Sermon 22


Practice Your Faith 

With Continual Reference to Kierkegaard

November 13, 2005


Jesus is mean, tough and cruel to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:3, our Gospel reading for today. He says “do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” And those same condemning words are aimed at us too. You don’t have to be a Pharisee to be Jesus’ target. All you have to be is a lazy Christian, one who doesn’t practice what you say you believe. That is, a Christian who fails to take daily prayer seriously as well as skipping the regular reading of the Bible, fasting, repenting, tithing, warning that Judgment Day is coming, telling others about Christ, teaching the baptized the searing words of the Catechism, cleaning up the earth, helping the poor, keeping the Sabbath holy, fighting against the wicked, defending the oppressed and waiting eagerly for Christ’s return.

That’s all it takes for Christ Jesus to take aim at you. That’s all it takes – just kicking-back and not doing what you’re supposed to do. And that includes all of us. For we like sheep have all gone astray, says Isaiah 53:6. All have fallen from the glory of God, says Romans 3:23. We are all weak, even when we actually follow Jesus, says Matthew 26:41, for we cannot follow up on our good intentions: “The spirit is willing,” says the Lord, “but the flesh is weak.”

Now why are we this way? Why are weak and lazy? Why are we faithless, asks Malachi 2:10, from our first reading for today. In 1848, Søren Kierkegaard wrote Christian Discourses, whose Sesquicentennial we honor today. There he explains our weakness. “There is only one obstacle,” he writes, and that is “a person’s selfishness, which comes between him and God like the earth’s shadow when it causes the eclipse of the moon. If there is this selfishness, then he is strong, but his strength is God’s weakness; if this selfishness is gone, then he is weak and God is strong; the weaker he becomes, the stronger God becomes in him” (KW 17:129). Oh, most wonderful explanation! – that our weakness comes from thinking we are strong when we are actually weak because of our sinfulness! Putting things off and going with the flow, we say, can’t be all that bad. Why label it laziness, we say? Isn’t it just mellowness? And isn’t that good for the heart and one’s longevity? Doesn’t it give balance and steer clear of extremes?

Oh, what crafty shrewdness! Oh, what clever evasion! And it can only be learned about in church! So if you “fled into God’s house,” Kierkegaard writes, “from the horror on the outside, from the most terrible thing in the world that can happen to a person, you are coming to something still more terrible. Here in God’s house there is essentially discourse about a danger that the world does not know, a danger in comparison with which everything the world calls danger is child’s play – the danger of sin” (KW 17:172). Kierkegaard calls this danger, being sagacious – a word dripping with deceit. Sagacity, he says, is the most loathsome of all sins because it “has the world’s approval.” It covers up our weakness and laziness with “mitigating and euphemistic names.” God says its laziness, dishonesty and selfishness, but we say its relaxing, being balanced and healthy. So Kierkegaard concludes that the “sin of sagacity is to sin in such a way that one ingeniously knows how to avoid punishment” by giving “the appearance of the good” (KW 17:180).

So what shall we do? Are we hopelessly lost? Are we so consumed with selfishness and dishonesty that we’ll never practice what we say we believe? Are we lost because, as Isaiah 5:20 says, we think good is evil and evil is good? No, we are not without hope. Exaltation is possible, says our Gospel in Matthew 23:12, if we but humble ourselves. Repent and God will forgive you. But can we muster it? Isn’t it nigh unto impossible for a selfish ol’ boy to become humble and repent? Again Kierkegaard’s Christian Discourses sees through this spiritual trick. “Disbelief,” he writes, “is not spiritless ignorance; disbelief wants to deny God and is therefore in a way involved with God” (KW 17:67). Oh, what strange involvement! and yet it’s enough to get us going. How odd our rebellion truly is! Yet somehow in it are the seeds of our turning, as Matthew 23:10 says, so we can look to Christ Jesus, our master, and be blessed. As the old Latin Bible has it, magister vester unus est Christus. Yes, indeed, magister vester unus, Christ is your only master – your only help. No one else can pull you up and out of your moral degradation and sinful lusts and selfish weakness. Look to him and you’ll repent – and you’ll be blessed. No wonder, then, as Kierkegaard notes, the only guilt that God cannot forgive “is to refuse to believe in his greatness” (KW 17:294).

But how does this blessing come about? What’s in Jesus that pulls us to him? John 12:32 says it’s his death on the cross that does it. And so Kierkegaard writes: “I will seek my refuge with… the Crucified One…. to save me from myself.” Well, in what way does he do that? Kierkegaard goes on: “Only when he holds me fast, do I know that I will not betray him. The anxiety that wants to frighten me away from him, so that I, too, could betray him, is precisely what will attach me to him; then I dare to hope that I will hold fast to him – how would I not dare to hope this when that which wants to frighten me away is what binds me to him! I will not and I cannot do it, because he moves me irresistibly; I will not enclose myself in myself with this anxiety for myself,… with this guilt… that I, too, have betrayed him – I would rather, as a guilty one, belong to him redeemed. Oh, when he walked about Judea , he moved many by his beneficial miracles; but nailed to the cross he performs an even greater miracle” (KW 17:280). I should say! Yes, I should say. Oh, the depth of our sin and Christ’s mercy. Oh, the profundity of their intermingling. Who has ever seen into these depths so clearly before? Maybe St. Augustine (354-430)? Maybe Luther (1483-1546)? Maybe Oscar Romero (1917-1980)?

But how does this daring, this holding, this attaching, this binding, this hoping, this moving, this belonging to Christ happen through his death on the cross, of all things? How? Kierkegaard continues: “Truly, Christ did not come into the world to be served without making repayment…. Yes, he makes repayment for what they do against him! They crucify him – in repayment his death on the cross is the sacrifice of Atonement for the sin of the world, also for this, that they crucified him!” (KW 17:280). Oh, what abounding mercy. Oh, what joy that knows no telling! It is this sacrificial love that unravels my guilt and binds me to Christ. He bears my sin, says 2 Corinthians 5:21, that I may not be punished by God for it. So my master saves me by being my substitute before the very wrath of God. He was smitten, says Isaiah 53:4-5, stricken by God and afflicted – and by his wounds we are healed. Or in Kierkegaard’s words: “In order to express God’s sovereignty he chooses a very simple man as… his ambassador…. And in order to do a thorough job of it,… God joins in beating up his own ambassador – yet out of love, yes, out of love. O you infinite love!” (JP 3:2976). So praise Christ Jesus – the ambassador of God, his only Son. Honor him, our substitute. Believe in him. Come to the Altar this day and receive him – in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper – that your faith might be strengthened in his sacrifice for your sins.

And also, honor him in your good deeds. Do good works in his name for James 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, our second reading for today, we have a good work to do. Say verbum Dei, as the old Latin Bible has it, and not verbum hominum. With that verse take a stand that the Bible is not some human invention or worldly theory or culture-bound artifact or verbum hominum, but God’s own precious word to us from on high – verbum Dei! Declare the Biblical truth loudly and boldly. Do not shrink under the assaults of the worldly wise. These assaults are not insightful as they imagine – they are doomed, as 1 Corinthians 2:6 says. So do not waver. Hold fast to God’s only revelation. Know that it is “first an occasion for offense,” as Kierkegaard writes, again in Christian Discourses, and only later can it become an occasion for faith (KW 17:291). Know this. Expect this. But also fight. Do so by praying for mercy that offense may give way to faith – so that all who call on the good and merciful name of the Lord Jesus may be saved. Amen.

(Also reprinted in Lutheran Forum, Pentecost 2006.)