“I’m not relying on my own merits, as I have none, but I put my hope in Him who is goodness and holiness Himself… We can never have too much confidence in the good God.” — Thérèse of Lisieux
Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Feb. 12, 2023
“Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him…”
– Deuteronomy 30:19b-20a
“Trust and obey… there is no other way…”
We sing that in one of the hymns you have in your hymnal. And some good Lutherans might get a bit nervous about this!
Trust sure, but “Obey”?
What? Do you think you can earn, merit, your salvation? Don’t you know why the Reformation happened? Don’t you know that man is so focused on works that other men will even take advantage of this?
That last stated concern, at least, is true.
During the days of the Reformation, do you know what happened?
The idea was like this. The highest authorities in Rome had a great, grand bank account. A bank account of merit, of worth.
This merit could be distributed to those in need, as they had need, making them worthy.
Of course most of this merit that the church dispensed was earned by Christ, but much of it was also earned by the saints. The saints were those who did even more than was expected of the average Christian.
They made it to heaven right away, and then they had merit to spare. Merit that the church could distribute to those in need.
If you were a Christian who was a bad Christian, you would make it to heaven eventually. It might, however, take a long time. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. This is what the church called purgatory.
And they, with its treasury of merits, could help. For a certain fee, er, free will donation, you could access these merits, which would decrease the amount of intense suffering and purgation (by fire) that you would need to undergo in purgatory.
And, I mean, even better if you could do this not for yourself, but your parents, grandparents, children, etc.
This is all rather shocking when you think about it. If you have ever been to the largest Cathedral in the world, St. Peter’s in Rome, it is rather mind-numbing to realize that the entire thing was built on the backs of simple people who believed all of this was true.
And Rome hasn’t changed. Even though there was no promise of a specific amount of years that would be taken off, I recently heard a man share how after his Roman Catholic grandmother had died, they got a letter from the Roman Catholic church saying that they would do a private mass for her, to facilitate her soul’s entrance into heaven, for a donation…
So, what was Rome’s main problem?
Rome’s problem is the human problem writ large.
It has to do with a misreading of the Bible; largely because the Bible is not believed…
In our Old Testament reading for today we see that God promised his people life when they walked in His ways and death when they abandoned His paths.
So, at one level, Rome might seem to be on target here. For God, don’t blessings for right behavior and curses for wrong behavior go hand in hand?
They do. Even if the text from Deuteronomy is not about heavenly blessings, but earthly blessings.
It works like this:
First, by grace, from all the nations God chose Abraham apart from works, with “Abraham believ[ing] God, and God crediting this to him as righteousness!
And then, by grace, apart from works, the Lord chose His descendents: Isaac, and Jacob, later called Israel.
Then the distinct people the Bible calls Israel came from Jacob’s 12 sons.
As Solomon would put it, “You separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be Your inheritance…” (I Kings 8)
This grace and inheritance, as Jesus teaches us, always was meant to include immortality.
To echo our Lord, God is not the God of dead Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but living Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…
And even though Moses would not receive the earthly blessings of the promised land, as he was kept from this – he would certainly receive the eternal promised land by faith in God’s mercy and promised Messiah!
One might think this grace which chose Israel would produce humility. But Jesus tells a stinging parable in Luke 17 that shows the problem that often occurred.
The idea of grace got twisted, as it was combined with a pride in one’s own person, status, actions…
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus then, right on cue, goes on to talk about little children.
This Pharisee’s problem was that he did not have the hidden heart, or core, of the Bible – even just the Old Testament of those Scriptures! – in his heart.
He did not see the centrality of God’s gracious act of adoption.
Or, at least, the centrality of God’s grace of adoption of wicked people, apart from works, by faith in the promise… the Promise of the Messiah who would come and came in Jesus Christ…
He should have seen it.
In Luke 24, in the story of the Road to Emmaus, Jesus exclaims to the two men that He is walking with:
“‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself…”
And, going along with this, the Apostle Paul was absolutely clear that by keeping the Law no person could be justified or declared righteous….
And not only did Jesus know that the Old Testament was clear that He, the Messiah, would come – fulfilling God’s prophecies and promises – it was also clear that no man would be justified by His works…
In Psalm 130:3, we hear: “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”
Psalm 143:2 states “Do not bring Your servant into judgment, for no one alive is righteous before You…”
In Daniel 9 we hear the prophet say: “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous [Lord], but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act!”
And even right before our passage today in Deuteronomy, we hear something that is absolutely remarkable from God through Moses…
We hear Him say:
“For this commandment I give you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, that you should need to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it for us and proclaim it, that we may obey it?’ And it is not beyond the sea, that you should need to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and proclaim it, that we may obey it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may obey it…”
And just what is that word that is to be heard, believed, and yes, obeyed (“obey” here, by the way, simply means listening such that the words are taken to heart)?
