Sermons, Uncategorized

Pretty as a Picture; Ugly as Sin

Dorian Gray

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And [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a thought provoking tale that plays on the difference between what is on the inside of a man versus what is seen on the outside.

An artist named Basil Hallward meets a young man named Dorian Gray. Impressed by Gray’s beautiful physical appearance, Hallward paints a picture of him. A friend of Basil’s named Lord Henry Wotton promotes a worldview that beauty and sensual desire are the most important things in life. Falling under the influence of this philosophy, Dorian wrestles with the harsh reality that his beauty will one day fade and thinks aloud that if only the picture could age instead of himself, he would sell his soul. A Faustian bit of magic grants this request, with the caveat that the picture will not only age instead of Gray, but also take on the changes in appearance for all the evil acts the man commits.

Dorian Gray therefore goes through year after year of life looking perfect and beautiful on the outside, while his picture becomes hideous and disfigured, the embodiment of all the evil within him. He remains “pretty as a picture” while the picture becomes “ugly as sin.” Only in the end, as a distraught Dorian stabs the picture trying to cover the evidence of his own depravity, does he become the picture, dying with a knife through his own sin-filled heart, and leaving behind his own twisted corpse, a final hideous representation of his own sins.

The connection to the text is clear: the evil that is on the inside of each of us doesn’t show itself at first, but is eventually revealed in our actions and attitudes. Even when we can keep it hidden, in the end, judgment brings to light all the evil we would try to hide.

In our Gospel Reading last week, Jesus faced the criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes because He and His disciples did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders” but ate “with defiled hands.” Jesus took them to task for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” and “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.”

But Jesus does not simply refute and criticize the Pharisees, this week He also teaches the people the correct understanding of God’s will and human nature. Jesus turns the pharisaical conception of impurity upside down. What defiles a person is not what goes into a person—what they eat or drink—but the darkness that lurks within their hearts. You can’t whitewash a tomb and rid it of the corruption of death it contains inside. A pretty façade won’t fix a building that is structurally unsound.

We are a “beauty is skin deep” culture that too often judges value by appearance. But even worse is how we judge sin. Our nature is to focus on external sin rather than on internal sin—the outward actions rather the source.

We are much like the Pharisees in focusing on external sins of others rather than recognizing and repenting of the sins that come from within ourselves. We see a married man hold hands in public with a woman twenty-five years younger, not his wife, and assume the worst, but we don’t see what’s going on in our hearts when we flip the remote back to the channel we shouldn’t see. We see a woman flaunting her furs and jewelry, but we don’t see the envy and greed that surge through our heart. We see the story in the paper about the latest mass shooting, but we don’t see how being angry with someone at church is murder too.

What is inside of us is killing us. We are also those people who may look okay on the outside but are actually dying on the inside.

The old radio show The Shadow always began by asking, “Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Well, someone knows even better than the Shadow. Jesus pointed out the evil that lurks in our hearts that we may be able to hide from others. It’s not what goes into us but what is inside of us that is killing us. We are sinners, by nature, wicked and rotten to the core.

God looks into the heart, not to outward behavior. And like a spiritual MRI, Jesus diagnoses the source of our problem—the condition of our heart: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now, if I’m not mistaken, Jesus just told you that all of these things come from your heart, and that they defile you. And I also did not hear the word “if”—if these things proceed from your heart they will defile you. No, our Lord tells us that in fact all of these things proceed from all of our hearts.

Beginning with sexual immorality, twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions are combined in a dreadful litany of vices. The first six are in the plural form and describe behaviors; the last six are in the singular and have more to do with attitudes. These twelve vices, all of which come from within, leave no doubt to the wretched impurity of the fallen human heart. These things rage first within the heart and them come out in actions and attitudes.

Dear Christians, it is essential to our eternal welfare that we understand the seriousness of our situation. Sin, the transgression—the breaking—of God’s Law, is not limited to outward sinful acts—the evil things that we’ve done, the good things we’ve failed to do. You are fooling yourself if you think you’re doing all right simply because you haven’t killed anyone yet, never had a marital affair, committed grand theft, or perjured yourself in a court of law. All of us have sinned against God through anger, lust, covetousness, failure to help another, the list goes on and on. Jesus looks into the hearts of man and sees that nothing proceeds but sin and iniquity. This has been the case for all men since the birth of Cain and Abel.

Now, the world around us likes to put in its own two cents about the goodness or badness, if you will, of mankind. One popular notion is that man is basically good, and that it’s the evil found in society that corrupts him. If we just fix society, then people will be free to live out their basically good lives. Another idea that is popular among Christians is that man is born neutral—that young children are neither good nor sinful, and their upbringing will determine what kind of people they are to become.

Scripture, however, says something else entirely. It tells us that the desires of man’s heart are only evil continually, that through one man sin came into the world, and on account of sin, death. Scripture further declares that we are conceived and born in sin. So much for being basically good!

