Sermon “Inside Out”
As young Christian parents, wanting to establish God’s Word in our household, as we had both been raised in unbelieving homes, I remember that Martha and I did some searching for ways to teach our children in the faith. We didn’t have the advantage of a solidly confessional church body to help us. We were young in the faith, both having been converted to Christ as young adults ourselves. We posted and worked with a series called “The 21 Rules of This House.” I looked them up on the Internet recently. The author of the program still has them available. The rules are good. They are biblical. They include telling the truth, loving, honoring and praying for one another, speaking quietly and respectfully, forgiving, comforting, lots of good things. We worked with those rules for a time. We were surprised to see something very negative growing out of them. There was a smugness that developed, not humility, not dependence on the Lord. We see the same thing sometimes among people who are involved in the churches that have their leaders plege to avoid certain things, generally it’s alcohol, tobacco, dancing and theater-going. Yes, those churches are very common in some parts of the country, though not as common in this area. Often we seem to decide that if we follow all the rules we’ll be just fine. Again and again, when visiting the sick, people will tell me that they have always tried to be a good person. That’s a great thing. I’m all for it. Absolutely in favor of it. Go and be a good person. Treat others with respect. Exercise self-control in all you do. And as we saw in today’s readings, those are absolutely approved in the Bible. But isn’t there something more here?
A few years ago a research group took a poll to see what Christians would say best described the Bible. Do you know what won out? It was the statement, “God’s rules for right living.” Again, like the 21 rules of the house or the idea of trying to be a good person, this is fine, but only a partial answer. Does God give his Law? No doubt. Does he tell us how we should live? He certainly does, and our reading from Deuteronomy points out that the people of Israel have laws which are superior to their neighbors. We can see that people who conduct their lives according to God’s Word tend to do better than those who do otherwise. We see this in antiquity, where in the Bible people who committed crimes had to make restitution which was a serious penalty to them, but that their cases were treated with mercy. In the neighboring nations criminals were simply killed out of hand without taking responsibility, trying to restore what they damaged, or being brought back into society. We see through history that people who have governed their lives according to biblical principles tend to be healthier, wealthier, happier, and live longer than those who don’t. There’s a case in point with marriage today. In this country, did you know that married men tend to earn more money and report themselves as happier than unmarried men? Did you know that marriages of people who have not lived together or engaged in other marital relations before marrying tend to be happier and longer lasting than marriages of people who don’t exercise self-control and who don’t wait to be faithful within marriage? What’s more, children of married parents are healthier and get better grades in school than children of unmarried parents who live together. That’s something we can’t quite find a reason for, especially the health issue. To get right to a current news and election issue it seems that children of just one parent tend to do worse than children of married parents, children of a single parent with a non-parent living in the household do worse, and those with same-sex couples in the role of parents do quite poorly. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. If you are a single parent I know there’s plenty to the story and it’s a complicated and hard story. Another thing I know is that we will do well to pitch in and help and support those families which aren’t in the traditional pattern. They can have a lot of challenges that some of our families don’t face.
Life goes well for those who are following biblical patterns. But is that all the Bible is about? What about our Gospel reading for today? Even if we have followed all those rules, even if we do pretty well, even if our families are together, even if we have been a good person, even if we adopt pets and people who need adoption, what does Jesus warn us about? He says that all sorts of things come pouring out of our lives. No matter how we work to uphold God’s standards we find ourselves full of those evil thoughts, those bad attitudes, those desires to enter into all sorts of evil, or arrogance that we have not entered into evil. No matter how you stack it, we all have a sin problem. We can’t escape it. Like the people in the film The Village a few years ago, people who tried to escape from sin and evil by setting up a new society, we find that sin and evil comes with us. This is something I’ve found talking with a wide variety of people. I have met some monks now and then. One, a Roman Catholic who was a monk and Latin teacher was a fairly good acquaintance over the Internet for some years. Several I’ve spoken with who are Russian Orthodox have expressed the same to me. Though you would think their lives would be relatively stress-free, they are actually quite difficult. Here they find themselves in a Christian community where they are surrounded by other people of like faith and where they are able to dedicate much of their lives to Scripture, prayer, and worship together. What do they find? They find the same thing Jesus talks about. Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. They are all there, lurking below the surface, trying to get out. And they are there not only in the monastery, not only in those neighborhoods you don’t want to go to, not only in the people you don’t want to associate with, they are there in you and in me. We all need repentance. We all need forgiveness. We all need cleansing.
What will we do? Jesus has proclaimed us unclean. And we find ourselves agreeing with his proclamation. Or if we don’t, we need to notice that the word “arrogance” is still in that list. Then we really don’t have any choice. We have to agree with him.
I have good news for you. Did you know that in the Bible the word “confess” really means “say that you agree”? Confession is to agree with God that we are sinners in need of a savior. It’s to agree that God has given his law and that we have not lived up to it. It’s to agree that no matter how hard we try to follow God’s pattern, his desires, his values, we have other desires that are in conflict with him. It’s to agree that we need forgiveness.
Jesus himself has won that forgiveness. Jesus himself has become sin for us. He has taken upon himself all of the sin and evil that we are bringing out of ourselves. He has promised us cleansing. He has promised that when we confess our sins he is faithful and just to cleanse us from all sin and to give us his perfect righteousness. This is Jesus’ promise. That’s much bigger than what we can do by obeying rules, by trying to be a good person. God’s Word promises forgiveness. And it’s rich, it’s free, and it’s for you and for me.
Do you realize that you have been trying to be a good person and leave it at that? Or maybe you have done pretty well at keeping the commands of God and wish you could be congratulated for it, falling into the arrogant category? Or maybe you are confronted by another type of sin that comes from within, out of the heart. Maybe you have not been able to conquer it. Maybe you see that you won’t be able to conquer it. The victorious life seems far away from you. Let me remind you that Jesus is here for you. He is here to give you forgiveness and life. He is ready to take your sin upon himself and give his perfection to you, again and again, as often as you find yourself in need of his forgiveness he will grant you all the forgiveness you need. Believe in the Lord! He has given himself for you.
As we gather today for communion, you can receive from Jesus not only words of forgiveness but the body and blood which he has given, placed in your hand and in your mouth, as he tells you this cup is a new covenant in his blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sin. Receive this forgiveness with us. Receive life. Receive the hope of God. Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.