Having Trouble Finding Meaning in Life?
We can make real strides in growing in Christ on this 16th Sunday after Pentecost, the season of growth. Today we come up against the problem of finding meaning in life, and don't try to tell me that this is not a problem. The wisest man in the world, King Solomon, thought it was. "Absolutely pointless, absolutely pointless is everything," he says repeatedly in his Book of Ecclesiastes. Where can meaning be found? In what I think, say, or do? Solomon tried all three, but found there was no meaning in his head, mouth, or hands. God, he concluded, was the only One who could show man what was meaningful. God speaks in our text.
Christ our Lord says in our text that sin means something. We need to be told this because in our day it's very easy to believe sin doesn't mean anything. Sin doesn't really separate us from the holy God; sin can't really damn us to hell for eternity; sin really won't bring down the wrath of God on us. This is the world's view of sin. At most, sin is something to laugh at. Seinfeld laughs at fornication; Spin City laughs at homosexuality; The Simpsons laughs at disrespect for authority. It's not just that these shows don't ever condemn their pet sins (Frankly, I don't look to TV to teach me anything about morality.), it's that they don't do anything but laugh at them.
Contrast this with what Christ says in our text. Sin means enough to confront a brother or sister in Christ over it. Sin in your Christian brother or sister is not to be laughed at, accepted, tolerated or lived with. Because sin is serious, because it has eternal consequences, it is to be confronted. Note that Jesus doesn't say, "When your Christian brother or sister sins, tell your pastor." You are shirking your responsibility towards your brother or sister when you try to tell me rather than confront them. However, sin is serious enough, it means enough to get others involved eventually. If your brother or sister is caught up in some sin and you confront them but they don't listen, by all means take one or two others, says Jesus.
Do you see how serious sin is to Jesus? It's not something brothers and sisters in Christ are to ignore, tolerate, or gossip about. It's something we are to confront. And don't try to act like your too humble, too meek, too sinful yourself to confront anyone about anything. We regularly confront brothers and sisters about their politics, food, and even sports teams. Ah, but everyone recognizes such things are important. It's okay to be strong willed about what everyone thinks is important, but to be strong willed about what everyone laughs at, well, is silly. But Jesus doesn't laugh at sin.
He says sin means enough to exclude a person from the saving fellowship of the Church. The final step after confronting your brother or sister in Christ, after bringing along one or two others to confront him or her, is to tell it to the Church. It doesn't mean anything to the world when people live together, when couples divorce just because they have differences they can't reconcile, when people come out of the closet of homosexuality, when someone lives with a grudge, doesn't come to Church, or uses pornography, but it does mean something to the Church. The Church shows this by excluding those from her fellowship who embrace their sins, defend their sins, and justify themselves.
The Church pronounces the sentence of excommunication on the impenitent, but they use just words to do that, don't they? Words mean so little in our day. One picture is worth a 1,000 words. A digital picture is probably worth 10,000 words. Words bore us, don't they? O no they don't! I regularly listen to sports radio and they've been saying the same things about the Longhorns for 2 months, yet I still listen. I listen to talk radio and they've been saying the same things about invading Iraq for three months, yet I still listen. If words really bore me, how come I can watch reruns where I know the next line?
No words don't bore us. God's Words do. We think we have difficulty paying attention to the Bible being read, taught or preached because it is boring as if sports news, political opinions, and sit-coms are not boring. We think the difference is in the material when the difference is in us. Sports news, political opinions, and sit-coms are important to us, they mean something to us. The Word of God doesn't. This my fellow sinners is what we must confess.
Satan is a constant price tag switcher. He puts a high value on the words of men; that's why we flock to them even when they repeat themselves. And he puts a low value on the Words of God; that's why we get bored with them and find them meaningless. The truth, however, is just the opposite. The words of men are no more than dust and ashes like the men who speak them. God's Words can open and close heaven for all eternity.
God's Words are living and active. They don't just fall on the floor. When I speak the Law against sins, those words fly from my mouth and stab your heart. Those Words lock heaven and open hell wide to receive your miserable sinful self. When God's Words excludes a sinner, that sinner is cut-off from the fellowship of salvation and there is not a thing the person can do. O they can say they aren't really cut-off; they can take their sin and go elsewhere; they can believe all they want that heaven is still theirs. But God's Word of Law does something in the realm of heaven which all their protesting here on earth cannot undo.
It works the same with the Gospel Word. That too is living and active. When I speak the Gospel to you, when I say that I baptize you in the Name of the Triune God, right then and there you are united to the death and resurrection of Christ. Right then and there heaven is open to you and hell is locked. When I say, "I forgive you for Jesus' sake," right then and there that sin which bothers you so is forgiven, erased, washed clean by the blood of Christ. Washed by Christ's blood heaven is yours. When I say to you, "Take eat, take drink Christ's Body and Blood for the remission of your sins," right then and there before you is the Body and Blood of the One who reigns over heaven and hell. Eating and drinking Christ's Body and Blood, heaven belongs to you as much as it does to Christ and you have no more reason to fear hell than He does.
Words have eternal meaning when they're God's Words. The words of a doctor telling you you're going to die don't. The words of a person telling you he or she will never forgive you don't. The words of Satan telling you you're so sinful you must belong to him don't either. All of these could indeed be speaking a Word of God to you. (Follow closely here.) The doctor who says to you, "You're going to die," is speaking what the Law says. Sinners are dead in their trespasses and sins. The person who says they won't forgive you is speaking what the Law says. The Law only forgives the perfect. Even Satan pointing to your sinfulness is speaking what the Law says. The Law does proclaim sinners to be children of Satan, but there is another Word of God spoken by the Church to sinners.
The Gospel is a Word of life, forgiveness, and adoption by God. Both Law and Gospel are Words of God, but don't think they're of equal value to God. The Law didn't cost God anything; the Gospel cost God everything. In order to proclaim life to you, God had to put to death His only beloved Son in your place. In order to proclaim forgiveness to you, God had to pay for your sins by beating, torturing, and killing His only dear Son. In order to proclaim that you are His son or daughter, God had to forsake His only Son, closing His fatherly ears to His praying, sighing, and bitter, bitter crying.
Friends, go to a Civil War battlefield. Go to a bulge in Germany, a beach in the Pacific, a hill in Korea, or a valley in Vietnam. We value what men shed their blood for. The words freeing the slaves cost the lives of a million men. The words that ended the war in Germany and the Pacific cost the blood of hundreds of thousands. To be able to say this valley or hill belonged to US troops the blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of men were spilled. The spilled blood of men makes things important to us decades and decades later. Do you think it's any different with God? In order for me to be able to say to you: "You are forgiven; heaven is open; hell is locked; you are free," God spilled the blood, sweat and tears of His dearly beloved, holy Son. Surely Words that cost God so dearly will never ever cease to have meaning and power before Him.
Sin means something; the Words of God forgiving sin mean even more. Numbers on the contrary mean nothing. America is a land ruled by numbers politically, emotionally, and even spiritually. Our politics is ruled by the principle that the majority can't be wrong. Our emotions are shaped by the pressure and polling of peers. Our spiritually is formed by what is popular at the time. Americans are ruled by numbers; Christians are ruled by Christ, and Christ is not ruled by numbers.
Christ empowers just 1 person even the weakest, most timid, lay person with His Word of rebuke and His Word of salvation. He empowers just 2 who agree on earth with heaven itself. Does that mean if I can get you to agree that God should give me a Mercedes or healing He will? I think so, but I don't think any true Christian would agree. Since God nowhere promises that a Mercedes or healing would be eternally good or even temporally good for me, if you are ruled by the Word of Christ you would never dare agree to what He has not first said. But you and I can agree that this penitent sinner ought to be released from their burden of guilt. You and I can agree that this child ought to be baptized and reborn. You and I can agree that eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ is a good thing. You and I can agree that anything Christ has said is good for people, and Christ says He empowers and blesses the prayers of just 2 of us who agree.
Christ is not ruled by numbers. He promises His presence not to 2 or 3 hundred (Where would we be if He did?) But to just 2 or 3. When just 1 baptizer and 1 baptized are present there is Christ with them. When just 1 sinner and 1 absolver are present there is Christ with them. When just one communicant and one celebrant are present like there often is when I commune our shut-ins or sick, there Christ promises He will be.
What is meaningful in life? Not where the numbers are but where Christ is. Christ is where Baptism is and therefore where the baptized are. Christ is where is His Word of forgiveness is spoken. Christ is obviously where His Body and Blood is. Therefore, there is meaning when a baptized Christian is lying alone in unrelenting pain. Therefore, there is meaning when a forgiven Christian goes through her daily mundane grind of modern life. Therefore, there is meaning when you go away from this altar with the Body and Blood of Christ inside of you even though the wisest of men can only see life as absolutely pointless. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVI (9-8-02); Matthew 18: 15-20