Monday, October 24, 2016

Sermon on Luke 18:9-17, for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Pharisee and tax collector"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Of all the topics debated during the Reformation, and of all the teachings of the Christian faith that the Lutheran Reformers stood for, justification was the most important. Martin Luther and the Reformers called the teaching of justification the article on which the church stands or falls.” If the article of justification is destroyed, the church falls; so we have the highest duty to get this teaching right. The main question is whether justification includes our good works, or rests on faith alone. Our Gospel shows our salvation depends on this teaching!
How does “justification” tie in with our reading today? The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, says it was that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified. Probably if we use the word “justify” in our daily conversation, it’s almost always to describe someone trying to excuse or defend their own behavior. “You’re just trying to justify what you did…” In the reading, the Pharisee tries and fails to “justify himself”, but ordinarily in the Bible it’s not something you do for yourself, but has the positive meaning of someone being “declared righteous”. It’s courtroom language. To be “declared righteous” or “found innocent”, is one possible verdict—and the other is to be “declared guilty” or condemned. And using the legal language, the Pharisee was trying to be both the defendant and the judge at the same time. He presumed to declare his own verdict! That doesn’t work too well under God’s judgment.
But notice the two important words we’ve brought together: “justification” and “righteous.” In English they sound nothing alike—but in the Greek of the New Testament, they are one thought, one word family. To be justified is to be declared righteous. It’s getting an innocent verdict or being acquitted of any wrongs. The Bible also pays attention to whether this verdict is being given by God or by man. It’s one thing to be “declared righteous” by other people—this might just mean that you are a good citizen and not a lawbreaker. Many of us may meet that criteria in the eyes of men. But to be declared righteous by God is another thing. In God’s economy of salvation, no one “deserves” a place in heaven, or has earned it by what they have done. And no one is without sin. That’s part of what this “justification” parable is all about.
So why does the Pharisee fail to be justified before God? Jesus told the parable to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” The first mistake and sin is to trust in your own righteousness! You decide you are good enough to meet God’s approval. I’m sure it’s very self-flattering to think that we are righteous in ourselves, but is it true? Self-righteousness just doesn’t give us any credit before God. It’s empty and worthless. One should never be so foolish as to boast before God. This leads to the second sin of treating others with contempt. The Pharisee despised people who were not so “holy” as himself. His measure of his own righteousness made him treat other people as poor inferiors.
Jesus recounts the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” Now “God, I thank you…” is a perfectly good way to start a prayer, but the rest of it is really a train wreck. Ultimately it fails to even be a prayer—either to thank or praise God for anything He had done, or for the Pharisee to confess any of his sins, or to even ask anything of God! The prayer ends up being an excuse to boast about how he was better than everyone around him, and state to God that he had out-performed the duties of his religion. He has elevated himself upon a pedestal, and is looking down on everyone else.
Now make no mistake, it was a good thing that the Pharisee wasn’t thieving, sleeping around, extorting people for money, or breaking the law—a good thing both for himself and his community. Obeying the law is a good thing. But just a chapter ago in Luke 17:10, Jesus describes how we should stand before God if we have obeyed His law: ”So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.’” If we have been good citizens, if we have obeyed God’s law, even outwardly, so that we are not murderers, thieves, or adulterers—even if we are good parents, children, students, or workers—Jesus tells us we should still only plead before God: “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.” Why do you think Jesus spoons out such generous doses of humility to us, on a recurring basis?
How easy is it for us to unconsciously elevate ourselves so that pretty soon we are up on that same pedestal of self-righteousness as the Pharisee. So easy to trust in ourselves that we are righteous because of what we have done, and to look down on others with contempt. How easy is it? We might even think to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee! What a hypocrite!” And before you know it, you’re actually on the pedestal looking down on him (or calling other people Pharisees)! Ironically, this attitude shows we are just like the Pharisee. Whenever we compare ourselves with others, the little self-elevator unconsciously starts to move us up. In fact, we can even turn our humility into a show of self-righteousness, so that we try to make others think we are more humble than everyone else—and surprise!—this false humility is just another form of pride in disguise! We always find a way to pivot and to feel we are better than others. We always find ways to credit ourselves for our own actions, and to despise others for theirs. This will only bring contempt back upon us, if we despise others. And as we’ve hinted at already, we aren’t supposed to play both defendant and judge. God is judge.
