SERMONS - SEPTEMBER 2006
3 September 2006 - Pentecost 13 - Psalm 34:4-19
Please listen with me to a reading from Psalm 34, portions of which were included in today’s introit:
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
Today is the first day of Sunday School. It might therefore be fitting for us to consider this particular verse: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” That’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? “I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” It almost seems as if King David is here saying that children are to be taught to be afraid of God. Yet in an earlier verse of this Psalm we heard this: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” So, does exposure to the Lord and to the Lord’s teaching deliver us from fear, or does it intensify our fear, causing us to be afraid of God too, on top of all the other things we are already afraid of?
Actually, this is one of those places in the Bible where it is very helpful to know something about the original language of Scripture, in order to understand what the passage really means. When King David says that the Lord “delivered me from all my fears,” the Hebrew word rendered as “fear” is “megurah.” This does indeed refer to the things, people, or situations that make us frightened or scared. But when the Psalmist then says that he will “teach you the fear of the Lord,” the Hebrew word behind that rendering is “yirah,” not “megurah.” “Yirah” means deep and profound reference, as before someone who is holy and majestic. So, it is as we grow in the fear of the Lord - in respect and reverence for him and for his Word - that we are also delivered from all our fears.
And in this life, with its many uncertainties, there are indeed many fears from which we need deliverance. With the Psalm’s emphasis on teaching children, maybe those of us who are now “grown up” can think for a moment about what it was like when we were children. What were you afraid of when you were a little girl or a little boy? A lot of children are afraid of the dark. But actually they’re not afraid of the dark as such; they’re afraid that someone or something might be hiding in the dark, and they’re afraid that this person or thing might have evil intentions. As a child were you afraid of what might be lurking in the darkness? I can remember that when I was a child I was afraid that a burglar or a robber might break into our house during the night and do us harm. I suppose that I heard news reports about such things happening, and therefore I was frightened that it might happen to us. In general, children are afraid of things that are, or might be, more powerful than they are, and that pose, or might pose, a threat to them. They are afraid of people, things, and situations over which they have no control, and which might hurt them.
But what about now? Now that you are “grown up,” are you still afraid of things? Are you afraid of terrorists? I fly quite often, and during those trips I am never able to avoid at least a few passing thoughts about the frightening possibility of terrorism. At some point in my journey I wonder if just perhaps this flight might be my last - if this flight might end with an explosion or a crash, rather than with a safe landing on the runway. I would be powerless to do anything about it if a bomb were to go off during the flight. I’m also afraid of what might happen if an unstable government were to develop nuclear weapons, or if a fanatical international terrorist organization, which would be more than willing to use it, were to get its hands on such a weapon. Where would we be able to be safe in the face of a threat like that? I think there’s plenty for us to be scared about in this world - children and adults. We too are afraid of things that are, or might be, more powerful than we are, and that pose, or might pose, a threat to us. We are afraid of people, things, and situations over which we have no control, and which might hurt us.
And there are other things that sinful mortals like us may very well be afraid of. Martin Luther, a great father of the church, entered a very strict monastery in the very early years of the 16th century because he was afraid of the wrath of God. His conscience was correctly telling him that his sins were displeasing to God, and that they made him unworthy, in and of himself, to stand in God’s presence. He hoped that by his monastic discipline and exercises he might appease God, and deliver himself from God’s displeasure. “Oh,” you might be saying, “I thought the Psalm used a different Hebrew word for “fear of God” - a word that means being reverent, not being scared.” Well, it’s true that the Psalmist says that he wants to teach the children about being reverent and respectful of the Lord. But when you sin against God commandments and violate his good and perfect will, and when you decline to do and say what you know is right, then you had better also be afraid of God’s judgment. God is not mocked. He’s not playing games with the human race. He is holy, and in his holiness he cannot simply ignore the wickedness, rebellion, and insolence of sinful man. To those who fall short of the glory of God, and who presume to rely on their own faltering strength and self-serving efforts to make up the difference, a memorable line from a not-so-memorable movie would certainly apply: “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.”
