Trinity Nine Sermon 2006| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Joyce Meyer, the popular television preacher, grew up as a Missouri Synod Lutheran about fifty miles south of St. Louis, Missouri. She learned the liturgy. She memorized the confession of sins that begins with these words:
O, almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee and justly deserved thy temporal and eternal punishment.
Mrs. Meyer left the Lutheran Church. She decided that she wasn’t poor or miserable or a sinner. She got tired of the negativity. She wanted a more positive message. Like many others before her and undoubtedly many to come, she bristled at the biblical doctrine of sin. It offended her. That’s understandable. Who wants to be poor or miserable or sinful? I’d rather be rich, happy, and holy. But if we are to be rich, we must become poor. If we want true joy, we must admit that we are miserable. And if we would escape our sin and become saints, we must confess our sin to God. There is no glory except through the cross.
God tells us this again and again and again. And God shows us this. The reality of sin is too bitter for us to face. This is why every religious effort that originates in us will always be an attempt to deny sin. The religious impulse is to lie about sin. This is done in a variety of ways. A common lie is to deny original sin. I recall a conversation about sin that I had with a Muslim several years ago. He was offended by the doctrine of original sin. He denied that everyone was born sinful. You are what you do, he insisted. But he was wrong. You do what you are. As Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” The Word of God teaches that we are born in sin and have sinful desires from our youth. This knowledge is not pleasant, but it is necessary.
Every natural religious impulse leads us to deny this biblical knowledge. But open your eyes and you will see that it is true. Everyone born into this world dies. Why? We call it nature and leave it at that. You get sick and you die. But that’s not what God created in the beginning. He created us to live, not to die. Every death we witness is evidence that God punishes sin. Sometimes you can connect the specific death with specific sin as St. Paul does in today’s Epistle Lesson. The children of Israel committed gross sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and defiance of God while wandering in the Sinai wilderness for forty years. Their sins brought them death. Most of the time, you cannot connect the specific death with any specific sin. Nevertheless, the soul that sins it shall die. So says Moses. The wages of sin is death. So says St. Paul. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. So says Jesus. Look within yourself. Look to find the source of life. Look hard to find the purity, the goodness, and the love that will take you to heaven to live with God. What do you find? You find sin. You find lust, selfishness, hatred, bitterness, envy, malice, and every kind of self-centered wickedness. But you cannot admit this so you choose not to see it. Then, when God’s law pricks your conscience and begins to reveal to it the true nature of your depravity, you become angry. You delude yourself into thinking your argument is with men. So you quit the church that taught you this bitter truth and go off on your own, thinking you have discovered something fresh, new, and promising. But it is all a lie, like the initial high of an addictive drug that promises what it cannot deliver. All it can do is enslave you to your own desires and leave you utterly helpless in the face of judgment and death.
So listen to God! Don’t shut out His voice. Don’t run away from His interpretation of history. After all, He writes history. The bodies scattered in the Sinai wilderness did not die of natural causes. Death isn’t natural. It is the wages of sin. You think you can stand before God? You think you have the power to be and to do what God demands? Look at the failure of those who have gone before and learn this simple lesson: we must live alone by mercy.
There is faith in God’s mercy that forgives us our sins for Christ’s sake and then there is faith in self. These are two opposing religions. They are incompatible. They vie with each other for our loyalty. At no time in the history of the church has the teaching of faith in self found such favor among Christians. The doctrine of the total depravity of man is too depressing. We are told that people want something more uplifting. The doctrine of human potential appears to be a more positive message than a teaching that requires us to repent daily of our many sins. Trusting in yourself is considered to be a sign of spiritual health. To which the inspired apostles issues the warning to our generation as well: let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
This is no idle warning. Christians can and so fall away from grace. This portion of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians makes that crystal clear. Those children of Israel who fell from grace had tasted of the gospel. They confessed the true faith. They confessed their sins and their need for God’s mercy in the promised Savior. But they were led away by temptations into sin, and by their sin, they were led away from the faith itself. We rightly confess that we can do nothing to make ourselves into Christians. That’s entirely the gracious work of God alone. He makes the unwilling willing. He changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. He regenerates us by the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism. But the fact that our faith is God’s gift does not mean that we cannot kill the faith God has engendered in our hearts. Living in sin without repentance does just that. If you think you can stand as a Christian you need to be warned. You cannot stand. Consider Peter. He claimed that even if the whole world would deny Jesus he would stand firm and suffer death before denying Him. Before the night was over he had denied his Lord three times. He then went out and wept bitterly. He learned the hard way how false is the faith that trusts in self.
