Malachi 3. 1-4
God’s the lover; we the loved.
Almost every Sunday morning, unlike this morning, worship starts the same way … with a brief order of confession and forgiveness. Not because we’ve been all that sinful since the last time we were together. But because we have one more chance to hear one sentence, in particular. “We confess we that we are captive – in bondage – to sin and cannot free ourselves.” It’s not so much something we need to say, as something we need to hear. Over and over and over!
We confess we that we are captive – in bondage – to sin and cannot free ourselves.
Without a doubt, it’s one of – if not the most important lines in the entire hymnal. Well, that and its flip side … “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all ….” Those two lines are the foundational principles, the core beliefs, that make us evangelical, gospel-rooted. In the past, when I’ve said polls show that 80% of us don’t understand or agree with the basic teachings of this church, these are the basic teachings I’m talking about. Especially, that first one … “We confess we that we are captive – in bondage – to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
For most Americans, a statement like that is cultural heresy! Most of us believe we’re captive, in bondage, to nothing! To no one! We think we can do anything we put our mind to! Nothing’s impossible! If we only work long enough and hard enough! A can-do people, that’s what we are! Self-confident! Self-sufficient! Pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps! It’s all part of that exceptionalism we hear so much about! For us, it’s choices! Decisions! Freewill it’s called! Sin/don’t sin. Believe/don’t believe. It’s all up to us! God knocks and keeps on knocking! Softy, tenderly, god keeps calling! Until we, finally, answer … or not.
And it has eternal, everlasting consequences. Blessed or cursed. Rewarded or punished! Saved? Damned? It’s all in our hands. God sits … Waiting … and watching … Fortunately for us, that’s not what we believe! “We confess we that we are captive – in bondage – to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We believe by our own understanding and by our own strength, we cannot believe in Jesus. Cannot come to him.” We confess … We believe … that if we’re to be free, then god is going to have to set us free! If we’re to be forgiven, god must do the forgiving. If we’re to be saved, god must do the saving. And for us, the goodNews – the gospel – is that god does exactly that! Set us free! Forgive! Save! Free us and forgive us and save us out of the goodness and the greatness of god’s own heart!
You see, contrary to popular opinion, the Reformation – at least, Luther’s part of it – wasn’t, foremost and first, about believing. And it wasn’t about the bible, either. It was about grace! God’s grace! God’s charity! God’s love! Without limit! Without measure! Love unearned! Love undeserved! And the place it all begins is our helplessness! Our hopelessness! “We confess we that we are captive – in bondage – to sin and cannot free ourselves.” God does because we don’t! Because we didn’t! God can, because we can’t! God will, because we won’t! We’re not saved by our choices; we’re saved by god’s choices! We’re not saved by our decisions; we’re saved by god’s decisions! We’re not saved by our faith; we’re saved by god’s love!
It’s all god! Start to finish! Beginning to end! And if any of it …. if ANY of it … depends on us, well, it ceases to be love! “If grace depends on our cooperation,” Luther writes, “then it’s no longer grace!” Jesus isn’t a commandment! Jesus’ not an example! Jesus is a gift! A persistent, unrelenting, never-ending gift! And we have nothing to do with it! Not our choices! Not our decisions! The only thing that matters is god’s will! The only thing important, god’s wants and god’s wishes! But then, that’s the way love has, always, worked! Going only one way! From lover to loved! Advent isn’t a season of preparation. Advent’s not a time for getting ready. At least, not as far as we’re concerned! It’s a time, a season – for us – simply to watch … and to wait … certain and sure god will do the rest! Certain and sure god will do what needs done! That god will do what needs doing!
It’s not about us. It’s about god! God creating! And god providing! God protecting and god preserving! God redeeming and purchasing and freeing! God calling and enlightening and making holy! We don’t have to try harder! We don’t have to do better! The goodNews is that god does it all! The goodNews is that god’s the fire and god’s the soap! God’s the refiner and fuller! And us? We’re, simply, the ore and the wool.
We confess we that we are captive … that we are in bondage … and can’t free ourselves … And so, in god’s mercy, out of god’s love, god sends Jesus! To live with us! To die for us! God does what we can’t! God does what we won’t. And changes our lives! Changes our world!
And so, for now, we watch and we wait. For now, we wait and we watch. For the story to unfold! For the gift to appear! It’s not the bible, my friends, that saves us! It’s not our believing that makes it all come true! We are saved by grace … by charity … by love … Saved by god’s grace and god’s charity and god’s love! As a people rooted in the gospel, we confess, first of all, that we are captive, bound, unable to free ourselves! And secondly, we confess that we are saved by god and by god alone! It’s the love that makes us what we become! And it’s the love – and the love alone – that decides who we will be!