1 March 2006 - Ash Wednesday - Joel 2:12-19

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

With these words the Lord God Almighty, through the prophet Joel, calls his people to repentance. With these words he calls us to repentance. The repentance to which he calls us is a deeply-felt, thoughtful, reflective, and honest acknowledgment that we have sinned against our Maker in thought, word, and deed. We are to be deeply sorry for the wicked things we have done and for the good things we have left undone.

God makes it clear that he is not here talking about a pretense of repentance, or a pretense of sorrow. He doesn’t want us simply to say that we are sorry, or to go through the familiar outward motions of a penitential ritual. He’s not calling upon us to rend our garments, externally and superficially. He’s calling upon us to “rend our hearts.” This is serious business, and it is to be taken seriously.

As members of a society that puts a high value on self-esteem, and a low value on negativity in any form, this kind of repentance before God is probably not something that comes easily for us, or something that we think about doing very often. But the Lord, through the prophet Joel, calls upon us to do it now. He calls upon us to open our eyes, and to see that we have wandered from him and his holy and righteous ways. He calls upon us to return in humility to the Lord, and to the truth of the Lord from which we have wandered.

Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

True repentance is an unqualified recognition of the wrong we have done, without excuses, and without any demands whatsoever on the God whose righteous decrees we have broken and violated. Repentance is not an act we perform with the expectation that God will then be obligated in turn to give us what we want or need. God’s mercy is not something we earn by our repentance. When we are in the act of repenting, and of acknowledging our transgressions, we are not at that moment approaching God in any kind of a presumptuous way.

As we lament over our sins, we know that we should repent because we have done and said things that are wrong. Even if God did not forgive us, we should still repent. The repentance is proper because the sins were improper, regardless of what God may or may not do. In our repentance we are not playing a game with God, manipulating him, or pushing his “forgiveness” buttons. In true repentance we are admitting that we don’t deserve anything from God - not even forgiveness. If forgiveness does come, it comes because of the goodness of God, and not because of the repentance.

We ask, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing?” Indeed, from the perspective of our deep sense of having earned God’s wrath and of deserving nothing from him but eternal punishment, who does really know? There is a part of us that is surprised, and should be surprised, when the Lord does forgive us.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

To which groups, classes, and segments of the church is the call to repentance issued? To all. No one is exempt. No one is excused. There are no exceptions. What about elders? We might ask. Older people don’t commit as many sins as do younger people, do they? The Lord says, “Assemble the elders.”

What about children, especially young children? They haven’t reached the age of accountability yet, have they? Wouldn’t we say that they’re not really responsible before God for their actions? And what kind of sins do small children commit anyway? The Lord says, “gather the children, even nursing infants.”

What about a newly-web couple? Aren’t they at least exempt? Wouldn’t God want them to be able to get their marriage off to a good start? At such a time in their young and happy lives do they really need to think about such sober things as repenting and pleading for the Lord’s mercy? Can’t that wait for another time for them? The Lord says, “Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.”

What about the clergy, who pray and minister to the Lord’s people on a regular basis? Can’t we assume that they are already right with God? Aren’t they in some way closer to God than other people? Surely the Lord’s demands don’t apply to them in the same way as they do to everyone else, do they? The Lord says, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?”’”

The Lord calls his people - all his people - to repent. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All need to repent. All need to extract themselves from whatever else they are doing, ponder the things of God, examine themselves in view of his law, and acknowledge their guilt. There are no exceptions. No exemptions. No excuses for anyone.

Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.”

In the humility of our repentance, and in the proper sense of fear and foreboding in which we come before the God whom our sins have offended, we do in a certain way wonder what he will do to us. We do in a certain way wonder how he will react. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?” Who knows? When God speaks his words of pardon and forgiveness to those who repent - which in Christ he has pledged always to do, then we know.

What we know is that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What we know is that for the sake of Christ, who carried the weight of all our sins to the cross, and who died for them there, the Lord through his servants pleads with us, “Be reconciled to God!” What we know is that Jesus shed his blood for us all, so that all of us are included in the Palmist’s declaration, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” In the cross of Christ, your Savior suffered in your place, and he absorbed into himself the judgment of the divine law against your sins. Therefore I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, can say to each of you, and by the grace of God also to myself, the Lord has removed your transgressions from you. In Christ, and by your faith in him, you will not die, but you will live.

And notice also how God’s gracious provision for his beloved and pardoned people is described: “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.” In the original setting of this portion of Scripture, pertaining to the survival of the physical nation of Israel, we can see how this expression would have applied itself to material sustenance for the people, and to the necessary provisions that would have enabled them to offer their sacrifices to the Lord. But it is not a coincidence that this expression also calls up, in our minds, thoughts of the means of grace that Christ provides regularly for his church, and thoughts of the blessing and strength of his Spirit, with whom we are anointed in Christ.

God sends us grain, wine, and oil. He gives us the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ himself, and the earthly bread by which this living bread is sacramentally brought to us. He gives us the divine blood of atonement that washes away sin, and the earthly wine by which this blood is brought to us and cleanses our conscience. He gives us his Spirit, who is the Lord himself, and the giver of life. In his supernatural anointing he creates and strengthens our faith, and he prepares us for a worthy reception of the Savior who nurtures and embraces us in his holy Supper.

And we are satisfied. In repentance we have admitted our need. In faith we have believed the Lord’s promise to meet that need. In the Lord’s Supper we have received and will again receive what the Lord offers. We have been filled and will again be filled with heavenly peace and joy. Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

5 March 2006 - Lent 1 - Romans 8:31-39

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few years ago I heard of one particular way in which some marriage officiants are now accommodating themselves to the decaying state of the popular culture. Instead of having the bride and groom make a vow to cleave to each other “as long as you both shall live,” they are allowing them instead to make a pledge to cleave to each other “as long as your love shall last.” This is both sad and silly at the same time. But it does accurately illustrate how difficult it often is for sinful people to remain selflessly devoted to their commitments.

One time several years ago, in my capacity as a clergyman and as a potential wedding officiant, I was approached by someone with a request that I would unite him and his fiancee in marriage. I asked if either of them had been married before. He said that he had been. When I asked him to explain the circumstances of the ending of his previous marriage, he proceeded to tell me that he was formerly in the Army, and that during a year-long overseas posting, he “fell out of love” with his wife, and accordingly divorced her upon his return to the United States. He was indignant when I told him, among other things, that I would not officiate his wedding.

In a world in which the virtues of commitment, faithfulness, and loyalty are valued less and less, these things should not surprise us. In our self-centered and pleasure-seeking society, people are often looking for a quick pay-off from their investments, and for immediate gratification in their relationships. People are not often willing to work toward something that requires a long-term commitment of time and effort, or to wait patiently while the wrinkles of a relationship get ironed out over time.

And I doubt very much that any of us are completely immune from these influences. How can we be? They surround us from all sides. Maybe some of us in the past have disappointed or betrayed people who were counting on us. Maybe some of us have been disappointed or betrayed by others in a deeply hurtful way, so that we have become jaded, cynical, and incapable of fully trusting others, or ourselves.

In our society as a whole, love grows cold. And among us, maybe love is growing cold too. Are our relationships defined and characterized by selfless commitment and concern for the welfare of others, or are they characterized at least in part also by selfishness and fear? Are we in some ways using the people we are supposed to love, for our own security and comfort? Are we in other ways keeping ourselves at a safe emotional distance from those who want to love us, by not allowing ourselves to become too committed or too vulnerable?

In a world where people in general are forgetting how to love each other, and where we, too, may be having a difficult time truly loving the people we’re supposed to love, it can be increasingly difficult for us to grasp how completely different from all of this the love of God is. We are often unwilling or afraid to love others in this life, or to allow others to love us, because we have serious and nagging doubts about how permanent or sincere that love would be. And maybe, by extension, we are also a little bit unwilling or afraid to love God, or allow him to love us.

Can we trust him? Will he deliver on everything he has promised? Might he abandon us? Might he turn on us? We perceive our human relationships sometimes to be kind of “floating along,” without a deep sense that they are solidly rooted in something that is able to keep them stable and steady throughout the trials and tribulations of life. Maybe our relationship with God is similarly unpredictable. Maybe what seems to be a sure thing now, will turn out not to be in the future.

If we have been well-catechized in what Christians are supposed to say and think, we would hesitate to articulate these fears, or even to ponder them consciously. But subconsciously, these nagging doubts may very well be there. Maybe God will “fall out of love” with us - especially when he sees, and is disappointed by, our continuing sinfulness and weaknesses. Maybe he will at some point get fed up with us, so that his commitment to us will turn out to have been only temporary.

It is profoundly important, therefore, to listen attentively to what St. Paul says in today’s epistle lesson. He tells us that nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. He emphasizes this as strongly as he can, assuring us that no person or power, natural or supernatural, in the present or in the future, will be able to separate us from this divine love.

He is not saying this, however, only on the basis of how strong God’s love currently is, or seems to be. For the assurance that God will always love us, Paul does not point us only to the love that is at the present time being poured out on us. Instead, he points us chiefly to the specific, objective truth of Christ’s death on the cross, as an unalterable and unerasable historical act of love. He writes: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Again: “Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Again: “ all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

We know that Jesus loves us now, because he loved us, absolutely and unchangeably, in his cross. We know that God the Father justifies and forgives us now, because he did objectively justify and forgive us in the death of his Son. We know that Jesus intercedes for us now, because he did, specifically and irreversibly, rise from the grave. These historical events cannot be undone. And they are the places where God’s enduring love for us in Christ our Savior is anchored down, immovably, in human history.

This is the way in which God wants to assure us of his unchanging love. His love is not like human love, with all of its subjectivity and uncertainty. For us as Americans it will never become untrue that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, or that Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves. These things happened in our history, and they cannot be undone as historical events. Similarly, although more profoundly, God loved us, and forgave us, and saved us, in the act of Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, and in the act of his resurrection from the dead. His love for us now is rooted in these things. And just as these objective facts can never be erased from the timeline of human history, so too God’s love for us - his love for you and me - can never be erased as a present and enduring reality.

But our subjective knowledge of his love, and our daily responsiveness to his love, is not as unwavering as is God’s love toward us. In fact, our faith in God, and our submission to his Word, wavers all the time. It’s even possible that someone who has at one time in his life known this divine love may, in unbelief, reach a point where he forsakes it completely, so that he would no longer experience any of its saving blessings in time or in eternity.

That’s why God’s Spirit, through the Gospel and sacraments that God provides, always invites us and prompts us to remain fixed on, and devoted to, Christ our loving Savior. As we are tossed to and fro, and sink and rise in the fearful storms of life, Jesus is like the immovable lighthouse beacon that is always there to guide us and orient us. As we hear in the Gradual for Lent, taken from the epistle to the Hebrews, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Your faith in God, and your love for him, is continually tested and strained in this life. Therefore, dear friends, in the words of today’s Introit from Psalm 91, I implore you, this day and every day, to make the Most High your daily dwelling place. Live in him and in his Word. When his law shows you your sin, repent of it and cast it away from yourself. When his Gospel shows you your Savior, cling to him and believe what he tells you about his mercy and acceptance.

And as you repent and believe in him, do remember that God’s love for you, and his commitment to you, are never in doubt. Even when we are weak, he is strong. His love for his church is built on the immovable foundation of Christ’s faithful work of salvation for us on Calvary’s cross, and on the reconciliation between God and man that our Savior there accomplished. In the Father’s giving of his Son to be our Redeemer, God gave us himself. In giving us himself, he gave us everything. So, he will not hold anything back now. You can therefore rely on him, today and every day, to justify you, to help you, to protect you, to save you, and to love you.

“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

12 March 2006 - Lent 2 - Romans 5:1-11

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our catechumens are working on an assignment for their next confirmation class that involves being able to define and discuss certain important terms. One of these terms is “justification.” If they are paying attention now, they will get some help in completing their assignment, because we are going to spend some time talking about what “justification” is.

The term “justification” represents an extremely important concept and reality in the Christian faith. But it is not always easy for Christians to understand the meaning of this term according to its Biblical usage, because it has a different meaning in our ordinary modern vocabulary. When I do something questionable, which others might not think was the correct thing to do, I would be said to be “justifying” my actions when I then attempt to persuade those other people that what I did was actually proper. According to this common definition of the word, a “justification” is a “defense,” particularly in a context where people might be skeptical about the thing that is being defended. But when the Bible uses the term “justification,” it is not referring to this sort of thing. Instead it is referring to something quite different.

