Sermon 15  

Don't Be Deceived

Galatians 6:7

July 15, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We wonder about life’s meaning. Is it significant or just a jumble of random bits? This is no esoteric matter. Burt Bacharach even addresses this in his popular song, What’s It All About, Alfie? (1966) – as did the 2004 movie based on it starring Jude Law.



Now down through the ages a larger number than you might think has lifted their voices to say that life’s actually of no value. In ancient Greece , for instance, the cynics, who were known as the Sophists, said that life wasn’t very important. It didn’t count for much. The wicked get away with murder and the righteous are crushed, instead of blessed. So life can’t possibly be very valuable since the morality of it all is so slapdash and puzzling.

Chief among these Sophists was Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BC). He spun webs of confusion and deceit to trick people and delight himself in their gullibility – since there was no meaningful existence anyway. These ploys were called sophistry. Plato – that famous lover of truth – finally took on Protagoras, saying he should stop “running before the wind, launching out on a sea of words till he is out of sight of land” (Protagoras, 338a).

And this sophistry didn’t end with Protagoras but went on to breed much offspring. Toward the end of Samuel Beckett’s highly acclaimed play, Waiting For Godot (1949), we hear: “Time flows again already. The sun will set, and the moon rise, and we away… from here.” This same sort of meaningless flatness crops up in Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 nihilistic novel, Less Than Zero, where we read: “People are afraid to merge. To merge” (p. 183). So from Protagoras to Beckett to Ellis – with many more in between – we hear voices saying that life doesn’t add up to much.


Absolute Thunder

Against these voices Galatians 6:7 thunders with absolute certainty. Here St. Paul declares: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” With this blast all those nihilistic voices are countered with certainty. With these words St. Paul rams the existential meaninglessness which informs these bleak, flat, voices and spawns the words which they spew out.

            According to St. Paul , then, it’s not true that life doesn’t add up to much. No, the truth instead is that what we feel and think, say and do, matters. And it matters to God, mind you. For he registers it all, measures it, and then either condemns or condones, punishes or blesses (Mark 16:14-16; John 5:28-29; Romans 2:5-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:21; 2 Peter 1:10-11).

            So in Galatians 6:7 we have no mechanistic or impersonal karma from the philosophies of the ancient East – which many today in middle America are including in their personally designed spiritualities. Karma is the tenant that “every action produces an effect” [R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism (1966) p. 60]. But this isn’t what Galatians 6:7 says. Note that it doesn’t say: Don’t be deceived – you’ll reap what you sow. No, that’s not it at all. Rather it inserts in between those two phrases the bombshell that God is not mocked. So our punishment or reward isn’t due to some inexorable causal chain, based on what we’ve done. No, both the weal or the woe (Isaiah 45:7) actually come straight from God’s hand – slapping us down or lifting us up (Psalm 75:7). So what Galatians 6:7 declares is very personal and not the least bit mechanistic or automatic. Rather than it being a causal principle, this verse is a moral threat or warning for us to watch how we live.


Being Like Gideon, Jerubba’al of Old

So St. Paul takes on nihilism – that view which says nothing matters – and whacks it a good one, up the side of the head. Like Gideon of old, who smashed the altars of the false god, Ba’al (Judges 6:28-32), St. Paul attacks nihilism and meaninglessness. In Galatians 6:7 we’re told what we feel and think, say and do, matters. We’re not just floating aimlessly down some stream. No, we’re rather confronted repeatedly with moral choices that significantly shape our lives. So just as Gideon was nicknamed Jerubba’al, meaning “let Ba’al contend against” Gideon if he can (Judges 6:32), so St. Paul taunts nihilism as well in Galatians 6:7.

            Like Gideon of old, St. Paul is a “man of valor” (Judges 6:12). He fearlessly takes on the perennial sophistry of meaninglessness. Nothing about this is easy. For it regularly charms us. But not St. Paul . And so he warns us to stand fast, for God is not mocked. He warns us so that we can sing from the depths of our hearts these stirring lines [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 396]:

 O God, O Lord of heav’n and earth,

Your living finger never wrote

That life should be an aimless mote,

A death-ward drift from futile birth.

Your Word meant life triumphant hurled

In splendor through your broken world;

Since light awoke and life began,

You made for us a holy plan.


Being Dull

But even so we still cave in left and right. In Psalm 94:4-11 we learn about this. So it’s an old problem. There we read:


The evildoers crush your people, O Lord,…. and they say, “The Lord does not see”…. Understand, O dullest of the people! [רעבּ]... He who formed the eye, does he not see?.... The Lord who teaches you knowledge, he knows your thoughts…


In this passage we learn how silly our doubts are. We might be able to fool people into thinking we’re better than we are. But we can’t fool God. He who made our eyes, we’re told, surely can keep an eye on us. Nothing passes his notice. And he who made it possible for us to learn about life, surely he knows what we’re up to.

So don’t be dull. The Hebrew word here for dull is רעבּ or ba‛ar. It comes from the word “to graze,” like beasts of burden eating out in the fields. Psalm 73:22 translates this word that way, saying: “I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a beast toward you, O God.” So don’t be beastly and dull. Open your eyes to God’s constant surveillance. Don’t pretend that you’re covered over and safely hidden from his penetrating, omniscient eye. Remember Matthew 10:29 which tells us that not even the tiniest of sparrows falls to the ground without our heavenly Father willing and knowing it. So don’t be dull. God is not mocked. His challenges to you matter. And what you do counts.  So quit living in a fog.

And yet we still resist. We act as though God isn’t watching over us. We act as though he doesn’t know who we are. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) exposed these mistakes some 150 years ago in Denmark . There he wrote these illuminating words in his little known but weighty posthumously published book on the eccentric Pastor Adolph Adler:


Ostensibly it is an imperfection in earthly life that basically a person cannot… thoroughly make himself understandable to others; [but] on closer inspection one will surely be convinced that it is a perfection, since it suggests that every individual is religiously structured and is to strive to understand himself in confidentiality with God. Most people probably do not notice either this imperfection or that it is a perfection” [Kierkegaard’s Writings, 24:92].


Now Kierkegaard is right that we can hide from one another, for only God can see into our hearts and know what we’re really thinking (1 Samuel 16:7). But it’s also the case, as he says, that when we want to open up to a loved one we can’t even do that. And so Kierkegaard then goes on to make his most daring point. He says this isn’t a weakness on our part as we often suppose. But rather it is our strength. It’s even a perfection. For this inability means that we are “religiously structured” so that only God can know us as we are. This means we belong to him and that all we do and are is perfectly well known to him.

            So do not be deceived, O dull ones [רעבּ]. All of us are connected intimately to God by virtue of him creating us (Psalm 139:1-16). So you can’t hide from him. This connection by way of creation will not save us from our sins, mind you. But it does explain why we can’t run away from God and his knowledge of us. That, by the way, is also the stirring message of Jonah 1:3-4.


Don’t Let Delays Trip You Up

And yet we still balk, as we stand before the warning in Galatians 6:7. This finally might most of all be due to the delays we see. For we frankly don’t see the wicked being cursed right on the heels of their wicked deeds, nor do we see the righteous being blessed the moment they obey. Maybe because of these delays – more than anything else – we don’t believe. So we suppose that blessing and punishment will never come if they don’t come right away.

Against these misgivings Luther tells a story in his Genesis commentary on Joseph. A robber was stealing a traveler’s cloak. “When the latter cried out that account would have to be rendered by the robber for his wrong at the Last Judgment, the robber replied: ‘Oh, if the time of vengeance is so far away, I grant myself your shirt too!’ This is how things go,” Luther concludes, “when the executioner is not at hand with his rope and sword” (Luther’s Works 7:83).

Luther explains further why God delays so. “God,” he writes, “does not let punishment follow immediately on the heels of sin but lets people go on long enough and restrains Himself to see if they will reform. However, in the end and when least expected He comes with real terror,…. [when the time] is ripe for punishment…. In the end… no one goes unpunished” (LW 28:159-160).


Believing in That Moral Bend

So heed God’s warning in Galatians 6:7. What you do matters. God rewards righteousness and punishes disobedience. God controls the moral nexus in the universe, and he will see to it that blessings and punishments are handed out. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) put it, “truth pressed to earth will rise again,” for although “the arm of the moral universe is long,… it bends toward justice” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. J. M. Washington (1986) p. 230]. Don’t you therefore become dismayed by the delays. Instead, be patient. “In silence,” wait for the Lord to act (Psalm 62:1-8). Trust in the Lord and do your work and wait for God to settle all accounts. Leave the outcome to him and his wrath and mercy (Romans 11:22).

            Know full well what Luther knew, “that the impatient man is not yet a Christian” (LW 25:290). Know also that “Christians fight most effectively when they fight least,” and so it’s true that “everything would turn out alright, if you could only wait” (LW 16:90, 261). So jumping the gun, pushing the envelop, will only hurt you.


Boast Only in Christ Jesus

But don’t boast in any of your thoughts or deeds. Even though they matter, they’re not to be exalted in. Now why is this? Shouldn’t credit go where credit’s due?

