"Dear God, I've got an empty sack..."

by Rev. Matthew Harrison

empty bagMy dad loved to go to the early service—always the early service, and the earlier the better. He would have loved to have Easter sunrise service every Sunday of the year! But it was a different story for my brother and me. Church? Forget it. I’d rather sleep in since my brother and I liked to stay up as late as we possibly could on Saturday night.

Dad had the habit of saying the most un-cool things at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning: “Come on boys! Up and at ‘em!” Then, if we lay in the sack too long, he’d go grab a towel or wash cloth, soak it in the coldest water possible, and come and throw it on any exposed skin (usually a face, sometimes a back).

Then the routine was simple for me. Get dressed. Wolf down any available food. Hassle my little sister until she lodged a formal complaint with my parents—you know, normal stuff.

I thank God now for my dad’s dogged persistence and his no-questions-asked, we’re-going-to-church-buddy-so-change-your-attitude attitude. My parents gave me something very important. They taught me that Christians go to church, but it wasn’t until many years later that I managed to figure out just why we go to church!

Why go to church? To learn about God. To give our time, talent and treasure back to God. To show God how we care about him. To worship God. Great answers, but they all miss the main point—Jesus.

I once read a sermon by Martin Luther, which forever changed how I look at going to church. Luther said to think about going to church with an empty sack. What’s the first thing you do in church? You confess,“I, a poor miserable sinner...”How we love to confess,“Oh Almighty God, my brother, my dad or mom, is a poor miserable sinner,” or “I thank Thee, Lord, I’m not like other men” (Luke 17). But here, finally, there are no more excuses. The problem is ME. This is simply saying,“Dear God, I’ve got an empty sack.”

Then what happens? The pastor says, “In the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you.” It’s as good as Jesus saying it himself (John 20)! And at just that moment, God throws a heap of grace, mercy, and peace into your empty sack! You do nothing; you only receive, mouth hanging open, looking down into your bag, amazed at the gift. And what do you say? “AMEN!” That is,“Yep! I got it God! It’s in the bag!” And then comes more.

The lessons are read, and more grace and love and mercy from God are piled into the bag! After the gospel is read you say,“Thanks be to God! Yep! In the bag!” Hymns are sung which speak of Christ and His birth, life, death, and resurrection for you. Then the sermon is preached. The gospel of free forgiveness from Jesus is dished up and delivered to you. And the very forgiveness spoken about actually happens (Rom. 1:16)! The sermon ends with an “Amen!” And don’t just let the pastor have that “Amen” at the end of the sermon. You say it with him. By doing so you say,“Yep! I believe it! Jesus is mine. It’s in the bag!”

Then comes the Lord’s Supper.“Take and eat...” and you respond,“Amen! Got it!” Then comes the blessing,“The Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you....”You respond,“Amen, Amen, Amen! I got it! It’s in the bag! And it’s heaping full!” By the end of the service your sack is heaped full of God’s forgiveness and grace and mercy. All your sins are forgiven. Do you see how foolish it is to whine,“I don’t get anything out of it” even when the sermon doesn’t strike home?

Then, bag full, you merrily head out of church. First thing you know, your dad sins against you by thinking you did something when you didn’t; or your sister proceeds to generally make life miserable for you; or that kid at school whom you really actually hate makes you seethe with anger. What do you do? You pull that full bag off your shoulder and smack ‘em right over the head with it? –No!

You pull that sack of forgiveness off your back and say, “Christ has given me this sack of forgiveness and love and mercy. Here, I want to give you some forgiveness.”

And so it goes through the week. Mercy  and love for the teacher who drives you insane. Forgiveness and prayers for the bully who makes your life miserable. Grace to “put the best meaning” on things, instead of gossiping. Strength of faith and hope and love, to help someone in time of need. But you fail time and again, and scoop up that grace and mercy for yourself, until you’re back at church, back on your knees, confessing something true: “Dear God, I’ve got an empty sack.”

Luther got it exactly right. Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee went to church and prayed loudly,“Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other men. I pray. I fast. I give a tenth of all I get.” He was saying, “I’ve got a full sack, God. I filled it. And I’m proud of it.” 

He did not realize that our relationship with God is not primarily about what we do. It’s about what God does for us in Christ. If we won’t have an empty sack, we’ll have no God to fill it for us. But standing far off from the Pharisee, there was another man. He beat his chest, knowing full well that he was a sinner. He prayed,“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said.“that man went away justified—forgiven.”

This Sunday, every time you say “Amen” in the liturgy, or after the sermon, or at the Lord’s Supper, take note of what just got dropped in your sack! It’s Jesus and His forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

This article originally appeared in Winter 2003 ed of the Higher Things Magazine.

Created: July 29th, 2010