But Luther learned something as he studied Scripture, and also as his father-confessor Johann Staupitz directed him to meditate on the sufferings of Christ on the cross on his behalf. He learned in his conscience about this thought from today’s Psalm: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” The cross of Jesus Christ delivers us from the fear of divine judgment, not because God is indifferent to our sins, but because in Christ God has paid for them himself. Our holy and gracious God does not tolerate or ignore human sin, but in our Savior’s cross he atones for it with his own blood and forgives it. Jesus is indeed the Lord, about whom this Psalm speaks, in human flesh. In the ultimate sense, in his life, death, and resurrection, he did indeed deliver us from all our fears. He saved us out of all our troubles. And in his Word he teaches us, and our children, the fear of the Lord.
We fear the Lord - that is, we humbly acknowledge his holiness and majesty - when we believe what he tells us about his saving works. The God who vanquished sin and death in the cross and empty tomb is the God who has thereby demonstrated that he is more powerful than anything else in the universe. And the God who reconciled himself to our fallen and rebellious race in Christ, and who invites the whole world to believe in him and be saved, is a God who can be trusted to want for us only that which is good and life-giving. And so, as Christ covers us and fills us, and as we cling to him in faith, we are not afraid of God. Apart from Christ, clothed only in the presumptuous rags of our own corruption, we would be, or should be, frightened of his displeasure. But in Christ, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we do not fear God in this way.
In a way that is proper for Christians, however, we do fear the Lord. We have a God-given desire to be instructed in the fear of the Lord throughout our lives, beginning in childhood, but certainly not ending there. And this is especially so as we face the things in this life that do still have the potential to scare us. The Psalm reminds us that such frightening things are still all around us. It says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” Whether it’s the uncertainty of what might be lurking in the dark, or the insecurity of fanatical terrorism in a nuclear age, or anything else in between, we in this life, and in our human weakness, will be afflicted by things that can frighten us. We will come up against people and situations over which we have no control, and which may intend to do us harm. But in the fear of the Lord, we know that the Lord is more powerful than any of these things. In the fear of the Lord, we know that God will not allow these things to rob us of our salvation, of his eternal love, and of our heavenly hope. Those people or situations that may frighten us now will not ultimately prevail over us. As the Psalmist reminds us, “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.”
And so, we can face our fears, and face down our fears, in the strength of Christ. God has not yet removed from our pathway the threats that afflict us and have the potential to frighten us. Instead, he carries us through them, guides us past them, and protects us from them. These frightening influences are like storms on the sea of life, which threaten to wash us overboard. But in the Gospel, God has lashed us to the mast of Christ’s cross, so that we will weather the storms, and eventually come safely into the harbor of heaven. We recall the words of the Psalm: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.”
The children of the church are especially to be taught these things. The greatest act of love that we can show to the next generation is to pass on to them the eternal comforts of the Gospel that have been passed down to us. In their baptism they have been united to Christ, and the living seed of faith has thereby been planted in them. But this seed would shrivel and die if it were not nurtured by the refreshing waters of God’s truth. The world in which our children live is already a scary world, and as they grow up, it will become even scarier. But the grace of the Lord is more powerful than any threat or danger, and it will see them through all of this. A knowledge of God’s saving deeds on their behalf, and of God’s enduring promises to them, will calm them and sustain them, even as it will instill in them an ever deepening reverence for God, and an ever growing respect for God’s Word. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Amen.
10 September 2006 - Pentecost 14 - Ephesians. 5:21-31
“Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.” We read these and similar statements very often, as we buy something for the house that comes in pieces and needs to be put together in a certain way, or as we go to the pharmacy to pick up some potent medicine our doctor has prescribed for us. We are glad to know that instructions are included when we spend a lot of money on something, like a shelf unit or a piece of exercise equipment, because we don’t want to mess it up in our ignorance of how it is supposed to fit together. Likewise, we appreciate the warnings against misuse of drugs that could harm or kill us if we were to dose ourselves according to our own guesses instead of according to the physician’s judgment.
“Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.” In effect, these statements also accompany one of the most important personal and social institutions: marriage. God instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden. Our first parents were put together according to God’s plan and design to be each other’s companions, to tend the garden together, and to be the procreative fountainhead for the continuation of the human race. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
But if Adam and Eve, on their own, would redefine the nature and purpose of their relationship, there could be much emotional and spiritual damage. And this is in fact what happened when they sinned against the Lord, and when Adam turned on Eve and used her as a scapegoat for his own wrongdoing. His harmonious relationship with God was already broken because of his transgression. On top of that he also brought even more grief into his relationship with his wife, by blaming her for his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” “Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.”
It is often the case with manufacturers, that after their product has been out for a while, they are able to see the various unexpected ways in which people have messed up their assembly of the product, or misused the product once it is assembled. The instructions that are included with the product then become more clear and complete. In a similar way, and for similar reasons, God gave the human race - after the fall, and after the coming of Christ - a more detailed set of instructions regarding his institution of marriage. He did this in today’s second lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians.
St. Paul says: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” This is the first step in how a marriage is to be put together, according to the designer’s specifications. The idea of submission in our society usually has very negative connotations. What the word literally means, though, is to position oneself under something or someone else. The word itself does not carry with it any connotations regarding the degradation or humiliation of the person who is positioning herself under someone else. During a hail storm we position ourselves under a roof for the sake of safety and protection. Similarly, in the midst of the moral and spiritual storms of life, a Christian woman puts herself under the headship of her husband.
A couple verses after the section of the epistle that is appointed for today’s reading, St. Paul uses a synonym which illustrates more clearly what he has in mind when he says that wives are to submit to their own husbands. He writes there: “let the wife see that she respects her husband.” To submit to one’s husband it to respect him as the husband - that is, as someone who has been given certain unique responsibilities by God that are to be recognized and honored.
Another important point is that God does not here command husbands to force their wives to submit to them. God is the one who established human marriage and who still considers himself to be its guardian and guide. God is therefore the one who instructs Christian wives in these matters. Wives are, accordingly, accountable chiefly to God for how they think about, and act toward, their husbands. Wives are not to respect the authority of their husbands simply to please their husbands, and not only when they think their husbands deserve to be treated in this way. A married woman who refuses to respect her husband as she should will certainly run afoul of her husband. She will likely hurt herself too, just as a person who steps out from under a protective covering in a hail storm will suffer some unpleasant consequences. But ultimately, a woman who decides to redefine the nature and purpose of her marriage on her own, or under the influence of a foreign ideology, will run afoul of her creator, to her own spiritual harm. In this and in all other aspects of life, a Christian woman is to reflect on the teaching of God’s Word as a whole, and of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians in particular. God there gives us heavenly guidance regarding marriage, as he has instituted it. “Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.”
St. Paul goes on, of course, to lay what is arguably a much heavier weight of responsibility on the male partner in a marriage. He writes: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”
Following the pure and perfect example of Jesus Christ, a husband is to love his wife in a completely self-sacrificing way. He is to be concerned about what is best for her, and not selfishly to be concerned only about what is best for himself. But this love is not to be a patronizing or belittling love, as if his wife were not his moral or spiritual equal before God. He is to love his wife as the one with whom he has become “one flesh.” To belittle her would be to belittle himself. He is to love her as the friend and companion with whom he has established a new home, and with whom he will share equally the honor that their children will render to father and mother under the Fourth Commandment.
The husband’s headship, according to the order of creation, does not make him more important than his wife, or smarter, or personally superior. It certainly doesn’t give him the right to abuse his wife emotionally or physically, or to treat her dismissively or disrespectfully. But it does give him a different set of responsibilities, and a different kind of accountability before God.
The divinely-ordered principle of male headship also does not lay out a blueprint for exactly how a couple will arrange the details of their life together. The so-called “traditional” family arrangement, according to which the man is expected to go out to work while the woman stays at home, is only as old as the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, which concentrated labor in centralized locations like factories and mills, both parents usually stayed at home during the day - the wife to pursue her domestic duties, and the husband also to fulfill his vocation, either in his craftsman’s shop - usually on the first floor of his town house - or in his fields and barn - just outside the door of his farm house.
