2 February 2020 - Epiphany 4 - 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The new atheists of our time - and their more soft-core compatriots, the “nones” - congratulate themselves that they have risen above the foolishness of religious belief, and are smarter and wiser than the ignorant and gullible people who still believe in God and engage in religious practice.

This is, however, not a new attitude on the part of scoffers and skeptics - at least not as far as the Christian faith is concerned. In today’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”

I’m sure that many “perishing” people told him that they thought this way, or at least strongly implied it, after hearing the message of Christ crucified for the sins of the world that Paul preached.

On one occasion Paul had an opportunity to speak before the most prestigious philosophers of the Greco-Roman world, at the Areopagus in Athens. He spoke concerning God’s existence, concerning God’s judgment, and concerning God’s raising of his Son from the dead.

St. Luke, in the Book of Acts, reports on what happened after Paul finished his message that day:

“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him, and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

It has always been the case, that many people who are impressed by their own intellects and rational way of looking at the world, do have a dismissive attitude toward the claims of the Christian faith. But throughout the centuries, there have also been many well-educated and deeply thoughtful people who have responded to the gospel in a positive way; who have embraced it; and who have then become its defenders and proclaimers.

There are inti-intellectual strains here and there in the larger world of Christendom, which fear education and rational thought as enemies of faith. “Don’t think, just believe,” is one of the slogans one might hear from these folks.

But the Confessional Lutheran tradition of which we are a part has no sympathy with this. Lutheranism as a historic phenomenon was born in the university. Lutheranism through the centuries has always been a nurturer of education and the arts.

And of course, we would not say that what we believe is foolish. We do not embrace foolishness for its own sake, as if it is a virtue not to think, or not to be informed about things.

What St. Paul is talking about in today’s text is the way in which the world evaluates our beliefs and convictions; our moral and dogmatic commitments. The world thinks we are foolish.

St. Paul asks:

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

Again, Paul writes:

“Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

And the worldly-wise think we are foolish, not just because they perceive us as stupid and uneducated, but because they think that the values by which we claim to live make no sense. Until and unless God’s Spirit changes your heart and enlightens your mind, you would not be able to make any sense out of ethical statements such as these, either:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

And at a less mundane level, until and unless God’s Spirit impresses the truth of the gospel upon you in your heart and mind, you would never expect something like the torture and crucifixion of a man who ran afoul of the “powers that be” in first-century Palestine, to be of any significance to you, here and now.

“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

When you do believe the gospel of your forgiveness before God through Christ, and when you do commit yourself to living as Christ lived, you become a “fool,” as the world judges foolishness and wisdom. But you do not actually become a fool according to what is eternally true and real.

And also, you do not - as a Christian - develop a feeling of anger toward, or superiority over, those with darkened minds who now think you are a fool. But you grow in your sympathy and love for them.

You can now see what then cannot yet see. That doesn’t make you better than them, but it does give you a responsibility to help them see what you see, by using with them the powerful tool for enlightenment that God has given us: the gospel.

The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, and it alone, is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Elsewhere in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes that

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”

So, we do not expect a “natural person” - that is, a person who remains stuck in the foolishness and destructiveness of his sinful nature - to get any of this. We do expect a natural person - who remains captive to his inborn hostility to God - to think that we are fools.

And we are not surprised in the least when those who think that what we believe is foolish, also think that what we believe is destructive and hateful: because we believe that there is such a thing as sin; because we believe that sin hurts people and separates them from God; and because we believe that God offers to the world a real solution to the guilt and power of sin, in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

When unbelievers judge us for being hateful and intolerant, we know that these judgments are false. We know that God in Christ calls us to love all people, even as he loves the world.

We know that we really do try to love people, with his help and in his strength. And, we know that we are taught by God in Christ to forgive, even as we are forgiven.

Christians are above the ignorant judgment of the world, not because we are not judged by anyone, but because God has judged us. Our repentance of our own previous ignorance was brought about because of God’s judgment against us.

