Sunday, October 23, 2011

Good Works

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Matthew 22:34-46

O.K., why didn’t we sing the third and fourth stanza?  Why did we skip the verses in our Office Hymn that speak of Jesus’ baptism and life of service?  Seems particularly odd, perhaps, on this Servant Sunday, as we recognize the contributions of our Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.  Maybe it’s just because the song is long, seven verses, with an unusual cadence.  At least O Love How Deep isn’t full of really high notes.  Well, I am very happy that we are able to sing a hymn that is 600 years old, to a tune that is over 500 years old, and so dropping a stanza now and again may be a good idea, to keep you all enjoying this wonderful hymn.  Nothing ruins the appreciation of a great hymn like turning it into punishment.  However, if you’ve peeked down at the offering hymn, you’ve noticed that we are going to pick up those skipped verses as we gather our financial gifts this morning, so there must be some particular reason why we’ve skipped them. 

There is: the perennial challenge of rightly preaching about Christian living.  It is quite right that we take a Sunday to consider the many different tasks that the ladies undertake, recognizing and celebrating the fruit of faith is an entirely Biblical thing to do.  Last week Paul praised the Thessalonians’ works of faith and love, and this week he talks about his own works in their midst.  The problem is not talking about and celebrating the life of the faithful.  And the problem is not looking to the life and service of Jesus, the One baptized for us, as an example to us the baptized.  We must remember that He is God and we are not, that He is Savior and we are the Saved.  But still, “what would Jesus do” is a good Biblical question, as long as we don’t make it our foundation.  No, there is nothing wrong with talking about good works, and Jesus is the first and best good worker to whom we should look for guidance.  No problems there. 

The problem that causes me to shy away from talking about good works is the faithful.  The problem, when it comes to focusing on good works, is us.  We are so prone to twisting the truth about the Christian life in order to satisfy our own egos that I, like any pastor who knows that our works do not contribute to our salvation, often hesitate when it comes time to celebrate the works being done within the congregation.  Because as much as we all want to see good works, the first and last thing that we need is the faith-working deliverance of forgiveness through the preaching of law and gospel, sin and grace. 

We do need to learn about good works, about Christian living, if for no other reason that good works are definitely important to God.  But it’s tricky, because we are so likely to get everything twisted around, turning our efforts at good works into a big mess.

Of course, I should be careful not to talk out of turn.  I don’t know much about women, nor about whether the efforts of our LWML ladies get all twisted up.  The longer I live the more I am sure that I know very little about women and how they do things, and so I can’t speak too authoritatively about whether our ladies efforts at good works get messed up.  But I do know men, and I know what can happen when men work together.  Everyone seems to start out with the best of intentions, nobody seems like they are purposely trying to ruin things.  But personalities can clash and ideas conflict, agreements ignored and plans changed without consultation.  Then egos are bruised and guys complain about each other behind backs, and pretty soon everybody wishes that we had never started trying to do anything in the first place, because our collective effort to do something good has become a breeding ground for discord and argument amongst brothers in Christ.  Satan laughs as Christians dishonor the Name of Christ.

Like I said, I don’t get very closely involved in the projects of our ladies, so I can’t say whether these types of petty arguments break out amongst them.  But we did all eat from the same apple.  We are all plagued by the same sinful  nature, so I’m guessing that perhaps these types of things can happen among women, too.  And when our sin leads us into arguments and strife, our first impulse is often to make rules, to try to restrain the negative actions of those other people who just can’t see how right I am, to make rules so that we don’t have any more arguing, and so I can get my way.

Which is pretty much what went wrong with the Pharisees.  That salvation is entirely God’s work, given as a free gift to sinners who trust in God’s promise, is clearly declared throughout the Old Testament to which the Pharisees were devoted.  Likewise, that God does want people to live right, to do good, is also part of the Word that the Pharisees studied.  Their problem was getting caught up in the life of good works, and forgetting that salvation is a gift from God received by faith.  The Pharisees made the life of good works their focus, and soon they twisted it into being their false way of salvation.  So when Jesus rejected their way, when He spoke instead about grace and mercy, when He hung out with obvious sinners, the Pharisees came after Him. 

