13 June 2010 - Pentecost 3 - Galatians 2:15-21; 3:10-14

“How can you justify that?” “It was justifiable homicide.” “I am not convinced by your feeble attempts to justify yourself.”

The word “justify” is a word that we do often use in the English language. The word pops up in settings where a person’s words or actions are under scrutiny, and are being judged by others; and where such questionable words or actions are being defended as proper and right.

Quite often people attempt to justify themselves and their actions formally, in a court of law. Those who are accused of a crime give testimony in their own defense, explaining that they were not wrong in what they did, and that their actions were in accord with society’s standards for proper behavior.

For example, if someone who killed another person is accused of murder, he may respond by proclaiming that what he did was in self-defense, and therefore that homicide was permissible in such a case. He is justifying himself with his words, and is seeking to be justified, or to be declared “not guilty,” by the judge and jury as well.

There tends to be a self-oriented and defensive aura surrounding the word “justify,” in the way we usually use the term. We are concerned about what others think of us.

And in our wish that others think well of us, and consider us to be good people, we do often spend a lot of time justifying ourselves before them.

So, when someone else may initially think that a certain statement I blurted out was inappropriate or rude, or that something I did was out of line or unethical, my first reaction is usually to defend my actions - to justify myself with a self-serving and self-righteous explanation.

It’s very difficult for selfish and proud people - like us - to admit it when we have been wrong. It’s very difficult for us to hear ourselves saying: “I was not right in what I said or did. I deserve condemnation, not praise, for my words and actions.”

And so we don’t say it very often - even when our own conscience would be accusing us and impressing upon us an awareness of our error. The game we play is that we try to drown-out, with our outward protests of self-justification, the inner voice of our conscience.

And there is usually a direct correlation between the degree of loudness and persistence of the condemning voice of our conscience, and the degree of loudness and persistence of the self-justifying words that we speak.

And in our conscience, as we ponder God’s evaluations of our words and actions, we also tend to do a lot of self-justification. If your conscience is hinting to you that God is unimpressed by your performance, and that he judges you by his law to have sinned and done wrong, your first reaction - arising from the self-preservation instinct of your old nature - will inevitably be to justify yourself to God.

Oh, it would probably not be as flagrant as the prayer of the Pharisee, to whom Jesus once referred. You remember him, and the self-justifying prayer he said in the temple:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

But we do like to remind God in more subtle ways - in the thoughts of our mind even if not in the prayers of our lips - that we are not as bad as other people. That will cause God to withhold his judgment and damnation from us, we imagine. Or at least we hope it will.

“God, I know that what I did was technically wrong, but there were other factors that you should also consider. What I did wasn’t really so bad. And I had good intentions, sort of.”

“And, well, you’re actually the one who made me the way I am, and so you really shouldn’t blame me too severely for just being the way you made me.” And on we go, in our efforts to justify ourselves before God’s tribunal, and to declare ourselves to be righteous and acceptable to God.

But the more we think these thoughts, and - as it were - project them up toward God for his consideration, the less we are persuaded in our own mind and heart that he will really be moved by such self-justifications. Certain things from the Bible just keep ringing in our memory:

“...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

These divine demands and expectations are not unfair. God originally created the human race in his image and likeness, with the capacity to live righteously as his law would demand.

Why should he be obligated to lower his standards, in violation of his own holiness, just because we humans universally have chosen to disobey him and live contrary to the way we were created to live?

Our attempts to talk God out of punishing us, and our attempts to persuade God not to reject us - with well-crafted arguments and excuses - will never work. Our words of self-justification will never persuade our holy and righteous God not to act like a holy and righteous God.

And we are not holy and righteous people, regardless of what we might say about ourselves. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” Our words of self-justification will never make us look like holy and righteous people in God’s eyes.

Sometimes our words of self-justification do succeed in convincing other people that we are O.K., and are not to be criticized for our actions. But God will never be convinced.

Nothing that you ever say to God will justify you before him. But you can be justified before God, through what God says to you! That’s something that our guilty conscience does not expect.

