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This sermon was originally preached at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Come on, don’t you know that there’s a war on?”
This was a common phrase that you might have heard during World War I or World War II if you lived in the United States or the UK. It was often said tongue-in-cheek; it was sometimes used to reprimand people who were complaining about rationing or various extra wartime duties required of the civilian populace. It reminded people that, for the time being, they had to set aside their own personal desires and wants, and instead see to the care and needs of the nation and the military first and foremost. And perhaps in one of those most rare occasions, it may have been said to remind someone that yes there was indeed a war going on, and how could they have forgotten?
It seems sometimes that here, in the United States, we forget that there’s a war going on. We’ve had soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since I was about 10 years old, which means that we have been involved in constant warfare for nearly two decades. Being at war has become commonplace. The fact that we are at war has, for most of us, faded into the background. So, being stateside in the US, we sometimes forget that there indeed is a war going on. Afghanistan and Iraq are far away, on the other side of the globe, and very few of us, outside of members of the military, actually go to those places. We wouldn’t be able to tell you what Kandahar or Mosul look like, and very few of us would be able to say anything knowledgeable about desert warfare or the stresses and fears and concerns faced by men and women fighting in uniform over there. That’s because for us, there isn’t a war on. But the war really doesn’t impinge on our lives, unless we have family members and friends who are serving overseas in the military, fighting actively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our lives go on unimpeded. We don’t have to think about IED attacks, snipers, or suicide bombers or any other kind of enemy combatants. For us, life goes on as usual and we feel we are pretty safe. Or so we think.
Today, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, our lectionary readings remind us that there is indeed a war on, but another war— one in which we are on the front lines. Perhaps it’s even more accurate to say, we’re in the no-man’s land between the two fronts. On one side, we have the Devil and all his demons, seeking to destroy the children of God and bring them to despair and unbelief. And on the other, we have the hosts of heaven under the command of the archangel Michael, fighting valiantly to protect Christians from the attacks of demons and devils. It’s a very real war, with very real casualties and with very real stakes. Luther says in his 1532 sermon for Michaelmas,
“Now you have often heard that the devil is around people everywhere, in palaces, in houses, in the field, on the streets, in the water, in the forest, in fire; devils are everywhere. All they ever do is seek man’s destruction….and it is certainly true, were God not continually to put restraints on the evil foe, he would not leave one little kernel of grain in the field or on the ground, no fish in the water, no piece of meat in the pot, no drop of water, beer, or wine in the cellar uncontaminated, nor would he leave a sound member of our bodies….we are in grave danger every day and night as targets of the devil. He always has a crossbow stretched tight and a gun loaded, taking aim to strike us with pestilence, syphilis, war, fire, and violent weather.”
Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. Eugene F. A. Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 7:375, 380
Nothing makes the Devil happier than to lead people to destruction and to bring them to harm, especially to drive them to sin and unbelief. He does this through the work of his demons and through the sinful and fallen world, with the aim of tempting people away from their faith in their Savior. And how does he do this? Well, as Luther says, with all manner of attacks, attacking us in mind, body, and spirit, harming our bodies, but especially attacking our souls through temptation,
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says that temptations to sin— skandala, in Greek, where our word “scandal” comes from— must come in this fallen, sinful world, and woe to it for that reason! It’s an unfortunate part of reality. When Adam and Eve were first tempted by Satan to doubt God’s word and good will for humanity, creation cracked, and sin pervaded it. Thus temptation to sin is built into the fabric of our world, a discordant thread woven into creation. It is a conduit for Satan and his minions to attack people, especially God’s saints, his little ones. And Jesus takes it further— “nevertheless, woe to the one by whom such temptation to sin comes!”
Have you ever been tempted? Sure you have— let’s have a show of hands [raise hand]. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all given into it. I won’t ask anyone to enumerate or describe how you’ve been tempted— if you need to talk about it, Pastor Kern will be more than happy to give you private confession and absolution— but common to all people are temptations to be greedy, to steal, to gratify the base desires and lusts of the flesh, to harm others, to exploit them for our gain, to make gods of ourselves and out of our desires and possessions. Look at the Ten Commandments— that’s a list of all the different ways we can be tempted, and we all have at some time or another given into temptation to break one (or all!) of those commandments. When we fall into sin, it’s as if we’ve been struck by a bullet or a crossbow bolt, and because we are sinners, we’re the walking wounded. Sometimes, left unchecked, that sin can do more harm to us than we know, and we end up joining the dead, both in body and in faith. More casualties of the war.
