Like last week, I want to start out with a question, this time, association style: What comes to your mind when I say “law”? [wait for answers]
This week the topic of laws seems to be pretty emotional, as we find ourselves in the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, with 59 dead and over 500 wounded. Naturally, the topic of “gun laws” has come up, and with it, a slew of emotions on both sides of the issue. Gun laws would keep people safer. Gun laws would infringe upon my rights. Gun laws don’t even work, so what’s the point? Gun laws do work, and this study proves it. In this case, the concept of “law” is for some a good thing that would improve safety, and for others, a bad thing that would take away rights. Oh, is it complicated!
But we can come back to that. Right now, I want to talk to you about how Luther understood Law, specifically God’s Law, and its relationship to Gospel, because for Luther, Law and Gospel must go together. When we think of God’s Law, we think of what? The 10 Commandments. Why did God give Moses the 10 Commandments? It was not to keep the Israelites under God’s thumb, or limit how much fun they could have. God gave them out of love – to show the Israelites what love of God and love of neighbor look like. So that’s what Luther says about the Law: the law shows us how to behave as loving, godly people.
But, Luther goes on, the Law does not actually give us the power to do it. And so, the Law also convicts us, showing us our sin, showing us the many ways we fall short. This is why Luther, when he wrote his Small Catechism, put the 10 Commandments first: because he intended for them to be a tool for Christians to aid in their confession of sins, a practice Luther saw as central to the Christian life. Now, if you’re like me, you look at the 10 Commandments and think you do pretty okay at keeping them. I’m not a murderer, I’m not an adulterer, I don’t steal, etc. But confessing using Luther’s explanations? That gets me every time. Because Luther doesn’t leave it at, “You shall not take the physical life of another person.” In fact he doesn’t even mention that. He says, “We should neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors… but instead, help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Oh, it is always in the “instead” part where I get caught! I mean, I try to be helpful, how many times have I said, “No, I can’t help you” when someone asks for money? How many decisions have I made – or not made – that may not harmed someone directly, but allowed for them to be harmed? How many times have I seen a situation in which I knew I could help, but have been apathetic? Too many to count. And so here, the law convicts me. It shows me how God wants me to behave, but does not give me the power to do it. And so it shows me my sin.
But this is where the Gospel comes in. Law shows us our sin… and in so doing, drives us to the Gospel, which says, “My child, I love you, and you are forgiven.” And because we have been faced with our shortcomings and sins, the Gospel suddenly becomes more than just a thing we hear on Sunday. It becomes life giving. It becomes a way out of despair. It becomes a lifeline – for without it, we would be forever stuck in our sin. Without the Law, what is even the point of the Gospel? Without the Law, the Gospel is a very nice story, something to make us feel good, but it is not something on which our very lives depend. It’s not something that refreshes and restores us.
If you come to church often and listen carefully to my sermons, or really to most Lutheran preacher’s sermons, you will likely hear this same Law to Gospel trajectory. The sermon may start out with a nice story or joke, but it is a lead in to talk about how broken we are, how in need of a savior the world is. Once we have realized our need for Jesus, then the sermon gives you Jesus: the promise of love, and grace, and forgiveness, and life everlasting. This is how they teach preaching in Lutheran seminaries, because this is how Luther always interpreted the Bible – first through the lens of Law, and then through the lens of Gospel – because the message of the Gospel means more to us if we first realize our need for it. Make sense?
So with all that mind, I want to look with you at our Gospel lesson today through the Lutheran lens of Law and Gospel. First, some context: this is Jesus’ first public appearance, his first sermon. It sets the tone for his ministry. And he preaches on Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first glance, this all seems like Gospel to me – this is great news, because we know that these are all the things Jesus came to do! Yay! But please resist jumping right to the Gospel. Dwell first in the Law, in the part that shows us how to live, but does not give us the power to do it, and so we fall short. Think of it the way Luther treats the 10 Commandments, as a tool to help you see your own sin. Or, the analogy I like to use for the Law: look at it as a mirror that helps you see the gunk you have in your teeth, so you can work on picking it out. Take a minute to look at the text yourself and try to see: where do you feel convicted by this text?
I’ll be honest: I feel very convicted by several parts of this text. But I’m going to focus on this line: “he has sent me to proclaim… recovery of sight to the blind.” The reason I’m drawn there is that this week, in the aftermath of this latest shooting, blindness has been very much on my mind – not the literal sort, but the spiritual and emotional sort. Against my better judgment, I engaged in a thread on social media started by someone I know to be of a different mind from me in the gun debate. She was lamenting that the conversation had so quickly moved to gun control, when we should just be focused on grieving. I get that – a lot of folks feel that way. The comments she heard from gun control advocates, she said, were filled with hate that they couldn’t even see. In my comment, I suggested that those responding with a desire for gun control might, actually, be responding out of love, not hate, out of a desire that we do something, and soon, that would help prevent this from happening again. At least that was the case for the gun control advocates I know. Well, long story short… my point was not well taken, this person’s family and friends and I did not see eye-to-eye, and I got an earful about it.
But as the conversation went on, I noticed how often someone said something like, “You can’t even see…” or, “How can you not see?” or, “Don’t you realize?” And that’s really the problem, right? With the gun debate and with so many other things. We can’t see. We can see our view, and all its merits, but it is very hard to really see and try to understand the other side. We don’t want to hear it, we don’t believe it, we think it is off-base and maybe even harmful… and our tunnel vision closes in and slowly but surely we find ourselves turned completely in on ourselves. Not surprisingly, this is Luther’s definition of sin: to be turned in on yourself. To be completely blind to the needs and views around you. To be self-focused, to the point that you miss the opportunity to genuinely connect with another human being, another child of God. And so, here I stand, convicted. I have many blind spots, and maybe I try to educate myself so I can assuage my guilt about that, but the reality is that sometimes I don’t know they are there, and sometimes I do know and I just don’t care.
And this is when the Gospel comes in. The Law shows us our sin… and the Gospel forgives. The Law shows us how to behave but doesn’t give us the power to do it… and the Gospel says, “I love you anyway, and I forgive you, and I am drawing you into something better.” The Law shows us the gunk in our teeth, and the Gospel provides a toothpick. The Law says, “Johanna, you have some blind spots – points of view you don’t want to consider, people you don’t want to acknowledge, and a touch of self-righteousness,” and the Gospel says, “I was sent to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind, and that includes you.” The Gospel gives me the strength and the willingness to hear that message, to open my eyes and see things – some things I don’t want to see, and some things that will bring me life I could not otherwise have known. The Law convicts me, and the Gospel says, “Johanna, beloved child of God, I forgive you.” And that is a message I want and need to hear. Every day.
What do the Law and the Gospel say to you this day?
Let us pray… Gracious God, your Word tells us the truth twice, first showing us our need for a savior, and then giving us that savior. Thank you for your Law, so that we can see our own sin, and thank you for your Gospel, so that we would never be stuck there. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.