We Can't Stand Upright
Is this line of the Collect correct? "By reason of the weakness of our fallen nature we can't always stand upright." This Collect dates to Pope Gregory 600 AD, but the word "always" dates to 1558. The original stated "we cannot at any time stand upright." That's a downer, so Queen Elizabeth added the positive word "always." It's not that we can't stand upright at anytime, just not always. That's not true. If you walk around thinking that only sometimes you can't stand upright, you are in for a big fall. But even if you know you can't at anytime stand upright, you'll be surprised at what you're really in danger of falling over.
Like the people of Jesus' home town, Nazareth, we trip at the humble appearance of the means of grace. Jesus, the rabbi who had made big in Capernaum, is back home preaching in the synagogue He grew up in. It's going great. "All spoke well of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips." Then they tripped.
They trip at His background. They all knew Jesus. He had lived there 30 years. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. What's the nature of their tripping? We're they pointing out that Jesus was just a carpenter's son? I don't think so. All rabbis were expected to have a trade. It wasn't considered beneath them, but part of being a good rabbi. Paul, who attended the best rabbinic school in Jerusalem, was a tentmaker by trade. What they trip over is Jesus' being conceived in the womb of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. "Isn't this Joseph's son, (wink, wink) the one Mary came back from visiting her cousin Elizabeth pregnant with? The one Joseph tried to claim he was only the step-father of?
The people cannot deny the words of grace, but they trip over the means of grace: the Person of Jesus. He's an ordinary flesh and blood man; in fact His flesh and blood is tainted by the stigma of illegitimacy. Now remember the people tripping are members of the Old Testament Church. They are church going people, yet they trip over the means of grace just as people do today.
The Bible calls Baptism a washing away of sins and a water of regeneration. Yet, people stumble at it looking like simple water only. The Bible says that absolution spoken by a man here on earth forgives sins in heaven. Yet people stumble at a sinful man forgiving another sinner. The Bible says Holy Communion is a sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ for remission of sins. Yet people stumble at it only appearing to be bread and wine which can't forgive anyone of anything.
People stumble at the means of grace; we included. Our hearts thrill to the grace of Christ's blood washing us in baptismal water only to trip at it looking like plain water. Our load is lifted by the words of absolution only to trip at them coming from a man. Our souls can be fed by the body and blood of Christ only to trip at seeing nothing but bread and wine. We trip over the means of grace as the people of Nazareth did because they're so ordinary, so earthly, but like they, what we fall over is not the means of grace, but grace itself. In the text they acknowledged grace was coming from Jesus. They tripped over this means, but they don't fall over the means. They fall over grace itself.
The church goers trip over Jesus because they think His birth was illegitimate. Let this healer of many, heal Himself of this. That's what they're thinking and Jesus points that out by referring to a proverb of their day, "Physician heal yourself." In their minds, Jesus could do this by doing before them the miracles they had heard He had done in Capernaum.
People think this way today. They'd believe baptism is a water of life if the baby baptized gleamed with holy light afterward. They'd believe sins are forgiven by my absolution if they saw a black cloud go flying out of here when I said, "I forgive you." And they'd believe Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ if the angels and archangels that attend Christ would become visible. Such people think their only problem is with the means of grace, but Jesus shows that their problem is with grace itself.
There is no rhyme or reason to grace. Grace can't be merited, deserved, or owed. Jesus points them to 2 well-known Bible stories, to the 2 greatest miracle working prophets in the Old Testament Church: Elijah and Elisha. They were means of God's grace. One brought the grace of food in famine and the other brought the grace of health in disease. Now very few of us, if any, have ever been starving, but the people Jesus was preaching to would have known the ache and wasting of starvation. But we probably do know, as they did leprosy, of a chronic disease that kills hideously, revoltingly.
God sends His grace to feed and heal to an unbelieving widow and to the unbelieving general who was responsible for the defeat of God's people. Understand what this means. Many Old Testament Church widows were starving in the famine. They were saying their nightly prayers just like you do. They were going to their church for every service just like you do. But they went on starving and their loved ones dying. To none of them did God send His grace of food. Likewise, there were many lepers in the Old Testament Church who watched as leprosy ate them alive. The prayers of God's people went up for them even as our prayers go up for our sick. Yet, Elisha was not graciously sent to heal even one of them.
