SERMONS - SEPTEMBER 2012
2 September 2012 - Pentecost 14 - Mark 7:14-23
“Sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”
Most people would agree that most if not all of these things are bad and undesirable. But most people would also agree that most of these things are running rampant in this world.
Can anything be done about these problems, which cause so much defilement of our humanity - which cause so much pain and suffering in human lives, and in human relationships? If so, what?
Among those who have recognized the harmfulness of these vices, one approach in history has been to use the law-enforcement agencies of civil government to police these behaviors - and to police the people who are prone to exhibit them - with as much severity as would be necessary to eradicate these behaviors from society.
It is true, of course, that it is a God-given responsibility of the civil authorities to restrain evil, and to punish criminals. St. Paul writes to the Romans that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”
He goes on to say that the one who is in authority “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
But according to this approach, if some outward enforcement of public order is good, more is better. It is thought that these harmful vices could be eradicated, and not just restrained, if every aspect of a citizen’s life would be monitored, and controlled, by the government.
The basic idea here, is that the problem, most fundamentally, is a lack of outward discipline. If you ratchet-up the discipline, then you will solve the problem.
Probably the best known advocates of this “Big Brother” totalitarian way of getting rid of these harmful activities today, are those who have an agenda of introducing a strict enforcement of Sharia law to all human societies.
But would that really go to the source of sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness? Does clamping down tightly on these evil things with the force of law - from the outside - really get rid of these evil things?
Another theory, popular in many liberal cultures, is that these social pathologies arise in a human society, not because of a lack of outward discipline, but because of a lack of education. Most fundamentally, it is ignorance that is the breeding ground of vice.
So, the way for a society to get rid of these problems, is for the society systematically to educate its citizens away from them. Teach people the wisdom of healthy and positive behavior, and you will then get healthy and positive behavior.
There is some truth to this. The Book of Proverbs teaches: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
In today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the Israelites to make sure they do not forget the things that their eyes have seen, and to teach these things to their children and grandchildren.
In progressive western countries, such progressive educational theories have been at work in the public school system, and in the criminal rehabilitation system, for generations.
But has this resulted in anything close to an eradication of sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness? Or, have these socially-defiling vices actually gotten worse, and more pronounced?
In truth, the deep and underlying cause of these evils in human lives, and in human relationships, is not a lack of discipline - to be remedied by a more stringent enforcement of outward order and control. It is also not a matter of ignorance, to be remedied by a more thorough system of education or re-education.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, tells us where these things really come from:
“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 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 scary. It’s a bit like being in one of those Sigourney Weaver “Alien” movies, and finding out that where the baby alien is growing, is inside of you!
And something like that - an inherited problem that runs that deeply inside of us - is also much harder to deal with than a mere law and order problem, or a mere schooling problem. If the source of these destructive actions is my own heart and mind - and the hearts and minds of all other people - then how can my heart and mind be the instrument for devising a decisive solution to these destructive actions?
My heart and mind - my morally-corrupt heart and mind - are a part of the problem. In themselves, my heart and mind do not hold the key to the solution of the problem.
Our Lord’s words in today’s text are one of the chief proof-passages for the Biblical doctrine of original sin. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.
At the point of your origin as an individual human being, you were already sinful. You were in Adam, in his ancient rebellion. And Adam is in you now.
The popular notion of the original innocence and purity of a baby’s heart is a myth. Any notion about the moral innocence and innate goodness of human nature in general is a superstition, which defies everything that can be observed about what people - in general - are really like.
In Psalm 51, King David declares with startling but necessary starkness: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” This is the human condition, by nature.
This is why we often confess, right here in this sanctuary, that we are by nature sinful and unclean. And this is why our lives in this world are plagued by sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.
To one degree or another, in one variant or another, we are both the victims and the perpetrators of these evils. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
But the same Psalm that acknowledges our inborn sinfulness, and the defilement of our hearts by nature, also expresses the faith and the hope that God can and will do something about this.
Neither the Taliban nor the public educational establishment can do anything about this problem at its deepest level. But God can. Today’s Introit quotes these familiar verses from Psalm 51:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians reminds us that the devil is an active ally of humanity’s sinful nature, in the ruination of human lives. But Paul also asks the Ephesians to pray for him, “that words may be given to me, in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, ...that I may declare it boldly.”
