What do you do?

Sermon on Reformation Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 30 October 2011

Text: Romans 3:19–28
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We live in a world that is obsessed with doing. When forced to talk to new people, most people in Britain will first talk about the weather and, if the conversation needs to take a more profound turn, the next question is bound to be:
“What do you do? ”
What do you do? We like to define ourselves and one another by what we do. I’m a banker, I’m a teacher, I’m a soldier, I’m an accountant. That’s what I am, and that’s who I am.
For some, that can cause a problem. What do you say if you are unemployed and all you “do” is fill in job applications? What do you say if you are a pensioner and don’t officially “do” anything anymore (even though you are just as busy as ever)? What do you say if you are a housewife, a mother at home, and society doesn’t recognise your very busy life as official “doing”, since you are only at home?
But really, it’s a problem for us all. Because the moment we start defining ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are, we cast ourselves at the mercy of our capabilities and our opportunities—at the mercy of the varying circumstances of our life.
In fact, this whole way of thinking is an invention of the devil. He invented it to draw us away from the Triune God, away from dependence on Him, life as His image and in His service, to defining ourselves. “Just do this, and you will be like gods.”
And so all human religion, like much human culture, defines itself by it own activity, by its doing. And from the very beginning, this devilish doing has been creeping into the Christian church, to replace the Gospel. It’s there at the Fall, and throughout the history of God’s Old Covenant people, who are determined to do stuff. It’s in the New Testament, where false apostles are working hard to add things to do to the good news of Jesus Christ. And the history of the church is really the history of a battle against doing trying to take the place of the Gospel. Every heresy, every false doctrine, every false practice, really stems from this intrusion of doing into the body of Christ.
Of course, there is an awful lot of doing in the Gospel. But the question is, who is doing what. And so it is that true Christianity is all about grammar. More specifically, if you want to know what the Gospel is, look at the verbs: who is doing what.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do just that. Our Epistle reading on this Reformation Festival is that great clarion call of the Gospel from Romans 3: the justification of the sinner.
Up to this point in Romans, Paul has painstakingly demonstrated that all people, whether Gentiles or Jews, are sinners under the wrath of God, whether through ignorance, weakness or just plain rebellion. And then come those two little words that changed the history of the world, and the destiny of everyone who hears them: “But now.”
You were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were labouring to ward off death, to appease the gods, awaiting the crushing judgement of the one God.
But now. Everything has been changed. You are no longer unholy but holy. You are no longer under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner but a righteous, justified child of God.
And how has the change come about? Who does what.
Look at the verbs:
“God’s righteousness has been manifested … through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That’s right; our Bible translation is almost certainly mistaken at this point. God’s righteousness—his holy, unimpeachable character and His holy, unimpeachable conduct towards His creation, has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
“All … are justified by His grace as a gift.” All are made righteous, as a gift—not a reward, not as part of a deal. A gift, His gift.
“Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.” Christ Jesus is our ransom and the mercy seat whom God put forward to deal with our sin.
And why did God do this? “To show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Do you see what’s going on here? God is the one who is doing all the doing: the Father sending Jesus, Jesus remaining faithful as the ransom for us. God, God, God. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Doing all the doing.
So what’s left for us to do? What are our verbs?
For starters, there are the verbs with a no attached: “righteousness … apart from the Law.” “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” “By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” “One is justified … apart from the works of the Law”.
What then? What are we to do?
Well, we have done more than enough already. There is just one pair of verbs in the whole passage in which we are the doers: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That is your contribution to your own salvation: you, by your actions, make it necessary for God to send a Saviour. He does the rest.
This is the great doctrine of justification, which the Reformation re-published to a world where it was in danger of being drowned out: that we are set free from our slavery to sin by the Son, and by Him alone. God presented His Son to be the Saviour of all, who by His perfect faithfulness and innocent death ransomed us who were slaves to sin and now presents us to the Father as His innocent, righteous brothers and sisters: righteous because we have been justified, declared righteous and gifted with Christ’s perfect righteousness.
A pure gift. A gift to be received through faith, that is by simple trust in the work of Christ. When you had done your worst, Christ came and did His best. And He asks that you do no more, but simply sit back and receive what He is giving you.
He did this once for all for the whole world on the cross of Calvary, before you were born. He did it for you in the waters of baptism, which was poured on you by another. He does it for you in the word of the Gospel through the voice of another. And He comes to you in the Sacrament, to offer you again fruit of all that He has done for you on the cross.
So when you come to the pearly gates and you are asked, “What did you do? ”, please answer: “Me? Oh, nothing at all. Christ did it all.”

Who’s coming to dinner?