The Apostle Paul, in Romans 10, quotes this passage by saying that this is not the righteousness of the law, which the Pharisees, for example, practiced, but the righteousness of faith.
And right before that, he says this of his own people, the Jews:
“Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone… Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ[, who is that stumbling stone for the Jews,] is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes…”
Think about this.
Paul says this and goes on to quote the passage from Deuteronomy about trying to bring God down or ascending to heaven to reach Him – even as that book is the one that is the apex of God’s law!
Even there, he is telling us, the Promise that is grasped by faith, the very Gospel of Jesus Christ, was known by Moses, was known by Israel, and should have been known by more!
We, as human beings – as fallen human beings – even as redeemed fallen human beings who are washed in the blood of the Lamb! – cannot avoid thinking about life according to law.
We, we ourselves – by our own efforts and will and powers – will get to where the divine is. We will cross the sea or descend into the deep to find Him. We will ascend to heaven to be with Him…
No, no, no.
Luther called this the “opinio legis” – the opinion of the law.
All men, all fallen men in particular, think in this way. Like the two-year old who can’t, we say “I do myself!”
Blessings, good things, are earned by me, merited for me, because of my own person and powers resulting in my good behavior.
I can always make myself worthy, redeem myself, even reach heaven, through my positive actions…
We, like so many did in the Old Testament and like that Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men… continue to find a way to ignore God’s word of promise and grace – which we are to freely take again and again – but to instead live according to the things we do, we accomplish… the things we do by our own powers for God…
And when we do – because man does and will – this is why God will give us over to our delusions, that we might be brought to our senses. Turning up the law a thousand degrees…
We see this in our Gospel reading for today, a section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
It is here that Jesus makes it clear that even though the Pharisees are the most noticeable exemplars of following God’s law externally, they still are not cutting it.
Hence, he says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven…”
He turns up the volume, getting to the heart of the law.
It is not just enough to not kill anyone, you are not to hate them or call them a fool.
It is not just enough to not commit adultery, you cannot look at a woman with lust.
It is not just enough to not make oaths, you must simply let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no”…
Hence we also hear from both Paul that:
“Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them…”
And James (2:10):
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it…”
We will not teach Him.
He will teach us.
We will not ignore Him.
He will command our attention.
We will not act as if He does not exist, or as if He has not promised that He is, by His great mercy, our Father – and that we are His beloved children.
Children whom He means to delight in.
Children He means to be close to.
Children He means to spend time with.
What do I mean?
Well, I think Jesus makes all of this very clear and graspable in a way when He teaches us two main things.
First, when He assures us that His yoke is truly easy and His burden is light.
Elsewhere, His Apostle tells us that His commands are not burdensome. If they are for us, we have something dreadfully wrong.
Second, when He invites us to abide in Him. He is the vine and we are the branches, He says. You can do nothing without me, He says. Here, we have the distinct impression that if anything that is good comes out of us, it will be because we are connected to Him.
And here is the thing: we, like God’s chosen people of Israel in the Old Testament but in a New Covenant way, a New Testament way, are already fully connected to Him.
Not because we were baptized, but because we are baptized…
There was a time in your life when God, through His appointed servant, put His Name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – upon your head and publicly declared you to be His own, a member of the Kingdom of God.
Because of Christ’s work, you too, with Him, were buried in death, raised from the dead, ascended to God’s right hand, and now are called to be and reign with Him now and forevermore, being good and doing good, as your Lord does.
If there has not been such a moment in your life – if you in fact have never been baptized – I urge you to talk with me more about it after the service….
You see my friends, with this salvation, this knowledge, we can overcome the world.
We can be the kinds of soldiers that Christ calls even today and needs today.
Even if the church at large goes astray…. Even if its leaders fail… We can still know God and confidently walk with Him, as He guards our hearts from lies.
Oddly, I sense that this happened with probably the most popular – or at least the second most popular – Roman Catholic saints.
The French girl, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known affectionately as “The Little Flower” .
Wikipedia says that “Thérèse has been a highly influential model of sanctity for Catholics and for others because of the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life…”
One of nine children, Therese was born in 1873 to Louis and Zélie and at the age 15 entered a convent of “very aged nuns, some odd and cranky, some sick and troubled, some lukewarm and complacent”… where she remained until her death from tuberculosis at the early age of 24….
If you look closely at her, she seems to have grasped a few things that Martin Luther came to learn: the centrality of the grace and mercy of God in Christ for sinful people and the doctrine of vocation, including God’s call to find joy in the littlest things.