We have become what we are now, in Christ - and we are continuing to grow into what we are now, in Christ - because God’s judgment was accepted as true and valid; and because God’s gift of light and life, through faith in the gospel, was then embraced as true and valid.

The worldly-wise mock us for believing that a supreme and intelligent designer created the world and everything in it, with order and predictability. What they believe is that everything came from nothing, and since then has evolved randomly and for no purpose. Yeah, I guess there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

The worldly-wise condemn us for believing that there is such a thing as objective truth, which is accessible to all people. What they believe - and what they assert with dogmatic confidence - is that there is no truth that is true for everyone.

They are quite certain that this is so, as they want to compel and shame all of us into believing this with them. Yeah, I guess there’s a lot of wisdom in that, too.

But seriously, you don’t have to be embarrassed when those who think they are enlightened, accuse you of being in the dark. You have no reason to be intimidated when those who think they are wise, accuse you of being foolish.

And don’t cower in silence before the hateful rage of those who accuse you of being hateful. Be comforted and assured instead by the knowledge that God has called you to, and has given to you, this faith, and this life.

As Jesus proclaimed, the Lord our God has called you to love him “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And as St. Paul reminds us in his Second Epistle to Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

God, in the cross of Christ, and in the theology of the cross, turns this world upside down. What the deluded world considers to be great and weighty, God considers to be of little if any value.

What the perverse world considers to be natural and normal, God considers to be harmful and degrading. What the arrogant world considers to be wise and smart, God considers to be foolish and pointless.

God is the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. God is the Redeemer of all humanity, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

God is the Savior and the loving Father of all believers, who have been born anew of his Spirit. And as St. Paul tells us today,

“He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

God has made these truly wise things known to us, and has put these truly wise things into us, through his Holy Word. And his Holy Word is what we continue to believe, proclaim, and share with others.

Yes, many will mock. But some will repent and believe, and will be joined to us in a common hope, and in a shared joy.

Many who are now “natural persons” will become “spiritual persons” by the regenerating grace of God. Many will become, with us, truly “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” for time and for eternity.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Amen.

9 February 2020 - Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:13-20

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples:

“You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The Bible teaches that we are saved from our sins only by the grace of God, and not by our own human effort. Our relationship with God is restored and maintained by the work of God: in his Son’s death and resurrection for us; and in the conversion and regeneration accomplished by his Spirit within us.

Our peace with God, and our right standing before him, are gifts from God, which he offers to us in his Word and Sacraments, and which we receive by faith alone. St. Paul writes, in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But while we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves us is never alone. A true faith, which is attached to the living God, is also by necessity a living faith, which bears fruit in a life of good works. That’s what Jesus is referring to in today’s text.

The salvation does not depend on the good works. But if the salvation is real, and has really been received, the works will inevitably follow, as a testimony to the genuineness of the faith.

The Lutheran ethicist Robert Benne has written: “We do not believe in works-righteousness. But we do believe that righteousness works.”

When we have been given a right standing before God by God, and when the righteousness of Christ has been bestowed upon us in the gospel, that divine righteousness does change us. The righteousness of Christ, which we receive by faith, imprints the character and image of Christ upon us, so that we will then do as Christ did, and live as Christ lived.

Indeed, as God’s people “we have the mind of Christ,” as today’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians teaches. And Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Colossians:

“You have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

To be sure, our good works are never as good as they should be. Our imitation of Christ is never as thorough and consistent as it should be.

The old sinful nature is still in us, and works at cross-purposes to the influences of the Holy Spirit. But Christ is also in us, and in spite of our human weaknesses, he does work through us.

By the mercy of God, your standing before him, and his acceptance of you, depend on the righteousness of Christ, with which you were cloaked in your baptism, and which is credited to your faith.

In Christ, God does not evaluate you, and judge you, on the basis of your flawed and imperfect works. If he did, you would always come up short, because your “good works” - which are never perfectly good - always come up short.

