Saturday, June 12, 2010

Who Is This Man?

Here is a sermon on Luke 7:36–8:3... coming soon to a Lutheran pulpit where I am guest-preaching tomorrow...
It’s a funny thing. Deep down, many people view the Christian religion as a feminine thing—a place for old ladies, a place for wishy-washy men who can’t make it in the world of real men, so they have no other choice than to become pastors. I doubt you would express such a thought to Pastor Dave’s face, but still that idea is out there. A lot of smaller, older congregations seem to be full of widows, elderly spinsters, and the type of married woman who can’t seem to get her husband or kids to come to church with her. Their prayerful devotion is moving to behold, but it can feel awkward to be a guy in a local culture where devout faith is seen as something soft and womanly.

At the same time, historic Christianity is often challenged to answer the charge of being a good-old-boy’s club, closed to the contributions and service of women. Scripture names a few faithful deaconesses and even prophetesses, such as Deborah, Anna, and Huldah. More often, however, women who attempt to take on a role of religious leadership are cast as villains, such as Miriam in the book of Exodus, Noadiah in the book of Nehemiah, and Jezebel in the book of Revelation. And at least one prophetess, the unnamed wife of Isaiah, seems to get her title from the fact that she is married to a prophet!

Many men secretly suspect Christianity of being a woman’s game. At the same time there are a lot of women, especially feminists, who aren’t happy with the historic faith because it favors men too much. The church’s historic belief that only men should be pastors is now hotly debated, and the simple Biblical answer to that question no longer seems good enough for some people. At a time when many women are seeking more ways to serve in the church, fewer men are going into the ministry, fewer attend church, fewer participate in their children’s faith-formation. So Christianity is at odds with the inclinations of men and the expectations of women. It’s offensive to everybody! Yet it remains a household of faith, an oasis of spiritual refreshment and healing for all who receive its message.

I bring all this up because of the last portion of today’s lesson from Luke 8: “Now it came to pass, afterward, that [Jesus] went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.” This sounds like the original chapter of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.

Now let’s notice two main things about this text. First, these women supported Jesus’ ministry. They were loved and appreciated so much that the church still remembers their names. Yet their service to God’s kingdom was mainly to collect offerings and mites for the mission. Even now, few are called to preach and teach. But through your offerings and sacrifices, as you give of your substance to provide for Christ and His work, all of you are ministers proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom of God.

The second point to note is that before these women served Christ, He first served them. Their love and generosity was built on gifts Jesus gave them. Their holy witness reflected the message He preached to them, and the freedom He gave them. For even before he tells us their names, Luke says Jesus had healed them of evil spirits and infirmities. Mary, for example, had been possessed by seven demons. Besides the three women Luke names, many others remain unknown. We do not know of miracles they did or messages they preached. But we do know what message Jesus preached to them and what miracles He performed on them. And we know that with their support, Jesus brought His message to all the cities and villages of Galilee.

The witness of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the rest isn’t about what they did for Jesus, but what He did for them and through them. He preached and brought good tidings of the kingdom of God. Not frightening tidings like, “Beware! The world is going to end in a holocaust of fire!” Not demanding tidings like, “Shape up, people, and get your works in line!” Rather, Jesus proclaimed glad and encouraging tidings such as, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

In today’s story, it’s not the women who are amazing, but Jesus. Even the woman who comes up behind Jesus as He reclines at the table of Simon the Pharisee, the woman who washes His feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair; even her offering of kisses and fragrant oil; even the faith and love of that unnamed woman, are less amazing than what Jesus says to her and about her. Because we don’t know her name, we may be tempted to ask, “Who is this woman?” But that question can only lead to idle speculation, such as, “Maybe it’s Mary Magdalene,” or “I wonder what sin made her notorious.” By omitting these details, Luke covers this woman’s identity and the nature of her sin with a veil of forgetfulness, like how your pastor covers up whatever sins you confess to him. This covering-up of sin goes to the nature of forgiveness. The real question of the day is: “Who is this Man who forgives sins?”

