What? There’s no Gospel in the Gospel reading? Check the spare readings, see if they have any? The Epistle does? Let’s put it on and run with that one…
This past week, our youth went to the Higher Things conference in Logan Utah. They spent the week in worship, prayer and study of God’s word. The Theme was Christ Crucified. The theme song for the conference, was the song they just taught us: Sing my tongue, the glorious battle. Idealizing war? Not at all. The battle which Christ fought on the cross, as bloody and horrible as it was, is indeed the glorious battle. Christ himself calls it the hour of his glory. He endured the cross, scorning it’s shame. And now, the cross – a symbol of shame and defeat – is the symbol of victory for our God – the victory of Jesus over death hell and the devil. And so, some 1500 years ago, the hymnist wrote of the glorious battle. This past week, our youth learned and taught us this hymn which predates the reformation by a millennium. And today, we sang of the glorious battle as well. The place where our redemption was won. The moment in history which defines all others. As Paul said just last week, “We preach Christ Crucified.” And today we hear from Paul that this crucifixion of our Lord is now ours through Holy Baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” That is our salvation. That while yet sinners, Christ died for us. His death is now ours: we were joined to His death, in the waters of Holy Baptism. And now, the life we live is not our life, it is his. A life in God: Glorious stuff, indeed.
The other readings don’t seem so glorious. The giving of the Law in the Old Testament reading – the Ten Commandments: Inscribed by the finger of God on Mount Sinai. Talk of court cases, and judgment in the Gospel reading.
Jesus says – unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel ends with, “You will never get out of prison until you have paid the last penny.” Court cases and judgments. Not exactly comforting words.
Maybe we can try and weasel out of them somehow, find a loophole. After all, we don’t want to end up paying back to God everything we owe him for our sins. That can not be done, and if it could, it would be an eternity of suffering on our part. Loopholes are what we need. Except Jesus forecloses those too. Not one iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
No loopholes. Sorry. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. So, perhaps we should set about trying to figure exactly what level of righteousness they had, and then trying to exceed it just a little bit. But no, that won’t work. They were the righteous people. They knew the law and followed it. So, even if you could go back and do a detailed study, you would find that you aren’t quite that good.
The law always accuses. The law always condemns. And if we stay under the thumb of the law, then we are truly lost. We must be freed from the law. But we can’t do that on our own. You have no hope of keeping the ten commandments on your own. Do not kill? Certainly easy enough to do. Jesus adds do not hate – do not even be angry. Any time you wish bad things for your neighbor, you are guilty of the fifth commandment. God gave you your neighbor so that you can show him love. The heart betrays you, and you are condemned. The same is true for the commandment about adultery, and honoring parents, not gossiping, not stealing, or coveting, and that doesn’t even include the commandments that address what we owe God.
You can not do it. You need someone to do it for you. That’s where Jesus comes in. He frees you from the law. He keeps the iota’s and the dots for you. And then he takes the punishment you earned and goes with it to the cross. He takes it there, and then your sin is swallowed up in the cross.
Now it is Christ who justifies, who is he that condemns? The Law has lost the power to condemn. We are not overcome by sin any longer, rather our old self is crucified with Jesus and has already died. Good news if true. You no longer need to worry about sin, no longer need to worry about doing things that offend God, that condemn you.
But every time we turn around we discover that we haven’t really gotten over that sin as much we would like. The struggle is still there. The sin still rears it’s ugly head. Your sinful flesh, your Old Adam, still struggles against God and his word. Too often the sinful flesh overcomes us and we stumble and fall. And so, it seems as if our Baptism has only done a partial job. Maybe we need to try and do the rest. But if you’ve ever tried to self-improve, you know how well it goes. New Year’s resolutions that are broken before you get back to work on January 2. New Starts, new promises, new way of doing things, new this or that. It all ends in heaps in rubble. Promises made that you know will be broken. Can nothing save us from this endless cycle of sin, regret, promises to ammend, and then sin again?
Yes and no. No, because your own sinful flesh will still be there, lurking. Waiting to get you. Yes, because the sin does not overcome the promise. Not your promise to improve. God’s promise to save. Your sin can not overcome God’s promise to save. When you look to the cross, and to Jesus, you must say, “I am yours. Save Me.” Let Jesus do the saving. Because that’s what his death was about. If you were able to do it yourself, then his death was for nothing. You can’t. He did.
Now, you have been joined to that death. Not so that you can say, “Oh look, I’m saved by grace, let’s just do whatever the sinful flesh wants.” Yes, you are saved and can do what you want. But the question is “What do you want to do, now that there is nothing you have to do?” It’s all been done for you. You can now do according to the new life God has given – not out of fear of punishment, but because you are no longer under the thumb of death and the law. So, What is it that you, in Christ, want to do? Not “what has the law given that you must do?” but “What do you, in Christ, want to do?”
That’s how the law now helps you along your way in your life as a Christian. Not as stick to beat you down. But as guide to help you live according to the promise of the Cross that you were given in your Baptism. That’s the glorious new life you are given in Christ. And the most damnable way to mess it up, is to turn back to the old life and say, “How can I earn something before God?” That’s the way of idolatry, and it leads to death. The way of the cross is to hear and receive the Word of God, to believe the promise. To live according to the new life of Christ you have been given. To be faithful in your calling as daughter or son, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother, friend or employee or citizen. To show love and faithfulness in each or any of those callings which God has given to you.
As Luther says, to wake up each day giving thanks to God for keeping you safe through the night, and asking for strength “I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doing and life may please you.” Then going joyfully about your work – no matter how tedious or difficult it may be, but doing it joyfully for Christ’s sake, knowing that you are helping your neighbor. And then when the day has ended, giving thanks for being kept through the day, and asking for forgiveness for youtr sins, commending yourself into the care of your heavenly Father for Jesus sake, and going to sleep without fear or anxiety – knowing you have served God where he has placed you, that where you have failed, your sins have been forgiven, and that now God will take care of you through the night, and into tomorrow as well. And then the next day, repeating this pattern of the Word of God, prayer and fulfilling your calling.
The life of the Christian is lived according to this pattern, always returning to Christ and his gifts, taking time out to hear the Word of God and receive those gifts, which he gives in His holy church. That’s the pattern of your baptism. Until it finds its fulfillment in the resurrection of dead and the life of the world to come.
For Jesus sake and in his name. Amen.