16 February 2014

Choose Life

It’s a matter of learning to look at yourself, at your place in the world, at the world around you, and at each and all of your neighbors, in the way that God, the Lord, looks at you and all of these.

It ought to make a difference, for example, to consider that the person you just laughed at, or lost your temper with, or left behind in the dust, is a person created by the Lord your God and loved by Him.  That is true, whether the person is a fellow Christian, an atheist or pagan.  But how much more should it make a difference if the person is a brother or sister in Christ, a beloved child of your own God and Father.  In such a case, in particular, your harsh words, hardness of heart, and vindictive judgments fall, not only on your neighbor, but on the Lord.

To laugh at your brother, to spurn your sister, to neglect the needs of your fellow believer in Christ, is to criticize your Father in heaven and to condemn and reject His family.  It should not be so.

It is not only your neighbor whom the Lord has created in love for Life with Himself.  You also are made by Him with such love and for such Life.  You exist, and you remain, for the sake of His divine and holy Love, in order to live with Him in His Kingdom, in body and soul, here in time on earth, and hereafter for eternity in heaven.

The one true God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Yahweh, the Creator of all things, has sworn an oath by Himself to be with you, to bless you and keep you, and to bring you into a good Land.  All of this He has done for you, and still does, and will continue to do and accomplish, through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son.  For not only has the Lord created you for life; He has redeemed you for Himself in Christ, who gives you Life abundantly and sanctifies you by His Holy Spirit.

First of all as a creature of God, and all the more so as a Christian, a member of His Church, the Body of Christ, your whole life is lived in His presence.  Your body and soul, your heart and mind, your thoughts, words, and actions, each and all of these are always before Him.  If you flee into the depths of Sheol, or attempt to scale the heights of heaven, He is there, and you are ever in His sight.  What you look at with your eyes, He beholds.  What you grasp with your hand, He also perceives.  Whatever occupies your mind and captures your heart, the Lord knows that, too.  There are no secrets from Him.  He knows you better than you know yourself.  He knows your sins and weaknesses, your failings and your fears.  He knows you inside out, and yet, He still loves you.

His constant presence, at all times and in all places, is a deadly threat to the passions of your sinful flesh.  Indeed, your flesh is dying, and you will die, because of your sin with its appetites and attitudes.  The presence of the true God threatens your flesh, because He smashes the idolatry of all false gods, exposing them for the lie they are.  Your flesh can only perish without Him; but it cannot abide in His presence, nor will it survive before Him, so long as you exalt yourself, rely upon yourself and your own powers, and strive to feed yourself according to your own desires.

The threats and punishments of the Lord — who not only observes your actions and negligence, but also searches your heart and mind — His threats and punishments are aimed at rescuing your body and soul from death and bringing you safely into the promised Land of the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.  Because the false gods and passions of your flesh are not only sinful and wrong, but self-destructive.  They do not give you the life they promise, but rob you of genuine Life with God.  They cut you off from Him and ruin your relationships with others.  And though they drive you to consume everything you set your eyes and hand and heart upon, it is actually you that such hunger finally devours.

Your desperate attempts at self-preservation and self-promotion are of the evil one, and, left unchecked, unbroken, they will lead to your condemnation and eternal punishment.  It cannot be otherwise when you despise and reject the Lord your God.  Not as though He were mean-spirited, but because He is the true and only God, and apart from Him there is no life or salvation, but only death and damnation.

When you depend upon yourself instead of Him, and when you are determined to serve yourself and to feed your own appetites, this is the cesspool out of which your covetous lust, your selfish greed, your jealousy and envy emerge.  You do not see your neighbor as someone to love and care for, but as a competitor, an adversary or enemy, or as a means to some end.  Which puts you at odds even with your brother, with your spouse.  When you are thinking that way, then, not only God, but everyone around you is a threat to your security and success.

So you get scared, and your fear either drives you to despair or to hot anger.  You may bottle up your anger inside, but you don’t really control it, not until you put it to death with repentance; otherwise, it controls and masters you.  Sin is always crouching at your door, and Satan hungers to consume you, even as you hunger for more and more of everything that doesn’t satisfy.  Your anger boils over into harsh and hurtful words, or it curls up your fists to hit and to hurt your neighbor in his body.  You unleash the drill sergeant on your own children, or you lash out at your wife, or speak ill of your husband behind his back.  And in doing so, you condemn yourself, for these dear people are your own flesh and blood.  What is more, in going after them, you set your burning anger against the Lord Himself.  But you will not survive that contest.

Despairing in the face of your insatiable desires, dissatisfied with your lot in life and the place where God has stationed you, your eye begins to scan the horizon for alternatives, and your crafty imagination devises a scenario in which you make your own rules and call the shots for yourself and others.  You dream of getting even with those who have hurt you, and of taking for yourself whatever it is you want.  So it is that, in your heart and mind, you murder your brother, and you abandon your spouse for adultery.  And whether your hand and body ever follow your eye and your heart into such wickedness, your relationships whither and die, and you along with them.  Instead of contentment, you find only disaster.

