Dearly beloved in Christ,
If I were a tel-evangelist, I might begin my New year’s Eve sermon by telling you how prosperous 2012 will be for you if you just have enough faith. Because, you know, that all of your problems, all of your financial woes, all of your health issues are directly related to the amount of faith you have. So, if you have lots and lots of faith, then your pocket book will be full this year, you’ll be worry free, things will go well for you, and your health will be better than ever.
That, my friends in Christ, is what we call “The Prosperity Gospel.” Have enough faith, and all will be well. And, the opposite is true too. If you lack faith, then it is only right that you should be poor, sad, and lonely. Yes, if I were a televangelist, I might also begin by telling you to take a leap of faith, and donate to the Church, since the Bible says that God will bless a cheerful giver. And I’d do it all with a big smile on my face, the model and paragon of worry-free living.
If only it were that simple. It’s true that those who trust in the Lord will be better equipped to face whatever challenges lay ahead. And we all know that there will be challenges. Faith doesn’t remove crosses and trials. But it does help one to endure them when they come. But it is a lie to say that everything will be great, and you’ll be perfectly happy if you just have enough faith. Scripture makes no such promises.
Jesus did say, however, that the student is not above his teacher. The servant is not above his master. If Christ suffered in the flesh, do we expect to get by unscathed by the world? If Christ was put to death, do we expect to avoid suffering and death? So Scripture does not say that if you are a Christian, if you just have enough faith, you will avoid all this. It does say, however, that such things cannot separate one from the love of Christ.
Hear again these words of the apostle in Romans 8: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Paul doesn’t say that everything will go well for you. Who knows? Maybe your business will crumble. Maybe you’ll lose your job. Maybe a dear family member will die. It could happen. But Paul says none of this can change the fact that God loved us, and gave His Son into death for us. No, in fact, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Notice though that it is through Him who loved us. We dare not think that we can gain the victory or conquer such things on our own, or by our own will power. It is through or by means of him who loved us.
Paul goes on to say, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing, says the apostle can separate us from God’s love in Jesus.
We might add to that list poor health, family problems, low income, a lost job, and the list could go on and on. Even our sins do not separate us from God’s love, for “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died.”
Though our lives will change every day, week, and month—though trials will come, there is one thing that does not change—and that is the love of God. That is one thing that we never need be uncertain of. We have as a seal of that love our baptism. We have as a constant pledge and token of that love in Christ the holy Sacrament. Every time we remember our baptism, every time we come to the Lord’s Table, that love of God is sealed for us and made known to us until the end of time.
What can separate us from that love is unrepentance. That is the one thing that can make us have a terrible, terrible year. It makes no Christian sense to seek God’s blessing and forgiveness without at the same time seeking his help in turning from our sins. It makes no sense to come to the Sacrament by which Christ’s forgiveness is given and sealed to us, only to leave the Lord’s Table with no intention of amending one’s sinful life.
Our sins will not separate us from God’s love, provided that we repent, provided that we continually seek out his mercy in Jesus. For Paul says in another place: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” None. Zip. No condemnation. If you fall into sin, and repent, trusting in Christ’s forgiveness, you are not condemned. Your sins are forgiven. You are free.
But where there is no repentance, then neither is there forgiveness. An unrepentant heart is one that refuses to acknowledge one’s sin, desires not the forgiveness of sins, and has no intention of amending one’s sinful life. This is the dangerous pit that every Christian needs to avoid. Sometimes we tend to think of repentance only in terms of those “really big sins,” like adultery or murder, and we think that it matters not if we continue in the “small sins” like my irritableness, or my anger, or my impatience without repentance.
But make no mistake—these too need to be confessed and forgiven. Luther said in regard to baptism that every day is a day of contrition and repentance for the Christian. Of all the resolutions and promises we make to ourselves and to God when we begin a new year, this ought to be at the top—that we daily repent of our sins, and trust anew in God’s mercy.
Second on the list should be that instead of fretting and worrying about things that we have no control over, instead of trying to live our lives as if everything depended on us, we commend all things into the hands of God. For the Psalmist has said, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
How then does the Christian proceed into the coming year? With fear and trepidation? With guilt and shame of past sins? Trusting in himself? No. He does so as one who is covered by the righteousness of Christ’s blood. He does so as one who is freed from the guilt and condemnation of sin, free from bondage to the devil, free from the fear of death. He does so in faith, not the kind of faith that thinks nothing bad will happen, but the kind of faith that clings to God and trusts His promises in spite of trials and crosses, indeed—in the midst of them.
In faith we look forward to what God has in store for us, but we also look back to what God has already done for us. Tonight it is also fitting that we give thanks to the Lord for his constant and loving protection in every time of need, and for every unseen blessing. Most of us are unaware of the constant danger that we are in. Much of it we cannot see. We cannot see the cursed devil hounding us, and threatening us. Nor can we see the holy angels protecting us.
One cannot imagine what would happen if God would, for one minute, withdraw his protecting hand from us. Life is fragile, and the only people who may have some sense of this fragility are those who have fought in a war. But you know it too. You feel it in your own bodies. You see it in the suffering of your neighbors and loved ones. Thanks be to our Creator for His ongoing care and preservation of our bodies and souls.
I’m no televangelist, so I can’t promise you that the coming year is going to be prosperous for you if you just have enough faith. I can only say what Scripture has said, and promise what Scripture promises. God’s Word promises that He will be your help and your shield. It promises grace and every blessing to those who believe. It promises that nothing can separate you from His love which is in Christ Jesus.
Trials will come in 2012. We can be certain of that. There will be good times too, and for that we shall bless the Lord as well. Who knows what kind of natural disasters there will be, who will win the presidential election, or what the economy will do. No one but the Lord. Be certain of this, dear Christians: God’s love in Jesus is for you. It is for you in 2012 as it was for you in every year past. God bless you with his grace and Spirit. Amen.