            Yes, indeed, but that’s just the problem. Who actually deserves the credit? In Philippians 2:12 we’re told to “work out” our own salvation in “fear and trembling.” That’s what we have been preaching by saying that what we feel and think, say and do, really matters to God. But the next verse explains why we are to work so diligently. “For God is at work in you,” it says, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Now that makes it sound like all the credit goes to God (1 Corinthians 3:7, 10:31). He is the one at work in us. He’s the one bringing us around. So by all means, do your work. Heed the Lord. But know to whom the glory goes.

            So St. Paul rightly says in this same manner in Galatians 6.14: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” I have died to myself because all the glory goes to God. I can claim none of it for myself. On that score I’m as good as dead.


Christ For Us

So 1 Peter 3:18 says that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This death enables us to work out our own salvation. Christ lifts the guilt that we have for the sins we have committed. He bears our shame in his own body. He is punished in our place. When we believe in this, new life is ours. No longer do we have to try to make God love us. Now all we have to do is receive the righteousness of Christ whereby God becomes a blessing to us. The curse and condemnation have ended (Galatians 3:13). So in Christ we have “the righteous for the unrighteous.” The Old Latin Bible translates it, iustus pro iniustis. They’re that close together: iustus for iniustis.

            Without Jesus doing this for us all our work would be for nothing (John 15:5). And so we do not ever boast in ourselves. Instead we say with Luther (LW 23:55):


Do not search for God the Father outside or beside Christ, but remain with this person, and thus you will assuredly have the Father also. Do not give way to wild speculations; it is not advisable to discourse on this subject with too much subtlety. The maxim should be: Do not let your thoughts take flight, flutter, and climb. Simply cleave and cling to Christ. It is imperative to remain solely with the Person of Christ. If you have that, you have all; but if you lose that, you have lost all…. Remain with Christ…. Do not stray beyond, even though your eyes do not see and your reason does not comprehend. Look here, my dear man, this cannot be understood by reason; otherwise why should we be asked to believe?


Yes, indeed, remain with Christ. In him we have everything. Without him we have nothing. Without him we have lost all. He is so great. He is so good. To have him is to have everything.


Enemies of the Cross of Christ

Now we lose Christ by speaking against his cross. From the beginning of the church, Christians have spoken out against the cross of Christ, making them “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Don’t be like them! Don’t follow in their footsteps. Look instead to God for help. Call on him to open your mind and soften your heart so that you will boast only in the cross of Christ.

Pundits today are saying that Christ’s death doesn’t save us from the punishments of God. That would be, they say, as stupid as insisting that when a firefighter, for instance, dies to rescue a child from a burning building, he dies “in lieu of” the child dying, since “God wanted somebody dead that day” [Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (2006) p. 38]. But this of course would only hold if God wasn’t massively offended by our sins, as he in fact is (John 3:36; Romans 1:18). Indeed, God is so offended by our sins that he killed us all but Noah and his family in the great Flood (Genesis 6:5-6, 17). He is so offended that he warns us of everlasting torment in hell if we don’t repent and believe in his dear Son, Jesus Christ (Luke 13:3, 16:26-28).


Christ is Truly Present with Us

So receive him this day. Hear his word and keep (Luke 11:28). And then receive Christ in the Lord’s Supper too. Eat and drink and receive him (Luke 22:7-22). He knows we need a double dose if we are to believe: the Word and the Sacrament. So come and eat and drink at the altar of the Lord this day.

            Now I do not know how that works. I do not know how Christ Jesus is truly present to us in this sacrament. He who rules from heaven as King of creation (Ephesians 1:20-23; 1 Timothy 6:14-16) is also here with us in West Seattle . But, let it also be known, that neither can the “chatterbox” of reason “prove that the two propositions, ‘Christ is in heaven, and his body is in the Supper,’ are contradictory” (LW 37:213). So Christ indeed is with us today in this mysterious, miraculous sacrament and it strengthens us when in faith we eat and drink of it (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). For “when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men” (LW 37:101).


Maxime for the Church

But when you leave this holy house of God today, refreshed by the Word and Sacrament, also be sure to do good works in Jesus’ name as a proof that you truly believe in him (Romans 8:17, 12:2).

For a good work this day, Galatians 6:10 tells us to work for the good of all, caring “especially for the family of faith.” So feed the poor and provide shelter for them, by all means – but never at the expense of the church of Jesus Christ . In fact give the “first fruits” (Deuteronomy 18:4) of your wealth to the church. For it alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It warrants our first attention. It has the pride of place in our offerings. So especially help the church. In the Old Latin Bible “especially” is translated as maxime. Yes, maxime! Give your maximum, your best, the first fruits of your labors to the church. This is the costly nard in John 12:1-8 (see my “Costly Nard,” The Messenger, October 2004). It is the call to extravagance we are all to heed. So be it. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)