The words of the gospel are a power from God, that overcomes the wiles of the devil against us. And the words of the gospel are a power from God, that brings about the cleanness and the newness of heart within us, for which the Psalmist prays - and for which you and I, in repentance and in hope, also pray.
Elsewhere, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul says this:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation... For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus, the Son of God, died for all the sins that have flowed out of the hearts of all people. He died for our sins. He died for every evil thought, and for every evil action, that have ever offended God’s holiness.
And Jesus was raised up from the dead by his Father to become the source of a new life for us - a life of forgiveness and righteousness; a life of regeneration and holiness.
God, in Christ, repairs the breach in fellowship with him, that our sins have caused. And God, in Christ, repairs us - on the inside. In answer to the pleas of David, and in answer to our pleas, the Lord creates in us a clean heart, and renews a right spirit within us.
He does not cast us away from his presence, as our sins would deserve, but he forgives us, and embraces us. He restores to us the joy of salvation.
He does not take his Holy Spirit from us, but he renews to us the gift of his Spirit. And the fruit of his Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul teaches that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. ...”
“We know that our old self was crucified with him, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. ... Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. ... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” So far St. Paul.
None of this is done in your own strength. Christ, who covers over your sin with his righteousness, also lives within you, and lives out his righteousness through you.
“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as St. Paul tells the Philippians.
Jesus is the new Adam, who has redeemed fallen humanity, and who has established a new humanity for his kingdom, by the power of his gospel. In a certain sense, you were in Christ - in his death, for you and for the sake of your sins, which he took upon himself and carried to the cross. Your old self died in Christ’s death.
And according to the new nature, and the new self that God has birthed within you, Christ is now in you, through his resurrection for your salvation. He is in you as your divine-human Lord.
His Spirit, the giver of life, is giving you life. In the mystery of his Holy Supper, his body given for you, and his blood shed for you for the remission of sins, are supernaturally placed within you as well.
When you falter and fail, God forgives again. Seventy times seven times does he forgive. When you are weak, God is strong. God’s strength is made perfect in your weakness.
With deep regret for all the times when sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness have flowed out from your sinful hearts; but also with deep confidence in the promises of Christ your Savior, you therefore pray:
Renew me, O eternal Light, And let my heart and soul be bright,
Illumined with the light of grace That issues from Thy holy face.
Destroy in me the lust of sin, From all impureness make me clean.
Oh, grant me power and strength, my God, To strive against my flesh and blood!
Create in me a new heart, Lord, That gladly I obey Thy Word
And naught but what Thou wilt, desire; With such new life my soul inspire.
9 September 2012 - Pentecost 15 - James 2:1-10, 14-18
Your Christian faith is beneficial in two important ways. It is beneficial to you, because of what it receives. And it is beneficial to your neighbor, because of what it gives.
The law of God is a reflection of God’s own holiness. It conveys to us God’s expectations of us. And there is no compromise in those expectations.
Today’s text from the Epistle of St. James makes that clear: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it.” And we human beings do often fail - not just in one point of the law, but in many.
Indeed, we fail in all points of the law, in that our love for God and for our neighbor is never as strong and selfless as it should be. Our obedience of the Ten Commandments is never as pure and complete as it should be.
King David gives us the bad news in Psalm 53: “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
And that’s why St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
But there is good news for the children of man. There is a way for each of us to be accounted as righteous, and to be at peace with God. This is the way of faith, in the saving work of Christ.
St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
And Paul asks the Galatians this rhetorical question: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The answer is obvious. The gift of the Holy Spirit - who always brings Christ and his benefits - is received, by hearing, with faith.
Jesus obeyed God’s law faithfully and completely. The law therefore does not accuse him, as it does us, but instead it vindicates him, and declares his life to be good and acceptable and pleasing to God.
When the message of Christ crucified for sinners, and of God’s forgiveness in Christ, is proclaimed to you in the gospel, Jesus’ righteousness is thereby preached upon you.
As you repent of your disobedience of the law, and as you acknowledge Christ and his obedience in faith, that faith receives Christ. And it receives his obedience, his holiness, and his goodness, which are all now credited to your faith.
The reason why faith is able to receive all this from God, in his Son, is because faith is a God-given confidence that what God says is true. God gives us all these things, not by mysteriously infusing them into us, but through his word of promise, which is announced to us.
