Pr. Eric Swensson

March 4, 2013


photo of Pr. EricThe first thing to say about “Becoming Instruments of God’s Redeeming Love in a Broken and Troubled World” is that it isn’t easy. Why? Because the world is not just broken, it is troubling just how broken it is. I will address why is it broken and what can be done about it.

We begin in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Is it not the case that if one is blessed with a long life one experiences many changes, some good and some that are not for the better? For one thing, our bodies change as they get older, and is it not true that after a certain point it is not change for the better? Our minds change and after a certain point there are things that are better, like those things that are aspects of maturity, and then there are things that are not so good, one can become cranky at all the changes one is experiencing within and without.

Have we not experienced a lot of change? I will turn 60 this year, and so I have lived through great change. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for someone with a few more decades than me. So many times I think those thoughts that I call “the world is going to hell in hand basket thoughts” that I have to pull myself up short. I don’t want to be that kind of person. It is hard to believe that I am. As a youth I was wild for freedom, I loved change, I wanted to break the mold. But there has been so much breaking of the mold. At some point and I am not sure when, I wanted to stop breaking things.

How is it for you? Has the world changed much in your life time? Do you have those the world is going to hell in hand basket thoughts? Well, you have perhaps heard, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you”. That was from Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22. When I was younger I used to read all the novels like that which celebrated rebels. Now, not so much.

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” Just because you think the world is going to hell in a hand basket doesn’t mean it is not. It may not be just because we are getting older and cranky, the world really is spinning out of control. Back in the Eisenhower and Kennedy era there was reason to fear the world was going to end the way the cosmos began, with a big bang. Today it seems to me it will be more like the poet said,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That was of course Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”. Spiritus Mundi. Yeats wrote this after World War I. So great was that conflagration that everything changed. Europeans no longer thought that the world was progressively getting better. Theology changed. Karl Barth wrote a commentary on Galatians that was said to fall like a bomb on the playgrounds of their seminaries. The arts changed, painting, literature, everything changed. So surely nothing like that would happen again. Except it did, and worse.

And so we see that the world is not just now spinning out of control-- it is spinning out of control, but it actually has seemed that way to people through the ages. The world is not now broken because we have glorified breaking molds until there are few molds left to be broken. The fact is culture forms new molds all the time and many are just made to be broken. The fact is that culture is broken, has always been broken and I can say this from both the perspective of a student of culture, from the viewpoint of a historian and most certainly from that of a theologian, and from the way poor everyday me sees things.

There is some general agreement that the world is badly broken, but there are many competing theories as to why this is. The most popular is we have not changed enough, we need to break more molds, and there are some enlightened progressives who can show us the way, and the only problem is the rest of us need to get with the agenda. However, the fact is everything else but what the Bible tells us in a theory. The world is broken because it broke almost as soon as it was taken out of the box. Adam and Eve broke it. Sin. Sin breaks. It is the nature of sin to break things. It breaks hearts, it cracks minds, and it doesn’t just break, it ruins and festers, it spoils the meat, it rots the potatoes, and so on and so on, and it is everywhere.

It is everywhere, even the church, and at times I am wont to say, especially the church. Who here ever thought they would have to engage a lawyer in order to protect themselves and their property from a Bishop?

Hear what Luther said about the harm that can come right from the top of the church: “It is an outrage that cannot be tolerated that men should do such violence to God’s Word and call that a defect which God calls sin. The whole Scripture could be enfeebled by saying that the word, “sin,” wherever it occurs means, “defect.” Then nothing would be sin anymore, but merely a defect or a weakness. Who would then prevent anyone from saying that adultery, murder, and robbery are only “defects” and “weaknesses,” but not sin? To be sure, they are defects and weaknesses, but they are sinful defects and weaknesses, which must be healed through grace. Anger, evil, lust, and the inclination to all sorts of iniquity are defects, but are they not also sins? …Such tricks and evasions, used to distort the Scriptures, St. Paul describes in Ephesians 4 with the Greek words that mean “sleight of hand,” “gamblers’ tricks,” “double dealing.” Here people toss the Word of God around as gamblers throw their dice and because, like impersonators who put on a new nose and change their whole appearance, they take from the Scripture its single, simple, and stable meaning, they blind our eyes, so that we stagger about and retain no reliable interpretation….they play with us as gamblers with their dice… If we permitted them to distort God’s word in this fashion, they might eventually claim that a tree should be called a stone and a horse, a cow. Sad to say, they have done this and are still doing it with the word… “love”…and many others. These words I have taken an oath to preserve. (Martin Luther, LW 32, 25–27)

So here we have just how troubling this broken world is. Still we have so-called prophets preaching peace when there is no peace, substituting what they want people to hear for the plain reading of Scripture. And it amounts to an embrace of death if we allow their attempts to lock up the words that bring life into a closet.

