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The entire world is engaged in one huge contest for self-justification and self-worth. Everyone in the world, including you and me, is involved in one giant competition to prove ourselves worthy and to show that we deserve respect and admiration.
This is really clear on Facebook. Facebook is really one big arena in which we are engaged in the contest to prove our worth and value. What do you do on Facebook? You make yourself look good so that you can be “liked” by other people. And so we post only the most attractive pictures of ourselves and the cutest pictures of our children. We let everyone know what cool thing we’re doing today, or we show off the awesome place we went on vacation. We let everyone know the charities we support. We do everything we can to earn some points and be liked.
And it’s a heated competition. We affirm people with likes or we burn people with harsh comments about their looks, or their bad choices, or their dumb beliefs. We put our lives out for approval and we criticize and judge the lives of others. It’s one big competition to prove our worth and value.
But Facebook only scratches the surface. We play this game, it seems, wherever we go and whatever we do. Think about all the ways we try to prove ourselves worthy and show that we deserve respect and admiration.
We play this game with our jobs. It’s not enough just to do our jobs and to serve our neighbor. No, at work, we constantly try to prove to others that we know what we’re talking about, that we know what we’re doing. We desperately want people to affirm that we do good work, and that we’re valuable. And we’re insulted and humiliated when people have to correct our mistakes or tell us what to do.
We play the game with our clothes, our appearance, our homes. We try to look like we’ve got our lives together by the way we dress, or by the way our yard looks, or by the way our house is decorated. We look down on others who aren’t as well put together as we are, as if they’re less of a person.
And there’s a far more subtle and insidious way this game gets played here, at ORLC. Let me explain what I mean. The Eighth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” And the Small Catechism explains what this means: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on all his words and actions.” And honestly, why wouldn’t you want to think and speak well of your brothers and sisters in Christ; why wouldn’t you want to explain their words and actions in the kindest way? Don’t you love them? Aren’t you thankful that God has redeemed them and placed them into your life as a gift here at Our Redeemer?
But that’s not what happens. No, instead, someone says or does something that you don’t understand or that doesn’t fit your expectations or that just strikes you as off, and what do you do? You put the worst construction on it. You assume that whatever was done or said is a case of ill-will and malicious intent or incompetence—that there’s no other explanation except that this person is either just mean or stupid or lacking in some major way. And then you make harsh judgments and criticisms about them—of course, not to them—you go slander them and rundown their reputation to someone else. You say things like, “That person is stubborn and hard-headed and just wants to bully the rest of us into doing things his way.” Or you say something like, “That person is young and inexperienced and doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Or, if something doesn’t happen just the way you think it should, you say, “That person or that board isn’t doing their job; they’re not doing what they should be.”
And the reason we don’t put the best construction on the words and actions of others, the reason we don’t think and speak well of them is because we’re always more concerned with keeping score, measuring ourselves against others, proving our self-worth, and being in the right. You can put the worst construction on others, cut them down with your criticisms and judgments, and the whole while you can pat yourself on the back for being smarter, nicer, more experienced, or whatever. It’s the game of self-justification—slander others and drag down their reputation in order for you to look good by comparison, to prove yourself worthy and deserving of respect and admiration.
We play this game, it seems, wherever we go and whatever we do. And make no mistake about it, if we’re playing the game of proving our value and self-worth, then we are not living in God’s love for us. The game of self-justification and God’s love are wholly and utterly incompatible. To continue keeping score and trying to prove our value and self-worth is to ignore and turn our backs on what God is doing in and through his Son Jesus.
Because through Jesus, God is at work to bring it all to an end. God is at work, through Jesus, to put an end to the competition, and set us free from this cutthroat game. And the way God deals with it is simple. God has sent his Son to love us unconditionally. Unconditionally-no points and no scorecards! God has sent his Son to love us without regard for what we’ve done, without notice of what we’ve accomplished, without care for how we look or how we measure up. God has sent his Son to love us apart from and even despite any merit or worthiness in us.
In our epistle reading, Paul describes exactly what God is up to. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God didn’t sit around waiting until we got our act together before he loved us. God didn’t send his Son because he knew we were awesome people. God didn’t send his Son because he knew that we would pay him back with thankfulness and good works. Jesus didn’t die for us because God thought, “You know, that guy’s got potential. If I just give him a chance, I bet he’ll be something.” No! God did not send his Son because we were worthy. In fact, it was the exact opposite. God saw that we were weak, sinners, enemies of God. God saw that there was nothing lovable in us. Paul doesn’t say, “Even though we committed some sins, even though we have our faults, God knew that deep down we were really worthy.” No, Paul says, “While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly”—the unlovable, the unworthy, the wretched!
This is God’s love—to throw out all measures of value and worth, to tear up all the score cards, and to love the unlovable. As Paul says, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one might dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Martin Luther captures what Paul is saying so well. He says, “The love of God does not first discover but [rather] creates what is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through attraction to what pleases it.” In other words, human beings love what is attractive. We have affection for something because we find it good or pleasing or beautiful. In order for us to love something, it has to meet certain qualifications first—it has to be something that draws our attention and affection, something that meets our standards and is worthy of our love. The love of God is the opposite. It doesn’t go around looking for what is worthy of its love until it finds it. The love of God has no qualifications. It simply creates what is pleasing and lovely.
God’s love in Jesus Christ has found you. In the waters of baptism, God has given you the fruits of Jesus’ death and he has claimed you as his own. So know this: You are worthy because you are loved by God. You are not loved because you are worthy.
And that means, as far as you are concerned, the game is over and you are free to live. When it comes to your job, you don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re appreciated and valued. You’re free simply to do the work that’s in front of you. When it comes to your clothes, your appearance, and your home, you don’t have to use them as trophies to show you’ve got your lives together. Instead, you’re free to simply enjoy them as God’s good gifts of daily bread.
And, what’s more, you’re free to stop counting, to stop keeping score. When life is about playing the game, we spend a lot of time counting the faults of others and trying to excuse ourselves from our own faults—trying to look good and advance ourselves in the eyes of others, trying to score some points. But you don’t have to prove yourself worthy. You are worthy because God loves you for Christ’s sake. And so, you are free to think and speak well of one another, to explain each other’s words and actions in the kindest way. In fact, you are even free to forgive the faults of others. And you are free to own up to your own faults—confessing your own sin (instead of someone else’s)—knowing that God’s love for you doesn’t depend on your perfection.
You are free to live, day in and day out, not fighting with all of your life to prove yourself, but to receive the day, no matter what it brings, confident in God and in his love for you in Christ Jesus. No points and no scorecards, because God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.