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“The Greatest Hoax on Earth?”
Galatians 1:11-12


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday after Pentecost—June 13, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A few years ago a book was written about the cultural impact of Jesus Christ and Christianity upon our world, entitled, “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?”  This book pointed out that, whether or not you have faith in him, it is an undeniable fact that every facet of human endeavor has been radically affected over the past 2,000 years by Christ and Christianity.  From Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the greatest works of art draw their inspiration from him.  From medieval Gregorian chant to Handel’s “Messiah” to the masterpieces of Bach and Mendelssohn, Christ has also left his mark on the greatest musical compositions.  From Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” to Dante’s “Inferno” to C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” he has also inspired great works of literature. 

Even in the political realm, Christ’s impact has been profound.  Our own country was first settled by Christian Pilgrims and our nation founded on Christian principles.  What if Jesus had never been born?  Our world as we know it simply would not exist.  So much of what we cherish would never have come to pass.

Yes, it is undeniable that Jesus Christ and Christianity have had a profound impact upon our world.  But the question is:  Is it true?  Is Jesus of Nazareth “the Christ, the Son of the living God” as Peter confessed?  Is he, as he himself claimed, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me”?  Did he, as Peter says, “bore our sins in his body on the cross”? 

It has been said that Jesus of Nazareth was one of three things: Either he really is who he claimed to be, the Son of God; or he was the craziest and most convincing lunatic in the history of the world, who only had a delusion that he was the Son of God; or he was the most clever and successful con man in the history of the world, who only pretended to be the Son of God.

We have just entered the third Christian millennium.  And, far from dying out, Christianity is going and growing stronger than ever, especially in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.  When you consider that, over 2,000 years after Christ’s birth, Christianity is the most-followed religion in the world, it is either the greatest truth on earth or the greatest hoax on earth.

The Apostle Paul addresses this question in today’s Epistle Reading: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” 

The Apostle Paul—also known as Saul—had been one of those who considered Jesus of Nazareth either a lunatic or a con man.  He hated Jesus and his followers, with such intense hatred that he threw the Christians into prison, and even stood by watching approvingly as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death because of his testimony that Jesus is the Messiah.  As Paul says in Acts: “I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.”

It’s that mission of hatred against Christ and Christianity that puts Paul on the road to Damascus, as he recounts today’s Reading from the Book of Acts: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison . . .   I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”

Paul was a wayward child of God.  He had been brought up in the Messianic faith, which looked forward to the coming of the Savior.  But, as John says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  Although many of Jesus’ own people did receive him and believe in him as the Messiah, Paul was among those who rejected him and would not accept him as the promised Messiah sent from God.

Sometimes, like Paul, we also are wayward children of God, when we stray from the faith, either by living an ungodly life, or, like Paul, doubting and rejecting God’s Word, turning to false doctrine.  How would you expect God to react to a wayward child like Paul, like you, like me?  Is God angry, infuriated, full of wrath and vengeance?  Is God just waiting for a chance to punish us, to crush us, to give us what we deserve because of our unfaithfulness?  As Paul goes off to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, you might indeed expect God to open the heavens—to strike Paul down with a bolt of lightening!

But, Peter says, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Over his wayward child Paul on the road to Damascus the Lord does open up the heavens, but not in anger, but in love and forgiveness, seeking after his lost child.  “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?  ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’”

In the same way, when you and I go astray, the Lord cries out to us in love, as Joel says,  “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  Jesus promises, “Whoever comes to me I will never turn away.”  Like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when you go astray your heavenly Father is always waiting for you with open arms and calling out to you in love and forgiveness, seeking after his lost child.  Today’s opening hymn puts it this way:

Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin.

However great our trespass, whatever we have been.

However long from mercy our hearts have turned away.

Paul was transformed from a doubter to a believer, by the vision on the road to Damascus.  As an interesting side note, there is still a little village outside Damascus along the road from Jerusalem called in Arabic “Di Raiha,” “The Vision.”  That name for the village can be traced back over 1,900 years, to just after the time Paul saw “The Vision,” perhaps in that very place.  The locals there have long forgotten why their village is called “The Vision,” or why there is an ancient Christian chapel in what is now a Muslim village.

On the road to Damascus Jesus of Nazareth himself reached down from heaven into the life of this rebellious unbeliever Paul and converted him to faith.  In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth himself reaches down from heaven into the lives of you and me, who by nature are also rebellious unbelievers, and he converts us to faith in him. 

He reaches down into our lives through the Scriptures, “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  He reaches down into our lives through Holy Baptism, “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”  He reaches down into our lives through Holy Communion, to strengthen us in the true faith unto life everlasting.  He reaches down into our lives in Holy Absolution, announcing, through through the Pastor, “I forgive you all your sins.” 

Just as Jesus himself reached down from heaven into the life of Paul to convert him to faith, through the Word and Sacraments Jesus himself reaches down from heaven into the lives of you and me, and converts us to faith in him.  Just as he called out to Paul from the heavens, Jesus is at this very moment calling out from the heavens to you.  As the hymn following the sermon says:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.

Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon, pardon for you and for me.

Come home, come home, you who are weary come home.

Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, “O sinner, come home!”

What if Jesus had never been born?  The real significance, the truly profound impact of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is found not in art or music or literature or history, but in the hearts of individuals like Paul, and you, and me.  Jesus came not so much to transform the world but to transform us.  “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Peter says, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”  Through the Word and Sacraments, you also are an eyewitness of his majesty.  Majesty that is seen not so much in his impact upon art and music and literature and history, but in his impact upon your heart and life.

What if Jesus had never been born?  The Good News is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”  As the angels sang the night of his birth, “Unto you is born . . . a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”  That is the true impact of the life of Jesus of Nazareth: He is your Savior, Christ, your Lord.  Your sins are all forgiven, and you will live forever.

“I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”  Not the greatest hoax on earth, but the greatest truth on earth—for you!

Amen.

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