We know that God demands obedience from the human race, and we know that we are members of the human race. Each of us also knows, deep down, that we have individually been disobedient, on lots of occasions when we knew better, and could have done better.

And so, we are without excuse. We are, in ourselves, on the basis of how we have actually acted, unjustifiable.

But God surprises us - he surprises the world! - with a message of justification that will actually make us acceptable to him in spite of our personal unworthiness.

God’s justification of humanity, just like our many attempts at self-justification, involves a declaration or a pronouncement. But it is a different kind of pronouncement than the pronouncements we make concerning ourselves, when we seek to justify ourselves.

God’s pronouncement to us of our justification in his sight - that is, his declaration that we are “in the right” and innocent - is not based on our obedience of the law. Because we have not actually obeyed God’s law, in spirit or letter.

Rather, God’s pronouncement to you and to me that we are justified before him, and acceptable to him, is based on the obedience of his Son Jesus Christ.

According to his human nature, Jesus was one of us. He was a true human being, with a human body, a human soul, a human mind, and a human will.

And according to his heavenly Father’s mercy and forgiving love toward all of us, Jesus in his earthly life was counted by God as the representative of all humanity. He was allowed by God the Father to stand in our place.

That’s good news for us. Very good news! Because Jesus represented us before God’s holiness, and under God’s law, in a way that none of us could ever have represented ourselves.

Where you have been disobedient, he obeyed. Where you have been proud and self-serving, he was humble, and lived his life for others and their needs.

Where you have tried to defend your questionable actions, he was silent before his lying accusers. Where you have attempted to justify yourself before others, and to persuade yourself and others that your sins were not really sins, he allowed himself to be led to the cross for transgressions he had not committed.

As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

In the miracle of God’s grace, and in the miracle of faith, all of this is now credited to you. All of this is now counted for your benefit, before God’s judgment.

Whenever you try to justify yourself on the basis of the law and your obedience to the law, and to proclaim to God and others that you have actually done what was proper and right - even though you have not - you will not be justified.

But when you believe the proclamation that God himself makes to you, that Jesus obeyed the law for you, that Jesus died for you, and that Jesus now makes you righteous in his sight, you will be justified.

As you believe this divine declaration right now - and I mean really believe it, in heart, soul, and mind - you are justified right now, for the sake of Christ. God forgives all your sins for the sake of Christ. God accepts you into his fellowship for the sake of Christ.

In this faith, which receives and embraces God’s justification, we now understand, and gratefully confess for ourselves, these words from St. Paul:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. So we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

In this justifying faith - this faith that clings to Christ, that rests in Christ, and by which Christ now lives in us - we also joyfully declare with St. Paul:

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

As the communicants of our congregation would ready themselves to come in a few minutes to the Lord’s Supper, the most important preparation to be made is to hear and believe the justifying sacramental words of Jesus, by which he established this sacred meal, and by which he invites us to it:

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

That’s just another way of saying, “which is shed for you for your justification before God.” Come, then, in faith - faith in what Jesus declares.

Come to be fed by the body and blood of Christ. Come to be renewed in hope by the Spirit of Christ. And come to be justified by God your heavenly Father, for the sake of the righteousness and obedience of Christ. Amen.

27 June 2010 - Pentecost 5 - 1 Kings 19:9b-21

Does God show forth his glory in obvious and observable ways? Does he vindicate, protect, and empower his servants in ways that can be seen and acknowledged by everyone - even unbelievers? Well, sometimes he does.

On certain occasions in history, God did demonstrate his divine majesty, and his special favor toward those with whom he was pleased, in ways that were outwardly obvious to all. The parting of the Red Sea - in the presence of the people of Israel, and in the presence of Pharaoh and his army - is one example.

Another example is the “showdown” of sorts that took place on Mount Carmel, when the prophets of Baal called upon their god to send down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice, and when the Lord’s prophet Elijah called upon his God to send such fire upon the altar he had made.

We are all familiar with that story. We know that nothing happened when the idolatrous prophets called upon Baal.

