“Christ our Liturgist not our Lawyer”
8thSA Pentecost: Our Savior, Raleigh
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Old Testament reading we have before us today is a tough one. Its content is vexation and it is itself a vexing text. Solomon, who is traditionally thought to be the “Preacher” named in Ecclesiastes, addresses a topic that American Christianity is altogether uncomfortable with: despair. While the American Gospel is that Christians should be happy, healthy, and wealthy, while the popular preachers would have us believe that you are not poor, miserable, nor a sinner, the Gospel according to Solomon is vanity. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”That everything is a whisp, a breath, nothing. Everything is worthless, temporary, and pointless. Happiness is always followed by sorrow. Pleasure only leads to pain. And the fate of all life is death.
This rather bleak outlook on life also finds poetic expression in the opening lines of Albert Camus’ classic book The Myth of Sisyphus where he says this: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” Because to quote another philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” And after an earnest search through the Scriptures and our own experience without the gloss of the American Gospel, we find this to be true.
If there are any Clint Eastwood fans last week you would have noticed a distinctly Heartbreak Ridge moment when Pastor warned us about prayer saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!” And this is unfortunately the very reason why we are in this desperate and pointless situation. The prayer of Eve was to be like God, really to be God in God’s place. The so-called “fall from grace” that we read in Genesis 3 was in fact the greatest reach upward ascending to the heavens in order to dethrone God. And what is so terrifying about this is that God said, “Okay. If you want to build your ladder up to heaven, I’ll let you, in fact, give it your best shot and get back to me about how that goes for you.” And ever since then we have been getting exactly what we asked for, striving in open hostility and open warfare against God, rejecting the gift of God and seeking our own way up to heaven.
As crass as this may seem when put this way, in the world these open acts of revolution against God always look like the tastiest fruit, the best of human reason, and the highest glory of mankind. In Luther’s day the ladder of choice was Monasticism and how glorious it looked. Men and women who dressed so solemnly, devoting themselves to prayer, shunning the outside world in its carnal sin, and embracing a spiritual union with God. Offering the sacrifices of their prayers, songs, masses, and good works. These works in themselves dazzle but on top of that they’re “for God” so how could they be anything but the next step to perfection? However, Luther and Solomon rightly perceive that this too is a vanity and a striving after wind. Because no matter how hard you pray, how pious you are, how much you give to the church, how hard you try to evangelize people, or how much you try to purify yourself it won’t matter one bit because this ladder we climb is the ladder of the Law and the Law is an unyielding supervisor. It demands perfection and obedience and no matter how sparkling outwardly we are, as Shakespeare says, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.
When the world is your ladder it also becomes your greatest curse. And when God is not your liturgist, He is your lawyer and He is here to repossess everything He gave. The earth and all its fruits, the work which he blessed, and your very life as our Gospel says, “Today your soul is required of you.” In our self-appointed godhood the world is a curse, God is our judge, and the Law our taskmaster. What then shall we do? Who will deliver me from this body of death when all I do and produce is breath and herding wind.
According to our walk through Luke, what we need is to hear the one thing needful. What we need is a good prayer. For this prayer the Spirit intercedes for us and gives us the words of Psalm 6: “Repent, O LORD, deliver me” Not being able to change ourselves, what we need is a change in God. We need God to turn around and repent saying, “Be no longer my judge, lawyer, and taskmaster. Be my Father and creator. Be my Lord and my Savior. Be my helper and intercessor.” And the wonderful comfort we have is that God says, “Okay.” In light of this change in God Luther can write in his great confession on the Lord’s Supper, “[God] has given himself to us all wholly and completely, with all that he is and has.” The whole of creation, redemption, and sanctification is God’s divine service, God’s liturgy for you. We are rich unto God not because of what we give to God but because of what God has given to us.
Luther’s Small Catechism beautifully says that God the Father has personally made you and all creation for you. He has given you body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members. Reason, senses, house, home, wife, and children and still takes care of them, not because of how hard you strive on your ladders, but because of His own Fatherly, divine goodness, and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. As if that were not enough God also gave his only begotten Son to you too, Christ the Lord, who purchased and won you not with gold or silver, but with his own blood so that you might be God’s own and live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. All this we receive from God’s own hand by the Spirit whom God also gifts to us to call us by the Gospel, enlighten, sanctify, and keep us in the faith with the whole church. And when all else fails and death comes this same Spirit will raise you in the same way that He raised Jesus from the dead so that you will have eternal life in the new creation.
The only ladder worth anything is the ladder of the Cross upon which God has come down to earth in order to give us all things anew simply to enjoy and experience the peace which passes all understanding which will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.