In Scripture, “justification” is a juridical term, calling to mind a courtroom setting. An example of how the word is used in the Bible can be seen in Proverbs 17, where God shows his displeasure with unfair and corrupt verdicts in human legal proceedings: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” So, to be “justified” in this sense means to be acquitted, or to be declared to be “not guilty.” In human affairs, this kind of justification is an authoritative declaration that changes the relationship between the defendant and society. Instead of having the status of someone who is accused of committing a crime, the justified person now has the status of someone who is officially recognized as righteous and innocent in the eyes of the law. Instead of being under suspicion as a law-breaker deserving punishment, the justified person is now reconciled with, and accepted by, society.

In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul tells us about our justification before God: why we are justified, and what our justification means in our daily life as Christians. But in order to appreciate fully how important God’s justification truly is, we should first think for a few moments about the desperate and tragic situation in which humanity finds itself, before and apart from this justification.

St. Paul does describe the frightening natural condition of humanity, according to the circumstances in which we all come into the world. He says that we were powerless, ungodly, and sinful. As sinners, we were inclined to do what God forbids and to avoid what God commands, and were captive to destructive thoughts and behaviors. As those who were ungodly, our deepest desires were for things that were harmful rather than helpful, evil rather than good. As those who were spiritually powerless, we were both unable and unwilling to change ourselves in the innermost part of our being, in order to become righteous rather than sinful, pious rather than ungodly.

And St. Paul doesn’t stop there. Our fundamental sin problem was not only about what we had become in ourselves; this problem also involved our alienation from our creator, because of our rebellion against him and his ways. As St. Paul says, we were by nature “God’s enemies.” Unbelievers may seem to us, and to themselves, to be religiously and theologically neutral. But that’s not the way it really is. At the deepest level, those who have not believed God’s justifying word of pardon in Christ are hostile to the true God.

But this true God, in his unmeasurable love for his creation, did not leave humanity in this condition and state, and he does not leave us in this condition and state. St. Paul proclaims: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. ...God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ...when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son...” What we were powerless to do, God did in and through Christ, the divine-human Savior of the world. For the sake of sinners, and as their substitute, Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life, and offered a perfect, atoning sacrifice. For the sake of his own great mercy toward us, God now counts the perfection of Christ as our perfection; he counts the sinlessness of Christ as our sinlessness; he counts the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness.

All of these saving realities stand behind, and are a part of, the justification that God pronounces to us in and through Christ. And when we believe what God says, we have what he offers. When the Spirit of God lovingly kindles within us a faith that clings in hope to the divine promise of forgiveness and acceptance, the justification that Christ won on the cross for all people becomes, individually, our own justification. God has declared us in Christ to be “not guilty,” and in faith we gladly hear, and thankfully embrace, that declaration. We also rejoice in the reconciliation with God that God himself has thereby accomplished for us.

The reason why we are justified by faith, and not by works, or by a combination of faith and works, is because of the nature of what justification is. Again, it is a pronouncement that is spoken to us, not a process that is worked out within us. There certainly are divine processes that the Holy Spirit carries out in the lives of God’s people. St. Paul tells us that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” God’s Spirit gives us a new nature, which desires to serve God, and which struggles against the wicked impulses of the old nature that still lingers in the shadows of our life. He causes us to put on the mind of Christ, as the living Word of Christ ever more deeply imbeds itself in our conscience. He prompts us to bear the fruits of the Spirit, as the life of God continually permeates us and transforms us. God certainly does do all of these wonderful things in us and among us. But this is not justification.

All of the blessings that flow from a restored relationship with God depend on one thing, which must be in place before they can start flowing: namely, the restoration of the relationship! And that is what God does when he justifies us. Justification is the doorway into these other blessings, and it is the fountainhead from which they all emerge. Without justification, none of them would be there. With justification, they all are there.

Justification is a pronouncement, a message, a promise. And the only way to receive a promise - of any kind - is to believe it. So, when God promises something to you, believe what he says! When he tells you that for the sake of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, your sins are forgiven, and that the righteousness of Christ is credited to you for your justification, believe him! In his own time and in his own way, God will take care of the other problems in your life - your continuing weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures. But those problems are not the immediate subject of the conversation God is having with you when he is in the process of telling you why and how your sins are forgiven, and why and how you are reconciled to him for time and for eternity. The subject of that conversation is the saving work of Christ on your behalf, and the saving promise of Christ that God wants you to believe.

