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October 27, 2019

With Joy and Thanksgiving

Preacher: Pastor Braun Campbell Series: First Fruits Giving - Fall 2019 Stewardship Series Category: Biblical Scripture: Romans 3:19–28

Festival of the Reformation (Observed)[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Romans 3:19-28

“First Fruits Giving: With Joy and Thanksgiving”

This is going to sound a little harsh – but you don’t deserve to be here.  You don’t.  He doesn’t.  She doesn’t, either.  Nor do I.  It’s true.  We don’t deserve to be here.  But that’s exactly why we are here.

Around 500 years ago, an obscure German monk came to a similar realization.  This monk, one Martin Luther, knew that God was holy and righteous.  And he also knew that he himself was not.  Luther understood that even in his vocation as a monk, he was falling short of the perfection in life required to be in the presence of our almighty Lord.  He couldn’t escape it.  God was holy and perfect; he was not.  Putting it in the terms we’ve been using during our fall focus on stewardship, Luther knew full well that he hadn’t always returned to God the first fruits of self, time, or possessions.  And the guilt crushed him.

When was the last time that you felt the weight of guilt? When you’d done something you shouldn’t have, knowing that things weren’t the way they should be because of your action – or inaction?  You’ve probably come to understand that guilt is a bad thing.  It’s something that you should push away or ignore because it will weigh you down.  Well, that’s only half-right.  Guilt is a problem; it’s a reflection of the brokenness of life.  You’re not meant to live under the burden of guilt.  But there’s another side to this problematic feeling of guilt, one that can actually be healthy: honest guilt.  Honest guilt recognizes our responsibility and role in bringing brokenness into being.  That’s what we should feel when we hold up the mirror to our lives and see that we haven’t lived according to God’s good design.

Honest guilt tells us that we don’t deserve to be here in the presence of the holy and perfect Lord, in His house.  None of us deserves a clean slate or fresh start.  None of us should be receiving the gifts that we’ve gathered to receive today.  Martin Luther knew that, probably better than any of us.

“We are beggars.  This is true.”  These were the last words that Luther penned before his death two days later, in 1546.  He’d gone to his hometown of Eisleben to bring reconciliation in an inheritance dispute between two brothers.  While he did succeed in that effort, his poor health finally gave out on him.  He fell asleep in the name of Jesus in that same village where he had been born and baptized.  Luther’s last written words concluded some ponderings he’d been putting to paper about how no one could really ever have studied God’s Word enough to have no further need of it.  As he saw things, no matter how great a biblical scholar you might be, the Scriptures will always have more to offer.  Luther, too, was a beggar, coming to God to receive more and more of what he needed for life.

You don’t deserve to be here.  None of us do.  But that’s exactly why we are here.

In his guilt, both honest and self-inflicted, Luther came to realize that there was nothing he could do to stand before God’s holy judgment.  And then, God’s Word opened his eyes to the truth that changed his life – and so many others through him: that while nothing we can do will solve the problem of honest guilt, what God has already done does.

God is holy and perfect; He doesn’t stand idly by as we hurt and harm each other and ourselves.  He won’t write off our poor stewardship of self, time, and possessions.  You and I are accountable to God.  As St. Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  God knows that our guilt can do nothing but crush us under its weight.  So He bears that burden Himself.  Jesus, the Son of God, carried your guilt and my guilt into death on the cross.  He’s dealt with it.  Your guilt, my guilt, Luther’s guilt: it’d dead, all of it.  And God doesn’t stop there.

You are forgiven.  You don’t deserve it, but in God’s judgment, that doesn’t matter.  You are forgiven.  Jesus has taken away your guilt and given you his perfect life.  You are forgiven.  As those words of absolution – “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – are spoken to you following your confession, here in the worship service or privately with your brother or sister in Christ, that’s your new reality.  You are forgiven.  God has declared it to be so.

You are free.

The Creator and Sustainer of the Universe values you so greatly that He has chosen to carry away Himself all your honest guilt, setting you free from reliance on your own works.  Jesus has done everything necessary to restore you to God.  He’s paid your debt, without any effort on your part.  He’s made you right with your Creator.  Washed in the water of Baptism, you are a child of God, connected with Christ by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith.  You are justified.

We don’t deserve to be here.  But that’s exactly why we are here.  Jesus has set us free.  So now that you have been set free from the crushing burden of guilt before God, what takes its place?

Here’s something to consider: How about joy and thanksgiving?

Unlike honest guilt, joy and thanksgiving aren’t conditions that come naturally.  They’re intentional.  They’re gifts.  You’ll need to engage with something outside of yourself in order to experience them.  Can you be thankful if you don’t appreciate what you’ve been given?  Can you have joy if it’s not being given to you?  Today, as we gather for the Festival of the Reformation, let’s remember and celebrate the great gift that God has given each of us in His Son, our Savior, setting us free from our honest guilt for redeemed life as His people in the world.

All this month, we’ve been exploring how what it means to live as stewards of the gifts God gives: our selves, our time, our possessions.  So now, intentionally recalling the freedom that Jesus has won for us, we look ahead to our future in that freedom.  We return to God a portion of that which He has entrusted to our care, for use in His mission to bring his gifts into the lives of the people He puts into our life.  As you do, may it be with intentional joy and thanksgiving, in appreciation of the difference that our Lord’s grace continues to make in your life as you follow him in faith.

By God’s grace in Christ Jesus, you have been freed from the crushing weight of guilt.  It’s true.  We don’t deserve to be here.  But that’s exactly why we are here.



[i] Passage for memory:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. – Romans 3:28