Archive for November 28th, 2013

Praise and Thanksgiving From a Loose Woman?

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Rev. Brian T. Henderson
Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church
San Diego, California

Thanksgiving Eve, November 27, 2013

What did our forefathers mean by Thanksgiving?  Our forefathers were not so much thankful for something as they were  thankful in something. If they had a little or a lot, they remained thankful. In feast or in famine they were thankful. In joy or in  misery they were consistently thankful. There is a big difference between being thankful for things and being thankful in all  things.

Our sermon hymn this evening offers us a closer look into what I am talking about. It was written in 1607 by a German Lutheran  Pastor by the name of Martin Reinkardht. The name of the hymn is “Now Thank We All Our God.”  Pastor Reinkardt was the  son of a poor coppersmith, but somehow, he managed to work his way through an education. Finally, in the year 1617, he was  offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A year later, what has come to be known as the Thirty-Years-War  broke out. His town was caught right in the middle. In 1637, a massive plague swept across the continent of Europe and it hit  the Eilenburg parish hard.  People were dying at the rate of fifty a day and the man they called upon to bury most of them was t  their dear Pastor Martin Reinkardt. In all, over 8,000 people died, including Martin’s own wife and children.  These were tough circumstances in which to be thankful. But he managed. And he wrote these words:

Now thank we all our God With heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices.

Did you catch the key verse for why thanks should be offered to God:  Who wondrous things hath done.”  It takes a magnificent spirit to come through such hardship and express gratitude. Here is a great lesson. Surrounded by tremendous adversity, thanksgiving is still offered up to God…with heart and hand and voices.  That is the kind of Thanksgiving we will be talking about tonight.

So why was the woman in our gospel reading (Luke 7:36-50) so thankful? She had only one thing on her mind: getting to Jesus. Why? Most of the best Biblical scholars have concluded that the woman was most likely a prostitute.  In all likelihood, she had heard Jesus preach and had her life touched in a way by him to the point where she received the gift of faith, which caused her to experience forgiveness of her sins. Now, full of joyful gratitude, and determined to do something for the one who had done so much for her, she made her way directly to Jesus.

There is an old story about the Greek Marathon. Muscular, conditioned runners paced nervously near the starting line for the long-distance race.  The time was near. They “shook out” their muscles, inhaled deeply, and put on their “game faces.” In the midst of it all, a young stranger took his place at the starting line. His physique was awesome. Taking no notice of the other contestants, he stared straight ahead. Two prizes would be awarded the winner of the Marathon: a magnificent bouquet of flowers and the honor of standing beside the king until the conclusion of other contests. There seemed to be no question among the runners about who would win the prize. It is alleged that the stranger was offered money not to run. Someone else attempted to bribe him with property. Refusing the offers, he toed the mark and awaited the signal to run. When the signal was given, he was the first away. At the finish line, he was the first to cross, well ahead of the rest.  When it was all done, someone asked the young man if he thought the flowers were worth as much as the money and property he had refused. He replied, “I did not enter the race for the flowers. I ran so that I could stand beside my king!”

Again, the woman who “intruded” into the Pharisee’s house apparently had one thing on her mind. She wanted to stand beside her king and offer him her gratitude.

Why was the woman’s response of gratitude so extreme?  It is the same reason why many “new adult Christians” today, are so joyful and exuberant in their praise for Jesus.  True thankfulness is displayed as the extreme response of the hopeless because they have received the impossible. Friends, we are not that much different from the prostitute.  We too have become hopelessly lost in our sins, yet for Christ’s sake alone, we have received the impossible gift of love and forgiveness, through no merit of our own! It is a temptation of some to say that the woman was forgiven because of her act of love, which was shown by her kissing and anointing the feet of Jesus.  But this is not so, and we know this because of our Savior’s own words.  What did he say?  He did not say, I admire your love, so your sins are forgiven.  No, but what did He say?  “You are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

But it is hard to walk in this certainty, when everything around you seems to point out that this “good news” is not only impossible, but in fact ridiculous. This is a world whose mantra is, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Or, “you can’t get something for nothing.”  Many preachers in the church will only compound this lie for you.  They will say things like, “God wants to forgive you” rather than “God HAS forgiven you for the sake of Jesus.” They will place conditions upon you by saying, “God is waiting to bless you if only you will let Him,” rather than announcing to you, “God has already blessed you ‘with every spiritual blessing in Christ'” (Ephesians 1:3).