Today we heard their final attack, during the first Holy Week, their last attempt to trip up Jesus and find some way of accusing Him.  Jesus has easily brushed aside their trickiest questions, so now they simply lay it all on the line.  Jesus seems to be rejecting the way of the Law, so they simply ask Him to declare what is the most important part of God’s law. 

I’m not really clear on what they hoped to accomplish, but Jesus seizes the opportunity to dispel any idea that He was rejecting the Law of God as given through Moses.  In the clearest terms Jesus lays out the standard of the Law, which is, by the way, also the shape of Christian living:  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.  No ifs, no buts, no wiggle room.  Love God, completely, before all things, with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Do these things and you will  live. 

No opening to attack Jesus in this answer.  Also no chance for a sinner to please God.  Go ahead and run off trying, go ahead and try your hardest to live according to these two commands.  Neither you nor I can do it, for sin taints everything we do.  By works of the law shall no man, or lady, be justified.  The law of God demands that every mouth be shut, every human claim to righteousness before God be denied.  You must be silent.  I must be silent.  The Pharisees are silent. 

And so finally, in that silence, Jesus gets His turn to ask a question:  “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”  Jesus asks the Pharisees to explain from whom they understood the Christ to be descended.  The promised Savior who was to rescue Israel from all her tribulations, who son is he?  The Pharisees, knowing the Scripture, reply, "The son of David."  Jesus then asks. "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'?”   Jesus is quoting from Psalm 110, a psalm universally understood to be about the coming Savior.  In that Psalm, speaking of this coming Christ, or Messiah, who is to be his descendent, his son, King David calls this Messiah his Lord.  The fourth commandment is turned upside down, for sons are to honor fathers, this is the order of creation.  And yet there it is, David, inspired by God the Holy Spirit, calls his descendent Lord.  What does this mean? 

The Pharisees have no idea, no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.  But I know what  David was talking about.  I know what Jesus was getting at, and so do you.  You just sang it.  Oh love, how deep, how broad, how high, beyond all thought or fantasy, that God, the Son of God should take, our mortal form, for mortals sake.   He sent no angel to our race, of higher or of lower place, but wore the robe of human frame, and to this world Himself He came.  

The answer for us sinners to the demands of God’s first and second laws is the Son of David, who is also the Son of God.  God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit saw that as far as our ability to be the people He desires is concerned, there was no way for us sinners to succeed.  So God the Father sent His only begotten Son into our flesh, to bear our sin and be our Savior.  The life of perfect love for God and neighbor, Jesus lived in our stead, for us, in our place.  The death of perfect satisfaction, the sufferings of all time, the death that makes payment for all sin, Jesus died, just a day or so after this last confrontation with the Pharisees.  The Law of God has been perfectly kept, and it’s demanded punishments have been fulfilled.  So, in Christ’s Resurrection we discover good news, that God for Christ’s sakes declares righteous all who believe in Jesus as Savior. 

This remarkable love, so deep, so broad, so high, is always the focus of the Church.  We celebrate Christ crucified and resurrected because our lives depend on it, both our life with God, now and in eternity, and our life of good works.  For we can truly love only when we have been loved first, only the forgiven sinner is free to serve God and neighbor without self-interest.  Only those works that proceed from faith in the Sinless Son of God are worthy to present to the Lord.  We celebrate Christ by receiving again and again, through Word and Sacrament, His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation.  And that celebration spills over into our lives, leading us to works of love.  Christians do not do good to make ourselves look good; how could we possibly look better than when we are covered with Christ’s righteousness?  We give glory to God and love our neighbors not in order to earn God’s favor, but because we have already been favored by Him.  In Christ we have all things, including all the riches and glory of heaven, and so faith seeks no earthly victories, no earthly pride, no earthly righteousness.  We simply love, because He has loved us, and claimed us, and filled us with Himself.   

The life of love we celebrate today is a habit.  Not a habit of continually seeking good works to do, no, such a habit our sinful nature will use to turn ourselves into Pharisees.  No, the life of love is a habit of coming to Christ in the places where He promises to be, wherever His people gather around His Word and gifts, wherever two or more gather in His Name, coming to Christ to be fed, to drink deeply from the deep of His love.  From Him we receive life, and then through us He produces the works He desires.  O Love, how deep, how broad, how high, grant us your Spirit, that we may always live from you, Amen. 

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