October 4, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever wanted to be great? Have you ever wanted to be of some significance? Then today you’ve come to the right place! For today our Lord Jesus tells us what it takes to become great. The only problem with this is that what he says is disquieting.
Building on Self-Denial
What Jesus told his first disciples long ago he repeats to us today in Mark 9:35 – that whoever would be great must be last and servant of all. So great people are not those who get a lot, but who give a lot. That is because it is “more blessed to give than it is to receive” (Acts 20:35). We would think it was the other way around. We would think that great people are those who have huge talent, great power, much luck and plenty of respect. But Jesus doesn’t agree for a minute. The great are those who are servants of all. They are the last – not the first in this, that, or some other thing. So greatness is not about being a “gimme, gimme” person. It’s rather about being a sacrificial, generous person. Greatness, according to Jesus, is based on giving – not on getting.
This definition of greatness shouldn’t surprise us – even though society and its prevailing cultural norms run contrary to it. That’s because in the New Testament life is based on self-denial (Matthew 16:24) rather than on self-fulfillment (Matthew 16:25; John 15:13). Life, according to Jesus, is based on humility rather than on self-aggrandizement (Luke 18:14; James 4:6; Luke 12:15). It’s about being other-directed, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) taught [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (2009) 8:500-503] – and not about being self-absorbed. It’s about looking to God and neighbor – our “greatest” obligations (Mark 12:30-31) – and not dwelling on our self-preoccupied lives.
Giving the Best
So greatness, according to Jesus, comes through service to others. It’s not about accumulating the most money, power and prestige. But this service to others isn’t about giving them whatever they want – regardless of its quantity and quality. No, our service to others isn’t about making them self-indulgent, degraded, and corrupt. No, our service to others is rather designed to make their lives as good as they can be in the eyes of the Lord.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), in his Large Catechism (1529), ties this into the First Commandment about having no other gods [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 366]:
Man’s whole heart and confidence [should] be placed in God alone, and in no one else.... To cling to him with all our heart is nothing else than to entrust ourselves to him completely. He wishes to turn us away [abstrahere] from everything else, and to draw us [attrahere] to himself, because he is the one eternal good.
In our service to others,
then, what we want to provide is this “one eternal good” – even though
it means brutally turning us “away from everything else.” But we have
nothing better to offer than this – and so we cannot settle for less.
“Serve only God,” we’re told (Matthew 4:10)! My friend, the Rev. Jim
Wessel, formerly the pastor of the huge
God = His Word
But bringing about this life with God will be easier said than done. That’s because a life with God is always a very difficult row to hoe, as they say (Matthew 7:14; BC, pp. 143, 161; Luther’s Works 12:217; 21:191; 28:72). And it doesn’t help that God is the invisible One – inscrutable and almighty (Romans 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:16; Revelation 1:8). For how can we have a life with a God like that? How can we even get started on such a life? And where would we go if we were finally to get going? What would we do in such a life with God? Unfortunately all of these questions go begging – as long as God remains the invisible and inscrutable One.
But what if God is his Word to us (John 1:1)? What then? What if God binds himself to his revelation to us in the Holy Bible (LW 42:147; 46:276)? What then? Well, then he would no longer be distant and removed from us. Then we would know what he has given us and what he expects from us – for he would have revealed himself to us. Then we could have a life with him – one based on his Word. It would be preoccupied with reading, studying, memorizing, obeying, and following that Word. People, then, who live with God would be those who have a life with his Good Book – we would be people of the Holy Scriptures (LW 25:261).
As such we would no longer define right and wrong by ourselves (Isaiah 5:20; Deuteronomy 12:8). We would instead follow the Holy Scriptures and what they say is right – being “regulated by the Word” (LW 17:144). And this is because, as Luther argued,
the Word of God... is eternal [and applies] to all men of all times. For although in the course of time customs, people, places, and usages may vary, godliness and ungodliness remain the same (LW 14:290).
Now according to the holy words of Scripture, we learn that all of us are sinners and deserve eternal punishment in hell (Romans 2:5, 3:23), and that we cannot save ourselves (Psalm 49:7-9; Romans 7:24, 9:16-18). But we learn also that if we believe in Jesus and follow him we will be saved from the fires of hell (John 3:36; Matthew 7:21; Acts 4:12). These assertions (LW 33:21) are at the heart of what God tells us about godliness and ungodliness.
But these are tough words – and many find them not in the least compelling (Matthew 7:13-14, 11:6). They offend the positive image we have ourselves (Job 27:5-6), as well as the independent streak that runs through us all (Deuteronomy 8:17). Because of our pride, we are unable to push ourselves in the right direction. Try though we may, we keep tripping up ourselves. Our pride goes before us – and we fall (Proverbs 16:18), over and over again.
As long as our pride reigns in us, we cannot give ourselves over to this new life with God. For our pride is a monster of “self-righteousness” (LW 26:310) which suppresses the truth about us and God (Romans 1:18) – a truth that could save us (John 8:32) – albeit a truth that is “harsh” [aspra veritas] (LW 11:58). It is a word that cuts deeply into us (Hebrews 4:12) and exposes us for what we are (John 3:20). And we quite naturally resist this assault (Malachi 3:2-3). No one in their right mind would find this to be “pleasant” in any way (Hebrews 12:11). So rather than enduring and learning and being strengthened (Romans 5:3-5), we like the disciples, flee from the sufferings of the cross (Matthew 26:56).
Being Stopped Cold
But we’re not left with that flight. It can be stopped. We’re not some ineluctable run-away train. And what stops us is James 4:6, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Without this word we are a run-away train. But with it there is hope that we’ll be saved from the impending wreck ahead.
How so? By sheer fright, my friends in Christ! That line – “God opposes the proud” – stops us cold. Now we have a tiger by the tail – and that changes everything. As of old, we hear again the words in Job 41:8, “Lay hands on him; think of the battle; you will not do it again!” I should say not! When God is after us, our goose is cooked (Hosea 13:8; Amos 5:19). And when we come to know this for sure, the game changes. For his pursuit of us is much worse than that of any IRS agent, crazed mother-in-law, drug-induced robber, Middle- Easterner terrorist or escaped psychopath! For he is the king of creation, who is able to hurl earthquakes, storms and pandemics our way (Numbers 16:31-32; Ezekiel 13:13, 14:21). No other opponent we will ever meet, could be so fierce.
With that thunderous, divine assault upon us, we are pulled ahead where we belong. No longer do we have to try to push ourselves in the right direction. Now, finally, we’re pulled ahead – finally heading on the path of righteousness (Proverbs 4:18).
Paying What We Owed
But there’s more than this thunder. If that were all – we would be crushed. But there’s more. James 4:6 goes on to say that God also “gives grace to the humble.” Once humbled, then, we are given grace. We are lifted up (Psalm 75:7) – just think of it! Pulled ahead for sure – but also lifted up. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And what does this grace give? Just how does it lift us up? And where do we go when we have been lifted up? Luther spells it out:
Jesus Christ.... has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell,... and has restored us to the Father’s favor and grace,.... not with silver and gold but with his own precious blood – [making] satisfaction for me and [paying] what I owed (BC, p. 414).
How much more graphic could it be – hell having jaws and wanting to eat us up!? It’s this horror that grace saves us from. And why is hell so ferocious? Because God’s wrath is breathing down the necks of unrepentant sinners! He wants to torment sinners in hell by bearing down upon them – mercilessly (Deuteronomy 13:6-11; Luke 16:23, 28; Revelation 9:5). But grace frees us from all of this – from God’s wrath and hell (John 3:36). And that happens when Jesus meets God’s demands by paying what we owed.
How does Jesus do that? Well, not with silver and gold – that’s for sure (1 Peter 1:18). No, he does it with his precious blood. By dying on the cross, he puts away our sin (Hebrews 9:26). And that he does by paying what we owed God. And what we owed was punishment for our sins. Now, it’s right at this point, that we see the grace of God most vividly – for our gift from Christ Jesus is that he was punished in our place (LW 22:167; 26:284). He is our substitute – and in that great turn-around is grace and salvation. For only then can God become our loving heavenly Father (John 10:29) instead of our cosmic, fire-spitting Judge (Matthew 3:12; BC, p. 419). By being punished in our place, Jesus moves God to mercy (LW 51:277 and my “Moving the Father to Mercy,” dialog, Fall 1996). Or as Luther puts it in our passage from the Large Catechism (1529) just quoted, he restores us “to the Father’s favor and grace” (BC, p. 414). This includes changing God or reconciling him (BC, pp. 121, 137, 140, 142, 147, 149, 152, 153, 165, 166, 216, 253, 257, 260). As strange as this may seem, for an immutable and eternal God (Hebrews 13:8), our salvation requires it. Without reconciliation, a wrathful God (Isaiah 13:9; Micah 6:2) and defiant, rebellious humanity (Job 9:32-35; Acts 7:51), would remain in conflict forever (Romans 5:2; LW 26:325).
