Sunday, February 17, 2019

Secondhand Holiness? Sermon on Matthew 3:9-10

Haðubrand felt his bones creak as he stood and knelt, stood and knelt, listening to the priest drone on in Latin in the little wooden church. He didn't want to be there. But he knew he had to reconcile himself to it. It was the dawn of the year 786, and Haðubrand was a Saxon tribesman, living in what today we'd call northern Germany. He hadn't grown up in church – unless you count ones he'd torched. So how had he found himself in one now?

If you'd asked Haðubrand, he might have started the story in his teen years, when Pope Gregory III wrote to his Saxon people. Thanks to the efforts of the missionary Boniface, who in southern Saxony had chopped down a sacred oak after challenging their god Thunær to a fight, some Saxons had already forsaken the religion of their ancestors for this Christianity. Pope Gregory wanted them to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace.” He called on them to “depart … from the service of idols, and come, worship the Lord our God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and you shall not be ashamed.” Five or six years after the letter, the Frankish king Pepin invaded Saxony and brought some missionaries behind him. Some Saxons had gotten baptized, mainly out of fear. They didn't think much of it.

Almost a decade passed. Haðubrand and his people had gotten fed up. They'd crossed into Frankish territory and burned over thirty wooden chapels. Haðubrand remembered the flames, the smoke, the plunder. It had satisfied him. But Pepin certainly wasn't happy. With bishops and soldiers, he came into Saxony to wreak revenge, taking prisoners and not leaving until the Saxons took oaths of peace with him – and with his God. So many were baptized. Yet, for a while, for much of Haðubrand's adult life, things kept on as they always had been. He lived the life of a Saxon, served the gods of the Saxons, same as before.

Then came one January, fourteen years ago. Some Saxons had traveled north on an expedition, to help burn down a church built by the English missionary Lebuinus four years earlier, around the time the Frankish king Pepin had died. They had no idea what wrath they were unleashing. For Pepin had left the Frankish kingdom to his aggressive son Charles – we know him today as Charlemagne – and Charles retaliated by invading Saxony that year and burning down their shrine, the Irminsul, the great tree trunk that linked heaven and earth. Haðubrand felt crushed. During the coming years, his late forties, when he could still do some fighting, he tried his hand at raiding Frankish turf and defending against Frankish invaders. But they kept losing to King Charles' armies. In 775, one by one, the Saxon tribes sued for peace. The next year, of course, they all turned back to that old-time religion, and tried to retake all their forts and castles. But they failed, and in terror they surrendered and promised to do what the king said – and be baptized into his religion. And many, motivated by political security, went through the motions and did exactly that.

So it went, year by year. But Haðubrand put more of his faith in Widukind, a great Saxon warrior who urged them to fight on, to resist both the politics and the religion of the Franks. Although Widukind had fled for safety to the Danes, still he inspired his people to fight against Charles and the Franks. The Saxons plundered their way onto Frankish land, they burned churches and monasteries – all they could find. The year after that, the Franks returned to Saxony. Charles recruited missionaries to come convert the Saxons. But in 782, when Widukind came back and riled up all Saxony with him, they fled the land.

Still, Haðubrand had little more fight in him; he laid aside his sword and sæx. His people fought hard, but Charles counterattacked and beheaded thousands of prisoners, and Widukind barely escaped. Three more years they fought. Finally, Charles broke them. And Widukind entered negotiations. Which ended with Widukind, the prophet-hero of the Saxon pagans, being baptized on Christmas Day in 785.

So what choice did that leave the other Saxons? As missionaries flooded in and built churches all over Saxony, Charles passed laws saying that any Saxon who refused to be baptized and attend to Christian rituals would be put to death. So Haðubrand surrendered. That same cold day, a missionary priest submerged him in the nearest river, after he'd sworn the vow: “I forsake all the devil's works and words, Thunær, Wōden, and Saxnōt, and all those fiends that are their companions.” And so Haðubrand was baptized and resentfully began to attend the Mass. In his eyes, and in King Charles' eyes, that made Haðubrand – and all Saxony – Christian now.

