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Living Faith

25th Sunday after Pentecost (B)   Proper 27     Text:  Mark 12:38-44    November 11, 2018    Rev. Jon Nack

            Dear friends in Christ, we just got done two weeks ago with our celebration of the Reformation which was begun by Martin Luther who sought to reestablish the centrality of the Gospel to the church and its teaching and preaching.  Most of us who have grown up in the Lutheran Church also know is motto, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from works” which is a quotation for Ephesians chapter 4:8-9. 

            So to counter the sinful tendency towards seeking assurance of salvation by what we do, rather than what Christ has done, we emphasize grace and faith (and not works.) 

            It’s interesting that the church responded to the Lutheran teaching on grace alone by accusing her of teaching that works weren’t necessary at all.  And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there were those on the fringes of the reformation who taught that good works were injurious to faith.  The truth lies in the middle.  Lutherans have always taught that good works are not necessary for salvation (you don’t make up for your sins by your works, you look to Christ who gives you His righteousness and forgiveness), but that good works are necessary.

            Good works are necessary for three reasons.  First, as His creatures, it is His will that we engage in good works.  Second, our works are necessary for the good of those in this world who will benefit from them.  In so doing, we serve as the very hands of Christ as we serve.  And thirdly, the works flow out of faith and are indicators of the work that Christ has done for us, and that the Holy Spirit continues to do in us.  It was Jesus who said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matthew 5:17. 

            So what is a “good work?”  In the explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism, we are told that “In God’s sight a good work is everything that a child of God does, speaks, or thinks in faith according to the Ten Commandments, for the glory of God, and for the benefit of his or her neighbor.”  [1]

            If a person has no faith, then he is still under the wrath of God and so are all of his works.  For a person must first be acceptable to God and that through the merits of God and then his works are acceptable as well.  A person who lacks this faith, though he does a mountain of good in the worlds eyes, is rejected and damned with all of his works before God.

Everything that a child of God does, speaks, or thinks in faith…  That faith is the faith that clings to Jesus Christ alone for salvation and receives all holiness and righteousness from Him and in Him. 

            Now we may begin to see why Jesus commends the poor widow in Mark chapter 12.  It isn’t because of the amount that she gave.  There were plenty of other givers who gave much more impressive gifts (and these are usually the ones who get the press).  It wasn’t the scribes with their fancy robes and long prayers.  It was this poor widow who gave two mites.  The way they used to report congregational offerings, she would have been at the bottom of the list, but Jesus puts her at the top.  Why?  Because she, out of faith put in all she had.

            Faith is something that the Holy Spirit works in us through the word.  And faith produces fruit.  Faith isn’t just something that we talk about.  It is something that is lived.  The Formula of Concord in the Book of Concord puts it this way:  [Justifying] faith is a living, bold [firm] trust in God's grace, so certain that a man would die a thousand times for it [rather than suffer this trust to be wrested from him]. And this trust and knowledge of divine grace renders joyful, fearless, and cheerful towards God and all creatures, which [joy and cheerfulness] the Holy Ghost works through faith; and on account of this, man becomes ready and cheerful, without coercion, to do good to everyone, to serve every one, and to suffer everything for love and praise to God, who has conferred this grace on him, so that it is impossible to separate works from faith, yea, just as impossible as it is for heat and light to be separated from fire.  [2]

            How else could you explain what she did that way except a joyful trust in the Lord’s mercy.  She trusted God’s promise to provide all that she needed.  And faith is meant to be lived joyfully.  She didn’t go to the temple that day to sing, “I am trusting you Lord Jesus, trusting only thee.  These two mites I have to live on, they’re for me!” 

            That day she did what I call, “Taking her faith for a spin.”  I knew a man who bought an commemorative Lincoln Continental.  He showed it to me in his garage.  It was in showroom condition decades after it was bought, with a grand total of 7 miles.  But, there are some who would say, a car is meant to drive.  I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be nice to take it out for a spin?

            Faith in Jesus is meant to be lived – to be taken for a spin!  It isn’t meant to be put up on blocks, talked about, dusted off when your sick, or at church. 