The Bible does not prescribe the exact decisions that a couple will make in regard to such economic arrangements today. But it does prescribe the relational framework within which such decisions will be made. The husband doesn’t automatically get to boss his wife around, or to insist on something unilaterally and impulsively, without taking his wife’s feelings into account. But the husband does play a leadership role in the decision-making process, and the decision that is eventually made is to be a decision that he sincerely believes is best for his wife and family, whether or not it is best for him as an individual. In this and in all other aspects of life, a Christian man is to reflect on the teaching of God’s Word as a whole, and of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians in particular. God there gives us heavenly guidance regarding marriage, as he has instituted it. “Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.”
When you assemble a piece of furniture or exercise equipment the wrong way, it’s not always possible to take it apart and put it back together the right way. If glue has been applied, if screws have been set, or if metal pieces have been bent, the things is probably going to stay ruined and un-fixable. And if you take too much medicine, or if you take it in the wrong way, your health will likely be permanently damaged, and you may even die. There’s no going back from such a mistake.
But what about the mistakes and failures that characterize our marriages? Is there a way out? Is there a way back to the beginning, to start again? Let’s hope there is, because none of us who is married - none of us - has consistently followed the “instructions.” None of us has made use of our marital relationship “as directed” all the time. Women have not submitted to their husbands as to the Lord. Men have not loved their wives as Christ loved the church. As we regret the sins we have committed within our marriage, against our spouse and ultimately against God, and as we wonder if anything can be done about them now, we can remember that Christ is a part of our marriage - not just as the model or example of good behavior, but also as the forgiver of bad behavior.
All of us - husbands and wives, parents and children - are members of his body through faith. We share a common baptism, in which we have all been graciously cleansed of sin and guilt through the washing of water with the word. By the blood that he shed for us on the cross, Jesus now presents us to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we might be holy and without blemish. Whatever your sins have been; whatever your failures have been; whatever pain you have caused; all is forgiven. In Christ, the perfect, loving husband to his church, none of your guilt will be held against you. It has all been washed away.
And along with the forgiveness that God gives, he also gives you a heart that is willing and able to forgive the spouse who has failed you, or disappointed you, or hurt you. A Christlike, forgiving heart is a supernatural and liberating gift of God’s Spirit. Because of this gift, we can and do joyfully say together the prayer our Lord has taught us: “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus, as the Savior of his church, always does the will of his Father. He always loves, restores, and heals us by his pardoning and life-giving Word - that is, he always follows the instructions - the eternal instructions from the Father that accompanied him on his saving mission to the world. And in regard to his divine power, Jesus always uses it as directed. He uses his power not to destroy us and our marriages, but to lift us up, to push Satan back, and to bring peace and reconciliation, and a new beginning, to his people.
Submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” “Instructions included.” “Use only as directed.” Amen.
17 September 2006 - Pentecost 15 - Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the Bible, the inner life of a person is often described in terms of what is happening in, or flowing from, his “heart.” When Scripture speaks in this metaphorical way it is not referring literally to the organ in our chest that pumps blood, but to the non-physical aspect of our existence - our thoughts, our desires, our motivations, our dreams and ambitions. In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the human “heart” in this way in two different places.
In the first instance, Jesus is criticizing the formalism and ritualism of the Pharisees and scribes, who think that they are serving and pleasing God by conforming to certain external traditions and ceremonies, which were not even instituted by God, but were devised over time by the ancient rabbis of Israel. And while they were meticulously concerned about these things, they were completely lacking in the kind of inner faith and devotion that God does actually want from his people. “And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’”
Jesus, and Isaiah whom he quotes, are pointing out here that the kind of religion which is pleasing to God, and which God requires of us in the First Commandment, is a religion of the heart. Even in regard to the outward sacrifices and rituals that God did institute, they are of no saving benefit to those who carry them out thoughtlessly and superficially. And not only is there no genuine benefit to such a superficial religiosity, but this kind of hypocrisy actually invites an intensification of God’s judgment. The Lord’s sacred precepts are really being mocked, and made light of, when people think that God is so shallow as to be pleased by such a heartless and shallow performance of them.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” I wonder how applicable these words might be for each of us. When you are here, during worship, or at home, during the time of family prayer, where is your heart? What is on your mind? What are you thinking about? Are you perhaps just going through the motions, at least some of the time, instead of devoting the attention of your inner being to God’s Holy Word? Maybe our hearts are not as far away from God as the hearts of those who don’t come to church at all, or who don’t ever think about God and the things of God, but are our hearts as close to the Lord and as devoted to him as they should be? It’s something for all of us to think about.
