The 17th Sunday After Pentecost October 5, 2014
411(1-5), 376, 277, 411(6-7)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now may the God of all grace fill you with confidence and peace in Christ Jesus our Savior, Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
One evening two little boys decide to sneak a peek over the fence into the back yard of the mysterious town eccentric. Because the fence was too high, one of the little guys had to crawl onto the shoulders of the other to look over. What is the inevitable, obvious, breathless question the little guy on the bottom asks his friend as he peers over the fence into the spooky back yard?
Two hikers are lost in the Colorado wilderness. Ascending yet another rise in the seemingly endless foothills, one climbs to the top of the tallest tree on that summit and scans the horizon. What does the one left standing on the ground call up to his friend in the upper boughs of the tree?
One intrepid cave explorer lowers another by rope into the gloomy depths of a mysterious, unexplored cave—one rumored to contain both danger and treasure. Foot-by-foot he lowers his friend until he alights gently on the cave floor. What question does he breathlessly call down to him?
The answer to these questions is the theme of today’s sermon: “WHAT DO YOU SEE?”
The question is typically asked of someone who can see what the other cannot. Today, you are going to be the ones descending into the depths, and the question will be asked of you. In this case, however, the question is not going to be asked so that another might also know what you see, but so that you yourself might know. The depths into which you will be descending are the dark recesses of your own heart—a place where only you and your God can see—and you will answer the question to yourself and to your God.
The text that will serve as our guide in this most necessary exercise is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 10th chapter:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israelis 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 is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.”But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
These are the verbally inspired words of our God—a precious, life-giving, heirloom treasure preserved for us down through the centuries by our benevolent Creator. That you and I might still today gain the blessing that our God would have us gain through the study of these sacred words, we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Every now and then I hear someone recommending that folks should “look inside for the answers.” While I’m not really sure what that is supposed to mean in every case, I’m afraid I do know what it means to the vast majority of those who use that expression. To them it means that truth is relative and that whatever you decide in your heart to be right, that is, for you, your truth. That is also, therefore, your answer to life’s questions.
While you and I know this to be mostly just nonsense, the whole idea of “looking inside” brings up an interesting question: “Just what is a Christian supposed to find when he ‘looks inside’?” In other words, when one who trusts Jesus and His righteousness for his salvation looks inside, what is he supposed to see there?
Certainly, we should learn to identify the sin that still taints our every thought and action. Unfortunately, that sin will continue to torment us until we join our Lord in eternity. We, therefore, need to learn to identify it in ourselves and struggle to eradicate it. But is that it? Is that all we are supposed to find when we “look inside”? Shouldn’t we also find other things when we take an internal inventory?
This, dear Christian, is one great big danger zone. Alarm bells should sound any time we wander into the area of introspection and self-analysis. Lots of bad things can happen if we aren’t very careful here. We can, for example, come to doubt our very faith if we look inside and find deficiencies. In other words, Satan loves to create doubt if you don’t find that you are passionate enough, or as joyful as you ought to be, or as excited and eager as you would like to be. It’s tempting to imagine that if I happen to lack the sort of zeal that I find in other religions, then maybe I’m really not a true Christian after all—or that there is something better than Christianity out there. Satan loves such instability and doubt in God’s children. He loves it because it leaves us susceptible to play down Christ and to emphasize instead our own feelings and “contributions.”
Have you ever “looked inside” only to be discouraged at the lack of zeal and passion that you find there? The fact is things like energy and zeal are really not very good indicators of God’s opinion of the condition of a human heart. They actually say more about a person’s level of conviction than they do about the rightness of the message that is proclaimed. In other words, just because I’m enthusiastic about something doesn’t really say anything at all about what I am promoting, other than that I’m sold on it. Yet, people are often swept along in the excitement. They are fooled by the passion.
As an example, The Other Side of Heaven, was a thinly veiled propaganda film for the Mormon Church that came out a couple of years ago. It was marketed as “the true story of a Christian missionary named John Groberg and his struggles on the South Pacific Island of Tonga.” It wasn’t until well into the movie that the viewer first began to pick up on hints that Mr. Groberg wasn’t a Christian missionary at all, he was a Mormon missionary. The Mormon faith is not truly Christian because it does not promote faith in Jesus Christ as the one path to Heaven.
There was a line in the movie that caught my attention. One of the natives that eventually adopted the Mormon religion did so because, in his words, “Anyone who would travel this far to bring me this message must be telling me the truth.”
There was also a Christian missionary on that same island who had traveled just as far to bring the residents of Tonga a much different message —the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Which, then, was telling the truth? Are we saved by our own actions, or through faith in the actions of another? Does it depend on which side is more enthusiastic? Obviously, it does not.
Truth, remember, is an objective thing. That means that there is a universal standard, and God alone determines what that standard is. God alone determines what does and does not represent reality for He alone has created and established all things. If a man believes that he must earn his way to Heaven—as the Mormon faith and many others surely teach—of course, such a man will be zealous and energetic. That zeal and energy are based not on any objective truth, but on the man’s own personal convictions and fears. Christians are not motivated by selfishness or fear, since we know that our salvation has already been won for us by our Savior Jesus. Fear then is never the driving force in our lives, since we know that we can add nothing to God’s plan for our salvation and, therefore, stand un-condemned before Him in Christ.