            The widow in our text is one example.  She took her faith for a spin and gave super generously.   She believed God’s promise and was thankful for the gift of salvation and she took her faith for a spin that day.  I knew a mother and father who couldn’t have children.  They were presented with the opportunity to adopt two boys from South America.  They had been born to a woman who was addicted to drugs.  They knew that much would be required.  But they rejoiced in what they had been given in their marriage, and the blessings of Christ Jesus that they had to share and knew that they could share the love of Jesus with two more in their home.  So what did they do?  They took their faith for a spin!

            I knew a man who was afraid that if he took time off from his company, things wouldn’t work without him.  It bordered on the idolatry of believing the world will fall apart if you aren’t running everything the way it should be run.  So what did he finally do?  He took his faith for a spin, trusted that God was in control and went on vacation.

            Maybe there is someone that you are struggling to forgive.  You are afraid of what it may cost you.  And yet, you have full and free forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  All of your sins washed away.  What might you do?  Take your faith for a spin!  Forgive that person from the bottom of your heart and trust God to work out the healing that needs to happen.

            Maybe you are worried and upset by many things.  You go to bed carrying a load of anxiety and you still have it strapped to your back when you get up the next morning.  What might you do?  Listen to God’s promise, “Cast all your anxieties upon Him because He cares for you.”  And then take your faith for a spin!  Drop that load and let Christ bear you up.

            Or perhaps there is just the struggle with sin and emptiness that comes with it.  The sins of keeping up appearances like the scribes, or works that are done not as a result of faith, but as a means to make yourself feel more confident in your situation before God, or because you think you have to do them.  Or, you have simply not done been the most generous, caring person because your heart isn’t in it.  And the anemic works should wake you up to an anemic faith.  And there Christ is still, holding out forgiveness for falling short His glory.  There He is in your baptism in which He put His name upon you.  There He is in Holy Communion, offering you His very body for the forgiveness of sins.  And even though you haven’t really been hungering and thirsting for it, He offers it  What might you do?  Come, take your faith for a spin!  Come, be forgiven, renewed and restored.  Be strengthened and encouraged in your faith.  Let the Holy Spirit work in you that which is well pleasing in God’s sight. 

            Even if no one else is watching, Jesus is!  Not as judge, but as the one who is there to encourage you, “Go ahead, take your faith for a spin!” 

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

 

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, Concordia Publishing House, 1991, p. 154.

[2] Solid Declaration, IX, paragraph 12.

You Will Know the Truth

Reformation (Observed)    Text:  John 8:21-32      October 28, 2018     Rev. Jon Nack

 

            Dear friends in Christ, Jesus said, “If you remain in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:31-32).

            The obvious question is, “The truth about what?”  What truth is so powerful that it has the power to set a person free? 

            And then the next question has to be, “Set me free from what?” 

            What truth could be so important and so central to our existence, so necessary for life, so essential that He not only speaks it through the prophets of old, but in these latter days, speaks it to us through His Son?  What truth could be so important that it is a matter of life and death for us?  And what truth is so beyond our grasp that we could never arrive at this truth ourselves but only arrive at it because it is revealed to us – spoken to us –  and “Holy Spirited” away in our hearts as the very power of God unto salvation for all who believe?

            What this truth is, in fact, that Jesus is talking about are two very fundamental truths that go hand in hand with each other.  The first, “Who are we?”  The second, “Who is God?”  And to arrive at the kind of truth that sets us free, we must know the truth about both together at the same time. 

            That was Martin Luther’s problem in the early 1500s.  Here was a young man who studied the Bible.  He knew that he was a sinner and could not escape that fact.  For Him, those sins and temptations were like a pack of dogs, hot on his trail.  These were vicious, ruthless hunters who, if they caught him, would tear him limb from limb.  So Luther thought that he could outrun them, always keep one step ahead of them.  His conscious bothered him so he ran.  He ran to the monastery where he could occupy himself with holy activities – praying, working, vowing, confessing every individual sin, trying to make up for what he had done wrong.  And still he could hear the howling of His sin closing in on him.  He tried harder, prayed harder, even punished himself with whipping and backbreaking labor, locked himself in a cold monastery cell with no blankets but there was no escape.  He couldn’t outrun his past.  He couldn’t outrun his impure thoughts.  He couldn’t outrun the bitterness and sense of despair and hopelessness.  He couldn’t escape the fact that he didn’t love God.  In fact, he hated God as a cruel judge.  And he couldn’t outrun the evil he knew was in his heart. 