But what should we say about Haðubrand and those other Saxons baptized by force of law in those days? Was his heart in it? In being dipped in the river, was he truly placing his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Did it begin, for him, a life of discipleship? And if our answer is no, what might that have meant for his soul?

You see, all Saxony was brought to baptism by terror of the Frankish armies during the war or by terror of the Frankish laws after the war. And some, to be sure, had been taught and persuaded by missionaries either before or since. But in the summer of 792, many Saxons, testing the political winds, abandoned their professions of Christian faith and again tried to rebel. One chronicle tells us, “They demolished or burned down all the churches in their land; they chased out the bishops and priests set over them, attacking some and murdering others; and they altogether reverted to idolatry.” Four years later, one of King Charles' top priests, an advisor named Alcuin of York, wrote a letter to a friend and saw what had gone wrong. And here's what Alcuin said:

The miserable race of the Saxons so many times wasted the sacrament of baptism because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart. … Man is able to be forced to baptism, but not to faith.

And so it was. A couple decades later, there was still a need to convince Saxon nobles to really commit their hearts to Christ, to be captivated by him and desire him. So one poet wrote the Heliand: a collection of songs in the Saxon language, retelling the story of the Gospels in a fresh Saxon way, urging them to live 'with a clear mind' free from divided loyalties. But, of course, one of the first characters we meet in those songs is a man named John, who introduces that message. And here's how the Saxons heard John's story:

There in the wasteland, the word of God, the divine voice of God, came to him powerfully and told John that he was to announce Christ's coming and powerful strength throughout this middle world. He was to say truthfully in words that the heaven-kingdom, the greatest of delights, had come to those heroes' sons, to people, to the soil of that country....

“Become clean,” he said. “The heaven-kingdom is approaching the sons of men. Now in your hearts, regret your own sins, the loathsome things you did in this light, and listen to my teaching, turn around in accordance with my words! I will gladly dip you in water, but I do not have the power to take away your sinful deeds so that by the work of my hands you could be washed of your evil accomplishments. … Your minds will long be merry when you forsake the power of Hel and the company of the loathsome ones, and seek for yourselves God's light, the home up above, the eternal realm, the high meadows of heaven! Do not let your minds doubt!”                                                                              
(The Heliand, Song 11, trans. G. Roland Murphy)

Don't let your minds doubt. For the past several weeks, we – like those Saxons, perhaps some of our ancestors, hearing those words twelve hundred years ago – have been trying to grapple with John the Baptist's preaching and example. And it hasn't always been easy. John was a challenging sort of man. He doesn't just tell us what to do. He does more than that for us, better than that for us: He raises questions we have to answer; and in the wrestling, in the answering, we learn what to do in a way that doesn't just pass in one ear and out the other. Because we have to come to it ourselves.

Nowhere is that clearer than in his confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We heard last week, if you were with us, about how this was probably an official delegation, coming from the Jewish Supreme Court, to inspect John's ministry and decide if any action needed to be taken to crack down on him. These Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that they had no personal need of his baptism, no personal need of what it represented – that they were there to offer a solution to Israel's problem. But we heard, last week, John tell them that they were the heart of Israel's problem – and they needed to radically convert, turn to God as fresh people, and let God begin growing a life of fruitful gratitude out of their hearts (Matthew 3:8). Nothing less would do.

For John told them they were “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) – a poisonous presence in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, and imitating their venomous father, the devil (cf. John 8:44). And, needless to say, that did not resonate with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their first instinct is to answer back that they have an honorable father – no one less than Abraham is their father (cf. Matthew 3:9). And in the Pharisees' and Sadducees' eyes, that makes all the difference – and it means they must be safe.

It might at first be a bit hard to follow their reasoning. Why does it matter if they're descended from Abraham? But it helps to know that there were strains of Jewish thought where the merits of Abraham – the goodness and blessing he acquired – was passed on to his Jewish descendants, and served as sort of a buffer for Israel to make God overlook some of their personal unworthiness. So, for instance, one rabbi is recorded as saying that, because Abraham was so faithful that he cut the wood to sacrifice Isaac, God rewarded his faith by one day cutting the sea so that Israel could escape from Egypt. Abraham's faith became merit passed down to the nation. Another rabbi said that, because Abraham was so faithful that he saddled up his donkey to fulfill God's will in taking Isaac to be sacrificed, it counteracted the time centuries later when Balaam the pagan prophet saddled up his donkey to try to go and curse Israel. Again, Abraham's faithful obedience became merit that, when passed down to Israel, became a buffer to keep them safe and in God's good graces (Genesis Rabbah 55.8). Some Jewish traditions held that Israel would have their sins ignored by God out of love for their father Abraham, and one rabbi even said: “Notwithstanding all the follies that Israel commits and the lies that they utter in this world, Abraham is of sufficient merit to win expiation for all of Israel's deeds when they are scrutinized” (Pesiqta de Rav Kahana 23.8).