And here’s something else to think about. If we were to be introspective and look into our own hearts, where undistracted devotion to the Lord is supposed to be found, how likely is it that this is what we would actually see? What is it that flows from the heart of sinful humanity? Well, Jesus answers that question too, in the second instance of today’s Gospel in which he says something about the human “heart.” He declares: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
That’s a pretty scary and depressing picture of human nature. But it’s an accurate picture. It describes the situation that has existed ever since our first parents rebelled against God, and brought spiritual death into the human race. This is not, however, a picture that our society as a whole wants to see or believe in.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke revived the old pagan notion than at birth each of us is a “tabula rasa” - that is, a “clean slate.” According to this wishful thought, the way in which we each develop, and the values and morals that we come to embrace, are exclusively the result of external influences, and not the result of any kind of internal predisposition one way or the other. This idea has become increasingly popular over the centuries, and has had a marked influence in the development of modern theories of education, political science, criminology, and psychology. We should not underestimate the positive benefits that generally come from a good upbringing, or the harmful effects that often come from growing up in a dysfunctional home. But these outward, environmental influences do not get down to the deeper reasons why we think, speak, and act in the way we do.
“Enlightened” people still believe without any doubt in the innate goodness and perfectability of human nature. They attribute all the pain and suffering that human beings inflict on each other to those negative and discouraging forces that are outside of us, and not to any destructive forces that are within us from the beginning of our existence. Modern humanism has an unbridled optimism in mankind’s capacity for good, and it believes that the key to man’s salvation is within him: in his mind, in his will, in his heart. When we use our reason and willpower to change our external circumstances, and replace the negative environment in which we live with positive ideas and institutions, then, it is supposed, we will change ourselves.
The Biblical worldview could not be any more different from this. Sinful humanity’s mind and will are not the key to solving our moral problems. They are sources of those problems! In the natural state in which we come into the world, undiluted goodness and purity will not automatically flow from within our hearts, but “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” People are usually fairly good at covering up what they really think. We usually do know how to be diplomatic, restrained, and polite in our external behavior. But the inner reality, buried deeply, and lurking behind the facade of our cultured and sophisticated civility, is the corrupt human heart that all descendants of Adam share. And in one way or another, it will show itself, and defile us as it does so.
Without saying anything to anyone, or looking around at anyone, I’d like to ask each of you to reflect on your past right now, for just a few seconds. Silently think about a few of those things you have done or said over the years, which you now deeply regret. How long is it taking you to remember some instances in which you behaved foolishly, hurtfully, and destructively, contrary to everything that common sense and your conscience was telling you at the time? But yet, there was a destructive impulse or temptation from inside that seemed almost to be driving you, and controlling you. I doubt that I need to give you, or myself, more than a few seconds to think of enough examples from our own lives to verify the truthfulness of what Jesus is saying.
So far, we have seen that in today’s Gospel, Jesus demands from us a sincere religion of the heart rather than a religion of thoughtless formalism. But we have also heard him accurately describe the sinful heart of man as a source of wickedness and evil, and not exclusively of Godly devotion and pure worship. Where, then, can we turn in this seemingly hopeless situation? What can we do? We can pray, once again, the Collect for the day: “Lord of all power and might, Author and Giver of all good things, graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.”
The genuine religion of the heart that God demands is the religion that he gives, as he bestows on us, through his Gospel, the gift of faith. The corrupt old nature of death and destruction that invites God’s judgment upon us, is a nature that he suppresses by the power of his Word, as he creates and strengthens within us a new nature, formed in the image of Christ.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God tells us what he will do for his people - for his holy church, redeemed by his own blood, and baptized into the death and resurrection of his Son. In chapter 36 of that book we read: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes...” Through these words, God is also telling you what he has done for you, and is doing for you in Christ.
