Monday, August 30, 2010

The Freedom to Embrace Obedience

Sermon Preached for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, Sunday, August 29, 2010.

    One of the strengths of youth is also its weakness – the quest for independence and the freedom to do what you want.  It is a strength because the energy and indomitable spirit of youth have accomplished many things the old have given up on.  But it is a weakness because such independence and freedom are fleeting and work against family and faith.
    Think of the pioneer spirit that drove Americans to turn a wilderness into a nation.  Or, in more modern terms, the desire to boldly go where no man has ever gone before.  This independent and sometimes entrepreneurial spirit has been applied to many different arenas of life – even faith and the Church.  Think Joel Osteen and the way he turned his dad's pentecostal congregation into a stadium size mega-church and himself into a publishing success.  The only problem is that this success came at the cost of Christian distinctiveness; his distortion of that faith raises honest questions about his accomplishment.
    For the Christian, the temptations of independence and freedom are always tempered by the call to obedience.  Christ is the author and pioneer of the faith and we walk where He has led the way.  What we seek more than anything is obedience to the faith.  Obedience to the Scriptures as the voice of God, obedience to Christ to shape the path of our lives, and obedience even to death.  Today we remember the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist and his legacy of faithfulness and obedience, even to death.  What some see as the independent streak of his life is in realty the radical obedience of faith, following the word and will of God above all things, the fruit of the Spirit who transforms the heart.
    Obey is a tough word.  Men do not want to say it to God, women do not want to say it to husbands, and children do not want to say it to parents.  Sin has turned obedience into a killing word that would constrain our freedom and curb our independence.  Because of sin, we don't want to give up even an illusion of independence.
    The truth is that faith does not begin and end with us.  We do not create it or define it.  The Spirit teaches us to believe and teaches us to submit our wills and desires to the Word and Truth of God.  Christian faith is not tailored to fit the individual but is the one and unchanging truth of Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
    When I think of the obedience of faith, I think of Job who cried out to God in his wounds and asks for a simple explanation.  But God calls him to simple trust.  I think of John the Baptist who seems to have earned his stripes as a prophet only to submit to the word and will of Jesus.  In the waters of the Jordan John sees that this is all wrong – that Jesus should be baptizing him and not the other way around.  But Christ does not negotiate and John is obedient in faith to the will and purpose of God.  The Spirit created a new will and built a new heart in which obedience was now the desire and trust was the path.
    The call to obey is the call to silence the selfish heart that wants to do what pleases me.  Instead we learn, by the power of the Spirit as the hymn stanza says, that what pleases God that pleases me.  This radical obedience of faith kills the idea that what makes me feel good, is good; that what makes me happy is what I ought to do.  Faith opens a whole new door and the Spirit teaches us a new path, revealed in Christ Jesus:  "Not my will, but thy will be done."
    Now our sinful hearts are right to resist this obedience of faith because sin knows that trusting in yourself is not freedom at all but the worst kind of bondage.  Instead of sacrificing our freedom, the obedience of faith is the only real and genuine freedom there is.  So we cannot choose the obedience of faith for ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us that obedience is a good word, that God can be trusted, and that a cross shaped life is the right pattern of life.
    Obedience is not simply a Sunday morning word.  This is not about obeying the Pastor.  This is not an obedience born of fear.  This is about the Word and Will of God revealed in Christ Jesus and our trust in that Word and will.  Every day we are struggle to give up the idea that God must fit us and our definitions and every day the Spirit works to renew and transform our minds and our reason so that they are captive to His Word and a servant of His will.
    Sin turned us into enemies of God and sin keeps us there.  Only the Spirit can free us from this captivity; do not surrender this freedom to the bondage of our own wills and desires, apart from God.  If we are to live free, that freedom leads us to the obedience of faith, submitting to the will and purpose of God and the power of His transcendent love by the power of the Spirit.
    Our nation is filled with people who love things spiritual.  But spirituality is no inward pursuit to find our selves and what we want.  True spirituality does not exchange one bondage for another.  No, the Spirit leads us to find our lives hidden in Christ’s life and our purpose in following where He has led the way.  Where the Spirit is, there is this freedom, and there will be obedience, faithfulness, and service to the Lord – just like in John the Baptist.
    Obedience is also a matter of the heart.  There are those who think that if our desires come from within, these desires are natural and good and God must have placed them there.  There are those who think that whatever flows from our hearts is good.  But Scripture tells us that sin flows from the heart, from inside out and not simply outside in.  Scripture reminds us that the desires of our hearts must be cleansed and controlled or they will dominate us to destruction.  So God intervenes with grace and we are born again in baptism – from the rule of the sinful heart to the rule of Christ who sets us free.  In this way, we, like John of old, do not act out of fear but in joyful faith, so confident of eternity that the things of this life do not overcome us.
    The freedom God gives to us is not squandered on the pursuit of believing, doing, and seeking what we want at the moment.  The freedom God gives is wisely invested in the one path that cannot disappoint us.  Here again, John the Baptist teaches us that the only real freedom is the freedom to obey.  Christ must increase; I must decrease.  John spoke those words not with regret but with joy, he was free in Christ from the oppression of self and no longer captive to the fear of his wants and desires or the judgments of others.
    Obedience is not some awful, terrible word that constrains us but the only real choice which offers freedom to us.  The goal of faith is not for us to live independent and free lives but to live dependently upon the Lord.  The goal of faith is not freedom to do what pleases us, but to learn to delight in what pleases God and to live in obedience to His Word and will.
    Today we honor St. John the Baptist and the light of Christ that shone through him in life and in death.  He was a man of faith from the moment when he jumped in his mother’s womb to the moment when he died at the hands of Herod and his family’s wickedness.  He was free in Christ from fear and all captivity to self and this life so that He was free to receive the crown of righteousness appointed for him.  Today we pray that we may be such people of faith, free in Christ to serve Him without constraint, until we receive with Him the crown of righteousness and the wonderful “well done” of our Lord.  Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“Obedience is not some awful, terrible word that constrains us but the only real choice which offers freedom to us.” I could have started somewhere else in this essay, but this statement reminded me so much of the slogans with which I grew up, such as, “Kraft durch Freude,” “Arbeit macht frei,” and “Glory to labor” that its absurdity made me gnash my teeth. No reasonable person can believe this contradiction, but it sounds so abstruse that we nod our heads and say, “How pious, how wise!”