Jesus speaks about death in Luke 13. He tells of two incidents that we do not know much else about, some Galileans who went on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem that Pilate had slaughtered brutally, and then mentions eighteen people who were killed in a construction accident. In both cases the unexpectedness of death precludes the act of repentance. The point is not the event, but death itself. It can come quite suddenly. This brief conversation leads into the parable about productivity. Like the fig tree which bore no fruit, sinners must either change their ways or be cut off. The gardener gains a bit of time for the tree to bear fruit, but unless it bears fruit it will be cut down. The period of time is uncertain; what is cleat is the necessity for repentance. The point is "unless you repent you will all perish."

The point is about repentance. Jesus says clearly that without repentance there is death. But Scripture is also clear that God does not desire the death of any sinner. Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord GOD: and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?” Isaiah 55:3 says, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen.” It sounds too good to be true, but you can stake your life on it, all a sinner has to do is to turn toward the sound of God’s voice and listen and the death sentence is no more. Isaiah continues in verse seven “let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” It sounds too good to be true but the Word says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" And Romans 10:8-17 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Therefore, how do we become instruments of God’s redeeming blood? After we turn to God, hear His Word, in faith accept “I am a sinner, too” “I justly deserve God’s punishment but I throw myself on God’s mercy in the mighty name of Jesus.” It is in this daily dying and daily receiving new life that we have life. That is it. And when we do this we know that we still live in a world badly broken by sin, and it is troubling just how broken it is. We se that only in a church that is strong in God’s Word that has a preacher who understands only in the theology of the cross is there life and salvation. All around us we have preachers preaching the Christian. If they would preach Christ and Him crucified all would be well in the Church, but many are they that do not, so many.

Let me be perfectly clear: it might feel good to look around us when we hear God accuse us of being sinners and think “Yes, look at them,” but that is no good. We are to take the hit ourselves. When we hear the accusation it is we that must confess. After that, we are to look around as Jesus surely does, seeing the sin and the sinner. So, we know what we are to do. We are to give testimony to gospel. We experience the love of God and that gives us a testimony. Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings Good News. Yes, we need preachers, people who have been called and trained, but they cannot go into each and every home in the community and get to know everyone so they have a right to speak a word of Truth. You have a calling and this is it. If you know the redeeming love of God you are to become that love to your neighbor.

Of course, Luther called the church, “God’s mouth-house.” Something different happens when people sit here and hear the word preached and God’s praises sung and we gather around the altar for the Lord’s Supper. Only here do we gather to witness the Sacrament of Baptism.

Therefore, how do we become instruments of God’s redeeming blood? After we turn to God, hear His Word, in faith accept “I am a sinner deserving God’s punishment.” It is in this daily dying and daily receiving new life that we have life. That is it. And when we do this we know that we still live in a world badly broken by sin, and it is troubling just how broken it is. Only in God’s Word is there life and salvation. All around us we have preachers preaching the Christian. If they would preach Christ and Him crucified all would be well in the Church, but many are they that do not, so many. Let me be perfectly clear: it might feel good to look around us when we hear God accuse us of being sinners and think “Yes, look at them,” but that is no good. We are to take the hit ourselves. When we hear the accusation it is we that must confess. After that, we are to look around as Jesus surely does, seeing the sin and the sinner. So, we know what we are to do. We are to give testimony to gospel. We experience the love of God and that gives us a testimony. Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings Good News. Yes, we need preachers, people who have been called and trained, but they cannot go into each and every home in the community and get to know everyone so they have a right to speak a word of Truth. You have a calling and this is it. If you know the redeeming love of God you are to become that love to your neighbor.