Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9), July 7, 2019 (Luke 10:1-12) – “Sent Out as Lambs among Wolves”

“He Sent them out Two by Two/Il les envoya deux à deux” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

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.

It is worth noting that von Lettow’s legacy is not without controversy and the man not without his own sins–thousands of natives died in East Africa as a result of famine caused by his campaigns. Von Lettow may also have been involved in a previous action against the Herreros in German East Africa that is considered the first structured genocide in modern history, but it is unclear as to the extent of his involvement, and some biographers claim that he was against it or was not actually involved. Nonetheless, I am more interested in his prowess as a guerrilla commander here, and Gaudi’s recent study of him provides a well-rounded look at his military legacy leading up to and during the Great War.

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and Tanzania.[1]  Even though his army of native Askari troops and German colonial Schutztruppe were equipped with outdated single-shot, black-powder Jägerbuchse rifles, had little artillery at their disposal, and were technologically and numerically outmatched, they were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.)

Lightly-armed Askari troops in German East Africa.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA7209 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA.

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.

Agnus Day appears with the permission of

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.

“Wolf und Fuchs” (1666), by Franz Rösel von Rosenhof (1626–1700). Bavarian State Painting Collections. Public Domain.

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?

“Wolf reißt ein Lamm” (1666), by Christopher Paudiß (circa 1618 –1666/1667). Bavarian State Painting Collections. Public Domain.

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 Eastern Church preserves some of the names attributed to the 72 disciples. From

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.”[2]

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!  Amen.

[1] Gaudi, Robert. 2017. African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa. (London: Hurst & Company.)

[2] 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 (2005): 361.

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, December 9, 2018 – “What Shall We Do?” (Luke 3:1-14)

“A Landscape with John the Baptist Preaching” (1601), by Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564-1638), Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn

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.

Getting ready for the arrival of important people takes work.  Lots of work. We all know how wild preparations for the arrival of our family members and friends can be, even if for just short visits, especially at this time of year.  We vacuum every inch of the house. We wash the floors. We make sure the linens are crisp. We chuck out the milk that is probably fine, but hey, we don’t play those games with expiration dates.  We strategically block off those parts of the house that are in a perpetual state of disorder because we’re remodeling and don’t want our friends and family to see just how little progress we’ve made on that undertaking.  It’s a lot of work— what often should be fun because company is coming becomes less so because we have to work to make it happen.

Throughout history, preparing for visits from royalty required a lot of work that was often exhausting and not entirely welcome.  When Queen Elizabeth I or King James I wanted to visit a courtier’s home in the 16th and early 17th Centuries, they brought half their possessions with them along with countless retainers, and stayed over for months.  The preparations required were expensive, both in time, money, and space, and so, while it was a great honor to have the monarch staying at your home, it was also a huge imposition. But you dared not grumble about it lest you got on the king or queen’s bad side and fell out of favor!

And how did you know if that king or queen was going to stay at your hall?  Well, you’d get a message from the monarch by courier, saying, in so many words, “The King will be coming to stay at your place for the next six months.  Expect his arrival in about three days.   See you soon!  Kisses and hugs, Henry VIII.” It is unlikely that this was met with a ton of enthusiasm. I wouldn’t be surprised if, depending on how poor your relationship with the king or queen was, there was a fair amount of fear accompanying it, too.  One had to keep up appearances, after all.

Of course, this is all describing royal visits in early modern England. I have no idea if the first century Tetrarchs  in Judea and Syria— Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias— had that sort of visitation policy. Roman emperors and Jewish kings seemed to like having their own properties in various places, sort of like the first-century equivalent of President Trump’s place at Mar-a-Lago.  But when John came out of the wilderness to the Jordan to “proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” he was announcing to the people the arrival of their king and preparing them for it.  Not a king whose kingdom was “of this world,” but rather, the King of all Creation who was coming to defeat sin, death, and hell.  Thus a different kind of preparation was needed. Rather than preparing for a long-term visit, the people to whom John was preaching had to get their own internal houses in order for his full-time coming; they had to amend their lives for when their king— THE KING— would come to take his throne.

John was preaching to a people different than we who are in this sanctuary this morning.  Jesus had not begun his ministry yet, and so John, as the last of the prophets, was preaching about his coming.  John’s ministry had been prophesied by Isaiah some 700 years before his birth:

3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness,

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.

4 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low:

and all the crooked shall become straight, and the rough plains.

5 And the glory of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God

for the Lord has spoken.

(Isaiah 40:3-5, LXX, trans. Lancelot C. Brenton, 1851)

As the last prophet, John was there to prepare the way for the coming King and to prepare people for his arrival by baptizing them.  It was not a baptism like ours, where we are baptized into Christ, but it was one to prepare them for that. The people who came to John to be baptized were coming because they had been convicted of their sin and wished to be ready for when their King came.  Some may not have entirely understood why they were there— hence why John called them a “brood of vipers.” They needed to be reminded that in their sin, they had no real standing before God. They could not lean on their being “children of Abraham,” as if having Abraham as a father in the faith gives anyone a pass when it comes to their sins.  No, they needed to repent and “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” They needed to “change their minds”— that’s what the Greek word we translate as “repentance,” metanoia, means— and begin living as God’s people ought to.  If not, God would not save them when the last day came; they would go into the fire he had prepared.  And so the people came to John to prepare themselves.

