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“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
As you know, this summer I went hiking on the A.T. in Southwest Virginia, which, I want to assure you, is not what this sermon is going to be about. But there was a memory from that trip that I filed away. Mike and I drove to Bland, Virginia to the “Big Walker Motel.” That was where our trip would end and where we would leave the car. The next day, a man named ‘Bubba’ drove us a 100 miles south to the beginning of the hike.
It was the check-in at the ‘Big Walker Motel’ that caught my attention. “Do you have a credit card that you would like to put the charges on,” the manager asked. Handing her my credit card, she reached under the counter and pulled out a contraption that I haven’t seen in a long time. She placed my card on it, put a credit-card slip over that and quickly pulled the arm across them both. “Rrack-rrack.” It dawned on me that I hadn’t heard that sound in a long, long time. And I suspect that some of you may not have a clue what I’m talking about.
That sound, “rrack-rrack,” let’s you and everyone within earshot know that you just rung up a debt. It’s nothing like the almost silent ‘swoosh’ through the machines we use now where we rack up debts without any assistance needed and no one else notices, even we hardly notice.
It reminded me of something I read about how we hardly notice the debt that we have with God because of our sin because we have become so desensitized to it. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about a life without love as one that sounds like a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1) But who hears it like that? I wonder if God does. I wonder if might not be good for us if every time we acted without ‘love’ we heard a “noisy gong or clanging symbol.”
Or what about a “rrack-rrack” every time we sinned?
• We snap and yell at the spouse or the kids because we’ve lost our patience – “Rrack-rrack.”
• We take the name of the Lord in vain. “Rrack-rrack.”
• A lustful thought is accompanied by a “Rrack-rrack” that others can also hear.
• We do what we know is selfish and wrong or we ignore that opportunity to do good that’s sitting right there in front of us. “Rrack-rrack.”
• And worse of all, we begin to daydream and doze during the sermon. “Rrack-rrack.” “Rrack-rrack.” “Rrack-rrack.”
Actually, God has equipped us with just such a contraption that makes an annoying and obnoxious sound every time we sin. It’s called the ‘conscience.’ And the sound it makes is the steady “Rrack-rrack of ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ and ‘fear.’
But rather than let God’s Law sound the ‘alarm’ and alert us to our sin, what do we do? We come up with all kinds of clever ways to ‘turn it off,’ to ‘mute’ it.
• “Denial.” “I didn’t do it.” “It’s not my fault.”
• “Bargaining.” “But look at all the good I do. That’s got to count for something.”
• “Rationalization.” “Anyone would have done the same thing I did.”
• “Justification.” “You may call it murder, but just think of the good that comes from it.”
• Lately, there’s been a heavy emphasis on “redefinition.” “Who says that it’s sinful? What we used to call ‘sinful’ we now call ‘good.’”
• If all else fails, we say, ‘Just let it go.’
But God will just not let it go – because He will just not let you go. Rather than silencing our guilt, He gives us His Law which serves to turn the volume up.
In the verses just before our reading for this morning, Paul sounds the alarm that one Old Testament prophet after another sounded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
“‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:9-18)
“Noisy gong, clanging cymbal.” “Rrack-rrack.”
Martin Luther was one of those rare individuals who, unlike us, couldn’t silence his conscience with any of the techniques that we employ or that the church in his day recommended. No matter how long he prayed, no matter how many times he confessed, Luther was tormented by the debt of sin that he had with God and could never be satisfied that he had done enough to pay it off.
The problem with sin is, how do you calculate the cost of it? When I rack up a bill at the “Big Walker Motel,” I know what I owe and once I pay it off, the debt is gone and I am FREE OF IT. And if I can’t pay it all right away, that’s okay, the credit card company is more than happy to give me more time to pay it off, with interest. But I know what I owe.
But what is the price of my sin against God?
• What’s the cost me with God for that thing that I stole?
• What do I owe God for damaging someone’s reputation with my gossip?
