Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday after Invocabit

Sermon on Psalm 32
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
February 24, 2010 (The Wednesday after Invocabit)

When I was young, there was a certain part of the liturgy, right at the very beginning, that didn’t really make sense. Right at the beginning of both p. 5 and p. 15 of The Lutheran Hymnal, which we now know (with some updated language) as Divine Service III in the Lutheran Service Book, the pastor says, “Our help is in the name of the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “Who made heaven and earth.” Then the pastor says, “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord,” and the congregation says, “No you didn’t, you said, ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord.’” Actually, no, the congregation responds, “And Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” That second versicle and response never made sense to me until I was older and realized that it was a quotation of the second half of Psalm 32:5.

David is contrasting his desire to confess his sins and receive absolution with his earlier silence in verses 3 and 4. When he, because of shame or guilt or fear of punishment, decided to keep his sins to himself, they corroded him. He couldn’t even stand in his own presence, let alone that of his family and friends. Even his most intimate relations with his wives were affected by his guilt and shame (that’s what “my strength was dried up” means in the original language, by the way). He knew he deserved nothing but sin and death, and so the idea of going on with life as if everything were normal was simply intolerable to him. He had no peace and no rest.

And when he repents, what is the Lord’s response? Not punishment, not wrath, not humiliation or anything of the sort. Forgiveness. To God it was as if his sin was not even there in the first place. The Lord did not count his iniquity against him. He was free, clean, and his sin was no longer something that could trouble him, accuse him, or condemn him.

Now, I want to be clear that David’s repentance was not what caused God to forgive him. David was forgiven already, because the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, David’s ultimate Descendant as well as his Lord, Jesus Christ, had taken his sin and nailed it to the cross. Even while David was trying to hide his sin and cover it up by keeping it to himself, God had already taken it away and given it to His Son and David’s to die for on the cross. It’s just that when we human beings try to claim our sin as our own problem, instead of allowing God to have it, we get in the way of God’s delivery of His forgiveness to us in the Word and Sacraments. It’s as if we’re saying, “Well, God, you can’t forgive this one because you can’t have it. It’s mine. It’s my precious.” But, like the One Ring in Tolkein’s books, all that your precious does is corrode you. Repentance, letting Jesus have it, is the only way to be free of it.

And free of it you are. Your iniquity is counted against the one man who was free of sin, the God-man, Jesus Christ. What is attributed to your account is His perfection and His righteousness. Your sin no longer exists because it died with Him on the cross. David wasn’t talking about two categories of people in verse 10 of the psalm, the righteous and the unrighteous; he was talking about his own experiences with trying to keep his sin for himself as well as with confessing it and receiving the absolution won for him by Christ. Your sin is forgiven. You don’t need to hold on to it. You are free. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent 1

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
February 21, 2010 (The First Sunday in Lent)

Life would be so much easier without temptations. It would be so much easier to be able to go through life and accomplish what you need to accomplish and to do what you want to do and what you ought to do without being distracted by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. All of us would be much happier and healthier if we didn’t have temptation to contend with. Even when we don’t give in to temptation, fighting it off takes strength and willpower that could be more productively devoted to other things. Well, temptation is a fact of life in this world. Even our Lord, who was perfect and without sin, had to fight against the temptations of the devil. Even though unlike us He didn’t give in to the temptations, He still had to expend energy and time fighting against the devil and against the temptations he put in Jesus’ path. As we look at these temptations we see that the temptations Jesus faced are really the same ones that face all of us, because Jesus’ purpose was to face them in our behalf, as our substitute.

Now, at first glance, these temptations may seem to be unusual and extraordinary; after all, how many of you have fasted for forty days straight, or been offered rulership over the whole world, or stood on the highest part of the temple in Jerusalem? But when you dig beneath the surface, these temptations are the same as the ones we face each day. Each of these temptations asks us to violate the First Commandment, which says that we are to have no other gods before the true God; each of these temptations asks us to rely on something else than what God in His providence, mercy, and love gives us for our well-being.

The first temptation, perhaps the most obvious one, is to rely on something other than God for our daily sustenance. The Son of God came to earth to share in our experience, and that means that although He used His divine power to help others, He never used His divine power to help Himself, but rather suffered what an ordinary man would suffer in the same circumstances. Here Satan tempts Him to break that rule. God had not provided bread for Him in that wilderness, and so He had to suffer the pangs of hunger. If He would have taken the stones and made bread for Himself from them, He would have been criticizing the Father’s providence by doing so. We, too, often try to get things apart from what God has given us, whether those things be material things or relationships with other people. The sins of stealing and adultery are of course what happens when we give in to this temptation, and even when we don’t outwardly give in we commit the sins of jealousy and covetousness, which are, of course, the same thing.

