Our undercover King
- Order of Service: Common Service (CW, p15)
- Lessons: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Matthew 27:27-31
- Hymns: 341, 265, 277, 219
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
I don’t think most of the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem this morning woke up and said, “I’m going to help murder an innocent man.” I don’t think the orders of the day read, “Torture an undeserving prisoner.” Nor did their to-do list have on it, “Kill God today.” Yet that’s exactly what they did, at the behest of their governor and at the urging of a large segment of Jerusalem.
They helped murder an innocent man. They tortured an undeserving prisoner. They killed God. They may have had an inkling about the first two things. After all, Pilate himself knew that Jesus was innocent and undeserving. It’s possible that information filtered down to at least some of the soldiers. But that they were killing God? Not until the sky darkened, the earth shook, the tombs split, and the dead walked among them did one of the soldiers who spit on Jesus say, Truly this was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54b, NASB).
Because Jesus went undercover. God went incognito for a time. He was God, yet He didn’t always use that to His own advantage. Sure, He used His divine powers to escape death in Nazareth, or to feed huge crowds around the Sea of Galilee. But here, and for most of His 33 years, it appeared to be just Jesus. Just this guy, this carpenter, this wandering teacher, this homeless man.
But He was never just Jesus. He remained always God in the flesh. God under flesh.
This puzzles us. Why go undercover? Why be a King that nobody knows? This God mystifies us. But we shouldn’t be surprised, because He always seems to operate this way. Sure, Creation demonstrated divine power. “Let there be” and there was. Sure, the Flood demonstrated divine power. And the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But so often it’s hidden, it’s undercover. Under cover of words God the Holy Spirit breathes upon us. Under cover of water, God the Father washes us clean. Under cover of bread and wine, God the Son delivers His life-giving body and blood to us. Under cover of flesh God came to save us.
But why? History has shown us this before. Kings and princes and emperors have secretly walked and lived and worked among their people. Some did it to escape the pressure of royal life. Some did it to experience life as a regular person. Some did it to get some alone time and do normal things. Some, of course, also did it so that they could do dreadful, sinful things that people of their position aren’t allowed to do. Some did it to find out what their people thought and did.
Perhaps that last comes close to explaining what God’s up to. Perhaps part of Jesus’ undercover work was a test. Just as God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son of the promise, so too God tests us, tests our faith, to see how we respond when He operates differently than we might imagine. We imagine and desire power and glory all the time. We imagine a God who snaps His fingers and it’s done. We imagine a God who lets nothing stand in His way. And while God is all those things, what He shows us are mangers and Egyptian exiles and homelessness. He shows us arrest, betrayal, beatings, mockery, and crucifixion. He shows us a world that mostly rejects Him, a world that happily murders Him, a world that scoffs at His Bible, puts off His Baptism, and could care less about His meal. In other words, a world that, for the most part, seems to fail the test. God goes undercover and we stomp all over Him.
“When did I do that?” we cry in unison with the goats of Matthew 25. Well, think back to Jesus’ words. When you didn’t feed the least of your brothers. When you didn’t give them something to drink. When you didn’t take care of the stranger, the poorly clothed one, the sick one, or the imprisoned one. Because there was Jesus. Under the cover of that weak flesh too, and what did we do? We walked right on by. Which is the equivalent of what these Roman soldiers did. The equivalent of saying, “I could care less if you were dead.” That sure makes any attendance to God’s Word and Sacraments ring hollow, doesn’t it?
But Jesus didn’t go undercover just to test the world. In fact, that wasn’t even the main, motivating reason. The LORD reports through the prophet Ezekiel that He will gather His people. He will send out a Shepherd and Prince, a new David. 1 Corinthians said it had to be this way. Death came through a man – Adam. Resurrection from the dead also has to come through a Man – Jesus. Or, as Hebrews put it, Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate (Hebrews 13:12, NASB).
None of this could happen to God in His bare Deity. So God had to go undercover. He had to take on flesh. He had to enter the Praetorium. He had to put on the scarlet robe. He had to wear the crown of thorns. He had to hold the fake scepter. He had to bear the mockery. He had to stand the spit. He had to take the beating. Because to stop any of that would stop what came next: They led Him away to crucify Him (Matthew 27:31, NASB). If Jesus asserts His divine Kingship at this moment, then what He had spent the last 33 years doing was for naught.
So He stayed undercover. He took the greatest risk. Because there was the greatest reward. As in Adam all die, Paul wrote. So also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22, NASB). Here’s the motivation. Christ went undercover for the same reason law enforcement agents do: He had enemies and they had to be destroyed. This was the way to do it. He put sin under His feet by conquering the sin impulse that comes with human flesh. He put death under His feet by conquering the progression to death that sin brought with it. He put the devil under His feet by marching into hell itself alive and spiking the ball. At that moment He took off his costume. He revealed Himself as not just a man, not just Jesus, but as the Son Himself. The King.
And then He rose. And some of the soldiers who beat Him on Friday looked with fear upon an empty tomb and glorious angels on Sunday. And they became like dead men.
And this would be our response too. Because seeing this Jesus can be terrifying. And should be terrifying because we’ve taken part in more than our fair share of sins. We realize only too late who God really is and what God’s really seen of us. Until we hear the angel say, Do not be afraid (Matthew 28:5, NASB). Until we hear Jesus Himself say, Peace be with you (John 20:19b, NASB). Until the Holy Spirit removes the blinders from our eyes and lets us see under the mask, lets us really see Jesus. We see the Jesus who says, For your sake I have borne reproach (Psalm 69:7, NASB). The Holy Spirit fixes our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2, NASB). The Holy Spirit fixes our eyes on Jesus who was willing to make the trade – Him for me, Him for you, His holiness for your sins.
And the truth is, your King still works somewhat undercover. Despite sitting at the right hand of God, mostly what I see is more of the same – more mockery, more spitting, more beatings. I see words. I see water. I see bread and wine. But faith tells me something incredible: There stands my King. And faith tells me further: “It will not always be thus.” Soon we will see clearly. Soon we will see face to face. Soon we will know fully. Soon we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2, NASB). No longer undercover, then just Jesus the King and us His glorious, eternal heavenly kingdom! Amen.