Monday, January 25, 2016

Sermon for 24 January 2016, Septuagesima

The Rev. Paul J Cain
1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5
Grace Alone
Septuagesima, 24 January 2016
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Christians are saved by grace alone. Sola gratia. That’s the Latin. We’ll talk about faith alone in two weeks and Scripture alone next Sunday. What does it mean to be saved by grace alone? We are saved by the work of Jesus Christ in our place as our substitute. Our salvation from sin, death, and the devil is a gift from God. That we are saved by grace alone means that you and I are saved apart from our conduct, apart from our good works, apart from an act of our will, apart from our piety. And we dare never claim that faith is our doing. Faith, too is a gift of the Lord.

Kristyn Getty says it this way:
What grace is mine that He who dwells in endless light 
Called through the night to find my distant soul 
And from his scars poured mercy that would plead for me 
That I might live and in his name be known  
So I will go wherever He is calling me 
I lose my life to find my life in Him 
I give my all to gain the hope that never dies 
I bow my heart, take up my cross and follow Him  

The Epistle for this Sunday from the first letter by Holy Spirit and St. Paul to the Corinthians speaks of this taking up of our crosses in faith, following Christ.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

One of the saddest conversations I have ever had was with a parent who claimed to be atheist (denying the existence of God), but functionally was agnostic (not believing in organized religion), because she admitted praying to the God she said wasn’t there. Her prayer was simple, that her children would have a better life than the one she was suffering through. Her life seemed self-sacrificial in many significant ways. She was willing to do anything for her kids but held out no hope in this life or even a chance at heaven for herself. I still pray for this family.

As Christians, our run of faith has the aim of eternal life and faithfulness to the Lord in this life. We do not “box as one beating the air.” The discipline we practice in heart, body, and mind is to keep ourselves under control, lest we “be disqualified” “after preaching to others,” even our own families and friends.

We run in this world with a worldview and perspective from eternity. Some “prizes” of this world are worthless from an eternal point-of-view. We don’t need to go much farther than “You can’t take it with you” as one point in this discussion. The real danger of some things that people pursue in this life is that they often lead to something worse than death: falling away from faith, embracing an idol substitute for the one true God.

Note: Luther spends more time on the First Commandment than on any other portion of the [Large] Catechism, explaining how essential it is to know, trust, and believe in the true God and to let nothing take His place. He was convinced that where this commandment was being kept, all other commandments would follow. A right relationship with God produces right relationships with fellow human beings.

You shall have no other gods.
1 What this means: You shall have Me alone as your God. What is the meaning of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? 2 Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. 3 If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God [Hebrews 11:6]. Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.

Let’s pause in the middle of this portion of Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment and deeply consider his last statement: Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god. That’s deep. What you spend your time worrying about, what you spend your time on, what you give your devotion, that is your idol, your false god. There are many who worship other divinities at other altars with various kinds of sacred rites. Trust doesn’t make a false god real. A person’s false trust in a false god is a real waste of time, a waste of a life, and a waste of a soul for eternity.

Back to Luther: 4 The purpose of this commandment is to require true faith and trust of the heart, which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. It is like saying, “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another.” In other words, “Whatever you lack of good things, expect it from Me. Look to Me for it. And whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need. Only do not let your heart cleave to or rest on any other.”

5 This point I must unfold more clearly. It may be understood and seen through ordinary, counterexamples. Many a person thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions. He trusts in them and boasts about them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. 6 Such a person has a god by the name of “Mammon” (i.e., money and possessions; [Matthew 6:24]), on which he sets all his heart. 7 This is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure [Luke 12:16–21] and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. 8 On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. 9 For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack Mammon. This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.

10 So, too, whoever trusts and boasts that he has great skill, prudence, power, favor, friendship, and honor also has a god. But it is not the true and only God. This truth reappears when you notice how arrogant, secure, and proud people are because of such possessions, and how despondent they are when the possessions no longer exist or are withdrawn. Therefore, I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to “have a god” is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.[1]

Jesus is worthy of your trust, your true faith:
What grace is mine to know His breath alive in me 
Beneath his wings my wakened soul may soar 
All fear can flee for death's dark night is overcome  
My Saviour lives and reigns forevermore  
So I will go wherever He is calling me 
I lose my life to find my life in Him 
I give my all to gain the hope that never dies 
I bow my heart, take up my cross and follow Him  

St. Paul returns to the contrast between faith and unfaith, a self-controlled and disciplined race and those who run after evil:
10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Why were they overthrown? They failed to keep the First Commandment.
You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean?
Answer: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.[2]

If we press on to read just a little more after today’s appointed Epistle, we hear this: Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were;

Idolatry is the issue. Moses called them to repentance. St. Paul called his hearers to repentance. Jesus, our Master, calls us to repent of any sense of entitlement. The Denarius given the workers in His Matthew 20 parable was given out of generosity. It was the promised payment for the service of those who began working early in the morning and continued working all day long. Did they deserve more? No. Did the others, those hired at the third hour and after deserve less? Yes. Did they receive less? No. All benefit from Jesus’ generosity.

Do you hear the spiritual danger that Moses, Paul, and Jesus all warn us about? It is idolatry. It is a First Commandment issue, like Luther says, yet it is the idolatry of believing in a false god that saves us because we supposedly deserve it. We don’t. I don’t and you don’t deserve anything but eternal condemnation and life-long suffering before that.

That’s why we Christians speak about grace, why we say that we are saved by grace alone. We can’t earn salvation. We can never deserve salvation. We can only receive it as a gift from Christ. Good works save us only when they are done by Jesus Christ. Our own good works serve our neighbor and prove that our faith is living. We are saved by grace alone.

Consider two very familiar verses from Ephesians 2 followed by a less-familiar verse: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our good works are not salvific. Our good works are the prepared-beforehand service to our neighbor, your Thank You Note to the Lord for His gift of salvation by grace alone, your disciplined, faithful race in Christ for the prize of eternal life.

So I will go wherever He is calling me 
I lose my life to find my life in Him 
I give my all to gain the hope that never dies 
I bow my heart, take up my cross and follow Him  

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 359). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
[2] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 317). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.