Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 18

15 October 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 22:34-46 (Deut 10:12-21, 1 Cor 1:1-9) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is another one of those that looks at first blush like the evangelist is sticking two unrelated themes together, and the fathers of the church decided to give preachers throughout history a choice of two completely different things to preach about on this 18th Sunday of Trinity: either 1) love as the great commandment, or 2) a confession of who Jesus is.

But the reality is this: St. Matthew, writing by the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the holy fathers of the Church, who lived and breathed the Scriptures in their lives and preaching, understand that these two themes are really one.

The Gospel text opens with Jesus having just silenced the Sadducees (who were the theological liberals of that day). And so, their opponents, the Pharisees (the theological conservatives of that day), decide to take their shot at Jesus. They pick a lawyer from among themselves to pose a question. Now there are two kinds of “questioning.” There’s asking a question, and then there’s “questioning” in the sense of a lawyer who is also a Pharisee. That latter kind of questioning is not really asking anything at all, but rather using a question as a kind of trap or trick, a way to try to outsmart one’s opponent. We see this again and again in the Gospels, as Jesus’ opponents beat their heads against the wall trying to outsmart God.

Nevertheless, Jesus answers the Pharisee’s question: “What is the greatest commandment?” He quotes Scripture and ties the law to love. If you love, you will keep the law. If you love God, you will keep the first table of the law, and if you love your fellow man, you will keep the second. Love knows no loopholes. You can’t get a clever lawyer to find a technicality in matters of love. This is not the answer the Pharisee was looking for.

And then, rather than wait for the Pharisees to regroup and try another trick, Jesus starts asking the questions. In this sense, the Pharisees are like a lot of today’s politicians. They don’t like being asked direct questions. Jesus traps the trappers by appealing to their knowledge of Scripture (something the Pharisees take great pride in). “Whose Son is the Christ? Who does Scripture say the Messiah is descended from?” “From David,” they answer. And then Jesus delivers the same kind of silencing blow that shut the mouths of the Sadducees: “Then how does David call his unborn descendant ‘Lord’ (which is a sort-of Hebrew code word that means ‘God’)?

And like the Sadducees, the Pharisees find their mouths shut once again by Jesus’ questions. For if they were to honestly answer his question, they would have to admit that Scripture is promising that God would become man. They don’t want to go there, for they’d have to admit some things about Jesus that they’d rather not. So they say nothing more. Jesus has won this battle.

But this is about more than simply winning an argument, Jesus makes a three-way link between obedience to the commandments, love, and a confession of who Jesus is. These three are intertwined and inseparable, like the Triune God himself.

For the Pharisees believed they kept the law because of technicalities, because of pompous shows of self-esteem, because they believed the law was all about rules, bylaws, and constitutions – which can often be repealed, amended, and interpreted to say about anything. But the real test of keeping the law is inside ourselves. It’s about love. Jesus elsewhere points out that the greatest example of love is to die for someone else, to sacrifice the self for the sake of the beloved. If one is willing to do such a thing in an extreme circumstance, this is what it means to keep the law. And this is precisely what God does for us. It’s also where we are so deficient.

For as Jesus’ beloved apostle St. John proclaims, “God is love.” God takes on flesh, humiliates himself, and dies for his beloved. Just as St. Paul calls upon faithful husbands to love their wives to the point of being willing to die for them, the Bridegroom himself dies for his beloved bride, the Church. But the unconditional love of this Bridegroom extends even further than his own wife, for as John the Baptist proclaims with us in the liturgy today: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the cosmos (which we translate ‘world’).” As our Old Testament lesson points out: he “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”

Jesus is no Pharisee looking for loopholes to keep the law. Jesus keeps the law as the physical embodiment of love. And in love, he not only keeps the law for himself, but for the sake of his beloved. In confessing Jesus as Christ, in recognizing him as the Lord prophesied in Scripture, in looking upon this Man with the eyes of faith, we see the Lamb who not only dies, but who lives. We surround his throne with shouts of victory. For he has not only silenced his enemies and made them his footstool, he has silenced the Enemy, our old Satanic foe, the serpent, the dragon whose rebellion against God’s created order has dragged us into his loveless lair of lies and death. For Satan himself has become the footstool of the Lord, whose heel comes crashing down upon his head. And just as Satan has become Jesus’ footstool, he has become ours as well. One of the petitions of the ancient litany of the Church is: “To beat down Satan under our feet.” Jesus did this for us at the cross, and enables us to do this as we live under the cross.

This conquest was not by the sword, not with armies, not by virtue of firepower, but rather by love. This love fulfills the law, this love pays the cosmic penalty for our sins, and this love gives eternal life to those who confess Jesus as Christ, as Lord, as God, and as the one who takes away the sin of the cosmos and gives eternal life to those who believe and are baptized into his name.

So why doesn’t the cosmos accept this love, why are there Sadducees and Pharisees who seek to silence Jesus, who twist the law into a loveless rulebook, who reject the love of God enfleshed standing before them? Why is the world filled with unbelievers? Why are there those in our own families who reject the free gift of the salutary love of God?

This is a great mystery. But in the case of the Sadducees and Pharisees, it wasn’t because they didn’t know who Jesus is. They knew, all right. This is why they refused to ask more questions. Like every good lawyer knows, don’t ever ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. And if you do know the answer, don’t ask it unless you like the answer. They know who Jesus is, but their own sense of pride stands in the way of confessing him, of surrendering to the will of God. To admit who Jesus is means admitting why he is here. It is to admit our sinfulness, and to confess our unworthiness. And such submission to one greater than ourselves means a fundamental change in our priorities. Most people want nothing to do with living a life of love and sacrifice. Our sinful flesh prefers a life of self-love, of material possessions, of having no bonds of love to God and others that can be seen as shackles. I believe most people reject Jesus because they simply want to sin without having to come to grips with what sin really is.

For in confessing Christ, we are confessing our own weakness. If we rely on the love of God as embodied in the cosmic work of Jesus to keep the law on our behalf, we are then allowing ourselves to be a submissive bride to our loving husband who lays down his life for us. That’s not something our culture sees as desirable. Furthermore, we can’t take credit, we don’t get the praise of the world, we don’t get to puff ourselves up with pride in what we have done. In fact, the Christian life is all about admitting this weakness, submitting to the one who has the power to beat Satan under his feet, the one whose love is (unlike our own) perfect. The Christian life is about fearing the Lord, and serving him – which is manifested in loving others and serving them. It’s about loving the stranger even as the Lord loved us as strangers. It’s about a circumcision that cuts to the heart, not merely a ritual for the sake of appearances.

For the non-believer is simply being stubborn. Rather than accept reality for what it is, he’d rather bury his head in the sand and play “make believe.” He will pretend that he can keep the law, that the law is about rules and bylaws and constitutions (instead of being about love). He is uncircumcised of heart and stiff of neck. He believes the Lord can be bribed by a few loveless acts that may technically conform to the law. Rather than submit and serve, he demands submission and service. Rather than praise before men what God has done for him, he seeks the praise of men for what he has done for God.

Dear brothers and sisters, God is love. He takes away the sins of his beloved. He has crushed Satan under his blood-stained feet. He has poured out his life-blood for his bride. He has kept the law for you, and continues to sustain you in faith by pouring his Gospel upon you and feeding you with his very body and blood. He continues to love us beyond all measure.

Being a Christian is to confess. We confess our own sins (our wretched inability to obey the law and our shameful lack of love toward God and others). And we also confess Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God, the Lamb who takes away our sins. In this confession, we are “enriched in everything by him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ… that you may be blameless.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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