But even with their flaws and limitations, the works of love that flow from the Christian do indeed impact the world for good. And the righteousness of Christ, which covers over our personal imperfections in God’s eyes, also covers over the imperfections of our works in God’s eyes.

Therefore God, with a certain feeling of Fatherly pride and joy, approves of these works, and does indeed call them good works. He notices them and is pleased by them - not because of what they are in themselves, but because they are imbued with the righteousness of his only-begotten Son - through whom we have been adopted as his children.

Again, quoting St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

But, God is not the only one who notices the good works of the Christian. They will stand out in the world in which we live, and will be noticed by other people, too. Again, Jesus says:

“You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

As we closely study this phrase, and reflect upon it, there are three points in particular that I want to explore with you, as we unfold the Lord’s words to us.

First, our acts of kindness, and our words of encouragement, will make a positive difference in the lives of our neighbors. Our honesty and generosity will get the attention of the people around us, and have an impact on them.

But Jesus also describes the specific kind of impact that our good works are supposed to have. When our works of love are performed in love, they will not be outwardly disfigured and corrupted by human pride - as if we were saying, “Hey, look at me; notice this noble deed that I am performing.”

Rather, when a “good work” truly is a good work - as God defines it - the attitude that properly accompanies the work is a self-effacing attitude. We don’t seek personal praise and recognition, but we are focused fully on meeting the needs of the person who is being helped.

Jesus did not say, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to you.” He said: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

We are most pleased when our way of life draws the attention of people to the God whom we serve, and not to us. We don’t want people to say, “What a great person he is, for doing that.” Instead, we want them to say, “What a great God he has, who inspired him to do that.”

But that’s not the full extent of what we should be concerned about, in regard to the impact that our works have on people. We are not satisfied - and Jesus is not satisfied - merely with a recognition from others that there is a religious motive behind our actions.

There are other, non-Christian religions in the world, that also teach the existence of a God in heaven who expects his followers on earth to behave in certain noticeable ways. We’ve all heard of “Sharia Law,” haven’t we?

And so, as our second point, that’s why it’s important to pay attention to the specific and uniquely Christian term Jesus uses, in describing the God who is to be glorified in our good works.

He does not simply say, “so that they may give glory to God who is in heaven.” He says, “so that they may give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

When you live in this world in a way that pleases God, it is not an oppressive and demanding God whom you are thereby introducing to the people who notice how you live. When people see your good works, and when they sense the attitude and motivation that accompany those works, they should not get the impression that you are slavishly “following orders” from a cruel and heartless taskmaster.

They should, rather, be able to see that you are joyfully following the lead of a loving and protective God, who is not remote and distant from this world, but who sent his Son into the world, to save it from the misery of sin, and from the fear of death.

They should be able to sense that you are cheerfully following the lead of a compassionate God, who has filled you with strength and wisdom, and with an inner peace that the world cannot give.

The impression that Jesus wants people to get from your good works - and from your demeanor as you perform them - is that your relationship with God is the relationship of a beloved child to his gracious heavenly Father. And he wants people to sense that you take great pleasure in doing what pleases your Father.

In the context of what the Lord teaches us today, our works are not to draw the thoughts of others down, to spiritual discouragement and fear of divine anger. Our works are to draw the thought of others up, in the hope that the marvelous salvation that we so obviously enjoy, may be available to them, too!

And it is available to them, and to everyone. When we have people’s attention in this way, we can then share with them the message of Christ - so that they can know that God does indeed want to be their Father, to forgive their sins, and to include them also in the family of faith.

The good works that God has prepared for us to do, are welcomed opportunities to show our love for our neighbor - to show God’s love for our neighbor. They are not matters of drudgery and joyless obligation, to be avoided whenever possible.

If that is the way we think about the good works that God wants us to do, and if our works are not impelled by love as they should be, people will notice that, too. And they will then not be prompted to give glory to our Father in heaven, if they see us cheerlessly “going through the motions” of outward works that we are inwardly reluctant to be doing.

