In 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, I, as a Reserve Chaplain, was at Chaplain Officers Advanced Course in New Jersey. You should've heard the Active Duty Chaplains there. They were bold and fiery predicting "glorious success," "wonderful victory" for the United States. Boy did they sound great. Wouldn't you like me to sound that way about my ministry here at Trinity? "We're going to take this saving Gospel out into the streets and the people are going to come pouring in. These pews are going to be packed. It will be better than the old days."
Is this what our attitude should be? Doesn't that seem to conflict with Isaiah 30:15 where the Lord says, "In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength?" I don't hear much bravado there, do you? What I hear is an attitude that could best be described as "confidently helpless."
But no one likes to be helpless, do they? Do you think when the disciples were in the boat rowing against the wind for hours and getting nowhere that they liked it? Do you think when Moses was at the edge of the Red Sea with the blood thirsty armies of Pharaoh at his back that he liked it?
And how about you? Do you like being helpless in your day to day life? You go to a government agency and you have to have this form filled out in this way with this proof and that certificate. You're helpless before the government bureaucrat. Your car insurance goes up; your property tax goes up and your health coverage goes down, and what can you do about it? But it's not just the little problems that make us feel helpless. Big diseases do too. Modern medicine is wonderful, but even it gets to the point of saying, "There's nothing more we can do."
Helpless. Who in their right mind likes feeling that way? You want me to tell you that I know Trinity is going to return to her glory days. You don't want me to stand up here and say, "We're helpless." But that's what God wants us to be. Don't believe me? Who is the One who sent the disciples into the boat to row across the Sea of Galilee in the first place? The Lord. Who is the one who led Moses to the banks of the Red Sea? The Lord. In fact, who is the one who left the assertive Prince of Egypt in the wilderness of Midian tending sheep for his father-in-law for 40 years till he himself was certain he was helpless to deliver Israel from Egypt? The Lord.
Friends, the Lord is the One who delights in sending the full away empty and in filling the empty with good things. The Lord is the One who is called in Scripture the Help of the helpless not the Help of those who help themselves. You see what impresses us just doesn't impress God. Psalm 147 says the Lord doesn't take delight in the strength of a horse or in the legs of a man. Psalm 39 says that every man at his best is mere breath. Psalm 146 admonishes us not to put our trust in the best of men because over against the real problems of life or of churches even the best of men or women are helpless.
Yes, while we don't like to think of ourselves as helpless, that's indeed what we are. NASA wouldn't like to think of themselves as helpless, but even with all their brain power they still forgot to convert meters to inches and so watched helplessly as they crashed a space probe. Japan would like to think they have the best people working in their nuclear program, but they were apparently helpless at figuring out how much Uranium goes where.
And do you think I am any better? The Lord didn't send you an angel but a poor miserable sinner. I'm not only helpless to convert meters to inches and to deal with Uranium, but I'm helpless to grow a church. Worse still I'll moan and complain and whine while trying. Yup, all you got was a miserable sinner. That's why pastors wear black everyday. To keep before your eyes that they're nothing but sinners.
What can we sinners do here? Attract people by our friendliness? You haven't seen me drive in Austin traffic if you think I'm friendly. Do you think we'll attract people with our programs? Get real; the local Y has more and better programs than we could ever put together here. Do you think we'll attract them with warm fuzzy feelings? So you think we can out fuzzy Lawrence Welk or an Eagles concert or even a local nightspot? Not hardly. Well then, we'll pack them in with dynamic preaching? Right. What you're seeing and hearing is what you get.
We are helpless to do this huge task that is in front of us. But understand this we would be helpless no matter what the task before us was. That's what Luther would say. In his sacristy prayer, which hangs on the wall of my office, Luther prays: "Use me as an instrument in Thy service. Only do not forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction."
Yes, dear friends if our Lord Jesus should leave us alone here, we will certainly bring it all to destruction. But I have Good News: We are not alone here! In the Collect for this morning we identified God as the One "whose almighty power is made known chiefly in showing mercy and pity." For whom is mercy and pity? Is mercy shown to the person who is capable healthy or strong? No, mercy is for the incapable, sick or weak, that is mercy is for the helpless. To whom is pity shown: the bold and the beautiful? No, to the timid and ugly. Friends, if we claim to be capable of doing what needs to be done here, we are forfeiting God's mercy and His pity. But in confessing ourselves to be helpless, we are opening our mouths wide for God to fill us with His pity and mercy.
You see friends, Jesus came to save real sinners, those helpless over against their sins not those who needed just a little help. We are but "dust blowing in the wind," and so He descended into our ashes and dust to redeem our dust and ashes. He came for the sick not the healthy, the unrighteous, not the righteous, the ungodly not the godly, the helpless not the helpful.
Dear Friends, your Jesus comes here to Trinity each Sunday in Word and Sacrament not to see what you will do for Him, but to do everything for you. Lutherans have historically referred to the Sunday service not as a "worship" service in which people gather together to ascribe WORTH to God but as Godesiest, God's Service, Divine Service. That's because on Sunday morning Divinity comes and serves you. He comes with His Waters of Baptism which do what you never could do: reborn you into the kingdom of heaven and deliver you from the power of the devil. He comes with Holy Absolution which does what you are helpless to do: send your sins as far away from you as east is from west. He comes to you with His Body and Blood and thereby places forgiveness, life and salvation into your body personally. The Lord comes here on Sundays looking for the empty to fill, the down trodden to lift up, the helpless to help.
Praise be to Him therefore that we are indeed HELPLESS! But wait a minute. I didn't just speak of being helpless; I spoke of confidence too. I spoke of being confidently helpless, so where doe the confidence come in? Our confidence is rooted in what God does, not what we do. Our confidence is in His works not ours.
Folks, we will try all sorts of ideas here. Some might work, some might not. But what God here will always work. There is never going to come a day when you'll find that Baptism won't wash a child's sins away, deliver him or her from death and the devil, and give eternal salvation too them. There is never going to come a day when you'll come in here burdened with some sin or just your usual pet ones and not find that Absolution forgives them. There is never going to come a day when you're going to find Christ only giving us bread and wine. No, in the Holy Communion, He's always going to be here in flesh and blood. He's never going to fail to come to you with His sin forgiving, life refreshing, body and blood.
What we want to focus on here is not what the pastor and people of Trinity plan or do, but what the Holy Trinity does. Note when we say the Creeds. At no point do we say, "I believe in me ," "I believe in the pastor," or even, "I believe in the members of Trinity." We say I believe in God the Father almighty; I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, and I believe in the Holy Spirit." We believe in what in them and what they do, not in us and in what we do.
But I know what you're going to say, "Yes, Pastor but we also say, "I believe in the Holy Christian Church, don't we?" Now, I've got you. Notice with those words we're not referring to Trinity, Austin, or the Texas District or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, or even the whole Christian Church on earth. We are speaking of the Church both in heaven and earth, the Church that is the Bride of Christ which Christ washes, adorns, preserves and protects. The Church which is the Mother of all Christians.
Do children take care of mothers or mothers take care of children? Those of you who have been laboring under the very heavy load of, "We have got to do something to save Trinity," need to drop that load. Have you ever seen how distraught a child gets when he or she thinks it's up to them to take care of an adult's problem? Look in the mirror. That's your face when you think it's up to you to save Trinity. No, dear child of God, the Lord has put His Church on earth to take care of you not for you take care of her.
"Well, who toted all those boxes and typewriters the other Saturday and who cooked all that food last Sunday? If the Lord's Church was doing that, how come I got all tired and sweaty?" Yes, who is going to do all of that if we flesh and blood members of Trinity don't? Friend, to be sure there all sorts of projects, work days, and things that the Lord isn't going to send angels to do. But, and hear me well, the Church, this church, will not stand or fall based on how much or how well we do such things. The Church, this church, is the Lord's Body. He'll take care of His Body just as you do yours. He doesn't need our worry and fretting. Moreover, not only will He sustain His own Body but the Lord will use it to give your body and soul the forgiveness, life and salvation that you need for today, tomorrow, and for eternity. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin Texas
Pentecost 20 (10-10-99), Isaiah 30:15