1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Now we come in and chitchat. In the back of our minds this is not a place we come to meet God but each other. I’m not saying that chit-chatting is bad, nor am I saying the relationships you have with each other are not valuable. But we have lost a sense of this as a sacred space. A place set apart to meet God. We do not act reverently when we are in this place. This is one of the reasons why we wanted a larger narthex (entryway), so that our narthex would be the place where we meet each other, and the sanctuary would be the place we meet God. It is hoped that in the future we will learn to act accordingly in each space.
So is fear reverence? Yes. If you by reverence you mean the kind of respect, or even healthy fear, you have when operating a power tool or heavy machinery. You all know that you have to act differently around such things. You can’t horse around with a chainsaw. You can’t toss a lit blowtorch like you would a football. A table saw is not a bar to rest your pint and your arms on. As soon as you forget to act carefully around heavy machinery that’s when accidents happen and people die. It is good to a have a little healthy fear of tools that can tear your arm off.
Of course, reverence is different than fear caused by someone who is mean or vicious. So there is fear and there is fear. Fear caused by someone who is mean spirited is one thing, while fear or reverence of someone who is powerful but good is another thing. And we need to remember that our God is powerful and that sin angers Him, for sin destroys the good things He has given and made. But He is good. So fear Him. For that is wise. But remember that He is good and His salvation is near those who fear Him.
So there is fear and fear, and then there is fear! For it is wise to fear God, but have you ever had terrors of conscience? That’s the fear that God will judge you, damning you to hell. It is caused by realizing that you truly deserve to go to hell for your sins. Such fear is not native to humans. It only comes upon us when God’s Word of Law is added to our own consciences which are already accusing us. Then the Holy Spirit intensifies the convicting power of your own conscience, causing you terror, fear, knowledge that you deserve God’s full wrath.
The conscience is a mechanism that God put in you to judge what is right and wrong. It is an imprecise instrument. It tells you when something is wrong. But it can be molded and shaped by our beliefs and our actions. The original conscience you were born with has God’s moral Law (the Ten Commandments) written on it. But you can shape it by what you believe and do. So that your conscience increases in sensitivity in one area, while decreasing in another area. For instance, one person because of things that have happened to them is more sensitive about what people might say about them while another person does not think twice about that. One person could never download music illegally, but does not think twice about cutting out an hour or two early and still marking down that they worked a full shift. Meanwhile, for the person who downloads music illegally it would never cross their mind to not work full day. Our consciences are imprecise. Like everything else in this world they are damaged by sin. Therefore, one person’s conscience accuses them of everything even when they haven’t sinned, while another’s never accuses them of anything even though they are a mean spirited, crotchety person, who is supersensitive of any perceived slight from others. Your conscience, like a computer, gets glitchy. It spits out data that is wrong.
So in order for your conscience to work rightly God’s Law must be added to your conscience, to reset it to its defaults so it can actually do the job rightly. When God’s Word is added your conscience rightly accuses you of breaking God’s Law. It tells you that you are guilty. This produces terrors of conscience, discomfort, angst, even great fear. The Holy Spirit uses this state in your conscience to work repentance in you so that you admit to your God, “I am a sinner. I am not worthy of you. I have failed you. I have sinned against you.” This is the foundational understanding of a Christian. And from that foundation God builds you up with His grace and mercy, saying, “Yes, you have sinned; I have forgiven. You have failed; My Son has succeeded in your place. You have rejected and betrayed Me; My Son has been faithful in all things and clothes you with His faithfulness so that I counts it as yours.”
So there is fear of a mean person. There is wise fear of God. And there is terror of conscience, true fear that realizes apart from Christ Jesus I am cut off from God.
But once God works in you this true terror of conscience how does He solve that problem? Through His ministry of Word and Sacraments.
For Pastor John the Baptizer, even in prison he was preaching about Jesus and sending his disciples to the source of the Word and Sacraments. He knew the only thing to relieve their terrors of conscience was their baptisms and ongoing contact with Jesus, whom John was preparing the way for. He is only cure for terrors of conscience that will and do afflict the Christian.
But Jesus Christ is not walking the earth today. So we must seek Him in the ministry of His Word and Sacraments. That’s what St. Paul was talking about in the Epistle. He and all true pastors are stewards of the mysteries—those things it is wise for us to reverence. Those mysteries—Christ’s Word and Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion—are mysterious for they impart God to us. This is why reverence is important in this place. For through this service God comes to you. He comes with power to kill or save. He comes with power to destroy you through the terrors of your conscience or power to relieve your conscience.
This is the job of stewards of the mysteries: to relive you, to comfort you, to remove your terror and fear.
As we close, I want to put this image in your head. Your sins are being judged in God’s Law court in heaven. God the Father is the judge. Satan is the prosecuting attorney trying to throw book at you. Jesus is your defense lawyer. With Jesus in your corner things look pretty good for you, though you never know what accusation the prosecutor might pull out and throw at you. You never know what he might make stick and winning you a guilty verdict.
Do you have that image? Now adjust that image. Since Jesus came to earth taking all the guilty charges of mankind on Himself, paying for it with the death penalty. Since He was innocent and rose in victory, and ascended to the Father’s right hand two major cosmic shifts have occurred in God’s court room. God the Father has given the judge’s seat to His Son. The Son remains as your defense counsel. But most importantly, Satan has been kicked out of the courtroom. For He who accused us day and night before the throne of God has been cast out of heaven. He is gone. Now how are your chances?
If God is for you who can be against you? Who is there left to accuse you? No one. What is the Judge’s proclamation that is being spoken over your sins in heaven? Not guilty. That is the mystery that ministers of the Gospel deliver to you. That heaven declares you are not guilty.
But with Satan cast out of heaven His only recourse is to convince you that you are. So he goes to work on your corrupted conscience like a virus attacking a computer so your conscience malfunctions. He goes to work on your pastor trying to get him to not preach the mysteries of Heaven’s not guilty verdict. Thus we pray every week for pastors that they might faithfully proclaim that Jesus is your peace on earth, that He is God’s goodwill toward men. That you are not guilty before your heavenly Father. That Jesus sends His ministry of Word and Sacrament to you so that He might be in your heart, you head, your mouth. This is a mystery. It is a blessing. His not guilty for you means peace with God is yours.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON