Fifth Sunday in Lent April 7, 2019
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
When I was driving back from Norfolk, Nebraska on Tuesday evening I felt the same way as when I was driving out there on Monday morning – nothing good came out of the actions of my nephew.
My niece’s husband had taken his own life. He was only 43 and left behind his wife and two teenage kids. I went to the viewing on Monday evening and the funeral on Tuesday morning. As I watched that family, and their many friends, I can tell you that nothing good came from what he did. Sometimes in the midst of some terrible stuff that happens you want to be able to put it all together and come up with a Joseph and his brothers moment, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) But not here. Nothing good came from this.
Always the question comes up – Why? Why would anyone, why would he, do that? I know that they were going through marriage problems. It appeared that a divorce was going to happen. He must have seen no hope. No answer. He was trapped in a problem that was greater than him. But his answer to the problem was not a good one.
People get trapped in all types of problems. Paul was trapped. He was trapped on both sides. He was trapped in despair and he was trapped by his own self-satisfaction, his own self-righteousness.
People can get trapped by hopelessness or by pride. Last Sunday I preached about the Prodigal Son – the Waiting Father. It was an account of two boys – one who lived in despair and the other in arrogance and pride. Both were trapped. The younger squandered his wealth in wild living. The older son spouted to his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Luke 15:29) He was full of himself. Both lived in a cage- trapped by a false life or by a false hope.
Paul speaks about the trap that he felt when he said, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing…in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:19, 22-23) And then on the other side we see one trapped by self. Jesus spoke about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One, a Pharisee, boasted, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men- robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
Do you get trapped on either side? Maybe you get trapped on both sides!! Maybe one day the face of sin shows up in you. You look at how you fell so far and you knew that you should still be standing. Or maybe you start looking at your life and get pretty proud and secure. “Look at me!! Chief of sinners though I be, Larson still is worse than me.”
Paul was trapped on both sides. “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.” (Philippians 3:4b) He spent the first years of his life proving the confidence he had in himself. Right family, right upbringing, right religion. He was full of himself and he gives himself a pretty good grade, “As for legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless.” (Philippians 3:6b)
But his past haunted him. How he hated Christ. How he hated God’s people – followers of “The Way”. He was a violent man. He approved of, and participated in, the death of early believers. So what does he say about what he needed to do? “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” (Philippians 3:13b)
Do you know the slogan that Nebraska puts on the sign when you enter their state? “Nebraska – The Good Life.” But Nebraska is getting a new slogan. They paid about a million dollars to have some geniuses come up with this – “Nebraska – It’s Not For Everyone.” A million dollars!! I could have told you that and I would have done it for free.
I like their old slogan better. “The Good Life.” I like that slogan when it comes to our life, as believers in Jesus Christ, even more. Instead of being trapped by our past, by our sin, by our regrets, or by our own self-smugness, Christ has come to make us free. God, in Christ, gives us the good life, the best life. This is his word, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things, I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
You are trapped when you have no answer for your sin, or when it controls you and you see yourself as powerless. You also are trapped when you try to answer the question of your life by looking even deeper inside of yourself thinking that you can get everything right on your own. You want an answer to sin and its curse, and for self-righteousness and its lie? The answer is Jesus. Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
I wonder how hard it was for St. Paul to come to a confession that he was not saved by what he did but solely what Jesus Christ did for him. He was taught to be a doer, to follow God’s law perfectly, to get ready for eternity by his life of faithfulness. And now he says that was a false hope. God stripped away self and gave him something better. “[I want to] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
About three weeks ago we sheltered the homeless for 7 straight nights here at Ascension. I normally come in early in the morning, greet the guests, have breakfast with them, and help the crew who have been here all night clean up. On Thursday morning the team lead, who hadn’t done this very often yet, was asking me some questions about where things go, where to find stuff and so on. So I showed him. He said that he wanted to know how everything works.
But I figured that I should do a little to help, rather than just boss him around, so I grabbed some garbage and headed to the dumpster. About twenty steps out the door he comes flying after me. “You don’t delegate very well, do you?” He was scolding me. He was ready to do the work – he just needed to be told where things were. (I don’t delegate very well – he was right.)
We can try to do the same with God. “I can handle that.” “I can do that.” “It’s just a small problem, I really don’t need to pray about that.” We need to delegate all of this stuff that we get trapped in to God!! Put it on His shoulders. Let Him take what we can’t carry. Trust that He indeed is both Savior and Lord.
Do you want to know hope? Do you want to be forgiven? Do you want to be saved? Turn solely to Christ!! Reach out to Jesus!! You don’t need to be trapped anymore – by the death of sin or the death of self-righteousness.
When do you want this to happen? How about now? How about today? Paul said, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Isaiah writes a similar word, “Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past. See, I am doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19a)
The funeral service on Tuesday concluded with an Easter hymn, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” I think there were a few tears when that was sung. In front of us was death. We couldn’t get away from it. And now we are singing about life. We were singing about the resurrection of Jesus and eternal life for Mo, my nephew. Into the trap that we all experienced that day, God opened the door through the resurrection of Jesus.
He lives to silence all my fears;
He lives to wipe away my tears;
He lives to calm my troubled heart;
He lives all blessings to impart.
Jesus, only Jesus, frees everyone trapped in sin’s curse through His forgiveness paid for by His blood. Jesus, only Jesus, frees everyone trapped in the delusion of self-righteousness and gives us the freedom to trust in Him alone for life. May He turn our hearts always to Him. Amen!!