Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Take off your shoes!” says God to Moses – mysteriously from the burning bush, which keeps on burning (Exodus 3:5)! Take off your shoes and change your ways. This is no ordinary place. You can’t walk around here with your shoes on any more. No, the ground on which you are standing is holy – so take off your shoes. The old Latin Bible calls this terra sancta or holy ground. Yes, indeed, terra sancta it is! So take off your shoes. That’s how you treat terra sancta – by shedding your ordinary ways of getting around. So here we should indeed worry about our shoes – since here they’re not just about fashion (contra Andy Warhol, Shoes, Shoes, Shoes, 1997)! Here they must be set aside. No longer can you do business as usual. That’s what shoes stand for. So before the holy One you must shift gears and take off your shoes.
This is the way it goes with God. For when standing before him you’re not standing before some regular guy. No, God’s word won’t let you get away with thinking he’s just “like yourself” (Psalm 50:21). Through the ancient prophets God says: “I am… not man, [but] the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9). So his thoughts and ways are “higher” than anything we can muster on our own (Isaiah 55:9) – and so he must be treated differently.
Nevertheless we rebel and keep our shoes on and try to cut God down to size – our size or even smaller. We won’t heed the Biblical admonitions. We instead go our merry ol’ way – as if we had never heard anything new or arresting from God. And we do this to keep him within our grasp so that we can correct him, judge him, control him – and keep him from making us obedient to him. We think it’s too dangerous to go without our shoes before God. We need our shoes – and our ordinary ways – we think, to protect ourselves (see Laura Norman, Feet First, 1988 and Stephanie Tourles, Natural Foot Care, 1998). For without our shoes on, we may get some dreaded foot disease or stub our toes.
So we won’t comply and go barefooted. We resist God’s word. This is because we are “by nature unable to want God to be God” (Luther’s Works 31:10). We would rather “shape God [or] whittle God” according to our purposes (LW 17:17) – so that he then “harmonizes with reason” (LW 23:79). “In our nature we look at God as through painted glass, and we see God in conformity with our thought” (LW 17:108). For everybody wants to be God’s teacher since we “cannot let things be as they were ordained to be.” And what a mess this is, “when the egg wants to be wiser than the hen,…. when the children want to rule their father and mother, and the fools and simpletons the wise people” (LW 51:384; 23:79).
This lack of faith destroys God – albeit only inside our hearts. Luther explains how this happens and why it’s so perilous:
Faith…. consummates the Deity; and, if I may put it this way, it is the creator of the Deity, not in the substance of God but in us. For without faith God loses His glory, wisdom, righteousness, truthfulness, mercy, etc., in us; in short, God has none of His majesty or divinity where faith is absent…. To be able to attribute such glory to God is… religion beyond religion, and sacrifice beyond sacrifice. From this it can be understood what great righteousness faith is and, by antithesis, what a great sin unbelief is (LW 26:227).
God – and His Word – Cordially
And so we whittle down God – or at least we do so in our hearts. But when we do, we shrewdly don’t deny God but rather make “a great show of serving him as if [we] were His dearest friends, [when] fundamentally all [we] are is genuine demonic saints, who hate God cordially and persecute Him, His Word, and His work” (LW 21:190). This deceitful cleverness is as persistent as it is breathtaking! That, however, doesn’t make it any less damaging. It still leaves us, as if
We are in a rowboat halfway over the ocean
With the oars broken. Water is coming in through cracks.
A blind old man is guiding our route by the stars.
[R. Bly, My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (2005) p. 33]
But even in this sorry state, none of us would actually say, straight off, that we hate God. But that deference doesn’t carry over to his Word. For we definitely don’t honor it as we should. Instead we are quite bold in opposing it – saying it’s corrupt, distorted and unrepresentative of God himself. We insist there’s too much violence, arrogance and exclusivity in the Bible (see John S. Spong, The Sins of Scripture, 2005). But by playing fast and loose with God’s word, we reveal our contempt for him as well. By so doing we forget that God’s word “can never be entirely mastered,” and, by our lights, must always remain “altogether inexhaustible” (LW 14:8). So God’s word should in fact never be opposed. We instead should simply “yield” to it (LW 14:339).
In order for us to do that, we must quit reading the Bible like other books. It’s not “an ordinary human book,” after all (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journal & Papers, Hong edition, 3:2358). In fact, “Holy Scripture did not spring from the soil of earth” (LW 22:484). And so it cannot be treated as an earthly, ordinary thing.
