What Have I Done?

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

The other morning as I was working in Wal-Mart, I saw a young woman with a puzzled look on her face.  Ever since a major remodeling of our store this spring I’ve seen that look regularly.  People want to know where the product they are looking for was moved.  So I was not surprised to find this young woman was in need of directions.  I was surprised at what she wanted to find.  She sheepishly asked me: “Can you tell me where I would find the checkout counters?”

I thought to myself a little bit later: “You’d never find a man asking that question.”  Now, before you start calling me a male chauvinist let me explain.  I say this, not because it is only women who are directionally challenged.  There are more than a few of us men who can manage to get as lost as anyone.  We just seem to have a harder time asking for directions.  And so I definitely can’t imagine too many men willing to admit they couldn’t find their way around something that is laid out as simply as a Wal-Mart superstore.  We would rather wander around aimlessly for a couple of hours than to ask that question.   

When it comes down to it, there are only two reasons not to ask for directions.  (1) You don’t know you are lost.  (2) You don’t want to admit you are lost.  The first is a matter of ignorance; the second a matter of pride.  Either by itself is a problem; both of them together are downright dangerous, even deadly.      

Ignorance and pride.  That describes the spiritual condition of the people of Judah to whom the prophet Jeremiah was called to speak the Word of the Lord.  They were lost.  But they didn’t know it.  And even if they would’ve known, they certainly had no intention of asking for directions.  Their minds were so clouded over with unbelief they didn’t even have enough sense to ask the right question. 

What question is that?  Well, it is part of the Old Testament reading for today and it’s…“The Question That Too Few Ask.” 

Listen again to our text from Jeremiah 8:4-7, and see if you can hear it.

“You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord: When men fall, do they not rise

again?  If one turns away, does he not return?  Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?  They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’  Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.  Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but My people know not the rules of the Lord.”

“What have I done?”  That’s the question God’s people failed to ask in repentance in Jeremiah’s day.  The reason was that these people to whom the Word was being directed didn’t care about the living God, or about God’s Word of Law and Gospel, or about what was right and wrong.  They were willing to know and to have and to bow down to other gods, the false gods of their neighbors, and the imaginary gods of their own sinful minds.  They were lost in unbelief!

 The Lord uses an example from nature to make the point of how this unbelief is a strange phenomenon.  It is contrary to the nature of what you would expect of God’s people.  Nature moves according to the universal laws laid down by God at creation.  In a way unknown to us or them, the birds carry out their annual migrations with amazing precision.  Think of how, for centuries, the legendary swallows have arrived at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano every March 19th and departed on October 23rd.  Yet the people of Judah, with the Lord’s Word to guide them on their way, were lost.  Lost because they would not entertain any thought of guilt.  Lost because they had turned to other gods.  Lost because they no longer understood God’s Word.

Although Israel had been the direct recipient of God’s revelation through Moses and the prophets, there was abysmal scriptural ignorance, even among its teachers.  The scribes were the professional interpreters of the Law of Moses.  They had memorized, studied, and expounded it at great length.  But they did not know anything, because they had thrown away the key to understanding.  Sin and grace, repentance and faith—the heart of God’s message in the Bible—was a mystery to them.  Since they had rejected the kernel of scriptural truth, they were left with only the shell.  Thinking themselves wise, they became fools.  Being fools, they entangled the people with their folly.

What a lesson for us!  Mere knowledge of Scripture—however great it might be—is not wisdom.  Wisdom begins when the sinner trembles before the righteous God.  Wisdom flowers when the forgiven sinner lives by the grace of the Lord.  Without this wisdom, no matter how much a person knows the Bible, he remains in darkness.  In darkness there is no hope.

God’s chosen people, the very same people to whom the promise of the Messiah was to be given, and from whom the Messiah was to be born, were lost.  They were shrouded in the darkness of unbelief.  So dire was their spiritual condition, they didn’t bother to ask themselves, “Is what I’m doing right or wrong?  Is this a sin?  Is that a sin?”  They didn’t care.  They had become a congregation who no longer fully walked together in doctrine and practice, whose individual members continued to drift away from the truth.  And as a result, “each one turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

But this is a course that has departed from the Way of Life.  And it is a path plunging into a battlefield of death.  They have taken to the worship of other gods and now engage in syncretism, that is, an activity whereby other gods are acknowledged, accepted, invoked, and/or worshiped as valid alternatives. 

Such a man might worship this god for a while and that god for a bit.  Consult the astrologer’s charts.  Seek deep secrets in the entrails of animals.  Burn a bit of incense to Baal.  Offer a firstborn son on Molech’s altar.  Consort with a temple prostitute by the Asherah pole.  And then, at his leisure, stride on into the house of the Lord in the imagined fulfillment of a sort of spiritual insurance policy.  Doing so as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Indeed, these people have fallen so far from the truth they are no longer capable of being convicted by God’s Law.  Of such people, the Lord says: “They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’” 

But there comes a day… and it is only by the mercy of God that the day comes… there comes the day when you realize what has happened.  It’s the morning after and you finally wake up to what you have done.  Whether it was physical adultery with some other person, or spiritual adultery with some other god, you finally ask yourself, “What have I done?”