So, can’t we do something about it? Knowing that we have original sin, doesn’t that just mean that we need to try harder?

Well again, what does Scripture say? It says that we are born dead in our trespasses and sins, following the course of the world, living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath. The last time I checked, dead people can’t do much for themselves. And even if we could, it’s pretty clear that we would not want to. And even if we wanted to, Scripture also tells us that the wages of sin is death, and that one who breaks the minutest detail of law is guilty of breaking it all. So much for evening the score and making up for our own sin and guilt!

Jesus points to the condition of our hearts because He wants us to recognize our fallen nature—that we’re not sinful because we sin, but rather we sin because we’re sinful. It all begins in the heart, which is sinful and is deserving of everlasting death even before one is born and breathes air for the first time. Jesus teaches that people are not defiled by food or things entering the body from the outside, but rather by their own evil inclinations and sinful behaviors.

This teaching exposes the uselessness of our own excuse-making and self-justification. It dismisses our claims that other people and things are to blame for our shortcomings and failures. It demonstrates the futility of simply trying harder to not sin and do the right thing.

However, Jesus does not merely condemn; He also sets free. It takes something completely outside of you to wash you clean on the inside. God looked into His heart, not yours, to devise a plan for our salvation. It wasn’t anything inside you that paid for your sins—no good, pure thoughts of the heart, no outward action that would please the strictest Pharisee. It was the God of heaven, infinitely above us, completely outside of us, who came to earth and paid the price for sin: His life on the cross. Look away from yourselves; look to Jesus up there on the cross; His pure, undefiled, sinless heart broken, pierced through for our sinful ones.

And then the Holy Spirit—from outside—comes into our sinful hearts and brings the cleansing of Jesus’ death. He comes to you in the water of Baptism, which washes away your sins in a miraculous way. He speaks to you, not in a whisper from within (our sinful hearts could play all kinds of tricks with that!), but in God’s external Word—of preaching, of absolution, when you read and study the Bible—and He declares you pure, holy, and forgiven. And while nothing outside a person and coming into him can defile you, taking into yourself Jesus’ very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper does purify you. It brings forgiveness so real to you that you can taste it.

Through the means of grace—God’s Word and Sacraments—God creates faith in your hearts. And a heart of faith is a clean heart, purified of that sin within, and it receives eternal life. In Christ, you are washed clean of the sin lurking on the inside. Your heart is no longer ugly as sin, but pretty as a picture—the loving heart of Christ. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Cleansed by the Thrice Holy God and Sent to Serve

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“Isaiah under Divine Inspiration” by Marc Chagall

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:1-6).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It sounds like a scene that could only come from a feverish dream or the computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the latest Marvel superhero motion picture. The King sits on a throne, high and lifted up, the train of His robe filling the temple. Above Him are strange, supernatural creatures, each having six wings, two covering his face, two his feet, and with two flying. As they cry out, the foundations shake down to the bedrock, and the whole house is filled with smoke.

But it’s not a feverish dream, or CGI special effects, it is an historical event. It is the year 740 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. The prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne in the inner sanctum of the temple. But it’s hard to tell if the prophet is seeing the throne room of heaven or the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.

But there’s a good reason for this confusion: The Holy of Holies is the Lord’s home on earth. When the temple was first completed and dedicated, the Lord appeared in a cloud of glory and descended into the Holy of Holies to dwell with His people. In a very real way, in Isaiah’s time, the Holy of Holies is where heaven and earth come together, for the one true God is enthroned in both places.

The six-winged creatures flying above the throne are seraphim, attendants to the Lord Most High. Little is known about them. This is the only place where these spiritual beings are mentioned by name in Scripture. They seem to be nobles among the angels of God and superior in rank. But what is more important than speculation about their special position among the angels, is the action of these heavenly beings. With their wings, they hide their faces and cover their feet. They are not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord, and their actions reveal their great reverence for Him and their great humility in His presence.

Imagine that! These powerful and holy creatures consider themselves unworthy to stand with uncovered feet and faces in the presence of God—so great is His holiness! Isaiah sees them flying, hovering about the throne and calling out to one another in praise of the Lord. The chief occupation of these heavenly beings is praise. Here, they offer an antiphonal hymn as they call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The truest worship of God is pure and simple praise and confession. The sound of this angelic hymn shakes the doorposts and thresholds of the heavenly temple.

The One seated on the throne is the Thrice Holy: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He alone is worthy to be praised. He is set apart, perfect in every respect, and exalted above all things—including the angels of heaven. But God’s holiness also means that He is separate and opposite from all sin. He hates sin and must destroy sin like an antiseptic must attack bacteria. He would cease to be holy if He did not oppose sin and all its consequences.