And as St. Paul also says, when with God’s help we do believe this promise, and are justified by that faith, then we also have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that St. Paul is a Jew, who is thinking like a Jew. What he has in mind here is the Hebrew concept of “Shalom.” “Shalom,” which means “peace,” is not defined merely as the absence or negation of conflict, but it is also a very positive idea. When we are experiencing “Shalom,” we are enjoying an ideal existence in which everything is the way it is supposed to be, and we and all things are in harmony with all other things.

In this world, which is marred by sin, the struggles and tribulations that we continually experience do not allow us, in an external way, fully to experience this kind of peace. But this is the kind of peace that we do have and experience in our consciences, as we by faith stand fearlessly before God in the justification that he has declared to us. And in the other aspects of our human existence, as we deal with the many upsetting challenges and trials that we face, within ourselves and in our relationships, the solid and unchanging reality of this spiritual “Shalom” is there to calm us and strengthen us.

God’s justification of sinners is, in a sense, a cordial conversation that he has with us. And it is an ongoing conversation. Even as Christians, we do often sin and fall short of the glory of God. We do often test God’s patience with us. When these things happen - and they happen on a daily basis - God’s Spirit, testifying and working through the divine law, convicts us of our wrongdoing. God at those times is having a stern conversation with us that he doesn’t really enjoy having, but that he must have, in order to shake us up and warn us of the danger of what we are doing.

But then, as we repent of the sins that his law has brought to light, God begins to have the cordial conversation that he really wants to have with us. Through his Gospel he absolves us. Through the Words of Institution of his Son’s Holy Supper he speaks the remission of sins to us, as we are fed with Christ’s body and given to drink of his blood. Through the living message of our living Savior, he justifies us. Because of the innocence of Christ, he acquits us. Because of the sinlessness of Christ, he declares us to be “not guilty.”

Dear friends in Christ, as you today, in humility and repentance, yearn for God’s help and grace, I can declare to you with confidence that Jesus died for your sins and rose again for your salvation. I can declare to you with confidence that in Jesus you are justified. You are forgiven. You are reconciled to God. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

19 March 2006 - Lent 3 - Exodus 20:1-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“And God spoke all these words...” In this way Moses introduces his recounting of the text of the Ten Commandments that the Lord had revealed to him on Mount Sinai.

We note, as Moses tells us, that God spoke these words. The Ten Commandments were not the result of the evolving moral consciousness of the Hebrew people, and they were not compiled eclectically by Moses or by anyone else from the legal codes of other established nations. Instead, these words are the words of God. God is the one who had created the human race, and he is the one who was now in the process of establishing the Hebrews as their own nation, dedicated to him and his service. In giving them the Ten Commandments, God was exercising his divine right to govern their religious, moral and societal life.

Surveys among the general population of our country consistently show a fairly high regard for the Ten Commandments - at least as a concept. A few years ago Ted Turner, a well-known religious skeptic, wryly suggested that the Ten Commandments should be renamed the “Ten Suggestions.” But most people, when they are asked by survey-takers if they try to govern their lives according to the Ten Commandments, will say Yes. Another interesting fact that surveys consistently show, however, is that people usually do not have a very clear or complete understanding of what the Ten Commandments are. When asked by survey-takers to name at least five of the Commandments, respondents usually cannot do it. All of this makes it all the more important for us to be serious in taking note of what Moses tells us today: “And God spoke all these words...”

But, even before God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, it was possible for human beings to have some measure of knowledge of the moral standards by which they were supposed to govern their lives. St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” This inborn knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, which is inscribed on humanity’s conscience, is called “natural law.” Even without a knowledge of the Ten Commandments in particular, or of the Bible in general, it is still possible for people to know, at least in a basic way, what is good and what is evil.

But people still violate the moral decrees that are written on their hearts by their Creator. As St. Paul describes the rebellion of the unbelieving world, he observes that “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

Because of the sinfulness that infects our race, people have a clouded and distorted perception of the natural law. And even when people do have an accurate understanding of what would be the moral thing to do, or to refrain from doing, in a particular situation, they often refuse to listen to the testimony of their conscience, but follow instead the destructive impulses of their flesh.

Our perception of, and sensitivity to, the natural law, is not a fully reliable way for us to know clearly what God requires and what God forbids. It is too easy for us to twist and distort this law in our own selfish interests, to rationalize our disobedience against the Lord’s requirements, and to ignore those aspects of God’s standards that we don’t like.