As Christians we are not optimistic about human nature, or about man’s ability to improve himself, and solve his problems, by drawing on the resources of his own heart. But as Christians we are very optimistic about God’s rich and unmeasurable love toward us. He has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and has forgiven all our sins. He has created within us a new nature, which his Word and sacraments continually sustain and preserve. And he does all this because of who he is, not because of anything we are or have done. In fact, he does all this in spite of what we are and in spite of what we have done. There is no wickedness - no immorality, greed, anger, envy, or foolishness - that ever flowed from the heart of sinful man - that ever flowed from my heart or from yours - which Jesus did not already carry to the cross on our behalf, and for which Jesus does not offer a remedy in his life-giving Spirit, who abides with us, renews us, and restores us.
Today, when you rise after the sermon to sing the Offertory, please pay close attention to the words of that little song. These words, taken from Psalm 51, express David’s faith in God’s gracious desire to forgive him, and in God’s ability to give him the kind of believing and fruitful heart that he knows God wants him to have. These words express for us that same faith, and a confidence that God in his grace will make us to be what he wants us to be, and will lift from our conscience the guilt and burden of all the sins that have ever flowed out of us. Amen.
24 September 2006 - Pentecost 16 - James 1:17-27
I am always intrigued by those time-elapsed films that are produced through the placing of a video camera with a wide-focus lense in a stationary place outside, to film all the activities of an entire day or even for a longer period of time - as those activities take place within the view of the stationary camera. And then that footage is compressed into just a few seconds, and played back at a high speed. As we view such a film, we see the rising of the sun, the setting of the sun, the emergence of the moon and stars during the night, and then the reappearance of the sun again in the morning, all compressed together into less than a minute of video. In such a film, in the frames shot during the daytime, we also see what appear to be very quick-moving shadows coming and going, moving across the landscape, and up and down buildings, as the sun casts these shadows through and around the clouds in its own seemingly rapid movement across the sky.
During an actual day - not a time-compressed day in a high-speed movie - as we move around inside and outside, pursuing our ordinary daily activities, these phenomena are happening so slowly all around us that we hardly notice them. But there is nevertheless a constant motion of the sun, moon, and stars throughout the day and night - at least from the earth’s vantage-point - and a constant changing of the shape, size, and location of the shadows that come and go. The sun and moon never stop in their celestial movements - again, from the perspective of how it appears to us. From one moment to the next, they are never in exactly the same place on the horizon, and they are never casting or reflecting their light down to the earth at exactly the same angle.
In today’s epistle lesson, St. James draws on this imagery in order to present to us a negative illustration of God and of God’s character. God is not like the heavenly lights, with all of the varying shadows and movement that are associated with them. He is instead the creator of these heavenly lights, who stands unchanging above and behind them in his divine glory. He is “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
In most aspects of our life, we experience constant changes and variations all the time. Emotional shadows come and go over us, as we experience times of worry and times of peacefulness, and as our relationships with others are characterized at different times either by contentment and fulfillment, or by stress and unhappiness. And the variations that we see around us, in the heavens and on the earth, are accompanied by the variations that we also see in ourselves. We often change, sometimes for the better, but often for the worst. Sometimes we’re calm and patient, at other times we fly off the handle and do and say cruel things. Sometimes we’re cheerful - bright and shining - and are engaged in wholesome and constructive activities. Sometimes we’re angry - dark and shadowy - and do things that are corrupting and destructive. The people around us don’t always know what to expect from us. And neither do we.
But God is not like this at all. He is always good and the source of all good things. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” He is never evil, or the source of evil. And, when he says that something it true, then it will be true forever. His fundamental standards of right and wrong are not negotiable, and they will never be revised. The human race is still held to the same ethical requirements to which Adam and Eve were held before their fall into sin - before they lost, for themselves and for us, their ability to obey God in all things cheerfully and perfectly. A change did take place in man in the Garden of Eden. Through Adam and Eve the human race fell away from God. The human race ceased to be pure and righteous, and it became morally polluted and rebellious instead. But God does not change. He did not change back then, and he will not change now. People often think it’s unfair for God to condemn all human sin, and that a loving God should just ignore or overlook our many breaches of his law. Since everybody sins, shouldn’t God relax his standards, sort of like a grading curve that a teacher might employ in a class where all the students would otherwise fail the test? Shouldn’t God give us a break, since everybody has failed to measure up to his standards?