Now we know how to read ordinary books. We first thumb through them to see if they’re interesting. We also like books that confirm our most cherished beliefs. And we usually recommend books we deem helpful. Also we like books we can read through easily. Now that’s our usual way of sizing up books. But when it comes to the Bible, we have to put on the breaks. For all four of these standard considerations – interest, confirmation, helpfulness and ease – none of them work with the Bible. For in godly matters
you must with Moses take off your shoes, and with Nicodemus [John 3:3] be born anew. According to your old [notions, godly matters will make no sense]…. [So] get out of here… with your worthless ideas! If you cannot think in higher and other terms…, then sit behind the stove and stew pears and apples, and leave such subjects alone (LW 37:219-220).
So what are these other, higher terms for reading? We don’t need any penetrating wisdom here to discern some sort of esoteric or subtle truths. Instead all we need is obedience – for there’s no other way to “grasp” God’s word (LW 25:418). Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) testifies well to this radical, key conviction:
The calamity of our age in… religion and as in everything, is disobedience, not being willing to obey. One only deceives oneself and others by wanting to make us think that it is doubt that is to blame for the calamity and the cause of the calamity – no, it is insubordination – it is not doubt about the truth of the religious but insubordination to the authority of the religious (Kierkegaard’s Writings 24:5).
Kierkegaard no doubt gleaned these thoughts from Luke 11:28, where Jesus says we are blessed if we simply hear his word and keep it. Note that there’s no intervening judgment or interpretation or assessment here. Instead we just are to hear the word and keep it. There are only these two steps – with no third one shoved in between the first two [see my “Luther’s Two-Factor Hermeneutic,” Lutheran Quarterly, February 1976]. For in the matter of the Bible, there’s “no middle ground” between the hearing and keeping (LW 26:203). Luther spells out this key point with striking clarity – and in words worth memorizing:
You must not cavil at [God’s] Word, find fault with it, and dispute it. Just hear it. Then the Holy Spirit will come and prepare your heart, that you may sincerely believe the preaching of the divine Word, even give your life for it…. But if you insist that you be heard, that your reason interpret Christ’s Word; if you presume to play the master of the Word, to propound other doctrines; if you probe it, measure it, and twist the words to read as you want them to, brood over them, hesitate, doubt, and then judge according to your reason – that is not hearing the Word or being its pupil…. In that way you will never discover the meaning of Christ’s Word or of His heavenly Father’s will (LW 23:229).
With this simplified, obedient approach, God’s Word finally has its way with us. It no longer arrives muffled, qualified or blunted. Now it comes to us in all purity, for “God’s sayings stand alone and need no human interpretation.” In that preferred form, “nothing more than the naked sword, the word of God, rules” over us (LW 39:165). And it is only that naked, unadulterated, uninterpreted word that saves us, for it alone cuts into us deeply enough – “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12).
Just Listening Isn’t Easy
But because this is so simple, it doesn’t follow that it’s equally easy. Indeed “it is easy to say that the Spirit is received solely by hearing with faith; but it is not so easy to hear, accept, believe, and keep.” This is because listening involves more than just hearing sounds, but also includes “something that… penetrates into your heart” (LW 26:215). When that happens, there’s disruption. And with this prospect we pull back from listening in all simplicity. And then we argue that it is “exceedingly inadequate” to suppose that all these blessings are received “solely through hearing,” for
the human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize… can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but thinks this way: “The forgiveness of sins,… the granting of… eternal life – this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts”…. Thus the greatness of the gift is responsible for our not accepting it. Because such a great treasure is being offered freely, it is despised (LW 26:213).
Therefore we cannot even depend on ourselves to listen to God’s word in humble simplicity and receive the free gift of salvation. We wreck even that simple deed. So to do our little bit we need God’s help. For we are “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20; John 8:34).
in Dust and Ashes
So turn away from yourselves and toward God – toward the “living God” (Acts 14:15). Be like Job who despised himself and repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Be like Peter who “wept bitterly” for his denial of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 26:75). “Bear your disgrace and be ashamed” of your improper reading of the Bible (Ezekiel 16:54). Don’t be like a whore, and with a stubborn brow, “refuse to be ashamed” (Jeremiah 3:3). Crucify your pride and die to yourself (Colossians 3:5-11), knowing full well that if you don’t repent, you too will perish (Luke 13:3). “For the man who has Christ through true faith…. stands firm on the solid rock, neither following after a soft life nor fleeing a hard life” (LW 25:318).
And this life of repentance is anything but soft and easy. The shame it makes us feel for our sin hurts us deeply – and we are “wretchedly tortured” by it (LW 5:154). This brings contrition and brokenness upon us (Psalm 51:17). So while it’s easy to sin, “what difficulty” we have in repenting and being healed (LW 8:325).
Outside of Ourselves
But thanks be to God that repentance is only the first step along the way to salvation. The second step is this:
If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works; but God sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him. He was crucified and died for you and bore your sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24)…. Therefore the Law only shows sin, terrifies, and humbles; thus it prepares us for justification and drives us to Christ [impellit ad Christum]. For by His Word God has revealed to us that He wants to be a merciful Father to us (LW 26:126).
This mercy comes through faith in Christ and on him we must depend. He does for us what we could never do for ourselves. By being punished in our place we are rescued from punishment, for
we lay under God’s wrath and displeasure, doomed to eternal damnation, as we deserved. There was no… help… until this only and eternal Son of God, in his unfathomable goodness, had mercy on us…. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures from the jaws of hell… and restored us to the Father’s favor and grace…. He suffered, died, and was buried that he might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owed, not with silver and gold but with his own precious blood [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 414].
Only by having Christ make satisfaction for us before God’s judgment can we be restored to grace and favor. Otherwise the jaws of hell would devour us all. Otherwise the “wrath of God” would “torment” us forever (John 3:36; Luke 16:23, 28).
Pitting the work of Christ against the wrath of God (BC, p. 136) is a glorious shelter for us – bringing us peace with God (Romans 5:1). Therefore let us thank God
that we have been delivered from this monster of uncertainty…. And this is our foundation: The Gospel commands us to look… at Christ Himself, the Mediator…. Here I cannot have any doubts, unless I want to deny God altogether. And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength,… but… on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on… God (LW 26:387).
So if our hearts condemn us, “God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). We must therefore look to God in Christ Jesus, for he is the “perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Our repentance cannot perfect our faith. Our shame cannot move God to mercy. Our morality cannot make us righteous before God. Indeed there is “so much evil in my nature that the world and all creation would not suffice to placate God.” (LW 26:175). So polishing up my own apple will do me no good. I instead need help from outside of myself. For indeed, it’s only by the wounds of Jesus that I can be saved from my sinfulness (1 Peter 2:24). My wounds wouldn’t count for anything before God. But the Father loves the Son because he dies for us in our place, and if we love the Son, the Father then will love us to (John 10:17, 14:21). That makes Jesus our Lord and Savior.
So hold on to Christ and not onto your supposed righteousness. But even so, don’t make much of this. Know that your grasp on Christ is tenuous at best. This is as it should be, for if you could grasp Christ completely,
we would never be stirred by any sense of death or sin. Our failure to understand this fully makes our conscience vex us, dangers disturb us,… and afflictions frighten us. This failure lies in our comprehension, it does not lie in Christ. It is like a man who has fallen into the middle of a stream. He catches the branch of a tree somehow to support himself above the water and be saved. So in the midst of sins, death, and anxiety we, too, lay hold on Christ with a weak faith. Yet this faith, tiny though it may be, still preserves us (LW 12:262).
And with this tiny faith, come to the altar of the Lord and receive the Holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Eat of the bread and drink of the cup that you may be filled with abundant life (John 6:53, 10:10) – being changed from wolves into sheep (LW 37:101; Matthew 25:33). Come to the altar even though the only way you may get here is on a “stretcher,” marked as invalids, as it were (LW 35:66). Know that the One you’ll receive in this sacrament will also carry you to the altar and on into a more powerful faith. In this way you will be sure you are not saving yourselves (see Judges 7:2). In this way we will give all the glory to God.
Then leave this holy house today – on this Lord’s Sabbath – also planning good works in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17). For faith without works is dead (James 2:26) – and, as we know, so we sing [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 297]:
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.
So go out from here, following Luke 10:3, proving your faith, and witness to Christ, carrying “no purse, no beg, no sandals.” No shoes! – yet once again. But here it’s a sign of dependence on God’s grace. Here it points us away from ourselves that we might glorify God in our witnessing. So witnessing is not about taking credit for being so persuasive and compelling. No, it’s rather about being unworthy servants only doing our jobs (Luke 17:10) – knowing full well that God alone makes faith grow and that nothing else matters (1 Corinthians 3:7). Amen.
(printed as preached but with changes)