From God's lips to our ears
The Augsburg Confession draws a line in the sand. In fact, all the Lutheran Confessions – the Augsburg Confession and its Defense, the Catechisms of Dr. Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord – all the Lutheran confessions of faith draw a line in the sand saying, “Here we stand; over there the devil.”
The Lutheran Church draws the line right where Paul does. On one side, the words God speaks. On the other, the words man speaks or invents, whether those words come from traditions, or popes, or feelings, or emotions, or experience.
The Lutheran Church, with Paul, reverses a common expression. People say, “From your lips to God’s ears.” They intend that whatever said should go straight to God and either be kept secret or God should act on it. Paul reverses it. For the Christian, for the Lutheran, for Paul, for us, it’s, “From God’s lips to our ears.”
That doesn’t seem to be much of a line. Don’t popes and rabbis claim that their traditions come from God? Don’t those with feelings or emotions say “God laid it on my heart”? Don’t we chalk up experience to “God’s plan” and “God’s will”?
It’s true; people claim a direct line to God’s lips. Paul’s Jewish opponents did. Paul opens Romans 10 saying, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Paul lives in agony over this. In Romans 9 he wishes that he could be sent to hell in exchange for fellow Jews who’ve rejected Jesus; though Paul makes it clear that Jewish condemnation isn’t God’s random act. God chose them as his people. They rejected God’s Christ and the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. Remember that whole crucifixion business? And the crucifixion really was just the last great rejection. The Jews, zealous as they were for God, did everything in ignorance. They sought righteousness not from faith in Christ, but from their works. They hitched their star to their own abilities. They rejected Christ in their hearts; then physically at the cross when they nailed him to it.
They stood on the other side of that line in the sand. They stood on the side of traditions, feelings, emotions, experiences, and the popes. Jesus told them once, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Thus, Jesus concluded: “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”
There it is: the line in the sand. On one side: the word of God. On the other: the word of man. On one side: “From God’s lips to our ears.” On the other: “From my lips to God’s ears.”
We see the pinnacle of arrogance and the original sin. Seven years after Augsburg Luther wrote in another Lutheran confession of faith, the Smalcald Articles, “All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts. He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride…. In the same way, our enthusiasts today condemn the outward Word. Yet they themselves are not silent. They fill the world with their babblings and writings, as if the Spirit could not come through the apostles’ writings and spoken Word but has to come through their writings and words.”
Paul hammers this in Romans 10, describing God’s lips: “the righteousness that is by faith says”; “the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart”; “the word of faith we are proclaiming”; “the Scripture says”; “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”; “how can they hear without someone preaching to them”; “faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
Paul draws the line in the sand. On this side: God’s lips. On that side: man’s lips. If it’s not God speaking, then it’s us speaking. Then we may be, as Paul said, as zealous as all get out, “but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” So we must look for God’s lips moving. God must speak. Instead of what we usually do: turn God into a ventriloquist’s dummy.
That’s what Israel did when they chased righteousness by works, trying to attain heaven by Sabbath observance, a perfect kosher diet, and perfect sacrifices.
It’s what the Roman Church did – and does – when it offers you indulgences to buy, when it says that the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, is a sacrifice you offer to God to get yourself and your dead relatives out of purgatory.
It’s what our American Evangelical churches do when they compel you to make a decision for Christ and turn the sacraments into arrow-up proofs of my faith and love for God.
It’s what sinners like us do when we move God’s lips and defend our own actions with words like, “I think this is right” or “God laid it on my heart” or “God’s will!” How do you know it’s God and not indigestion or the devil?
We know when it’s from God’s lips to our ears; that is when it’s the word of God. Moses, Isaiah, and Paul talk about that today and all use the same word to do so. The word for “word” in the Greek versions of Deuteronomy 30 and Isaiah 55, “The word is near you” and “My word will not return to me empty” and Romans 10, “the word is near you”, “the word of faith we proclaim”, and “the message is heard through the word of Christ” is rema. We speak a rema. We take one rema and put it with another to make a phrase, then a few more make a sentence, then a paragraph. A living voice utters a rema. Our vocal cords produce them. So do pens when put to paper.
Thus Paul quotes Deuteronomy and assures us that we don’t have to soar into heaven or dive into hell to find God’s will or word. It’s near you, in your mouth and heart. Now, that starts to sound like we’re crossing that line in the sand again, that we’ll just feel what God wants. No, that’s not the point Paul or Moses make. Notice how Paul interprets “the word is near you…in your mouth and heart”: “that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming.”
God sends his word out: from his lips to our ears. Not first into our hearts, but first to our ears. God speaks his words. He gives his words. Paul quoted Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” God sends reporters, heralds, ambassadors to speak his message. We don’t get it by osmosis, but by hearing, hearing the message, the word, the rema, of Christ! Paul said that to the Corinthians and Galatians. To the Corinthians: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” That knowledge didn’t lounge in Paul’s head. He told the Galatians, “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” The Galatians weren’t in Jerusalem, yet they saw the crucifixion. Paul proclaimed it to them.
There is no other way. Paul asks questions: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” Our Lutheran fathers came to the same conclusion. Larry read it: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.” “In those who hear the gospel”! And in no one else. No other name saves, and that name only saves when spoken: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
This makes the plight of Paul’s Jewish brothers so sad. They had the word. Paul says in Romans 10:18-21: “Did they not hear? Of course they did….But concerning Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’”
Just hearing and having the Word isn’t enough. Otherwise things wouldn’t have gotten so bad in the Roman Catholic Church to force the Augsburg Confession. Rome had the Word in spades: the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, lessons, the Lord’s Supper, the liturgy. What stands at the center of those words we just heard from Paul makes the difference, another line in the sand: faith. You can’t confess Jesus without believing in Jesus. You can’t believe in Jesus without confessing him. And you can’t believe or confess without the Spirit working through the Word.
By God’s grace we have that Word. We have that word that terrifies us with our sins, as God’s preachers preach God’s law to us and expose us, damn us, and by that same grace God drives us to faith in his promise and brings us to life through that word of forgiveness: “My son Jesus became those sins for you.” We have that word of forgiveness that God speaks to us in Christ, the voice of God showing us, as it showed the Galatians, Christ crucified FOR ME and Christ raised from the dead FOR ME!
There’s the line in the sand. On one side, man’s words and attempts to send words from our lips to God’s ears, to control God’s lips. On the other, God’s words, God’s zeal for us demonstrated when he sent His Son to bear our curse, to die, to live, and more, sending preachers with words, spoken words, written words, tasted words, words that wash us, cleanse us, feed us and nourish us in Baptism and Sacrament, words that speak from God’s lips to our ears, “Call on me. I won’t disappoint. Believe in me. I won’t shame you. Jesus has come and brings rescue eternal, for you!” Amen.