After hearing one preacher say, in good Roman Catholic fashion, that “No one knows if they are worthy of love or of hate” she heard months later another visiting priest preach about abandonment and God’s mercy and this, she says, expanded her heart…
Shortly thereafter, she got
“the [four] Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul bound into a single small volume which she could carry on her heart. She said, ‘But it is especially the Gospels which sustain me during my hours of prayer, for in them I find what is necessary for my poor little soul…”
Later on, she would famously say
“I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow. On the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less…”
In many ways she was like Luther.
Like Luther, Therese also took a trip to Rome which put her on notice of the church’s worldliness, was highly scrupulous, sensitive, and stubborn, not having a temperament “not formed for compromise or moderation”, revered but did not focus on Mary, saw that believers would struggle with some sins their whole life, found comfort in the church’s mystics, emphasized God’s and the Christian’s descent and not ascent, and ultimately found relief by turning outside of herself to the gift of God’s grace.
Unlike many later Lutherans and other Protestants, she did not conclude that living the life of a nun was a bad thing – but feeling called embraced the role with fervor while yet keeping all the things mentioned above in the forefront…
The Wikipedia article says many interesting things about her, but I found this to be particularly moving:
“Therese deliberately ‘sought out the company of those nuns whose temperaments she found hardest to bear.’ What merit was there in acting charitably toward people whom one loved naturally? Therese went out of her way to spend time with, and therefore to love, the people she found repellent. It was an effective means of achieving interior poverty, a way to remove a place to rest her head… ”
We also read that “the smallness of Therese, her limits”, became her grounds for joy, rather than discouragement.
Again, going against the popular and even more refined Roman Catholic piety of the time, she wrote that she wanted to go to heaven by what she perceived to be an “entirely new little way”.
“I wanted to find an elevator that would raise me to Jesus”. The elevator, she wrote, would be the arms of Jesus lifting her in all her littleness…
In spite of all Rome’s errors, I believe that St. Therese not only began to overcome these – even as many in Rome perhaps did not see this subtle subversion of its doctrine! – but lived in such a Christ-like and in fact Lutheran way that Rome could not help but take notice of the devotion she inspired…
In the heat of the theological battles of the Luther-led Reformation of the church in the 16th century, the Lutherans were keen to emphasize that Jesus had said:
“…when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty…’”
300 years later, it doesn’t seem that someone like St. Therese failed to understand this.
It seems almost laughable that she would have found herself capable of what the church calls “works of supererogation”, that is, works that Rome teaches go beyond our duty, what God calls us to do…
Thanks be to God!
When people – from whatever background – have, read, and rely on God’s word, these are the kinds of things that inevitably begin to happen…
Again, in our reading for today, we read that blessings in life are associated with doing good and curses and death are associated with doing evil.
We also read this, a word that the Lord meant to be encouraging to people who He had declared were His own precious people:
“Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him…”
Again, do not think you will call God down from heaven or ascend to heaven.
When we are energized by the old Adam, or the old man, who still resides within us, we may indeed be inclined and tempted to deceive ourselves.
When we have performed some good external action we might think that there is nothing that remains to be done or accomplished.
This is false. As those whom Jesus has forgiven, made holy, and continues to work with in spite of our ongoing sin, we can, in peace, strive to act with the love of God.
In like fashion, we also may be tempted to perform our own good works – works that we feel are more important to accomplish – instead of the works that the Lord has given us to do for example… the works that the Ten Commandments direct us towards.
This also we cannot do, for we live not only by God’s grace, but every good word, command, that comes from God’s mouth.
He has come down to you, to be with His people, to dwell with His people…
And He dwells with us still. He comes to us still.
He has sent us messengers – and given us a message, to let us know that we are not alone, we have direction in this world, and our work is not in vain…
Hear this bit from our Epistle lesson again:
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I[, Paul,] planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow…”
God is making us grow.
It is not only Apostles who need to be reminded that the true word of God always does this without fail, being at work in those who believe (I Thes. 2:13).
So sit down.
Abide with Him.
Listen to Him.
Descend, to meet with your Lord, who descends….
Whenever you drink the blood of Christ and eat His body, call out in joy with David:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered!
…blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin!”
You have a God who suffered the worst this life had to offer to bring you back to Him – who will lead you to be children of God, not acting like “mere men” as the Apostle Paul said, but becoming “sons of gods” – or even just “gods” with a little g!
Scripture says so!
Don’t doubt His love for you or His easy yoke.
And so don’t be afraid to talk back, even saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” if you must…
Because He always turns back to us, and He is big enough to hear that kind of desperate cry as well.
That kind of trust, faith… that has nowhere else to go…
With footnotes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OKqADHg0_jW6OOInLAwFUQpeYnLlgIuheawm5Jtt93A/edit?usp=sharing