Love yourself, serve yourself, put yourself first. So goes the modern creed of selfishness that parades as true Christianity. To which Jesus responds, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.” It is when we deny our own strength and distrust our own ability that we learn to stop trusting in our faith and to start trusting in God instead. Trusting in faith is an uncertain thing. How strong is it? Is it good enough? Pure enough? Constant enough? Sincere enough? Or is your faith lacking? Then you must doubt. Then you must fall. Then you have no hope.
But we don’t trust in ourselves. We don’t trust in our faith. Every time we examine ourselves we find sin and death. Temptations come our way without our even looking for them. They can bring us into sin and then we are trapped by our own sin, loving what is killing us, deluding ourselves into thinking that what enslaves us is really freedom. God here warns us of this, and reminds us that the temptations that come are common to all people. We are not unique. Our weakness is not unique. Our inability to stand is common to all Christians – indeed, it is a feature of the Holy Christian Church on earth until the end of time. Christians fall away.
They walk right into soul-destroying sin. A Christian will know that he has a sinful interest in someone or something but instead of avoiding the opportunity to sin he looks for it. He falls into sin and then, to defend his sinful pride, he shuts out God’s voice. A Christian who cannot tolerate alcohol goes to the bar anyway and foolishly assumes he can handle what he has never been able to handle. In the name of true love Christian boys and girls fall into soul-destroying sin every day. They’ve not developed the godly habit of daily returning to Holy Baptism in repentance and finding there forgiveness for all sins. So they embrace the sin ever more tightly and shut out the voice of their faithful God. This is how Christians fall away. In the midst of grasping onto sin, their faith in God’s mercy is replaced by a faith in themselves, their desires, and their thoughts.
But God is faithful. He invites us to reject the false faith in ourselves, to admit that we cannot stand, and to rely on His faithfulness. Yes, temptations will come. But with the temptation, He will provide a way of escape. He will not permit it to overwhelm us. He will not permit us to fall. We could fall. But He won’t let us fall. He will continue to speak to us those words by which faith is born and strengthened. Remember your confirmation promises. When we promise faithfulness to the Triune God even unto death we add the words, “by the grace of God.” When we promise never to depart from our faithful confession of God’s holy Word we add the words, “with the help of God.” We cannot stand. That’s true enough. But God can and will enable us to stand.
How? How will He do this? He will destroy the false faith in self and replace it with the true faith in His mercy. Now that’s not always a pleasant experience. But it brings indescribable joy! To be hammered when you are down makes you feel pretty low. There’s nothing good in that, or so we think. But we think wrong! It is precisely there and then that God comes to us to raise us up and confirm our faith. Jesus – who was the eternal God and impeccably holy – won the Father’s approval through suffering. We are confronted with temptations that would lead us to trust in our own desires and thoughts. The way of escape that God provides always leads us to Jesus.
Today little Nathan James Manning becomes a child of God in Holy Baptism. He is joined by this washing to the suffering, death, and resurrection of his Savior, Jesus. What can this baby do to stand? He can do nothing. You can do no more than this little one. This is what Holy Baptism teaches us. It teaches us that we must become as little children, laying claim to no more strength or status than a baby. It is in this weakness that we see how it is that Jesus’ suffering and death for us is so very precious. We fell into temptation, and God delivered us from its guilt and power. He did so through Jesus. He faced our temptation. He did not fall. He did not fail. He did not give in. His victory over temptation He now gives to us. He who was equal to the Father from eternity chose to submit to His Fatherly will in all things. This is how He gained divine pardon for us all. For Jesus’ sake God forgives us and restores us and protects us from the evil one. We cannot stand. But Jesus can. So we hold on to Him with the faith of a little child, knowing that His faithfulness is more than sufficient to blot out all of our sin and to keep us in the true Christian faith.