So then how does the tax collector get his “innocent” verdict? Isn’t he supposed to be judged guilty, as he admits? How is he judged to be “righteous” or justified, when the Pharisee was not? “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector takes up an inconspicuous place in the temple to pray, out of the center of attention, and is ashamed to look up to heaven. He strikes his chest, a bitter sign of grief in Jewish culture. The only other time in the NT when people beat their chests, is after they have crucified Jesus, and the people of Jerusalem realize too late that they condemned an innocent man. Whatever sins the tax collector carried on his heart, it was a grievous burden, and he made no boasts and didn’t claim any right to stand before God or others. He prays the prayer we need to pray, and takes the humble posture that Jesus would have us learn from this.
Instead of boasting in himself, or comparing himself to others, he confesses his sin and appeals to God’s mercy. What else could he do? He knows that he has not met with God’s approval, and seeks God’s merciful forgiveness. He acknowledges his need, and pleads for God’s help. The incredible thing is he gets both God’s character and his own right! Humbled, and acknowledging his utter dependence on God’s mercy, he receives what he seeks, and is justified. God declares him righteous—though his sins were very great, God acquits him—gives the innocent verdict. Are we prepared to humble ourselves and confess? Not to compare ourselves to others, but rather to reflect on our great sinfulness before God, and appeal to His great mercy? Do we know God’s merciful character, or do we think so much of ourselves that we expect God’s approval of our good deeds, without confessing our sins, or asking for His mercy?
But the tax collector doesn’t just make a generic request for mercy. If we dive into the original language again, we find out this isn’t the common word for “have mercy”. Rather it’s a word that relates to God accepting a sacrifice. And what was happening in the Temple, twice every day—perhaps even while he was praying? Lambs were being sacrificed for the sins of the people. The tax collector knew this, and pleaded for God to accept the sacrifice for him, a sinner. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God received this sacrifice of his broken heart, and justified him.
The tax collector trusted God’s mercy because of the received sacrifice, which in turn points ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world upon His cross. We poor sinners plead for God’s mercy on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. And God will not despise our broken and contrite hearts. Contrite means that we are truly sorry for our sins. Jesus, and His sacrifice, stands at the heart and center of God’s mercy to us sinners. God justifies sinners for Jesus’ sake—because God received His sacrifice on the cross.
Our whole question began with what justification is, and why it’s the article on which the church stands or falls. Here we see that to count on our good works for justification, is to ignore both Christ and our sinful unworthiness. On the other hand, to cling to Jesus’ sacrifice, admit our sins, and to seek God’s mercy, is to have it, by God’s Word and promise. We will be justified by faith—trusting in Jesus—not by our good works. One way is built on our pride and lifting ourselves up, and the other way is being humbled before God, and seeking His mercy.
Jesus closes this teaching by turning to the example of infants—nursing babies. He instructs the disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” What infants and the tax collector have in common is that they are utterly dependent on God—not on their own resources or ability, for salvation. They receive the kingdom of God, not from a position of self-righteousness, of having earning it, or by superiority—but from a position of humble reception: undeserving or unable to gain it themselves. This is the posture of faith. The posture of humbly trusting God for all His help and mercy, and gratefully receiving help from His hand.
There are two outcomes for our salvation—being justified by God, or being condemned by God. To receive His kingdom and be justified, we must humble ourselves, confess our sins, and seek His mercy. God is judge, but when we lay hold of Jesus’ Christ as our Defender, we will surely receive His mercy, as God has surely received the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What two errors does Jesus teach against through this parable? Luke 18:9. What does Jesus say His servants should say, after they have done everything they are commanded? Luke 17:10. What does the Pharisee praise himself for instead?
  2. If we start to think to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”, how does it show that we are indeed very much like him? Why is it so hard for us to resist the urge to compare ourselves with others? By contrast, who is the tax collector comparing himself to? Luke 18:13.