And if that’s the way we think about the good works that God wants us to do, it indicates that we have a spiritual problem. It indicates that we do not actually know God as our own Father.

This leads us, then, to consider the third important point that Jesus is making. He does not speak only of the Father who is in heaven. He says that people will give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

That’s a personal and intimate kind of relationship. The relationship of a child to his own father is a relationship of humble trust and warm confidence.

If you don’t know God in this way, as your own heavenly Father; or if you’re not sure that this is the kind of relationship you have with God, it’s not time yet for you to be thinking about the good works that Jesus wants his disciples to do for others.

You need to be thinking about the good works that Jesus did for you: the supremely good work of living a perfect life in your place; the wonderfully good work of offering his life as a perfect sacrifice for your sin; and the gloriously good work of rising from the dead, whereby he defeated Satan, and broke the chains of Satan’s power over you.

When Jesus forgives you, he fills you with his Spirit; he joins himself to you and begins to live in you; and he brings you into a mystical union with his Father, so that, in him, God the Father becomes God your Father.

As a child of God, the love of Christ abides with you, and will naturally and inevitably spill over from you, into the lives of others. God invites you to know all of this, and to receive all of this, by faith.

All of us, whether our faith is weak or strong, and whether our love toward others is weak or strong, can and should always be thinking about the good works that Jesus did for us; and that Jesus still does for us.

Jesus continues to come to us, to do the “good work” of forgiving our many failures to do the good works that we are called to do; and to reconcile us to the God from whom we have distanced ourselves through our disobedience. Jesus continues to speak his words of pardon for our many sins, as he says, “I forgive you all your sins.”

And he works also to renew us in our love for him - and for others - by bestowing on us the most profound pledges of his love for us: his own body and blood. On the altar of his cross, Jesus gave his body and blood into death for us. And at the altar of his church, Jesus now gives his body and blood to us, for our life and salvation.

What a spectacular “good work” this is! And when Jesus performs it for us in his Holy Supper, we do indeed give glory to his Father who is in heaven. In thanksgiving we give glory to the One who is now also our Father who is in heaven.

Whenever Jesus comforts us and teaches us; whenever Jesus fills us again with his Spirit and his peace; and whenever he renews our faith and enlivens our love - for him and for others - we are reminded of what marvelous good works our Savior has done for us, and is continuing to do in us.

And then, as we remember, we once again gratefully hear, and joyfully embrace, what Jesus says to us today:

You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Amen.

16 February 2020 - Epiphany 6 - Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

With these and similar statements from his famous sermon on the mount - as a portion of that sermon was read as today’s Gospel from St. Matthew - Jesus presents to his listeners an explanation and application of the divine law, as embodied especially in the Ten Commandments, that was quite a bit different from the kind of explanations and applications that the people were used to hearing from the Pharisees.

The Pharisees sought to define the Jewish nation as a nation that was separate and distinct from the gentile nations, on the basis of the Jews’ obedience of the Law of God, in how they regulated all aspects of their public and private life. The focus was on external obedience, and on outward conformity to the rules for living that the law provides.

What we often refer to as the “civil use” of the law is indeed a valid purpose of God’s law in human society. In order for people to be able live together harmoniously in a community, it is necessary that they refrain from doing harm to each other’s life, family, and property.

If the members of a society are not committed to the rule of law, and to the principle of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, that society, and those who live in it, will descend into anarchy and chaos.

The Pharisees wanted to make sure that their own nation would not descend into anarchy and chaos. And what was even more important to them, was that they wanted to make sure that their nation, in its public life and religious culture, would not be polluted by the idolatrous and immoral behavior of the pagan nations.

God’s law, if obeyed, was seen as that which would protect Jewish society from this pollution.

Now, if you respect the life and property of your neighbor, and if you treat him and his family members with respect, you will be thought of by your neighbor as a good person, and as a good neighbor.

