is in those things which are accessible to human experience, investigation, and reason. He presumes to recognize the invisible things of God (i.e., His “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth”) in the visible things of creation, but “the recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise” (AE, vol. 31, p. 52). “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross” (AE, vol. 31, pp. 52-53). The uncrucified god is a false god for the true God cannot be known, cannot be recognized, cannot be confessed until and unless He is comprehended in the crucified Man, Jesus of Nazareth. Because “true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ,” the crucifix is not only the ultimate but the ongoing epiphany wherein God reveals how He comes to His people and brings His people into Himself (AE, vol. 31, p. 53).
All theology must therefore be crucified. For instance, God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth, is not known as God the Father in the created things of heaven and earth by themselves. Visible creation certainly testifies that there is a Maker (Romans 1:20), but that God remains nameless and unknown as God our Father until He is known in His incarnate and crucified Son. The theology of creation must therefore be crucified for the God of creation truly to be known. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is unknown and unknowable except in the crucified Son, for the Spirit “bears witness of” and “glorifies” Christ (St. John 15:26; 16:14). The theology of the Spirit must therefore be crucified for the Holy Spirit truly to be known.
Who God is and how He deals with us is made known “through suffering and the cross,” as Luther summarily says. In other words, God is who and God is where man by nature supposes He is not. Luther was fond of quoting the prophet Isaiah in this regard: “Truly, Thou art a God who hidest Thyself” (Isaiah 45:15). God camouflages Himself beneath His seeming opposite: His glory is hidden beneath the inglorious cross, His strength hidden in weakness, wisdom in folly, exaltation in humiliation. Yet, this divine concealment is simultaneously divine revelation: His glory is made known precisely in the cross, His strength in weakness, His wisdom in folly, His exaltation in humiliation. These are revealed, however, solely to those have “seeing ears,” who behold what their ears are told in the Word of Christ. Only those who heed the Word of Christ see through these masks of God, that is, only they see God behind His seeming opposite, His outward disguise. Only those who know God in the crucified Christ know the God who hides Himself, and so only they will seek and find Him where His Word has promised He is and will be. On the other hand, those who heed not the Word of Christ, but their own natural experience, investigation, and reason will search for God and even possibly think that they have found Him. But, alas, they will be gravely disappointed. For all those who think they have laid hold of God where God is not, have really laid hold of an idol, an idol which is the mask and jaws of the devil himself (1 Corinthians 10:19-20).
The God who hides and reveals Himself in His crucified Son also hides and reveals Himself in the ways and means whereby this crucified Son comes to us. Everything by which God imparts Himself to us and brings us into Himself must bear the cruciform image of the Christ. Therefore, in virtually the same breath St. Paul calls the cross and the preaching of this cross “foolishness” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21). Just as the sin-blinded world cannot see God in the crucified Christ, so the world cannot see God in the means whereby the crucified Christ comes to us: in preaching. And so it is with every other way and means by which the hidden God comes to us. The God who is hidden in the “foolishness” of the cross is hidden in the “foolishness” of Baptism’s water, the Eucharist’s bread and wine, the Absolution’s human voice and touch. The offense of the cross now rests within the pulpit, upon the altar, in the font, at the confessional chair. Everything that belongs to God must be crucified, that is, it must hide God so that only those who heed His Word will find Him there, revealing and giving Himself.
Headhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.
And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It's as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.
Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.
So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord's other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who's always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?
Someone might say that the messenger doesn't matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn't know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.
God's kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It's pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who's a man. A king who's a servant. A priest who's a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.
All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it's okay to be weak. It's okay to be broken. You don't have to fix yourself so you're good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.
Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean. Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong. Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified. Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.