Embrace Your Worthlessness
The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
October 2, 2016
Grace and peace be to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those words at the end of the Gospel reading for today (Luke 17:10) jump out at us. Know you are worthless, they thunder! Know this when you do God’s will – for it’s your duty, after all – and when you do it, don’t expect to be thanked for it. Wow! Can you believe that? Did you come to church today to hear that you’re worthless? I think not. Did you come to church today to hear that you won’t be thanked, and shouldn’t be thanked, when you’ve been obedient? I think not. What then shall we make of these words – these harsh sounding and frankly rude words?
We can’t say they are false because they are in the Bible, after all! But just because they are true and from God doesn’t mean they are easy on us. It doesn’t even mean that we’ll necessarily like them! So what shall we say about these most troubling words from Holy Scriptures?
The Monster Within
Well, we’ll need to know what’s behind them if they’re going to make any sense to us. Nowhere in our reading from Luke 17 are they explained, so we’ll have to try our best. They just sit there to be read aloud and offend us. But if we look around in the rest of the New Testament from which they are taken, we’ll discover an explanation. There in the rest of the pages of that great second testimony of Holy Scripture we discover how bad off we are. We learn about our distortions, impediments and corruption. We learn that we are called sinners (Romans 3:9) – because we have rebelled against, and disobeyed, the source of all human goodness, the creator of the universe, the eternal judge of us all.
Because we are sinners, we must be opposed. That’s because God despises (Luke 13:4–5; John 5:14) the destruction (Ecclesiastes 9:18) our sin brings upon us and others. Martin Luther (1483–1546) knew about this calamity. He called our sinfulness the “presumption of righteousness [which] is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs… the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath” (Luther’s Works 26:310).
So of course we are worthless if we countenance such a monster within us! As long as we drift away from so great a salvation (Hebrews 2;1–3) that monster has its way with us and so there is nothing good in us at all (Romans 7:18) – thus our worthlessness. And we see this wretchedness all around us – what has been called this “perennially rotten world,” by even non-religious observers [Peter Unger, Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (1996) pp. 85, 133]. Luther knew this was from being hopelessly turned in on ourselves (incurvatus in se) (LW 25:513), thereby making us severely selfish – and thus our worthlessness. At one point the Lutheran Confessions even say that we are just like a “recalcitrant donkey” (The Book of Concord, ed. Tappert, p. 568). Horrible monsters and stubborn donkeys – not a pretty picture of us.
Where does that then leave us? Despair or rebellion – no doubt. There is certainly something within us that wants to resist such negativity and vigorously assert our goodness (albeit a bit tarnished here and there, but intact, nevertheless). But what if we were to be broken instead (Psalm 51:17)? What if we didn’t resist, but cried uncle and gave in instead? What then? Is despair all that would be there for us?
Not if our second lesson for today is true! In 2 Timothy 1:13 we read that we are to “hold to the standard of sound teaching.” This is something outside of us that is greater than us and our failures. And so it gives us hope. That is because, as Luther taught, “man has no help from his natural powers, but he needs the aid of some power outside of himself” (LW 25:345). And that is the sound teaching we have just been told about. It runs throughout the many hundred pages of the New Testament. As Lutherans, we don’t have to labor over those many pages to distill that sound teaching. No, Luther has done it for us. In a recently translated sermon from the late 1530s, he gives it to us with such scope and intensity, that it nearly takes your breath away. Just listen to this:
God’s Son had to pour out His blood at the cross for our redemption. For there was an unchangeable, eternal, irrevocable judgment on sin…. Therefore, God cannot and will not look kindly on sin, but His wrath remains over sin eternally and irrevocably. For this reason, a payment must take place which would make restitution for sin, take God’s wrath upon itself, make satisfaction, and pay, and thus take away and cancel sin. Now, no creature could do such a thing, and to this day there has been no other remedy nor help than this, that God’s eternal Son thus stepped into our need and misery, Himself became a man, and took such dread, eternal wrath on Himself, and for it He offered His own body, life, and blood as an offering and payment for sin. He did this out of great, overabundant, boundless love and mercy for us and gave Himself over, bore the judgment of eternal wrath and death, made satisfaction, and paid for us. Such payment and offering is so valuable and costly to God because it is the blood of His own dear Son, who is with Him in one divinity and majesty…. Through this, He is reconciled with us, takes us into His grace, and forgives sin, if we believe in this Son of His. Thus we benefit only from the precious payment and merit of Christ, purchased and given to us out of His unfathomable, inexpressible love, if we hold to it with firm faith (LW 57:283).
So hold to it, firm in your faith! This is majestic, sound teaching. This is the best, most comprehensive statement of Christianity I’ve ever read. And so we should earnestly thank God for it – over and over again.
Therefore it’s worth keeping close at hand – for we who are worthless sinners. So when you feel your faith dwindling, take out this passage and read it aloud in a quiet place and feel the word “draw” you closer to the Lord (John 6:44). When you can’t make sense of the Scriptures, take out this passage and read it aloud to yourself in a quiet place so that the sound teaching embedded in the Good Book might shine forth brightly to you. And when you despair over your wretched worthlessness, take it out and read this passage aloud to yourself in a quiet place – and gaze upon, feast upon, the Savior of “surpassing worth” (Philippians 3:8) – for we “are nothing and… Christ is everything” (LW 21:66). And when you do, you no longer will be distracted by your worthlessness, but drawn to the crucified one (John 12:32) who did so much for you.
So you who are broken, come forward. Receive the Lord this day, at the Altar, where he is truly present, for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). Add him sacramentally to the word of his you already heard today. So come forward. You who know you aren’t worth much, come forward and receive Christ Jesus, who is of surpassing worth. Come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper – you who feel your life, stamina, and vigor draining out of you. Receive this “soothing medicine” for the sickness of sin that plagues you, and the “precious antidote” for your wickedness which frees you for life eternal (BC pp. 454).
With this new life in you, which is from the Lord, take up your discipleship and serve the Lord Jesus. What he asks of us today is that we who believe, rebuke those who sin, and forgive those who repent (Luke 17:3).
This is foreign in the church today. We do very little rebuking since we now believe that the customer is always right. We have given up discipleship and replaced it with conflict avoidance. But the Lord says that his followers must rebuke sinners. Is this because Christians are vengeful? No, that’s not it. Rebuking is instead part of love – a corrective love (Thomas Oden, Corrective Love, 1995), that helps violators know that they have hurt someone so that in the future they may be more loving. Rebuking isn’t about getting even. It isn’t about hurting someone who has hurt you. No, it is instead about the improvement of people who have made mistakes and hurt someone, so that they may become better.
And the same for forgiving. We must not forgive willy-nilly – without any preparation or repenting on the part of the sinner. We aren’t to forgive so that we feel better about the person who hurt us. No, we are only to forgive when an apology has first been made. Then we must forgive. We can’t say the apology wasn’t good enough, sincere enough, or earnest enough. No, if there is repentance there has to be forgiveness. Our Lord Jesus said, you must forgive. And you must forgive many times, even if the same person does the same thing over and over again.
So there you have it. Call on God to guide you and strengthen you that you may rebuke and forgive as you should. Call on God to bring you to the sound teachings about Christ so that you may not be distracted by your worthlessness. Call on God with gratitude for Christ, who is of surpassing worth, that you might finally view yourself differently and embrace your worthlessness. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)