Don’t Follow Your Heart

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:14-23

Dear people who wrestle with spiritual forces: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We are foolish if we think that we are basically good and decent people deep down. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we got angry and sinned. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we spoke evil of our neighbour. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we pursued sinful pleasure.

Jesus says sin comes from the heart. Our heart is who we are. When we sin, we expose our hearts, we expose ourselves for who we really are. When we sin, we are acting according to our character.

The sins that we commit are merely a symptom of our status as being sinful. We don’t become sinful because we commit sin. Rather, because we are sinful, we commit sin. Because we have sinful hearts, we sin by what we do and by what we leave undone. We are defiled by sin, and we defile ourselves further by what we think, say, and do.

Jesus says, “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We cannot help but squirm when we hear such lists of sin in Scripture. We expect one accusation may not hit its mark with us, but the next one will. We may not have physically murdered someone, but we have envied them and been jealous of them. We may not have physically stolen that which belongs to another, but we have coveted it. We may not have physically committed adultery, but we have had evil thoughts.

The reality is that no accusation of the Law actually misses the mark with us. When we think some accusation of the Law has missed its mark with us, we are merely being blind to our sin. We are not understanding what perfection God’s Law actually demands of us.

And the bigger issue is that, as I said, all these sins are just symptoms of the true problem – our sinful heart. In one person, certain symptoms or sins are more obvious, and in another person other symptoms or sins. Some of us are better at hiding the symptoms, but we all have the same sinful heart.

When they fall into sin, some people will say, “The devil made me do it.” It is true that we are in a battle not against flesh and blood, as we heard in our Epistle lesson, but against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. But the truth is that the devil and his demons cannot make us do anything. They tempt us. The world tempts us. But we sin because of our sinful heart.

Besides, demons rarely come uninvited. We dangle our fingers in shark-infested waters with every sin. The young man says he was tempted by the devil, that’s why he committed adultery. But he first opened the internet to a porn site, opening a portal for the demons to come into his home. He first allowed his mind to be filled with lust and hardened his conscience, inviting the demons in. There are no victimless crimes, no small sins without consequence (reworked from a paragraph in a Rev. David Petersen sermon on Matt. 15:21-28).

The young woman says she was tempted by the devil, that’s why she shoplifted. But she first coveted what she did not have. She was first jealous of what others had and discontent with what God had given her. She allowed the demons to harass her with desires and hardened her conscience, inviting the demons in. To harden your heart to commit sin is inviting in demons. Sin is a dangerous activity that pleases the spiritual forces of evil, but grieves the Holy Spirit.

Of course, it is not just the young that sin. Slander and gossip are more common with those who have more free time on their hands. Often, pride becomes a bigger struggle as we age. Discontentment and bitterness are common as it seems that everyone else has it easier. After a lifetime of sinful patterns and habits, it is easy to have a conscience hardened by sin and not even recognize sin to be sin. After years of inviting the demons in to roost and harass, there isn’t much fight or resistance left.

We all need our sinful, defiled hearts to be cleansed. We cannot be cleansed by our own efforts to do better. We cannot be cleansed by trying harder or intending to do our best. We know which road is paved with good intentions.

Cleanliness is not a matter of focusing on our weaknesses and getting stronger. Remember, sin is a problem of the heart. Sin comes from the heart. The sins we commit are simply a symptom of who we are.

Cleanliness must come from Jesus. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because He is the Lamb of God without blemish or spot. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because only He is perfect and clean of sin. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world because He is the Lamb of God that was led to the slaughter without complaint.

Jesus never sinned, even through all that He suffered. He didn’t sin when others spoke evil of Him for healing the sick. He didn’t sin when He was reviled and mocked. He didn’t sin even as He was beaten, whipped, spit on, and crucified.

Why then did He suffer so much anguish, grief, and bitter pain? Why did He suffer so cruelly when He never did anything wrong? Why was the sharp sentence of death spoken on an innocent man? It is for your sins that your Lord languished. Yes, all the wrath and anger of God for your sin was poured out on Jesus. All the punishment that you deserve for your sins was put on Jesus. The defilement of your heart was put on Jesus. The sinless Son of God died in sadness, so that you, the sinful child of man may live in gladness.

This is why we thank and praise God. Not because we’re such good Christians. Rather, because we miserable sinners have been forgiven; because we will not get the punishment that our sins deserve; because we will receive the gift of eternal life which we do not deserve.

Jesus has not forsaken us in our weakness. He continues to strengthen us through His Word. Since our strength will not suffice to crucify the desires that still entice us, He gives us His Holy Spirit to reign within us and win us to all good works. He gives us His own body and blood to continually give us the forgiveness of sins and nourish us to eternity.

Jesus knows our weakness. That’s why urges us to confession and absolution often. That’s why He urges us to holy Communion often.

