Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is so much chatter in the world. So much noise. So much talking, constantly. It is hard to find silence anywhere, even if we wanted it. And so much of the chatter, so much of the talking, is made up of us justifying ourselves. We present ourselves before others the way we would like to be seen. We put our best face forward. And not only on social media, where it is easy to do: choose our pictures, post only the best of our lives. But we do it in our regular interactions as well. We cover up and hide the things we don’t want anyone to know, and we put forward the best of ourselves. We build up our reputations, protect our images. Whether we call it that or not, we are justifying ourselves, showing our own righteousness, so that—what? So people will like us? Think we’re good people?
Into the midst of all this chatter and all these self-justifying words comes the Word of God. To most people, it seems like just another word, some more noise, adding to the chatter in the world. It doesn’t seem more powerful than other words, or louder, or more significant. And even to us, listening to all these other words in the world, the Word of God can even seem boring. We think we pretty much know it already, so we spend our time listening to other words, rather than to God’s Word.
And God Himself speaks His word in apparent weakness. We might like Him to do so, but He doesn’t send His word like an earthquake. He doesn’t send it out like a hurricane to destroy whatever is in its path. Instead, it is more like a teacher in a room full of loud children. Maybe you’ve seen a teacher do this. Maybe she holds up two fingers and just waits. She doesn’t say anything. Eventually one of the children will see it and do the same. And then another, and another. And eventually, all the children are sitting quietly doing the same sign. It may take a while. Children, like sinners, would rather keep hearing the sound of their own voices.
It may take a while for God’s Word to go out. God’s Law goes out into the midst of all our human self-justification, and it goes out, Paul says, so that every mouth may be stopped, every mouth be silenced, and the whole world be held accountable to God. Of course, we do not naturally want to be held accountable to anyone, let alone to God. So we keep talking, proving ourselves, demonstrating our self-righteousness. Like children covering their ears and making noise, we do what we can to keep from hearing God’s Law. We deny it, refuse it, ignore it. But God is relentless. He never gets tired of sending out His Word. He does not get frustrated. He cannot be mocked into silence. Even if it takes until the final day, every mouth will be stopped. Even if it takes until the revelation of Jesus in glory, eventually every knee will bow and every mouth will speak only what God says: Jesus is Lord.
Every mouth will be stopped. But it is not so that God can have some silence, like a frazzled teacher. God wants every form of self-justification silenced, so that He can speak. He silences all demonstrations of our own righteousness by speaking His Law. And when we examine ourselves according to that Law, considering all the other gods we make, the way we use His Name for empty and worthless things, the way we ignore His Word, which alone makes us holy; the way we dishonor our mothers and fathers; how we neglect to take care of the bodies and lives of those around us; how we dishonor our marriages, both before and within them; how we try to get what God has given to someone else, how we covet and desire what we have not been given; how we ruin other people’s reputations and neglect to defend them and speak well of them; in all of this it is clear that we have failed completely to love God perfectly with everything we are and everything we have, all our body, soul, strength, and mind; and how we’ve failed completely to love perfectly others as we love ourselves. There is no question that you and I are accountable to God for all of it, that you and I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and of the glorious Image of Jesus Christ, in and by whom we were made. Let every mouth be stopped.
And let every mouth be stopped so that God can speak. He demonstrates His righteousness. And at first, it seems like more of the same: God’s righteousness, perfect and holy, against our unrighteousness. This is how Martin Luther experienced God’s righteousness: against him and condemning him. And nothing he did could get him out from under that judgment. He could not do enough, confess his sins enough, discipline himself enough. And then God revealed to him something different, from passages like Romans 3. He showed Luther that God’s righteousness was not revealed in the world so we could have one more condemning word. God did not send His Son into the world in order to condemn the world. It already stood condemned in sin and death. God revealed and demonstrated His righteousness not from a distance, but by wrapping it up in the flesh and blood of an infant, the Son of Mary. God demonstrated His righteousness by putting forward His Son, who willed to shed His own blood and be a propitiation, a covering, a sacrifice for all sinners and all unrighteous. While we were still sinners, and not when we had gotten our act together, Christ died for us. God demonstrated His righteousness, not by destroying all sinners completely and forever, but by passing over former sins in order to get to Jesus. In this time, Paul says, God has fully revealed His righteousness because Jesus has appeared in the world.
The fact is, no matter how much work you put into curating your image, presenting yourself, building up your reputation, working to make sure people see the best of you. No matter how successful, how important, how good, there is no guarantee that all of it will not be taken away. The standards of who and what is good are constantly changing in this world. Try to keep up! And all it takes is one rumor, or one accusation, and it will all come tumbling down. We only try to justify ourselves because we know what we are hiding. If we were truly righteous, we would feel no need to present ourselves as good before the world. We simply would be. Aren’t you tired of justifying and defending yourself? It will never be enough, not for God and not for other people.
Instead, God gives you a free gift of righteousness, that you did not make and that did not come from you. He gives you Jesus Himself as your righteousness, to cover all your guilt, all your shame, all your failures, all your falling short. And that free gift means that no matter what you know about yourself, what other people say about you, what struggles, what suffering, what sickness, what circumstances—no matter what, the righteousness and the identity that God gives to you in Jesus cannot be taken from you. The mark of the cross and the Name of God that He puts on you when He joins you to Jesus’ death and resurrection in baptism is permanent. He is relentless in giving this righteousness to you. His word will never fail. He never gets tired of telling you who you are in Jesus. I forgive you. Here is Jesus’ own body and blood for you. You are mine. And nothing can take that away because Jesus who gives it to you is raised from the dead.
And now that mouths of self-justification are stopped by the Law, so that God can speak and demonstrate His righteousness for and to you, now our mouths are opened again: in praise and thanksgiving, in rejoicing before God for all that He gives. Now our mouths are opened to confess and speak who He is, and what He has done. Now His relentless word goes out from our mouths, as we bear witness to an identity and righteousness that is not our own. Jesus says, If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. You are no longer slaves to your constant self-justifying, but you are dear and beloved children of God, born from above in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/29/22