Sermon from Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 17th Sunday after Trinity.
Text: Luke 14:1-14 (which takes up the first 2½ minutes or so)

Remind me

not to do this:

This is how

to sing Lutheran hymns. Videos courtesy of Rev. James May of Lutherans in Africa, who do this and much more marvellous work, teaching Lutheran faith & life across Africa.

Check out more great videos on YouTube.

Goes to show that Africans can sing European Lutheran hymns. On the other hand, Europeans can’t sing African hymns like this:

Do not be anxious

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Trinity 15, 2 October 2011.
Text: Matthew 6:24–34
A recording of the sermon can be found here.

There’s no denying it: today’s Gospel reading is a difficult text. But it’s not your typical difficult text. Usually we find passages of the Bible difficult because we find them hard to understand, or the point they seem to be making is hard to fit into the rest of the Bible’s teaching. However, Jesus’ teaching today is difficult precisely because we do understand it and because it does fit in with the rest of the Bible’s teaching:

Do not be anxious about anything. Do not worry about food and drink, clothing and shelter: your heavenly Father knows your needs, so your anxiety is misplaced. Trust in God, and leave everything to His care. This is the consistent message of the God’s word in the Scriptures.

Peter writes, “Cast all your anxieties on Him and He will take care of you.” Paul writes, “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And King David sings, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

But why is this a difficult text? It’s supposed to be comforting, making your life easier and less burdensome, not more? Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s difficult because we don’t think it’s true. A young girl called Rosie whom I taught early in my teaching career put it with admirable clarity when she declared: “Sir, that’s just stupid!” You wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but many of you probably think the same. It’s stupid because it’s so blatantly not true: people in the Horn of Africa don’t have enough to eat, and Christians are not excepted from the effects of the drought and famine. The houses and possessions of Haitian Christians were in no way exempted from the effects of the earthquake there. Streams of lava and clouds of ash don’t magically pass over Christian homes when volcanoes erupt, and wars are no better. Yet thousands upon thousands of Christians in those situations are praying for their daily bread, for protection, for shelter.

So it’s just stupid, isn’t it, when Jesus tells His disciples not to worry but to trust in their heavenly Father. Because His track record isn’t exactly brilliant, is it?

This is only natural—and this is precisely why Jesus teaches us what He teaches. Our attention is naturally drawn to the promises Jesus makes: of material sufficiency. And then we look at the material circumstances of people around us and make a judgement on whether that promise is reliable or not.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: if Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew 6 isn’t reliable, then that means that He isn’t entirely reliable. Which means that we can’t always trust Him. Which makes Him a pretty dangerous Saviour. Which of His promises are you willing to trust, and how will you decide? When it comes to trusting in Jesus’ promises, it’s all or nothing, because it’s a matter of eternal life and death. You can’t pick and choose, because Jesus is Lord, not you. God is God, and you are not.

And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ teaching. The real point isn’t about our material well-being at all. How does He begin?

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24)

The main problem when we are anxious about our material well-being is not that we are being anxious, which is both miserable in itself and bad for us. The real problem is far more serious: idolatry, the worship of the false god of Mammon.

Do you remember the explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. And as the Large Catechism explains in greater detail, your god is therefore that things which you fear, love and trust in above all things. If it isn’t the Triune God, YHWH of the Scriptures, then it’s something else. And the chances are that it is Mammon:money, possessions, material well-being.

If you don’t trust God to provide for you, it’s not just that you are anxious about your well-being. It also means that you don’t trust God to be God—in sickness and in health, for better for worse, for richer and for poorer. It means that you don’t trust God to make the right decisions about your life, to give you what you need when you need it. You don’t trust that all things work for the good of those who love God. All—even poverty, deprivation, sickness, hunger and, yes, even death.

To judge God’s competence or the value of His promises on the basis of whether you, or your neighbour, or the people of Ethiopia or Haiti, are being well-fed, clothed and housed, and preferably in rude health for good measure, is to place yourself in the place of God as the judge of what is good, right and salutary. It is to have eyes only on this world, this life, and to equate God’s kingdom and His righteousness with how things are going in a fallen creation. It is to desire to lay up treasures on earth.

But as Jesus teaches us, there is no place in a human heart for two gods. There’s plenty of space for any number of idols, but there is only room for one God. If it’s Mammon, that leaves no room for YHWH. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Besides, what good is worry? How does it help? Martin Luther uses the illustration of a short man sitting in a corner and hoping by his anxiety about his height to grow taller. How daft. Likewise, when it comes to our daily or bodily needs, we can worry to our hearts’ content, but it won’t help us one bit. God will provide in the way that He sees fit. Call on Him in all your troubles. When you hand them to Him, they cease to be your problem, and you can be assured that all things work out for your good, because that’s what He promised. You may be blessed with sudden relief, like the widow of Zarephath was, or perhaps your heavenly Father has an even better plan for you.

