Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, preached on Sunday, October 11, 2009
You don't have to be very Lutheran to know the words, "We should fear, love, and trust in God so that..." With these familiar words Luther and his Small Catechism begin their explanations of the commandments. It is familiar territory to us. The Law with all of its big "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots" is well known to us even if we cannot muster an exact rendition of each of the 10 commandments. But as Luther reminds us with these words of introduction, it is not that simple. We are not merely to hate evil but to seek good. There is the rub. The Pharisees understood the Law to be a guide on what to avoid. God's call is not merely to avoid evil but to do what is good and right and true – something we can only do in Christ.
Today we listen again to that three fold purpose of the Law that shapes us and shapes us for our lives in Christ. So if it all sounds a bit familiar, that is a good thing. And if it does not sound familiar, then it will after we are done. The first function of the Law or the Commandments is as a curb. Think of the curb on the street that keeps our cars on the roadway. This function of the Law flows from God's protective love. He has seen the evil that we are capable of and so like the heavenly Father He is, He acts to protect His kids.
The Law is given by God to reign in our behavior using the fear of being found out and the fear of being punished. They are not the same. The first function of the Law is the useful benefit of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt work to reign in the evil in our human hearts. What would our sinful world be like without shame or guilt. No one wants their bad side to show;
in this way God uses shame and guilt to keep people from doing their worst.
With shame and guilt come the fear of punishment. In the old days, the Law eked out its punishment in public – from thrashing of a whip to the extreme of hanging and death. We are too civilized for such public display but who can deny that seeking someone else suffer does not give us pause? Like when we drive down the road and see a driver being ticketed – we slow up because we know it could be me. The fear of being found out and punished is what keeps us from wounding each other and ourselves even more than we do. This is the gift of the Law that protects us from what others might do to us and what we might do to ourselves.
The second use of the Law is as a prelude to the Gospel. The Law acts as a mirror to show us our sin. In the mornings we stand in the bathrooms and look into the mirror not because we like what we see but because we figure we might be able to fix some of the bad stuff before others see us. Well in the same way, God's holiness stands as an accusation against our unholiness, the mirror that exposes what we have said, thought and done wrong. Marked with this guilt, we are made ready by this Law for the work of the Gospel.
This is the gift of the Law that plows up the soil of our hearts and minds so that we see our sinful predicament and what God has done in Christ to accomplish for us what we could not for ourselves. You cannot forgive some one who does not believe he or she is guilty. So even though this wounds us, it is the healing wound that prepares us for God's remedy, for the redemptive work of Christ that wins through suffering and death our forgiveness and life. We must be convicted before pardon has meaning and this function of the Law convicts us not to make us squirm but to prepare us to be saved in Christ. So the Law protects us and now prepares us to meet Jesus Christ, our Savior.
But what happens after the Gospel has made its home in our hearts and covered us with Christ's righteousness. Are we antinomians? Do we ditch the Law and do as we please? Have our hearts been so redeemed that they no longer need any guidance? Are we so sure that the voice of the sinful flesh is under control that we do not need to listen to the voice of righteousness? No, this freedom of the Gospel is new to us and will be abused by us unless we are led to know what is good and right and true. So for Christians the Law also functions not to protect or to accuse, but to guide, to show us the way that pleases God and is good for us.
The third use of the Law can happen only to those who Christ by faith and live in the grace of His forgiveness and redemption. Only in Christ can the Law now speak with a new voice. This voice is the voice that shows us what is good so that we who live in Christ may practice the good God desires. It is a rocky road and filled with wrong turns and failures but Christ is there through forgiveness to lead us and guide us in the way that we are to go.
I have one of the GPS things in my car that tells me how to get there when I do not know the way. For the Christian, the Law also functions in this way. How then shall we live in Christ the new life He has given us? The Law becomes our guide. We learn how we are to live from the very words that outside of Christ only condemned us. This voice of the Law speaks only to the Christian. For it is only in Christ that we are sanctified, being made holy, living and doing the good that He desires and working to avoid the evil that we know is wrong.
So when the prophet says, "Seek good and hate evil" this is a call to consider the Law, the commandments. It is a call to listen. Listen to the Law of God that teaches us fear so that our sinful natures are kept in check and the evil within us does not run over without limits. Listen to the Law of God that speaks to enlighten us, first showing us our sin so that God may show us the Savior who is Christ the Lord. Listen then Christians, to the Law of God, that now shows us Christians, who have been forgiven and granted new life in baptism, how then shall we live. If this sounds a little familiar to you, then great. You have learned the catechism well and understand its wisdom as it teaches us God's Commandments. If this is new to you, then great. We need to understand what the Law is given for – what it can and cannot do, what God intended it for...
First it functions like a curb to reign in our sinful behavior out of control... then it functions like a pointy finger to accuse us of the sin we would deny or hide so that in the light of this exposure Christ might apply the healing balm of forgiveness and life to us... and then, the redeemed of the Lord who the fullness of His love in Christ, hear again the same words speaking with a new voice – the guiding voice that says this is the path of goodness, this is the path of joy, this is the path God intends for us, this is the path Jesus own life displays... Don't confuse these functions or get them out of order or it will lead us astray... but listen and heed this voice and it protect you from others and yourself, prepare you for the application of the Gospel to your sinful life, and guide you in the way you are to live out your Christian freedom. Amen