How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
A few years ago, when I had more free time and access to more channels on cable TV, sometimes I used to watch the Food Network. One of the shows I’d occasionally watch was called Unwrapped, and that particular program showed how some of your favorite foods are factory produced, from start to finish. Twinkies, loaves of bread, peanut butter, tubs of ice cream – things like that. They’d show footage of these factory machines working like crazy, turning out countless rows on rows of cookies or tub after tub of ice cream. It was really neat to watch, and kind of therapeutic to see that automated process just hum along so seamlessly. But they’d always add a human element to the food production by interviewing a human being who worked at the factory. They’d find some plant manager or a line worker at his station. What struck me most about those interviews was not so much what the people were saying about their particular food product, but the titles they were given. They’d flash the person’s name on the screen, and then in a smaller font underneath their name, put their title. Here were some that stuck in my mind: “Bob Smith – Snack Cake Expert.” “Margaret Johnson – Ranch Dressing Enthusiast.” I’m not making this up. These are real things, and I wondered how does someone get a title like that? Does it require special training or do you need nothing more than an affinity for salad dressing and a love for Swiss Cake Rolls? Either way, having a title like that would be really cool, and in the back of my mind, I was tempted to think I went into the wrong line of work.
Any job you have (or don’t have) brings with it a title. Sanitation expert, administrative assistant, chief executive officer, unemployed, retired. According to the IRS my title is “Minister of the Gospel,” a handle that brings with it no small amount of confusing tax regulations and some headaches. But I put my mind to work, and I wondered if could come up with a title that’s more reflective of who I am; a label that says what I’m all about, what makes me, me. Matt Scharf (that’s my name) – Pastor. Husband. Father. Brother. Son. Friend. Uncle, the list goes on. While all of those would be a fairly accurate representation of who I am, they kind of just scratch the surface. They don’t really get down to the core of who I am or what makes me tick. When I get down to the heart of the matter and look deep inside myself for a label that defines me, what do I come up with? Matt Scharf – failure. Matt Scharf – the guy who knows the good he’s supposed to do, but struggles mightily to do it. Matt Scharf – the guy who knows the evil he’s supposed to stay away from, but... Matt Scharf – sinner. When I come face to face with the reality of who I am by nature, it is a frightening and sobering experience.
What labels would you have sticking to you? Hope Lutheran Church Goer - Lazy. Lustful. Unloving. Stingy. Hope Lutheran Church Goer - One who goes with the flow, because I like it better than standing up for my faith. Hope Lutheran Church Goer – the one who can’t say “no” to sin and “yes” to service to save my life. Hope Lutheran Church Goer - Sinner. I’d ask you to tell me I’m wrong, but I know that with even a second of self-examination, you know I’m not. And what troubles us most about those titles and labels we see on ourselves is that we know exactly what each one them has earned for us. We confessed it about 15 minutes ago, right in front of everybody! I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts words and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity. When we contemplate the true identity of our sinful nature, the devil loves to come and accuse us all the more. Who do you think you are to call yourself a Christian? You’re not one of the ‘good ones’! You might have all these people here fooled, but you know who you are and, even more frightening, so does your holy God!” If you’ve ever come to that point of despairing of yourself, you’re in good company. The Apostle Paul is right there with you – yes, that Apostle Paul, the tireless missionary and prolific Bible writer – is sitting right next to you.
Listen to what he said in our second lesson for today, 12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. Did you catch some of the titles Paul admitted were stuck to his past? Blasphemer. Persecutor. Violent man. And, to cap them all off – Apostle Paul: worst sinner ever.
But we know Paul, don’t we? We know him from the letters he wrote in the New Testament. We know portions of his life and his mission work from the book of Acts, and we don’t always see Paul as a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man, chief of sinners. So what changed in Paul? What brought about this marvelous transformation from sinner to saint? From persecutor to pastor? From blasphemer to one who sings the praises of the living God? What worked that change in Paul? It certainly wasn’t his self-assessment, because when Paul looked deep inside himself, and he looked into the depths of his sinful nature, he came to the only conclusion that a sinner can rightly come to, What a wretched man I am! So what brought this great change in Paul? It wasn’t his self-assessment. It was what Christ had declared him to be. Listen to some of the other titles that Paul gives himself, by the Holy Spirit’s power, in this very same lesson: recipient of abundant grace, one who was shown mercy, a display of Christ’s unlimited patience, saved. That didn’t happen just because Paul came to see how sinful he was – even an honest atheist can determine that and be driven to despair. And it wasn’t because Paul had gone searching for salvation so diligently – though he certainly had looked in all the wrong places. It was because Jesus went out looking for him, and found him.