A Peculiar Phraseology
But when we believe in “the reconciled God” (LW
12:377, 399; 30:12), we too are changed. We become new creations (2
Corinthians 5:17). When that happens, we can then say with
But this could sound crazy and be summarily dismissed. That’s because being grandiose is a sign of psychological instability (Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth, 1950) – rooted in damaging delusions. And so over-estimating ourselves – or saying that we can do all things, that is, being grandiose – hurls us into personal as well as inter-personal collapse – because of the inflated self-importance it breeds (LW 52:208). But what if this grandiosity wasn’t rooted in ourselves? What if it wasn’t delusional? What if it was factual? What if we could manifest it in our lives without bringing it into being by ourselves? What then?
Well, that’s exactly what we have! And that’s because we are able to do all things – only because Christ dwells in us (Galatians 2:20). This is the power of salvation (2 Timothy 3:5) – concrete and practical. Nothing abstract or ethereal here – but new people with new capacities, emerging on the scene (LW 26:375). Even so we know with Luther that this indwelling is “a peculiar phraseology” (LW 26:168) – for to say that Christ lives in us isn’t standard fare. But be that as it may, we would still highly prize such a person. Just think of it – a person who is a humble, thankful servant. And that’s the way people are when Christ dwells in them. Humble – not always pushing themselves on you and making everything be about them. Just think of it! Thankful – not bitter and complaining about everything because nothing is ever quite right and so nothing is ever any good either! And serving – always getting things done so that there’s room for those sweet little moments of quiet repose together. Who wouldn’t want a son or daughter-in-law like that? Who wouldn’t want a friend like that – humble, thankful, a hard-working servant!
Thank the Lord
So rejoice in Christ for all his mercies. For he not only died to save us from our sins, but by so doing, he also leads us into newness of life. He bore our sins, after all, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24), by walking “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). So we aren’t saved to take time off or to go on spiritual vacations or to lounge around theologically on some backyard deckchair in the afternoon sun. No, we rather are saved so that we can work in the kingdom (Luke 10:2; Ephesians 2:10). For as Luther wrote in his beloved Smalcald Articles (1537), “if good works do not follow, our faith is... not true” (BC, p. 315).
So give thanks to the Lord for he is good (Psalms 118:1). And bring that thanksgiving with you to the Altar of the Lord and receive the sacrament this day. All of you who believe in Christ and follow him, come forward, bow down, and eat and drink. For in this sacrament is the gift of refreshment (BC, p. 449). So come and be refreshed. Know that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Come and be refreshed. Know that there’s power here for you to fight against sin and death – for, as Luther said, in this sacrament we have “a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine” and “a precious antidote” to the poison that infects us (BC, p. 454). So come and give thanks and be refreshed and walk in newness of life.
But this new life in Christ isn’t vague or dreamy. No, there are moral details galore. Take, for instance, James 3:16-17:
Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable,... full of mercy,... without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
This passage drives toward wiping out every trace of partiality and hypocrisy. Attacking envy, selfish ambition and disorder serves that goal – as does the pursuit of purity, peace and mercy. So let us first work to wipe out partiality. But what does this entail?
Partiality is the playing of favorites – and that has no place in Christianity. We are to be kind to everyone. For there is no greatness in loving those who love us – for unbelievers do that (Luke 6:32). No, the truly remarkable thing would be to love the unloving. For this would be a truly sacrificial act. It would be to give without expecting anything in return. The best book on this is Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847). In it he shows, in great detail, how true Christian love is grounded in self-denial (Kierkegaard’s Writings 16:7, 55, 223, 258, 268, 364-366). Without that component, Christian love would be just ordinary human mutuality – enmeshed in a “lower” conception of love (KW 16:244), deluded by the “glittering externality” of life (KW 16:328). But there’s no denial or sacrifice in that. Kierkegaard expounds:
Since the neighbor is... every human being, all dissimilarities are... removed from the object.... Yet this love is not proudly independent of its object. Its equality does not appear in love’s proudly turning back into itself through indifference to the object – no, the equality appears in love’s humbly turning outward, embracing everyone, and yet loving each one individually but no one exceptionally (KW 16:66-67).
When we do this we become “invisible” and “anonymous” (KW 16:274, 276). And then we can finally practice true impartiality.
there be not even a trace of hypocrisy among us. Let us rather be
genuine and not phony – given that our Lord despised hypocrites (Matthew
23:13-33). Let us practice what we preach, stand by our words, and “walk
the talk.” A few years ago I re-read J. D. Salinger’s famous novel,
The Catcher in the Rye
(1951). I was struck by how the book’s hero, Holden Caulfield, rants
against the phoniness he finds all around him in
(printed as preached but with some changes)