A saving faith does not merely believe in God - in his existence, and in the historicity of his actions. The demons, who hate God, have that kind of “faith.” They know that God is real, and is a real threat to them!
But a saving faith believes God. When God tells you something, you accept it as true. When God tells you that he forgives you, and is at peace with you, because of everything that Jesus has accomplished for you, you can believe that.
God never lies. His gospel is therefore not a lie. It can be believed, and accepted as true, by everyone who hears it.
Your faith, as it clings to Christ, and trusts in Christ, and receives Christ, is indeed beneficial to you. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
But your faith is also beneficial to your neighbor - although in a different way, and for a different reason. A faith that receives Christ, is a faith that is filled with the love and life of Christ.
A faith that embraces the saving work that Jesus performed for our eternal benefit, is a faith that then performs its own works of love, for the earthly benefit of our neighbor in need.
A faith that is attached to Christ at one end, can never be barren and unfruitful at the other end. A so-called “faith” that is barren and unfruitful, is thereby shown to be a merely intellectual faith; a false and presumptuous faith, not genuinely attached to Christ and his promises.
Such a faith is the faith of the old Adam, not the faith of the new man in Christ. It is the faith of demons. And it is useless both to you and to your neighbor.
In today’s text, St. James prompts all of us to examine ourselves, and to consider whether we do in fact believe the gospel. He writes:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” So far St. James.
As far as the basis for your relationship with God is concerned, faith gives nothing. It is not a matter of “giving your heart to Jesus.” It is, rather, a matter of receiving the “heart” of Jesus - receiving from him his love, his grace, his pardon, his renewal.
But as far as your relationship with your neighbor is concerned, faith is always giving. The gospel has set you free from the deception that your good works serve you, by earning God’s favor. God’s favor toward you has been earned in full by Christ!
Good works, therefore - inspired by the Spirit of Christ, and guided by your faith in the Word of Christ - serve your neighbor.
You do not use your neighbor, and his need, to earn a place for yourself in heaven. You love and serve your neighbor unselfishly, because you already have a place in heaven - by the mercy of God, because Jesus died and rose again for you.
The Formula of Concord - quoting Martin Luther - summarizes this principle very powerfully:
“Faith...is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit.”
“O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.”
“It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. ...”
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace... This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures.”
“And this is the work that the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.”
“Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.” End quote.
The righteousness of Christ, which we receive by faith, and which makes us acceptable to God, is a perfect righteousness. It falls short in no respect, and therefore does not require - or allow - supplementation from us.
The righteousness of our Christian love, which flows out from our faith to other people, is not perfect. The wavering weakness of our faith guarantees that there will be weaknesses and shortcomings in the works of service that we perform for others.
Our good works are never as good as they could be. There is always room for improvement in all our flawed human efforts.
Even the best of intentions are not free from mixed motives. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is the constant refrain of all Christians - even the best of Christians; especially the best of Christians.
But if the gospel of Christ is energizing the works that a Christian performs as the fruit of his faith - even in the midst of much human weakness - then the gospel of Christ is also ennobling these works.
They are beneficial to our neighbor in need. And under the forgiving patience of Christ, these works, imperfect though they may be, glorify and please our Father in heaven.
God helps you, in all your needs, by means of faith. God satisfies your deepest need - the need for reconciliation with him, for forgiveness of sins, and for eternal life - by giving you Christ, his Son and your Savior, whom faith receives.
And God helps you through the difficulties and trials that you experience in this world, also by means of faith - that is, by means of the faith of the Christian brothers and sisters whom he brings into your life. Their faith bears its Christlike fruit in works of love, that are directed toward you, in your need.
At such times, you are not a burden on your Christian friends. They rejoice in the opportunities that God gives them to show forth the love of Christ, in providing you with companionship, encouragement, and material help as necessary.
And when you are in a position to help others in the same way, that’s what you also do - joyfully, and with thanksgiving to God for all the mercies he has bestowed upon you.
Truly, your Christian faith is beneficial in two important ways. It is beneficial to you, because of what it receives. And it is beneficial to your neighbor, because of what it gives. Amen.
16 September 2012 - Pentecost 16 - James 3:1-12
“Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
With these words from his epistle, St. James brings to bear upon all of us, a very direct and very probing application of the eighth commandment. He reminds us of how much damage we do to people, and to our relationships with people, through the words that we say.
Human beings are creatures of language. We do not communicate with each other by means of grunts and groans, but in words - words that are able to convey all the detail and intricacies of the thoughts that we want to share with others.
A lot of good can be done with our words. We can use our words to plan together, and work together, for the accomplishing of great projects.
We can use our words to create works of literature that inspire and entertain people long after our own lifetime. We can use our words to establish and strengthen important personal relationships - such as with that one special life-partner, through the things that we speak to that person, softly and tenderly, over candlelight.
But in the same way as much good can be done with words, so too can much harm be done with words. I don’t know if kids still say this, but when I was a boy it used to be said: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
And yet, as St. James reminds us, that is not really true. To be sure, unkind and insulting words, in themselves, cannot hurt people in a physical way.
But they can hurt. And the pain that our hurtful words cause to others, is worse, when the people to whom we speak those words are the people who are closest to us, and who depend on us and trust us the most.
If a total stranger tells me that I am stupid, or incompetent, it won’t bother me that much. But if someone whom I had considered a close friend says something like that to me, it will hurt.
People are usually more reserved in public, or with people they don’t know very well. They won’t say everything that is on their minds. They keep their thoughts to themselves.
But behind the closed doors of our household, we let our guard down. Within the confines of other close circles of association, like a congregation, we are much more prone to say what we think, when we think it.
And if we are thinking angry and insulting thoughts in the midst of an argument or disagreement - with husband or wife, with parents or children, or with fellow church members - then we often blurt out those angry and insulting thoughts in the form of angry and insulting words.
Our sharp tongue cuts deeply into the feelings of those whom we are in this way wounding with our words. But this, we should not do.
The eighth commandment directs us not to bear false witness. This means, most obviously, that we should tell the truth, and not tell lies. But we are also breaking this commandment when we tell the truth to the wrong person, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.
As you would consider the harm that your tongue can cause to others, and the damage that it can do to your relationship with others, there are some practical things that you should consider before you open your mouth. As you reflect on the words that you are about to say, especially in an emotionally-charged situation, ask yourself these questions:
Are these words a reflection of what is actually true, or are they an exaggeration or an overstatement that I do not really believe? If these words do reflect the truth, will my speaking them here and now serve any constructive and godly purpose?
If I decide that I do need to speak these words, am I going to say them in a loving way, motivated by a desire for a positive outcome in the life of the person to whom I am speaking? Or am I just going to be using these words as a weapon, in an ongoing battle of words, motivated by my pride, and by my desire to prove that I am superior to the person to whom I am speaking?
This doesn’t mean that we should never speak hard and critical words. If someone is clearly in the wrong, and if you have the responsibility to address this, you should express your disagreement.
You should confront and rebuke the person in question. If you care about her, you will warn her about the dangerous consequences of her improper actions.
But there is a difference between this, and verbally kicking a man when he is already down. If someone had admitted that he was in the wrong, and if he is trying now to make amends for his misdeeds, you have no right to keep bringing up his past mistakes, and to rub verbal salt into his wounds.
We have all done a lot of harm with our tongues. Slandering someone, or verbally attacking someone, is one of easiest sins to commit. And it is also one of the most harmful sins that we can commit - often harming many people, not just one.
As St. James also writes: “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
In some religions, the leaders, priests, or shamans of the religion are responsible primarily for the performance of rituals and the casting of spells. But God’s revealed religion - the Christian religion - is not like that.
The faith that has been revealed to us, and into which we have been baptized, is a religion that focuses on teaching - the teaching of God’s Word in the Scriptures; and the teaching that is carried out by our pastors and preachers, who are called to explain and apply God’s Word to us.
It is important for the church to make sure that the instruction it receives from its leaders is accurate, and faithful to the divine revelation. That’s why St. James tells us: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
And so, we do not have many teachers. But by the grace of God, we do have as many teachers as we need. We do have pastors in our congregations, who teach God’s Word to us.
And it is especially important for you to remember today, that you have a pastor or teacher, who is able to speak the healing words of the gospel to you, when you have been brought to a conviction in your conscience in regard to all the damaging words that you have spoken to others.
The teaching of the gospel is not just a matter of the accumulation of correct doctrine within the human mind. This teaching gets very personal, very fast.
St. Luke reports that Jesus said this to his disciples after his resurrection:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. ... Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name.”
In accordance with this commission of his Lord, St. James, in his epistle, proclaims to all of Christendom the need for repentance. Through the words of today’s text, James, as a faithful teacher of God’s law, has proclaimed repentance to you today, in Jesus’ name.
His warnings and accusations about our misusing of our tongues to tear others down, rather that to build others up, has hit home with all of us.
As we are now repenting of these failings, we are also resolving that with God’s help we will do better in the future, and bear the proper fruits of repentance. With God’s help, we are committing ourselves even now to maintaining more control over our tongues, as we move forward in our relationships with those whom we have wounded with our words.
We are being prompted by God’s Spirit to think even now of the specific people to whom we owe an apology, for the unkind things we have said to them in the past. And if one of the persons to whom we owe such an apology is sitting next to us in the pew - a husband or wife, a child or parent - perhaps we will whisper that necessary apology to him or her right here, before we go together to the Lord’s altar today.
And in accordance with the commission of my Lord, I as your teacher also proclaim the forgiveness of sins to you, in Jesus’ name. In the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, God has put away your sin.
On one occasion, St. Peter said to our Savior: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus never sinned with his tongue.
When he rebuked and declared God’s judgment to the impenitent and the unbelieving, it was because those to whom he spoke needed to hear what he said. When he spoke the words of eternal life to those who had been humbled before God, in repentance, their sins were washed away by the power of those words, and they became heirs of heaven.
Jesus’ words of eternal life are proclaimed now to you - in preaching and sacrament; in sermon and Supper. And as they are spoken, they absolve you, and cleanse you, and cover you with his righteousness.
In Christ, who lived for you, you are absolved. In Christ, who shed his blood for you, you are clean. In Christ, who was vindicated and justified for you in his resurrection, you are righteous, and spiritually alive.
Jesus’ words of eternal life - his words of pardon and peace, of reconciliation and renewal - are spoken to Christians by their called teachers. And they can be spoken also by Christians to each other.
Just think of what a difference it would make, if on those occasions when you might otherwise have spoken cruel words of death to someone close to you, you now speak words of life and hope from Christ.
Just imagine what it would be like, if instead of continually using your words to remind others of their shortcomings and weaknesses, you use your words to remind them of the never-failing mercy and love of Christ.
Oh, let me never speak What bounds of truth exceedeth;
Grant that no idle word From out my mouth proceedeth;
And then, when, in my place, I must and ought to speak,
My words grant power and grace, Lest I offend the weak. Amen.
23 September 2012 - Pentecost 17 - James 3:13–4:10
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Humility is not usually considered to be a virtue in this world. The concept of “humility” is often associated with the concepts of weakness and fear. The world honors and rewards bold and assertive people, strong and ambitious people, and not humble people.
But the idea of humility does not need to be equated with weakness and fear. If someone is humble, what this means is that he knows what his true place is. And with a proper sense of obligation, he seeks to fulfil the duties of his station in life.
A humble person understands and accepts the limitations that are placed upon him. He is aware of the legitimate authorities that are above him, and he willingly submits to those authorities.
A humble person does not arrogantly challenge those authorities, or pridefully attempt to insert himself into a higher status than what has been designated for him. If advancement is to come, it will come because those who have the power to bring it about see and reward his faithfulness in his current position, and not because he has pushed himself into a role or position that still rightfully belongs to someone else.
A helpful analogy to this true concept of humility is the attitude of a good soldier in the army. A soldier who understands and accepts his place in the command structure is willing to take orders from his commander.
He doesn’t question or defy his orders, with the presumption that he is smarter, and knows better, than his officer. Rather, he submits to his orders, and does his duty according to them.
This is a description of a good soldier. This is a description of a “humble” soldier, in the proper sense of the term. This is definitely not a description of a weak or frightened soldier!
But in this world of sin, there are not as many “good soldiers” as there should be. Human nature being what it is, people are almost never satisfied with what they have, or with their current situation.
They always want more - more stuff, more power, more control. They - we - are arrogant and impatient, greedy and selfish. We are not humble.
And we are not at peace. Even with all our intrigues and schemes for self-advancement - even with all the using and abusing of others as we step on them, while climbing our way to the top - there is frustration and disappointment, because we never feel as if we really are at the top.
A compulsive craving for power and wealth is a hunger that is never satisfied. The more you try to fill yourself with it, the emptier you know yourself to be.
And this pathway - paved with betrayals and deceptions - is a very lonely road to travel. When you push others aside so that you can go to the front of the line, you end up being there all by yourself, alienated from others, antagonistic toward others, despised by others.
St. James, as it were, rubs our faces in these destructive realities of our sinful lives, in this sinful world, when he writes:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. ...”
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Jesus was not a friend of the world in this sense, but he was a friend of sinners in the world. And he was a humble friend of sinners.
In his prophecy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, before his arrest and crucifixion, the Prophet Zechariah said: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
But Jesus, though he was humble, was not weak or afraid. He was strong, and determined, and focused on the fulfilling of his duty as the world’s Savior.
In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we read that Christ “was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’”
Jesus did not wiggle himself out of the degrading things that he endured as the Lamb of God, suffering and dying as he took away the sins of the world. He faced these things head-on.
And he did not retaliate against those who inflicted such humiliating things upon him. He did not devote himself to scheming how to get even with them.
Instead, he forgave them. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prays from the cross.
As an anguished wretch of a man dying for all other men, he cries out, “It is finished.” And with these words - which decree the completion of his atoning sacrifice - he also forgives you.
He forgives you, as the law of God makes you ashamed of your self-asserting arrogance. He extends to you the pardon that his suffering and death won for you, as you - in repentant honesty - see way too much of yourself in St. James’s description of those who love the world, and who love their status and power in the world, rather than loving God and his truth.
In his resurrection, Jesus was finally vindicated and exalted by God the Father. But it was done in God’s way, and not in the world’s way.
As the risen Lord - as the victor over sin and death, and over all his cosmic enemies - Jesus does not now “show off” before the world, boastful and proud. No. Instead, as the ascended Lord and master of the universe, he uses his unhindered divine power to present himself to all his people, all around the globe, in his Word and Sacraments.
Through the humble and unassuming outward forms of human speech, water, bread and wine, the glorious King of Kings comes among us as the living Savior, with a heart that is filled, not with greed and selfish ambition, but with love - love for a world of arrogant sinners; love for you and me.
And when this love does indeed touch us, and cleanse us, and transform our hearts, St. James continues to speak to us, and in God’s name he sends us forth from this encounter with Christ in a new direction, with new motives, and with new goals. He gives us these admonitions, with these promises embedded within them:
“Scripture...says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
In today’s Introit from Psalm 37, we instructed each other in song with these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Faith is Christ is not a heavenly means to an earthly end. It is not the manipulative religious mechanism that we employ in order to flatter or cajole God into giving us the things of this world - the stuff, the power, and the control - that we desire.
The Christian religion is not a tool that we use for the fulfilling of our carnal ambitions, under a superficial cloak of sanctimonious piety. The Christian religion is, instead, the negation of all carnal ambition.
Faith in Christ is a humble thing, with a humbling effect. And it is the evidence that God has placed a new defining desire into your heart, mind, and will - namely, a desire for Christ.
You now delight in Christ, and in the earthly callings into which he places you. You delight in Christ, and in the eternal rewards that he promises you.
And when you delight in the Lord, and desire the Lord, the Lord will indeed give you the desires of your heart. Because the Lord will give you himself, when it is him that you desire.
A humble desire for Christ is not a consuming compulsion that can never be filled. By the grace of God, his Spirit continually fills us with Christ.
And where there is this fulness - this fulness of Christ - there is peace, and contentment. There is true wisdom from God, so that we learn how to navigate through the snares and perils of this world, without being entrapped and destroyed by them.
The prayer that God’s Spirit gives us, is the prayer of the Psalmist: O Lord, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
To be sure, whatever earthly blessings God wants to give his children in this life, they will receive and accept, with humble gratitude. The opportunities he gives us to serve him and our neighbor in fruitful employment, we will take, in humble thanksgiving.
But whether we are given little or much, and whatever our standing in this world may be, we are satisfied. We have the risen Christ! And when we have him, we have everything we need.
In Christ, God also raises us up - up from the selfish passions, the self-serving ambitions, and the destructive cravings of this fallen world. St. Paul writes to the Colossians:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
And St. James adds these thoughts:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
In closing, we return to the words of today’s Introit:
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Amen.