The problem with which we are left, unfortunately, is that the work-righteous folks—those who believe that they have to earn their salvation—are generally more energetic and more zealous than those who realize that their salvation is already secure through faith in God’s Son. Fear and greed are powerful motivators, even though such things bear no real and lasting fruit in the end.
None of this is, of course, new. Work-righteousness has been in existence since the fall into sin, and those who try to earn their way to Heaven have often demonstrated tremendous enthusiasm in the practice of their religion. The Jews were no exception, and Paul addresses this phenomenon in our text when he says, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” [v.2] The Jews did not lack for enthusiasm, they lacked knowledge. Knowledge of what? Jesus and His position as the only path to Heaven. Their problem was that they chose the only other alternative to Jesus, which is work-righteousness, regardless of whatever name they chose to give it.
That’s why, when the Jews looked inside, they looked for all the wrong things and were completely fooled by what they found. They found enthusiasm, which gave them the illusion of being right. They found family history, which gave them the illusion of entitlement. They found a reverence for the Law of Moses, which gave them a firm but misguided sense of direction for their lives. The bottom line is that the Jews liked and admired what they saw in themselves. They were perplexed and enraged with Jesus and His followers for disturbing their illusion of grandeur and confidence in their own plan for salvation. Paul put it this way in our text: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” [v.3] The key here is, first of all, that their zeal did not make them right or wrong. It was their belief system that was condemned by God as wrong and damning since they trusted in their own righteousness.
Paul clears all this nonsense away with one magnificent statement of pure gospel: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” [v.4] To put it another way, when it comes to salvation plans, where Christ starts, the Law stops. Those who look to Christ as the source of their salvation have no need for any other salvation plan—certainly not one where man has to try to provide what man has never been able to provide, namely, perfect obedience to God’s law. Jesus did that in our place, and He now credits His perfection to the debt of our sins, erasing them forever.
Again, we return to the idea of looking inside and what the Christian should there find when he does so. The Jews hoped to find within themselves the means to achieve Heaven. That’s what our text refers as “the law for righteousness” which is exactly what Christ ended. Our text tells us that we need to look outside of ourselves for righteousness. The Jews—indeed everyone who believes that he can pay for his sins in any way—want nothing to do with any other salvation plan. In direct contradiction to that error our text points us to a solution that we ourselves cannot provide: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’” [vv.6-7]
Isn’t it interesting that our text points to the two things that are uniquely Christian and which form the very basis of the Christian faith? No man could ever go up into Heaven to bring down the Savior. God Himself arranged for that when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. So also when Jesus was put to death, no man could ever descend into the place of the dead to raise Christ from the dead. God Himself did that on Easter Sunday.
The point is that God, not man, is the source for man’s salvation. These are, therefore, not the sort of things we should look for within ourselves. Such things must be provided for us by another, by Jesus the Messiah.
Yet, our text does make clear that there are certain things that we should recognize when we look inside. We are to recognize, among other things, that the Christian faith is to be an integral, essential, fundamental part of us. So too we read in our text: “But what does [the righteousness of faith] say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’…For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” [vv.8ff]
While we look for the payment for our sins outside of ourselves, faith in Jesus becomes a part of us, residing in our hearts. The Holy Spirit operates through the Word and that Word is in our mouths. Therefore, while Christianity points to an outside source for the solution to our sin problem, Christianity itself is anything but an external religion. The good news of Jesus Christ fills our world. It causes us to say with the Apostle Paul, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The Gospel brings to life the New Man, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us and good works flow as a natural result—though never perfectly.
Yet here, right at the end, Satan would add a “Yes, but…Yes, Jesus died for your sins—you truly believe that—but shouldn’t you do better, do more, return more? Are you really a Christian when you continue to sin and return so little for all that he has done for you?”
That very question actually answers itself. It is Jesus Christ who has already provided every good thing I will ever need to enter Heaven. Our hope, our confidence is always and only supposed to rest on what He did, not how often we fail. So then, while we expect to find good works in our lives, our level or degree of obedience and demonstrations of love are never supposed to be our source of confidence or comfort. That confidence, that comfort, is summed up perfectly by the final verse of our text: “For whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” [v.13]
That is the faith that lives in your heart—a gift from God the Holy Spirit. That is what you are to find when you look inside. That is the answer to the question asked of you today: “What do you see?” “Looking inside I see sin and failure. Looking to the cross I see perfect forgiveness from God the Father through faith in Jesus Christ that cancels every single thing I’ve ever done wrong and adds every single thing I’ve failed to do.”
Do you want to do better? Of course, but that’s because you are already His. Jesus is your Savior. When such faith resides in your heart, your salvation is secure. Our text says so, for there we are left with this simple, powerful truth: “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” [v.11]
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.