So that's what John is calling out in the Pharisees and Sadducees – that line of thought, that attitude. They were thinking, in effect, that what John was saying to them didn't matter. Israel didn't need his new fresh start; God's people weren't in any real danger of destruction. Abraham was their shield. And so Pharisee and Sadducee alike didn't feel they had to sweat it so much. In effect, what they were saying to John was that they could get away with outsourcing the faith business to Father Abraham – that, because Abraham was so faithful and they had Abraham as their father, they would be the heirs of his faith, they would reap the benefits of all the merits he earned, and so they could safely skate into salvation on Father Abraham's coat-tails, as it were. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug – look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you...” (Isaiah 55:1-2).

But the problem, as John sees it, is that these Pharisees and Sadducees aren't exactly chips off the old block. If “Abraham [their] father” is “the rock from which [they] were hewn,” nonetheless they don't look different from your run-of-the-mill pebbles you could find anywhere in the world. “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39). “Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). A link to Abraham – the very thing the Pharisees and Sadducees were hanging their whole hat on – was something commonplace. And so the Pharisees and Sadducees vastly overestimate their bargaining power; they think they have more to bank on than they do. Isaiah's words on looking to the rock were for Israelites who sought the Lord – but these Pharisees and Sadducees were so convinced he'd been found for them, that they themselves were not seeking. See, they can't get away with outsourcing their faith.

And neither can we. Not any more than the Pharisees and Sadducees refusing John's baptism. Not any more than defeated Saxons reluctantly accepting baptism out of fear. Like Alcuin said, it's all pointless without “a foundation of faith in [our] heart.” Personal faith – faith that links my heart to God, your heart to God – cannot be substituted for trying to tie something else to God and outsourcing the faith business to that thing. And yet 'nominal Christianity' – that is, Christianity 'in name only' – is exactly what we get when we try to outsource the faith business. And it is the greatest plague in the churches of our land today, and maybe – though God forbid it – a danger for some of us here. “Even now, the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10).

