Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)
September 15, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments.
Psalm 119:176 (ESV)
I remember hearing, quite a number of years ago, a radio preacher present his audience with a very profound and soul-searching question. He asked: "If you're one of those people who feel that you aren't as close to God as you used to be, who moved?" I have to admit that the question did make me feel a little uncomfortable but it made such a strong impression on me that I still remember it so many years later. We all experience various "highs" and "lows" in our spiritual life, and whenever we don't feel quite the way we think a Christian should feel, we tend to jump to the conclusion that God has deserted us or that we have lost our faith--or at the very least that our faith has become weaker. Perhaps a bigger problem for us in that situation is that we have substituted sentimentality for faith. Faith isn't a good feeling; it's an abiding trust that God in His mercy and grace is with us even (and perhaps especially) at those times when we don't feel particularly good or religious.
It shouldn't surprise us in the least that we tend to look at things only from our own perspective. Even though we would never admit it, deep down inside we all see ourselves as the center of the universe and believe that everything revolves around us. We think that we are the only constant and, therefore, if anything changes, it has to be someone or something other than us that has changed. It is only when we are finally brought to genuine repentance through the accusations and threats of God's Law (as the author of our text apparently was) that we are able to recognize (as he does) that it is we who have wandered from God, not He from us. So that we might become more aware of the spiritual danger that we place ourselves in and so that we might be more appreciative of the Lord's care and concern for us, let's listen to what the psalmist has to say to us about our straying and the Lord's seeking.
Like the psalmist, each and every one of us has "gone astray like a lost sheep." Some have attributed our wandering from the Lord and His will to our high-tech culture, which entertains us with something brand new and exciting about every nine seconds on the average. The theory is that this has conditioned us such a great extent that our attention span has become very short. We are easily bored and are always looking for something new and different. Others have suggested that the individualism that dominates our culture is to blame. We've become so used to everything being custom-made especially for us according to our own unique specifications that we are no longer content with a universal God who cares for everyone. No matter who or what the culprit may be, the fact remains that we are always trying to go after something new or to change what is old and familiar until it suits our own liking at the moment. As sinners we have done this even with our God, discarding the God who has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures and in His place installing a god that we have created in our own image and according to our own liking.
This spiritual wandering is very dangerous because, believe it or not, we're not quite as smart or perceptive as we think we are. We are under the impression that, because we've lived in the real world for so long, we are wise to all of its dangers. What we fail to remember is that our "adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). We forget that this enemy is "more crafty than [anything] that the Lord God [has] made" (Genesis 3:1) and that "when he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). In addition to being unaware of spiritual danger, we are gullible as well, so that we are more apt to be taken in by the devil's lies. Add to all of this the problem that we also think that we are stronger than we in fact are. Perhaps this is why, even as we pray "lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13), we are more likely to boldly walk right into temptation than to seek to avoid it.
But we need not lose heart even in the face of all of these great dangers. Our God--the God who became Man for us in the Person of Christ--is infinitely greater than the enemy. His Omniscience can outsmart Satan's craftiness. His truth overcomes the devil's lies. While "the devil prowls around . . . seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8), "the Son of Man [comes] to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). He does all of this because He cares about us--not just me and not just you but all of us--everyone. In the beginning God created us for fellowship with Him and with one another. By sinning we broke fellowship with Him and with one another and consequently brought all kinds of evil into our world, but He was not content with that--not content to let us go our own way and suffer the consequences. He has restored that fellowship by becoming One of us in Christ (for in Christ the great gap between God and man is bridged) and by sending His Holy Spirit (who has called us back to God through the Gospel that He gives us to in Word and Sacrament). This is all God's doing. No matter what the church growth gurus might tell us, sinners do not seek God; they run away from Him. It is God who seeks sinners.
The restoration of our fellowship with God is possible not because God has set aside His commandments or forgotten our sin and not just because He's a nice Guy; it is possible because Jesus--God in the flesh--has fulfilled the whole Law of God for us by His perfect obedience to every commandment. He has also taken away all of our sins by the shedding of His innocent blood on the cross. Like the psalmist, we have not forgotten God's commands, nor dare we forget them now. We still strive to please God, but we do it in thanksgiving rather than in fear. And we still look to the Law to know how to please Him, but merely as instruction, knowing that the Law tells us what to do but does not empower us to do it. Both the motivation and the strength to glorify God in the way we live our lives comes from the Holy Spirit who works through the Gospel of Christ.
In a world where the shelves of so many religious bookstores are packed with volumes claiming to reveal the "secret" of how to get close to God, it is comforting for us to know that getting close to God is not up to us. It is something that God Himself has already taken care of. He has become One of us and One with us in the Person of His one and only Son. He has sent His Spirit to us in Word and Sacrament to call us to faith and to build us up in that faith. We are close to Him and will remain so unless and until we decide to take matters into our own hands, moving away from Him by neglecting His means of grace. Staying close to Him through these means is not a command for us to obey. It's not even something for us to do (for it is God Himself who does it through the power of His Holy Spirit); it is rather a great blessing and gift of God that we gladly make use of and treasure and rejoice in.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.