Date: February 19, 1931
The high priest asked Him and said unto Him, Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am. – Mark 14:61-62
THERE are moments in the varied history of men which we call crisis moments, when the destinies of millions have hung in the balance; and there are words uttered by merely mortal lips that have either sprawled their blighting curse over the pages of history or have helped to raise human happiness and hope to towering heights. But never, throughout the annals of humanity, has any event assumed such tremendous, universal, and everlasting proportions as that crisis nineteen centuries ago, when the Son of God, after a seemingly interminable night of horror, stood on trial before humanity; never have any purely human words so thoroughly changed the fundamental facts of life and death for all men and meant as much to you and to me as that question of the high priest on the first Good Friday morning, “Art Thou the Christ?” and the unhesitating and unreserved answer of Jesus, “I am.”
You may tell me, impressed by the tragedies of the late World War, that people in our age regard the first days of August, 1914, when the rulers of the nations unleashed the dogs of war, as of wider significance than that Friday morning which passed so quietly and unnoticed that Roman history, as far as we know it, rushed on without taking note of its importance. But I tell you that long after the terrors of the last war have been dwarfed by the horrors of the next war, this cross-examination of Christ will have its divine reaction in the spiritual warfare that is to save men’s souls. You may claim that fiery words like those spoken by Patrick Henry before the Virginia Assembly, “Give me liberty or give me death!” have had a greater effect in shaping the affairs of the world and in promoting the ideals of personal and national freedom than that legal—or illegal—cross-examination which was held before the high priest; but I tell you that these words of our text offer freedom from the greatest tyranny that mankind has ever known, emancipation from the damning dominion of death. You may assert, to take one of the most outstanding decisions of all church history, that the answers of Martin Luther to the decisive questions at the Diet of Worms have been of more vital significance to our modern life than the two one-syllable words of Jesus’ answer “I am.” But once more I tell you that the rugged grandeur of Martin Luther, heroic and unequivocal as his answers were, recedes into a shadow in comparison with the world-moving, history-molding answer of Jesus.
THE SACRED IMPORT OF THIS QUESTION.
We pause for a moment at the outset to appreciate the deep significance of this pivotal question of human history, “Art Thou the Christ?” To be the Christ meant to be the Anointed of God, the long-promised Messiah, the Son of the Almighty, the very incarnation of God Himself. To be the Christ meant to be the glorious King whose universal and eternal dominion extended “from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth”; the glorious Prophet like unto Moses, Israel’s national hero; the glorious Priest whose coming would usher in a new and happier day in the religious life of His people. But there was a darker side to this Messiahship, a far less attractive picture of this Christ of God. To be that Christ meant to be the sin-bearing Lamb of God, of whom the Evangelist of the Old Testament prophesied, “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities.” “He was despised and rejected, a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” It meant to be so lowly, so God-forsaken, so persecuted and oppressed that the Messiah declares prophetically: “I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men and despised of the people.” And because the high priest and the elders and the scribes before whom Jesus stood on that memorable day of His death thought of this promised Christ only in terms of political greatness; because, indeed, Jesus flatly declared that His kingdom was not of this world; because He taught His followers to be more concerned about men’s souls than about their bodies; because He ruthlessly dashed to pieces every selfish ambition of material greatness on which their mistaken hopes loved to linger,—they who could have saved Jesus, these leaders in Israel, these churchmen of Jerusalem, refused to rest until they had persuaded wavering Pilate to consign the pure, stainless, innocent Sufferer to that ignominious death on the cross.
THE MODERN ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION.
Tonight we skip over the centuries, and we find that Jesus is still on trial before the tribunal of unbelieving humanity. The question at issue is still the same, “Art Thou the Christ?” Those who cross-examine Jesus today likewise are churchmen, some of them the leaders of present-day religious thought. And the verdict? It is essentially the same rejection of Christ and denial of His Messiahship that invoked the wrath of God upon that city in which Christ was condemned. There is only one fundamental difference today, and that makes the modern infidelity all the more repulsive and damnable: today the persecutors of our Savior are zealous in their appropriation of the Christian name and profuse in their exaltation of the man Jesus; today the opposition to Christ is disguised as the modem message of the Christian Church and as a deeply spiritual twentieth-century discovery of God. But in the veiled haze of this camouflage comes the swift stab in the back; prompting this mock loyalty to Christ is the traitorous spirit beneath the Judas kiss.
How else can we explain the tragic denial of the Christ of the Bible that disfigures so many churches in our country and in Canada, churches which frown on the use of hymns in which the atoning blood of Christ is the central theme; churches which have degenerated into mere social and ethical societies, in which the foundation messages of sin and grace are unappreciated and unknown? How else can we interpret this supertragedy that just in this Lenten season, when the thoughts of Christendom should be Christ-centered and Christ-conscious, an organization that claims to represent large portions of Protestant Christianity in the United States has issued a Lenten booklet for prayer and personal devotion in which there is no direct mention of the blood of the atonement, no clear-cut admission of the sins in every human heart that have nailed the Savior of mankind to the cross? How else can we analyze the scathing attacks on Biblical Christianity that are featured in our modern periodical literature, the undermining of Christian faith that is promoted by nominally Christian organizations, and the general rejection of the Christ of God in churches that glorify the creature rather than the Creator, that concern themselves with the here rather than with the hereafter? What lies beneath all this, disguised and decorated though it may be? What else, if not the modem perpetuation of the spirit that nineteen hundred years ago nailed Christ to the cross?