We also know that the Lord responded to Elijah’s invocation by sending fire from heaven, to consume the offering that Elijah had placed on his altar. And we know that Elijah then executed all the prophets of Baal.

This incident in Elijah’s life was a source of great encouragement to him. These events had prompted the Israelites who witnessed them to exclaim, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”

Elijah felt vindicated. The people would now finally start to listen to him, he certainly thought.

But when the idolatrous queen Jezebel heard about these events, and about the slaying of the prophets of her religion, she was not impressed at all. She was infuriated. And she pledged that Elijah, too, would be killed.

All of a sudden Elijah didn’t feel like he was on the top of the world any more. He no longer saw any outward evidence of God’s power, to protect him or to thwart the wicked intentions of Jezebel.

Everything Elijah was now experiencing in the world around him indicated that the queen’s assassins would probably succeed in their mission. And he was very discouraged by this fearful expectation.

Elijah was tired and scared. He felt all alone. According to one aspect of his inner self, he just wanted to lay down and die. He asked the Lord to bring his life to an end.

But even in the midst of this deep depression, another part of Elijah’s heart was still waiting for God to do something big and impressive, to prove himself once again - something that everybody could see. Elijah, in his confusion, was also waiting for God to manifest his glory once again, so that his own faith could be renewed.

But what Elijah was expecting and hoping for is not what Elijah got. Let’s pick up the story where today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings picks it up:

“And behold, the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.’”

“And [the Lord] said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”

Now, Elijah already knew what we know about the omnipresence of God. God is everywhere, all the time.

But of course, God does not always reveal himself, or show people that he is where he is. In the affairs of men and nations, he usually works “behind the scenes,” without drawing attention to himself.

When God stays hidden and silent, unbelievers who do not trust in him would have no reason to change their minds. And believers, whose faith is weak, and who are discouraged and frightened by the dangers they see around them, are not able to derive any comfort from God at such times either.

That’s the situation Elijah was in. He needed encouragement.

Based on his recent experience on Mount Carmel, Elijah no doubt thought that God might give this encouragement in a similarly obvious and overt way - through something like, say, a great and strong wind. But when God caused a great and strong wind to come, “which tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks,” Elijah realized, much to his disappointment, that the Lord was not in the wind.

There was nothing there that served to strengthen Elijah’s faith. It was just a great and mighty wind, and nothing more.

Of course, Elijah’s quest for divine encouragement was not yet over. He still hoped that God might reveal and prove himself in some other overt way, like maybe through an earthquake.

God could certainly get a lot of attention, from believers and unbelievers alike, if he would use an earthquake to make a point about his sovereignty and power. But when an earthquake did then occur, the Lord was not in the earthquake either.

God didn’t do or say anything through the earthquake to draw attention to himself or to make his will known. It was just an earthquake.

But Elijah was still not ready to give up. If God had vindicated himself and Elijah through fire before - a big, impressive conflagration from heaven - then at the very least, he would probably do it in that way again.

Elijah no doubt thought that he could count on God to reveal his judgment against Jezebel by means of another massive fire, that would show people once and for all that God was in charge - and that would bolster Elijah’s own flagging faith too.

And fire did come. But the Lord was not in the fire. It was just a fire. It didn’t prove anything about God one way or the other, to unbelievers, or to Elijah.

At this point Elijah was probably at his lowest point of discouragement. God seemed to be toying with him - getting his hopes up, and then dashing those hopes, over and over again.

But that’s not what God was doing. That’s what Elijah was doing to himself, through his presumption that the kind of outwardly glorious method of self-revelation that God chose to use on one particular occasion - on Mount Carmel - is the kind of method he could be expected to use all the time.

What God was teaching Elijah - and us - is that this is not his normal way of making himself known. Big, obvious displays of power and grandeur are not God’s preferred way of revealing his will, or of reminding his people of his faithfulness in times of need.

And what is the ordinary way by which God does strengthen and sustain us? After the coming and going of the mighty wind, the great earthquake, and the consuming fire - none of which gave Elijah’s soul any encouragement - the prophet learned the answer to that important question.