If you are a law-abiding citizen of the larger community, paying your taxes and doing your civic duty, you will be judged by your fellow-citizens as a righteous person - according to the norms and standards of civil righteousness.

None of this is bad. All of this is good, as far as it goes. But, in regard to God, and our relationship with God, none of this goes far enough. The civil use of the law, as a regulator of outward behavior, does not go far enough.

And so, in his sermon on the mount, Jesus expounded upon the true meaning of the law, and explained what God really requires of us in his law, in such a way as to demonstrate that a mere outward conformity to its demands, without a corresponding conformity in the heart, is not good enough. God requires so much more than the Pharisees - proud and boastful as they often were - even imagined.

God is pure and holy, and his law accordingly requires purity and holiness from the human race that he created in his image and likeness. The fact that the human race fell into sin, and alienated itself from God and his goodness, is no reason for God to lower his standards.

The kind of external righteousness that allows people to live together in a civil community, and to be acceptable to each other in that context, doesn’t make human beings truly acceptable to God, or righteous before God.

Jesus said in a later section of his sermon, after the section that today’s text quotes: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And Jesus said in a previous section of the sermon, before the section that is quoted in today’s text: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What does he mean by this? What does God’s law actually expect of people, with respect to their standing before God, and their acceptance by God? Jesus gives us some examples:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The civil use of the law is not the only use that we need to be aware of. The law does not only bring discipline to our outward bodily behavior. The law does not speak to us only at that superficial level. The law also probes our hearts, and - because we are sinners - it exposes the sinfulness of our hearts.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul describes this second and deeper use of the law:

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

And again, St. Paul writes: “For the law brings wrath.”

When Jesus on one occasion summarized the essence of God’s law, this is what he said:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In his sermon on the mount, Jesus elaborated on all this, and preached the law in such a way as to make all of us admit that we are sinners before God; and that we have displeased him with our angry emotions, our greedy desires, our lustful thoughts, and our proud will - even if we have otherwise been successful in restraining ourselves from acting on those inner sins.

Jesus proclaims and applies the law to us, not only so that it will guide us in a practical way in our outward relationships, but also so that our conscience will be brought under the conviction of the law: as we admit that we have not truly obeyed God’s law in thought, word, and deed.

When we listen to Jesus - as he impresses upon us the unsettling truth that God’s law makes demands on our hearts, and not only on our bodies - we are brought to a realization, with some fear and trepidation, that what we should expect from God, is not his commendation and praise for our successes, but his anger and punishment for our failures.

That’s what we deserve. If God ends up giving us something other than what we deserve, this is because of his grace, and not because we have earned his favor and goodwill.

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus’ sermon on the mount exposes our sin, and thereby prepares us for what Jesus then tells us in Matthew chapter 26. There, he explains what he is going to do about that sin, and how he is going to remove from us the guilt and power of sin:

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”

This supper anticipated the sacrificing of his body and the shedding of his blood, that Jesus, as humanity’s sinless Savior, would undergo for the redemption of the world, in a few short hours.

Jesus, who had lived for us - in perfect obedience to the law - would now also die for us and in our place, under the law’s judgment against the sins of the world which he had taken upon himself.

This supper, in the upper room, miraculously conveyed to the original disciples even then the sure and certain blessings of this coming atonement.

And this supper, which still endures among us, is a key focal point in our faith and life as Christians: because here, in a profound and deeply personal way, the living Christ deals with the sin that is in us: once the law of God has compelled us to admit that it is there, and that it presents a problem that only God can solve for us.

Indeed, the gospel in all of its forms, is a message of gospel - that is, good news - for those in whom the law, according to its second use, has done its convicting and accusing work.

