"Trick or Treat." Are you ready to hear it? Chances are, you’ll hear it a few times this weekend. This is the one time a year that when someone asks a child, "What do you say?" the correct answer is not "Please" or "Thank you!"
It’s an old American pastime — kids going door to door to your friends’ and neighbors’ homes and asking for candy. And the anthem of the season is "Trick or Treat."
But it strikes me that those are really the two options when it comes to religion, too. Either this whole thing is one big trick, or it is the sweetest of treats. Think about it. Religion of any kind comes with sacrifice. There are those religions that tell you to do enough good things to try to make up for the bad they’ve done (but really, we never can undo anything we’ve done). There are those who tell you repeating certain prayers or mantras enough will get you a glorious future (but no matter what I say, it doesn’t change what the truth is). There are even those that tell you to give and give in order to try to buy a clean conscience (If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is). But here’s the thing, true Christianity has its cross. God never said everything would be happy for us here. In fact, read the Sermon on the Mount. It’s just the opposite:
This is what Jesus said in Matthew 5: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Now think about this. You haven’t seen that reward, and yet Jesus tells us to sacrifice, to put others first, to drop our grudges. If we don’t have that treat coming, all the things we do for God here are foolish. If a relationship with God is just about this life, religion is just one big trick.
But here’s the treat. Just like you don’t hold back the candy even from the kids with less impressive costumes or refuse the kids that aren’t so polite, God’s treats are not based on our merit. We don’t deserve it, but he gives it. All those promises Jesus spoke of in that Sermon on the Mount are true because he was persecuted in our place, because he was insulted for our failures, because he died to give us a resurrection and a new life.
And that makes all the difference. Yes, Christians have issues. But the treat is that knowing our eternity of joy in Jesus’ presence makes it possible to handle the pain and the setbacks. So you know the answer to "Trick or Treat?" In Christ, the treat is ours. Come celebrate that joy this Sunday.
The Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Full sermons and more information can be found at www.abidinggrace.com.