Sermon 52




Don’t Stumble

Jeremiah 31:9

November 8, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we hear a wonderful promise recorded in Jeremiah 31:9 – that if we stay with the Lord, we shall walk in a straight path and not stumble. Now that promise is good news because none of us wants to stub our toe, fall down, and end up with skinned knees!


Weeping Over Sin

I remember doing that when I was ten years old and it was no fun – believe you me! I stumbled and fell on my right knee and had a dozen stitches in it. I was told to lay low and wait for it to heal. But I was back out on the basketball court as soon as I could and stumbled again – and had to have it stitched up again – and to this day I have a good sized scar to show for my recklessness.

     So hearing that we will be kept from stumbling is good news. But what exactly is Jeremiah 31:9 telling us here? In Jeremiah 50:31-32 we’re told that it is the proud who will stumble and fall. This doesn’t surprise us because we know the famous verse in Proverbs 16:18 which says that pride goes before a fall. So how do we keep our pride from tripping us up? Jeremiah 31:9 goes on to say that we will not stumble – provided that we stay with the Lord “with weeping.” Now that weeping is feeling sorry for our sins. Just as Peter “wept bitterly” in confession over his sin of denial (Matthew 26:75), so we too must weep over our sins and confess them before the Lord in order to keep from stumbling.


That Co-Requirement

But how do we do that? Repentance isn’t natural for us and so we don’t know exactly what to do when we’re told to repent. Sinning, however, is another matter – it’s as easy as falling off a log – and we love it (John 3:19; Luther’s Works 22:390). So we don’t need any instruction in how to sin. That’s a cinch. It’s as natural as can be – since we’re born with it (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3).

     But this isn’t the case with repentance. Regarding it, we’ll need instruction if we are going to know what to do. And what we learn first is that repentance is essential for there to be any forgiveness. That’s because, as Luther taught, repentance is the co-requirement for forgiveness (LW 12:333) – with the other being God’s love for us sinners. So to imagine that God forgives willy-nilly is a delusion based on the false hope that divine grace and mercy are magical rather than relational (Leviticus 26:40-42; Luke 17:3; 1 John 1:9-10). But that’s not the case, because there is an unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:31) – which is impenitence (LW 33:35). So if repentance were not required, there would be no unforgivable sin. But there is, and so repentance must be required. Therefore it’s imperative that we learn how to repent according to God’s will.


One Thing is Sure

And secondly we learn that we must confess our sins because they are so devastating. Sinning is indeed awful, but covering it up is even worse – even devilish, as Luther one time said (LW 22:397)! So rather than covering it up, we need to confess it. Luther explains this in his beloved Smalcald Articles (1537) [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 309], which are like “no other Reformation confession” for their Gospel clarity and radicalism [Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols (1985-1993) 3:181]:


[Scripture] teaches us to acknowledge sin,... that we are all utterly lost, that from head to foot there is no good in us, that we must become altogether new and different men. This repentance is not partial... like repentance for actual sins, nor is it uncertain.... It does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but lumps everything together and says, “We are wholly and altogether sinful.” We need not spend our time weighing, distinguishing, differentiating.... Nothing is left that we might imagine to be good enough to pay for our sin. One thing is sure: We cannot pin our hope on anything that we are, think, say, or do.


Here we learn that we are altogether sinful, that we must not obsess over the details of our sins to get them all straightened out, and most of all, that we cannot get rid of our sins all by ourselves.

     This is a radical passage! “From head to foot there is no good in us”! (Isaiah 1:6; Romans 3:10; 7:18). Who would ever dare say that today? And who can believe such a damning indictment about us all? But it nevertheless is true – all the same! We are “wholly and altogether sinful”! Just think of it. This comes from Luther’s earlier – and rightly famous – statement of 1521, that we are fortissimus peccator or “mighty sinners” (LW 48:282)! Therefore it’s a waste of time “weighing, distinguishing [and] differentiating” our sins. Enough of that obsessing! Quit fussing over defining sins of greater or lesser extent and severity. Say instead – quite simply and profoundly – I am a sinner, period! Cry out those old words of the church – Kyrie eleison or Lord have mercy. This comes from Luke 18:13 where the tax collector in the temple cannot look up to heaven because of his many and great sins, but can only cry out, beating his breast, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And so we too must say the same today. Kyrie eleison! – for I am a sinner.


Baptizing Our Children

And so we baptize our children – without their consent as infants – knowing that it’s the best thing to do for them. That’s why Rachel and Kelly are presenting their new little daughter, Lucy Jean Foster – just 4 months old – for the Sacrament of Baptism today. They’re doing that so she can be washed clean of her inherited sin from birth (1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:3; John 3:5-6). This Sacrament is a key part in our life-long battle against sin. Those who stand against this practice underestimate the perils our children accrue at the moment of their birth.

