Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Repentance Is Hope

“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Oh man, here it comes.  It is the repentance sermon.  John is telling everyone who rotten they are and we’re going to get it too.  Yes you are, because you need it.  I need it.  And God will not leave us without it.

                There was a man named Hosea, whom God commanded, commanded mind you, to marry a prostitute.  Her name was Gomer, not a nice name-especially for a woman-but it is what it is.  Hosea chose a wife, not from among the many young women from the families around him, women who were prized for their beauty and virginity, but a woman who had been used and abused, who had sold herself to the night and embraced many men.

                Hosea married Gomer, and they had three children together.  Perhaps life was even good, content, peaceful.  Yet one day Gomer grew restless, and she left.  And where was a women to go after leaving her husband for no reason?  Only back to the life from whence she came.  She went back to the brothel.

                Perhaps Hosea had given up on his bride.  Good riddance to the women who did not desire to be faithful.  Yet God was not done.  He commanded Hosea, commanded once again, to go and bring his wife back.  Retrieve her from the sexual slavery that she so readily welcomed.

                So he did.  Hosea went down to the brothel and called his wife back home. 

                Perhaps we could imagine the scene.  Hosea is banging on the door or Gomer’s private room, demanding that she come out, that she come back home to their life, to their children; demanding that she repent.

                And Gomer is thinking: All he is doing is making me feel guilty for my choices, giving me grief over the life I have embraced.  Why can’t he just leave me alone?  Why can’t I simply go about my business?  This is the life I have chosen.  Go away!

                Hosea calls Gomer to repent.  And perhaps she resents it, at least at first.

                There is a similar thing going on with John the Baptist.  John is out there in the wilderness calling the people to repent.  Worse than that, he is making them feel bad.  John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt.  He made their tunics and tassels look gaudy by comparison.  John ate locust and wild honey.  He made their meals, kosher though they may be, appear extravagant and gluttonous.

                And John was insisting that the Jews, all of them, be baptized.  That was something reserved for Gentiles.  Was John saying that the Jews were as much in need of repentance and forgiveness and the pagans in the world around them?  Yes, yes he was.

                John was preparing the people for the greater one, for the Christ to come.  Yet not everyone was happy about it.  Some just wanted him to shut his trap and go away.

                So we too may hear the word repent, and roll our eyes.  Have I really done anything that bad, Pastor?  Do I really need to examine my life for sin in the same manner as a prostitute or an adulterer or a thief or a murderer? 

                Or we don’t want to hear it because we don’t want to leave those sins behind.  Gomer was happy to be a prostitute.  The Jews were happy, some of them, to ignore the poor and the hurting around them.  John was upsetting their contentment, and the Law of God does the same to us. 

                Can’t we just stop reminding me about what God’s Word says?  I have made my bed and now I am going to sleep in it, content with my choice.  I know it dishonors my parents, causes harm to another, is blatant fornication, stinks like a rotten lie, but I don’t care.  Just shut that Word of God up.  Leave me alone.

                Why can’t I just ignore my sin?  Why can’t God just ignore my sin?  I don’t want to repent.  I don’t want to hear about it.  Just go away!

                And He does not.  God never just goes away.  His Word endures forever, even if we ignore it, if we despise it.  Hosea did not stop until Gomer relented.  John kept preaching and baptizing until Herod took his life.  The Law of God will continue to call people to repentance, to acknowledge their sin, until their dying day.

                The reason we push back against God’s call to repentance is that we fail to see it for what it is.  Repentance is not a reason to despair.  A call to repent is a call to hope.

                Think about it: why does God call us to confess our sins?  Why pester us?  Does He just love to rub our faces in our faults and failures?  Does He just want to make sure we know how big of a mess we have made of our lives?  No.

                God calls us to repent of our sins so that He can forgive them.  He calls us to confess so that He can absolve. 

                 Hosea went after Gomer so that he could bring her home.  He did not want to leave her as a sexual slave.  He wanted to restore her as his bride, to make a family once again.

                John did not baptize just to watch the people squirm, not to get a simple rise out of them.  John was not there for his health or his own amusement.  John called the people to repent because Jesus was coming.  He was coming to die for them, to save them, to forgive them, to restore all things.  They needed to be made ready.

                 God speaks His word of Law to us so that we will be ready to hear the good news.  If you hear God pointing out your sins, take heart, because He is also about to announce your forgiveness.  He is about to apply the death and resurrection of Jesus directly to your situation. 

                Hosea calls Gomer to repent, and the result is marriage.  John calls Israel to repent, and the result is Jesus.  God calls you and me to repent, and the result is forgiveness, life, salvation.  The Law is spoken and the result is Gospel.

