Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Sermon: Wednesday of Trinity 12

2 September 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: 2 Cor 3:4-11

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians about “confidence.” This is a popular topic today. We all want to be confident, being assured that we know what we’re doing, whether at work, at home, or at play. Nobody wants to be unsure, un-confident, and hesitant.

Even more so, we want our children to be confident. We want them to be self-assured, able to take the bull by the horns, and make a name for themselves.

In fact, even more than the word “confidence,” we tend to use the term “self-esteem.”

And in the right context, self-esteem and self-confidence are very good things to have indeed. But when it comes to our spiritual life, the very last thing we ought to foster is a sense of self-esteem and confidence in ourselves. That would be misplaced confidence indeed!

For St. Paul is not speaking of being self-assured, but rather “the confidence we have through Christ toward God.” For as St. Paul explains, this kind of confidence is “not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”

Perhaps this is why the Christian faith is so terribly misunderstood by the world. If nothing else, it certainly explains why people flock to religions and philosophies with self-esteem at the center – for these religions do not serve God but rather serve the self. Rather than submit to our Creator, such cults seek to make the ego one’s god. And though these self-esteem-based religions may seem new, they are nothing more than a reiteration of the ancient Satanic question in the Garden: “Did God really say…?”

Sometimes the people who understand the Christian faith best are those who were formerly atheists. One such person is the English writer, philosopher, and lay theologian C.S. Lewis. The Blessed Dr. Lewis understood the Christian faith in all its radical implications and paradoxical power when he wrote:

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Too many Christians themselves see the faith as a self-help tool to make them feel better, a sort of legal form of dope to help us escape from the stress and strain of the real world. If that’s what you’re looking for, dear friends, a short, artificial buzz to take your mind off of the miserable state of things, don’t look for that in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this is the utter misunderstanding Karl Marx had when he described religion, including the Christian faith, as the “opiate of the masses.”

But the Christian faith is no opiate, no evasion of reality. Rather Christianity is a confrontation with the truth, the truth of who and what we are. And, dear brothers and sisters, if we are truly honest, the truth hurts.

St. Paul calls the Word of God engraved on tablets of stone to be “the ministry of death.” For, “the letter kills” – and the most murderous letters of all are those ten accusations blasted into solid rock atop Mt. Sinai.

When we really consider the Ten Commandments as St. Paul describes them, we have to wonder whether or not all those people who demand the Ten Commandments to be in schoolhouses and courtrooms really understand the Christian faith at all. For St. Paul speaks of the Commandments brought by Moses as the “ministry of condemnation.” The law always accuses.

So powerful and disturbing is this letter from the finger of God that the guilt-ridden Israelites could not even stand to be in the residual glow of the righteous God as reflected from the face of Moses.

For there is one thing the Ten Commandments are very good at: proving the point that St. Paul makes that we are not “sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us.” And this is as countercultural as it gets.

Christianity must be true, for no sane person would make up such a religion. In fact, it was one of the very first fathers of the Church, Tertullian, who is paraphrased as saying: “I believe, because it is absurd.”

But, dear brothers and sisters, there is more comfort in bearing witness to the truth (however harsh) than to falling prey to a lie (however captivating). For we know who the father of lies is, and we also know who the Way, the Truth, and the Life is.

Though “the letter kills,” though the law cuts us down, though the Lord’s demands of perfection destroy our self-esteem, we are now free to find our “sufficiency” outside of ourselves. “The letter kills,” St. Paul confesses, “but the Spirit gives life.”

“Life” dear brothers and sisters! Life overcomes death, even as the “ministry of righteousness” overtakes the “ministry of condemnation.” For our righteousness is not our own, and thanks be to God! We do not follow a path of self-esteem, self-empowerment, or self-actualization. Rather we crucify the old self, drowning the Old Adam. And we walk a humble road of grace, of divine mercy, of the free gift of forgiveness, eternal life, and communion with the Creator – overcoming the condemnation of the ministry of death. For the joyful glory of God’s Word of forgiveness surpasses the somber and terrifying glory of God’s word of condemnation.

As our Lord Jesus Himself has told us, He did not come into the world to condemn, but to save. And this is a glory that by far surpasses the passing fads of gurus and the empty slogans of the hawkers of self-help books.

And the great irony is this: as we grow in faith, we decrease, even as Christ increases in us. And far from losing our identity, rather the more we suppress our self-esteem and confidence in our own works, the more the Lord raises us up, increasing our faith for the very purpose of performing good works in the kingdom. This is the very opposite of the world’s phony self-based religion and vacuous promises of happiness. And yet, for two thousand years, the Christian faith, the one true faith, delivers what the talking heads and latest authors could never do in a million years.

For it is only the Christian faith that places confidence outside ourselves, solely in the mercy of God through the work and ministry of God the Son, Jesus Christ. The cross delivers what the happy face and the peace sign fail to give: true eternal joy and the peace that passes all understanding.

As St. Paul was suffering under an onslaught of the devil, being oppressed by the burdens of the world in all of its fallen misery, God told the apostle: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Dear brothers and sisters, we are confident – not in ourselves, but in spite of ourselves. Our confidence is in Christ alone, and rather than hold ourselves in esteem, we proclaim with St. Paul, with all the saints, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven: “Worthy is the Lamb!” Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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

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