Reformation Day (C)
October 27, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle, which was read a few minutes ago.
This morning we find ourselves sitting in a packed courtroom. A steady murmur ripples through the gallery. The prosecutor sits at his table on the right side of the courtroom while he puts the finishing touch on his opening statement. The defendant sits at the table on the left side, looking particularly nervous as he glances at the notes he jotted down on notebook paper. He’s foolishly decided to represent himself, ignoring the axiom that the man who defends himself has a fool as a client. Since this is a bench trial, the jury box is empty. The judge will hear and weigh the evidence and then render His verdict. And here He is. We rise and the trial begins.
From the minute the prosecutor begins his case, it’s clear that this isn’t an ordinary case. This defendant is total scum and he’s been indicted on serious charges. Count One: Murder. Count Two: Robbery. Count Three: Inciting a riot. These charges aren’t brought lightly, and a prosecutor won’t bring a defendant to trial if he can’t prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. He clearly can as twenty boxes of evidence wait by his side.
He doesn’t waste time but gets right to it by laying out before the Judge each individual piece of evidence he’s gathered. Evidence which will prove beyond a doubt the guilt of the defendant. Exhibit A: a picture of the murder scene. Exhibit B: DNA analysis. Exhibit C: fingerprint analysis. Exhibit D: a witness statement. Exhibit E: audio recordings of the defendant bragging about his crimes. Exhibit F: video tapes showing the crimes of the defendant in brilliant high definition color.
The evidence is irrefutable. The prosecutor lays out all the ways that this offender has broken the law. It seems like there’s not a law this defendant hasn’t broken. It takes a truly wicked person to perpetrate so many horrible crimes. What kind of defense can he possibly present?
He has no chance really, so he’s going to try everything he can think of. He’s innocent! He’s not that kind of guy, so he couldn’t have done those things! They’ve arrested the wrong guy. Now a change in tactics! He didn’t know he was breaking the Law. Yeah, it was all there in the books, he didn’t read them. He can’t be blamed for that, can he? Surely, he can’t be blamed for the bad influences in his life. They made him commit the crime. He comes from a longline of criminals, so it must be in his DNA, he can’t possibly be responsible for something he can’t control. The law is unfair, nobody can be expected to obey all of it.
The defendant collapses hopelessly into his chair, it’s all over but the shouting. This prosecutor is a tough one and in his closing argument he rebuts everything the defendant said. He says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.” The law applies to everyone and everyone is expected to keep it. The defendant can make all the excuses he wants, but the prosecutor says, “every mouth may be stopped.” In other words, he can’t make excuses and he can’t deny it. He broke the Law and he must be held accountable. Because everyone must be held accountable, the prosecutor urges the Judge to show no mercy or leniency.
The defendant rises and begins his closing argument by begging for mercy. He just has to try a little harder and he won’t be a criminal. He doesn’t have to be punished because he’s not that bad of a guy. He loves his family, he helps little old ladies cross the street, he works at the soup kitchen, he supports Toys for Tots. Surely, these qualities are worth something. A jury might be swayed by his tears and pleadings, but it’s a bench trial and the judge can’t be swayed. It’s clear by the man’s boasts of all the nice things he does, that he thinks he shouldn’t be punished. The Judge though goes by the strict letter of the law and the law isn’t merciful. In fact, boasting about good things is excluded, it doesn’t apply when the Law is broken.
The Judge doesn’t even have to deliberate. He’s ready to announce the verdict and the sentence at the same time. The defendant sees that the Judge is about to put the hammer down. He knows the verdict is going to be guilty. He’s certain he’s going to get the death penalty. He is hopeless.
But right when the verdict is doing to be rendered, there’s a disruption in the back of the courtroom. The people turn in their seats, the prosecutor turns suspiciously to see what’s going on, the bailiff steps forward to intercept the person striding through the door of the courtroom. But this isn’t just anybody, he’s the defendant’s attorney. An attorney who has come to speak on behalf of the defendant. The prosecutor is appalled, the gallery is curious, the court stenographer is bewildered.
The lawyer stands before the Judge and admits that the evidence is clear. The defendant broke the law in just about every possible way. He says, “Oh, he’s a criminal, he’s fallen short of everything the Judge expects.” The defendant should be punished and punished severely.
The attorney though now makes an interesting argument. In the interest of justice, the Judge can’t possibly punish this man for his crimes. Why? Because the Judge already punished someone for the same crimes. Crime must be punished; it can’t be ignored. So, if someone else was punished that means this man must be declared innocent. The attorney says that He Himself was “put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” As hard as it is to believe, the lawyer willingly substituted Himself to be punished in the place of the criminal.
As the defendant stands there are quaking knees, the Judge does the unexpected, He acquits him of all charges. The evidence appears to show his guilt, but it doesn’t matter. The Judge looks at the man and sees not a lowlife criminal, but an innocent man. He is free to leave. It’s hard to believe, it really is, but then it dawns on the man, He is free, free at last. He’s been justified and made righteous in the eyes of the Judge by the blood of the witness. He walks out of the courtroom knowing that he was only freed by the grace of the Judge.
The wheels of justice don’t ever stop and as the prosecutor announces the next defendant, you realize he’s calling your name. You come forward and stand before the Judge as the next one to be prosecuted for your lawbreaking. Stand there before the Judge and rightly fear a guilty verdict and a fitting punishment for your crimes. As you look at the prosecutor you can’t help but notice different boxes are by his table, and they’re just as full as before.
The stacks of exhibits reveal your crimes. Pictures. Witnesses. Audio and Video evidence. You too have broken the law so many times and in so many ways and in so many places. You might compare yourself to the defendant before you and think that compared to him, you’re not too bad. You commit murder by hating, bearing grudges, not forgiving others. You’re a thief because you cheat at work or school or in your personal life. You certainly haven’t incited a riot, but you slander, gossip, and lie. Or maybe you do commit more serious crimes, crimes we don’t know about but crimes the prosecutor and Judge know. Some of them you don’t want to do, but you do them anyway. You feel sorry for what you do, but is that enough to be found innocent? In the eyes of the Law isn’t not. You break one law, you break them all, and there aren’t any acceptable excuses. You can’t shift the blame, you can’t self-justify your behavior, and you can’t boast about all the good things you do, behavior you think offsets your crimes.
As the Judge gets ready to put the hammer down on you, there’s a sudden commotion in the back of the courtroom, and the same man steps forward for you. He claims that He was punished for your crimes too, and after what you saw before, you believe Him. You listen as He recounts for the Judge the arrest, the whipping, the crucifixion He suffered for your crimes. You begin to realize that you have someone on your side, and He is fervently advocating for you. You are His brother; you are His sister. You are part of His family through faith in Him. You may look guilty but by everything He’s done, the Judge must declare you innocent. And He does! Sure, you’re going to be arrested and charged again, you can’t stay out of trouble and when that happens all you can do is stand before the Judge admit your crimes and wait for your advocate, Christ Jesus, to step up and defend you. Faith is knowing that Jesus will come forward and tell the Judge that you are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And every time you go through this experience you realize the wonderful truth that by His grace, the faithful are found not guilty in the courtroom of God.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen