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Scharf: Just keeping it real
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"Just keeping it real." I've learned to dread that statement, because it usually comes with something I'd rather not hear. You know, they say it's important for a public speaker to have a good critic - someone to honestly and objectively evaluate how you're communicating, what you're saying, all that. Well, God has certainly blessed me with that in my wife. You see... How can I put this? My wife doesn't worry about hurting my feelings when I ask how it went after I've preached. In fact, she tells me she wants to make sure I don't get a big head. She is, as she would say, "just keeping it real." At least, that's the line that comes out when I object to just how passionately she takes her assignment of serving as my number one critic.

You see, sometimes the truth needs to hurt for it to help. I realize that. I need to keep it real. The same goes for work, in your marriages, in life, even in your relationship with God - you need a real picture of what is going on. It is all too easy to live in a fantasy world oblivious to where you might be falling short and, as a result, to not live up to your full potential or not even be what you think you are. So today - let's let God's word "keep it real" for us. That's what Paul does in Romans 3:19-28.

He starts, saying, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God." How's that for a real picture of what God's word says to us? I thought my wife was harsh. Paul said if you are honest, there is only one conclusion - condemnation. "No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:20). The law shuts us up - silences every mouth. It says we owe God big time.

But truthfully, every person knows that whether they know God or not. That law is written on all hearts. The conscience testifies to it. If we didn't owe God, why would anyone feel guilty, ever? You can't deny it. The law exists and tells us to stop trying to make excuses or invent some way God owes you something.

Really, that's what was happening to the church in the 16th century. This Sunday is Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church - when we celebrate what happened when God used Martin Luther and those reformers to "keep it real." You see, at that time, the church was trying to show people how they could earn that righteousness verse 20 talks about - by keeping the law.

They taught about the saints who did more than enough good to spare. The pope had extra merit too. And the people could have some of that if they touched the right relics or bought the right indulgences. The church was telling the people all the things they could do to make God owe them something, whether that was saying their "Hail Marys" or "Our Fathers," going on pilgrimages or being "good."

So, as Martin Luther studied God's word, Paul in Romans 3 showed him the reality of what righteousness is according to God's word. Really, that's the heritage of the Lutheran Reformation - go back to Scripture alone - let God keep it real for you, not some church leaders, not public opinion. Don't get distracted by all the "other ways" that are proposed.

It's like in those Sunday afternoon sermon reviews, when I try to defend myself or tell my wife to take it easy - she says, "You asked what I thought. I'm telling you." Well - you are reading this to hear what God has to say about you - so he's telling you. Believe me, I understand not wanting to hear it, wanting to find someone else to blame, coming up with excuses. That seems to be bred into us in our society these days. No one wants to take responsibility. It's always everyone else's fault.

So God's law said - shut your mouth for a second - realize you sin and what that means - you owe God -that's it - nothing short of hell - as much as you protest what you deserve, you don't. I know our society doesn't help us there, telling us we all deserve great things, everybody deserves a trophy. Whether it's the people receiving the handouts thinking they deserve to be taken care of by the government or those who aren't receiving handouts that are upset because those who are have such an "easy life" while "I work so hard." Paul said just be quiet. Look at the mirror of the law - you are not righteous - you deserve nothing. Period.

"But wait a second pastor. I do this and that. I work hard. I deserve..." No - God said: "No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" - be real and realize what God's word says - sin. Look at any human in the spotlight of the law and you see sin. In the mass murderer - sin. In the adulterer - sin. In the boss - sin. In the hard-working employee - sin. In the overburdened mom - sin. In the philanthropist - sin. In Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Teresa - sin. In this columnist - sin. And in every person reading this column - sin.

So tell your pride to stop it. Tell your "hurt and offended" ego to just be quiet. That's what the law does. It tells you to stop making excuses. It shows you all your righteousness is worthless. So be real. Realize you're sunk. But now please, realize what comes next. You need to hear what Paul said next to be able to really keep it real.

Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Worship every Sunday is at 10:30 a.m. Full sermons and more information can be found at