Why do we always have to contrast freedom with “the pursuit of believing, doing, and seeking what we want at the moment?” If that is the reality, then why did our Lord set us free, and from what?

The new obedience of the Kingdom of God is not like the old obedience. The old obedience, if it obeys, obeys against its will, the new obedience obeys because the new man rising out of the waters of baptism wants what God wants. We learn the specifics of God’s will from Scripture, but the will and desire to do it are given to us in the rebirth by water and the Spirit. No, it is not a perfect conformity, but it is not something we learn in a continuous process, either from Scripture or from the Holy Spirit, until we realize how free we are when we finally do what somebody else want us to do.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, II. Free Will, or Human Powers has this to say about the nature of the child of God: “Reason and free will are able to a certain extent to live an outwardly decent life; but to be born anew, and to obtain inwardly another heart, mind, and disposition, this only the Holy Ghost effects. He opens the understanding and heart to understand the Scriptures and to give heed to the Word…,” and, “He worketh in us both to will and to do of His own good pleasure, Phil. 2:13,” and, “He takes away the hard heart of stone, and gives a new tender heart of flesh, that we may walk in His commands, Ezek. 11:19; Deut. 30:6; Ps. 51:10.”

If we take on the “form of a slave” as our Lord did, it is not because we think that this is how we find freedom, but because God has put the will to serve into our hearts. Our Lord did not have to have a new heart, because His was perfect to begin with, but as a gift, we have the same mind that was in Him.

The essence of faith is to believe this, even though it makes no sense, and even though it may contradict our experience. But it is what God tells us in the Scriptures, and as Abraham believed the impossible, and it was counted to him as righteousness, so is it also to us.

Your willing servant, by the grace of God,
George A. Marquart