Tuesday, October 12, 2021

How we twist God's law. . .

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B, preached on Sunday, October 10, 2021.

    The typical sermon warns against what the Law does not do.  It does not save. It does not justify.  It does not make righteous.  It does not change the heart.  It does not make one desire the good that they must do or face punishment.  There are so many things the Law does not do that preachers must warn against, that we often forget what the Law does can be at least as great a danger.  The danger that the Law does is to give us false security and confidence.  Now none of this is the fault of the Law which is good and wise and given by God.  But how we receive it and what we do with it. It is a danger that we hear the Law wrongly, are confirmed in unbelief, and supported in the lie that we are the people God intended us to be.

    The rich, young man who ran up and knelt before Jesus was no random man off the street, no fool, and no pagan.  He desired eternal life; He knew the Law and commandments of God.  More than this, he recognized that Jesus was no run of the mill rabbi but a good and wise teacher.  This man was well catechized in his faith, earnest in his desire to be the man God wanted him to be, and sure that the Law was the path to both of these.  He went to church, tithed to the Lord, prayed, and took care of his family and the poor.  He was a good man by every outward measure – we would be lucky to have him as a member of Grace Lutheran Church.  We would probably elect him to a position of leadership.

    Jesus however knew more about the man than his outward appearance; He knew the man’s heart.  He spoke not to what everyone could see about the man but to that which only the Son of God could know, looking into the soul of the man who was kneeling before Him.  What Jesus saw in the man was what the man had learned well from the scribes, elders, and Pharisees.  He saw how the Law of God was used not as a mirror of the soul and a reflector of all his sins but instead a  measuring rod to show how tall and upright the man was.  The man had learned too well from his teachers.  He had become one of them.  He put his trust not in the mercy of God but in his own righteousness before the Law.

    When you see the cop’s blue lights in your mirror, do you ask him what you have done wrong?  Are you so sure that you have done everything right that you protest?  Or do you plead that you are not the worst of offenders?  That is how the man approached the Law and commandments of God.  His was the relative righteousness in which he may not have been as good as the few but he was certainly better than the many.
The great problem with the Law is not simply that it cannot save us but that we can twist it so that we believe we are being saved by it.  The Law has not deceived us but we have used the Law to craft our deception and that deception is our undoing.

    When Jesus pointed out what the man lacked and told him to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor, Jesus was not being mean.  He was not imposing a new law or command or rule.  Jesus loved the man enough to undo the false image the man had used the Law to construct.  Jesus was tearing down the house of cards the man had built with the Law and commandments and exposing the heart of the man.  This man had to leave behind the Law and all the illusions of what he thinks the Law can do for him if he is to follow Jesus and rejoice in the Gospel.  That is no less true for us than it was for him.

    We live too much in the relative righteousness which compares us to others instead of to righteousness.  We are content to be better than most even if we are not as good as the few.  We know we need improving but we do not believe we are a lost cause.  We treat salvation as if it were a job performance review.  We expect God to tell us where we have shined and where we need to work harder and we expect that if we comply, there will be a reward in it.  We treat leisure as time off from the call to be holy and we figure we have earned our time away from righteousness.  We have turned faith into a job, church a workplace, and the Law  the time clock we punch.  We don’t understand how God could expect more of us.

    That is the danger of the Law.  We use it to comfort ourselves that better than some is good enough.  To the rich, young man and to each of us, God must come and strip away this comfortable but false impression.  It hurts.  It hurts to be told no matter how hard you worked, it was not enough.  It hurts to be told that one little bitty screw up negates the whole thing.  It hurts to be told that every attachment has to be stripped away before we can be attached to righteousness.

    Yet that is what must be done.  It is not punishment nor is it done to hurt us.  It is done so that there will be room in our hearts for the Gospel.  It is so that we can follow Jesus without looking back or without regret.  It is so that our eyes do not look to ourselves but to Jesus, the cross, and heaven.  What the Law could never provide and we could never earn, God has, in His great love, given to us freely in Christ.  We are not saved because we have less sin than others and some righteousness of our own, solely because Christ died for us.

    The job of the Law is to make for a level playing field.  There is none that is righteous.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  With all our illusions stripped away, we have nothing to look at EXCEPT Jesus.  This is why we begin worship with confession, why pastors call us to individual confession, and why good enough for us cannot be good enough on judgment day.  Even if the man had done the Law perfectly and not simply in his own mind, it would not be enough.  He was still born in sin and the original sin inherited from his parents and Adam and Eve would have stained his soul.  The best of us still lack all that God requires but Christ has everything we need to be saved.  Believe Him; follow Him.

    The good folks of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League are not earning their salvation.  But by their good works they show to us that they know that faith is not without works, imperfect though they may be.  They show to us who are neighbors are, the blessing of service, and the gift of love for those in need, be they near or far from us.  And they remind us that as dangerous as it is to trust in our works, it is also a danger to believe that faith lives without love and works to show forth that Christ is in us.  Our works do not commend us to God but they commend God to our neighbor and give evidence of the Spirit’s working in us.

    We face the great temptation to believe that Christians are better folks than those who do not believe, that they have at least cooperated with God in His saving work but it is a lie.  We cannot appeal to anything we have done but why should we? We have something far more powerful to plead than what we are and what we do.  We have the cross.  We have the blood of Christ.  We have our baptismal new life in Christ.  We have the voice of the Word nurturing that faith in us.  We have the body and blood of our Lord sustaining us to everlasting life.  Thanks be to God that our Lord loves us enough to strip away the lies and fill us with the truth.  Thanks be to God that what we lack, Christ has accomplished and we wear His righteousness like clothing when we stand before the judgment seat.  Thanks be to God that eternal life is not the reward for the good but the gift to sinners purchased with the blood of Christ and accomplished once for all on the cross.  Amen.

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