Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023
Have you ever tried to figure out God? Have you ever tried to determine the length and breadth and height and depth of God? Paul, in Romans 11, writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” So, if St. Paul couldn’t figure out the Lord, do any of us think that we could? What does the Lord say to us? “My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways not your ways…the heavens are higher than the earth, so also My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts,” right? God and his plans and reasons are simply beyond our understanding, and we would do well to simply accept this and not fight it.
Consider how God deals with a guilty person, how He deals with the “wicked” and the “unrighteous.” For human beings, we tend to be more eye for eye, tooth for tooth. If someone does wrong, his punishment should fit the crime and gets what he deserves. And we think we can fix our society or keep our society from going too far off the wagon if we punish criminals. And, to be clear, God does give us government for this purpose and we ought not become too “progressive” in our approach to criminal justice. The government does bear the sword to keep sin at bay and to keep society somewhat civilized.
And even in the church we have what is called “church discipline.” But church discipline isn’t for reasons you might think. Unlike civil discipline where “you do the crime, you do the time,” church discipline is about drawing sinners to repent and returning them to the Lord. We ‘discipline’ so that sinners might see the depths and destructiveness of their sin and seek escape in Christ and His mercy.
Regardless, God is just and right and holy. He is perfectly just and always right, and infinitely holy, and as a just and right and holy God, he MUST execute His justice for all crimes committed against Him. And how do we know these crimes? We look at the commandments. The commandments are His holy, perfect, right, and just laws. When we do not fear, love, or trust God above all things – and I mean ALL things, God’s justice requires punishment by death and damnation. When we do not love our neighbor as ourselves, no matter who it is, God’s justice requires punishment by death and damnation. Breaking even a small corner of God’s commandments requires punishment because a just and right and holy God cannot be anything but just and right and holy. He doesn’t change; His Word doesn’t change; His law doesn’t change.
If you think you can fool God, you are wrong. If you think you can get out of God’s justice by telling yourself that the commandment you’re breaking isn’t breaking a commandment because “society has changed,” or “everyone else does it,” or “God is love therefore He doesn’t care,” you’re fooling yourself, you’re not fooling God.
And this is so very simple. If you lie, you should die. If you curse or swear, you should die. If you harbor any sort of anger or grudge or animosity against your neighbor, you should die. If you commit sexual immorality, you should die. If you gossip, you should die. If you steal, if you blaspheme His name, if you do not rest in His Word and make church and worship your priority, if you break any of His commandments, you should die because, “The wages of sin is death,” and “The person who sins is the one who will die,” Romans and Ezekiel.
God’s justice, his perfect, holy, and righteous justice is you and I getting what we deserve because of our sins. Death and damnation is the punishment fitting of the crime. If you sin, you should die. No mercy, no help, no escape. This is most certainly how God SHOULD deal with us, each of us because we are all guilty of sin.
What does the Lord say? In Jeremiah He says, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” In other words, the very purpose for God’s Law is to condemn us for our sins and tell us what we deserve. God’s law breaks us down because it shows us that before Him, we cannot stand, our sin cannot be overlooked, that no just and holy and righteous God could turn a blind eye to our disobedience. It leaves us broken, humiliated, and without an excuse.
The Law of God is the great book opened before us which exposes every last sin we’ve committed, where the Lord says to each of us, “Here’s your name and here is the list of every sin committed against me. Here is where you said to me, ‘I don’t care what your commandment says, I refuse you, and I am going to live life as I please.’ Here’s where you used My holy name as a cuss word time, and time again, here’s where you screamed and yelled at your neighbor and held things against him for years…what do you have to say for yourself; what is your defense?”
And what IS your defense? If your defense before the judge of life and death is, “I’m a pretty good person and I’ve done more good than bad,” that’s not a defense. If your defense is, “But my life was hard and things weren’t going my way and so I had to bend your law a bit to make things easier and more bearable,” that’s not a defense. If your defense is, “I didn’t know I was breaking your commandments,” that’s not a defense.
Knowing that God expects perfect obedience, nay, He demands perfect obedience to His commandments, what defense can you offer Him that, on the last day, will cause Him to call you innocent?
Now we must be aware that the devil will come along and try to help you with this problem. When you look in the mirror of God’s holy and perfect and just law and you humbly acknowledge that you have broken His holy and perfect and just law, the devil will pop up right between you and that mirror and try to convince you of one of two things.