So, after God had called the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, and as he was preparing them to take possession of their own country, he clarified and reiterated, in an objective and written form, his unchanging and timeless requirements. It would be harder to make excuses now. It would be harder to plead ignorance of what God really wants. It would be harder for a sinful man to deceive himself into thinking that he is actually doing, saying, and thinking what God demands. Instead, when the Israelites looked at the Ten Commandments, chiseled in stone, they would be seeing the very words that God himself had undoubtedly spoken.

The law as God makes it known in the human conscience, and on tablets of stone, serves more than one purpose. Its first purpose or use is as an outward curb on overtly wicked behavior. A society cannot survive without at least some measure of community discipline, and without a mutually agreed-upon set of standards for public behavior. It is sometimes said that we should not legislate morality, but this is actually an absurd statement. Every civil law is an expression of public morality. Every civil law is an expression of what is considered to be either proper or improper ethical behavior in the society.

God’s law, especially as it comes to all people by means of natural law, provides to all human societies a basic guide to what is necessary for the preservation of social order. The divine prohibition of murder, for example, is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting people’s lives and safety. The divine prohibition of stealing guides a society and its citizens in protecting people’s property. The divine prohibition of adultery guides a society and its citizens in protecting the institution of marriage - which is the basic building block of human civilization.

There is, of course, still a lot of injustice in the world. There is no human society in this sinful world that collectively follows the guidance that God provides as fully or consistently as it should. But the testimony of the human conscience is always there, to spur human societies on to necessary improvements and reforms, if only the populations and governments of those societies would listen to that testimony.

But the law of God does not exist only for this civil use. It also fulfills a very important and very personal role in the lives of individuals. When we hear and reflect on God’s commandments, particularly in their inescapably objective written or chiseled form, the Holy Spirit convicts us in a very personal way of our very personal transgressions. Perhaps according to the external standards of societal order, if we refrain from committing overt crimes, we might be judged to be good and “righteous.” But according to the loftier and more serious requirements of the divine law, which address us at the level of our deepest desires and not only at the level of our observable actions, we cannot, by our own thoughts, words, and deeds, be judged to be good and “righteous” in the eyes of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5, Jesus explains the true and deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments, taking away from the hypocrites of his day - and from us - the ability to make any kind of pretentious claim to having truly obeyed them. He says: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Again: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” A society can be preserved in its outward orderliness even when its citizens have angry or lustful thoughts, as long as they do not act on those thoughts. But the hidden heart of a man or a woman cannot stand innocent before the tribunal of God’s judgment on the basis of the true inner meaning of the law that Jesus here unfolds.

And so, according to this second, spiritual use of the law of God, the law reveals to our conscience the impossibility of making ourselves righteous before God by our obedience. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” The law shows us instead our need for a Savior. It drives us to the cross of Christ. It prepares us for the message of forgiveness that Jesus proclaims, to be received by faith. As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

One of the reasons why Jesus Christ is able to be the Savior we all need is because he did, without any shortcomings or failures, obey God’s law to the letter. He was a law-abiding member of the civil society of which he was a part, but even more important than that, every single thought of his mind, every single desire of his heart, and every single intention of his will, was pure and perfect. He was without sin in his outward behavior, and he was without sin in every single aspect of his contemplative and reflective life.

Therefore, when he offered his life on the cross for all of us, the sacrifice that he offered was a pure, acceptable, and fully sufficient sacrifice. It was able to, and did, atone for, and cover over, the shortcomings and failures of all people. His sacrifice covered over, and atoned for, all of your sins. It forgave your disobedience of God’s law. It put his perfect righteousness over your unrighteousness, so that as you cling to him in faith and trust in his word of pardon, everything that he is, and has, becomes yours.

“And God spoke all these words...” He spoke all these words in order to clarify and reiterate the natural law that had already been placed in the conscience of all men, but which was obscured and distorted because of human sin. He spoke all these words so that they could serve as an outward guide for the civil order of the Israelite nation. He spoke all these words so that they would reveal to each man’s heart, at the deepest level, his sinfulness before God and his need for a Savior. And he spoke all these words as a description of the flawless and perfect obedience of his own Son, who lived under the law for our sakes, in order to save us from the condemnation of the law.