     In his Small Catechism (1529), Luther says that the waters of baptism signify that


the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily (BC, p. 349).


This daily process once begun, lasts “our whole life long” (BC, p. 445). And we send our little ones right into this battle, through baptism (LW 53:102), so that they may be “delivered from sin, death, and the devil and... enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever” (BC, p. 439). The waters of baptism are essential for persevering in this struggle since they give our faith “something to... cling [to] and upon which [to] stand” (BC, p. 440). And this is critically important because over our lives our faith fluctuates (Mark 9:24). So if we are to endure (Mark 13:13; Revelation 2:10), we will need to be baptized – that we may have something to hold on to. For even if our faith slips away at times, baptism remains “in itself... an infinite, divine treasure” (BC, p. 440). This led Luther to his daring analogy, that just as “gold remains no less gold if a harlot wears it in sin and shame,” so baptism cannot be destroyed by our fluctuating faith (BC, p. 444)!


One More Certainty

But what if our repentance isn’t good enough? What then? Are we finished? Are we headed for hell? No, that can’t be, because repentance is only the co-requirement of salvation and not the single requirement all by itself. So if our repentance fails, that doesn’t mean forgiveness is impossible. No, there’s still another leg that holds it up for us. So we gratefully read in Hebrews 5:9-10 that


Christ became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated... a high priest.


And what he does as our high priest is – miraculously – to sacrifice his very own self, in order “to put away sin” forever (Hebrews 9:26). This sacrifice leads Luther to his second great certainty:


Our satisfaction [cannot] be uncertain, for it consists not of the dubious, sinful works which we do but of the... blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away... sin (BC, p. 309).


Without this sacrifice and satisfaction our repentance wouldn’t work. That’s because God wouldn’t be moved to accept our apologies for our sins (BC, p. 419). It’s only when he has been satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the cross (BC, p. 414), that he accepts our confession which has been legitimized by that sacrifice. And if our repentance fails, that sacrifice still stands, waiting for our contrition to kick in again at some later time (BC, p. 446).

     On this score Christianity differs sharply from Islam. For Islam doesn’t require a divine sacrifice for sin, in order for Allah to be moved to mercy. According to Islamic teachings, if you repent and live a decent life, you will be saved (Qur’ān 4:64; 39:53-56; 49:13-15). And so a redeemer would be useless (Q 6:165; 17:75; 18:53) – or any sort of divine “mediation” or “vicarious atonement” for that matter [The Message of the Qur’ān, Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980; 2003) pp. 325-326n.7, 927n.21, 752n.16, 929n.31]. But Christianity needs to be more certain than that. It can’t play hit-and-miss with God. So it is Christ’s suffering and death on the cross that finally moves God to mercy (LW 51:277) – and secures his love for repentant sinners.


It is Finished

This security is eternally established in John 19:30 when Jesus, as he is dying on the cross, cries out, “It is finished!” (see my “Consummatum Est,” Logia, Reformation 2002). It’s as if he were saying, “It’s settled! I can now forgive sinners.” And that’s because in the crucifixion of Christ


the Lamb of God is slain and offered for the sins of the world. The true High Priest has completed His offering; the Son of God has given and offered up His body and life as a payment for sin; sin has been blotted out; God’s wrath appeased; death overcome; the kingdom of heaven won and heaven opened. Everything is fulfilled and completed, and no one may dispute, as if anything yet remained to be fulfilled (LW 69:265).


And it is only Christ’s death on the cross that can do all of this with such resolute and emphatic clarity and certainty, because


God.... cannot avoid hating sin and sinners; and He does so by necessity, for otherwise He would be unjust and would love sin.... Here nothing can intervene except Christ the mediator (LW 26:235).


This necessity and injustice are regularly ignored or dismissed in the church today. But without them Christ’s cross is emptied of all of its power (1 Corinthians 1:17). Without them Christ dies in vain (LW 52:253). Without them sinners are defenseless before the wrath of God. Without them Christ’s death serves no purpose. Without them we are most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).


The Second Sacrament

So celebrate Christ today. Give thanks to God that Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8) – for in that great sacrifice is our salvation. Luther helps us praise him by saying that because there is


so much evil in my nature that the world and all creation would not suffice to placate God,... the Son of God Himself had to be given up for it.... in the most shameful way... If you look at this price, you would take all your... works... and you would curse, defile, spit upon, and damn them, and consign them to hell! Therefore it is an intolerable and horrible blasphemy to think up some work by which you presume to placate God, when you see that He cannot be placated except by this immense, infinite price, the death and the blood of the Son of God, one drop of which is more precious than all creation (LW 26:175-176).


