The Third Sunday after Trinity| June 8, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15, 1-2
God became a man. We call this the incarnation. The incarnation of God is a stumbling block to faith. Well, not exactly. It’s a stumbling block to false, idolatrous, and rationalistic faith. It is at the very heart of the true Christian faith. God became a man. This is a wonderful truth. What human reason finds offensive is for us Christians a tremendous comfort. It provides a solid foundation for our faith and lives.
We could not know God as God if he had not become a man. He is so high and powerful and we are so lowly and weak. How can the creature ascend up to his Creator? Every attempt to do so results in idolatry as we invent gods that can fit into our way of thinking and acting. We try to make God to be like us because we don’t know any better. When God chose to become one of us he humbled himself. Strictly speaking, God cannot be humbled. He is who he is and he is exalted above the world and all that is in it. He lives in that unapproachable light. God as God cannot be humbled. But when God became a man he chose to hide his glory and power under the covering of deep humility.
It was not a fake humility. It was a divine humility. But make no mistake. The man Jesus who humbles himself is the true God. The humble man who reaches out to sinners to meet them where they are is the holy God who hates all evil and punishes sinners. There is no real conflict here; only an apparent one. Jesus does not lose his true deity by hiding his glory. In fact it is precisely by hiding his glory and power and living humbly among us that Jesus shows us what God is really like.
St. Peter encourages us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. Which God is that? Look at Jesus and see. Look at God become man. See how the sinners draw near to him to hear what he says. He tells a story about a man who threw a great supper and invited the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. He is that man. He reveals God in a way that we can know him. St. Paul writes, “In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 1, 10) So we look to Jesus and we find our God.
But be ready for the offense. Not to our faith, no, but to our flesh! The flesh exalts himself above what is his due. The flesh loves undeserved glory even as he glories in judging others. People have always used religion to elevate themselves at the expense of others. They search out sinners worse than themselves, sinners who deserve nothing but contempt. These religious folks revel in their own conceit, as they stand in judgment of sinners more sinful than they are.
There is a certain popular myth that has amazing resilience when you consider how demonstrably false it is. It is that Bible believing Christians stand in judgment of sinners while those who take a more liberal view of biblical authority are less judgmental. This is not true. Everyone is judgmental. This is human nature. This is the nature of sin. All sin and every sin is a violation of the First Commandment in which the LORD God says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” God is Judge. By assuming the task of judging others we presume to take God’s job away from him. And this is what everyone does – Christian and unbeliever alike. The difference between them is that the Christian knows his sin and confesses it and is forgiven by God for Christ’s sake. The unbeliever remains under the same judgment he applies to others because he has no friend in God. Only in Christ is God our friend. To seek God apart from Christ is to seek him who is a consuming fire who lives in unapproachable light.
When Jesus tells us parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son he is talking to everyone. The scribes and the Pharisees represent those who stand in judgment over others and resent the grace of God. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son represent the sinner who has nothing but failure to offer to God. He does nothing to be found. What can a coin do? God is the one who does the finding.
God seeks us and finds us. We don’t find our own way to God. God finds his way to us. This is grace. Grace is not human achievement. It is divine humility. Grace is despised because religious people don’t understand it. They hate what they don’t understand. They think that grace is excusing sin. It is not. Grace does not excuse sin. It conquers it.
The shepherd finds his sheep and takes it home. He rejoices in finding what was lost. The woman finds her coin and rejoices. Lost is lost. Found is found. Grace finds us. It doesn’t approve of our being lost. It brings us from a state of being lost to a state of being found. It brings us out of death into life. It brings us into fellowship with God.
When God’s grace finds us and brings us into fellowship with God we are in a state of grace. We are living a life that is covered by grace. This means that we live each day of our lives sheltered by the cross of Jesus where our sins were washed away. We don’t live under judgment. God’s judgment has been set aside. Jesus made it clear. He said,
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3, 17-18)
Grace does not excuse sin. It rescues from sin. Jesus bore all sin. He suffered for it. He paid for it. He removed it by bearing the punishment that God’s law leveled against it. It is not the teaching of salvation by grace alone that excuses sin. It is the denial of salvation by grace alone that insults the vicarious suffering of Jesus as if he died in vain. To require sinners to make themselves worthy of God’s forgiveness is to deny that Christ alone is our salvation.
When I served as a pastor in Racine, Wisconsin I used to visit with a Muslim store owner who lived a few blocks away. He was from Palestine. He didn’t regard himself as a good Muslim but he defended the Muslim religion and criticized Christian teaching. He believed that Jesus was a holy man who had never committed a sin. I don’t think he would have claimed that of Muhammad. He had a great respect for Jesus. But he would become quite animated in his disagreement whenever I told him that Jesus was more than a holy prophet, that he was the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins. He was adamant that we all had to pay for our own sins. It was not right; it was not fair that one man should suffer for another’s sins.
His view of grace had nothing to do with the cross. He said that God’s grace was when he gave you more credit for the good you did than he gave you blame for the bad you did. But the very idea that God would become a man to suffer for all of humanity was offensive to him as a Muslim and to him as a man.
He thought that real men don’t need saviors. Real men save themselves. Real men know that Christianity is for women and children and others who need a crutch to get through life. That’s what my friend thought. This Palestinian Muslim was more like the average American male than he likely realized.
But the real God is for men. He humbled himself for men, women, and children. He became a man so that all men – male and female, young and old – could know him. In his humility we can see a God who will not judge us. Only when you see God humbled can you really see God. For the God who judges us is the God we avoid. We cannot bear to see him. We cannot tolerate him. We run away from him. Or, we twist and turn him into an idol of our own making.
The scribes and Pharisees complained about God. He receives sinners and eats with them. He expresses fellowship with them. Surely he knows what kind of people they are. Yes, he surely does. How could he not? He suffered for them. He died for them. He bore their sins. He suffered their guilt. Oh, he knows them, alright. He knows them as only their Redeemer could know them. And he loves them.
He rescues them from their sins and doesn’t leave them to their own devices. The devil, like a roaring lion that prowls around looking for someone to kill and to eat, seeks out Christians to destroy their faith. That’s his business and he’s good at it. He parades himself as an angel of light. He disguises his lies as pious teaching. “Surely the holy God would not so debase himself as to associate with sinners before they have made themselves acceptable to him. Let them change and become righteous people and then God will accept them.” That is the devil’s lie. It is designed to keep sinners from coming to repentance because a sinner who knows his sin knows he cannot make himself righteous. But the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner comes to see his sins, confesses them, and believes that for Christ’s sake God forgives him all his offenses. This is God’s doing and the devil rails against it. But this truth stands. On it we rely. This Man does receive sinners and eat with them. He is the humble God come to us sinners in our need. Amen