Thursday, March 6, 2014

Symptoms or cause. . .

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on March 5, 2014.

    There are many who are enamored by the idea of a free will – that we are free to choose evil or good and that redemption equips us to choose good more than evil and more often.  But free will is not something attractive to me.  In fact, free will is a terrible lie.  It may be awful to admit that we are held in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves but how much worse it would be if we found ourselves only a choice or a decision away from holiness, righteousness, and purity.  Then we would be condemned not by the sin of Adam and our own sins.  We would be condemned by the what ifs or if onlys of a people who might have succeeded if only they had tried at little harder.
    Scripture is clear.  Corrupt trees produce corrupt fruit.  We are not occasional sinners who once and a while indulge in the forbidden fruit. No, we are completely incapable of holiness or obedience or righteousness.  We are sinners.  We are sinful by nature.  We got this sin automatically by birth, the continuing legacy that befalls the sons of Adam and Eve.   Read Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will.
    Now you can either work on individual sins that we think enable us to make a little  headway toward righteousness or you can dump the whole idea of self-help and come to the Lord through repentance.  Tonight is not about slightly missing the mark or trying a little harder.  It is about sinners dead in trespasses and sins who by faith claim as their own the merciful gift of righteousness in Christ.  Our only freedom is the freedom to sin and die.  If there is any other possibility, it is not from us but from God.  That is why we come here tonight; there is no health in us, nothing worth fixing.  Our freedom became a prison when we learned sin's language.  Now it is the only tongue we speak.  And it has left us dead in trespasses and sin.
    The Pharisees of old and the world around us seems content to focus on the symptoms of sins.  Focus on the behavior, fix the obvious wrongs.  The religious leaders of the day and still today are gravely tempted to give more rules to keep so that maybe a few more might be kept.  What they forgot is that one small sin makes the sinner guilty of them all.  Others thought that if you cannot fix what is wrong, you can at least give the sinners something to do to distract them from their plight.  This is what the Law has become to us – the tempting lie that we are but a choice or a decision away from righteousness or the terrible distraction of making this life a little better since we cannot do anything about eternity.  This is the rotten fruit of free will.
    Thanks be to God that He refuses to treat sin’s symptoms, to fix the outside appearance of the sinner.  God insists upon addressing the cause.  God will not dismiss our sins – not even the little ones we deem insignificant.  God insists upon addressing them even if we will not.  He  brings out every hidden sin from its shadows and into His unrelenting light.  He sweeps away all our excuses and justifications and protests.  Not because He is mean, but because He loves us more than we love ourselves.
    Sin always brings forth death.  Even small sins we think do not matter always end in death.  Sin brings death.  So God insists upon addressing sin’s cause as well as its rotten fruit of death.  A change of behavior will not help.  We need nothing less than a Savior who can pay its terrible price, rescue the dead with the life stronger than death, and give new and clean hearts to sinners.  This is why we are here tonight.  This is what Christ has done.  For you, for me, and for the whole world.
    A drunk can stop drinking but his poisoned liver will still kill him.  A fornicator can stop fornicating but he is still not a virgin pure.  Words that should not have been said cannot be unsaid.  No, friends, we do not need a behavioral change.  We need a radical new birth.  We need a death to pay death's price, a holiness to cover up all our evil, a righteousness to cover the dirt inside and out, and a forgiveness with enough power to pay for Adam's sin and ours.  We need a new heart and a new life – born of the Spirit and not of flesh.
    We are not here tonight to make a vow or to pledge to do better.  We are here to lay before the Lord not only our sins but the false hopes and dreams that a decision here or that would have made things different.  We cannot undo sin's damage.  We cannot release ourselves from its captivity.  But Christ can.  And He has.
    He was broken that we might be made whole.  He was marked by our guilt so that we might be free.  He was sentenced to our death so that we might live.  He was born into our flesh that we might be born again into His divine life.  What is wrong with us is greater than a choice or a decision.  We are sinful to the core.  We need nothing less than a new heart and a new life.   Tonight we come praying, create in me a clean heart, O God.  Tonight we are invited to trust that the Lord has done just that.  He abounds in steadfast love and calls us to return, to reclaim by faith the promises He gave to us in our baptism, and to renew the new life He has bestowed by His Word and Sacraments.  We are invited because with the Lord is mercy strong enough to love us as the sinners we are and grace enough so we are made new in Christ.  We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to be sure, but the promise that endures forever is the Word of the cross – not our own choices, decisions, thoughts, words, or deeds.  This is why we are here.
    Now one last thing.  Too often we lay our sins before the cross and then sneak back to reclaim them as we leave His house.  Maybe we like those sinful ways too much, maybe we do not believe there is enough grace to forgive what we have thought, said, or done, or maybe we find the old ruts of sin’s path too hard to shake.  But do not take back the sin and death Christ has claimed; do not reclaim what Christ was incarnate, suffered, died and rose to take from you.  Leave this sin and all hopes of repairing its damage in your life behind and put your trust only in Him for new, eternal life.  Otherwise all the talk of sin we can muster will still leave us where we began and His death for us will gain us nothing at all.  Amen.


Anonymous said...

Learning late in life that the Lutheran Confessions state that one has no free will wrt their salvation was a shock. Neither I nor anyone in my family (all LCMS for many decades) were aware of this belief. In essence, Lutherans are 50% Calvinists (at least regarding ones salvation). As I understand the Confessions, God doesn't predestine anyone to hell. But we are chosen for salvation. Period. There's no cooperating with God's grace or the prompting by the Holy Spirit. This is a difficult teaching for me. When I was LCMS, I was basically a synergist and didn't know my belief was counter to the Confessions. Go figure.

I wonder if I was an outlier in the LCMS or representative of many laity regarding free will and cooperating with God's grace.

A blessed Lent to you Pastor Peters.


David C. Russell, Author said...

Hello Pastor Peters and anyone else reading the comments,
My name is David, and a couple years ago I was introduced to a book by Holiness theologian and Jewish Believer, Dr. Michael Brown titled, Go Sin No More. I even used it as a Bible study or book study in the liberal ELCA church we attend here in Michigan. I find Lutheranism and main line denominations in general to soft-pedal the life of faith compared to the "straight-from-the-shoulder" approach used by Dr. Brown. In my opinion Lutheranism ignores Romans 10:9-10, but will gladly sing with the Apostple Paul Romans 7 where he claims, that which I don't want to do, I do.
There are too many who excuse themselves, including me, in viewing ourselves as poor, miserable sinners who can not do anything about it.
You serve and take communion, so you are doing something about it.
I would much prefer the theology of a Dr. Brown than the apparent self-defeating theology espoused by Martin Luther and carried on by his pastors of today.
"Holiness is a privlege, not a perrogative," Dr. MB.Brow