This is the whole point of our Scripture lessons for this Sunday – we have a God who demonstrated patient faithfulness with his people who had proven themselves persistently unfaithful. That’s why God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute – as an unmistakable illustration of the unshakable commitment God has to his promise of grace. That’s why Jesus told the two stories that he did in our gospel lesson. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law grumbled and muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And without missing a beat, Jesus launched into two parables to prove just how true their assessment was. Yes, this is the God who goes out and looks for the one lost sheep. What kind of business sense is that? To leave 99% of your assets unattended in the hopes of tracking down 1? Yes, this is the God who rejoices and throws a party like that woman who found the coin that had been lost. That happy woman was a terrible economist! How many friends and neighbors did she invite to her party? Chances are, she should’ve cut her losses with the one coin, because after the party she’d probably end up with less than she started with! But God doesn’t work on a scale of economic probability or cost analysis. Instead he gives. He gives and gives and gives if it means that he can have you with him. And that giving cost him dearly.
Sin needed to be paid for and gold, silver, and all the riches of the world wouldn’t cut it. The only way the debt of sin would be paid was with the holy, innocent blood of Jesus, the Son of God. Do you see the remarkable, outlandish exchange that takes place at the cross? God looked down on a whole world filled with “worst sinner ever” human beings, and instead of justly squashing you and me under the fist of his righteous anger, he made his one and only Son into not just the worst sinner of all, but into the world’s one and only sinner. All the payment that should have been demanded from you, all the guilt for every one of your sins, all the punishment that justly should be yours forever, all the guilt and shame that tries to stick to you from the titles of your past, Jesus took it all upon himself. He nailed it to the cross of Calvary, and left it dead and buried forever in his tomb when he walked out on Easter Sunday. Not only has Jesus taken away your sins – though he certainly has! – he’s also given you his righteousness, a flawless robe of perfection to wear before the holy God. Luther said it this way: Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness; I am your sin. You took upon yourself what was mine and you have given me what was yours. You became what you were not and have made me to be what I was not. Or, as the Apostle Paul said it, Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Even you. Even me.
This past week, a trial wrapped up in Dallas, TX, convicting former police officer Amber Guyger of the murder of Botham Jean. She said she walked into the wrong apartment, thinking it was her own, and assuming she was looking at an intruder, she shot him, and he died. Jurors convicted her of murder, and the judge sentenced her to 10 years. But that’s not what I want to talk about. On Wednesday, Botham’s brother Brandt gave his victim impact statement for all the world to hear just how he was impacted by this woman taking his brother’s life, and what he thought about this woman. He could’ve brought the hammer down and did what everyone could understand – tell her how terrible she is and how he hopes she rots for what she did. But instead, Brandt did something completely unexpected. He said things like, “I love you, like any other person. I want the best for you. I forgive you.” And then he asked the judge’s permission to give her a hug. Here he was, the offended party embracing in love and forgiveness the one who had personally done him wrong. Brandt rightly could have called her “Murderer.” Instead, he named her “Loved.” He could’ve screamed, “Guilty!” But instead proclaimed, “Forgiven.” Sound familiar?
All the titles the devil and the world rightly want to throw on you won’t stick. They can’t, and here’s why. In the waters of your baptism, the Triune God has placed his name on your for time and eternity, connecting you to the death and resurrection of Jesus, so every day you go forward with what God has declared you to be: Child of God. Washed in the blood of the Lamb. Forgiven. Restored. Loved. Heir of eternal life. Mine. Our status as forgiven children of God gives us strength to serve him every day as what Christ has declared us to be, where he has placed us to serve. So now embrace the titles – father, mother, son, daughter, student, worker, boss, friend – and reflect a love that has been so freely given and fully shown to you. Do you want to know what it means to love the lost like Christ loves the lost? Then learn all over again what a marvel it is to be able to say this each and every day about yourself and your neighbor: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Saved through the blood of Christ – embrace that title! Thanks be to God!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.