Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 2nd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Of Bungee Cords and Boats –Matthew 8:23-27
Law and Gospel, and a One Hook Bungee Cord
Crossing the parking lot at Trinity the other day I noticed a rubber tie-down strap. My excitement at my find was soon dashed, though, as the hook was torn out of one end. It’s useless for tying anything down without a hook on both ends. Maybe it could serve as a weapon to beat someone, but for its original and proper purpose, it’s useless. I tossed it in the dumpster, until I realized it had a theological use, as an aid in teaching Law and Gospel. So I went back out and dug it out of the trash. I don’t think anyone saw.
God’s Word can be compared to a tie down, or bungee cord. Bungee cords are very useful for holding down loads, securing valuable items that might otherwise be lost or damaged. Bungee cords and rubber tie-down straps are vital when you are hauling things on top of your car, or in your pickup bed, or of course, when you go out on the lake in your boat and the wind comes up. Bungee cords are useful, unless they are missing a hook.
God’s Word is useful, eternally useful, and it also has two hooks, both of which are needed for it to work as God intends – the Law, and the Gospel. God’s intended purpose for His Word is to save sinners from eternal condemnation through repentance for sins and faith in Jesus Christ. To offer a couple of Scriptural examples, the first chapter of John declares “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ,” and that grace and truth is most certainly the Good News. Then at the end of Luke, Jesus sends the Apostles out to “preach repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, to all nations,” sending them to preach the Law, which brings sinners to repentance, for the sake of the Gospel, which forgives sins, the two key teachings of God’s Word. And so God’s Word is precious and necessary, but if either hook, if either the Law or the Gospel are not in their proper place, the Word does not do its work.
God’s Law is the Word that tells us His expectations of us: what we are to do, and refrain from doing, the rules He has established for humanity. God’s Law is right and good and true. To a certain extent, it is written on the hearts of everyone, and when people try to keep the Law, life on this earth is better. But the Law cannot save, because we are unable to keep it to the standard God has set, we are not able to keep it perfectly. In the end, the Law always shows us our sins, always reveals the sad fact that our thoughts, words and deeds are not what they should be. The very best thing the Law can do for us sinners is show us that on our own merits we are lost, doomed to condemnation for our sinfulness, and in desperate need of a Savior. If your boat is sinking you send out a distress signal, an SOS. Well, in regards to the Law, the SOS “Shows Our Sins.” The Law shows the hole in our hull that is sinking the ship of our souls. But the Law cannot fix the hole.
God’s Gospel, or Good News, is the Word that tells us what Christ has done to overcome our sin and condemnation. The Gospel tells of God’s completed plan of salvation, completed in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the only begotten Son of God, who became a man in order to save mankind from our sins. The Gospel is God’s answer to our plight, the SOS that Shows Our Savior.
The Gospel is also the power of God unto salvation, for by the declaration of sins forgiven in Christ, God the Holy Spirit creates faith and delivers forgiveness to us sinners, thereby declaring us righteous and re-creating us as children of God. Fear not, your sins are taken away. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. Take eat, take drink, the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins. God delivers His Gospel in many different ways, always using His Word, spoken from the mouths of pastors, parents, friends and neighbors, using Words, and other earthly things, like water, bread and wine, meeting our dirty, hungry, thirsty, doubting souls with Good News that satisfies our every need.
Law and Gospel is the key to rightly understanding and using God’s Word. Without the Law, without the clear revelation of our hopelessly lost and sinful condition, we in our sinful pride do not want to hear about a salvation bought by innocent blood. The story of the Gospel seems strange and cruel, until we know that there was no other way to save sinners like us. Without the Law, without its stark declaration of our lost and condemned state, the Gospel is either foolishness or a scandalous offense.
Without the Gospel, the Law is nothing but a cruel taskmaster, somewhat akin to using a one-hook bungee cord as a weapon. If the Word is only used as Law, revealing sin, and condemning sin, and demanding better performance from sinners who are not capable of meeting its demands, then those sinners will learn to hate God and despair of salvation. Unless, of course, through careful cultivation of an outward appearance of righteousness, the sinner instead pretends they can and do keep the Law, becoming self righteous Pharisees. Sadly, we have all heard God’s Word used as only Law. Indeed, I have fallen into this error, as, I suspect, have most of you parents out there. When anger mixes into our relationships, it is an easy trick for the devil to get us to demand obedience to the Law, without ever offering grace and mercy.
But the most common, and so most deadly, misuse of Law and Gospel is to mix them. The Law points out and condemns sin. The Gospel points out Christ and the forgiveness, free and full, that He has for all sinners, for every sin. But we doubt that the Gospel will really work, and so we like to sneak a false law in the back door. Rome teaches that your Baptism forgives original sin and the sins you commit before Baptism, but the rest of your sins are yours to work off, perhaps for a few million years in purgatory. Depressing, soul-crushing, and untrue.
Holiness preachers say you are saved by faith in Jesus, but now that you are saved, you can and must become perfectly holy, in this life, or else you will be cast out. Law, Gospel, Law, and lifelong uncertainty. Never mind that Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7 times. Never mind that John taught us that if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. Never mind that Paul despaired of being a wretched sinner, at the same time he was a forgiven saint. Never mind that Paul said “by works of the Law shall no man be justified.” Good works are an important part of the life of a Christian, but adding a requirement for works onto the Gospel in order to be saved is evil. It plagues Christians with doubt, and robs Christ of honor.
