Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Impossible Righteousness...Forgiving Christ

[This message was shared during worship this past Sunday with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 5:21-37
I was baptized as an infant. 

As I was growing up, I loved going to church and I loved Jesus. 

In my pre-school and elementary school years, I broke all the Sunday School attendance records.

I was president of my third-grade Sunday School class. 

I starred in all the church plays. (I remember vividly playing the apostle Paul imprisoned with Silas, both of us shackled with construction paper chains!) 

My dad told Ann this past Thursday, “After we came home from church on Sundays, we had church again because Mark would re-preach the pastor’s sermon almost word for word.” 

My great-grandmother called me her “little preacher.” 

According to my pastor, I was the star pupil in Catechism class. When I got a 92 on an exam, he handed it back to me and said, “You could do better, Mark.” 

Here’s the deal: I believed in Jesus. 

To the extent that I was able to understand, when I heard His Word calling me to turn away from sins, I did that, asking for God’s forgiveness. 

And when I heard His Word, with its power to save and create faith, I believed.

But, as you know, when I was about fourteen, I stopped believing in Jesus. I was an atheist...for more than ten years. 

No trauma caused this change. I was just an adolescent who thought that science had somehow disproven God’s existence, as though knowing the answers to the what, when, and how of the universe somehow also answered the questions of its why and who. 

On top of that, my dad was working eighty hours a week, we had transferred to a different church to which none of us felt connected, and, I suppose, getting five kids ready for church was a mountain my folks found too difficult to climb. 

The upshot of it all was that I lost my faith. 

I no longer had a relationship with Jesus. 

I was dead, lost, just like the prodigal son, who knew about and had experienced the love of his father, but walked away from that relationship until he came to his senses and returned. He had been lost but was found. He was dead but was alive again. 

The amazing thing is that through the preaching and teaching of the Lutheran congregation that was Ann’s home church in Columbus, I heard the Law that convicted me of my sin and I heard the Gospel that brought me once more to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. I was lost but was found. I was dead but was made alive.

Over the past two Sundays, as we’ve listened to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’ve heard Him make a series of gracious declarative statements about us. He has conferred status on us that we do not deserve, but which He gives by grace through the faith in Him that His Word creates within us. 

“Blessed are you…” Jesus has told us. 

“You are the salt of the earth,” He has said. “You are the light in the world.” 

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we hear echoes of Jesus’ gracious words for Christian disciples: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession...Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10) 

And what do we do to get the incredible gift of life with God that u starts now and culminates in perfection in eternity? Nothing

As Ephesians 2:8 reminds us: For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

But the Bible reminds us that, just like the Prodigal Son and just like Mark Daniels, it’s possible for Christians to walk away from God and the salvation He gives through Jesus. The apostle Paul tells the young pastor Timothy, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1) 

There is evidence of the devil’s work in churches all around the world today--in those that say that God saves everyone no matter how contemptuous they may be of Christ or God’s Word as well as in those that say God only saves those who follow their rigid rules. 

Here’s the deal: When God saves us in Christ, we are saved. But God doesn’t hold believers in shackles. 

If we refuse to hear His Word calling us to repentance and faith, we erect a wall between God and ourselves. 

This is why Jesus warns, “...every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit [that is, refusing to let the Holy Spirit convict us of sin or convince of us Christ’s power to save us] will not be forgiven…” (Matthew 12:31). 

God gives life. 

He declares you His own through faith in Jesus. 

But He will not stop you if you choose to walk away from life with Him.

All of this, I believe, lay in the background of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 5:21-37. 

If almost all of Jesus’ words up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount have been Gospel--pure, undeserved grace, His words today are Law, showing us the depths of our sin and our need of His grace. 

At the end of last Sunday’s lesson, Jesus said, “...unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And, we said that we have that righteousness through Jesus, Who covers those who repent and believe in Him with His righteousness. 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus shows us how high a standard for righteousness God has for human beings

He says that not only are we not to murder but that even anger against fellow Christians can be sinful. 

He says that to look at someone lustfully is a violation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” 

He says that divorce apart from a spouse’s disloyalty is a sin. 

And He says that our truthfulness should be such that we needn’t resort to oaths. 

Quick poll, no need to raise hands, two questions: How many feel like you’ve been innocent of all these sins as God interprets them? 

And if you feel utterly innocent, the second question is this: How long have you been in living in denial about yourself? 

Truly, no human being measures up to the standards for purity of life and thought that we find in these words about the righteousness we need for entering the kingdom of heaven

This is what Scripture teaches. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” we’re told in Romans 3 and elsewhere in Scripture.

When I first began digging into God’s Word with a group at that Lutheran congregation in Columbus, I began to see the depths of my sin and rebellion against God. I wondered if I wasn’t doomed to separation from God, now and always. 

But I ran into passages of Scripture like this (listen carefully, please): 

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:8-11)
If we take our cues from the world, accepting its standards, being pacified by its entertainments and rewards, relying on ourselves, following our own deceitful hearts, we will drift from God

But if we remain attentive to God’s Word, we will hear God’s call to repent--to turn from sin--and we’ll be saved by His gospel. Christ will transform us. He will make us new each day

This is the work God does in us when we read, study, and listen to His Word together and on our own, when we worship and receive the sacraments: God saves us from our sin and replaces it with the righteousness of Jesus. 

That’s grace! 

And for that, this old sinner says, “Thank You, God!” Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]