But, in a certain sense, that’s not God’s problem. Why does God have to change - to become less holy in himself, or more tolerant of our sin - just because we changed? Why should God change, and become unpredictable and unreliable, just because we are now unpredictable and unreliable? The unchangeability of God might be hard for us to grasp, in view of the fact that everything else in the world seems always to be in a state of flux. It may seem too hard to believe that the Lord is never in need of an upgrade, and that he never needs to modernize. But whether we are comfortable with it or not, and whether we can understand it or not, God does not change. God does not have an evolving consciousness. He is, and will always be, “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
There is, however, at least one area of God’s changelessness which is not bewildering or frightening to us, but which instills hope and stability into our otherwise confused and unstable minds and hearts. It is God’s unchanging and very predictable desire to work through his Word in giving us a new spiritual birth, and in saving us. As St. James says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.” God, who created our race in the Garden of Eden by the power of his Word, now recreates us, and gives fallen humanity a second chance and a new beginning, also through the power of his Word. He miraculously brings about within us what the Bible calls the “new man” of faith, even as he suppresses the “old Adam” and its rebelliousness.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession points out that what James is saying here is “that regeneration takes place through the gospel. For he says, ‘In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’ When he says that we are reborn by the gospel, he teaches that we are reborn and justified by faith. For the promise concerning Christ is grasped only by faith when we set the promise against the terrors of sin and death.”
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The best of these good and perfect gifts is the gift of eternal life, which God can always be counted on to offer to the human race through his unchanging Word. Regardless of how unstable you have been, God’s loving and forgiving will toward you, in the promises of his Gospel, is always the same. Regardless of how undependable you have found other people to be in your relationships with them, you can always rely on God’s Word of truth, and you can always count on the power of that Word to do what God wants it to do. You can trust the Lord, even when you can’t trust anyone else, or yourself.
The new birth of which James speaks is especially associated with Holy Baptism, which is described in the Epistle to the Ephesians as “the washing of water with the word.” St. Paul also tells us in his Epistle to Titus that God “saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Your baptism is therefore a particularly firm and enduring testimony to the unchangeability of God’s saving grace in your life. We read in the Large Catechism: “In Baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and power to suppress the old man so that the new may come forth and grow strong. Therefore Baptism remains forever. Even though we fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again have the water poured over us. Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, and the effect and signification of Baptism would continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.”
Yes, it is always true that God in his holiness judges sin, and will never ignore it. But it is also always true that in the person of the incarnate Savior, God decisively dealt with humanity’s sin problem by absorbing into himself, on the cross, his own judgment against our sin, thereby deflecting that judgment away from us. In Christ we can therefore stand fully justified in God’s presence. And, it’s always true that his Word offers the blessings of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to everyone with whom that Word comes into contact, so that when we believe what God tells us, about Jesus and everything that he has done for us, we can and do partake personally of those blessings.
And as God’s steady and stable Word becomes a part of our life, it works within us to stabilize us, and to bring our thoughts, words, and deeds into conformity with its unchanging standards. The sanctifying power of God’s Word will always be at work in us to accomplish this, even in the midst of the ups and downs - the bright spots and the shifting shadows - of our tumultuous existence. That’s why St. James is so bold and firm in his admonition to us: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” He doesn’t say that we can save our own souls by reforming our lives through our own diligent efforts. That would be impossible. But what he does say is that the implanted Word of God has the power to do what we in our frailty and weakness cannot do. In repentance and faith we receive the Word, as it embeds itself in us, and as it does its work in us. This Word of the Gospel has the ability to save our souls - from eternal death, from God’s judgment, and from the ravages of sin in our daily life. God’s Word always has this power, and God always wants to use this power to our benefit.
Our faith is sometimes strong and sometimes weak. Our commitment to the Lord is sometimes firm and sometimes faltering. Like the shifting shadows of the rising and setting sun, we are not stable and steady in our spiritual life. But we are also not discouraged. In spite of our wavering, God is unwavering. In spite of our instability, God is stable. In spite of our unreliability, God is completely reliable. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.” Amen.