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Sermon: Look Up and Live. March 8, 2023

March 9, 2023

I preached this sermon as part of our midweek Lent series, Encounters with Christ, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the service bulletin here. The image is Anders, of course. He’s six in this picture, and is pretty proud that he just built BB-8.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Anders and I were doing some theologizing the other day, as we are wont to do. My eleven-year-old son had a good question: In heaven, will there be unlimited LEGO sets? I answered that yes, there would be. Or God will remove your desire to build LEGO sets. But heaven won’t be the place you wish you could play LEGO but can’t. Truth be told, I have very little understanding of what heaven will be like, and frankly, I don’t worry too much about it. That’s above my pay grade. I figure God’s got that under control. But I don’t blame Anders for wondering. It is interesting to think about. And when I was his age, I wondered about it, too.
  2. I can still remember sitting in a classroom on the second story of the education wing that had been built in the 1960s when churches needed education wings. There, in Sunday school at First English Lutheran Church, I became convinced that heaven was a place of infinite chalkboards. Really! In heaven, I imagined, there was a chalkboard for each person who ever lived. And what was the purpose of the chalkboard? Well, young Dave imagined that God spent God’s time putting a tally mark on a person’s board every time they committed a sin. Hash mark after hash mark, every fifth a diagonal crossing through the previous four, on into infinity.
  3. While we may not think of heaven as a collection of chalkboards, I think we do think about sin this way. It is the constant adding up of all the ways we have let God down. To be sure, there’s truth to this. By the end of today, in things done and left undone, through thought, word, and deed, I’ll have added some more sins to my ongoing tally. But I don’t think this paints a full picture, if only because it gives us the illusion that if we tried hard enough to be better, we might just be able to pull it off. We might just be able to keep our boards clean. We might just be able to save ourselves by relying on our own ability to fulfill God’s law.
  4. Sin, however, is not merely the accumulation of all the wrong done in the world. Sin is also a force that we have released into the world over which no longer have much control. Jesus, in his discourse with Nicodemus, alludes to a story from their ancestors’ past that illustrates the point. While they were wandering in the desert, they turn against God. Again. Why, they moan, did God bring them out into the wilderness. They’ve had enough of the manna and quail, thank you very much. It’s a short memory to forget so quickly the 400 years of enslaved misery, but there you go. We always want what we don’t have. As a result of their sin, poisonous snakes are sent into their midst, and once there, no amount of good behavior on the part of the Israelites will save them. They need salvation from outside themselves.
  5. Our sin, not just yours and mine but that of all humans in all times and places, has been released into the world and it now has a power of its own. That doesn’t let us off the hook, of course, but the simple fact is that no amount of good behavior, no amount of piety, is going to get us out of the jam in which we’ve found ourselves. We cannot rely on good works, our own or anyone else’s.
  6. The good news of the gospel, which Jesus proclaims to Nicodemus, is that we don’t need to rely on good works, our own or anyone else’s. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so will the Son of Man be lifted high on a cross for the salvation of the whole world. We can never become righteous on our own. But with faith, which at its root is trust, and specifically trust in Christ, God will make us righteous. Just as long ago God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness. If you focus only on the problems slithering around your feet, you’ll never solve them. But if you look up, you’ll be saved by the God who has come down to you in Christ.
  7. In our sin, God’s Law has become for us a curse, not only because we cannot fulfill it perfectly, but because we imagine that we need to. But God did not give the people the Law so that they could fulfill it and that by fulfilling the Law they would be saved. God saved the people first, then gave them the Law so that they would know how to live together, with one another and with God, in the land that was to be given to them. So it is for us: God saves us, then calls us back to the Law once given. Paul does not say that those who do good works are under a curse; he says that those who rely on good works are under a curse. Set free by God’s grace, we are free from imagining that God is keeping score. We are liberated from the power that sin once held over us. We are free to do good works for the reason they were intended – not to prove ourselves but to bless others, all to the praise of God.
  8. I recall a conversation from early in my ministry with a pastor who was nearing the end of his ministry. He said to me, “I’m just not sure about the cross anymore. Do people really need to hear about that all the time? Isn’t it all a bit depressing?” I understand where he was coming from, which I think was just a weary desire for the world, and for people, to get better. But the only reason to stop speaking of the cross would be if we stopped needing what Christ became incarnate to give us: forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, and liberation from the powers of this world. But we continue to need these gifts, for we cannot them on our own. We were never supposed to, for the matter. What God has always most desired of us is faith, the simple trust of a child that clings to a parent. Until Christ returns, this world will be filled with powers beyond our control, powers to which we contribute, from which we cannot escape. But look up. See Christ, and live! As Lutheran theologian Timothy Wengert says, being a Christian is not really a before-and-after experience, even if that’s how we talk and sing about it at times. I once was lost but now am found, and all that. It’s more of an “I’m always lost but God is always finding me” situation, even if that makes for less poetic hymnody. God is finding you again today. Look to God, seen most clearly in Christ crucified, arms outstretched in love. Look to Christ and live.
  9. And being alive, do good works (even if that’s hard for Lutherans to hear). Seek justice. Show kindness. Work for peace. Not to minimize the marks on your chalkboard, but because God isn’t keeping score. There is no measurement taking place to which you must measure up. Christ has done it all for you! Do good works not so that God would see how good you Do good works so that others would see how good God is. This is the call of the baptized after all, to let you light so shine before others that they would see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Our Father in heaven. There’s that heaven again. I don’t know what heaven is going to be like, but I know it will mean freedom and liberation. Liberation from the power of sin, freedom from my need to prove myself. And who knows? Perhaps time enough to play as the children God created us to be, trusting that Jesus – the Lamb at the center – is taking care of everything. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

From → Lent/Easter, Sermons

One Comment
  1. nanalois62 permalink

    Thank you, Pastor Lyle. You bring joy and understanding to my heart 


    div>Lois weissberg

    Sent from my iPad


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