Realizing he stands in the presence of the Thrice Holy, Isaiah is terror stricken. “Woe is me!” he cries out, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” As he looks upon the Lord in His holiness and glory, Isaiah’s own sin become clearer. The brighter the light, the more apparent are blemishes, stains, and scars; the nearer to God’s glory, the more evident is man’s wretchedness and sinfulness. The contrast is unmistakable, and Isaiah knows there is nothing he can do to make it any different. He is a dead man, a damned man.

But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something. He sends a seraph, who takes a burning coal from the altar. The seraph touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” The Lord makes Isaiah holy through the hand and voice of His ministering spirit. Now, Isaiah can be in the presence of God and live. Now, Isaiah can speak God’s holy Word: for the Lord has opened his lips, and Isaiah’s mouth will show forth His praise. All because the holiness of God exposed the sinfulness of Isaiah, leading him to repent, and to receive God’s grace and forgiveness.

One of the problems that the Church encounters today is simply this: people have far too high opinion of themselves. As long as this is true, they will see little need for Jesus and His perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Some of this is natural—at least according to the sinful nature. Blinded by sin, people cannot know how terribly unholy and apart from God they are. Furthermore, tempted by the devil to believe that they can be like God, people will find a way to justify the sins they commit.

You see it in society. Our culture has made a god out of self-esteem: it teaches that the key to success is feeling good about yourself. This is a problem in education, where a prevalent philosophy seems to be that it is better to pass a child who doesn’t know math, because we don’t want him to feel bad about himself.

It is a huge problem in matters of morality, where many seem to buy into the idea that, “I’m basically a good person; so whatever I do must be basically good, too. If you object to something I do, it’s not that I’m wrong or immoral. The problem is that you’re intolerant.”

This presents a great danger in therapy, too: for rather than help a troubled person overcome a sinful behavior, a therapist might instead help the person feel good about the sin.

But enough of the obvious examples in the world. If all we do is point out the troubles of other people, guess what will happen—we’ll end up feeling like we’re better than them and good about ourselves!

The harsh reality is that you have too high opinion of yourself. So do I. It’s that old sinful nature at work, tempting us to believe that we’re not that bad, that we’re actually decent people. Now, by the grace of God, you and I are willing to confess with Scripture that we’re poor miserable sinners; but are we willing to confess how truly sinful we are? Do we realize how sinful we are? We’re not just less than we should be; left to ourselves, we’re utterly sinful and unholy, completely undeserving of God’s grace and mercy. Unfit to come into God’s holy presence for even a moment.

Please don’t misunderstand: the point of this sermon is not that you should run away from God. Rather, it is that you and I are in constant need of repentance for failing to acknowledge how sinful we are, how undeserving of grace and mercy we are. See, if we think we’re reasonably good people, we’ll also believe that we’re only partially sinful. If we think we’re somewhat righteous on our own, we won’t look to the Lord to credit us with all His righteousness.

The truth from God’s Law, sounds brutal to protesting sinful ears. We don’t deserve God’s presence and mercy. We’re far too sinful, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something about it, and He has.

The Father sent His Holy One, Jesus, to live a perfect, sinless, and holy life for you. God’s sinless Son, became the sacrifice to pay the price for your sins and gain your salvation. Now when God sees you, He sees you clothed in the righteousness of Christ. You are now holy in His sight (Colossians 1:22).

Jesus became the sinner who was forsaken on the cross and cast from the Father’s presence so that you might dwell with Him forever. Before the Thrice Holy made the world, He chose you in Christ Jesus to be His child (Ephesians 1:4). Just as Isaiah was cleansed when the coal from the altar touched his lips, so the Father has cleansed you in the waters of your Baptism, uniting you to Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14). In Christ, He made you new creations who love Him, trust in Him, and have His power to live holy lives. You are now His saints, His “holy ones.”

As you strive to live as the saints God created you to be, you are not alone. The Thrice Holy—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is with you always. The Holy Spirit given to you in Baptism works to conform you to the image of Christ. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death the old Adam that your new man would arise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. At the altar, the place where heaven and earth meet, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

The Lord no longer holds your sins against you. Instead, He forgives you. He makes you righteous. He welcomes you into His presence, now and forevermore. Then, He sends you out into the world to share this Good News with your family, friends, and neighbors.

There is no greater hope or comfort than this—but only for repentant sinners. Those who think too highly of themselves will find little comfort in the news of forgiveness now; and they will find no comfort in themselves on Judgment Day. But this is not for you: by the grace of God, you confess your sinfulness. You know it doesn’t damage you to tell the truth about your sin, but instead frees you from the slavery that would have you try to make yourself righteous. And as you grow in faith, you’re not surprised that you feel more sinful—for as you grow in faith, your recognition of sin will grow, too; but so will the joy and comfort of the forgiveness that the Lord gives you.

Dear friends, the Lord has better for you than you feeling good about yourself for a while. Confess your sins and your sinfulness beyond what you can comprehend; and rejoice to hear the words of the Thrice Holy Lord:

“Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.