In our first lesson from 2 Samuel 11 and 12, we see another sinful woman, and another example of God’s forgiveness. David and the wife of Uriah had committed adultery together. It was springtime, the time of year when kings went out to make war, but David stayed behind in Jerusalem. From that fact alone you can tell that something is up, and it can’t be good. What did this king do at home while other kings were out making war? “Peeping David” spied on Bathsheba as she bathed. He sent for her. He had an affair with her. He got her pregnant. Then David recalled Uriah from the front in hope that the man would go to bed with his wife and cover up David’s sin. When that plan backfired, David sent Uriah back to the front lines with orders that were sure to get him killed. So David, the king after God’s own heart, came by his beautiful wife and their newborn child by covetousness, adultery, deception, and murder. God grant that you never have such a monstrous sin on your conscience!

Along comes the prophet Nathan. He tells David that clever little parable about the rich man, the poor man, and the precious ewe lamb. Assuming that this story was literal truth, David grew angry and said the rich man, who had stolen the poor man’s ewe lamb, should not only die, but also repay the cost of the lamb four times over. In the heat of righteous passion, David unknowingly condemned his own sin. “You are the man!” Nathan revealed. “You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the people of Ammon. You have despised Me,” says the Lord, “and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.” Now even David has to admit: “I have sinned against the Lord.” And suddenly, instantly, amazingly, Nathan declares David forgiven. “The Lord has put away your sin,” he says. “You shall not die.” Consequences would indeed follow as a result of David’s wickedness. But at the very moment David repented of his sin, God forgave Him, as the prophet Nathan announced.

David is often held up as an example for God’s people to imitate, an ideal for the faithful to strive for. But David is a troubling example, because his faith so frequently faltered, and his footsteps so often strayed. Aren’t heroes supposed to be flawless? Shouldn’t the man after God’s own heart be a perfect example? We may wish it were so. But the reality is that even David confessed: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Several of David’s psalms are heart-wrenching confessions of the lifelong power of sin that worked within him, and the consciousness of guilt that drove him to the edge of despair. But through the prophet Nathan, God announces exactly what it is that makes David the man after His heart, the pattern for us all. “The Lord,” says Nathan, “has put away your sin.”

Likewise, the unnamed woman in Luke 7 does something for Jesus that could be held up as a positive example. What a beautiful picture of devotion, what a moving image of deeply-felt faith! Behold, how her tears, her kisses, her offering of perfume, and even the service of her hair, bring honor to Jesus in a way that Simon the Pharisee failed to do! Yes, yes; all that is true. In a similar situation Jesus said, “Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her” (Mark 14:9). But in this situation, Jesus explains that this woman’s love was not something she brought to God. Rather, she loved in response to being forgiven. The greatness of her love was in proportion to the greatness of her sin. For when the woman crept up behind Jesus, she was a well-known local figure. But she was not known for her great faithfulness or her acts of charity. Rather, she was a notorious sinner. “If this Man were a prophet,” Simon the Pharisee reasoned to himself, “He would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

Pharisees like Simon were used to sniffing haughtily at known and scandalous sinners. It was the Pharisees who objected when Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners. It was a Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men, such as yonder tax collector who bowed in penitent sorrow, praying for God’s mercy on the sinner. To a Pharisee like Simon, even being touched by a woman like what’s-her-name would be a form of defilement. A good Pharisee was supposed to be above touching anything “common,” anything “unclean.” What this tells us about the woman in Luke 7 is that she wouldn’t make a good example of holy living.

She may have done things you would be offended to hear about. She may have been such a person that, if she walked in here right now, you all would look at her out of the corner of your eyes and whisper about her behind her hands: “What is she doing here? She, of all people, should know that there’s nothing here for her!” Yet Jesus had enough forgiveness even for her. In fact, it was because her sin was so great, and she could not help but know it, that she came to Jesus and wept and wiped and kissed his feet. Her need for forgiveness was so great that she didn’t know how else to express it. This is an act of mute humility. But it is also an act of love. For her faith in Christ’s ability to forgive—and, yes, His willingness to forgive even her—enabled her to pour out a lavish flood of love on Him, even in such a public place as the banquet hall of Simon the Pharisee, where everyone knew what kind of woman she was. When you look at it like that, this woman is indeed a mighty example of faith. But her faith, her love, her humble service, are all in response to the mightiest thing of all: Christ’s forgiveness.

