More than Meets the Eye
When I was a high school freshman I had the opportunity to represent the United States Junior Olympic team for the sport of judo. As part of the team’s training, we traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs every summer to work with real Olympic athletes. I was so excited the very first summer as I had built up in my mind an unrealistic expectation for what a true Olympian would look like. Imagine my dismay when I found that the reigning champion for the 155 pound division that I was to train with that day to be a short, stocky, and unusually hairy gentleman who sweated profusely. I felt let down because he looked so… ordinary.
Many feel the same way about the message of the Gospel. A baby boy is born to a young out-of-wedlock Jewish girl without means in the backwoods town of Bethlehem. The boy grows up and is tried as a common criminal by a Roman governor and sentenced to death by means of crucifixion. Big deal! Not exactly the sort of drama and excitement we have come to expect from contemporary films with heroes that seem impervious to bullets and always get the girl in the end. Even in the first century, Jews found this Good News scandalous, and the Greeks pure foolishness (1 Cor 1:22).
Nevertheless, we believe, teach, and confess that this unlikely King advents weekly to meet with His people in the Divine Service through His Word and Sacraments. Again, it doesn’t look like much, does it? Words from the Bible are read and proclaimed by an ordinary dude wearing a medieval bathrobe. Water, bread, and wine look like my Olympian – just ordinary. And truth be told, you can find better wine on sale at Trader Joe’s.
Yet it is through these very ordinary and unexpected means that the King makes His entry for the salvation and preservation of his church. According to Luther, the lowliness of the means the Lord uses to distribute the gifts of salvation parallels the humility of His coming in the flesh. In both cases, faith clings to what is heard, not to what is seen.
There’s a big difference between this King and other kings. With the latter everything is outward pomp, great and gallant appearance, magnificent air. But not so with Christ. His mission and work is to help against sin and death, to justify and bring to life. He has placed His help in baptism and the sacrament, and incorporated it in the Word and preaching. To our eyes baptism appears to be nothing more than ordinary water, and the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood simple bread and wine, like other bread and wine, and the sermon, hot air from a man’s mouth. But we must not trust what our eyes see, but listen to what this King is teaching us in His Word and Sacrament, namely, I poured out my blood to save you from your sins, to rescue you from death and bring you to heaven; to that end I have given you baptism as a gift for the forgiveness of sins, and preach to you unceasingly by word of mouth concerning this treasure, sealing it to you with the Sacrament of my body and blood, so that you need never doubt. True, it seems little and insignificant, that by the washing of water, the Word, and the Sacrament this should all be effected. But don’t let your eyes deceive you. At that time, it seemed like a small and insignificant thing for Him to come riding on a borrowed donkey and later be crucified, in order to take away sin, death, and hell. No one could tell this by His appearance, but the prophet foretold it, and His work later fulfilled it. Therefore we must simply grasp it with our ears and believe it with our hearts, for our eyes are blind. (House Postils, 1:28)
It turned out that my Olympic trainer was an amazing fighter; he was incredibly fast, technically sound, and unusually strong and creative. Life has a way of exceeding our expectations and this continues to be true about the story of our not-so-ordinary King. He defied expectation by entering the stage of human history in a manger, and He defeated the great enemies of mankind by His gruesome death and glorious resurrection.
Next time you start to feel the Sunday liturgy has lost its luster, take time to remember that the world’s Champion is in your midst always doing the unexpected through such ordinary means.