               A husband more dedicated than Hosea has come.  A prophet mightier than John has been born.  He is Jesus, the Christ.  His death and resurrection is the reason we can stop fearing repentance.  We can confidently confess our sins to our God because He has guaranteed that He will forgive them. 

              The way is being prepared.  The highways are being cleared for Jesus to come.  The Law is proclaimed to turn our hearts away from sin, to show us our great need for Jesus.  And the Gospel is proclaimed to give us Jesus. 

             He was born for you, lived for you, died for you, rose for you.  And Jesus Christ will return to restore you to life forever and ever. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christians, Your Good Deeds Are Not Filthy Rags

Christian, your good deeds are not filthy rags or polluted garments in the sight of God.

Yes, I know, this is every Lutheran pastor's favorite verse to quote when proclaiming the Law:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6a)
And to an extent this is true.  It is true for the person is is without faith, for the one who is apart from Christ.  The context of Isaiah 64 suggests not a faithful people redeemed by their God, but a stiff-necked people wantonly wallowing in their sin:
"Behold, you were angry and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?" (Isaiah 64:5b)
Men and women who have been baptized into Christ, however, are not in this state.  Christians are redeemed by the blood of Jesus and all their sin has been covered.  Their good deeds, therefore, do please God, despite their sin.

Saint Paul declares in Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceeds from faith is sin."  The entire argument that Paul is making for the Romans assumes that the inverse of this statement is also true: "Whatever does proceed from faith is not sin (i.e. is righteous)."

So it is right to say that a person's works, apart from Christ, are nothing but filthy rags.  But we must always add that proviso.  We cannot say that a Christian's good deeds are filthy rags because a Christian is, by definition, redeemed.  Their good deeds necessarily please God and are seen by God as righteous for the sake of Christ.

This is where the rub occurs.  As Lutherans we want to give Jesus Christ all the credit for our salvation.  We are justified by grace through faith, not by works.  That line is stark and sharp.  It may not be crossed.  When we stand before God we plead to have no righteousness of our own, but only a righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:9)

Yet the good deeds of Christians please God.  They are not the cause of our salvation.  Quite the opposite.  They flow out of our justification.  In baptism we become a good tree, and a good tree bears good fruit.

This strikes at the heart of the Reformation: How can I be sure that my works please God?  The Roman Church had built up a system of man-made works that were supposed to atone for sin.  The reformers were at pains, not only to point out that these works were not necessary for salvation, but that there are works which God actually commands, and which actually please Him.

Once our works are released of the weight of having to earn our salvation they can be properly seen as actions that God delights in because through them He serves our neighbor.  God's people were freed from trying to earn salvation with man-made works to do that actual work of God as taught in the Ten Commandments.

Are my good works tainted with sin?  Yes, but God does not look at that because of what Jesus has done for me.  Assurance of God's good pleasure comes from being grafted into Christ.  So now all that I do pleases God because I am in Christ.  Anything done apart from faith is sin, so anything done in faith is not sin, but righteousness.

So to deny that the good works of a Christian please God is to deny the Gospel.  How could God not delight in the obedience of His children?

Christian, God sees your good deeds apart from your sin for the sake of Christ.  Every good work that you do is a delight to your Father in heaven because Jesus has washed out the sin and left only righteousness behind.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Children's Hymn for Holy Week

From earth below up to the cross
Christ bore our burdens and our loss,
And there a full atonement made;
gained glory that shall never fade.

He enters Zion as her king.
The people all his praises sing.
"Give honor now to David's son,
Hosanna to the holy one."

Forth from the temple courts he drove
The money changers, lamb, and dove.
"My house shall be a house of prayer
For all who come and worship there."

With schemes and questions did they come
To test the right of David's son.
He answered all their queries told
And showed himself now David's Lord.

He prophesied the coming night
When none shall work, so filled with fright.
No man can know that day or hour.
The king will judge in righteous power.

In humble dress he washed their feet;
Portrayed a love for all to meet.
Then gave his body and his blood;
A sacrifice of holy food.

Betrayed by all he called by name
He carried cross and sin and shame.
The punishment of man came down
From God's own hand upon his Son.

His body in the tomb was laid.
Now all the world from sin was saved.
In him the world receives its rest.
His brood he gathers to his breast.

Behold, the stone is rolled away
And linen cloths now empty lay.
The women run to share the word
That Christ is risen, our God and Lord.

Where is thy sting, O death and sin?
For now the grave cannot hold in
Those baptized into Jesus Christ,
Who share the resurrection life!