Saturday, March 10, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent: Strays, Sinners and Grace

Our sermon series on Max Lucado's Fearless continues with chapter 3: Fear of Disappointing God.
Scripture readings for the week:  Genesis 3:1-10; Psalm 103:8-18; Colossians 1: 13-23a; Luke 22:54-62

James is an escape artist.

There has not been a harness made that James cannot escape.

James is my brother’s Jack Russell Terrier.  I always feel sorry for James, because out of all the dogs my brother owns, James alone is locked up.  He is constantly in doggie jail – his kennel – because if let out, James runs. 

James slips his collar and runs.

If tied out in the yard with a secure harness, James slips the harness and runs.

I’ve seen him wriggle out of a harness.  He works at it bit by bit, leg by leg, until he’s free.  And then he’s off.

Sooner or later, someone calls, “We found your dog.”

And my brother or my sister-in-law always – ALWAYS – go and pick him up, and bring him back home.

They are frustrated with James.  They complain about what a bad dog he is.  But James remains secure as a member of the family. 

No matter how many times James runs away, my brother and sister-in-law always bring him home.

It reminds me of a story Jesus told.

There was this shepherd with 100 sheep.  And one of them ran away.  So the shepherd left the 99 and went out and searched for the one lost sheep.  The shepherd didn’t stop until he found that missing sheep and brought it safely home.[i]

The thing is, we are like James, slipping through the boundaries designed to keep us safe at home.  We are like the lost sheep, which slipped out of the safety of the pasture to explore the dangers of the world around us.

We stray. 

We sin.

We come here each Sunday and confess our sins together before God and we hear the words of forgiveness.  And there are times when we confess our sins privately to God and take comfort in knowing that we are forgiven.

Sometimes, though, we don’t feel forgiven.  Sometimes we think that God must really be angry with us, or at least disappointed with us.  We feel like we let everyone down, including God.
Do you ever feel like that?  Do you ever worry that God is disappointed in you?  Maybe you secretly think that you have this one thing, this one sin that God could never forgive.  Or maybe you feel that God has forgiven you, but is keeping score and will someday throw some of those past sins up in your face – like a married couple whose arguments devolve into a litany of all the past wrongs, or a parent who says, “I knew you would fail, remember the time when (insert embarrassing episode of failure here)….you’ll never be better than that!”

Maybe deep, deep inside, you worry that the thing you struggle with most – that one thing that you keep doing despite your best resolve not to , that one thing that you have to confess again and again – that there will be a time when you’ll go to God and ask forgiveness and God will say, “Too bad.  You’ve used up all your chances.  I simply can’t forgive you again.”

Peter felt like that.  He was one of Jesus’ most loyal followers, not just a disciple, but part of Jesus’ inner circle.  He thought he was completely committed to Jesus.  And yet when push came to shove, and he stood in the high priest’s courtyard with Jesus on trial inside, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, not once but three times.  He never thought he would do such a thing, let down his Lord in this way, even though Jesus told him he would.  And at that moment, when the rooster crowed, and Jesus looked right at Peter, he knew that he had disappointed God.  How could he ever be forgiven?  Weeping bitterly, he ran away, from the courtyard, from Jesus, from God. 

Martin felt like that.  He was sure he just did not measure up.  He wanted to be a good Christian, to please God, to go to heaven, but he wasn’t sure he was trying hard enough.
So Martin joined a monastery.  And he worked very hard at becoming a good monk.  Actually he was a bit of an over-achiever, trying to keep every rule of the abbey perfectly, spending hours and hours in confession.  He drove the priest who heard his confessions crazy, “Martin, just how much sin could you possibly have committed in the few hours since you last confessed!”

You see, Martin was never really sure he was doing all that he could to please God.  He was never really sure he had confessed each and every one of his sins, and confessed them right.  How could he be forgiven, if he didn’t confess everything perfectly? 

We all have those moments – those “I know God is disappointed with me, I’m a total failure at faith” moments.  And whatever that moment is for you, you need to know that God always comes down to meet you right where you are, no matter what Jesus always searches for you when you feel lost.

There was a dog that constantly ran away, but his owners faithfully came and claimed him every time he was found.

There was a lost sheep, but the shepherd left the other sheep in the fold and searched tirelessly for him until he was found.

Jesus is the owner who comes and claims us not matter how often we stray away.

Jesus is the shepherd who comes and looks for us when we are lost.

Martin eventually discovered that forgiveness wasn’t about him and his ability to please God, or make a perfect confession.  Martin discovered that it’s about God, and how God loved us even when we were still sinners with no thought of pleasing God - loved us enough to become one of us, and to die for us.[ii]

After Martin Luther learned the freeing truth that ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,”[iii] he was released from the fear of disappointing God.  Of course, he still struggled once in a while with doubts that he was forgiven.  But when those fears and doubts raised their ugly head, he would literally shout at Satan[iv], “Get out of here, Satan.  You have no power here.”  Or he would shout, “I am baptized!” - defeating his fear with the remembrance of God’s forgiving waters that washed his sins away forever. 

Peter too learned the truth about God’s grace and forgiveness.  Peter’s story didn’t end when he ran weeping from the high priest’s courtyard.  After Jesus’ resurrection and just before he ascended back to heaven, Jesus met with the disciples one more time at the Sea of Galilee[v].  Jesus took Peter aside and asked him, “Peter, do you love me.”  And Peter answered, “Yes Lord, I love you.”  Then Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus did this not once, but three times – once for each denial Peter made. 

Through grace Peter was forgiven, freed from his fears and regrets of disappointing God.  He found courage in Jesus’ grace and love and forgiveness – enough courage to stand in the crowd just a few days later[vi] and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, enough courage to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, enough courage to go to his own death on a Roman cross steadfastly proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

 Like Peter we can live boldly, with courage, confident in God’s grace and forgiveness.  In those moments when we feel that we have let God down, that our sin has gotten in the way of our relationship with God, we can confess, knowing that God who faithful and just with forgive us.[vii]   We can rely on those scripture texts – like this morning’s Psalm – which remind us that God takes our sin as far away from us as the east is from the west. We can share our fears with the community of believers and remind each other of God’s love. We can remember our baptism, when we were washed clean, and claimed as God’s child, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  We can come to the table and eat the bread and drink the wine, knowing that Jesus’ body was given and his blood was shed for you and for me and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. 

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.  By grace you have been saved – in the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.  Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.  Amen.[viii]

[i] Luke 15:4-7
[ii] Romans 5:8
[iii] Ephesians 2:8  
[iv] He once through an inkwell at the devil – the mark is still on the wall of the Wartburg Castle in the room where he translated the Bible into German
[v] John, chapter 21.
[vi] At Pentecost, Acts 2
[vii] I John 1:9
[viii] From the Confession and Forgiveness, Holy Communion, setting one, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

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