Monday, July 16, 2012

Sermon on Mark 6:14-29, for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, "Keeping a Clear Conscience"

Sermon Outline: 
1.      Intro: “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”--Luther  “my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Herod Antipas is a prime example of how it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience, and why God gave us our conscience to listen to it and  God’s Word; rather than competing voices and interests that would move us to sin. Paul’s example: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” (Acts 24:16)
2.      What is our conscience? Inner voice that testifies (gives witness) to God, and the knowledge of right and wrong. Some describe it as our “moral compass.” Romans 2:15 is key: “They [Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” Shows two things: 1) work of the law is written on our hearts, so conscience bears witness. We know what is right, and that it is demanded of us. Can’t pretend not to know. 2) conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse: The conscience issues “warning sounds” (Wells) when we do wrong. It judges us and accuses us when we do wrong. Conscience both reveals God’s will, and holds us accountable to it, so that we are accused when we disobey.
3.      David Wells says that “Conscience…is more like the moaning of a prisoner in his cell than” a lecturing professor. “It is an alarm signal whose noise can be turned down but not off. It is our [inner] reality, which is inexplicable in the absence of God, and inconsolable apart from his grace.” In other words, conscience doesn’t require deep intellectual knowledge, but the sense of guilt that everyone feels when they do wrong. We can try to quiet the alarm sound, but not turn it off, though we make many other attempts to escape it. And finally, that we have a conscience makes no sense apart from the existence of God, and it cannot be comforted or consoled apart from Him. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Augustine)
4.      Who has a conscience? Everyone. We have no excuse. Herod heard the voice of conscience but ignored it. Terrified conscience that John was raised. Proceeded against his guilty conscience to execute John, fulfilling a foolish oath and trying to save face with his unlawful wife and dinner guests. Sins were multiplying out of his control.
5.      Herod took Herodias, the his step-brother Philip’s wife, to be his own, while both their spouses were still living and married. To the crimes of incest and adultery, Herod would later add the murder of John the Baptist. Stirred up war with the King of Arabia, his father-in-law from his first wife, and Herod’s army was destroyed. His later treacheries got him and his wife exiled to France. “Some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism” (Josephus). His evil came down on his head and others, literally and figuratively.
6.      Herod’s tormented conscience at Jesus’ miracles. His fear and reluctance to kill John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Perplexed by John, but also eager to hear him. Didn’t seem to go much beyond the level of idle entertainment though. Later, this same Herod, at the trial of Jesus, sought idle entertainment by seeking miracles from Jesus, rather than giving a serious audience for truth. Like the men of Athens (Acts 17:20) who “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” He listened, but his heart was not touched. He did not give glory to God or listen to conscience.
7.      Herod Antipas continually ignored his conscience, and it brought great evil down upon himself and here especially John the Baptist, a righteous man. Herod Antipas is an extreme example of one who corrupted his conscience by continual sinning and indulgence in evil. But we should not think his example is extreme and we’re safe from doing the same kind of damage to our conscience by continual sinning or indulgence in evil. There is no such thing as “tame sins” that will only do what we want them to. No harmless, little sins. They will germinate and grow. Ignoring our conscience is a way of giving more and more permission to sin, and greater evil becomes possible. When we give into our sinful passions, sin takes the reins, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can control all the consequences of our actions. This is why we should always strive to keep a clear conscience toward God and man. We should never knowingly violate our conscience.
8.      Listen to your conscience! Stop at a crucial decision, and ask of your conscience (informed by God’s Word) if what we are about to do is good and right. Is it sinful or displeasing to God? Is it hurtful to myself or my neighbor? Is it dishonorable? Is it unlawful, even if we think we can achieve good ends? Are we trying to do evil, so that good may result? Warning flags! Halt! Go no further! All reasons to stop and take a better course of action. Pause and consult God’s Word for wisdom. Seek out advice of trusted believers.
9.      However we should not be permanently paralyzed when we are called to action, but to strive to act boldly in good conscience. It will be impossible to navigate life perfectly without making bad choices and decisions, where sometimes looking back shows our errors. All of us will at times have a guilty conscience, and that’s a good thing! Not that guilt itself is good, but that it means your conscience is working and doing its job! But neither is it good or right to remain burdened with a guilty conscience. A conscience continually weighed down by sin and ignorant of forgiveness may even simply give into sin, thinking there is no remedy. Sins and bad choices rightly grieve us, but we can and must take hold of God’s remedy: laying our sins before God in repentance, and asking for His forgiveness. The conscience is renewed and restored to seek what is good by the knowledge of our forgiveness.
10.  The voice of conscience can be an intensely painful call, when it brings to remembrance things that we’ve regretted. Silencing (or trying to) the voice of conscience is a dangerous path. If we willfully warp our conscience to excuse or justify our sins, then we face the fearful prospect of enabling ourselves to have greater permission with evil. We increase the boundaries of what we are willing to transgress, and find our resistance fading away. Again, the remedy is to seek a clear conscience, not a stifled one. It seems amazing, and it simply is...that God can transfer the guilt of our conscience to His Son Jesus, so that our burden is lifted! We must acknowledge, we must confess our wrongs, but then to do so is freeing and unburdening. The secret then, to a clear conscience is no secret at all! God wants it to be public knowledge and to be openly proclaimed that repentance and forgiveness of sins are found in Jesus Christ!
11.  The conscience that knows that God’s mercy and willingness to forgive is a blessed and free conscience. It is a heart that knows that when we return to the Lord we’re freed from the guilt of sin, and relieved to discover that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13). This is the conscience that is light and free, because in our baptism we have appealed to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as 1 Peter 3:21 tells us. And that appeal to God for a clean conscience is joyfully and faithfully answered with a ‘YES’! “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Co 1:20).
12.  “A clear conscience is a blessing bestowed only by Christ, on account of His [death as our substitute] on the cross (cf. 1 Pet. 3:16), and it simply cannot be [given] by self-effort or [the approval of others]…It is the “blood of Christ” alone that can “purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:14; cf. 10:22).” May we all confess our sins before Jesus and joyfully receive His blessing of a clear conscience to live freely and joyfully in His love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Why is it dangerous to go against the voice of conscience? What does God give us a conscience for? Rom. 2:15. What does it do (say)? Why should we strive for a clear conscience? Cf. Acts 24:16
  2. Who has a conscience? How (or when) is conscience like a prisoner moaning in his cell? How can it’s “alarm sounds” be turned down, but not off? Ps. 32; 51. Why is the existence of conscience unexplainable without God, and its wrestlings inconsolable apart from Christ?
  3. Read Mark 6:14-29. What signs of conscience (and ignored conscience) are evident in Herod’s actions? What consequences faced Herod (and many others) because of his mounting sins? See Josephus, the Jewish historian for corroborating historical evidence about Herod Antipas.
  4. What is the danger of convincing our conscience that we can commit “small sins” while aiming for a good purpose? How does Scripture contradict the idea of the “end justifies the means?” Rom. 12:21
  5. What are two different ways the conscience can be harmed? 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Titus 1:15. What behavior and thinking are responsible for each?
  6. What remedy does the Bible supply for a burdened and guilty conscience? Joel 2:13; Mark 1:15. How is baptism an appeal to God for a clean conscience? 1 Peter 3:16. What act of God provides us with a clean conscience? Heb. 9:14; 10:22. What assurance do we have that God will grant us this promise of forgiveness? 2 Cor. 1:20

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