  3. The Pharisee judged himself to be worthy, and the tax collector judged himself to be unworthy before God. How did Jesus judge the situation differently? Luke 18:14.
  4. What is false humility, and how is it just a different variety of pride? See Matthew 6:1-18 for examples. What does Jesus advise in Matthew 6, about a better way to practice our charity, prayer, or fasting. Who should see it? When is the reward of doing such good deeds wasted or lost?
  5. The tax collector’s prayer (Luke 18:13) doesn’t use the common Greek word for “mercy.” Rather it uses a word connected to atonement, or sacrifice. That God would be pleased with the sacrifice made on behalf of a sinner. What kind of sacrificing was daily happening at the Temple? Numbers 28:1-4. By appealing to God to accept the sacrifice for his sins, how was the tax collector pointing ahead to the way we are justified in God’s eyes? Hebrews 2:17; 9:26; Romans 3:23-26.
  6. It’s a recurring theme through the Gospels that the one who exalts themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Why does this make pride (and it’s sibling “false humility”) a constant enemy of faith? If genuine humility is essential to faith, what does that humility recognize about our dependence on God?
  7. Who else comes to the kingdom of God from a “disadvantaged position” (in human terms)? Luke 18:15-17. Why isn’t this an obstacle for God? Can even infants “believe” or trust in God? Matthew 18:6.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sermon on Genesis 32:22-30, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Hiddenness and Nearness of God"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Psalm 10 opens with these cries out to God, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” In times of trouble, don’t you feel like God is hiding? The Psalmist cries out, “Where are you God?” “Why aren’t you helping?” “Why are you so far away?” How often have you wondered the same? Is there anyone who hasn’t, at the lowest times in their life, felt like God was hiding His face, even when we were calling out to Him in prayer? In the midst of suffering? Or when evil seemed to be rising out of control? When earthly justice failed, and there seemed no help from heaven? In these trying times, we naturally think like the Psalmist, that God is hidden or distant.
This is a favorite type of scene for moviemakers, because it strikes a chord with our experience. Often they show a person in ultimate despair or loneliness, and they are crying out, but no one hears them. Sometimes the character is out in the wilderness, with no one to hear them for miles and miles, and the camera zooms out further and further from above, till they are just a tiny speck—to show how truly isolated and alone they are. Or they may be in the heart of a crowded city, house, or room, with hundreds or millions of people around them, but still no one notices, cares, or understands. These images are very powerful in film, and they show us that a person is all alone, but crying out for any connection, some sympathy, understanding, or touch. Anything but the silence and isolation.
We see many characters in the Bible facing the same “dark night of the soul,” and questioning or crying out to God with no apparent answer. Jacob had one of those moments, in today’s reading, returning to his homeland after a long absence. He’d run away from the hatred of his twin brother Esau, whom he had cheated and whose blessing he had stolen. Esau had sworn he’d kill Jacob if he ever laid hands on him. Now with many years between them, and despite both the promises and evidence of God’s blessing in his life, Jacob will soon confront his brother face to face, and Jacob fears the worst. He prays to God, and fearfully reminds God of His promises, and asks for deliverance from his brother.
But in Jacob’s dark night, he’s not crying out into oblivion, with no one to hear or answer, he’s not banging on the doors of some distant and unsympathetic lord who won’t answer, but God comes directly to him in a most surprising way. God physically wrestles with Jacob in the form of a man. After the experience, Jacob would declare, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God turns out to be very near, and though He was hidden at first, He comes face to face with Jacob for a blessing.
But certainly at first, Jacob seems to have no clue that he’s wrestling with God in human form—only that he’s fighting against some unknown attacker for some unknown reason! His dark night of prayer got interrupted by a brawl and ended with a dislocated hip! But Jacob wouldn’t surrender. Though Jacob may have a momma’s boy reputation, we know that when he first met Rachel, his future wife, he demonstrated amazing strength by moving a large stone, that usually took several men to move from a well (Gen. 28). But now Jacob puts that strength to his defense, wrestling his attacker. And listen to the words, “when the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.” This is apparently when it starts to dawn on Jacob that he’s not wrestling just some ordinary man. Jacob thinks he’s winning, then all it takes is a touch to his hip, and Jacob’s leg is dislocated. Obviously he’s wrestling someone whose been toying with him, and could easily have won. But Jacob still won’t let go, and demands a blessing. And he gets it!