The woman in Luke 7 is a strange example, like David. She was, above all, a sinner. But therein lies the reason she is an example for us. For more importantly, she is a forgiven sinner. Between her and upright Simon, which one needed correction? Simon did. And Jesus corrected him in much the same way Nathan corrected David. Jesus told a parable that forced Simon to draw the correct conclusion. Which debtor will love his creditor more? The one who was forgiven 500 denarii, or the one forgiven 50? Simon answered correctly, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” Then Jesus pointed out that the sinful woman showed Him more love than Simon did. This was because “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little.”

Jesus is not saying the woman’s act of love caused God to forgive her; nor was it the reason God forgave her. He is not suggesting we should show greater love in order to be assured of greater forgiveness. Least of all is Jesus advising us to sin more so that we may have more forgiveness. He is simply comparing Simon’s coolness toward Jesus to the sinful woman’s warmth. The reason for this lies in how much each of them has been forgiven. As a Pharisee, Simon took great care to need as little forgiveness as possible. He aimed to commit fewer sins than the average person. With less to feel sorry for, he felt less need to be forgiven. And being forgiven less, he felt less joy, less love, less gratitude than the sinful woman who had been forgiven much. Perhaps Simon was guilty of being a little smug. It is a danger that often threatens those who avoid committing actual sins. It is a sin called pride, which can be more spiritually dangerous than lying, adultery, and murder. It is the sin of justifying oneself, of attempting to appear righteous before God based on one’s own works.

In Galatians 2, Paul confronts another Simon, also known as Peter, for mixing Jewish legalism with Christian faith. Paul declares: “We know that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ… for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified…. For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” No one is justified by the law in God’s sight, but Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, being crucified for the sins of the world. Anyone who wants to justify Himself forfeits the full and free forgiveness that comes of being justified by Christ. Anyone who wants to build a bridge to heaven by his or her own works risks hearing the sentence of Galatians 5:4, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”

But in David, and in the woman that crashed Simon’s banquet, we see two examples of the righteousness of faith in Christ. No sooner did David confess his sin than he was instantly forgiven. And let’s not make the mistake of thinking the woman earned Jesus’ forgiveness by showing love. Rather, Jesus pointed out her love as evidence of how much she was forgiven. Knowing no more about her than that she was a scandalous sinners and that her tears were tears of repentant sorrow, Jesus told her: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Here Jesus is proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And He’s not just talking about something happening elsewhere. He is not just informing the sinful woman about a divine decree of forgiveness that took place in heaven. His words actually perform what they tell. Nathan, too, gives David more than a mere assurance of God’s forgiveness. He is speaking the Word of the Lord, giving the very forgiveness the Son of God proclaims from the cross. Who is this man who forgives sins? Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Mary, the Son of God. But wait—who is this man here today who tells you your sins are forgiven? Again, I say: Jesus. What is my forgiveness worth? I can only give you what Jesus commands me to give. My lips—His Word. My sin and your sin, forgiven by Christ. My body and your body, cleansed by His body. My blood and your blood—indeed, all of humanity, all our sin-polluted, afflicted, dying, human nature—cleansed by His blood. We are called God’s children by His power, His will, His choice; not ours. We are called righteous by His grace, His justice, His holy sacrifice. We are called His saints, kings and priests, men and women after God’s heart, not by what we have done in love or faithfulness but by what He has done for us.

Little children, let us welcome our Savior today with love proportional to His forgiveness. Welcome Him with penitent tears and joyful kisses. Welcome Him with the anointing perfume of holy prayers and the spiritual offerings of praise. Let our sacrifices for His ministry, for proclaiming glad tidings of God’s kingdom, rise before God as a soothing aroma. Let our humble faith and our devotion to Word and Sacrament bear witness how much we are forgiven. Let our mutual love and forgiveness ring out into the world, vibrating in harmony with God’s forgiveness. And may the One who sprinkles every nation astonish many with His redeeming love, so that they may come and see who this Man is who even forgives sins!

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