There is the danger of complacency in your heart and soul when everything is going well, whereas even a small taste of the consequences of your sin can be enough to send you reeling in despair. When you are brought to an awareness of your mortality, when you’re caught with your hand in the cookie jar and suffer the penalty, or when you’ve gotten yourself up to your neck in trouble because of your poor choices and reckless behavior, you either panic and scramble or you give up.
The basic instinct of your sinful flesh, when you recognize your predicament, is to work and strive and try harder to please God with improved behavior, or else to pacify Him with your sacrifices. In point of fact, genuine repentance does involve the sacrifice of yourself and your false gods, as well as positive changes in your life, in what you think and do and say. Such things belong to the fruits of repentance, but they are not a means of self-justification or atonement for your sins.
If you work and sacrifice in an effort to free yourself from the consequences of your sin, and in the hopes of impressing the Lord your God or simply getting Him off your back, you’ve already failed from the get-go. No matter what you do, no matter how much you offer, it will never be enough, nor will it ever be good enough. It will not makes things better, it will only make them worse. Not only because you are not up to the task and so fall short, but because the effort itself is all wrong.
All of your attempts to fix the problem are flawed from the ground up, because they fail to take sin seriously enough, and they do not realize what sin really is. By the same token, the presumption that you could actually make things right between you and God demonstrates that you are taking your own self-righteousness far too seriously. But do you really imagine that you could ever buy God off? Are you so naive as to suppose you could help Him or give Him something He lacks?
What God desires from you is not your stuff, which is really His stuff anyway; but what He desires is you, your heart, your whole body and life — that you should fear, love, and trust in Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not that He’s looking to get something from you, but that you should look to Him and rely on Him for life and health and strength and all good things, and that you should thus receive His many good and gracious gifts in faith and with thanksgiving.
The harder you try to give Him something else — anything else than your heart and your self — the further and further away you depart from Him, the deeper and deeper you fall into your sins, and the more firmly you entrench yourself in the dust of the earth from which the Lord your God would raise you up. But why should you die and not live? Why do you hold yourself back from the Author and Giver of Life? And why do you trade His grace and mercy for perishable stuff?
Truth be told, you don’t show mercy and charity to the poor and needy as you should; you don’t pray and fast as you should; your heart and your treasures are invested not in heaven but on earth.
But prayer and fasting, charity, and works of mercy will not save you from your sin and death. As meet, right, and salutary as those basic disciplines of the Christian faith and life truly are, they are not able to reconcile you to God, whose holy Law and righteous judgment condemn you for your lack of faith in Him and for your idolatrous worship of yourself, your flesh, and all manner of false gods. The discipline of your flesh, the fruits of faith, and works of love are not able to atone for your sins or to redeem your life. Then again, that is not what they were ever intended to do. They serve only to exercise and focus your faith and life in Christ, and to steer you clear of further sins.
What you need, though, in order to be rescued from your sin and death — to be forgiven all your sins, to be justified in the presence of God, and to be sanctified unto Life everlasting in body and soul — is nothing you could ever do or achieve for yourself, not at any price, nor by any effort. Nor have you been created by the Word and Spirit of God to be your own savior, but to live by His grace at all times and in all places, receiving His providential care in faith and with thanksgiving. That is the life to which you are called throughout Lent, and which you are given by the Ministry of the Gospel in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Already and always, we live to and from Easter.
You enter into His Resurrection and His Life by the way and means of His Cross. Just as it was necessary that the Christ should suffer and die and thereby enter into His Glory through the Cross. For He is crucified, put to death, and buried on account of your sins, that you should be justified, made brand new, brought to life, and sanctified, body and soul, in His crucified and risen Body.
So must you also be crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ, in heart, mind, body, and soul, that you might also rise with Him to newness of life in Him. You must become altogether different than you otherwise are and otherwise have been apart from Him. Because your sin is not so much a case of broken rules and infractions for which you must be punished and for which you could potentially make amends. It is rather a perversion of your created nature and a devastating, deadly rupture in your relationship with the Lord your God, who is alone your Life and your Salvation.
You cannot save yourself from sin and death because, at the heart of it, you are the problem, you are your own worst enemy. The Lord calls you to repentance, not that you should raise yourself up by your own bootstraps (which is futile and impossible), but that you should die to yourself in order to live in Christ by faith in His Word, by the grace of His Gospel, by the generous gift of His Holy Spirit, by the power of His own indestructible Life. Thus are you broken by His Law and by the curse and consequences of your sins, in order to be healed by His forgiveness of all your sins. You are broken and made contrite in spirit, in order to be cleansed and sanctified by His Spirit.
If you would recognize the seriousness of your sins, and so also the futility of any and all attempts to redeem and save yourself, consider the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He is lifted up and stretched out upon the Cross as the Propitiation for your sins and for the sins of the whole world. In His voluntary suffering and death, in the shedding of His holy, precious Blood, you behold just how deadly serious the perversion and rupture of creation by the sin of Adam and his progeny have been. For it is all met and suffered, blow for blow, by the Son of Man in His Cross and Passion.
But see there in the Crucifixion of your Lord, not only the wickedness of your sin and the righteous wrath and judgment of God against it, but also the way of repentance that He has thereby opened up for you and for all, that He should bring you in and with Himself out of death into life, from the slavery of your sin to the freedom of His forgiveness, from brokenness to wholeness in His Body. It is for this purpose that He willingly suffers and dies, and it is in this way that He becomes your true Lord. So is He your Strength and your Song, because He is the Sacrifice of your Salvation.
It is by His Baptism in the Jordan River — from the waters of His Baptism to His death upon the Cross — that He has opened up the heavens and the way to God the Father to you and to all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. He submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, that you should receive life by repentance and faith in His forgiveness and by the anointing of the Spirit in heart, mind, body, and soul, through Baptism in His Name. So it is that you are crucified, dead, and buried with Him, that you should rise and live with Him.
It is by His sacrificial death, by the pouring out of His heart and the shedding of His Blood, that He has made atonement for your sins, redeemed you for Himself, and reconciled you to His God and Father in heaven. This He has done in love, for you and all the world, so that by His death you should not die but live forever in body and soul with Him and with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Consider, then, what He has given up and done without, not to achieve or accomplish anything for Himself (for all things are always His by right), but that you should benefit and be well provided at His expense. It is by the sweat of His brow and the hard labor of His hands, by His good works of mercy and charity, by His fasting and prayer, by His faith, hope, and love, that you are brought into the presence of God, and that you come to His Father as a beloved child to your own Father.
It is for sake of Jesus Christ, your Savior, the beloved and well-pleasing Son, that God the Lord is gracious and merciful, compassionate and kind, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for you and for your children. It is for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Savior, that your own dear God and Father in heaven freely and fully forgives you all your sins and remembers them no more.
As you are broken in heart, mind, and spirit by His Law, so much the more does He heal you in body and soul by the Ministry of His Gospel. And as often as you are sorrowful and cast down by your sins and their consequences in this world, and by the sins of those who trespass against you, so often does He comfort your troubled conscience, cheer your sorrowing spirit, grant peace to your heart and mind, and lift up your countenance in the hope and confidence of the Resurrection.
Here and now, in this poor life of labor, He does it all in the secret place of the Cross, which the world cannot see and does not comprehend, and which your own fallen flesh, sinful heart, and beclouded mind cannot understand and would prefer to do without. Yet, by His Word and Holy Spirit, you embrace and hold fast to His Cross in repentance and faith. So also, by His grace, you receive, rely upon, and rest yourself in the Fruits of the Cross of Christ — in the remembrance of your Holy Baptism, in Confession and Absolution, and in the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood.
Though it is hard and often hurts, it is by His Cross that you die to yourself, to your sins, and to this fallen and perishing world, that you might live unto God in the righteousness and innocence of Christ, the Son of God. It is by His Cross and in His Resurrection that you are thus born again as a well-pleasing child of God the Father. For His crucified and risen Body is the acceptable Sacrifice and sweet-smelling Incense by which your prayers are heard and answered in the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens, and by which you enter with all boldness and confidence into the presence of God, not to be cast out, but to abide forever in His Peace.
You know your Father’s heart and mind concerning you, according to His Word and Promise, by what He says to you, does for you, and gives to you within His Church on earth. For He is faithful, and He does what He has spoken. Day by day He opens His hand in mercy to satisfy all the needs of your body and soul, not only here in time, but unto the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.
He strengthens and sustains you in the one true faith by His Word and Holy Spirit, daily and richly forgiving you all your sins through His Holy Absolution and by the preaching of His Holy Gospel. And not only does He feed and clothe and shelter your body here on earth, but He feeds you with the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus in His Supper, as He has clothed you with the righteousness and holiness of Christ in Holy Baptism, and as He shelters and protects you within His Church.
It is for this reason that you feed and clothe and shelter your neighbors on earth, even the least of them, and especially your brothers and sisters in Christ, your fellow members of the household and family of God. Not to atone for your sins, but because your Lord has made Atonement for you by His Cross. Not to justify yourself, but because your Lord has justified you by His Resurrection. And not to look good in the eyes of men, but to glorify your God and Father in heaven by works of mercy like His own, bearing fruits of faith and love after the same kind as the Cross of Christ.
It is in Christ your Savior that you relate to your Father in heaven and to your neighbors on earth. For He is your merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God. And not only that, but He is the true Temple of God in whom you live, and He is the once-for-all Sacrifice to end all other sacrifices for sin. So also is He the Grain Offering and the Drink Offering by which you have fellowship with God and with one another. You eat His Body and drink His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving, and you are bound together with all the baptized as one Body in Him.
These Gifts Christ freely gives — His Holy Word and Sacraments, His means of grace, the Liturgy of His Gospel — these are the sacred Alms He gives to you in the hiddenness of His Cross. These are His mercy toward you, by which you draw near to God in peace, as He draws nears to you in love. And these Gifts of Christ are your true and greatest treasure, on earth as it is in heaven, that where the Body of Christ Jesus is given and received, there your heart will be and abide forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.