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “he strives with God” or “God strives.” Consider that his old name meant “he cheats” or “he grasps by the heel.” Jacob’s life had been filled with deception so far. But now his faith would grow immensely, to rely not on his own devices, but upon God. And consider that the act of naming someone, is to claim a kind of ownership over them, as a parent to a child. It’s a reflection that you belong to me. And so Jacob, now Israel, indeed belonged to God.
God has also named you with His name, and claimed His ownership over you, in the waters of Holy Baptism. In Baptism, by water, Word, and promise, Jesus joined Himself to you, and made you His precious child. God says to you, His baptized child, “You belong to me.” And His Word and promise speak over us His love, His providence, and His salvation. God has not promised us to become a great nation, inherit Canaan, or to have many descendants, as He did for Israel, but He has given us the great promises of forgiveness from our sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen, comfort and guide us through all of life, and an unshakable eternal salvation in Christ Jesus. We can call these promises to God’s remembrance, not that He has forgotten them, but we claim them and hold them up before our own eyes as well.
When we strive and wrestle with God, His face may be hidden from us, and we may not see our “opponent”, but He is very near. When God’s face is hidden from us, we assume the worst. We fear that God is not listening, that He has cast us off or forgotten Him, or worse, that He is unwilling or unable to help. We cry out like Jacob, or the Psalmists, or Job. When we’re caught in the midst of trial or suffering, and God’s face seems hidden, life looks dark. But we are mistaken if we think that He is not near.
Claim those promises Jesus made in your baptism. He said, “Surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Claim the promises that He made when you confess your sins: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Claim the promises that Jesus has made for you in His blood, paid for our redemption: “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). “Take and drink, the blood of Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” God is not really so far off as we think—and He isn’t unaware or unconcerned about our struggles. Rather Christ Jesus has brought us near to Himself by His own blood, and in baptism He has joined us to Himself, and blessed us with His Name and ownership.
Martin Luther wrote that God lets us wrestle with Him, like a father toying with his child. But it is not to treat us cruelly or out of meanness, but out of Fatherly love to make us strive and grow stronger in faith—to make us struggle and persevere to gain His blessing. God doesn’t want to push us away or reject us, but He tests us to see how strongly we’ll cling to Him or whether we’ll let go. When God’s face is hidden from us, it comes to us as Law. When a young child is vying for our attention, they will often demand that we look at them, or if they can reach, may even try to turn our face to theirs. So also we should wrestle and prevail against God, with little hands grabbing Him by the chin, as it were, and turning His kindly face toward us. And we find the kindly and loving face of our Father in Jesus Christ.
Who was that man who wrestled with Jacob, and was later described as an angel, but it’s also said that Jacob strove with God (Hos. 13:4-5), and Jacob declared, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered?” You might not know it, but several times in the Old Testament, God comes in the form of a man, or as the “angel of the Lord” and meets His saints—and they declare in fear, that they have seen God, and are fearful they will perish. But God assures them of His mercy and blessing. It is one and the same Son of God that came and took on human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jacob wrestled with Christ, in the time before He permanently took on human flesh. Jacob saw the merciful face of God, and received a blessing, from the 2nd person of the Trinity—Christ in the Old Testament era.
Jesus taught that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and John writes that “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). It is through Jesus that we, or saints like Jacob, can know and see God’s face. Moreover, it is through Jesus that we find the kind and merciful face of God revealed to us, so that we can see God, yet our life is delivered. For to face God without forgiveness of our sins—to face Him without atonement or the cleansing of our sins—is to be destroyed in our sins. But to be brought near to God by the blood of Christ, is to approach God with confidence and boldness, to approach Him with tenderness as a child to our dear Heavenly Father. It is to see the fatherly face of His love and mercy toward us.