• How much does my ‘coveting’ my neighbor’s spouse or children or maidservant or manservant or ox or donkey put me in debt with God?
How do you turn off the noise in your conscience if you can’t pay off your debt because you don’t know what it is? What if can’t be counted numerically – 5, 10, 100, 100 million? What if it can only be counted in terms of broken relationship with the God who created you in love?
Luther could find no peace in his conscience before God with any of the church’s ‘debt management programs.’ Which is just the way Paul says the Law is meant to work.
“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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20)
So, if the keeping of the Law is not the way to settle our debt with God and turn off the noise in our head, what is?
Paul answers, “But now…” The great turning point from the cacophony of condemnation under the Law – to the quite peace with God that we long for, is captured in those two, simple words, “But now…”
“But now, the righteousness of God has been manifested APART FROM THE LAW.” All attempts to silence the guilty conscience by KEEPING the Law or DENYING the Law or REDEFINING the Law or IGNORING the Law are useless.
In fact, the more you try to turn off the noise by keeping the law the LOUDER IT GETS.
But don’t think for one minute that God has given us His Law because He loves to turn up the volume on our sin and guilt just to torment and punish us. No.
He lays down His LAW and will keep turning the volume up on our guilt by it, until we have had enough with trying to find peace with God through the Law and cry out, “LORD, HAVE MERCY UPON ME.” Now, we’re ready for His GOSPEL.
All who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:21-25).
This was the big breakthrough for Luther. AND IT’S OURS TOO! Luther writes, “I concluded that life must be derived from FAITH, not as I thought, by WORKS. Then the entire Holy Scriptures became clear to me and heaven itself was open to me. I felt as I had been completely reborn and entered paradise though widely opened doors.” (What Luther Says).
God’s way of dealing with our debt to Him is not that we must pay it off through one, clever repayment scheme after another. His way of dealing with OUR debt to HIM, is to pay it off Himself in the incarnation and the life and the suffering and the death and the resurrection and the ascension of His Son, Jesus Christ.
On the cross, we see what an ‘INESTIMABLE’ price our sin has cost, and the ‘UNFATHOMABLE’ debt that we have before God.
But as HIGH AS the price is and as DEEP AS the debt is, the Son of God is higher and deeper and He has paid it ALL, IN FULL.
It is THROUGH FAITH in Jesus Christ, and in no other way, that the “noisy gong, clanging cymbal,” the ‘rrack-rrack’ of our sin IS SILENCED by the sound of:
• “crucify Him, crucify Him”
• and the sound of an iron hammer striking iron nails
• and the scream of pain unthinkable,
• and the croaking voice, “Father, forgive them…”
• and the gasping breath, “It is finished,”
• and the sound of rock against rock being rolled against a tomb,
• and the silence of death
• AND THE CRY OF VICTORY: Christ is risen! “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
• And the sound of the preaching of the Gospel – “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1).
On Wednesday of last week, the New York Times had an article about a judge in Marion, Alabama named Marvin Wiggins. When guilty criminals are brought into his court for a variety of minor crimes and misdemeanors, he tells them that there is a Red Cross Blood Drive just down the hall. And if they will give a pint of blood and bring the receipt back to him, he will waive the fines that are due.
All of your sins have been paid in full by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for you.
“Thy works not mine O Lord speak gladness to this heart.
They tell me all is done, they bid my fears depart.
To Whom save Thee, who can’st alone for sin atone Lord shall I flee?” (LSB #565:1)
This is precisely what Jesus was talking about when He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31).
• Free of the ‘rrack-rrack’ of a guilty conscience before God.
• Free of the constant chasing after peace which is always beyond your reach.
• Free of the ‘denial’ and ‘bargaining, and ‘rationalization’ and ‘justification’ and ‘redefining’ our sin.
• Free to CONFESS and be ABSOLVED.
Free to live by God’s Law – in joy, in peace, in love of God, in love for our neighbor.