The second temptation is to test God, to try to force Him to act outside of the means He normally uses to help us. How do you really know that God is supporting and upholding you and protecting you unless you make Him show Himself? After all, if Jesus had jumped down from the Temple and landed unhurt, or even better been carried back up to the top by angels, it would really have shown the world that He was somebody special. But God has not promised to take away the consequences of our own foolishness, nor does He condone the unbelief that wants to make God show Himself by forcing His hand. We are to trust that God is with us and protecting us, and rely on His promises. If we try to make Him prove that He is protecting and upholding us, we show that we don’t really believe His promises, and we might end up getting ourselves hurt. The Christian Church is not always outwardly prosperous and successful in this world. It may be tempting to think that something besides baptizing and teaching are how disciples are made, and therefore how the Church grows. If only God would show Himself by some sort of sign or wonder. Maybe He is doing so at that church down the road where they have thousands of members and it seems they have money coming out of their ears. Maybe if we did like them it would show us, and those around us, that God really is watching out for and taking care of us. But signs and wonders are not where God has promised to be found. Signs and wonders can be faked, not only by human beings, but by the demons themselves. To doubt the promises in the Word is to doubt God, and that can land you in Satan’s territory very quickly.

The third temptation is to focus on results rather than what our responsibilities actually are. Jesus, after all, had come to this earth in order to be the Lord of the whole earth. But His purpose was to become the Lord of the whole earth by becoming the Savior of the whole earth. And to save the people of the world He had to pass through some mighty unpleasant things, including the scorn and contempt of the religious leaders, pains and sorrows, and finally beatings, mockery and a painful, ugly death. It would be so much nicer if all He had to do was to pretend to bow down to Satan, and mouth a few words worshiping Satan which He didn’t really mean. It would be so much easier just to play-act for a few seconds and gain lordship over the whole world that way rather than to endure all of that suffering and pain. Many people in our society face this temptation. To live the good life, to be on the fast track, to measure a person by how much money he has rather than how he uses it; this temptation is operative there as well, especially when dishonest means are used to get where you want to be. God does not call us to worldly success. He does not call us to gain the approval of the whole world. He calls us to faithfulness. The ends do not justify the means. He calls us to act within His will for us even if it means that by the world’s terms we finish last. Because when we cheat, the way Jesus was tempted to cheat here, we really end up worshiping someone or something other than the true God. Even the outward success of the church itself can become a false god if it is achieved by compromising what the Scriptures say.

Our Lord overcame these temptations using the Means that God had given Him to use, namely the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God. This is our defense as well, against all the temptations which come against us. God’s Law is clear, and the better we know it, the better we will be able to remind ourselves of it when we are faced with temptation. But in this text Jesus stands, not merely as a good example of how to overcome temptation, but more importantly He stands as the One who overcame temptation for us. Adam and Eve gave in to temptation, and so all of their descendants, including you and me, have been infected with the disease of sinfulness. But in our baptism we were adopted into Christ, and so we have become part of the new family, the descendants of the new Adam, namely Christ Jesus. He overcame temptation, and we overcame those temptations in Him. Because of this we can be declared righteous and holy, which is what happens when your sins are forgiven.

Through the Word of God as we live daily in our Baptism, the Holy Spirit works in us to overcome the temptations we face. It is only because of His power through the Word that we are able to overcome temptation. This is especially true since we have so often fallen to temptation in the past, which makes it easier to give in again. Only by the Holy Spirit are we given the courage and strength to overcome temptation. Even Jesus needed to be strengthened by God’s messengers after facing the devil’s temptations. God sends the Holy Spirit to you through Word and Sacrament preached and administered by pastors such as myself, pastors who are His messengers of forgiveness and eternal life to His people. This is why it is vitally important that we are regularly in Church to hear God’s Word and receive His sacramental gifts.
Christ overcame temptation, not for Himself, but for us. He is the new Adam who won the victory over temptation where the old Adam fell flat on his face. He now comes to us in His body and blood. By partaking of His body and blood we receive everything He won for us, including His victory over temptation. This means both that our failures to resist temptation are forgiven, and that we are nourished and strengthened by Him to resist temptation in the future. We do not need to rely on the rocks of our own inadequate spiritual resources when we face temptation. We have the true living bread from heaven. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +