Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
We begin our message this morning by using our imaginations a bit. A person who has been a Christian for many decades receives a letter from a newer Christian, who raises several questions that have come to mind during a business trip. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a Christian? Where does a Christian find the strength to hold on in faith when sin is a big part of life? The older Christian answers write away.
I feel honored that you have confidence to me to share your concerns about the temptations you’ve been facing and about the way some of the people you meet behave. Dishonesty and shady dealings are always a shock to Christian people. It’s a sign of your faith that God moves you to ask big questions that I’ll do my best to answer.
You asked about human nature. You say you once thought that people are basically good and trustworthy and that we have the ability to live well and solve our problems. All we need is a good will and a loving heart and training in the difference between right and wrong. You say that recent experiences cause you to doubt your old beliefs. Life teaches most of us to ask the questions you’re wondering about. What do we think when we come up against human weakness and the power of sin, as you are doing now? During our worship last Sunday – and I hope you find Christians to worship with each week while you’re away – we heard about teachings Jesus offered a group of Pharisees. He ended his talk with a mighty list of sins – evil thoughts, murder, malice, folly. He mentioned 13 in all. What a picture of human nature. We can’t say that people are naturally good. Sin darkens and complicates everything. Everyone’s a sinner, except for Jesus.
Now, there are several ways of looking at sin. One is to minimize it and claim that sin is an accident, a nonessential, that it doesn’t really touch the core of our natures, something like a hangnail or a cut that may need a few stitches but not major surgery. If you believe this, you may also think we can always choose what’s good and that we have the power within ourselves to repair what needs fixing. You mention, though, temptations you’ve felt while on your trip. The Lord tempts no one, but he uses temptation to teach us that we aren’t strong on our own and that we need his help to stay focused on the good.
Another way to deal with sin – and you should especially avoid this – is blaming others. This is the path that Adam and Eve took. “All my problems would be over if so and so got out of my life.” “I did the wrong thing because I fell in with evil companions.” Or: “If the world isn’t good, how can you expect me to be good?” We humans love to shift blame, but it’s not the Christian way. We are responsible for our behavior. We ask God to pardon us if we fall. We welcome his hand to guide us.
Our gospel text reminded us of still another method people sometimes use to cope with the power of sin. The religious experts of our Lord’s day believed that people become sinful if we come into contact with anything that’s unclean. They established hundreds of prohibitions in addition to laws God gave Moses in hopes of building a fence around wickedness. They didn’t eat certain foods; they had to wash their hands in a prescribed way. They believed that people wouldn’t sin if their lives were surrounded by ritual.
A good try, but it didn’t work. Jesus shook up these very pious people when he told them thattheir man-made traditions were shallow and superficial. They were concerned about cleanliness, but their hearts were full of hypocrisy and their worship was in vain. They were as susceptible as anyone to sin because sin arises from within us. You may be seeing some of this in your travels. People who look like upstanding citizens on the outside may be something else underneath. Watch out you don’t fall into the same hypocrisy yourself. Keep low to the ground. Ask the Lord to forgive you every day. Be on guard. The devil works to corrupt souls. He doesn’t care whether our hands are dirty or not. He shoots for the heart.
So – to answer your first question – according to God’s Word, to be human is to be fallible. The sin we inherit from Adam and Eve works with our enemy the devil to corrupt the image of God in which our Creator made us. We are not simply good people who wander off the track now and then. We are weak and frail and prone to transgression. Sin is at the center of what it means to be human.
But the picture isn’t complete if we stop there, because God provides a remedy. His Son gave his life so that we might be healed. His blood washes us clean. He casts our sins thousands and thousands of miles away and declares us to be sinless for Jesus’ sake.
And so we come to our second question – what does it mean to be a Christian human? We live in Christ and he lives in us. The devil may taunt us; the world may vex us; our weakness may be clear to us. But we do not give up. We endure in faith. You say you’re thinking of leaving your work. That may not be necessary if you can stand up for what’s right and help keep your company from breaking the law. You’ll set a good example for others to follow. It takes courage, but you can do it, because God equips his saints to live in the world. And if you do decide to leave, trust that the Lord won’t let you come to harm. He will guide you andstrengthen you.
Our readings included Paul’s well-known words about the armor of God, which has seven parts, he says. Truth, righteousness, and peace come first. When Paul wrote about truth, he meant God’s saving truth, the gospel, the proclamation that God loves everyone and that he saves us through our faith in Jesus’ blood. The Lord is never far away from us. Paul wrote in another letter that we live and move and have our being in him. Jesus frees us from bondage to sin and death and various man-made regulations. He holds us in his truth; he himself is truth.
Righteousness is part of God’s truth. We have no righteousness of our own to hold up against sin. We have no inborn ability to keep God’s law, so we put on the righteousness of Christ that we receive by faith as a gift of heaven. God sinks this righteousness so deep in our hearts that our desire for him overcomes our inclination for sin. We aren’t good on our own. God declares us to be good – for the sake of his son. He’ll help you resist the temptations around you. The devil cannot do us permanent harm, because we’re confident of our righteous standing before God.
Righteousness means that we’re at peace with our maker and redeemer. His wrath has ended; we approach him in confidence. We live bravely before God. We resist sin and the devil – as you are doing now – in Jesus’ name. Satan flees from us because he knows that the Savior is our friend forever. He never troubles us for long, because our souls and consciences are at peace.
You probably remember that Paul mentions the shield of faith. He means two things when he speaks about faith here: first, the sturdy teachings of Scripture that bring us to salvation and second our own personal faith that these teachings build up in our hearts. So if Satan hurls a temptation your way or if you ever find yourself in a perilous situation, you have an invitation from God – a command – to say such things as this: “The Bible teaches and I believe that Jesus is my friend and Savior.” Because we carry assurances from God in our souls, faith works like a shield between us and sin. We are strong, because the Christian faith to which we cling is strong. Your Christian faith is you guarantee that you won’t fall.
Salvation comes next in Paul’s inventory. He doesn’t mean the salvation in full that Jesus will bring with him when he returns in glory or a hope that salvation will come sometime in the future. He means the salvation we receive right now. All believers are saved now, in this present life. You probably recall what Paul wrote in another place: “Now is the day of salvation.” Salvation protects us. It is God’s will to keep his children from eternal harm. You don’t have to worry that the situation you’re in now is too perilous for you to cope. The Savior includes you in his plan. His strength will lift you up. The salvation he offers you as a gift should inspire you to go on with the battle against sin.
The next two pieces in the armor of God – the sword of the Spirit and prayer – should also encourage you to be active in the struggle with sin. Jesus calls his children to be vigorous and bold. He equips us to help ourselves and serve his kingdom. So resist temptation, my friend, and don’t be afraid to speak out against wrong-doing. Take the initiative in setting good against evil. Reach out with God’s help to make the world around you better.
Now, I want to say a few words about prayer. Paul admonishes us to be active in prayer every day. Jesus helps us keep the spirit of prayer. We pray for strength, for deliverance from trouble, and for forgiveness. Ask God to show you the right way and he will; ask him to keep you from being one of his enemies and pray especially if the power of sin seems to strike. We sometimes cry out for his help and his blessings; we remember to thank him after he showers good things on us.
So, to go back where I started, we include the fact of sin in our picture of human nature, but we save the biggest place for Jesus’ victory over sin and the devil and the redemption of the world, which Jesus rules and not the forces of evil.
The Savior equips us with powerful weapons to use against his enemies and ours. Good will always prevail over evil, though it may take time and lots of patience and prayer from us. The Christian picture of human nature includes God’s promise that he will share his power with us. He fights alongside us so that the coming victory over sin will be both his and ours.
Somebody once said that evil is dull and ordinary. Life would surely be tedious and heavy if we gave way to the sin our Lord mentions. But praise God, these are not the distinguishing features of life for his people. Jesus is at the center. He brings us to joy of salvation and the hope of everlasting life in his presence. We praise him for completing the picture of human nature. His invisible armor protects us so that we will be worthy to take part in the promised life to come. I hope you’ll make full use of his armor so that your walk with him will be confident and that you may look ahead joyfully to the victory that will come. In Jesus’ name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.