Because, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, some of us might try to outsource faith to our ancestry or heritage or upbringing. “I must be a Christian, because my mama was a Christian and my papa was a Christian; grandpa was a Christian and grandma was a Christian. So that must make me a Christian. I was raised that way, so that must be what I am.” Don't you know people who think that way? That they were born into a Christian family, so that makes them Christians; their parents believed, so they assume they themselves believe? I've met plenty. But it just doesn't work like that. Because my dad's faith can't save me, and my mom's faith can't save me, and my upbringing can't save me, and yours can't save you, either. God is able from these stones to raise up kids of good Christian families. There's no safety in that for you. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our environment, to our nationality. “I must be a Christian, because I'm a citizen of these United States of America, and America is a Christian nation, and so as an American, I must be a Christian, and since I belong to 'one nation under God,' I must be safe, I must be okay.” That was the way it was sometimes in the Middle Ages – “I belong to such and such a people-group, like the Franks or Saxons; that people-group is Christian; therefore, I am Christian, and I must be safe, I must be okay.” And you'd think we'd know better, but we still sometimes go around assuming that being an American makes us better Christians than if we were Russian or Venezuelan or French or Liberian. We still hang our hats on America and all its assorted mythologies, as if they were what saves us. But you cannot safely outsource your faith to your country – belonging to a 'Christian nation' (if there were such a thing) would carry no weight in God's sight. He is able from these stones to raise up American citizens. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our words and propositions. “I must be a Christian, because I agree with the sorts of things good Christian teachers say. They tell me that God exists, and I agree with that; they tell me that Jesus was the Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead, and I agree with that; they tell me that the Bible is from God, and I agree with that. So because I agree with all those sentences, I must be a Christian; and since I agree with those sentences, I must be safe, I must be okay.” That has so often been what we think it means to be a Christian – acknowledging some facts. And, to be fair, you couldn't claim to be a Christian without seeing those truths. But they aren't enough. If you believe those things, “you do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19). God is able from these stones to raise up people who nod at all the right strings of letters and spaces and punctuation marks. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our membership status. “I must be a Christian, because I got wet that one time. I must be a Christian, because I said a prayer one time. I must be a Christian, because my name is on the church records as a member of this congregation. I pay my dues, my name is on the list, I went through the necessary actions to join, so I must be a Christian. And since my name is on the list, I must be safe, I must be okay.” As long as we can truthfully put in our obituaries, 'So-and-so was a member of this church,' we might figure that's what will decide our eternity. But the church record books have no particular standing in God's court – they're pale imitations at best of “the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 22:17). God is able from these stones to put names on our church's membership rolls. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our attendance or our activity. “I must be a Christian, because here it is, Sunday morning, and I'm in a pew, just like most Sundays. I must be a Christian, because I try to treat other people well, I try to be nice and follow all the rules. I must be a Christian, because I want to be told how to be a better person, and then I try to do it, I try to be a good person. And since I'm here in the pew and I try to do nice things in life for my country and my family and my neighbors, I must be safe, I must be okay.” And that's what we do. We put in our hour on Sunday morning, we lead a nice and conventional middle-class American life, and we figure we're good, because why wouldn't we be? It's not like we're sinners in need of a real Savior, right? Or so we think. But attending Sunday worship services can only help you grow when there's something alive in you to grow. And too often, we're prone to assume there's life in us without checking. We assume that activity means life. But it doesn't. The Pharisees had loads of religious activity, but inside were full of dead men's bones (cf. Matthew 23:27). The Saxons submitted to going through the motions of religious activity, but inside nursed paganism and rebellion. And for all our attendance, for all our religious activity, for all our moral contributions to the community, we may be full of nothing but death if we do not personally have Jesus Christ alive in us. If he's alive in us, he'll be active, no doubt. But we can attend and be active and yet have no safety. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

For here's the thing: Not one of those is a substitute for personally having “a foundation of faith in [your] heart” – not one of them. Not your upbringing. Not your environment. Not your agreement. Not your membership. Not your attendance. Not your activities. You can have all those things and not be okay. Not if the center of who you are isn't linked to Jesus. Not if your trust isn't in him and your loyalty isn't with him. Because what saves us? Nothing and no one but Jesus Christ – “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). And if each of us is not personally united with him by faith in the heart of who we are, faith that leaches out into all areas of our lives, then what makes our condition any different from the refusing Pharisees or the reluctant Saxons?

For, as Paul the Pharisee came to realize, Abraham is the father precisely of those who imitate his faith – he is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11). So we must have Abraham-style faith: trust in the God who speaks life where only death was possible, trust in a God of resurrection. On such a God, each of us must lean; in such a God, each of us must hope; to such a God, each of us must turn. We must stand in personal union with Jesus Christ through a foundation of faith in my heart and your heart. We cannot outsource it. There is no other way than faith that unites us personally with Jesus and all he's done and all he is. And nothing less will do, for there is no such thing as secondhand holiness, no such thing as safely outsourced faith.

So I ask you, church, each of you: Where is your heart? Do you “seek for yourself God's light,” as the Saxon Gospel poem said? Is it “in your heart” that you take action, and not just in outward motions or outsourced functions? Are you yourself personally committed to Christ – to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace”? Is faith a personal thing to you – not privatized, but involving an encounter between Christ and you, rather than Christ and something else?

I hope that none of us here are outsourcing our faith, like some Pharisees did. I hope that none of us here are reluctantly going through the motions, like some Saxons (and Franks) did. I hope that each of us here is a disciple, personally invested in Jesus Christ from the core of our hearts. Because if you trust in him with all your heart, if you live from a faithful heart as his disciple, then you are safe – and more than safe. So let us be true heirs of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, and live out our salvation – for “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Amen.

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