Just a few verses after our reading, Jacob at last meets Esau—the moment he dreaded. But it turns out to be a remarkable and joyful reunion, blessed by the forgiveness and putting away of old hurts and wrongs, and blessed by the reunion of brotherly love and affection between them. After this wonderful turn of events, Jacob remarks to his brother Esau, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Gen. 33:10). Finding his brother’s forgiveness was like seeing the face of God, as he had just experienced. From fearing the worse, whether from the hidden face of God, or of Esau, to clinging to God’s promise and not abandoning faith—Jacob eventually saw the mercy and acceptance of both God and his brother. Seeing the face of Esau accept him was like seeing God, because it brought the same Gospel—Good News—of forgiveness, for Jacob’s sins. And now the deceiver and cheat was blessed with a new life and a new name—Israel—who strives with God; and regained a brother.
When you fear that God has cast you off, or forgotten His promises, when life darkens and hope seems out of reach, then do not cast off your faith, but cling all the more strongly to it and to God, and wrestle and strive with God. Recall His promises, and know that they have truly been spoken and given to you, together with God’s new Name in your baptism. Recall and know that God is faithful and will not forsake us, even when the storm clouds gather. Believe and know it to be true that whatever hardships you endure in this life, it is God’s plainly stated will, not hidden from us, that He desires your salvation and to show His loving kindness to us. Believe this, and grab your loving Father in faith, and receive His blessing in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Genesis 32-33 to see Jacob’s fear, prayer and wrestling with God, and then reunion with Esau. How did Jacob pray? 28:9-12. Read Psalm 10. How do believers often think of God, when His face seems “hidden”? Has it ever seemed to you that God’s face was hidden from you? Why?
  2. How is Jacob’s dark night of worry and prayer interrupted? What does Jacob say about it? Genesis 32:30. Was Jacob a strong man? Genesis 28:1-10. How did his opponent prove his superior power? Then why did he let Jacob “prevail”? What does this tell us about God’s character and what He desires for us to do when we wrestle with Him?
  3. What does the new name Israel mean? What did his old name, Jacob, mean? Being named by someone speaks of a certain kind of ownership. How has God’s Name been placed on us? Matthew 28:18-20. What does this mean for who owns us?
  4. What promises does God make to us? Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 13:5; 1 John 1:9; Ephesians 2:13. How do these promises carry us through the dark hours of life when God’s face seems hidden from us?
  5. Who was the man who wrestled with Jacob? Hosea 13:4-5. Cf. Judges 6:22-23; 13:16-23. No one has seen the Father (John 1:18); but who shows Him to humankind? John 14:9.  What does the face of God look like to us in Christ Jesus?
  6. When he meets Esau, he describes Esau’s forgiveness like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10). Explain what this means, in light of his close encounter with God, in Genesis 32:30.
  7. How can we hang onto Jesus in the face of trials? How truly close to us is our God?

Monday, October 03, 2016

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, "Faith like a mustard seed"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today Jesus says that a little faith can do incredible things. ”If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.” Elsewhere Jesus describes a faith that can cast mountains into the sea. If it only takes the faith of a tiny grain of mustard seed to do these amazing things, perhaps some of us are wondering why more Christians aren’t throwing trees and mountains into the ocean to demonstrate the power of their faith? Maybe they don’t even have faith this small? Unfortunately, however exciting that might be to see, Jesus doesn’t seem to be telling His disciples to throw more trees into the sea, or that it’s His Father’s will for them to do this. Rather, Jesus is instructing us about faith. He’s saying faith is needed for even more difficult and important jobs than tree-tossing and mountain throwing. And it’s not a giant-sized faith that’s needed, but even a little mustard seed faith will do.
Two questions this raises: 1) what is the greater thing that faith is needed to do? and 2) how can a mustard seed sized faith do it? Practicing daily forgiveness is the greater thing that prompted Jesus’ disciples to beg for Jesus to “Increase our faith!” Jesus tells us if our brother sins against us seven times in the day, and turns to us seven times, saying “I repent”, we must forgive him. Does it worry you, that you might not have enough faith to keep forgiving others? Is it hard for you to forgive? What about when the sin is repeated, over and over, seven times in a day? How hard is it then? Would you still be able to forgive, if you were sinned against 7 times in a day? What about 70 times 7? This is how Jesus teaches us we are to forgive. We are to forgive without limitation. And it takes faith to do this.