Grace means that a pagan, unbelieving widow can bake bread in a time of famine while a church widow bakes in the hot sun. Grace means an unbeliever who conquered and subjugated the church can wash off his leprosy while those in the church wash off their skin. Grace means that the wicked, evil, and unbelieving can prosper wildly while God's people suffer, sigh, get sick, and die.
This is where I fall. This is where I say God is unfair, unjust, unloving. Why isn't it God's people who get the breaks, the healing, the grace? Never mind that the means of grace look ordinary, powerless, weak. Grace itself looks totally reprehensible to me. God's grace left Paul with a thorn in his flesh. God's grace leaves people in their sickness, with their pain, under their problems while delivering pagan, enemies, and unbelievers.
This is what caused the Old Testament Church at Nazareth to fall, and they went on to try to do what their church leaders would eventually do: murder Jesus. Well, right there the text breaks down for us, doesn't it? We could never be so mad at grace that we would fall to the depths of trying to murder Jesus. I could. I can't at anytime stand upright. I trip over the means of grace and fall at grace repeatedly. I don't try to murder Jesus because I can't get my hands on Him, but I've been mad enough in my heart to do it. Even though the means of grace bring me forgiveness, life and salvation without fail, I want the miracles. I want to see God's people win. I want more than words of grace, promises of grace. I demand to see grace where I think it should be.
This is rank, brazen unbelief. This is what the church of Nazareth was guilty of, and what did Jesus do? What could Jesus do? He could have called a legion of angels from heaven and smoked that church. He could have called fire down from heaven and killed them all as Elijah had killed 100 unbelieving men. Jesus could have cursed them and called for bears to maul them as Elisha had done to 42 boys who mocked him. But what did Jesus do? "He walked right through the crowd and went on His way."
And what way' was that? The way of our redemption and salvation. Jesus doesn't trip over the unbelief of these church goers. Jesus doesn't fall at the murderous hatred that suddenly springs from their black hearts. Jesus goes right on walking. He goes right on walking under the Law of God that you and I buckle under. The Law of God says we must fear, love and trust in God at all times. When God's grace disappoints me, I don't love Him; I hate Him. And I'm so afraid of what God might do to me next I can't trust Him. If God's grace can stab me with a thorn like He did St. Paul, what might He do next to me or my loved ones?
I stumble around in misbelief, unbelief and other great shame and vice, and what does Jesus do? No fire from heaven, no bears from the woods, but He does call for angels from heaven, not to destroy me but to minister to me. How come? Because though I break God's law into a million pieces, though I don't fear, love or trust in Him above all things, Jesus did. My sins don't keep Jesus from fulfilling the Law for me and winning me the care of His angels.
But there's more. This horrible display of unbelief and hatred that we see in the Old Testament church and I know to be in my heart because I can't at anytime stand upright must be punished and paid for. You can't thumb your nose at God and not get fire from heaven and bears from hell. And though the devil, the wicked world, and unbelieving flesh are doing everything to stop Jesus, Jesus goes on His way to meet that fire from heaven and those bears from hell. The fires of judgment that ought to toast you for your unbelief, misbelief and other great shame and vice, toasted Jesus on the cross instead. The bears of hell that ought to maul you mauled Jesus instead.
You have never at anytime stood upright. Jesus at all times did, and Jesus kept on walking under the laws that breaks your back to the cross that killed Him. Jesus kept the law for you without you asking Him to, without you believing He did it for you. Jesus paid for all your sins while you were still tripping over His means of grace and falling at grace itself.
Now you might never know the grace of healing or the grace of a great, visible miracle in your hour of desperation. But this grace is greater by far. This is the grace of eternal salvation. You trip towards unbelief; you fall over grace, but in greater grace Jesus picks you up and carries you back to your Baptism, back to His Absolution, back to Communion with Him. Here you find wonder of wonders, grace beyond grace that where your sins abound grace to forgive sins does abound even more, way more. Here is where we stand, not on our own 2 feet but on God's grace in Christ. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (20070128); Luke 4: 21-32