Maybe you’ve neglected your family for the sake of personal gain at work.  Or you’ve been enabling your children and grandchildren to stay away from the Lord and His Church.  Or you’ve been cheating at school.  Or you’ve betrayed someone who trusted you.  Or you’ve let petty disagreements cause disunity.  Or you’ve not walked together with your brothers in the truth.  The day arrives when you come to your senses, and you finally ask, “What have I done?”

Maybe you were causing problems in a congregation.  Or using excuse after excuse to keep from serving the Lord in His Church.  Perhaps the fear of financial insecurity has been holding you back from giving your first and best back to the Lord for the work of His ministry.  Maybe you have foolishly taken the Lord’s means of grace for granted.  Whatever it was—and the transgressions are legion—you wake up the morning after and you ask yourself, “What have I done?”

Do you realize what you’ve done in asking the question, “What have I done?”?  (Pause)  You’ve recognized that there is a standard that you haven’t achieved.  It’s the Law of God, and you’ve broken it, and you are the guilty party.  You did this and you didn’t do that.  You said this and you didn’t say that.  You thought this and you didn’t think that.  To compound your sin, you had not… that is, until this particular morning after… you had not admitted that it even was a sin. 

You’ve transgressed the Lord God Almighty’s commandments and you’ve sinned against Him.  Then, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit works through the Law, granting you a guilty conscience.  Realizing the consequences of your sin (which can be quite terrible), you recognize your utter failure and you finally acknowledge your sin.  In this way, does the soul that has sinned look to the Lord God and cry out for deliverance: “What have I done?” 

And what is the Lord’s reply?  Well certainly, and first of all, He is not angry with those who look to Him and ask, “What have I done?”  The sermon text informs us of that.  Part of the Lord’s criticism was that these people “hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’  Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

So the person who asks the question is being put into a position where the Law is doing its job of accusing the old Adam.  And, as such, he is being put into a posture where the Good News of God’s forgiveness may be announced.

With this in mind, let’s then consider the Lord’s answer to the penitent who asks, “What have I done?”  When the child of God repents; that is, when he confesses his sin and looks to the Lord for forgiveness, what is the Lord’s reply?

The reply is also in the Word of God and it is Good News.   Throughout Scripture to those who feel the burden of their sin, who confess their sin, and who look to Him for forgiveness, the Lord says this most wonderful Gospel: 

“Yes, this is what you have done.  But my dear child, I want you to listen to what I have done!  I have given you My Word and promised the Savior.  As I promised to Abraham, so I promise you: ‘I AM your shield, your very great reward.’  And this is in spite of what you have done, and this is not because of anything that you could do.  Your hope is because of what I have done and what I will do.  Even though you’ve sinned greatly and grievously, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine” (Isaiah 43:1). 

“Yes, you’ve been in bondage and, because of your many transgressions, you deserve to die fettered in the chains that are linked from the prison in this world to hell in eternity.  But I AM the perfect Passover Lamb whose death has given you life, whose body is food for your soul, and whose shed blood stained the wooden portal and covered you in the household of the faithful. 

“Fear not, for the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world lives.  And you may join Job in confessing the truth of the resurrection ... that you know that your Redeemer lives.  Indeed, ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.’”

Yes, you, who once followed the natural inclinations of your sinful heart and the ways of the world, are sons of God the Father.  And through His Son, you have a re-created heart and the Lord dwells within you.  It is no longer you who lives but the Redeemer who lives with you and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

What does this mean?  Well, consider a couple examples that take place every day in this world.  Sometimes, as people walk about, they fall down.  What do they do then?  Well, they get back up and continue on their way.  And when someone goes out the door to go to the store or even off to war, it is generally with the intention of returning to the house.  So it is also for the Lord’s people in the Church… they stumble and they get up… they walk out and they return.

What happens when they don’t do this?  Listen to a portion of the text once more: “When men fall, do they not rise again?  If one turns away, does he not return?  Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?” 

The child of God, though he stumbles daily in his old sinful nature and falls to sin, yet through holy Baptism will he, “by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and, that a new man should daily arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism).

The child of God, though he walks out of the house of the Lord having heard the Benediction, and walks into the world where the inevitable happens sooner rather than later, will he not one day return to the house.  That is, will he not repent and make confession? 

Certainly, for “confession has two parts.  First that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven” (Small Catechism).

This Good News ought to produce in us a habitual hunger and a recurring thirst that draws us back each week to the Lord’s Table similar to the way that migratory birds return to their place each year.  But all too often, even with those who claim to be the children of God, this does not happen.  As God proclaims through Jeremiah in our text, “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep their time of coming, but My people do not know the rules of the Lord.”

In the Large Catechism, Luther puts it this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament?  To such a person no better advice can be given than this!  First, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood.  Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it.  Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say.  Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace within or without.”

So today, the Lord waits to hear the question that too few ask.  He waits for His people who have fallen to get back up, to ask the question, “What have I done?”, and to return once more to His holy house, to receive His means of grace. 

And then, when these penitents enter the gracious presence of the Lord, they hear the Word of Good News… that they have eternal life and salvation.  And they hear God speak through the voice of His called and ordained servant: You are forgiven all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

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