You cannot save yourself from that downward spiral of death.  You won’t be able to pull yourself out of that pit by your own boot straps; nor can you fix what you have broken.

You do not control tomorrow, and even the hairs of your own head are numbered, not by you, but by the Lord.  The heavens and the earth are His, not yours.  You will not succeed in trying to take them by force, by hook or by crook, by barter or bargain.  Nor can you entice the Lord to serve and support your self-idolatry by offering Him your sacrifices, especially when your heart and mind remain at odds with Him.  Neither can you make things right with Him while you remain at odds with your neighbor.  Left to yourself, you are a lost cause.

But let us return to the Lord our God, and to His Love for you, and to the Life He has promised.  For you are not left to yourself and your own devices.  You’re not a free agent, nor an independent contractor.  God has created you in love for Life with Him.  You are His workmanship, and you are precious to Him.  He has called you by name to be His own, by grace, through Jesus Christ your Savior.  He has brought you through the waters of Holy Baptism, through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, into His Family, the Church — into His Kingdom.

He disciplines you, as a father disciplines his son, because He has made you His own dear child, His beloved son or daughter in Christ.  Thereby He teaches you and trains you in the way of life, in the way of faith and love, which is the Way of Christ, crucified and risen for you.

In Christ, the presence of the Lord is not only a threat to your mortal flesh with its sinful passions, but the salvation of your body and soul and the promise of eternal Life through His forgiveness of your sins.  He comes to crucify your flesh, that is true, but He does so in order to raise you up, a new creation.  And to this end, He has subjected His own flesh and blood to crucifixion, in order to heal your flesh in His Resurrection.  He has offered Himself, the Son to His Father, as a sweet-smelling Sacrifice and pleasing Aroma, in order to reconcile you and all the world to God.  And with His Word of grace, He fills you with His Spirit, in order to give you Life.  He satisfies your hungry heart with Peace.  He feeds your body and soul with Himself, so that you may rest in Him.

Instead of putting you to death with fierce anger for your sins, He has laid down His own Life to atone for all your sins.  He has taken all your debts and obligations upon Himself, and, with His holy and precious blood, He has paid them up to the last cent.  He has sought you out and wooed you to Himself, to be His beloved and beautiful Bride — adorned with His own righteousness and holiness.  And rather than divorcing you and sending you away for your adulterous idolatry, He has forgiven you, cleansed you and restored you.  He remains for ever and always faithful to you.  He only has eyes for you.

As He is your merciful and great High Priest, who has given Himself for you and ever lives to make intercession for you, so does He speak to you with tenderness and love.  He meets all your needs and answers all your prayers with the resounding “Yes!” and “Amen!” of His Resurrection from the dead.  As heaven is His throne and earth His footstool, so does He raise you up and seat you with Himself at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  There you are safe and secure in Him, even now, because He is the great King who reigns in love within His Church, on earth as it is in heaven.  Here His Gospel is the last Word.

In that sure and certain confidence of Christ, beloved of the Lord, let your yes be yes, and your no be no.  Do not give yourself over to pride or despair, but live before God in the righteousness of faith and love.  In the humility of repentance, call upon His Name in hope, relying on His Word, rejoicing in His mercy, and giving thanks and praise for the marvelous grace of His Gospel.

Do not be afraid, but do fear God, and so choose Life instead of death.  Not that you can save yourself, but that the Lord has become your Life and your Salvation.  Flee to Him by hearing and heeding His Word to you, and by praying and confessing what He has spoken.  Flee to Him, and away from the devil, by disciplining your flesh and turning away from temptation; instead of fueling the fires of your passions, avert your eyes and withhold your hand from that which God has not given you.  Fill your ears, your head, and your mouth with the Word of Christ, in order to crowd out and defend against the covetous ideas and lustful images of your mortal flesh.

And where you have fallen short, wherever you have sinned, repent.  Where you have hurt your neighbor with your words and actions, or by neglecting his needs and your duties, make amends, and begin, now, to do better: to do what is good and right.  And as your whole life is lived before God, confess your sins and seek His Word of the Gospel, His Word of Absolution.  For as great as the demands of His Law are, so much greater is the forgiveness of His Gospel.

His threats of dire punishment are rightly fierce, that you should fear His wrath and quickly flee from every transgression.  So much the sweeter are His promises of grace, mercy, and peace, that you should live by His Word and Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus.

Come, then.  As God has reconciled you to Himself in Christ, you also be reconciled to Him and with your neighbor.  Be at peace with all men, in so far as it depends on you, for the sake of the Cross.  If anyone has sinned against you, do not dwell on that transgression, but let it be covered by the same blood and righteousness of Christ that cover you.  And entering that glorious Land of milk and honey, which the Lord has promised you, here at His Altar in His House, eat and drink the Feast with which He freely and richly feeds you, and rest in His Peace.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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