Christ is being received by my dear faithful ones back in Burleson as I write this. Under the faithful ministrations of Pastor Reed, my precious people are having Christ put in their ears, and laid on their tongues. Ours is a different church that way. Lots of churches will tell you (with varying degrees of accuracy) a lot about Christ. Ours actually delivers Him. Which brings me to this article. I almost entitled it “comfort that doesn’t comfort,” but of course the point of it is to get the reader to the comfort that does comfort, so I entitled the article accordingly.
I was “inspired,” if that’s the word for it, by the return of the rector of the Lutheran Church in Siberia, a man named Alexei Streltsov. Not only have I been here three times now, but he and his lovely family (well, their two sons anyway . . . their daughter had not yet been born at the time) have also been to visit us in Texas. In short, I would say we have become friends, and it is indeed a friendship to treasure.
But I was reminded of one of the first two times when I had come here. I brought their children little souvenierish items from Texas, and one of them was a toy stuffed armadillo. Alexei’s wife Yelena was rather circumspect about this odd creature, or simulation thereof. I should add that Yelena is quite a treasure herself. Petite, pretty, and speaks with a precise and learned British English, marked with just a hint of a Russian accent, but to the high-brow English linguists her English would probably earn praise as being better English than “that what we bubbas bayck in Texas done talk.”
So, analysing this armadillo, she asks, “What is that?”
I answered, “Why, that there’s an armadillah!”
Not satisfied, she prosecutes the matter: “Well, what is it?”
I try again, “Well, it’s a critter kinda unique to Texas, although, given the veritable magnanimity of the character of the people of our State, we do let Oklahoma have a few of them too. I know the toy is fuzzy, but it’s actually got kind of a hard outer skin, almost like a shell.”
Finally, the gloves come off. Yelena asks, “Is it like a rat? Because I don’t like rats. And I don’t like mice. Does Texas have a lot of them too?”
Well, I’d been bucking for them to come visit Texas, since if you haven’t been there, you’ve missed the finest part of this world, as any Texan can tell you. On the other hand, if you’re going to come to Texas, you’re going to have to brace yourself for a couple of creepy-crawlies, ’cause we got ’em, and there’s just no getting around that. So I put together my attempt to sound like a Texan, and combined it with the best of my full-disclosure honesty and the worst of my obnoxious bluntness.
And I said to Yelena, “Why, don’t you go worryin’ your pretty little head about them mice ‘n’ rats ‘n’ such. See, we got rattlesnakes in Texas, and they keep those mice and rats cut down to next to nothin!” Words of comfort . . . that didn’t really comfort.
Well, I got to thinking about that, and the course on Reformation History I’ve been teaching here. How many churches do the same thing . . . offer troubled sinners words of comfort that don’t really comfort? In a way, that’s what got Luther started. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be a money racket, initially. Someone was troubled by their sins, and wanted to know that God would show mercy toward them. But instead of pointing to the works and merits of Christ alone, someone came up with a comment to the effect that there have been more than enough good works done to make up for your bad one, and thus the whole twisted notion of “making up” for your sins, and even having someone elses “make ups” transferred to you, was born.
That all became a huge mess, as anyone familiar with Luther and his 95 Theses knows. Luther pointed the church back to the points of comfort that Christ our Lord gave to the church for this purpose in the first place: the gifts of His Word, and the “sacraments” or saving gifts of Baptism, Absolution, and His Holy Supper.
Others, however, were insistent (especially where the Lord’s Supper is concerned) that the “is” in “this is my body / this is my blood” couldn’t actually mean “is” (and so no wonder we had a President who thought he could weasel out of something by saying “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is”). The end result was that those who listened to these corrupters of the Faith were robbed of the comfort that the Lord wanted the sacraments to give them. And what were they left with?
The Calvinists tried to comfort their people with the doctrine of predestination, and the attendant doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” God predestines some people to heaven, and others to hell, they claimed. If you are one of the predestined to heaven, you cannot ever lose that salvation. The problem is that it begged the question. “So, am I one of the predestined?” The doctrine they taught forced you to try to crawl into the mind of God . . . no one really knew if, after 35 years of what they thought was sincere devotion to Christ, they wouldn’t fall away and have their erstwhile brethren lamenting that, well, he must have been one of those predestined to hell . . . they guessed he’d never really believed after all, because of course if he had, well, he wouldn’t have fallen away. Tapping into the eternal counsels of God turned out to be an undoable task, and the comfort didn’t really comfort.
The Arminian “remonstrants,” as they are called, tried something else. Pointing to the assurances of Holy Scripture that God wants all men to be saved, they assured their hearers that, since God wanted to save all men, surely he wanted to save them too. Really, therefore, it was up to them. They must decide, they must choose to believe, and then they would in fact be saved. But now, instead of knowing God’s mind, they had to know their own. The sincerity of such decisions is called into question when they are so inconsistently lived out. Such a man is left to question whether his decision was genuine in the first place. “It’s up to you” was supposed to offer comfort to those who feared an arbitrary God. But the cure was as bad as the disease, and this comfort also fails to comfort.
Both of these groups had those among them who attempted to shore up the weakness of their uncomfortable comfort by an appeal to good works. How can you know that God really has predestined you, or that your decision really was sincere? Well, you can tell by the fact that you go to church every Sunday, give ten percent to the church, don’t hate don’t covet don’t lust, don’t drink don’t dance don’t play cards, don’t smoke don’t chew don’t go with girls who do, or whatever the measurements of authenticity may have been. But of course, the sinners seeking comfort are exactly that . . . people whose sins lead them to seek the assurance that God is merciful. Telling them that their certainty of God’s mercy rests upon their ability to live such that they don’t really need that mercy is not only doomed to failure. It’s also just flat silly.
God predestines no one to hell, but the Scriptures clearly teach that He does predestine the saved to heaven. Faith is a gift, not a human decision, but the Scriptures do clearly teach that we are saved by grace through faith. So, where’s the comfort? How can we be assured that we are among the predestined, and that our faith is sincere? Faith goes where the Lord tells us to go. It goes to the Word, and to the Sacraments. This morning, I dipped my fingers in the water of the Baptismal Font as I entered the church, and made the sign of the cross. I know I am baptized. This is a fact both witnessed and documented. And the Scriptures are clear that all who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ, they are buried and raised with Him. The saving Words of Christ were put into my ears this morning. They were in Russian, but no less the Lord’s Words and no less saving. Finally, the body and blood of Christ were put into my mouth. What greater assurance could I have that my sins are forgiven me than to have the very body and blood that were sacrificed for me put into my mouth? What clearer confidence could I have that I will be raised than to have the body that has already been raised joined to mine? The comfort that really comforts is not just to have Jesus talked about. It is to have Jesus delivered . . . in water, in word, in bread and wine.
“My sin is ever before me,” said David, and I know just how he felt. Do you? If so, you’ve probably known the frustration of trying to “get good enough” to be confident of your forgiveness. I’ve got good news for you. Jesus was good enough for you. His goodness covers you. His sacrifice forgives your sins. And if you happen to live in Burleson or thereabouts, come on by. In this church, Jesus will be delivered to you, every Sunday. And that’s comfort that really comforts!
Your unworthy servant in Christ Jesus,