Have you ever been tempted to sin by someone else? Have you ever tempted someone else to sin? Have your actions ever misrepresented your faith in Christ and perhaps brought someone else’s faith, the faith of one of Jesus’ “little ones,” to harm? All of us could be that person, and perhaps at times we have been. Therefore, woe to us if so! Jesus says in our Gospel that it would be better for that person if a big millstone, one big enough that it needed a donkey to turn it, were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. So cut out sin, he says, and do not despise Jesus’ little ones, for God the Father knows what happens to them.
When we hear the phrase, “little ones,” we often think that Jesus is talking about literal children. After all, he had just held up a child as an example of what a person must be like to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus is being figurative, in a way, when he speaks of “little ones.” You see, before God, we all are little ones, not just the kids. We are all small and helpless and in need of protection and care, just like children are. We are all prone to stumble. We are all vulnerable. There are no exceptions, no matter how “holy” we may seem or wish to be. I am a little one, Pastor Kern is a little one, and y’all are little ones, too. And because we’re all little ones, we need protection, guidance, and safety from the assaults of the Devil and his demons, as well as from the sin that can lead us little ones astray and causes us to harm each other. Not only do we need protection, we need deliverance.
And God has provided protection for us. In our Gospel, Jesus says his little ones have angels in heaven who “always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” We know that God has set his angels to protect his people. Angels, it should be said, are not our deceased relatives or chubby winged babies— the former idea is derived from the heretical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the latter comes from the Italian adoption of Roman depictions of Cupid during the Renaissance— God made them to serve him as his messengers and they are warriors sent to do God’s bidding on behalf of his people. Our reading from Daniel tells us so— God set the archangel Michael to contend for Israel against the demons impelling hostile nations to attack Israel, and he commands the angelic hosts in the war in heaven against the Devil’s forces in John’s Revelation. There’s a war on in heaven, and Michael and the heavenly hosts are contending against Satan. John writes in Revelation that Satan and his evil angels are thrown down by the heavenly forces, and a voice proclaims, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Revelation 12:10-11). When we hear this, we wonder, “Wow, did Michael and the angels defeat Satan?” The answer to that question is both yes and no. Michael and the angelic hosts did defeat Satan and his armies, but only because of the saving work of Jesus Christ in his death on the cross and his resurrection. For the voice continues: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” Jesus is really the one who defeated Satan. The angels are reaping the victory.
You see, Jesus already won the battle and the war— Michael and the angels are fighting a mop-up operation and taking no prisoners. The Accuser is on the retreat. Jesus’ saving sacrifice has destroyed the power of sin and death, has broken the Devil’s back and ability to harm all those who trust in Christ. He lived, died, and rose again for you so that your sins would be forgiven and no longer counted against you, that you might live with him in blessedness forever as God’s children. And while we live in these latter days, where Satan still prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, we can trust that, because we are washed in the blood of the Lamb and have his word, we are safe in him and the angels at his command protect us, too. We will still face temptation— it’s inevitable until the Last Day when Christ returns in glory and the dead are raised. But we will always be able to trust that Christ has defeated sin, death, and the Devil, for us, and that the war is won. When we stumble, he will pick us up and heal our wounds. He will help us, his little ones, to avoid the Devil’s arrows and bullets. There’s a war on between the forces of heaven and hell, but the enemy has already lost. We can sing joyfully with the hymn writer Jacob Fabricius in a hymn that is, not coincidentally, numbered 666 in our hymnal:
“As true as God’s own Word is true, Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew Against us shall prevail. Their might? A joke, a mere facade! God is with us and we with God– Our vict’ry cannot fail.” (LSB 666)
I have finally gotten through the backlog of sermons I hadn’t uploaded here and now everything is up on the blog! Feel free to peruse them here. Do note that most of these also have links to video of the live, preached sermon, which sometimes differs a bit from the manuscript–I will sometimes add extra illustrations on the fly or choose to reword something in my manuscript, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really intend to go back through the videos and rewrite my manuscripts to match the final product. As an old pastor of mine, Gerry Kuhn, used to say, “There’s the sermon I wrote, the sermon I gave, and the sermon you heard.” Sometimes having the disparity between the written sermon and the one given can be a useful homiletical tool when looking back at a text.
If you like anything you read, please comment! I’d love to know what stuck out to you, what you thought was an effective homiletical move, and what you think could have been different. (Nota bene: This is an invitation for constructive criticism, not trolling; not that I would expect anyone to do that here, but hey, this is the internet, and people are sinful.) Thirty sermons don’t make a person an expert on preaching by any means, and so I am still growing and hoping to learn more. The reason why this site exists as it does is to create a portfolio of public work that not only records what I have done in my preaching over my vicarage, but also to be a record of my work for my seminary professors and for future congregations that I may serve. It also exists so that the people who originally heard these sermons can hear them again and contemplate them if something in them stood out during the delivery.
Thank you for reading/listening/watching, and enjoy!
Final Sermon preached as Vicar at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Thirty Years War was a terrible
time for Europe. From 1618 to 1648,
Europe was wracked by violence, famine, and plague— Protestant and Catholic
mercenary armies scoured the landscape, especially in Germany. By the end of the war, one third of the
German population had been wiped out in what would be the largest known war for
three hundred years until the
outbreak of World War One. It would also
be known as a war that was as hard on civilians as it was on soldiers. In the midst of it all was a German Lutheran
pastor, Martin Rinckart (1586-1649), the archdeacon of the walled town of
Rinckart’s war was, by most accounts, a terrible one. Troops were forcibly billeted in his home (they didn’t have the 3rd Amendment then), and the contents of his pantry and barn were frequently requisitioned by foraging soldiers, leaving him and his family with few resources. In 1637, nineteen years into the conflict, plague brought by refugees fleeing the Swedish army swept through Eilenburg, killing 8,000 people, including Rinckart’s first wife. Among those killed by the plague where all but three members of the town council, many children, and the pastors serving in the neighboring parish. As a result, Rinckart had to do the work of three men, visiting the sick and dying, and overseeing over 4,000 burials. 1637 was an unimaginably awful year.
on the heels of the plague came famine, and so Rinckart shared what little he
and his family had with those starving in his community. When the Swedish army showed up in Eilenburg
in 1639, they levied a 30,000 Thaler tribute on the town, a sum that
beleaguered Eilenburg could not pay. (It
is roughly equivalent to $460,500 in today’s money.) Rinckart went into the Swedish camp to parlay
with their general for mercy on Eilenburg, but the general would not
budge. He wanted his 30,000 Thalers, and
so Rinckart turned to those who came into the camp with him and said, “Come, my children, we can find
no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” With this, he fell to his knees, and began to
Prayer comes to the forefront in our
Gospel reading this morning. Jesus,
sitting with his disciples, is approached by one of them who asks him to teach
them how to pray properly. After all,
John’s disciples had a certain mode of prayer
So did the people in the Dead Sea communities. Fixed prayers were a standard part of the
spiritual life of your average first century Jew. “Does Jesus have one that he promotes,
too? Does he know a better way?” they
may have wondered. So Jesus begins: “When
you pray, say:
“‘Father,[a] hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.[b] 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.[c] And lead us not into temptation[d]’” (Luke 11:2-4 NIV).
And after he has said this, Jesus illustrates the importance
of such a prayer. He poses them a
hypothetical situation: suppose one of them has a friend who shows up outside
the house at midnight and raps on the window.
“Hey, buddy, can you lend me three loaves of bread? I have a friend passing through on a journey
who stopped at my place, and I’ve got nothing to give him.” And the one in the house replies, “Don’t
bother me! The door is locked, we’re all
in bed, and I’m not getting up!” Some
parents here this morning might sympathize with that sentiment— doubtless
you’ve all heard the midnight water call.
And yet, the disciple in bed will get up, if not on account of his
friendship, then on account of the brazenness of his friend in coming to bother
him at that hour—if only to make him go away.
(This reminds me of many a night in college, though instead of bread, it
was pizza money our nocturnal visitors were after.) Jesus encourages the disciples to approach
God the Father with the same boldness in this prayer, continuing: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and
you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks
receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be
opened” (Luke 11:9-10 NIV).
teaches the disciples to pray in Luke 11, his prayer does several things for
them. First, it orients the disciples to acknowledge God as their
Father. Not some distant thunderer, not
some cosmic horror, but as a God who has a relationship with his creation that
is so close that he views them as his children and they view him as their
father. Second, it orients the disciples to ask God to “be” God (“let thy
name be made holy,” “let thy kingdom come”)— it orients them to rely upon God
to do his will in the world and fulfill his promises. And third,
it forces them to reckon just how totally reliant they are upon God and how
helpless they are without him. Daily
bread— everything that one needs to live both now and in eternity—,
forgiveness, and protection from the assaults of sin, death, and the Devil, all
come from him and him alone. When the
disciples pray as Jesus has taught them, they talk to him in such a way that
indicates their full reliance on God and his promises for their lives and their
utter helplessness without him.
Altogether it is, as Dr. Peter Nafzger, our professor at the Seminary,
says in his recent notes on this text, a prayer focused on asking God to do
what he promises to do–it is “an expanded version of the recurring prayer
throughout the Gospels, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
And we need his mercy, because
without it, we’d be lost! In a weird and
twisted way, our sinful selves desire to be free from God’s provision and
mercy, seeking after evils and illicit pleasures that separate us from him and
go against his will for us. Left to our
own devices, we seek self-aggrandizement and see ourselves as our own
sustainers, believing that everything we are and have and do depends on
us. But in our sin-warped vision, we
seek the things that destroy us, focusing on temporal pleasures that are
fleeting, and misallocating the gifts we receive. We fail to acknowledge our creator and his
gifts for us. In our unthinking
arrogance or ignorance, we go our own way.
Invariably, left to our own devices,
we go so far down the rabbit hole of self-gratification and self-reliance that
we get in trouble. We might find
ourselves caught in a particular sin that, though at one time it felt “okay” to
engage in and not wrong— even healthy— now suddenly becomes all-consuming. Or we might find ourselves caught in
activities that are unethical, and though we know what we’ve done is wrong,
we’re in so deep that we cannot get out of the web of lies and deceit we’ve
created to maintain ourselves in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed. Or maybe we’ve placed so much dependence on
ourselves that we find ourselves juggling too many responsibilities at once,
thinking that everything depends on us and telling ourselves that we can handle
it all, hurting ourselves and others due to our foolish pride. Or if things do seem to go well, we perhaps
think that we deserve all the credit, even when we do not because we’ve needed
other people for our success. And when
we hit rock-bottom, failing to conduct ourselves properly or to carry out our
vocations in a way that helps our neighbors, we can find ourselves in a
hopeless position, one full of despair, fear, and self-loathing because we
could not carry ourselves and the rest of the world on our shoulders like some
sort of Atlas. When that happens, we
seek some kind of relief, some kind of mercy.
But how do we know to ask for it and where to find it?
This is why Jesus teaches the
disciples his prayer because he gives us the words to speak and know that God
the Father is the one on whom all depend for their life, well-being, and all
they have. When one is being crushed by
sin and adversity, the words of Jesus’ prayer remind him that God is the Lord
and also the loving Father of all; that he will keep his promises and be God to the one praying; and that he
is the source of all that is needed for this body and life, of all love, and of
all forgiveness. As Luther writes in the
82] Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need, and faithfully provides also for our temporal support. 83] And although He abundantly grants and preserves these things even to the wicked and knaves, yet He wishes that we pray for them, in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand, and may feel His paternal goodness toward us therein. For when He withdraws His hand, nothing can prosper nor be maintained in the end, as, indeed, we daily see and experience.
“Behold, thus God wishes to
indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need.” Luther is talking
more about the petition “give us this day our daily bread” here, but
it goes for the whole prayer. Jesus, in
teaching his disciples (and us, by extension) to pray in this manner shows them
and us that all the good we have comes from God, not just those things that
satisfy our daily needs (and for which we ought to give thanks to God), but
also the gift of forgiveness of sins, protection from the powers of hell, and
everlasting life. It is all his mercy,
and he gave us his ultimate gift of mercy to sustain us in every need when he
sent Jesus to win salvation and life for us through his death on the cross and
resurrection. The Lord’s Prayer reminds
us of this gift and our reliance upon God for it— we could not gain that act of
mercy and love for ourselves. But God
teaches us to remember it. He teaches us
to pray, to boldly ask him to remember us in his mercy, and indeed to know that
we have already received it from him.
Indeed, as Jesus says to his disciples in our Gospel lesson, “If you then, though you are evil, know how
to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13 NIV).
That mercy has been given for you,
my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is
yours, and you can go before your Father in Heaven, asking him to be God for
you with all the boldness and unmitigated temerity of a guy knocking on your
door at midnight asking for bread for a guest and more. When you are weighed down by guilt, shame,
fear, and stress, and you don’t know how to pray for the mercy you need but
don’t know where to find, let the words of Christ’s prayer point you back to
him who takes those sins and buries them in the tomb, clothing you in his
mercy, and giving you eternal life and everything you have. His mercy is for you, and he will sustain you
by it, fully reliant on the Father.
And now…the rest of the story. Remember Martin Rinckart? When he got down on his knees with his parishioners to pray to God for a solution to their suffering and the harsh tribute that the Swedes planned to inflict on their town, the Swedish commander was so moved by their display of faith— it may be fair to say that God softened his heart toward them— that he cut the tribute from 30,000 Thalers to 2,000. You and I might not see that kind of answer to prayer in every circumstance; indeed, it seems miraculous. But we know that, “though [we] are evil, [and] know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God the Father is your good Father and mine, and he will always be merciful to us and give us what we need, we who are fully reliant on him, when we ask him as dear children do their father. This is his promise to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, and we can thank him just as Rinckart thanked him when the Thirty Year’s War ended with our prayers and songs, perhaps with words like these of Rinckart’s:
Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices Who wondrous things has done In whom this world rejoices; Who from our mother’s arms Has blest us on our way With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.
And now may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep
your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As all of you know, I have an
interest in history, and one area that I’ve recently been devoting a fair
amount of attention to is the history of the First World War. As part of satisfying that interest, earlier
this year, I happened to read a biography of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck,
who commanded troops in an extensive guerrilla warfare campaign against both
British and Belgian forces in German East Africa, what is now modern Namibia
and Tanzania. Even though his army of native Askari troops
and German colonial Schutztruppe were equipped with outdated single-shot,
black-powder Jägerbuchse rifles, had little artillery at their disposal, and
were technologically and numerically outmatched, they were nonetheless able to
inflict severe losses upon the British and Belgians. They were the only German forces in the
entire war who were able to successfully bring the war into British territory,
and only surrendered at the end due to shrinking numbers of men and supplies in
the face of increasing numbers of British and Belgian troops being brought in
from outside of Africa. Because of his
gallantry in battle and his ability to win the admiration of his enemies, von
Lettow was given the nickname, “The Lion of Africa,” and he has gone
down in history as one of the greatest guerilla fighters of all time. (He is also remembered for colorfully
telling-off Hitler in the 1930s when the latter asked for his endorsement.)
In our Gospel reading this morning,
we see a different kind of lion, the Lion of Judah, preparing “soldiers” for a
different kind of guerrilla warfare.
Jesus is preparing 72 (or in some manuscripts, 70— it’s a difficult
textual question as to which one Luke originally wrote because existing
manuscripts are split between the two numbers; that said, theologians have
determined that 72 is most likely)– 72 new disciples to go out into the world
to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the towns Jesus was going to
come through. Like von Lettow’s Askaris,
they’ll go lightly armed, with little equipment, but their foes are not flesh
and blood like the British or Belgians.
These 72 disciples are going behind the lines deep into enemy territory,
territory ruled by Satan, the Prince of the Power of the Air. Jesus is sending them out like sheep among wolves—
the enemy is dangerous and deadly, and going as they are, they appear
vulnerable. We might assume that the
territory is not just hostile because they’ll be doing battle with the forces
of evil, preaching the good news of the kingdom, but also because they will
literally be going into hostile territory for Jews. As we heard last week, Jesus and his
disciples have been going through Samaria, and the Samaritans, long considered
by the Jews to be a people and religious group tainted by foreigners brought
into the region by the Assyrians when they conquered Israel, aren’t terribly
friendly toward the Jews. Jesus and his
disciples have already been turned away from one town in Samaria; it’s likely
that the 72 won’t receive a warm reception here as well. But nonetheless, they’re going out,
vulnerable, to preach a message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom to
an unbelieving and hostile world. And
they are going into this hostile world, full of sin and its entanglements, full
of violence and hate, full of unbelief and persecution, to do the will of their
master, to preach the peace of the coming kingdom to potentially enemy
ears. He sends them off like lambs in
the midst of an enormous wolfpack.
Like the 72, Jesus sends us out to
be his ambassadors to the world as well, to shine the light of Christ before
others. Our task may not be quite the
same— for us, the kingdom of God is now here, and we, as Christians, are
citizens of it— but the world today isn’t any less hostile to the message of
the kingdom of God than it was when Jesus sent out the 72. This seems odd to us as members of the Church
in a country where Christianity seems pretty mainstream and (as of 2017), 70%
of the population identified as Christian.
But there are still plenty of people who are hostile to the Gospel or
who have not heard it and are enthralled by other religions, and the number of
people who claim no religious affiliation is growing by the day. Here in Northern Virginia, “nones,” those
people who seem to have no religious affiliation or belief has increased to
roughly 60% of the local population.
That’s a lot of people who have either left the church, never were part
of the church, or are burned out on religion who are trapped in their sins and
need to hear the Gospel, many of whom likely have their own conceptions about
the church that don’t make them well-disposed to hearing the good news of the
Kingdom of God.
And adherents of other religions and
the rising prevalence of irreligion aside, the world certainly doesn’t want to
hear a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The world is partial to sin. The world likes violence and greed and
sensuality and hatred. The world loves
pride and vanity and envy, gluttony and mindless consumption. The world loves
apathy and dehumanization and death and objectification, among myriad other
things. And the devil and the world
thrust these things upon us, their own foul panoply, in order to entice and
captivate with the aim of leading astray and, ultimately, destroying souls. The devil and the world play to man’s sinful
nature with these things, and they seek to undermine the message of the Gospel
by bringing down those who would be God’s ambassadors to the world and who
would live as his children. All of us
have been tempted by these things, all of us have given into them one time or
another. We all, like sheep, have gone
astray, and sometimes the wolves have attacked us. Sometimes the wolves have taken a few members
of our flock. Sometimes some of us have
been turned into wolves. Sometimes, we
have had wolves in sheep’s clothing among us.
When we see the weapons arrayed against us, we realize that it’s not
easy being someone sent by Christ. It
can be downright frightening, and when we seem to be losing our battles to the
wolves, it can lead us into fear and despair.
And of course, the mission for us is
different. The 72 were sent out by Jesus
to specifically preach the kingdom’s coming.
We haven’t been commissioned that way.
Not all of us are gifted preachers. Not all of us have been given the vocation to
preach and teach like a pastor or a missionary does. And we are living in the world
post-resurrection; Jesus has died and risen to forgive our sins. The kingdom of God has come near and is with
us. But how do we go about in this
hostile world with confidence, knowing what lurks out there, waiting for
us? If Jesus has called us to serve him,
what is he calling us to do? How can we
face the dangers of this still dangerous world if we’re not being sent out in
the manner of the 72 to explicitly do battle with evil?
When Jesus sends out the 72, he
apparently sent them “unarmed,” but in reality, they are carrying a
super-weapon on their mission into enemy territory. Think of it as something like a spiritual
briefcase nuke. Jesus gives them
authority to speak his peace to the people they come to. The peace of God comes with them, and that
peace is the blessing of eternal life through faith in the promised work of
Christ, in the coming of the kingdom of God.
Their job is to speak that peace, to tell other people about the reason
for their peace, and should they be open to it, pass it on to them. It is the peace that comes when the kingdom
of God draws near. The faith they have
in the promise keeps them safe; it gives them the power to cast out demons, to
heal, and to tread upon all the evil schemes of the enemy; to strike such a
blow against Satan through the good news of God that Jesus sees him falling
from heaven, his power weakened and grip on mankind loosened. Faith in the redemptive work of God forgave
their sins, and put their names in God’s book of life. Jesus reminds them that they should not
rejoice in the power he gives them over evil forces, but rather to rejoice in
knowing that their “names are written in heaven,” that their hope and joy
should be in their salvation. The 72 can
boldly go about their mission, as sheep among wolves, but safe from the enemy’s
assaults. Jesus assures them: “And
nothing will harm you.” They are
forgiven, and reconciled with God to do his work.
The peace of God, the promise of
redemption from sin and the gift of eternal life, made it possible for the 72
to go forth and perform their mission for Jesus, preparing the way for him on
his journey through Samaria. That peace of
God is also ours. Though we are not
called by Jesus to perform the exact mission of the 72, we are nonetheless his
missionaries. As Peter writes in his
first epistle, all Christians “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy
nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who
called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pe 2:9 NIV). We, therefore, trusting in the work of Christ
for our salvation from sin, can, through our daily vocations, witness Christ by
the way in which we live, and by so doing, we can be the light of the risen
Christ in the world for others.
Martin Luther once said the
following through how a Christian can be a source of light and peace in the
world in a 1522 sermon:
“The prince should think: Christ has served me and made
everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect
him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this
office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and
ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That
concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for
shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say:
I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a
living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not
serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.”
Christ has sent us, recipients of
the promise of eternal life, royal priests in a holy nation, to serve
one-another and to be agents of the Gospel through our interactions with others
in an unbelieving world. You can be
confident as a Christian, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone
who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pe 3:15 ESV), because
Jesus has empowered you to serve others because he first served you. You don’t have to be afraid to reach out to
others who are not in the church, you don’t have to fear engaging those who are
in the thrall of the world because Jesus has written your name in the
heavens. He is with you, and though you
may seem to be a sheep among wolves, no power of the enemy can harm you when
you trust in him and let him use you as his instrument. Go forth and serve joyfully— Jesus has saved
you and sent you to share his peace!
Robert. 2017. African Kaiser: General
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa. (London: Hurst &
 Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25
October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), in D. Martin
Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols. (Weimar: Herman Böhlaus
Nachfolger, 1883–1980) 10/3:382 (translation F.J.G). Cited in F.J.G., “What Luther Didn’t Say
about Vocation,” Word & World 25:4
Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It seems hard for me to believe (because it seems so recent), but over ten years ago, Honda had a certain advertising campaign on television and that featured an animated man who would talk about the vehicles and deals available during the Honda Year-End Clearance Event. Once he had told the viewer or listener about the great deals available to them, he would either “rap” the television screen or “tap” the radio microphone and state enthusiastically, “I’m Mr. Opportunity, and I’m knocking.”
Mr. Opportunity was Honda’s way of telling prospective car buyers about the cars they could have if they acted quickly. The Year-End Clearance Event wasn’t going to last forever, though, and the cars weren’t going to stick around. Just as soon as the event was over and the cars sold, Mr. Opportunity would be on his way until the next big sale. But while the sale was on, he was knocking.
In a way, Jesus, in our reading from Luke this morning, is kind of like Mr. Opportunity. He’s been going along, preaching about the coming kingdom of God, preaching repentance and healing people as he journeys toward Jerusalem where his work will be made complete. He presents an opportunity in every town he enters, an opportunity for life and healing, an opportunity for second chances and changed hearts. But not everyone who comes into contact with him is open to that opportunity. The Samaritans, theological opponents of the Jewish community, see that he’s going toward Jerusalem, the seat of their rival religion, and so they don’t let him into their town. He’s not acceptable among them, even if he is bringing with him the good news of the kingdom of God.
Some of the people who have joined Jesus on his journey don’t understand what taking the opportunity to follow him means. The man who says he’ll follow Jesus wherever he will go doesn’t understand the stakes of being a disciple. “I will follow you wherever you should go,” he says. But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay down his head.” To follow Jesus is to leave behind everything, to give up your comforts, to become homeless in this world. Wild creatures have their homes, but not Jesus. The one who expects comfort and an easy time of it while going with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem will be sorely mistaken.
And those whom Jesus calls to follow him learn that the opportunity to follow Jesus is fleeting. Jesus isn’t waiting around. “Permit me, going [with you], to first bury my father,” says one. “Let me say goodbye to all the folks at home,” says another. But Jesus won’t give them time to do these things. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus tells the first, “but you proclaim the kingdom of God.” “No one who puts his hands upon the plough and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom.” Jesus is Mr. Opportunity, and he’s knocking. He’s still heading for Jerusalem, and they either heed him or they don’t.
Of course, what Jesus tells these men who wish to follow him is a hard saying. In the case of the first, he’s telling him that following the Son of Man means becoming essentially homeless in the world. In the world of first-century Judaea, to follow a rabbi literally meant to take on their philosophies and lifestyle. Following Jesus guarantees hardship and difficulty–no earthly security, no earthly comfort. The fox has his den, the bird her best, but Jesus, and by extension, his followers, doesn’t have that comfort and safety. When Jesus calls these men to follow him, they learn that in order to truly follow him, they must have no earthly attachments. Jesus comes first, everything else comes second. Even the obligation to bury one’s father, the most important thing one could do as a first century Jew, must come second.
But surely Jesus can’t be serious, can he? That his followers are not to expect any kind of stability, that family comes second to following him, so much so that caring for one’s parents is made subordinate to preaching the word of the kingdom of God? What Jesus is doing for these men who wish to follow him is that he’s pointing out their idols, the things that keep them from committing to his call, those things that take their attention away from preaching the kingdom of God and instead focus their attention on worldly matters, those things which take Jesus’ place in their hearts, those things which keep them from fully placing their trust in him, either because they dominate their attention or because they are convenient excuses.
And that’s what Jesus is doing here. By calling these men to follow him (or in the case of the first, explaining what his call will be like), Jesus is asking them to trust him utterly, to give up all they have and to follow him wherever he goes, even to Jerusalem where he will die. But these men have other worldly cares that seem to take place of Jesus’ call. They don’t seem necessarily willing to set these things aside and throw their lot in with Jesus. They hear the call of the son of God, and yet, when they hear what’s entailed, they are reluctant. The idols in their lives–comfort, family, societal obligations–keep them from trusting him fully and taking the plunge. They don’t have their priorities straight. They try to put conditions on their following him.