I am sure that the loose woman knew that her actions would be considered strange by Simon and his other guests, but that did not interfere in the least with her acts of thanksgiving.  When you are ridiculed for your “simple” faith, do not shrink away but pull closer towards the source of your faith; and like the woman, be content to lay at Jesus feet and cling to his promise, which says “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Perhaps some of you here tonight are still struggling with the simplicity of these Words of Good News; Simon the Pharisee was. But why?  Because his pride refused to admit his need for absolute dependency on God.  And those who will not completely depend on God cannot experience His great forgiveness.

Simon the Pharisee had been trapped by one of Satan’s deepest and most ancient temptations inflicted upon man, and that is to say that we must first do something in order to qualify for God’s forgiveness in Christ. Or perhaps the temptation may be to say, “I must first show Him that I want to make amends for the things I have done.” But this is a lie of the devil which causes us to follow “me” centered thinking and not “Christ centered” thinking.  It is right to say “Jesus earned forgiveness for me by His death on the cross,” but it is wrong to add, “All I have to do is prepare myself for it, make room for it, and accept it.”

Those five little words-“all I have to do” -are the devil’s greatest weapon which he skillfully uses to crush your faith, destroy your confidence in forgiveness and prevent you from walking with Jesus in a spirit of thankfulness. Friends, remember this, if we must do anything at all in order to walk with God in peace, then St. Paul’s judgment found in Galatians comes true: “Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).  Martin Luther perhaps has said it best, “Thou art my righteousness and I am thy sin.”

But if we are so inclined to naturally reject the simplicity of God’s grace what are we to do?  God knows full well the hardness of our hearts and the many obstacles that the devil creates to derail our faith.  That is why he has provided the means to experience a radical faith.  He does this through His real presence.
Let’s look at the sequence of events in today’s Gospel: The woman first heard the good news, which was the certainty of God’s forgiveness and love, which was hers in Christ Jesus; this preached Word created faith within her; and finally, her God-given faith led her to go to Simon’s house, with gratitude demonstrated in the washing, kissing and anointing of Jesus’ feet.

The woman came to Jesus because she believed that His presence signaled the presence of forgiveness, and her demonstration of gratitude and love was her (natural) response to that gift.  We also come to Jesus because we believe that His real presence in Word and Sacrament provides and ensures us of our complete forgiveness, and like the woman, we too will naturally respond with our own demonstrations of gratitude and love.

St. John writes in his first letter: “We love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Hear how natural and logical these words enter our ears.  But in case we have missed the simplicity of the words, St. John says it in another way, “This is love, not that we loved God, but THAT HE (first) LOVED US and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Think about the joy and blessing that this Gospel proclaims to you, dear saints! You have the rich blessing of Jesus’ forgiveness, and His forgiveness does not depend on your prior love for Him or your expressions of loyalty or even on your feelings of worthiness. You have the rich blessing of Jesus’ forgiveness, and this comes to you from the heart and mouth of God Himself, unprompted and unearned and even undeserved.

Our forefathers who came to this country so long ago, and Pastor Reinkhardt who wrote our sermon hymn, all knew this one central truth: We are all exactly like the prostitute who came to Jesus ashamed and trapped in sin.  And like the Prostitute, they knew that because of Jesus, they would not be helplessly lost in their sin.  Their reaction to this certainty and our own natural response will always be demonstrated in our ability to give thanks in all things, with hearts and hands and voices.  Theses acts of love and thanks we show Him are not the cause of His forgiveness, but they are the result of Being forgiven; they are the flower and fruit of our God-given faith; they are the praise we speak in response to what we have first heard.  They materialize through a variety of gifts and talents that God has given to each one of us so that we may serve Him within His body, which He calls His Church.

As we enter into Advent as His body, let us enter with each gift He has given us with love and gratitude to Him who first loved us as spoken in our sermon Hymn:

Now thank we all our God With heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices.

May God work this wonder in each of our hearts, for Christ’s sake….AMEN