And, to be sure, we Lutherans seem to have our favorite model of mixing Law and Gospel, when we want to raise money or do more outreach. How often have you heard this: “Jesus loves you, and so, if you really love Jesus, you’ll give a bunch of money, or tell all your neighbors about Him”? We’re supposed to preach the Law in all its severity, and then proclaim the sweet Gospel of free and full forgiveness in Christ, and then trust His Spirit to motivate cheerful giving and a life filled with the confession of Christ. But bottom lines, bank loans and mission goals can turn preachers into taskmasters, insinuating that if you don’t give enough, or do enough mission work, then you don’t really love Jesus, and so perhaps He won’t really love you. Or, biggest lie of all, God’s mission will fail, unless you do enough work.
Mixing Law and Gospel is bad, false, and counterproductive. It’s like having a perfectly good bungee cord with both hooks, ready to do its proper work, but instead deciding to use it as a weapon, a two hooked whip, and then wondering why there is no joy in the congregation. God save us from mixing Law and Gospel. Both are Godly and right and true, but when we mix them, we injure faith and prevent people from doing truly cheerful good works, which are the only ones acceptable to God.
Law and Gospel are both needed, but they need to be kept distinct, in their proper places. And the cord that keeps Law and Gospel in their proper place is Christ Himself. With Christ as the Cord that distinguishes Law and Gospel, the sinner hears the Law and its condemnation, and so despairs of saving themselves, and yet with Christ right there, the fulfillment and resolution of the Law is revealed, for Jesus has kept the Law on our behalf.
With Christ kept close to the Law, we are prevented from despairing. Likewise, with the flesh and blood Christ kept close to the hook of the Gospel, we prevent the Good News from becoming an abstract idea about some nice “man upstairs.” This too is necessary, because the abstract idea of mercy does not save. What saves is the truth of mercy found in the suffering, sweat and blood of the man Jesus. Flesh and blood sinners need a flesh and blood Savior, and He is Christ. Even more, the flesh and blood good news of free forgiveness and salvation does not become an excuse to do nothing, but rather it fills forgiven sinners with gratitude, Holy-Spirit-generated gratitude which moves them to naturally do good, cheerfully, because of the joy that comes from being rescued by Christ.
When both hooks are in place, when both Law and Gospel are proclaimed and applied in proper distinction, with the flesh and blood Jesus clearly present in the middle, God then through His Word creates and sustains true faith, God delivers forgiveness and joy, God saves sinners. So when you read, when you hear, and when you speak God’s Word, remember and look for both hooks, both the Law and the Gospel, for by them, God is saving you, and building His Church. Alleluia, Praise the Lord!
So, let’s try it briefly, with today’s brief Gospel, about Jesus and the disciples in the boat during the storm. And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
So, what’s the Law in this passage? Well, the storm is a revelation of the Law, because the wind and the waves were a threat to human life. Every threat to human life is connected back to the Fall, when death came into the world and the Creation was subjected to futility, because of human sin. Anything that threatens to kill us is ultimately a sign of God’s judgment against sin. If you’ve ever nearly drowned, or if you’ve ever been in peril at sea, then you know up close the existential terror which in truth is never far from any one of us. Facing death is a declaration of the Law, and death is nearer to us than we prefer to imagine.
That’s tough Law. But it gets worse. The disciples are followers of Jesus, the Son of God, so the Law has even more bite for them. They know God. They know the Savior. They have the Savior with them. And yet they still fear the wind and waves and the death they threaten. Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? Followers of Jesus ought not fear, ever, for God has promised to deliver us. When we fear, we reveal that we do not fully trust God’s promises.
Jesus’ words, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith” were a deafening condemnation, roaring in the disciples’ ears much more powerfully than the wind and the waves. They were so loud, they still echo in the ears of Christians today, in Dr.’s offices, when bad news comes, and in living rooms as parents wait up for a child not yet home, and in retirement homes, as finances drain away and bills pile up. Why are you afraid? God has promised to take care of you in every situation. Why is your faith so weak? The hook of this Law, the condemnation of fear in the hearts of followers of Christ, is some of the harshest Law ever spoken, a razor sharp hook on the Lord’s bungee cord, an accusation that none of us can deny, for every one of us sinners fears many things.
Thanks be to God, Jesus stays very close to the hook of this Law. Jesus can and must speak this Law, but see how close He stays, see how quickly He rescues. Such is our poor, miserable condition: we believe, and yet we doubt, and fear, and are frozen by fear. Christians who claim never to fear are only adding lies on top of their sin of doubt. The accusing hook of this Law from Jesus pierces us all, but Jesus is close by, ready to rescue and heal and deliver. Jesus rises from sleep, even more, Jesus has risen from the dead, and rebukes every threatening wind and wave of life, rebuking everything we are so afraid of. Be quiet, cancer. Be quiet, addiction and anger. Be silent, shame and guilt. Say no more, wicked world. Be quiet and be still, evil one, do not threaten my people anymore. I am the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and I say they are justified, forgiven, protected, beloved of God. Be calm, threatening waves, be silent, howling winds, these sinners are with Me.
This is Christ’s good news to you, that nothing, not even if the wind and waves take your life, still nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. What sort of man is this? The man who stands in the sinking boat with you, pointing out your sins, so that you can see again that He is your forgiveness, your life, your rescuer. In death, in life, in joy and in sorrow, Christ is for you and with you, forever and ever. Good news indeed, Amen.