So, whenever you hear or read the Ten Commandments, think about God, and his holiness. Think about your neighbors, and your duty to treat them well. Think about yourself, and your failures to measure up to God’s true standards. And, most of all, think about Jesus, your Savior, who obeyed this law perfectly for you, and whose righteousness is credited to you by God’s grace for your salvation. “And God spoke all these words...” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

26 March 2006 - Lent 4 - Ephesians 2:4-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last Sunday, in our reflections on the law of God in general, and on the Ten Commandments in particular, we spoke about two different uses of the law in the lives of people. The first use is as a curb on disorderly and harmful outward behavior. God uses the law according to its first use to maintain and preserve the external discipline of human society. We also thought together about the second use of the law, as the law addresses and applies itself to the conscience of man. God uses the law according to its second use to reveal to us our failure to obey him at the deeper levels of our existence - at the level of our will, mind, and heart. In its second use, the law of God applies itself not only to our outward actions, but also to our inner thoughts and desires, and it shows us our need for a Savior.

And, of course, last Sunday we also spoke about the Savior whom we need, and whom we have. Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly for us, he offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for us on the cross, and he lives forever as the victor over sin and death on our behalf. Our living Savior comes to us now in his Gospel and sacraments, to declare to us his justification and pardon, and to reconcile us to our heavenly Father.

In addition to the two uses or functions of the law of God that we considered last week, there is also a third use, which applies to Christians as Christians. Today’s epistle lesson invites us to think about this third use of the law, and about some other important things, when it tells us that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Let’s break this phrase down into three parts.

“We are God’s workmanship.” This phrase is an interesting one. The word that is used here can also be rendered as “masterpiece” or “handicraft.” As a believer in Christ, and as a baptized member of Christ’s body, you have been, and still are, the object of God’s special and personal attention. God has not simply put into motion certain impersonal supernatural processes, in which you have been caught and by which you are being carried along. Instead, you are like a beloved work of art, lovingly created by the greatest Artist.

And this leads to the next part of the phrase: “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” What God has made you to be, he has made you to be in Christ Jesus. Apart from Christ, you would still be what you were before. And what you were before was not a work of art! Instead, you and I were, as St. Paul says, “dead in trespasses.” And in the verse that immediately precedes today’s lesson, he says as well that without Christ all of us “were by nature objects of wrath.”

That’s the sad and bitter reality of fallen humanity, which the law of God in its second use exposes, causing us in our sinfulness to tremble with profound humility before the judgment seat of a holy God. Given this state of affairs, it would seem that God wouldn’t have much to work with if he wanted to change us and remake us to be what we are supposed to be.

But, he doesn’t recreate us on the basis of what is in us. He recreates us on the basis of what is in Christ. What is in Christ is a true example of godliness and righteousness under the law. What is in Christ is a new and perfect humanity that is in harmony with God’s will, and that makes possible a new beginning for all of us. And when God in his grace forgives us and saves us, and joins us to Christ in an intimate and wonderful mystical union, we do indeed become a new creation in Christ!

The Savior to whom we are united is the very Son of God, who has been raised from the dead. And so we, in him, are thereby filled with the hope and reality of his resurrection life. The Savior to whom we are united is seated at the right hand of God’s Majesty. And so we, in him, are filled with the hope and reality of heavenly glory. From ourselves, and from within ourselves, none of this could be ours. But in Christ, and with Christ, all of this is ours. When God forgives and justifies us, he regenerates us. When God regenerates us, he instills in us a new nature and a new identity. And it is according to this new nature that all of these wonderful things are ours in Christ.

And this leads to the final portion of the phrase we are considering: “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” St. Paul had explained just before this that those who are saved are saved only because of God’s grace, and not because of their own feeble and faulty works. He writes: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Dear friends, your works do not save you from sin and death, in whole or in part. You are saved only because of God’s work: his atoning work, in the death of Christ that was accomplished for you; and his regenerating work, in the preaching of the Gospel that is brought to you. We are not saved by good works. But, we are saved for good works.

St. Paul says that the works Christians are supposed to carry out were prepared by God in advance for us to do. God is not making them up as we go. They are enshrined timelessly in the Ten Commandments. And, these works are not optional. But they are also not burdensome, from the perspective of the likes and dislikes of the new godly nature that is within us through Christ. God birthed this new nature in us by means of the Gospel, and this new nature is continually energized and enlivened as the Gospel continually comes to us in Word and sacrament, and as we continually believe it.