* * * * *

It is a simple question of trust. Whom do you trust. Or better still: whom can you trust? Can you trust your own strength, skill or ingenuity? How far will they serve you? Can you trust your health? Can you trust the market? The government?
Or do you trust the God who sent His Son not only to tell you about God’s love but to put God’s love into action by dying for you in order to bring you life that lasts far beyond the passing pleasures and pains, riches and deprivations of this world? Would you trust a Christ, through whom all the world was created, suffered hunger and thirst, rejection and loneliness, and ultimately death by torture, so that your hunger and thirst for righteousness and the favour and friendship of God can be satisfied.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Seek first that life where God no longer reckons your sin to your account but instead makes the righteousness of Jesus yours. Seek first His kingdom, which is not a matter of eating and drinking earthly food and drink—things that can only sustain for a time—but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has commanded us to pray for our daily bread. In so doing we are released from anxiety, because by commanding us to turn to Him, He makes Himself our God, and takes responsibility for our needs. And as we receive our daily bread with gratitude, whether in abundance or in meagre portions, we continue to receive food and drink that of the Kingdom that is coming: the incorruptible, inexhaustible food and drink of heaven, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may spend the rest of your days with your stomach full and satisfied, or you may die of malnutrition or even starvation. You may face the rest of your life in warmth, comfort and shelter, or you may die of exposure or violently at the hands of your enemies. Either way, in the Kingdom of God, you will always be filled and satisfied with the bread of heaven which will never run out; your cup will overflow without end; and you will sit permanently under the shelter of God’s wings, at the table prepared in the presence of your enemies.

And all these other things will be added to you as well, according to God’s will.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us in faith that we may always trust our heavenly Father’s abundant goodness and mercy so that at our lives’ end, we are received into His everlasting kingdom, where we will be able to walk by sight and not by faith.

In the name of the Father, etc.

Letter from Iranian pastor on death row

This is a letter from Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani written from prison in Iran earlier this year. Pastor Youcef currently faces the death sentence for apostasy – conversion from Islam to Christianity – and is waiting for the court’s final verdict. Please continue to pray.

This message has been translated from Farsi to English.

Dear brothers and sisters, Salam.

In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I am continuously seeking grace and mercy to you, that you remember me and those who are bearing efforts for his name in your prayers. Your loyalty to God is the cause of my strength and encouragement.

For I know well that you will be rewarded; as it’s stated: blessed is the one who has faith, for what has been said to him by God, will be carried out. As we believe, heaven and earth will fade but his word will still remain.

Dear beloved ones, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few verses, although you might know them, So that in everything, you give more effort than the past, both to prove your election, and for the sake of Gospel that is to be preached to the entire world as well.

I know that not all of us are granted to keep this word, but to those who are granted this power and this revelation, I announce the same as Jude, earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.

We are passing by special and sensitive days.They are days that for an alert and awake believer can be days of spiritual growth and progress. Because for him, more than any other time there is the possibility to compare his faith with the word of God, have God’s promises in mind, and survey his faith.

Therefore he (the true believer) does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on for him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ’s suffering. Because the believer knows he will rejoice in his glory.

Dears, the “ judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

Therefore those who are enduring burdens by the will of God, commit their souls to the faithful Creator. Promises that he has given us, are unique and precious. As we’ve heard he has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”

How can it be possible for a believer to understand these words?

Not only when he is focusing on Jesus Christ with adapting his life according to the life Jesus lived when he was on earth? As it is said ” O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.”

Have we not read and heard: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests, and gain victory.

Therefore in the place of Christ’s followers, we must not feel desperate, but we have to pray to God in supplication with more passion to help us with any assistance we may need.

According to what Paul has said: In every temptation, God himself will make a way for us to tolerate it.

O beloved ones, difficulties do not weaken mankind, but they reveal the true human nature.

It will be good for us to occasionally face persecutions and abnormalities, since these abnormalities will persuade us to search our hearts, and to survey ourselves. So as a result, we conclude that troubles are difficult, but usually good and useful to build us.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must be more careful than any other time. Because in these days, the hearts and thoughts of many are revealed, so that the faith is tested. May your treasure be where there is no moth and rust.

I would like to remind you of some verses that we nearly discuss everyday, (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) but as long as our human will has priority over God’s will, his will will not be done.

As we have learned from him in Gethsemane, he surrendered his will to the father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name. He said: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that he will come soon.”However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Discipline yourself with faith in the word of God. Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly.

May you are granted grace and blessings increasingly in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.

Yusef Nadarkhani
Lakan Prison in Rasht

2/June/2010

HT: Cyberbrethren