Do you think Jesus is prescribing medicine that we don’t need? Are hearing His Word often and receiving His Sacrament often unessential and unnecessary for our lives? Far from it. It is through these that we receive forgiveness as He removes the defilement from our hearts. It is through these that He strengthens us to curb the symptoms of sin that flow from our hearts. It is through these that He gives us new desires to live a life pleasing to Him. It is through His Word and Sacrament that He brings us before His throne in heaven to give us the crown of joy at last, where with all the saints forever singing the sweetest hymns of praise, we too, will join with praise to our God (portions of these last paragraphs are rephrased from LSB 439). Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]

Rest in Jesus

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 11:25-30 (Romans 7:14-25)

Dear people who rest in Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The life of a Christian can be described as civil war. We have an ongoing and fierce battle waging within us. We can say along with Saint Paul, “I delight in the Law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

As Christians, we want to do what pleases God. We want to keep His commandments. We want our desires to be the same as God’s desires. It thus pains us when our desires are not in line with God’s desires; when our sinful flesh desires those things that God does not desire for us. There is a war within us as the Holy Spirit gives us the desire to do what is right but our flesh wants only to indulge itself.

We want to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but our flesh needs money in the bank account to feel secure. We want to go to church every Sunday and study God’s Word at home, but our sinful flesh would rather go to the lake and sit in front of the TV. We want to be forgiving and loving to our neighbour, but our flesh is angry and wants revenge on the neighbour who did harm to us. We want to be content with what we have, but our flesh covets things that God has not given to us and things that we don’t need and wouldn’t be good for us.

Our flesh cannot be tamed to want what God wants for us. As we heard, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Our flesh has nothing good in it. Our flesh is not capable of a single good, God-pleasing desire. Everything our flesh wants is contrary to God’s will for us, and there’s nothing we can do to change or get rid of our sinful flesh. It is part of us until we die.

That’s why we also can say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

We can blame the devil for our sin. We can blame the temptations of the world as the reason we fall into sin. But the real problem is us. The real problem is our sinful flesh. Our sinful flesh wants to fall into the temptations of the world and the snares of the devil. That’s the real problem with us. Our flesh wants to sin. Add to that the fact that our sinful flesh is the king of excuses. We have an excuse for every selfish thing we do. Our flesh refuses to acknowledge any sin we commit as actually being sin because it is a natural desire of the flesh.

No wonder Paul exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

We cannot deliver ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of the desires of the flesh. We cannot stop sinning. Even if we could, we cannot undo all the sin that we have already committed. We are left with nothing except a detestable body of death which will die and then burn in hell for eternity unless someone delivers us.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In the words of the great hymn:

But God had seen my wretched state

Before the world’s foundation,

And mindful of His mercies great,

He planned for my salvation.

He turned to me a father’s heart;

He did not choose the easy part

But gave His dearest treasure.

God said to His beloved Son:

“It’s time to have compassion.

Then go, bright jewel of My crown,

And bring to all salvation.

From sin and sorrow set them free;

Slay bitter death for them that they

May live with You forever.” (LSB 556 st. 4-5)

Out of His great love for us, God sent His only Son to slay bitter death for us by His own death in our place. God had compassion on us. He does not want us to die eternally, so He sent His Son to die for our sins. To rescue us from our own wretchedness, God’s Son suffered a wretched and horrific death for us.

Thus, God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord says to us, “Come to me, all who labour and our heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” You who labour under your heavy burden of sins, come to Jesus for rest. You who bemoan the wretchedness of your state, rest in Jesus. You who are fatigued and worn out by the battle with your sinful flesh, Jesus is your rest.

Jesus fulfilled for you what you cannot fulfil. He kept God’s Law perfectly for you, so you can rest from your attempts to save yourself by the Law.

Jesus continues, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Being yoked to the Law is heavy and hard; it is impossible because we cannot keep the Law because of our sinful flesh. Being yoked to Jesus is easy because He has kept the Law for us. Being yoked to Jesus is light because He lifts the heavy burden of our sins from us. When sin has been forgiven and the conscience has been freed from the burden of sin, then everything becomes easier and lighter.

Even following God’s Law and will for us becomes easier and lighter. Not because we can tame the sinful flesh, but because through daily contrition and repentance we drown the sinful flesh and kill it along with all sins and evil desires. Not because we can now fulfil the Law perfectly, but yoked with Christ who has fulfilled the Law for us, we receive the forgiveness of all our sins. Following God’s Law and will for us becomes easier and lighter not because of our own goodness, but because we have the Holy Spirit who gives us the desire to do what is good, right, and holy and strengthens us to do it.

We thus rest in Jesus. We rest in Jesus through Baptism where He yokes us to Himself and gives us the benefits of His death on the cross. We rest in Jesus through the Sacrament of the Altar as Christ gives us His own body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith.

The Lord’s Supper is such an important part of our life as Christians because through it the heavy burden of our sins is lifted from us and our conscience is freed from the weight of sin. Through the Lord’s Supper Jesus gives us rest from our labours and gives us peace; He gives us rest for our souls.

Jesus gives us rest, because He has already won the battle. He has already conquered sin, death, and the devil. His life and death accomplished everything for us, so we can rest in Him and the forgiveness He continually gives to us. We can rest in Jesus and the salvation He has accomplished for us.

Thanks be to God, we will be rescued from our bodies of death through Jesus Christ our Lord, who will raise us from the dead as surely as He Himself rose from the dead, and give eternal life to us and all believers in Christ. In this truth we can rest now, throughout our lives, and in the moment of our death. This is most certainly true. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.