Choose the Lord
August 30, 2015
Grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Lord’s day and so it is good that we are in church to keep it holy. This is a calling in the great Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8), and so we join Christians in every generation and worship on the first day of the week—saying prayers, singing hymns, reading Scripture, and breaking bread (Acts 20:7).
Listening to the Bible readings for today, we are immediately struck by Joshua’s challenge—choose you this day whom you shall serve, believe in, and follow (Joshua 24:15). This is critical because we must not keep God at arms length. Thinking about him and knowing him isn’t enough. We also have to take him personally—having him in our daily routines and dominant value system (Luther’s Works 45:108; 51:70). And this isn’t for the Old Testament alone. No, in Luke 10:42 we also see that Mary of Bethany took the Lord Jesus personally, choosing the best portion, the one thing needful, that would not be taken away from her. So the Bible overall does not want us to be blasé about God. We must take him personally, believe in him, be serious, decide for him, choose him, stand with him—thereby making him our God (Leviticus 26:12).
But no sooner do Lutherans hear about this, then we recall Luther’s famous wrench that he throws into the works: “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 345]. Now why does Luther, in these most famous words from his Small Catechism (1529), fly in the face of Joshua 24 and Luke 10? Well, it’s first of all because of John 15:16 and Romans 9:16 that say we cannot believe in God or choose the Lord, but that he instead has chosen us (LW 51:110). And the second reason is because of the trenchant argumentation and insight Luther provides in his many writings that show us how this must be so. In my estimation, all of these pages are most compelling, and come down to just three words: sin, sovereignty and certainty.
Sin. Regarding sin, we cannot believe in God because our sinfulness turns us away from God (Acts 14:15) and fixates us on ourselves—incurvatus in se, as Luther’s famous phrase has it (LW 25:513). Because of our sin, we love the darkness and are, as a result, blinded to the things of God (John 3:19; 2 Corinthians 4:4). God shows us the narrow highway to heaven (Matthew 7:13–14), and we prefer driving down a dead end road, repeatedly ramming our car into a stone wall! With Milton’s Satan, we hold that it’s “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” [Paradise Lost (1674) I:263]! Ghastly! And so we can’t choose the Lord because we can’t turn to him. We’re stuck in our sin—slaves to it (John 8:34)! We think of God and we moan and faint (Psalm 77:3)!
Sovereignty. Then there’s God’s sovereignty! In our culture we love the quip: “You’re not the boss of me!” (Malcolm in the Middle, 2000–2006) Well, maybe not, but God surely is! He’s Lord and King (LW 51:139; 13:239)—the Almighty One with all the power (Revelation 1:8; Psalm 62:11). Job learned this the hard way in a storm—with God belittling him for not knowing why the ostrich has wings but can’t fly with them (Job 39:13–18)! So if we think we can choose God on our own, then we think we’re the boss of our salvation. But that can’t be, because God the King is the Creator and will always rule over his creatures (Romans 1:25)!
Certainty. Finally there’s the matter of certainty. If we were to choose the Lord, we would have to be sure about it—but we’re fickle, tossed about by every wind (Ephesians 4:14). Therefore our decisions can’t save us, since we need to endure to the end to be saved (Mark 13:13; LW 13:140; 40:345). Only God can make us stable by perfecting our faith in him (Hebrews 12:2). So as we slip in and out of faithlessness, God remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:24)!
What then shall we make of this? Is there a contradiction between Joshua 24:15 and John 15:16 over choosing the Lord? Some would say there is—leaving the Bible a jumbled mess, that isn’t worth taking seriously because it’s incoherent (W. H. Burr, Self-Contradictions of the Bible, 1860, 1987). But that Danish lover of Luther, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), would disagree. He instead thought that these two Biblical testimonies—for and against choosing—can be resolved into one concise and precise formula:
Kierkegaard thought a Christian is “a man of will who has acquired a new will. A Christians is a man of will who no longer wills his own will but with the passion of his crushed will—radically changed—wills another’s will,” viz., God’s [Ronald F. Marshall, Kierkegaard for the Church (2013) p. 79, note 17].
There you have it—all the parts lined up together. We can choose alright, but only after our wishes are crushed, so that we can then long for and hanker after God. This crushing comes from the tribulations and violence (Acts 14:22; Luke 16:16) that God sends to push and pull us in the right direction (John 6:44; LW 6:162).
But even with Kierkegaard’s help, matters still seem too difficult for us to accept the Lord God Almighty (John 6:60). Therefore we also need to hear that only Christ has the words of eternal life (John 6:68), for he alone sacrificed himself to save us from the punishments for our sins (Hebrews 9:26; LW 26:284). He transfers us into his kingdom (Colossians 1:13), that we might find ourselves coming to know and believe in him by the power of his Spirit (John 6:69). This leaves all Christians somewhat surprised by faith and eternally grateful—the farthest thing from taking pride in it. That’s because it’s God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8; James 1:17)! So extend your thanksgiving to the Great Thanksgiving this day at the Altar of the Lord’s Supper. There you will be convinced that your sins have been forgiven, so that your faith may grow, since there’s no faith without the forgiveness of sins.
Now this gift of faith not only saves us from hell but also leads us to good works—for faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26; LW 30:34). In order then to keep our faith alive, let us pursue the good work in Ephesians 5:32 about marriage being a mystery, just as the link between Christ and his church is a mystery. What this mystery means for marriage is that it isn’t our anthropological invention based on historical trials and error over the generations.
No, marriage instead has come to us, at the creation of the world, as the life set aside by God for one man and one woman. Marriage is therefore God’s creation—or institution. As such, God is also the one who maintains it. So when a married couple has difficulties, God is the one who can help. Running off on a vacation will not do it. Neither will a fine dinner out at your favorite restaurant. Not even an hour with the best counselor around will resolve your troubles. Luther knew all of this and put it this way:
Marriage is instituted by God. Therefore we should go to God with prayer and hopefulness in all the difficulties of marriage. For since God has ordained and blessed marriage (Genesis 2:18–25), married persons may look to God and be confident that he will give grace and help in all their needs…. Discipline is to be maintained in marriage, and patience and love are to be shown and practiced (LW 40:301).
So marriage needs discipline, patience and love to keep going, and God can provide it. We need these things because marriage isn’t easy. Everybody admits that! So we need discipline otherwise our lapses in marriage keep us from trying again. And we also need patience because if we don’t defer self-gratification, marriage will die the death of wonton selfishness. And love too must abide—for there’s no marriage without it. You only have to look at the 1968 classic study on marriage entitled The Intimate Enemy to see how we hurt the one we love. Only godly love can prevent this.
So let our good work this day be praying to God for discipline, patience and love in marriage—for your own marriage as well as for those couples you care for. And what will God say to you when he hears you pray: Oh God, have mercy and grant me (or them) discipline, patience, and love in marriage. Amen. How will he respond? Well, because you’re asking for what he has already commanded (Ephesians 5:21–27), he’ll say of course I will! So then what shall we say about those couples who lack discipline, patience and love? Why don’t they have these blessings if God wants them to have them? Well, it’s because they haven’t asked for them! Scripture says you have not, because you’ve asked not (James 4:2)! So don’t go it alone—relying on, and trusting in yourselves, since the Bible opposes that sort of life (Luke 18:9). Instead, pray to God for help and watch him bless marriage. Thank God for Christ and his Spirit and watch him save and empower you. Pray to God to bless you that you might come to believe in him—that you might today, by his help, choose the Lord. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)