As we enter the second half of the Church Year, our attention shifts. While the first half of the year centers on Jesus Christ and the events of His life, the second half actively engages the topic of sanctification, that is, our growth in the faith. This is always going to be rooted in justification, the blessed truth that we are saved from sin, death, and hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is delivered to you through Word and Sacrament and is received by faith as it takes hold of what Jesus did and believes firmly that it was done for you. The faith created by the Holy Spirit naturally wants to do good works. Out of thanksgiving for the life and salvation given by Christ, despite the damnation we deserve, the new man wants to live very intentionally in a way that shuns sin.
This means we have to go back to Confirmation class to remember what the Law does. The Law functions in three ways—as a curb, mirror, and guide. As a curb and mirror, it tells us what is sinful and sets bounds for our behavior. As a guide, it tells us those things that are pleasing to God and good for our life in this world. But remember—the Law’s chief function is to show our sin. The Law always accuses. Even when it tells us good things to do and instructs the new man, it is always condemning. The Law says “love your neighbor as yourself.” The new man says “Yes, I want to do that” while at the same time acknowledging “I don’t do that the way I should.” The Law will never save, but it does teach us what is good and right to do.
What this means in a nutshell is that the Word of God must shape our lives. As an illustration of this, Jesus tells us about the Rich Man and Lazarus. We aren’t told much about either man, but when we put this account in the context of Scripture, we can safely infer a number of things. We can see how the Word of God influences each man. We also see that there is a way of life and a way of death, and the Word’s role in life determines which way you follow.
For Lazarus, the Word of God and its promises were central to his life. We’re used to classifying Lazarus the way we heard it just a few minutes ago: Lazarus is a poor man. But that’s not the only way it can be translated. The word can also mean of little value or worthless. To the world around him, Lazarus was a worthless man. They saw no benefit in having him around. He is not laid at the Rich Man’s gate, rather, he is thrown there, cast aside by society, with the assumption “That guy’s loaded. Lazarus can be his problem.” Lazarus is starving and his body is covered not just in “sores” (which sounds far too nice), but infected ulcers. Starving, poor, and weak, he can’t even fight off the wild dogs who come and lick these sores. He’s in agony in this life. But he has faith. His faith believes what Scripture teaches, that God desires to be merciful and blesses His children in distress. Living up to that mercy, the Lord calls Lazarus from this vale of tears and he is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side in heaven. He believed God’s promise and it was counted to him as righteousness. He didn’t get into heaven because of his poverty or his suffering, but because He had faith in God and His goodness.
Conversely, the Word of God meant nothing to the rich man. Despite being a good Jew who called Abraham his father, he had no use for God’s Word. It showed in his life. He certainly heard the commands of God in the Law to be kind to the sojourner and the stranger, to care for the poor among you. But it didn’t mean anything to him. He blatantly ignored it. He cared only for himself and his own comfort. He lived to be exalted in the eyes of men, but what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The rich man drew his last breath and died. But he is forgotten. His name is not recorded. The mighty was cast from his throne and into the fires of hell. And this man serves as a warning for us. We learn from him that despising the Word of God merits us eternal damnation, and he also gives us a glimpse into the agony of hell. Not only is he tormented by the flame and longs for even a drop of water, but for eternity he is forced to see the bliss enjoyed by those in heaven. His agony is magnified as he sees people enjoying eternal bliss while he is in eternal torment. But even then he has no regard for the Word of God. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them that they had better do some good works and earn their way into heaven. Abraham denies this request and tells him that they need to hear Moses and the Prophets who confess Christ as the only way to heaven. Instead of humility he reacts in anger: “No, father Abraham!” Send someone from the dead and they’ll change their ways. Scripture must be useless! I heard it and look what good it did for me! No, rich man! Only the Word and the faith it creates earns entrance into heaven. Miracles are nothing without faith.
So, the Word of God must shape our lives. It must mean something. It must be listened to. Whoever loves God must also love his brother. But who among us does that? We confessed it together at the beginning of the service: We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Since our love for others has faltered, it means our love for God has faltered as well. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor; you cannot love God and blatantly turn a blind eye to your neighbor’s needs; you cannot love God and gossip about your neighbor; you cannot love God scheming to undermine your neighbor. Those things do not go together. To hear the Words of Holy Scripture only to turn and blatantly sin against your neighbor is to ensure that your fate is the same as the rich man’s because it is a confession that you do not have love for God, which is to say, faith.
Repentance is the only way around this. The solution isn’t false piety, grudgingly doing good to your neighbor, because then you’re no better than the Pharisees. We each must confess daily that we sin against God and neighbor, that our love for both has faltered. Commit to memory the hymn we just sang. It was such a favorite of Luther’s that he said it should be sung in each service! It is a perfect guide for our prayers, asking for faith that leads us to do good works of serving neighbor and trusting God. We need our hearts filled with the flame of the Holy Spirit who teaches us to love each other. We need the Holy Spirit to teach us to live like Lazarus, resting alone on God’s Word and His promises, no matter how much scorn or death assail us and the devil taunts us. We need the Holy Spirit to keep us steadfast in the faith, teaching us to abide in the Lord who bought us with His innocent suffering and death and His holy Blood.
Sanctification is not easy. Growth in the faith is an ongoing process that ebbs and flows. Some days will be better than others. Some days you’ll be able to live like Lazarus and some days you’ll make the rich man look like a saint. So, do exactly what you’re doing right now. Come to church. Hear the Word of God, receive the Lord’s Supper, pray for the true faith needed on your way. True sanctification is not your work, something you have to do to make God happy, but humbling yourself before God, acknowledging that of yourself you have no strength, and receiving the Holy Spirit’s gracious activity. He will do just what Jesus promised He would do. He will bring to you growth in faith and good works, forgiveness when you sin, and the guarantee of eternal life because you are in Christ and He is in you.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.