According to the third use of the law, we in our new nature are guided by the Ten Commandments in knowing what those works are that are pleasing to God. The Gospel creates in us a free and joyful desire to serve God and our neighbor. The law, according to its third use, shows us what would in fact be of service to God and our neighbor. In our new nature - which is like the nature that Adam and Eve had before they sinned - we willingly desire to do good works. The law, in its third use, tells us what a good work would be.

The Formula of Concord - one of the official Confessions of the Lutheran Church - offers some helpful and instructive insights concerning the third use of the law, and concerning the new righteous nature that we have through faith in Christ. It says: “although Christians who believe faithfully have been truly converted to God, and have been justified are indeed freed and liberated from the curse of the law, they should daily practice the law of the Lord, as it is written in Psalms 1 and 119, ‘Blessed are those...whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.’ For the law is a mirror that accurately depicts the will of God and what pleases him. It should always be held before the faithful and taught among them continuously and diligently. For although ‘the law is not laid down for the righteous,’ as the Apostle testifies, ‘but for the unrighteous,’ this is not to be understood simply in such a way that the righteous should live without any law. For God’s law is written in their hearts, and the law was given to the first man immediately following his creation according to which he was to conduct his life. Instead, Paul holds that the law cannot burden those whom Christ has reconciled with God with its curse, and cannot torment the reborn with its coercion, because they delight in the law of the Lord according to their inner man.”

Remember, though, that it is only the new nature which delights in the law of God, and which is not condemned by it. Remember, too, that for as long as we live in this world, the old nature, with its ungodly impulses and destructive desires, also inhabits our lives, and is a constant source of trouble and temptation to us. Our Catechism reminds us that the three great enemies of the Christian are the world, the devil, and the flesh. And “flesh” here does not refer to our tangible body, but to the sinful nature that we inherit from Adam. This sinful nature is a life-long enemy of Christ, and a life-long opponent of our faith in Christ.

Because of the continuing presence of the “old Adam” in our lives, the law in its second use - as an accuser that strikes the fear of God in us - is also a continuing necessity. If we would ever become complacent about our sins, or comfortable with them, so that we would harden our hearts against the conviction of the law and close our ears to the Lord’s call to repentance, we would put ourselves once again on a pathway to spiritual death. If we would ever renounce our Savior through unbelief, we would cease to be united to him, and consequently we would once again be what we were before: dead in our trespasses and objects of divine wrath.

There is indeed a struggle between the old and new natures in each one of us: between the nature that hates God and is judged by his law, and the nature that loves God and is guided joyfully by his law. The theologian Joseph Stump describes this struggle in a very interesting way, with the use of some Medieval military analogies. He writes: “For in that inner transformation which we call regeneration or conversion the old sinful self is cast out of the controlling center of the man, and a new principle, that of love to God and man, takes its place. The faith established in the heart by divine grace in regeneration is ready to work by love; and being a living, active thing, it begins to work at once... By regeneration the sinner has undergone a radical and fundamental change in the very center of his being. He has been brought into harmony with God; he loves God and wills what God wills. Sin has been cast out from the citadel, and faith and love have been installed in its place. But sin has not been eradicated from his nature. It remains in the believer alongside the new nature wrought by grace. Though cast out of the citadel, it lingers in the surrounding regions, ready at the first opportunity to retake the citadel and regain the control. The new principle of love, though enthroned in the center of the believer’s being, is by no means at once in control of all his acts. In his inner self, in his ego, the believer wills to serve God only. But sin is strongly intrenched in his nature, and the gradual reduction of all the territory of our being under the new law of love entails a life-long conflict, in which the believer makes headway, but in which he never achieves a victory so complete as to drive sin over the border. Every inch of ground is contested.”

Yes, in the struggle with the old nature, every inch of ground is contested. And the struggle never ceases in this lifetime. But it is a struggle that will not be lost for any struggler who remains united to Christ, the ultimate victor over sin and death. When the Lord in his grace leads you to repent of your sins, the old nature is stopped in his tracks and is thrown back. When the Lord in his grace leads you to believe Christ’s word of pardon, the old nature retreats and is routed. When the Lord in his grace leads you to follow his will, with a joyful desire to obey his law, the damage done by the old nature is counteracted. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.