Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Not weak enough to be strong...
The last Sunday in October is a proud day for Lutherans all over the world. We get to beat our chest and express our pride of heritage at the fruits of the Reformation. The Bible in the language of the people, worship that is focused upon God's gifts and not our works, the Gospel restored to its central place in the life of the Church... why we have a lot to boast about. It hardly seems fair that one Sunday is enough to stand up here and glory in being Lutheran. And yet today as we think we have a right to boast, St. Paul rains on our parade and takes away our boasting. He calls on us to give up the boast – to give up every boast and instead to glory in the mercy and grace of God alone. It seems like he is really taking the wind out of our sails. Or maybe that's what the Reformation was all about... taking away the boast and glorying in grace alone?
The message of St. Paul is clear. We either stand before God in the clothing of Christ and boast of Him alone or we can hold up the tattered rags of our righteousness before the Lord and boast in our failures. That is the choice. But there is really no choice here. St. Paul reminds us that we have no righteousness to boast about. We have not kept the Law of God. We have not kept the commandments. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are stained with sin. We have not done the good we should or kept from the evil we should not. Partially good is like being fully evil.
We cannot even wave the flag of faith before the Lord and take credit for believing. We cannot acknowledge that we are sinners but claim that at least we believe. We did not seek God. God sought us out. We did not come to Him? He came to us wearing our human flesh and blood, descending into our world of sin, pain, and death with the healing grace of life. This is what Christmas is about – not presents and Santas, but the God who came for us because we could not come to Him. So faith is His work, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us. The fact that we believe is the Lord's work in us.
So what we acknowledge today is not our claim upon Him but His claim upon us, not the fruit of our search for Him but the result of His search for us, and not our acceptance of Him, but His acceptance of us in Christ. It is not our glory that we claim Him as our God but that He claims us as His children.
It is not that we tried our best and came up a little short. Our good works never came close. We came up empty before the Lord and the only thing left to pay the debt our sin accrued is our death. But the interest added by each and every additional sin makes that debt impossible to pay. But thanks be to God that Christ's death is big enough to count for you and me and the whole world. What we could not pay in works, Christ paid for us – in full.
So our only boast is in Christ Jesus. We wear the clothing of His righteousness by baptism. We are the wedding guests who come in the clothing God has provided us to sit at His table and be fed the food of life. We boast in Christ alone who sought us out when we were comfortable in our sin and content in this misery of life that ends in death. He sought us out when we cared nothing for Him. Through His Word He continues to call to us mired in sin and death with the voice of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Our only boast is in Christ Jesus whose good works of a holy life lived without sin and whose good work on the cross has delivered us from the grip of sin and its death to the freedom of life. We did nothing to save ourselves and He did everything to save us. What is left to us is simply to be grateful for His gift and to plead the cross every moment of every day of our whole life. And this is exactly what the Spirit does when He works faith in us – He teaches us to say “Amen” to what God has done, with thanksgiving and joy.
We often think that the problem is we are not strong enough. If only we were stronger we might be worthy of God and useful to God. St. Paul frames our problem in another way. We are not weak enough. The problem is not that we are not strong enough but that we are not weak enough. We continue to hold on to the idea that we could have fixed what is wrong if we wanted to, that we could make ourselves worthy of God's love, and that we are not so bad after all.
We have not stopped living on our own strength, trying to be independent and self-sufficient individuals when our only hope is to be completely dependent upon Christ. We have not stopped boasting of our goodness even if it is only a relative goodness in comparison to others and not a real goodness born of a holy and pure heart, mind, and soul. We have not stopped comparing our righteousness to others – as if it really mattered being the best looking piece of trash in the dumpster.
Until we are ready to give up any and every boast, the grace of God will still seem far from us. Until we are ready to let go of our strength, His strength will not be made perfect in us. Until we are ready to plead only the blood of Christ, the mercy of God, and the grace of His gift, we are still too full of ourselves to have any room for Christ to live in us and through us.
Today we confirm eleven young people. Those who are confirmed today are not being set apart for their goodness or accomplishments or strength. If confirmation means anything it means the acknowledgment of weakness and need and the boast in Christ alone. If it means anything different than this, then it is not worth the effort we have put into it. When we come before the Lord we plead Christ alone, we boast in Christ alone, and we glory in Christ alone. This is our Reformation heritage.
God is not like the Marines. He is not looking for the few, the good, or the strong. He is looking for those weak enough to boast only in Christ. If you worry that God cannot use you because you are not strong enough, then you have it all backwards. In order for God to use us we must be weak, like nothing, so that Christ can be our strength, our boast, and our everything.
Long ago Luther was tormented by a guilty conscience and by the idea that he had to find out what to do in order to prove himself before the Lord. It was only when Luther acknowledge his weakness that grace shone into His heart and the light of the Gospel came to his darkness. What enlightened Luther's darkness so long ago is still that which enlightens the true Church of Christ today. In this way the Reformation never goes out of style. So we come today not to glory in who we are but to boast in Christ. Our glory is Christ, our boast is His grace, our hope is His work, and our life flows from His death. Unless and until we boast in this, we are just fooling ourselves and all of this is but a sham. Yet where sinners kneel before the Lord and confess their sin, God comes to forgive, restore, and redeem them in Christ. This act of pure grace is their glory and their song before the world until time itself will end. Amen