But faith the size of a mustard seed? Don’t we need something bigger? Isn’t that what the disciples were after when they asked Jesus to increase their faith? Now forgiving little sins might seem like nothing to us—like a child lifting a feather. We can do it almost without thinking. But to forgive great and weighty sins—don’t we need the muscles of a body builder to do that? Don’t we need a big and muscular faith? You see when Jesus points to faith the size of a mustard seed, He shows that faith isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. It’s not how big a “faith-muscle” you have to exercise, because faith isn’t the power itself. Faith lays ahold of God’s power. Faith is our dependence or reliance on God’s power to work in us. That’s why the size of faith isn’t what matters. It’s God’s power at work when we have faith the size of the mustard seed.
To forgive as Jesus says—really to forgive as Jesus does—we need Jesus working in us by faith. Forgiveness is central to the life of a Christian. Being a forgiven child of God depends entirely on Jesus’ undeserved mercy poured out on us. But Jesus also calls on us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. And it really is one of the hardest things we are called to do. By our sinfulness and selfish nature, our forgiveness quickly runs out. A few weeks ago I wrote that we shouldn’t treat forgiveness like “chances”. “You’ve got three chances!” or “I’m going to give you one more chance!” But how quickly do chances run out? In just a few moments, the “chances” are exhausted, and suddenly we’ve given ourselves permission to lose our patience, get frustrated or angry, to hold a grudge, or withhold forgiveness. By contrast, Jesus tells us that if our brother sins against us, we should rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against us seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent’, we must forgive him.
Jesus isn’t just increasing the “chances” we give up to seven, but making a point about our duty to continue forgiving those who have wronged us. In a parallel passage in Matthew 18, Peter asks if 7 times is enough to forgive his brother, and Jesus says 70 times 7. In either place, the point is not figuring out the minimal requirements of our forgiveness, but opening up our forgiveness to be as great and merciful as God’s forgiveness. Paul tells us in the great love chapter, “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Forgiveness is not a matter of “chances”, but of continually bearing with the sins and weaknesses of others as God has borne with us. The Psalmist reflects on this, that if God kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with Him, there is forgiveness! The point is that our brothers and sisters in Christ, all our fellow humans, for that matter, need our forgiveness just as much as we need God’s forgiveness. When we are immersed in the grace and forgiveness of God, we can better understand and invite others into that refreshing stream. Consider how much reconciliation and healing could take place in our lives, our families, and our communities, if we practiced Jesus’ forgiveness more constantly and joyfully?
Here it’s worth noting that exercising forgiveness without limitations, is not the same thing as dealing with the consequences of our actions. Certainly there are many times when our actions, or even our negligence (i.e. inaction) carries consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we will necessarily escape those consequences. If a teenager repeatedly ignored the curfew set by their parents, or gets too many traffic tickets, they may have the consequence of losing the keys and permission to drive the car. If a person shows they are untrustworthy at work, like in the parable of the dishonest manager a few weeks ago, they may lose their job. If a person has committed certain crimes, they may be prohibited from certain types of employment, or they may not be trusted in the same way as someone who has proven their trustworthiness. It’s not the case that the parent isn’t forgiving their teenager, since they lost the privilege of using the car, or that a person’s employment was impacted by their poor choices—but they are bearing the consequences of their actions. The same applies to those who are imprisoned—they can be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean they go free. But in every one of these situations, there is an opportunity for learning, repentance, forgiveness, and growth.
The other part of the duty that Jesus said we had toward our brothers is to rebuke them when they sin. We might reflexively think, “How could I possibly do that?” Indeed, in the Bible, a rebuke, or sharp correction is ordinarily God’s domain. The danger of human rebukes is that we are over hasty and often misjudge. Or it comes from a hypocritical attitude of superiority and condescension. Frequently in the Bible, a human who rebukes is corrected. So how can we safely follow Jesus’ command to rebuke our brother when he sins? First of all we have to approach it in humility recognizing our common sinfulness before God. By recognizing our own need for forgiveness, we see our duty to forgive others. Galatians 6:1 helps us here, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” This verse deals with the same thing.
Sin can catch us like a snare or a trap; and temptation is like a stumbling block, or something that trips us so we fall. Both in Galatians and in Jesus’ words, Jesus is telling us to care! We ought to care enough about our fellow Christians, to help them turn away from sin. And we should do this ”in a spirit of gentleness.” There is no room here for pride, superiority, condescension, arrogance, or any of those things—only a gentleness that would have our brother restored from their sin. And this also shows us we can’t measure sin lightly, as though we should take sin for granted. Jesus opens the reading saying, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” Jesus’ warning is deadly urgent, and indicates that drowning is a better fate than what’s in store for those who cause little ones to sin. We are tempting fate if we tempt God’s children, to lead them into sin.
Rather than taking the spiritually deadly path of causing someone to sin, we should gently lead others out of sin. Keep watch on yourselves, lest you too be tempted, we heard. There are so many pitfalls and ways in which we can be drawn into sin—whether in thoughts, words or actions. So many ways we can lose patience and fail in our duty to forgive, or grow arrogant or prideful over others, or even just being lured into the attraction and enticements of sin. Considering all this, don’t you agree with the apostles, and feel like crying out with them to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”?
And we are reminded that faith does mighty things, incredible things. But not by the size or power of faith itself, but by the size and power of our God. Faith grabs hold of God. It is the open channel through which God pours out His grace and power into our lives. Faith latches onto what God is doing, rather than being our personal, independent power to do whatever we want. One of my professors describes faith as “honesty about dependence.” It’s honesty that we are completely dependent on Jesus to forgive, to love, to serve, and to follow in His disciple way. If it were not for Jesus, we could not bear or do it. With man this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible! It’s not about what faith can do (by itself), but about what God can do, and does do!
Our Old Testament reading ends with the verse, quoted by Paul, and loved by Martin Luther, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” I hope you see why the Christian is so dependent on faith. Because faith is our very dependence on God. And by faith in God, we receive great and enormous things. We grab onto the God of all creation, and receive His infinite love and unfathomable mercy. We receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ, in the forgiveness of our sins. We live by the power of the One who has died and cast our sins into the depths of His grave, and who calls us by faith, to cast the sins and wrongs of others upon His cross and into His grave, when we speak those words, “I forgive you.” For sins to be released and for the chains and bonds of our guilt to be broken. For us to say “I forgive you” is to not hold those sins against you any longer, as Christ has forgiven us so much more. All this grace and mercy of God floods upon us in Christ Jesus daily, and from that bounty, we give and bless others with the same forgiveness. Faith the size of the mustard seed contains all the powerful working of the kingdom of God to do this great thing, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. According to Jesus, in Luke 17:1, temptations to sin are inevitable—but why shouldn’t we just “accept” that it is this way? 17:1-2. When Jesus uses the word “woe”—it indicates deadly seriousness. Since He says having a millstone hung around your neck is “better”—what is He implying about the fate of one who causes the “little ones” to stumble? Cf. Matthew 13:41-43.
  2. Luke 17:3 instructs us to rebuke our brother when they sin. “Rebuking” is something normally reserved for God, and what is the danger that humans often fall into when rebuking? Luke 6:37-42. Knowing this danger, how should we approach someone when it is necessary to rebuke? Galatians 6:1
  3. Rather than putting limits or minimums on forgiveness, what does Jesus command us to do? Luke 17:3-4; cf. Matthew 18:21-35. Why is it not surprising that the disciples then asked Jesus to “increase our faith” (v. 5)? But how much faith is actually needed? (v. 6).
  4. Faith is not a power in itself, or something to be measured in degrees, but faith is joined to and receives Christ Jesus. It is by His power that forgiveness and any miracle of faith is done (v. 6). 1 Corinthians 2:5. So if it is not the “size” of faith, that matters, who does the power to forgive depend on? Why should we always turn back to God for strength to forgive? What naturally happens to us otherwise?
  5. V. 7-10 show how servants are expected to do their duty, and not received special thanks for it. If we have difficulty receiving this truth, what is it helpful for us to remember? Philippians 2:5-11; John 13; 19. How did Jesus become our servant, and for what reason? Mark 10:44-45.