It’s worth remembering that when Jesus talks to these men, he’s talking to people who haven’t yet seen his crucifixion and resurrection (though they’re looming in the distance). Looking at ourselves, what does this mean for us? We’re Christians, living in the promise of the resurrection. Most of us have been Christians since our infancy. But just because you’re in the church, doesn’t mean that you’re automatically following Jesus. To follow Christ isn’t some sort of casual activity. It’s not something that we do passively (though we can’t do it without Jesus’ help), because there are all kinds of things out there that vie for our attention and which we turn into excuses for not following him, living as baptized children of God, being the church. Maybe you’ve noticed some in your life. Perhaps it’s a desire to be comfortable. “Lord, I want to follow you, but I don’t want to take the risk–I’m afraid of the social repercussions of living out my faith publicly.” “Lord, I want to tell other people about you, but I’m just too busy making ends meet.” “Lord, I fear what others will say.” Maybe the desire for financial security gets in the way. “I want to help people as you would have me, Lord, but I want to save money. I’m worried that if I give this homeless fellow cash, he’ll spend it on drugs. I don’t want to be defrauded.” “Lord, I know we pray ‘thy will be done,’ but I really want things to go my way for once.” “Lord, I know what I should do, but I can’t bring myself to act the way you want me to.” “Lord, I believe— help my unbelief!” These thoughts and worries are all indicative of the idols we make out of ourselves, our time, our money, and our feelings, among myriad other things. They’re all things that we use to say, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but….” When we do that, we’re going back to that old familiar sin of ours wherein we trust ourselves over Jesus, or at least show that we’re not so ready to take him at his word, to trust that he is God and that, with him, we will be in his care and under his protection. We can’t put our hands on the Gospel plough and then have second thoughts about it.
Humans are creatures of comfort, after all. We don’t like to be drawn into uncomfortable situations or ones in which we are vulnerable. But that desire for comfort in the world distracts us from the fact that our Lord wants us to find our true comfort in him, not in the world. That’s the issue that faced these men to whom Jesus called along the road to Jerusalem. But the difference for them is that Jesus isn’t calling them to follow him on their own, left to struggle and puzzle out how to best follow their master by themselves. He is going to be with them! And while they may not understand who he is and what following him fully means, he invites them to trust him and follow him. It’s not unlike how the Israelites trusted God and followed his pillar of cloud and fire on their way out of Egypt in the Exodus. God called them to follow him, and they did so, trusting him the whole way. They didn’t know where they were going, but he was present with them for every step, protecting them from danger.
As it was for the Exodus-era Israelites, so it is for the men in our Gospel reading. Jesus will be with them–in fact, they’ll be with him. And if they’re with him, then he will guide them. In a sense, that’s what Jesus means when he talks about how no-one who puts his hands to the plough and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom. If you’ve ever seen how an old plough works— the kind that’s drawn by oxen rather than horses— you’ve probably noticed that in addition to the person who guides the plough itself, there’s at least one other person to help goad on the oxen along and keep the plough moving. Jesus is like that person who guides the oxen, and when they start moving, you’d better hang on! But he keeps the oxen from going out of control and keeps the plough in its furrow.
And so it is for us. Even though there are many things that fight to control our attention and entice us to hem and haw about living as one of God’s children in Christ, Jesus invites us to trust him and follow him. We don’t have to fear or worry about discomfort or worldly obligations preventing us from following Jesus with our whole being because he will help us deal with that discomfort and meet those obligations as we follow him. As we “go along,” following Jesus, we can perform our duties and face discomfort and unsurety in the world, but motivated by a different spirit, not because we are motivated by fear or by some law or custom, but because Jesus has given us the freedom to do so. When we trust Jesus when he says, “Follow me,” knowing that the Son of God has our back no matter where we go or where he calls us to go, we can follow him without fear or worry, and we can do our best to be who he calls us to be. He will be with us every step of the way, and if we stumble in our following him, he will set us back on our feet to continue with him on his way.
C.S. Lewis once wrote the following: “If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
When we remember that Jesus is with us when we go to follow him, we can live confidently in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, not worrying about discomfort, vulnerability, or fear, but living in the world while looking confidently forward toward the kingdom of heaven, made worthy of it because we trust the one who makes us worthy, Jesus Christ. Amen.