The Assault on Your Religion
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
August 12, 2018
There is an assault on your religion. No, I’m not talking about the atheists who think that you are abusing your children when you raise them to believe in fairy tales such as God and heaven. I’m not even talking about our society which would have you believe that you are not loving at all, but rather judgmental and hateful, as you believe that certain sins are abhorrent in the sight of God when you should see with them that they are acceptable in a free society and even celebrated. And I’m not even talking about how your own fellow Christians will brand your observance of following Christ as not up to snuff, whether it be that you miss church more often than you should or you don’t serve in enough ways.
There is an assault on your religion and it is from a source that holds weight, unlike non-Christians, or society, or even your own fellow Christians. I’m talking about God, and He seeks nothing else than an all-out assault on your religion. You might think that He wants nothing more than for you to be a good, religious person. That He desires above all that you once and for all get it together and live the way you know you ought to live. Sounds like good, honest religion, right?
That is the opposite of what God wants of you. It is exactly what the world and even your fellow Christians want of you. They want you to be a good person, even as you know you ought to be a good person. But God has not inspired His prophets and apostles to write His Scriptures to tell you what you need to do and how you ought to live. The world is full of thousands of religions that do that. And for those who maintain steadfastly that there is no God, even they will go to great lengths to say that we human beings need to be good people.
This is your religion. You get sucked right into the thinking of the world that religion is all about you being a good person and doing those things that God demands of you. And you approach Him with a list of examples of how you measure up. And you look at others and prop yourself up, glad of how you are not like they are and do not commit such sins as they do. And you go to church, and with great zeal you follow God’s will, and you even go above and beyond what is expected and help others less fortunate than you. Your religion is a good religion and you are set.
Let’s look at some Scriptural examples of people who believed this way and carried out their religion in this way. Example one is Cain, who we see in the Old Testament reading gives his offering to God, just as his brother Abel gave an offering to God. God does not think much of Cain’s offering, however. It’s enough to make him angry. Why is not God pleased with my offering to Him, giving Him what I have toiled hard for? In a way similar to what our Lord Himself spoke to an individual on an occasion, God said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Is this salvation by works? Is God saying that Abel did the right thing and so God was pleased with him, but Cain didn’t do things right so God was displeased with him? Because of the way you, and Cain, practice religion, it appears so. What did Jesus say to a man who was wealthy and wanted to know what he must to do obtain eternal life? Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” Is this Jesus saying that if you keep the Commandments you will be saved? Do those who teach salvation by works have this Scripture passage as proof for their belief?
Or is it rather that Jesus is showing the futility of the question, “What must I do to obtaineternal life?” “What must Ido?” Tell me how to observe good religion so that I can go on my way in peace knowing that I’m in. By the way, the man’s response to Jesus? “Hearing this answer, the man said, ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy.’” See? He wasn’t asking Jesus at all, he was seeking confirmation from Jesus that he really was a good person, he really was being the good person God wanted him to be, he really did deserve eternal life.
But Jesus would have none of it. He told the man to sell everything he had and follow Him. Just as God told Cain, If you do well, will you not be accepted? The man walked away sad, because he had great possessions. Cain walked away angry, because what he offered to God should have been good enough.
Example two is a man named Saul. He was a Pharisee, a group of Jewish religious leaders who were respected, looked up to, and examples of right living. But Saul, he was even better than that, because he took everything God wrote down in His Word completely seriously and carried out his religion above and beyond what was expected. He was so committed to God that when he saw that there were Jews who were telling people that this person Jesus was truly God, Saul recognized that this must be stamped out. So Saul with great zeal rounded up these people who were called Christians to be put on trial and put to death.
God stopped him in his tracks, showing him that all his zeal for God was misplaced. His zeal should have been not in his religiously carrying out the commands and demands of God but in seeing that God has given something to him instead. And this something He gave was His own Son, the person Jesus Christ. Saul was given a new name by God, Paul, and Paul came to realize, as he states in the Epistle reading today, that he had been persecuting the Church of God.
Example three is another Pharisee, the one described by Jesus in the Gospel reading. This is man is the poster boy for living as a good person and obeying God’s commandments. He did what he was supposed to do and even beyond what was expected of him. He gave thanks to God that he was not like the others who claimed religion but did not follow through in living properly. And he certainly did not live a corrupt life like the tax collector.
What do these three examples have in common? Luke tells us at the beginning of the Gospel reading: Jesus spoke a parable about those who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on others. Cain, Paul, and the Pharisee of our parable stepped before God and showed Him what they had to offer. They did not come before God seeking what He might offer them. They were certain that God would be pleased with them. After all, look at all they did for Him!
By contrast, there is Abel, who as we learn from Hebrews 11, offered up his offering in faith. In direct contrast to Saul was the apostle Paul who was the least of the apostles and not considered worthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the Church. The Pharisee who went to the temple is contrasted with a man who did not practice proper religion. He lied and cheated and took advantage of people. He did not live in a way pleasing to God. And he knew it. His prayer was as a sinner. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Abel recognized he had nothing to offer to God that was of value to him. He realized that everything he had was pure gift. Paul saw that it was by grace alone that God saved him. All that he had done for God was a drop of water in an ocean of grace from God. The tax collector saw nothing good within himself. His only hope was mercy.
In an all-out assault on Cain’s religion, God told him his religion was worthless. Jesus said to Saul that he must die to himself in order to see what true religion is. The Pharisee was cut down to size, his religion amounting to nothing. Jesus said that it was the second person who was justified, not the first.
This is the pure religion of God: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
There is religion that you think is right, and you are with everyone else in thinking that. But that religion lands you in hell. There is only one true religion. It is the religion of the Gospel. Of God saving you by what He has done. God saving you by His grace. Jesus dying for your sins, being buried, and rising from the grave three days later, and then appearing to His disciples and many more people.
Don’t worry about the assault on Christianity from the world, Jesus has endured it all. When God assaults your religion, repent; pray Him for mercy. And rejoice that that is the only thing He wants to give you. He has in His Son. Amen.