Twentieth Sunday in Pentecost A, October 26, 2014
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114
In 1505, a young but brilliant German law student named Martin Luther found himself caught in an open field, on foot during a violent thunder storm. As lightening struck the ground all around him, Luther in fear for his life threw himself on the ground, and with his face in the mud, he begged God to have mercy on him and spare his life. He entered into “negotiations” with God by stating that while he knew he was a sinner, if God would spare his life, he would then dedicate his life to Him and become a monk.
Luther did survive, and true to his word he became an Augustinian monk. During his time in a monastery, Luther tried to work out his salvation and become closer to God through study of the Psalms, prayer, fasting, meditation and hard work. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not seem to find peace for his troubled soul. Nothing seemed to shake his feeling that he was a helpless sinner caught in the grasp of an angry and vengeful God.
In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood and licensed to preach and study Theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther’s superiors soon discovered that God had gifted him with a brilliant mind, but yet he seemed to be held back by his now obvious feelings of guilt. The solution? Luther must make the pilgrimage to Rome, where church tradition taught that the journey itself would earn merit with God and bring the pilgrim closer to salvation. Luther was also told that he could purchase certificates of forgiveness called indulgences, which were published by the Pope himself. These indulgences guaranteed the purchaser of even more favor and love from God. Well, Luther, ever the obedient monk did as he was told, but he found no peace in the pilgrimage or the possession of indulgences.
All of us, like Martin Luther hunger to be closer to God; we desire to do the things that please Him, but no matter how hard we try to do those good thing, sin, our sin is always there pulling us away from God. This is the hard lesson Luther learned. It was not until God, through His Word provided Luther with a faith to trust in Christ alone that Luther was finally freed from his guilt and his bondage to sin. What does scripture say about faith? Faith comes from hearing the Word of God, which is the Word of Jesus Christ. [Romans 10:17] Martin Luther discovered this one evening while studying God’s Word in the privacy of his own room. Through his devotional reading of the Book of Romans, Luther received peace with God through God’s gift of faith. Listen to the words that jumped out at Luther, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” [Rom. 3:21-24]
By those Words, Luther discovered that God is not angrily staying far away from us and we do not have to try hard to reach Him or please Him. In fact, the opposite is true. You and I though born sinful and distant from God are not lost at all, for God Himself through Jesus Christ, has come to us so that we who were once lost are now found and released from the bondage of sin. Through Christ’s work alone upon the cross, and through the gift of new life given to you within the holy waters of your baptism, you are now right with God! Now while this is certainly Good News, it is not new news, but rather it is the consistent and old gospel message of grace, which has been handed down from the very beginning; it had simply been overlaid and hidden by the traditions of men.
Luther discovered that God’s grace is like a fortress, a Mighty Fortress, the likes of which the devil Himself can not breech, nor overcome. Lets look at our Gospel lesson (Matthew 22:34-46) and maybe we too can learn how to not just enter the Mighty Fortress we sang about, but stay in it for life!
Our gospel lesson starts out with the question of a seeker; one who wants to be close to God, but on his own terms. We know this is true, because he starts out on the wrong foot immediately. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Another way to ask this is, “Which commandment should I consistently fulfill in order to please God?” Or yet another way to ask this is, “What must I do to be saved from my sin?” Like Martin Luther, this young lawyer, a Pharisee was trapped by his inability to keep all of the commandments of God perfectly, and so he desired to know which commandment out of all of the others would buy favor with God if he can keep that one.
“And (Jesus) said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment.” Uh oh… the young lawyer and all of the other Pharisees knew Jesus was right of course, but they also knew that each of them failed miserably in keeping this first great commandment. You see, they knew something most of us know as well, but also like them we conveniently ignore. The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is not a warm fussy feeling, but a commitment. This kind of love that Jesus speaks of is the kind of love that God promises to those who love His law and meditate on it day and night. God promises that no matter what happens, He will never leave nor forsake His child who likewise is committed to Him. And there is the rub isn’t it?
Like the young lawyer, we too say that we love God, that we are committed to Him but then we do things, we say things… we think things that demonstrate something completely different. Yes, the truth is we are far more often committed to ourselves than we are committed to God and His Word. But Jesus is not quite done yet; He still has a little more to say about what we must do to be saved: “And a second (commandment) is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, Jesus is telling all of us, that if we want to impress God, if we want to be right with Him through our own work, we must love as He loves.
Here’s a little ditty that communicates the enormity of this task of loving like God: “To live above with saints I love, that will be pure heavenly glory, but to live below with saints I know… well that’s a different story!”
Friends, God’s love is a commitment to us to never stop loving us even when we are unlovable. And in His commandments, He calls us; no He demands that we do the same. That is the nature of God’s law, it demonstrates perfection in how God acts and then it demands that we do the same without giving any help to “do” that thing. Now if this was all that God’s Word informed us, we would be no different than any other religion; in essence we would be in big trouble. But that is not all that God’s Word says, is it? No, God offers us another way… the way of the gospel; a way that becomes a Mighty Fortress that we must enter and stay in, and that way is Jesus Christ, both the son of David and the Son of God! And this is the very truth that Jesus must now steer the hearts and minds of both the young lawyer and ourselves to this morning, and He does it with a question of His own.
““What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
How sad. Not only couldn’t they answer His question, but they never bothered to ask Him any follow up questions. They would not, because they could not; their pride in their own righteousness just would not let them precede any further. Yes, that is sad, because standing right in front of them was not just a son of David, but the very Son of God. This is why David called his own descendant Adonai, or Lord, God. So sad. They had just heard the little children and thousands of people on Palm Sunday proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, with the word “Hosanna”, but they could not join in, because they were in bondage to their sinful wills and refused to submit to the will of God. They could not agree with God the Father that Jesus, the son of Mary, a simple carpenter was in fact the very Son of God. But Jesus tried to open their eyes. He tried to take their eyes off of the law of God as their source of salvation, and instead turn their hearts to God’s one and only means of salvation… Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God.
In a few short days, Jesus would demonstrate God’s final solution for bringing sinful men and women back to Him in a relationship of love and faith. Jesus would prove His Father’s love for sinful men and women, by allowing Himself to be hung upon the cross. Jesus would prove that He is in fact both the son of man and the Son of God, by dying as all men die and then taking His life back from the tomb, thus defeating death itself. But Jesus did not die and come back to life to prove a point; that would simply be a demonstration of God’s wrath. No, Jesus died and took His life back again so that we would know that God still loves us and that He has provided a way back to Him; a way that is greater than our mortal enemies, which are sin, death, and the devil.
In Jesus death and resurrection, He not only shows a way back to God, but by faith He takes us on that way. Jesus shows us that it is He alone who can fulfill the commandments of God perfectly, by perfectly demonstrating God’s own love for us. I doubt that Jesus had warm fuzzy feelings for any of us as He was whipped within an inch of His life, and then as He hung dying upon the cross was insulted and challenged. While the Son of God may not have felt feelings of warmth He did demonstrate commitment to fulfill His promise of salvation, and that dear friends is divine love! “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” [1 John 4:10] And “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8]
The way of the Cross is the way to enter the Fortress and the way to stay within it. By that I mean to say along with the ancient church and the sainted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther that by grace you are saved through faith, and that this faith comes by scripture (God’s Holy Word, both the Law and the gospel) alone. Christ’s death and resurrection is a fact that scripture proclaims, but it is a fact that you must both receive and believe. But you cannot do this on your own; it must be received from God as a gift. It is a gift that comes from the very heart of God the Father, and it is given through the sacrifice of His Son, but your heart must be taught to both desire and trust this gift of God, and that work is done through the power of the Holy Spirit through scripture alone.
It is Holy Scripture that teaches us the difference between God’s Law and His Gospel. We are saved by the gospel, God’s work for us sinful men, but we are sustained and led by His Law, which teaches and moves us to love God and our neighbor just as Jesus loves. The law and gospel work together though in different an opposite ways. (1) The Law teaches us the knowledge of sin, but the Gospel gives us forgiveness of sin; (2) the Law teaches what good works are, but the gospel produces true joy and both and desire and zeal to do those good works; (3) the Law checks our outward sinful behavior, and increases our inward secret sins, but the Gospel destroys both our outward sin and our inward sin. So the difference between these two works of God can be explained this way, “The law tells us what we must do to be saved and the Gospel does that work for us and through us.” Or another way to say this is that “The law kills the sinner, but not sin; the gospel kills sin, but not the sinner.”
This morning, you have been gathered together as a ragtag bunch of ragamuffins who have been saved by grace, through faith, which comes to you in God’s Word through the Law and Gospel. You have been gathered into the Mighty Fortress of God. And now you are called to both rest within this Mighty Fortress and to live, breath, and find your identity within it. And our identity is shaped by a few central thoughts. The first one is this, God does not need your love, He desires it; He wants you to be in a relationship of love with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. And the second thought is like the first, in that God does not need your good works, your fulfillment of His law, but your neighbor does! Your neighbor needs you to help them, and you help them when you keep the law of God; when you do your very best unto the Lord. You see friends; God wants you to allow His love to overtake you so that you will willingly commit yourself to Him and your neighbor.
Who is your neighbor? Your neighbor is your spouse, your children, your friends and family, even those people that you are afraid of, or those who have hurt you in the past. But your neighbors are also here within this church, the very place that God gives His gifts to sinners; the very place that becomes the Mighty Fortress of forgiving love for them as well. Your neighbor needs your love and so does your church. We all need you to be committed to this place and its people, so that together, we will continue to be a place of refuge, forgiveness, peace, and love. We need your love so that together we can continue reaching out to the lost and help them both enter and stay within the Mighty Fortress, which is our God and the body of Christ… His Church.
I pray that God will fill you with faith and His mighty love as together we do these very things through the power of God… in Jesus name… AMEN!