Sunday, January 31, 2010

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +

Text: Luke 4:23
Theme: “Physician, Heal Yourself!”

Dear baptized in the Lord Jesus,

In the synagogue at Nazareth today we are reminded of a timeless truth: The church too, is full of sinners. The churchgoer and skeptic alike should not be deceived. We gather here, to receive Christ’s gifts, not because we are worthy, but because we are not. Who is more self-righteous: The unbeliever who sees no need to enter God’s house or the Christian who misunderstands what it means to be reckoned holy in God’s sight? Both possess a false pride about their status before the Almighty. The first expresses it by avoiding contact with the sacred things and people of God. The second by thinking their obedience has gained them that superior status. Only the Holy Spirit can lead both to true repentance. The forgiveness of sins does not cultivate arrogance, false security, or spiritual independence; but a humble recognition of need and a deep appreciation for the provision of God.

The accusation is made that church suffers from the same failure Jesus was accused of today: “Physician, heal yourself!”1 If the church is supposed to be enlightened why do so many of its own act like they are in the dark? If it possesses the power of the Holy Spirit why are believers still trapped in temptations and addictions? If the prayers of the just are so effective why do the faithful suffer from crippling illness and are not always healed? If they are truly God’s people why do they so often encounter tragedy and disaster like everyone else? Why, in fact, do they often appear even less prosperous and more downtrodden than the people of the world? How is God’s power and presence displayed in these realities? The image can be problematic especially in societies bent on material prosperity.

The church is not unaware of this image. But how should it respond? The temptation is to try to prove to the world that obedience to God will result in the type of prosperity that the world craves; that believers can have it all. That is, if a person becomes a true follower of God the reward of their faith in this life is to have happiness, good health, smooth relationships, material blessings, and the sense of satisfaction that their efforts are pleasing to God. But the perception that blessings are secured in this way leads people to a dependence on their own efforts and not the mercy of God. He says, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My word.”2

Do not confuse God’s love, mercy, and compassion with an unbreakable contract for entitlements. It is easy for the presumptuous human spirit to extrapolate from the fact of God’s goodness and benevolence to an expectation that things are automatic or deserved. Does God owe us things? Is He indebted to us? Are we entitled to wealth and prosperity? Should we be guaranteed good health? Have we earned the right to have a great harvest every year? Does He need us to prop up His ego or provide reason for His existence? Can what we have to offer impress or fulfill Him?

God is not limited by the expectations of His people or by their unfaithfulness. The rejection of the people of Nazareth today followed historical precedent. Elijah was sent to a Gentile widow and Elisha to Naaman the Syrian. Both instances were judgments on the hard-heartedness of Israel. At the same time they were expressions of God grace to those outside the kingdom. Gentiles were shown the miraculous power of God and received His blessings while the Jews were left to question why God hadn’t blessed them first. God is indebted to no one. The covenant He fulfills through Christ is a free expression of His compassion. Grace is not beholden to human demands.

Like the people of Nazareth we like to be guaranteed our entitlements from God. This mindset is a tool of Satan. As sinners we bring nothing to the table. And a chronic underestimation of sin will always lead to an under-appreciation of the gospel. Sin is not a minor inconvenience. We can’t simply get past it or overcome it. It doesn’t lend itself to therapeutic treatments or psychological solutions. Confession, recognition, and rejection of sin are the life-long activities of a Christian. Baptismal living involves an acute awareness that forgiveness is needed not only when we actually feel the weight of guilt on our consciences but also when we don’t. Lack of self-recognition or self-assessment doesn’t make us any less sinners than if we were labouring under terrible pangs of conscience.

Of course, a genuine sense of contrition cannot be fabricated. We can just “play the game” in saying that we’re poor, helpless sinners but God is not deceived. Yet if we don’t submit ourselves to hearing the proclamation of God’s law, then the Holy Spirit has little chance to work. If we retreat from what we don’t care to hear we risk rejecting God’s Word. When this becomes a pattern then the hardening of the heart can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may become gradually desensitized to sin and guilt. Eventually it becomes a non-issue.

On the other hand, people may be tempted to shy away from the place where God’s law is heard because their sense of guilt is already very acute. Robbed of hearing the fullness of God’s grace they become guilt-ridden to the point of despair. The problem here lies not in the intent of God’s heart, His willingness to forgive, or His power to act, but in the mishandling of His Word of truth. God never leaves the penitent without hope. The Scripture says, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”3 The mercy of God can be misrepresented or misunderstood but it cannot be nullified. Jesus Christ did not die in vain! Christ suffered the agony of death and rose again to rescue from real and insidious evil. Satan is not a paper tiger and hell is not an ill-conceived myth. These are hard and imposing truths.

But the tenderness of our Shepherd and Saviour does not fail the broken hearted. The fruits of His crucifixion and resurrection cannot be rendered invalid by any amount of spite or neglect one person may show towards another. In baptism you are united with Christ not on the basis of other people’s faith or merits but on that of Jesus Christ alone. From his altar you receive the nourishment and life secured when His body was broken and His blood poured out. The one who was chided to heal Himself accomplishes for us a healing of heart and soul and promises a complete restoration of body in the resurrection of the dead.

Raised already to new spiritual life, and even as sinners, we are agents of healing to those who are ailing and broken. Christ says, “Love each other as I have loved you.”4 Saint Paul expresses it most beautifully. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”5 God is love. Christ is God. And for us sinners God has done the unthinkable. Christ became the greatest sinner! This truth is the heart of the gospel. Amen.

+ in nomine Jesu +

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
31 January 2010
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt

1 Luke 4:23
2 Isaiah 66:2
3 Isaiah 42:3
4 John 15:12
5 1 Corinthians 13:4-7