Obey the Lord God
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It My Way
So our disobedience isn’t anything new. No, it comes from the distant past – from the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17, 3:6). Since then, all of us have been pursing “the prudence of the flesh [which] seeks its own will more than God’s will” (Luther’s Works 25:376) – saying (Isaiah 30:10-11):
Prophesy not to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions,… turn aside from the path, let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel.
Because of this long established rebellion against God, we “love the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19) – that is to say, we love sinning, disobeying God and going our own way. Consequently we have become “slaves to sin” (John 8:34).
And of late we have even been celebrating our rebellion by singing about it. Paul Anka’s song, “My Way” (1969), made famous by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, has sold untold millions of copies and has been recorded by over 90 different vocalists. This song celebrates disobedience, in part saying:
For what is man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
and not the words of one who kneels….
I faced it all and I stood tall
and did it my way.
echoes the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903),
which ends by saying: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of
my soul.” And
If I worship one thing more than another
it shall be the spread of my own body…
Translucent mould of me it shall be you!....
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!....
I dote on myself…
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me
By being so fully immersed in ourselves, we are nearly forced, as it were, to defy God and wallow in our own imagined goodness.
Why have we gone down this path of destruction? 2 Thessalonians 2:7 says it’s a “mystery” – probably because it’s so unreasonable for us to provoke God’s wrath against us by rebelling against him (Romans 2:5-11). But that’s the way we are. We do what hurts us – “the evil I do not want, is what I do” (Romans 7:19). And so “we have no greater enemy than ourself” (LW 42:48)!
But our waywardness is also due to our laziness and love of pleasure (2 Timothy 3:4). In Luke 14:33, for instance, we’re told to renounce all that we have – and we recoil at the thought of it. And Matthew 5:48 even tells us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. All these admonitions, and many more like them, offend us royally. Therefore we rebel against God. We want the easy way out rather than the hard way (Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 12:19). We don’t like being told to deny ourselves and hate ourselves and die to ourselves (Luke 9:23; John 12:25; Romans 6:6).
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) calls this the offense “in relation to loftiness” (Kierkegaard’s Writings 20:94). It comes from the over-bearing force of Christ’s “superhuman” qualities (KW 20:100). They “collide” with our ordinary, natural ways (KW 20:106) rather than seduce us by their glorious riches – and so we are offended and rebel against them. Then “the long silence of Prometheus, before the powers that overwhelmed him… [finally] cries out in protest” [Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (1951) trans. Anthony Bower (1956) p. 304].
But there’s even more to the Biblical explanation than this. In Luke 14:14 we’re told that our reward for being faithful isn’t given to us in this life but only in the life to come, after we have died and gone to be with God in heaven for ever. But this is too hard on us. This delay of personal gratification is more than we can bear. We want peace, health and prosperity – and we want it now. We don’t like waiting around. We don’t like looking in the mirror “dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We want brightness and light and joy right now. This promise of a glory that is to come is too little, too late – and so we are offended, enraged and rebel. The Norwegian novelist, Knut Hamsun expresses this anger well:
Carried away by rage, I shouted and roared threats up to the sky, shrieked God’s name hoarsely and savagely, and curled my fingers like claws. I’ll tell you this, you sacred Baal in the sky, you do not exist, and if you do, I’ll curse you so that your heaven will start shuddering with hellfire! I’m telling you this, you know I offered myself as your servant, and you rejected me,… and now I turn my back on you for all eternity…. You have used force against me and you don’t realize that force does not work with me…. Were you asleep when you made my heart and soul? I am telling you this, all my energy and every drop of blood in me rejoices that I mock you and spit on your grace. From this hour on,… I will rip my lips out if they say your name once more [Hunger (1890) trans. Robert Bly (1967) p. 162].
This passage shows how much it hurts to be put off and have to reap our rewards later, in some remote time and place. Kierkegaard calls this outrage the offense “in relation to lowliness” (KW 20:102). It comes from Christ Jesus himself who, being the almighty, only Son of God, on the cross is paradoxically rendered “powerless and paralyzed” (KW 20:104). This is the last thing we would expect to see happen to Jesus, the very Son of God:
When we see him nailed to the cross like a criminal, we say that never has anyone, humanly speaking, accomplished so little, and never has any cause, humanly speaking, been so lost as he and his cause are at this moment (KW 20:105).
And the same happens to Jesus’ followers (Matthew 10:25). His powerlessness becomes their weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10):
They go to the Word to seek help – and then come to suffer on account of the Word…. When things become overcast in this way, the human understanding becomes darkened, so it is all at sea, does not know what is what. What is Christianity, then, and what is it good for? People seek help from it… and then the very opposite happens and they come to suffer on account of it…. [Then] the help looks like a torment, the relief like a burden (KW 20:114).
In the face of this failure we are surprisingly and simply told to amend our ways and “obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Jeremiah 26:13). For God makes no concessions to us. Our temper tantrums don’t scare him off (Ezekiel 18:25, 33:17-20). If any thing, God hits us even harder when we defy him (Amos 4:6-13) – just as the plagues against Pharaoh ended with the worst all being the last: the killing of the Egyptian children (Exodus 7:8-12:13)! So we must repent or surely we will perish (Luke 13:3).
Therefore we must “learn well… how important God considers
obedience [to be], since he so highly exalts it, so greatly delights in
it, so richly rewards it, and besides, is so strict about punishing
those who transgress it” [The
Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 384]. That’s why
we can only enter the kingdom as a child (Matthew 18:3)! So we cannot
expect any slack – for God doesn’t tolerate “slackness”
(Jeremiah 48:10; LW 52:238).
No, he won’t accept any excuses (Luke 14:18). This is because while
it’s human to fail, it’s also utterly demonic to defend ourselves
against God when we fail (LW
22:397). So we agree with Kierkegaard’s judgment of over 150 years ago
the calamity of our age in… religion and as in everything, is disobedience, not being willing to obey. One deceives oneself and others by wanting to make us think that it is doubt that is to blame for the calamity – no, it is insubordination – it is not doubt about the truth of the religious but insubordination to the authority of the religious (KW 24:5).
As disobedient creatures, then – which we all are since everyone of us has strayed and fallen (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23) – we must repent. There’s no two ways about it – it’s a requirement. And “repentance… consists mostly in your acknowledging that God is right and… his judgment is true when he says that we are all sinners and all condemned” (LW 51:318). This negative assessment is necessary because faith itself is “conceived in the terrors of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against our sins and looks for… deliverance from sin” (BC, p. 126). So “there cannot be genuine saving faith in those who live without… sorrow and have a wicked intention to remain… in sin” (BC, p. 543).
But more still is needed. What we still need are assurances that God will in fact accept our repentance. For he’s been known to turn longing sinners away (Isaiah 1:15; Lamentations 3:8, 43-45; Zechariah 7:13). In those cases our repentance isn’t good enough. And so we need a guarantee that if we repent it will count, and God will “forgive our sins and cleanse us” (1 John 1:9).
Well, the good news is that we have just such a guarantee in the one upon whom God has places his “seal” (John 6:27). And he does this through only one man (1 Timothy 2:5; Acts 4:12), since only in his very Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, is he “well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, 17:5). And so if we love his Son, the Father in turn will love us and not curse us, but forgive us (John 14:21-23).
Now the reason God loves his Son, in this way, is because he offers up his life as a sacrifice for sins (John 10:17; Hebrews 9:26; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). And his death is not an optional benefit but a “necessary” one for our salvation (Luke 24:26). It’s an “essential” element (BC, p. 543). That’s because only the blood of Christ can save us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9; John 3:36). For “only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath and judgment” (BC, p. 136). This, our repentance, simply cannot do.
But his death can do this because it’s pure (1 Peter 1:19) and weighty (Romans 8:3-4; Galatians 3:13; Colossians 2:13-14) – unlike any of our deaths, even those of St. Stephen or Gandhi or Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. This is because a penalty has to be paid to save us from being punished eternally for our sins – and only Christ’s death can make such a payment (1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Peter 2:1). Today many educated Christians hate this teaching [see my “Preaching Against the Cross,” Lutheran Partners, September/October 2003], but that will not make it magically disappear from the Bible. So the teaching stands, even though the faith of these skeptics will end up “shipwrecked” (1 Timothy 1:19).
And there are millions more worldwide who also question this. In the Koran (Qur’ān), for instance, the holy book of Islam, compiled in the 7th century, it says that Jesus only seemed to have died on the cross, but in fact never did (Q 4:157; Ahmed Deedat, Was Jesus Crucified? Library of Islam, 1997). And so all, then, that is needed for forgiveness is repentance. No vicarious suffering by another is of any help since “any transfer of moral responsibility from one person to another is… impossible” [Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān (1980, 2003) p. 752 n. 16].
But this rejection of Jesus’ saving blood (contra Revelation 5:9) is being questioned more and more today by Muslims themselves. They’re increasingly being “attracted to Christian faith because it preaches that people can be sure of their acceptance by God” [J. Dudley Woodberry, et al, “Why Muslims Follow Jesus,” Christianity Today, October 2007, p. 84].
So rejoice in Christ Jesus this day, for he is your savior. By his death he has miraculously destroyed death (Hebrews 2:14), and by so doing gives “immortality” to all who believe in him (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 52-57).
Luther notes that Jesus uses death to destroy death just the way that David used Goliath’s sword to cut off the giant’s head:
Sin is destroyed by its own fruit and is slain by the death to which it gave birth, [just] as Goliath is beheaded by his own sword (1 Samuel 17:51),…. and in 1 Samuel 21:9 David said there was no better sword than the sword of Goliath (LW 42:151-152).
So the victory is sweet – there’s “no better sword” – when death is destroyed by its own dying! This happens when the point of death is co-opted. And that point is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). So rather than having that punishment dumped on us, Jesus bears it in his own body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).
And this transference to Jesus, defangs the punishment – for by his wounds “we are healed” (Isaiah 53:10; 1 Peter 2:24). Now death is no longer our enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) – and neither does it dominate Christ any more as it did on the cross and in his stone-cold tomb (Romans 6:9). This is because it can’t any longer threaten us with the sting of hell (1 Corinthians 15:56). So when Christians die, death is rightly re-described as a mere “falling asleep” (Matthew 9:24). And when followers of Jesus awake from that sleep of death, they are welcomed into “the kingdom prepared” for them, where the streets are paved with gold and all tears wiped away (Matthew 25:34; John 14:3; Revelation 21:4, 18-21).
So come to the altar today and receive this Savior, Christ Jesus. He is here for you today, in, with and under (BC, p. 575) the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament of the Altar. So do not minimize these earthly elements of bread and wine for they carry the Savior to you. They are not supernatural in themselves, but they bring what is (Mark 9:2-3). So hold onto them reverently for they are not “mere bread and wine such as is served at the table” (BC, p. 447). For this is a holy meal for you.
And do not doubt that it is for you. Do not think that your sinfulness will keep God from blessing you. Do not think that your sins cannot be forgiven. Know that this bread and wine are for you. So come, eat and drink, for the more you do this, the more your hearts will be “warmed and kindled,” and your faith kept from growing “entirely cold” (BC, p. 453). Remember that Christ came for the sick (Mark 2:17) and the ungodly (Romans 5:6-8).
So do not dispute those little words for you. Take them at face value. Do not find ambiguities where there aren’t any. Throw out all commentators who say they are ambiguous and that only the self-righteous are to be blessed (see Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, Hong Edition, §3:3597). No, believe this instead, that Christ is for you, in, with and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. Believe he has come for the ungodly, for the likes of you and me. For those two little words for you, we believe, are the “chief thing in the sacrament,” as Luther’s Small Catechism has been telling us for generations (BC, p. 352).
And then when you leave this place of worship, do good works in God’s name. “Fight the good fight of faith” – Kämpfe den guten Kampf des Glaubens, as Luther translated it (1 Timothy 6:12)! Fight against your sins, attacking the old Adam and Eve in you, suppressing the inclinations of that old nature in you (BC, pp. 445-46; Colossians 3:9-10).
This, however, is no easy feat for us – since in this battle we’re taking on cosmic “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12). So do not neglect prayer and fasting which are suited for such struggles (Matthew 17:21). Maintain our theological heritage which says “such bodily exercise should not be limited to certain specified days but should be practiced continually…. Thus fasting… is not rejected,” since it helps us “keep the body in such a condition that one can perform the duties required by one’s calling,” by putting “restraints on our flesh” (BC, pp. 69, 221). Since God wants you to keep up on your duties, he will certainly help you in your fasting – if you but call on him. Amen.
(printed as preached but
with some changes)