As I said before, we are not the same as these folks.  You and I have been baptized into Jesus Christ. We bear the indelible mark of his baptism on our brows and live in a post-resurrection world.  We have seen the promised first coming fulfilled and have the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ’s sacrifice. But we still need to be reminded to prepare for Christ’s second coming.  We still need to be reminded to repent of our sin, even though God does not count it against us when we trust his promises. We still live in a world plagued by sin, we live with it raging within our bodies.  We may be members of the body of Christ, but our sinful nature, covered over by Christ, still wants to rebel and do those things that we know we should not do. Our sinful nature does not like the idea of repentance.  But, we’re not immune to feeling the terror that the law produces, even though we want to disobey it. When we get caught up in our sins and realize that we have fallen far short of what the law asks of us, we can be tempted to despair.  After all, we can’t make ourselves right with God. We cannot fulfill the law’s requirements.

It seems that in the crowd that met John to be baptized there were many people who had not been living as God had desired them to prior to hearing John’s call, people who had been living lives in opposition to God’s law.  The tax collectors who came to him to be baptized had apparently been cheating people on their taxes, collecting more than was legal. The soldiers who came to him had apparently been involved in extortion and theft, roughing up the local citizenry to get money to add to their pay.  And others in the crowd had not been living in love toward their neighbors by helping those in need. We can be the same way. We can certainly be loath to give to those who need our help, passing by the homeless and needy because we either don’t think we have enough to give (when we do) or because we figure that their plight isn’t worth our time.  We can try to get more than our fair share when we feel that we’ve been underpaid, or use the weight behind our position to try to gain advantages or receive more money. Even pastors aren’t immune. I remember hearing a story at the seminary once about a pastor who had been skimming money off the collection plate every Sunday. No one is immune to these temptations to sin.  Everyone can fall prey to them.

When confronted as a “brood of vipers,” or more pointedly, as “children of Satan,” and warned of the coming wrath, all these people ask John, “Teacher, what shall we do?”  How are they to live lives that bear fruits in keeping with repentance? How are they to live so that they are not cut down at the roots and thrown into the fire that God has prepared?  And John tells them. To the crowds in general, he says “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  To the tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And to the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Having acknowledged their faults and having sought God’s forgiveness, the crowds that came to John at the Jordan could begin living the way that God desired them to.  Even though they had not yet seen their Lord come in the flesh (though they would soon enough!), John’s preaching to “prepare the way of the Lord” brought them into the promise of Christ’s coming.  That they desired to repent of their sins means that they had faith in the message John was preaching to prepare the way for Christ. They heard God’s word through John and they responded in faith. This faith made it possible for these regular folks, tax collectors, and soldiers to be able to live as repentant people and do what John told them to do.  A heart that does not have faith in the promise of Christ cannot be conformed to God’s will for his people, and only Christ makes one’s works bear fruits in keeping with repentance.

You and I have been baptized into Christ and already experience Christ’s promise in our lives.  We have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and have been made blameless before God through faith in him which he has given us.  Still, the question of “what shall we do?” is one we often ask. How are those who have faith in the risen Christ supposed to live in light of his future second coming?  How do those he has bought from the power of sin, death, and hell live as Christians in this post-resurrection world? We should remember that the one who has faith in the work of Christ to redeem them from their sins has the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is our helper and he teaches us to daily repent of our sins and look to Christ. He guides us in doing the good works that God has given us to do.

And what are those good works?  They are the works one does for one’s neighbors.  A good work does not earn anyone points with God, but it does help one’s neighbor, which is what God desires his children to do.  When we have faith in the good work (the best work) that Christ performed for us on the cross, then our works for others become good, too.

But what does this look like?  How do we help our neighbors and bear fruits in keeping with repentance?  By living out our vocations, those callings in life that God has given us.  What does that look like? Well, it’s not hard. It means doing the things required by that calling the way they are meant to be done, to the best of one’s ability, for the good of others because we know what Christ has done for us.  For parents: love your children and raise them as best you can, providing a good example for them in the faith. For children: love your parents and respect them, and care for them when they get old. For spouses: love each other just as Christ loved you, submitting to one another and keeping each other’s best interests at heart.  For people in military and law enforcement: execute the duties of your office virtuously and do right by the citizenry; everyone else, respect the authority that military and law enforcement officers bear. For accountants and taxmen: do honest work and work for your clients’ best interest, even if it means lower pay for you. For pastors and preachers: preach Christ’s Gospel in all its purity in word and sacrament, and lead by example.  The list goes on and on, but everyone everywhere ought try to fulfill their vocation to the best of their ability, treating others as Christ would have them treat us. That is how we bear fruits in keeping with repentance. We love our neighbors because Christ loves us and makes our loving them possible.

Of course, we won’t always be perfect.  I’m sure that the people who asked John how they ought to conduct themselves weren’t always living out their vocations perfectly.  In fact, perfection is not attainable on this side of the second coming. But with Christ there is forgiveness for us when we mess up in our vocations, as there is for any time we sin.  After all, it is not you who makes your works good, but Christ. He will use them for your neighbor as he sees fit, and when we make mistakes in living out our vocations and we repent of them in faith, the Holy Spirit will guide us to live out our vocations better.  He is our helper and advocate, and with him by our side, we can live those lives that bear fruits in keeping with repentance because he makes it possible for to do so in faith. Living as children of God growing daily in faith with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can prepare for his second coming with joy, not fearing the axe laid to the roots of the tree for lack of fruit, because he makes us to bear those good fruits.  Having faith in the work of Christ and listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can look up with expectant delight on the last day and see our king coming in cloud, beholding our salvation coming to us. His coming to us is no imposition like that of an early-modern monarch— it is a release from the pain and sorrow of a sinful world! And that makes preparation for his coming a joyous thing. Amen.

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.