It is good news for the fallen world - when the sin of the world has been revealed by God’s law - to hear the invitation that the church in God’s name issues to all nations, quoting what John the Baptist said regarding Christ:

“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

It is good news for us - who now see that all our righteousness is as filthy rags - to be told that we are clothed instead with the righteousness of Christ, and are justified before God by faith in Christ. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law... - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for 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 it is good news for you - as you admit your need for God’s mercy - to know that God is merciful to you through his Son, who gently comforts you with the same words by which he comforted those who came to him during his earthly ministry:

“Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”

“Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”

The Law discovers guilt and sin And shows how vile our hearts have been;
The gospel only can express Forgiving love and cleansing grace.

My soul, no more attempt to draw Thy life and comfort from the Law.
Fly to the hope the Gospel gives; The man that trusts the promise lives. Amen.

26 February 2020 - Ash Wednesday

Today we are entering the season of Lent. This is a penitential season. That means that a focal point of the season is penitence, which is defined as “the quality or state of being penitent: sorrow for sins or faults.” And the word penitent, in turn, means, “feeling or expressing humble or regretful pain or sorrow for sins or offenses: repentant.”

We are, of course, sorry for our sins all the time, all year round. Every Sunday, at the beginning of the service, we express to the Lord our regret for the wrong we have done, and we seek God’s pardon and forgiveness for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ.

That is as it should be. But in the season of Lent - the penitential season of Lent - this process can and should go deeper than usual.

Step back from your life and look at yourself. What patterns of griping and grousing have you fallen into? What patterns of laziness and irresponsibility have you fallen into?

What patterns of selfishness and insensitivity to others have you fallen into? Measure your life against God’s Word, as written in the Epistle to the Colossians:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Measure your life against God’s Word, as written in the Epistle to the Philippians:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Measure your life against God’s Word, as written in the Epistle to the Galatians:

“...through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

Lent is a time to look not only at your specific mistakes and failures, but it is a time to look at your whole life. What kind of impact are you having on others?

Do you build others up, or tear them down? Do you encourage and support others, or do you judge and criticize them?

Do you love and help others according to their need, or do you use others for your own selfish purposes? Is the first question you ask of yourself, in any situation, “What does God want?” Or is it, “What do I want?”

This kind of self-analysis is more difficult than most people care to admit. Human pride being what it is, we usually want to think well of ourselves, and we usually want to believe that others think well of us too.

It’s not easy to admit our flaws and mistakes, or to come to realize that other people already know about those flaws and mistakes. Taking responsibility for the harm we have done is accompanied by embarrassment and shame.

But, this is Lent. This is a time that has been set aside in the life of the church, and in our lives as Christians, precisely so that we can do what is hard, and acknowledge what is true.

Let God’s Spirit lead you down that difficult Lenten pathway of honesty and humility; that necessary Lenten pathway of penitence. Take stock of your life, and admit your sins.

God, of course, is already aware of your sins, and sees them. But this season is a time for you to become aware of them, and to see them, and to turn away from them.

And then, in your penitence, remember that the season of Lent is also a time to become aware, in an ever deeper way, of all that Jesus has done to forgive your sins, and to deliver you from the guilt and power of sin.

Lent is a time to see the cross, and to see Jesus dying on the cross for you, to justify you in his mercy, and to give you a new beginning with God - and a new beginning in all your relationships, and in your life as a whole. In today’s lesson from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:

“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

All those sins, all those flaws and mistakes, and all that shame and embarrassment, Jesus took upon himself, and carried to the cross. And there Jesus redeemed us from the sins, atoned for the flaws and mistakes, and covered over the shame and embarrassment.

St. John, in his First Epistle, encourages all of us - in penitence, and in faith - to seek what God now offers, and to receive what God now gives:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And Jesus himself said, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned...”

As we now head into Lent, into our Lenten penitence, and into the new life with which God fills us on the other side of this penitence - through the death and resurrection of his Son - we do so listening, with grateful hearts, to the words of St. Peter, in his First Epistle:

“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

So, let us pray that we would have a blessed Lent. Let us pray that God leads us to have a penitential Lent. Let us pray that God give us a grace-filled and Christ-centered Lent! Amen.