Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sermon: Trinity 6

15 July 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 5:17-26 (Ex 20:1-17, Rom 6:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The Lord has given us very hard words today, my dear brothers and sisters. The fathers of the church in their wisdom have made sure we hear these hard words every 6th Sunday after Trinity – which are so full of the law that it’s almost enough to make us think we’re in Lent.

I should have known the holy ministry was not going to be an easy task when these were the readings at my ordination.

But thanks be to God they were. For we Lutherans – preachers and hearers alike – don’t like the law. That’s because we are sinners in need of daily repentance. Our Old Adam much prefers flattery and praise, we would rather hear God’s Word fawn all over us than tell us what God demands of us. If it were up to us, there would be a hymn in our hymnal called “How Great We Art.” But we all know better, don’t we?

As Lutherans, as a tradition within the one holy catholic and apostolic church that grew out of a dispute over the nature of grace and the Gospel, we want to rush through the Ten Commandments and get right to the forgiveness. We want to shorten our confession to the point that we don’t even confess our sins individually any more – so we can bolt right to the absolution. As pastors, we want to soft-pedal the law so we can tell our hearers only what they want to hear.

But thanks be to God once again that our Lord Jesus sets us straight: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

This is why the venerable leader of the Reformation, Blessed Martin Luther – a man who truly understood the good news of the forgiveness of sin – instructed us to repeat the Ten Commandments every day. He himself, though a prominent Doctor of Theology, lecturer, preacher, parish priest, and professor specializing in the Old Testament – daily recited the Ten Commandments like a little child being taught for the first time - and humbly admitted that he needed to do so.

As Lutheran Christians, we must be aware of a particular angle the devil will use on us. We are not tempted so much into seeing ourselves earning our salvation though saying a regimen of certain prayers or by doing a certain quota of good works – especially in churches where the Gospel is preached and taught aggressively and the people listen and take that preaching to heart. No, for us, the danger is the opposite one. Since we know we are saved by grace apart from works, and since we are baptized, Satan and our sinful flesh lead us to taking the Gospel for granted, to despising the law and seeing it as of no use to us.

A Lutheran may be tempted to say: “I don’t need to repent, I’m baptized.” He may be tempted to withhold almsgiving, to avoid prayer, and to not partake in fasting – and then convince himself that this is acceptable, because, after all, we aren’t saved by our works. Of course, our Lord Jesus Himself says: “When you give alms… when you pray… when you fast…” Lutherans feel the call of the devil to stay home from church and not receive the Body and Blood of Jesus because, after all, we’re free in the Gospel, right? Lutherans are especially tempted to avoid their responsibilities to bring their families to church, to teach them the catechism, to lead them in prayers at the dinner table and before bed – since we’re saved by grace and not by works.

But what does our Lord say? “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The law is nothing to sneeze at. The Ten Commandments are not just a bunch of words we babble before Bible class. Our sins are grievous and serious, and should keep us awake at night. There should be times when we literally hunt the pastor down because we need to unburden ourselves of our sins. There should be times in which all of us will actually grab the pastor by his shirt and demand that he hear our confession right that minute.

But we don’t. And we don’t because we don’t think the law is serious. But what good is the gospel if the law is no big deal? Why should anyone ever make a private confession if God really doesn’t care about sin?

We must repent of our smugness, our abuse of the Gospel. We are the very Christians Paul preaches to in our epistle lesson: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”

Rather than thinking: “I don’t need to repent, I’m baptized,” we should confess: “I need to repent, I’m baptized!” As Paul concludes: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

For we can “reckon” ourselves dead to sin, for God Himself “reckons” us to be forgiven. For in our baptism, we are “no longer slaves to sin.” So why should we as freedmen, having been released from our chains to the bondage of sin, then turn around and submit anew to slavery? The purpose of Holy Baptism is not to give us license to sin, but rather to give us release from it.

This is the reason, my fellow sinner-saints, why we must recite the Ten Commandments daily. This is why we must read and pray the Small Catechism – for this meditation upon the law isn’t an academic exercise or just a hoop to jump through for confirmation (then to be forgotten) – it is a window through which we can examine ourselves so that we might indeed pray: “I said I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

If we have prepared properly for the Divine Service, for confession and absolution, the words of forgiveness spoken by the pastor should be like a pitcher of ice water in the middle of a parched and dying desert. They should be the sweetest words ever heard by anyone – like being on trial for capital murder and hearing the verdict “not guilty.” If we have meditated on the Ten Commandments – and upon the many and various ways we break them every hour of every day – then missing church would be the most unthinkable thing in our lives. We should rather miss a week of work than to miss out on the sweetness of the mystery of the Lord in His body and Blood giving us pardon, peace, life, and salvation. If we daily pray the Ten Commandments and take them to heart, we should become almost physically ill when we are tempted into any kind of sin, great or small.

It should horrify us that we are so unlike the Good Samaritan who helped his neighbor in his need, but are rather like the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who didn’t want to get involved. It should cause us grief that we gossip and participate in rumor mongering, that we are greedy and lazy, that we routinely fail in our vocations as parents, as spouses, as children, as citizens, and in our various kinds of work.

But even more than simply making us feel guilty, the Ten Commandments should serve as a signpost. The confession of our unworthiness, our inability to keep this law that Jesus says is inviolate until the end of time must not just leave us in despair. For the righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees that our Lord speaks of is indeed yours, dear friends. We can confess our sins. We can (and must) receive forgiveness. The Lord will give us His Spirit unto our repentance. The Lord will send his holy angels to protect us as we make war on the old evil foe that seeks to devour us. The Law points us to the cross where our sins are paid for. And the cross brings us here – to the communion rail – where the forgiveness is ours, body and soul. And that communion rail is the gate of heaven, where time and eternity meet in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For even as we read the Ten Commandments as orders: “You must” and “You must not” – let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are not only commands, but promises: “You shall have no other gods.” “You shall…” our Lord promises. It will not be completely fulfilled on this side of the grave, but you are being recreated. It started at baptism, and will be completed at your resurrection. The Ten Commandments grieve us by showing us what we are not, but they should also bring us joy by showing us what we baptized children of God are promised to become:

You shall have no other gods.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Honor your father and mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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

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