Sermon delivered on Trinity 17A, Sunday, October 8, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What a splendid day to be refreshed by the gospel!
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As Christians, we are people who are supposed to have Good News, or the gospel. But do we? If someone asked you what the gospel is all about, could you answer that person? Now I know many of you would be quick to say that you do have good news. You have an awesome rector who preaches brilliant sermons to counteract the tepid sermons of the other priests. While that’s certainly true—I am awesome and a brilliant preacher—it’s not the Good News I have in mind this morning. And the question is more than just rhetorical in nature because I suspect many of us don’t have Good News in the sense that we really believe what God has done for us in and through Christ. Therefore I want us to look at this issue carefully this morning because if we are going to live as people with power, we have to know the source of our power.
In our OT lesson this morning we read about God giving Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments. It is critical that we understand that the Commandments originate from God, not humans. More on that in a moment. When I was a young man I used to hate reading or hearing about the Ten Commandments because they seemed to me to be designed to rain on my parade, and I suspect I am not alone in my feelings. Don’t worship idols. That’s tough to do when I want to make life all about me and my wants and needs. Watch your language about God. That was tough, given I have the mouth of a sailor. No illicit sex. Well what about all those attractive women I see? Don’t lie about or to your neighbor. But it’s so fun and gratifying to spread juicy gossip and diss those folks I don’t like! C’mon man. You get the idea.
The writer of Exodus tells us essentially the same thing about God’s people Israel. Apparently they weren’t very fond of the Commandments either because it reminded them of their sin and standing before a holy and just God. I mean, let’s get real about this, folks. We all know how hard it is for us to keep the Commandments and it was especially critical for God’s people Israel because they believed their ability to keep the Commandments determined their right standing before the Lord. That’s what St. Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson before he met the risen Lord Jesus. So they were willing to talk to Moses about being God’s holy or called-out people, but they were terrified at the prospect of standing in God’s holy presence because they knew they would die. Why? Nobody keeps the Commandments perfectly.
But this kind of thinking about the Commandments demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about God and God’s purpose for giving us the Commandments, even as it exposes the dark side of human nature and our slavery to the power of Sin without outside help. To understand what the Commandments are all about, we have to place them in the proper context of the biblical story of how God is rescuing his good but fallen world and image-bearers from the ravages of Sin and Death. As Christians we should all know at least the basic outline of that story of how God created this vast cosmos, our world included, and then chose to create image-bearing creatures, humans, to run God’s good and beautiful world. It was utter paradise as long as our first ancestors did as God told them. You can read about that in Genesis 1-2. But we know Adam and Eve didn’t obey God’s command and the result was our expulsion from paradise and the unleashing of the dark powers of Evil, Sin, and Death to corrupt and destroy God’s good world and creatures. After Adam and Eve rebelled, literally all hell broke loose in God’s world, corrupting and defiling it. That’s why we are confronted with all the evil in its various forms that assails us today. As Fr. Bowser rightly explained in his mediocre sermon last week, the cumulative effects of human sin brought an ever-increasing level of destructiveness to God’s good world and his human image-bearers, and unleashed an array of fearsome powers who hate and and want to destroy us forever. We need to look only to the massacre in Las Vegas last week to be reminded of this reality, and that the human condition really hasn’t changed from Adam and Eve’s day to ours. Investigators are at a loss to explain a motive for the shooter’s actions, and even if they were to find one, it doesn’t really explain or justify amassing an arsenal to slaughter 58 people and wound countless more. There’s no good reason or justification for doing this. Welcome to the world that our first ancestors’ sin unleashed.
But God was never going to let his good creation be corrupted permanently and so God called Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s healing love to God’s sin-sick and corrupted world. You can read about that starting in Genesis 12. If you do, you will find that Abraham and his descendants were every bit as flawed as the people to which they were called to bring God’s love and blessing. It wasn’t that God didn’t know or anticipate this happening. After all, God is eternal and all-knowing. God knew this was going to be the case before God ever created Abraham in his mother’s womb. But God in his great love and graciousness for his called-out people Israel stuck with them, and now we are ready to understand why God gave Moses the Commandments. Given the sin-sickness of the human race, Israel included, God was showing Moses and God’s people what it would take to flourish as fully human beings. It all starts by us recognizing there is only one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to align ourselves with that God in choosing how we live our lives. Think about it. If we worship false gods, we learn false and dehumanizing ways to live. If, for example, money is our false god or idol, we will align our living around it. Given our brokenness, we will likely do whatever it takes to procure more of this idol, falsely believing that being rich will make our lives infinitely better and that money will give us life. But a second’s thought reveals how ludicrous this thinking is. Are rich people immune from the problems of the poor? Materially, the answer is probably yes. But wealth doesn’t keep us mentally, physically, or spiritually healthy. Money doesn’t guarantee we will have satisfying relationships or be anxiety-free. Money does nothing for us but give us a false sense of security and increase our innate sense of pride.
Or think of the destructive power pornography has on a marriage. Porn is more addictive than crack cocaine so that it literally enslaves us. And it sets up a false reality and expectations about what true love and sex are all about, thus sowing the seed for the destruction of an important basis for marriage between a husband and wife. Likewise with lying, gossiping, and coveting. How many times have we heard stories about people who pursue these false gods, only to leave a trail of destruction and anger and betrayal and disillusionment, to name but a few. No, if we follow any god other than the real God, we are assured of a life that is temporary and unreal, a life that will steadily wipe out God’s image in us and ultimately make us sub-human creatures. That’s what Sin does to us. It dehumanizes us and makes it impossible for us to flourish. I am persuaded that this is at the heart of what is happening in our country today with all of its alienation and polarization.