            He knew himself.  He was a sinner before God.  But He didn’t really know God.  He thought He did.  He knew God’s righteousness and wrath.   He knew God was Holy and threatened His wrath upon the 3rd and 4th generations of those who hated Him and broke His commandments.  He knew that the Bible proclaims that the wages of sin is death.  But He also knew that the just dying wasn’t the worst of it.  He knew that dying in sin meant also dying under the eternal wrath of God.  It meant dying cursed by God.  That is what Luther heard when he chanted and prayed Psalm 90:  For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.

And that terrified Luther. 

            In that regard, though it was certainly not pleasant for Luther, we could say he had a sort of advantage.  For most today, and then don’t even have what knowledge Luther did about himself as a sinner. 

            In fact, since the fall of Adam and Eve, we cannot know ourselves or God.  Again from Psalm 90:  Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?  Answer:  No one!  Who considers the results of their sins?  No one!  Who feels the terror of dying under the wrath of God?  Not many!

            For us, sin might be more like a little yapping Chihuahua rather than a snarling park of Dobermans or pit bulls chasing us down.  We might give sin and temptation a playful little kick now and then, but we certainly don’t feel any need to run from it for our very lives.  We might even think we can tame it.  Or we may think that we are so far away from it, or ahead of it, or away from death and God’s judgment that we don’t have to worry about it right now. 

            But Luther’s moment of truth came when he, running for his life, broke out of the woods, into a clearing and face to face with the impenetrable wall of God’s holiness standing high and impassable.  There was no escape.  No way over, no way around, no way back.  Luther said that this “absolute God is like an iron wall, against which we cannot bump without destroying ourselves.”  (LW 12. 312)

            Luther was like the Israelites who were running for their lives from the Egyptians hell bent on their destruction, only to find themselves face to face with the Red Sea.  And that is what we find as we try to outrun our problems and sin.  We find ourselves face to face with the “absolute God” who will crush us, not just because of the sins that we commit, but because we are sinful.  We are not Holy.  We are fallen.  Luther wrote that when David confessed in Psalm 50 that he was conceived in sin and in sin did my mother conceive me, that includes not only adultery but his whole nature contaminated by sin.  So it’s not the dogs chasing me that is my biggest problem.  It is the God standing before me and me standing there as one corrupted in my nature before Him.  You are not just a person who commits sins, you are a sinful being!  And it is a fearful thing for a sinner to fall into the hands of a living God.  (Hebrews 10:31). 

            But Luther didn’t really know the full truth until the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus was revealed to Him.  Then it was like the Sea standing before him opened up and parted.  And travelling through those waters, God conducted him through to safety.  And those same waters anhiliated not the Israelites, not Luther, not you, but the enemies who would pursue, destroy, enslave.  And there opened up for Luther and for us God Himself, who poured out for us the Holiness of His blood for the cleansing of all sin, including the deepest most infused condition. 

            And because of Christ Jesus, there is a righteousness, the righteousness of Christ Jesus that is given to us as we passed through the waters of Holy Baptism and were declared righteous for Christ’s sake.

            Now the wounded, broken, wrath deserving sinner finds in God not someone against whom we must be destroyed, but someone in whom we can flee for refuge and safety.  We find a God who has mercy and removes our iniquities from us. 

            That is the truth that Jesus speaks.  That is the truth that Jesus is and brings.  That is the truth that is recorded and revealed to us in the Scriptures that we may believe and find hope.  For they have been shown the truth of who they are as sinners, but they also have been shown the gracious love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus.  And according to Luther when they abide in that Word and that truth, “the lightning flashes of the wrathful God should stop, and in their place should shine the lights of mercy set forth in the Word of God.”

            Jesus is the gate, the way of righteous that we may enter with rejoicing.  Jesus is the truth – the very mercy of God incarnate, the light in the darkness of our sin, and the way for us to come home once again. 

            Jesus said, “If you remain in my Word, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  Thanks be to Jesus.  Amen.

           

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