Trinity Twelve Sermon| August 30, 2009
“And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.”
2 Corinthians 3:4-11
To know God means that we listen to him and hear him speak and obey his word. We hear and we obey. But when God speaks, we run and hide. St. Paul calls that speaking the ministry of death. It was a glorious ministry, so glorious that when the people of Israel saw only the reflected glory of God in Moses they had to turn away from him. And Moses, you may recall, couldn’t see God’s glory directly, but could only see God from behind. So pure and bright and powerful and glorious is God’s law! It was written by the finger on God on tablets of stone. It stated with perfect clarity the will of God for his people. Do you want to hear God? Do you want to know God? Do you want to enjoy life with God? Then listen to these words that God speaks to you and do what they require of you:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
God wrote those words directly. Every other word that came from God came through the agency of a man, a prophet, like Moses. The Ten Commandments or literally, Ten Words, were written on stone by God himself. This was the foundation for the Old Testament. Everything else is commentary on it. The entire law of God pertaining to every single aspect of life is contained in these Ten Words. If the Ten Commandments don’t require it, God doesn’t require it. If the Ten Commandments don’t forbid it, God doesn’t forbid it.
When you consider all of the many successful living books on how to overcome this or that problem that we must face in life, you really must decry the loss of so many trees to accomplish so little. Far better than reading “how to” books is to memorize the Ten Commandments and to follow them. The Ten Commandments describe what is glorious. When they were given by God God’s glory accompanied them. And so they remain glorious. Anything man has contrived pales into insignificance when set beside the Ten Commandments. Everything of benefit in the writings of the ancients is beneficial because it explains or applies the Ten Commandments.
Consider the great fables of Aesop or the copybook headings of generations past. What virtue doesn’t derive from one of the Ten Commandments? Reverence, piety, faithfulness, chastity, modesty, thrift, generosity, humility, honesty, integrity, bravery, hospitality, discretion, and any other virtue you can name are all taught in the Ten Commandments that God in his glory gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
There is no higher ethic or nobler path or more enlightened way of living than what is stated plainly for us in the Ten Commandments. If you want to do something good, honor your father and your mother. Help and befriend your neighbor in his physical needs. Be faithful to your spouse, whether you are married or will be married some day. Take no more than your share and pay your bills. Tell the truth about your neighbor and cover up his faults with kindness. Be content with what you own. Do this, and you will see that a single commandment of God’s law has more glory than all of the plans, schemes, and notions of mankind.
And yet if you came to church to find God and in him to find rest for your soul and all the preacher preached to you were the Ten Commandments, you would come to church only to die. The preaching of the law of God gives you a perfect path to follow while here on this earth, but it cannot bring you beyond the grave. Indeed, it can only direct you do it. The preaching of God’s law is God’s ministry of death. It is called the “letter” because it was engraved with letters on stone on Mt. Sinai when it was first given. The letter kills. It must kill because it shows what is wrong and hateful and revolting and offensive to God. The law must kill and it must condemn and if the preacher doesn’t know that, he’d better not preach at all.
Unfortunately, most preachers don’t know that. They think that the law of God was given for the purpose of making people good. So when the law doesn’t succeed in doing that, they twist it into something doable. They resort to various forms of manipulation to get folks to be the way they ought to be. And when they find visible success, they pat themselves on the back as if they have a certain gift from God to get people to do what they ought to be doing.
But the true ministers of Christ, as St. Paul drives home in our text, are those who acknowledge that they don’t have anything at all to offer God’s people. As he writes:
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new testament, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
You don’t come to church to hear a preacher display his cleverness or winsome words to thrill you and motivate you and enable you to succeed in life. You don’t come to church to be wowed by a personality who walks around the chancel as if it is a stage where he can entertain you with his wit and wisdom. You come to church because you are dying and the Ten Commandments have made that crystal clear to your conscience and your heart. You come to church because in your very best efforts to put into practice the demands of God’s law you have seen that your failure calls for God to kill you dead. And you don’t want to die. So you come to church and find the Lord and Giver of life, the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
And in the words of a mere man, flesh and blood as you are, headed for death as you are, filled with his own sins and failures and weaknesses as you are, the Holy Spirit reveals to you and gives to you life. And that is glorious.
But it doesn’t look like it. I’ve never seen Jesus, but I surely have seen myself! I have never felt the righteousness of Jesus, but I surely have felt my own sin. I don’t experience the obedience of Jesus, but I know my own disobedience. And so the new testament makes no sense to me. It offers me Christ’s blood, both in the sacrament and in the word, but I cannot sense it or feel it or touch it as I can sense and feel and touch myself. So I must remain blind to me and my life, and look with the eyes of faith to Jesus and to Jesus alone.
And this is what the Holy Spirit does for me. He shows me Jesus. I see my own disobedience to the Ten Commandments and I hear the verdict of death and I see the knife raised above my heart to kill me. And then the Angel of the Lord cries out, “Don’t lay your hand on him!” And in my place, a Lamb is offered. He takes the knife. He suffers my death. He is killed instead of me. His name is Jesus, and he is my Savior, and he is the One the Spirit gives to me every time I come to church and every time I hear the gospel and every time I lay claim to the promises of my baptism. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is the ministry of life eternal.
The glory of the law has to fade away because when the law has killed you it has nothing more to do to you. You are dead and that’s that. The law can only kill. Oh, it will show you what is right and wrong, but the problem is that we are wrong, not right and that’s the way we remain, even when we’ve been Christians all our lives. We struggle against the sins in our heart and we keep on sinning. We fight against the devil’s lies and we keep on doubting. We oppose the world’s standards and values while adopting them as our own. And no preacher who can manipulate our emotions or flame our passions can keep us from being killed by the law that brings to light the deep sin within us.
But the Holy Spirit can and he does. And that is glorious. His glory is hidden under great weakness, even as Jesus stumbled under the weight of his cross while upholding all things by his almighty word. Those who teach the false doctrine of salvation by works teach a message that glories in human achievement but that teaching teaches people how to go to hell, not heaven. The only way to heaven is by despairing of our works and trusting instead in the works of Jesus who did what the law demanded of us and suffered in our place the death the law required of us.
The law killed Jesus. In dying, he silenced its condemnation of us. The law cannot condemn us anymore. The glory of the law must leave and be replaced by the everlasting glory of the Spirit. There will come a time when the Ten Commandments no longer apply to us. We will be in heaven. We will see God face to face. We will be perfectly conformed to the image of Jesus and we will love purely and eternally even as we have been eternally loved. All this is guaranteed to us by the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through the preaching of Christ crucified. The preacher is nothing. The gospel he preaches is glorious. It is the most precious treasure we have in this life because it transports us to heaven where faith gives way to sight and all sins are forever forgotten. Amen