Lent 5B Sermon (2000)

5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34;
John 12:20-33; Heb. 5:5-10


The old law may shame you, the old law may restrain you, the old law may blame you. But it cannot change you. It cannot change you. Today’s lesson from Jeremiah proclaims to us a new law to be written on our hearts. How does one have God’s law written upon their hearts?

At the heart of our faith, of course, is the cross. But that can simply bring another mystery, another question. We are approaching the climax of our lenten journey, when we will again be faced with the question, Why the cross? Why is the cross necessary for God’s work of salvation, for God’s work of bringing change to us and to his creation.

I’d like to offer an answer to these questions this morning through a simple story, one from my favorite storyteller, Lutheran pastor and writer, Walter Wangerin, Jr. It is a story about he and his son Matthew, one I’ve shared in several classes here at Emmaus a number of years ago. It would probably be easiest if you simply let me tell his story in his place as he does:

Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects … in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, “Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of — chastise him?” I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, “Matthew, Matthew.” (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) “Do you know what you have done,” she said, steel-eyeing him. “You’ll never do that again, right?”

The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books … one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. “He’ll never steal comic books again,” I thought. “Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?”

The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!

So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.

The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. ‘Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is … in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.

Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, “Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?” (And he had stopped!) I said, “Yea, I finally spanked you.” He said, “What!” And he looked at me. He said, “No…. It’s because you cried….”

I hear this story alongside that of our Christian faith, and I wonder: did it rain on Good Friday? The Scripture tells us that it became very dark in the middle of the afternoon at the moment of Jesus’ death. But did it rain, too? I’ve shared with many of you the time I posed for an artist friend, Harry Antis, for a painting of Jesus at the moment of his death on the cross. That painting is done now. And you probably can’t see it well, but let me tell you that a striking feature of this picture is that it is raining. We had dinner with Harry last weekend and he told us the story of how it came to be raining in his painting of Jesus on the cross. It was his habit to begin his work-time with prayer and quiet reflection. And one day, with the painting already well under way, he got this overwhelming urge, a message, that it was to be raining. Well, that was not going to be an easy thing to do at this point. He would have to work hard to add this feature so far along in his work. So he had to ask God as he continued praying, “Why, Lord, why must it be raining?” The answer came back, “Because I cried … because I cried…” God’s tears.

The old law may shame us, and the old law may restrain us, and the old law may blame us, but it cannot change us. But at the foot of the cross, with God’s tears running down our faces, with God’s very spirit of compassion poured out upon us, we are changed. Thank God, we are changed. His law is written upon our hearts. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 8-9, 2000

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