Thomas Carlyle spoke sharply, but correctly, when at a Christmas dinner in London which was attended by a number of socially prominent people the question was asked whether Jesus would be accorded the same treatment in our modern world that He received in the days of His flesh. The hostess contended that the world had advanced beyond the bigotry and brutality that had nailed our Lord to the cross. But Carlyle protested and said, “No. If Jesus should appear in London and speak of London life with the same fearless frankness, with the same withering scorn of sham that marked His ministry before, you and your coterie would be among the first to cry, ‘Away with Him! Away with Him! Take Him to Newgate and hang Him!’”
As this willful rejection of the Christ of God brought appalling calamities upon those who cried, “His blood be on us and on our children,” so today the rejection of Christ and the damnable sin of unbelief is responsible for many of the sinister and destructive forces which, if unrestrained, will undermine the foundation of our American Republic, tear down the pillars upon which the structure of our American nation rests, and consign this God-blessed nation to corruption and decay. Remember, “God is not mocked.” If there is one lesson that stands out boldly and clearly on the pages of universal history, it is this: no nation has ever spurned divine grace or ridiculed the message of God from heaven without calling down upon itself the consuming power of divine wrath. And if this apostasy and unbelief in American churches continues and increases, the destiny of our country will be sealed, and we may witness the fulfillment of the prophecy, written by England’s eminent historian Lord Macaulay to a friend in this country more than seventy years ago: “Your Republic will be pillaged and ravaged in the twentieth century, much as the Roman Empire was pillaged and ravaged by the barbarians of the fifth century, with the difference that your barbarians will be the natives of your own country and the product of your own civilization.”
But the rejection of Christ means more—it involves the eternal welfare of our blood-bought souls. The everlasting Truth of God tells us: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” but the name of Jesus Christ. Though men amass staggering fortunes; though they rise to dizzy heights of worldly preeminence, if they are unable or unwilling to give the one, correct, saving answer to this question: Is that stricken, smitten, and afflicted Sufferer whom these Lenten weeks portray for us the Christ of God, the Savior of your soul, the Ransom for your sins, the Substitute who bears the consequences of your iniquities?—if they believe instead that Christ was merely the human victim of unfavorable circumstances, a misunderstood idealist, who lived centuries before His time and paid the penalty of such priority, a social revolutionist, who came to give a new code of ethics to an old world so encrusted in its selfishness that it killed Him,—if men thus reject, reduce, and misinterpret Christ, they are without hope for time and for eternity.
THE SAVING ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION.
If this is all that Christ has meant to you, then may God give you the grace tonight that will help you to join in that unsurpassed confession and adoration of Christ which the great Reformer of the Church, four hundred years ago, clothed in these immortal words as he summarized the Scriptural teaching concerning our Lord: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
There is the answer to this surpassing question, “Is that suffering Jesus of Nazareth the Christ of God?” the answer that is given to us in His own holy and uncompromising declaration “I am”; the answer that is endorsed by the voice that speaks from heaven: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”; the answer that has been emphatically verified by His life of miraculous love, by the omnipotence revealed in His miracles, by the unfathomable and immeasurable mercy that led Him, in fulfilling the prophecies of old, to humble Himself and to become “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
That is the answer to which my Church, whose laymen are generously financing this radio mission, is everlastingly pledged. More than five thousand congregations throughout this country and Canada associated with this crusade for Christ stand uncompromisingly committed to this central doctrine of Christian creed and devotion, the priceless and peerless truth that we are saved for time and for eternity, saved in life and in death, saved freely and without charge, saved fully and completely, saved only, but surely by the suffering, death, and resurrection of this Christ of God. These churches, in many instances, may not be able to offer the pretentious dimensions of mighty cathedrals; they may not boast of architectural beauty and artistic adornment; they may not be enabled to rest on the laurels of large endowments; but they will offer to you a faith that is determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified; they will give you the assurance that every appeal of every human heart for grace, for mercy, for the love of the Father, has been answered definitely and positively by the grace, the mercy, and the love of His saving Son.
And because of the moral and prayerful support which they offer for this radio crusade for Christ, I want to take a moment to speak to the fine army of Christian pastors who graciously write in week after week to assure us of their keen approval of the Lutheran insistence on the supremacy of the exalted Christ as the royal Redeemer. I want to tell all, but especially these men who are so eminently responsible for the welfare of the immortal souls that God has laid upon their conscience, that, if they have one sacred and unavoidable duty,—or let me call it one superglorious opportunity,—it is the preaching of the old and unchangeable facts of sin and grace, the exaltation of the Cross of Christ as the divine cure-all for human depravity and human helplessness. Strive to keep that golden Gospel first, last, and forever uppermost in our American pulpits, and the Church instead of drifting into politics, instead of dissipating its priceless energies in trivialities, instead of losing itself in the futile effort to become modern, will bring the very hope of heaven by telling ransomed sinners that through Christ there is no death for them, no triumph of hell, no remorseful separation from God. Keep that Christ in our homes, and though the clouds of sorrow may hover over them, though the storms of adversity may rage against them, though the sullen shades of disease and destitution may envelop them, our Christ will rise up serenely and majestically to soothe our aching hearts and to quiet our anxious misgivings with this pledge of His never-failing comradeship, “Fear not, for I am with thee.” Keep that Christ in your heart, enthroned in the sacred devotion of an unquenchable faith, and you have God’s divine covenant for the highest happiness of heaven in this magnificent promise, “No one shall tear you out of My hand.”
What more vital question is there, then, for every one of us than this: Is that suffering, sorrowful figure of the Lenten season your Christ? May the grace of God come into the hearts of those tonight who have been ashamed of this Christ, who have turned their backs to the appeal of His outstretched arms, who have hitherto selfishly and restlessly lived on in sin and without hope for time and eternity! May they accept this invitation of grace and with grateful, trusting hearts declare with Peter: “We believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.