So here we see God, our Creator—and who knows better about what it takes for God’s creatures to flourish than their Creator—giving Moses and his people concrete guidelines to help them flourish and spread the goodness, love, and blessing of our good Creator throughout the world, and to help them be real humans. If you understand this about the Commandments, they will no longer seem like an odious burden, unless of course you think your ability to get and remain right with God depends on your ability to keep them. This is exactly what many Israelites believed, and for those who could keep the Commandments better than most (like St. Paul), it became a source of pride. This, of course, meant that any good law keeper was already defeated because pride does not come from God. It comes from the power of Sin.
And we Christians are not immune to this phenomenon. We all know folks who call themselves Christian, but who go about life grimly or arrogantly, struggling to keep the Commandments or having a false sense of pride and superiority when they manage to keep a majority of them or to keep them better than they perceive others doing. These folks self-righteously proclaim that they have “good news” because they see themselves as being able to keep the Commandments better than most, thereby improving their standing before God.
But as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 7, unless we are able to keep all the Command-ments, and not just some of them, we are utterly lost. And so instead of seeing the Commandments as a framework to allow us to flourish as fully human beings, we elevate keeping the Commandments and make them our own idol. Yes, we are that profoundly broken, my beloved.
Now don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that keeping the Commandments is not important. Of course it is, but not in terms of determining whether we are right before God. Those Christians who end up making their faith all about keeping the Commandments will inevitably end up gritting their teeth while they grimly deal with increasing levels of anxiety because none of us can keep the Commandments perfectly, hard as we may try. To make matters worse, many of us resent the notion that we need help from an outside power to help us get right before God. At its essence this is what is going on in our gospel lesson. Jesus had called out the lie that we can save ourselves by following the rules and had announced in word and deed that he was the true Messiah, the only hope the world had to really get right with God. This infuriated the religious leaders of his day, as it does many of us in our day, and it ended up getting Jesus killed.
But thanks be to God that in Jesus’ death we find and gain our life. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is not about our ability to follow the rules. None of us can. We are too sin-sick to do so and unless God does something about it, it means that we have no share in God’s present world or the world to come, despite the material blessings and relative power most of us enjoy. When Jesus returns to finish the work he started in his life, death, and resurrection, there will be no room for evil in God’s new world, and that is for our good. Who wants to live an eternity being bedeviled by Sin and Evil? The new heavens and earth is the culmination of the biblical story of God’s plan to rescue his world from the ravages of Sin, Death, and Evil, and the powers behind them (cf. Revelation 21-22). At first it involved God calling out a people to do this and culminated in the one true Israelite, Jesus, the Son of God, who came to die for us and break the power of Sin over us. In Jesus’ death, God condemned our Sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us, the real perps. Instead, on the cross Jesus bore God’s wrath against our Sin. We did, and can do, nothing to earn this gift of life. It flows from God’s very heart and love for us. This is the same God who swore to Abraham in that strange ancient covenant ratification ritual we read about earlier this year in Genesis 15.12-21, where God in his actions unilaterally vowed to bear the curse himself if either God or Abraham broke the Covenant the two had made. This is the same God who astonishingly consigned all to disobedience so that he could have mercy on us all (Romans 11.32). This is the God who sent his own Son to die for us while we were still God’s enemies to reconcile us to himself (Romans 5.6-11). And what must we do in return? Believe the story. Believe the promise and begin, with the help of the Spirit, to reorient our lives back toward Jesus, God become human, so that we can flourish and not die. If you understand this whole story of salvation, however imperfectly, it is a sign that you have God’s Spirit in you because without his presence, it is impossible for humans to understand.
This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, my beloved. Is it your Good News? Do you understand that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us so that we can live? Do you understand that as one of Christ’s own beloved, your ultimate future is new creation, a new bodily reality, where you will live as a fully human image-bearing creature who is once again charged with running God’s world on God’s behalf as you enjoy living in God’s direct presence forever? Do you understand this is so because of Jesus’ own resurrection? Do you realize that you are totally unworthy of such a great love and salvation but that it is yours anyway because of who God is, not because of how you try to live your sin-stained life? If you do, thank God right now for the gift of his Spirit who lives in you and sets you free to be fully human again. With this kind of humble knowledge, you will inevitably be filled with a joy that does not originate in you, a joy that has the power to transcend the worst the dark powers can throw at you, and you will be prepared to imitate our Lord Jesus in his life and in his death, in his suffering and in his victory, because that is what it means to follow Christ. Of course you cannot do this on your own power or strength and you will be tempted to balk at that, just like any good proud and self-righteous person would do. But God’s love and power is greater than our weakness. Amen?
In closing, I appeal to you to reject the false gospel that so many of us want to follow because of our folly and pride, the gospel of Pulling Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps, which will inevitably fail and cause you to fall into despair over your inability to live a good and right life before the living God. Please don’t choose to proclaim and live that false gospel in what you do and say. Instead, take heart and hope and remember that the God who loves you and who has claimed you from all eternity is stronger than the dark forces who are at work inside and outside of you. That same God sent his Son to die and rise for you, and to destroy the grip the forces of Evil have on this world and us, death being the ultimate evil. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, now and for all eternity. No wonder St. Paul considered everything in his life before he met the risen Christ to be caca. May we also be blessed with the same grace and privilege. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.