Again, we listen to God’s Word:

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”

“The sound of a low whisper.” Other translations render this as “a still, small voice.”

God’s calm and whispered voice - his gentle message of hope and peace to fearful and troubled hearts - is the method he can always be counted on to use, to help us when we are going through the kind of trials that Elijah was going through at this point in his life.

God’s low whisper is nothing flashy. The unbelieving world would not notice it at all. But the still, small voice of the Lord is filled with God’s power - to heal, and to save, and to make all things new for his beloved servants.

When people are forced to acknowledge the presence and authority of God by means of outward and obvious displays of his power, this acknowledgment is generally imbued with trepidation and fear, and not with love and joy.

In events such as what happened on Mount Carmel, unbelievers are easily frightened into an external recognition of the existence of a holy God. But this is not a true faith - the kind of faith that inwardly transforms an idolatrous heart into a heart that trusts the promises of God, and that cheerfully submits to the gracious will of God.

And it is not an enduring faith. When the frightening external circumstances that elicited this fear-based “faith” are gone and forgotten, the faith itself disappears, and life as an unbeliever goes on as before.

In contrast, the gentle and outwardly unassuming voice of God carries to a troubled conscience words of hope and comfort that deeply embed themselves in that troubled conscience.

The Lord’s still, small voice doesn’t overwhelm you and “knock you off our feet,” as much as it calmly works its way into the deepest recesses of your heart, where it then plants and strengthens within you a living and fruitful faith.

As a prophet, Elijah had access to the gentle voice of God in a direct way. He could audibly hear God speaking to him, by means of direct revelation.

That doesn’t happen very often today, if at all. But we do still have access to the still, small voice of the Lord. Today God whispers to us, and gives us a certain knowledge of his love and mercy, through the unassuming printed page of Holy Scripture.

God speaks to you, and makes his presence and gracious will known to you, through the simple speaking of the message of his Word - publicly by the Lord’s called servants, and privately and informally whenever another Christian shares with you a word of encouragement from the Scriptures.

There is little exuberance or effervescence in this. As far as the outward form of presentation is concerned, there is nothing here that would grab the attention of those whose hearts are still stuck in the idolatries of our time - obsession with material prosperity, love of money, fixation on pleasure and entertainment.

But for us who hear and believe the Gospel of God - and of God’s Son - all the eternal blessings that God’s still, small voice would speak upon us, are always there for us. The Holy Scriptures quote Jesus to say this:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The divine Savior who says things like this to you through the Scriptures, says them in a still, small voice. He who is God and Lord in human flesh, and who died and rose again for you, speaks his forgiving and restoring Gospel to you in the hushed tone of simple human speech.

But in the speaking of that Gospel, there is more power to save your soul than there is in a hundred wind storms, a thousand earthquakes, or a million raging conflagrations.

You therefore don’t need to try to find God’s comfort in outward displays of might and majesty like that. You won’t find it there anyway - just as Elijah did not find God’s comfort in these things.

But he did find comfort and confidence in the soft whisper of God. And you can find these blessings there too, when his almighty Word is spoken to you through humble human lips, and from a simple written text.

Wherever the message of Christ is proclaimed, and wherever the gospel of forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ is preached, the still, small voice of God is heard. Wherever the sacraments that Jesus has entrusted to his church are administered according to his will - with the use of his simple yet powerful instituting words - there the Lord’s true encouragement will be found.

When the gentle whisper of God comes to you in these means of grace, you will know in faith that God has not abandoned you, that he is protecting you, and that his good and gracious will for you and for his church will ultimately prevail.

In just such a way, Elijah came to know - even in the midst of the worst of trials - that by God’s grace his life would go on. You, too, in similar circumstances, will be similarly encouraged.

Your life, too, will go on - until, in God’s timing, you walk the streets of gold in the new heavenly Jerusalem. And as your life goes on, your Savior Jesus Christ will be with you always, even to the end of the age: speaking to you in his Gospel and sacraments; speaking to you in his still, small voice. Amen.