Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, Part 12

When Worship Happens

[Below you'll find live stream video of worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church that took place this past Sunday as well the message shared during both services.]

John 4:5-30, 39-42
A man came to visit me once. He was deeply troubled by something he had done years earlier. His wife became pregnant and he insisted that she have an abortion.

The man was overcome with grief and guilt, first of all, because of the little life that had been snuffed out and secondly, because, by his insistence, he laid deep guilt and regret on his wife while driving a wedge between him and his wife that had never diminished. He wondered what he could do to take both his and his wife’s guilt away.

Over the centuries, all of the religions of the world but one have tried to deal with this problem of human guilt and God’s expectation that we should be righteous by various forms of works righteousness, that is deeds or gestures the religions tell us we can do to overcome our sin.

These religions have been obsessive about creating systems of sacrifice. Through these systems, human beings, conscious of their sin, have made offerings of sacrifices to get out from under the guilt they know they bear.

In olden times, people offered up animals, plants, gold and silver, and even other human beings to try to make themselves right with God.

Today, people give up swearing for Lent, trumpet their contributions to good causes, and so on as a way of assuring themselves and the world and, sometimes, God, that they’re good, righteous people.

Even Old Testament Judaism had a system of sacrifices that saw the offering of sheep, pigeons, and grain, although King David reminded God’s people: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17, English Standard Version] God, David was saying, didn’t want our stuff or our showy deeds, he wanted hearts and lives turned to Him. He still does.

There are two big problems with sacrificial religions.

The first is that as soon as you offer up a sacrifice like putting a bit more in the offering plate or standing up for someone who’s being gossiped about, making you feel all clean and righteous based on your own behavior, you commit another sin. You take God’s name in vain. You entertain a lustful thought. You lose patience with your spouse or child.

The second problem with sacrificial religion is that you can never be sure you’ve sacrificed enough. And if a  sacrifice isn’t enough to cover a person’s sin, eternal separation from God is the consequence.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus encounters a woman who confronts her sin and her sinful nature all the time.

She’s the woman at the well outside the Samaritan village of Sychar.

Married five times, now living with another man to whom she isn’t married, she goes to the well at noon each day, despite the scorching heat, to avoid condemnation and shunning from the other villagers.

From what she says to Jesus, the only hope she has for forgiveness or righteousness is in the sacrifices she and all Samaritans make at Mount Gerizim.

Under the sacrificial system, the woman at the well could only hope that her sacrifices could earn God’s forgiveness for her. But she could never be sure.

That’s why Samaritans and Jews kept offering sacrifices for their sins year after year, over and over again.

Now the woman meets Jesus.

Jesus asks her for a drink. She’s shocked because Jews won’t talk to Samaritans and Jewish men aren’t supposed to talk with women to whom they’re unrelated in public.

Then Jesus tells her that if she would ask Him, He could give her “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) Jesus is offering her a free gift that she thought she could only earn, a life with God that never ends.

The woman is dumbfounded with disbelief and fear.

Could Jesus be greater than Jacob, the Jewish patriarch who had dug this well for God’s people?

She would love to be out from under the condemnation of God, freed of her debt of sin, assured of life with God. “Sir,” she says, “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15)

Knowing this woman and loving her the way God loves all of us sinners, Jesus now confronts the woman in her sin. God’s grace comes as new life to those who understand that they are otherwise dead in sin. That’s why Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Jesus now tells the Samaritan woman to bring her guilt to Him, the guilt from which she’s tried to run and for which she’s offered endless sacrifices. “Go,” Jesus says, “call your husband and come back.” (John 4:16)

Jesus has already offered the woman eternal life, the Gospel. But here, He surfaces the very set of sins–her serialized and continuing adulteries–to show her that even when the world’s religions of sacrifice and good works fail to give us peace with God or peace with ourselves,

Jesus gives us that peace as a free gift.

He gives us forgiveness.

He gives us life.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Mark tells us that He preached, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) By the well at Sychar, Jesus is proclaiming the same message to this woman who spent a lifetime in sin, regret, and shame. Turn from death and turn to Me, Jesus is telling her.

In the offer of living water, the woman had heard the Word of God’s grace. In Jesus’ request that she fetch her husband, she heard the Word of God’s Law condemning sin.

To her credit, she doesn’t try to dodge Jesus’ call to confession and repentance. She admits that she’s breaking the sixth commandment at that very moment and had many times before with other men.

When you and I gather for worship on Sunday mornings, the first thing we do is hear Jesus’ call to repentance. We turn to Jesus so that we can once more live in the freedom of forgiven sin and the grace of God by which we sinners are declared saints, NOT by sacrifices or religious works. NONE of that stuff can make us righteous or acceptable to God. Religious law cannot save us. It can only tell us, as it told the woman who had been trudging day-in, day-out to the village well burdened by guilt, unsure of God’s forgiveness, that we are sinners whose impulses, thoughts, attitudes, and actions merit condemnation.

In Romans 10:4, the apostle Paul writes that, “Christ is the culmination [or the fulfillment or the end] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

We are made righteous before God not because of sacrifices or works, but by grace through faith in Jesus alone.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worship isn’t about making sacrifices to God nor about the places where sacrifices are made, whether at Jerusalem. “A time is coming and has now come,” Jesus tells her, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)

Listen, friends, to what Jesus is telling us: True worship isn’t about what we do for God or give to God.

Worship happens when needy sinners like you and me enter into the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and Jesus the Messiah explains everything to us, everything we need to have faith, to be righteous, to be assured that we are free of all condemnation by God!

Worship happens when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we hear and believe the truth of the Gospel, as expressed by Paul in our second lesson today: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Worship is about what God gives to us in the Word and the Sacraments, not about what we think we do for or give to Him!

Each time we worship, Jesus Christ, sent to us by God the Father, presents Himself to us crucified and risen, and tells us, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)

Each time we worship, He gives us the Word that the Holy Spirit uses to give us saving faith.

And each time we worship, Christ gives us His body and blood by which we are filled with His forgiveness and new life!
When the woman in our Gospel lesson hears Jesus identify Himself as the very Messiah Who could save her (and you and me), without our sacrifices but simply by grace through faith, she leaves her buckets behind and runs back into Sychar!

Head held high in the freedom of God’s forgiving Gospel, she tells the very people from whom she’s been hiding all about Jesus: “He told me everything I ever did!”

God wants you to hold your head high in His forgiving grace too, friends! He knows everything you ever did and loves you and died for you and rose for you anyway!

Nothing you ever do will ever make God love you any more than He already does.

Nothing you ever do–no sacrifice or good work–will ever make you more righteous than you are through Jesus Christ.

Jesus has already done everything needed to give you life with God!

It’s when we hear and receive this message, this gospel, that we worship in spirit and truth!

As Jesus says later in John’s Gospel: “Whoever hears my word and believes [the Father] who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

When you hear and believe Jesus’ word of life, your sin is not held against you and you are alive in God’s grace forever.

Friends, you can trust in that promise. Amen

Law and Gospel, Part 5

[This is video of part five of our adult Sunday School class study of 'God's Law and Gospel.']