Having heard these words, come to the Altar of the Lord, bow down (Ephesians 3:14) and receive the Redeemer, Christ Jesus, in the bread and the wine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Eat and drink knowing that this sacrament is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28) – which is greater than all of creation.

     But will your sins be forgiven – or are they too great to be covered by Christ’s immense, infinite and precious sacrifice? Oh, are they ever covered! Just as the waters of baptism wash us clean without any sacrifice on our part, so too at the Altar – just like at the Baptismal Font – our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb. When you hear the words of Christ, that he is given in the sacrament “for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), follow Luther and “ponder... and include yourself personally in the ‘you’ so that [Christ] may not speak to you in vain” (BC, p. 454). His blessing is that gracious – and that sure. So come and eat and rejoice – for your salvation is at hand.


Greater Than the World Series

But some find such exuberance hard to pull off because the world thinks these divine words and works are of so little importance. What God has done in Christ Jesus does not seem to be of the same scale as the New York Yankee’s winning their 27th world series championship. For no one is moved to organize and pay for a ticker-tape parade down the streets of New York City, solely for the saving sacrifice of Christ Jesus – as was recently done for the victorious Yankees baseball team!

     But this is an awful mistake. And that’s because “this seemingly small gift” is actually “greater than heaven and earth” (LW 26:134). And this is because it opens up the way for us into a better world (Hebrews 13:14; Revelation 21:3-5; LW 30:198). All the wonders of this world cannot do any of this for us. Only Christ can lead us into the next world (John 14:6; Romans 5:2; Ephesians 3:12) – therefore he is greatly to be praised (Psalm 48:1), regardless of what this wayward world thinks (1 John 2:15-16; James 4:4). So only those who have settled for this dreary, old and tiresome world believe that Christ is of little or no significance.


Being Glad

Let us then leave these defeatists and be glad – for God has done “great things” for us (Psalm 126:4)! Let our very response be measured by the greatness of the Lord. Let us abandon all half-hearted praise and service and be filled with “rapture” (LW 33:286). Let us “never flag in zeal [but] be aglow with the Spirit” (Romans 12:11). And let that exuberance be our good work today. We who have been gripped by the words of the Lord on this day, and strengthened through the sacraments, let us serve and praise the Lord with anything but a “lukewarm” spirit (Revelation 3:16)!

     Some say this is too extroverted to apply to us all. But note well that even the shy and bashful have their moments of large, bold, and even forceful expression. So it’s not as though there were an emotional damper over some of us – robbing us of this zeal. No, Luther had it right when he argued that those who


snore and yawn and are lukewarm in all their efforts... achieve nothing by their works but only dissipate them.... Thus it is that today very commonly.... the priests literally snore during their prayers, even physically, to say nothing about the sleepiness of their minds, and they do everything with the greatest laziness.... This [is the] deadly sin of.... boredom or indifference. This sin is so widespread that hardly anyone deigns to be attentive. And because people are unwilling to serve with a fervent spirit, it is necessary that they become fervent in the flesh (LW 25:456).


But that would be a disaster – being fervent in the flesh. Therefore St. Paul sets the example for us in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, saying that he competes to win the race by pummeling his body in order to exercise self-control and receive the unfading crown of glory.

     That admirer of Luther’s from Copenhagen, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) by name, applies St. Paul’s diligence to our mental comprehension of Christianity – to offset what Luther called the sleepiness of our minds. In his book, Christian Discourses (1848), Kierkegaard warns (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 17:165):


Ah, there is so much in the ordinary course of life that will lull a person to sleep, teach him to say “peace and no danger.” Therefore we go to God’s house to be awakened from sleep and to be pulled out of the spell. But when in turn there is at times so much in God’s house that will lull us to sleep! Even that which in itself is awakening – thoughts, reflections, ideas – can completely lose meaning through the force of habit and monotony, just as a spring can lose the tension by which alone it really is what it is.


So let us beware and keep Christianity taut – dwelling on the stirring ideas of sacrifice, divine satisfaction, exuberant gladness, and the pummeling of our bodies in the spirit of self-control so that we might be fervent and zealous in the Lord. But call on God to help you with all of this, for alone you will surely fail (John 15:5). And God will answer you and bless you because he does not want you to stumble and fall, but to be filled with great gladness for what he has done for us all in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)