First, he will try and convince you that you are not the sinner reflected in that mirror. He’ll say to you, “Hey you, you aren’t what you see there. In fact, you are a good person! It doesn’t matter if you slip up on those commandments from time to time because God knows that, in your heart, you are essentially good. So, live your life, be merry, enjoy yourself and keep telling yourself that you are a good person, that you deserve eternal life, and don’t let those old suggestive rules getcha down, because God was just having a bad day. He wants you to have fun, to step out of yourself and relish in the fruits of your labor, to enjoy the desires of your flesh – what good God would keep you from this?”
And when you do sin and you do “enjoy the desires of your flesh,” then the devil comes at you another way. He’ll come trying to convince you that you aren’t worthy of God’s grace at all. He’ll say, “Hey you…do you see what you did, did you hear what you just said? How can you expect God to love you or show you mercy? God has better things to do than worry about your sorry self. Just give up, just curse God and die because you are worthless.”
But the devil is a trickster, a liar, and nothing he says is true. Don’t listen to him, don’t confide in him because he seeks to lead you to sin and to destruction, to have you for himself. His words have nothing to do with God’s justice or God’s mercy.
So, apart from the devil’s lies, what defense can you offer to the Lord of justice and righteousness and holiness?
If you have no defense – no merit of your own, no excuse for your sin – then the law has done its work perfectly in you. It has revealed to you that, to escape God’s judgment, to escape death and damnation, you need something beyond yourself, you need someone beyond yourself to save you.
The law of God has brought about conversion because it has caused you to fall to your knees, hungry, desperate for the mercy of the court. And in this position, one of contrition and humility, of repentance, God most assuredly provides the greatest mercy and comfort a burdened soul could want: forgiveness.
But the forgiveness He offers isn’t forgiveness without a price. And in fact, there is a steep, steep price for His forgiving you your sins. God’s justice must prevail, His holiness must not be tarnished, His righteousness will not change. Therefore, for you to be forgiven of the wickedness of your sin and the unrighteousness of your disobedience, the punishment for your sin must still occur. So God, whose mercy extends time and space, carried out His justice upon His only Son. God clothed Himself in real flesh and blood, in body and soul, and conceived Himself so that He would be born of woman, under His own Law, His own commandments, to live by them justly, righteously, and with holiness.
He did what we could never do by being obedient to the Law, even if it meant dying on the cross. And as Jesus suffered and His life slipped away from Him, God’s justice prevailed. Jesus was the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.” He is the true and only “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And bearing all humanity’s sin in His body on the cross, Jesus endured the wrath of God, the justice of God, the righteousness of God, the holiness of God.
Jesus received what we sinners deserved. It’s no wonder that He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus found no mercy from God His Father and He was left forsaken, abandoned, and covered in the stench and filth of our sin.
It was in His death that the price for your sin was paid so that in the court of God the just and right and holy, God no longer sees your sin, but He sees His perfect Son taking your place. As St. Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” And as St. John proclaims, “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”
And we know this is true because God raised Him from the dead. God accepted His only son, Christ Jesus’s sacrifice for the reconciliation of the world. You no longer need fear judgment, wrath, death, or hell.
This is the good news. You are now a people empowered by the Gospel, wrapped up in Christ and covered in His mercy, received by both His Word and the Sacraments, and you are called by God to forsake your old ways of sin and death. You no longer suffer the wages of sin and death, why live and walk in them anymore? You are free, do not return again to slavery.
You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to live by the old nature, the old ways, the old pattern of sin and death? NO, but to live by faith, to do good works which God prepared beforehand that you should walk in them.
Luther writes, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”
You see? Where the new law of life and faith prevail, so too does the joy and love of good works and that abandonment of our old sinful ways and thoughts and plans.
Because of God’s mercy in your life, He grows in you the fruits of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Because you who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
This is what our old testament reading is all about. Isaiah writes, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord.”
God carried out His justice in Christ the crucified, and God raised Him from the dead. He is the first fruits of our resurrections when we will be with him forever. And like Him, we have died to our old, wicked, sin-infested and death-reigning selves where all there was for us was hell. We have been raised up to new life, new living, living in the freedom and mercies and grace and forgiveness of God our Father through Christ our brother.
Trusting in this great and loving mercy, let us not return to the slavery of wickedness and unrighteousness. Let us not stand opposed to His Law or fighting against His justice and righteousness and holiness, but let us instead, by His Spirit, confess our sins, repent of our old ways, and seek His eternal justice in Christ Jesus our Lord. For God our Savior is here, now, patiently and earnestly calling each of us to repentance and faith, to confess our sins and live in His mercy, to contrite hearts and hearts filled with a love of good works. But this won’t be forever, for the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Amen.