Monday, October 04, 2010

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Increase Our Faith!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading contains a few basic teachings about discipleship, or what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Although it was especially the teaching about forgiveness that caused the apostles to respond to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”—each one of these teachings will challenge our faith. So let our prayer today and always be: “Lord, Increase our Faith!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus begins by pointing out that it’s unavoidable that temptations to sin will come. Jesus isn’t saying that temptation itself is unavoidable, because we’re promised that when we’re tempted, God is faithful not to let us be tempted beyond our ability to bear it. There will never arise a situation where we simply cannot help but give in. God will always provide a way of escape, so that we can endure it (1 Cor. 10:13). C.S. Lewis wrote about this Bible passage in his book the Screwtape Letters, and said that many Christians fail by giving into temptation—just before the way of escape is made visible. How often do we persuade ourselves that the temptation really was so severe we just couldn’t help ourselves? But there always is a way out, even if we’re unwilling to see it or attempt it. We often forget how strongly sin aligns itself with our own pleasures and desires, and it becomes the path of least resistance.
So Jesus didn’t say that it’s impossible for us to resist temptation, but that in a sinful world, it will be inevitable that they arise. But lest we think that there’s nothing we can do about it, and there’s no use avoiding it, Jesus says “Woe to the one through whom temptation comes!” Jesus pronounces the more serious judgment against the one who causes temptation, especially to those who cause temptation for “these little ones.” This obviously includes children (cf. Matt. 18:6), who are especially vulnerable to being misled. However, not only children are vulnerable to temptation, but people who’re new believers also face increased temptation to fall away. People of any age, who aren’t deeply rooted in their faith, can be easy victims of temptation. So our prayer should also be “increase our faith!” Jesus warns that the one who causes temptation, who deliberately leads all these “little ones” to slip and fall by temptation—their fate will be worse than the person dropped into the sea with a millstone around their neck.
If left unchecked, lives are ruined by sin, as Jesus’ teaching shows. Those who lead people into it face a dreadful fate. Those who’re led astray by temptation may fall into hardship and danger. And so Jesus puts a “check” against sin by warning those who’d cause others to stumble. He puts another “check” against sin by telling us that we must pay attention to ourselves (lest we become the cause of sin) and another by saying that we must rebuke our brother if they sin. We shouldn’t stand by idly if a fellow brother or sister in Christ is sinning. If we wouldn’t remain silent if someone was about to hurt themselves physically—like grabbing a pot that they didn’t know was burning hot, or walking over fallen electric wires—neither should we remain silent if they are running into far more serious spiritual harm.
Admittedly this is very difficult in practice—but that doesn’t excuse us from doing it. If we’re truly concerned for the well-being of our family or friends, we should speak up when they are cruising dangerously down the wrong path. We just might be able to turn them back from their wandering, and “save their soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). But Scripture also gives us some cautions about doing this, because there’s the danger of becoming judgmental and seeking to find faults with everyone. There’s the danger of self-righteousness. There’s the danger of falling into the same sins we’re helping them from. So this is the caution the Bible gives: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who’re spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” and also, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:1,3).
So the cautions are that when we rebuke sin, or show strong disapproval, that we also do it out of love and gentleness. And those two are compatible. A parent, for example, can show unconditional love for their erring child, while at the same time expressing disapproval of their actions and not helping to sponsor or enable them in doing wrong. To do so in a spirit of gentleness reminds us that we shouldn’t be overly harsh, which may only drive the person away or further into their sin. All the while we must maintain a deep sense of humility and repentance of our own sins, so that we don’t begin to deceive ourselves by becoming puffed up with pride or superiority. Rather we urge our brothers or sisters in Christ as equals who stand under the same law and authority of God, with the goal of bringing them to repentance.
Here Jesus shows how great God’s mercy is, by showing us the greatness and importance of forgiveness. Stop for a moment and consider why Christian preaching so frequently returns to the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the heart and center of the kingdom of God, because forgiveness is essential to checking the power of sin. Jesus’ forgiveness releases us from the slavery of sin and death, which is why forgiveness belongs in the Christian community and must be continually practiced between ourselves and others. Sin leads to many consequences, great and small, in the physical and also spiritual realm. Forgiveness can break sin’s power by taking away the guilt, the spiritual consequences, healing the shame, etc. What would happen if we stopped forgiving? Sin’s power would remain unchecked and as people continued to wrong one another, grudges would build. Wounds wouldn’t heal. Relationships would suffer and break. If people do not forgive, trust will break down and communities will become fragmented and suspicious. Feelings of anger and revenge would ferment in people’s hearts. We’d descend deeper into our bondage or slavery to sin.
So just as God in Jesus Christ has so greatly forgiven us, we’re also to forgive others. Jesus shows how far this is to go by saying that even if our brother sins against us 7 times in one day and repents 7 times, we must still forgive him. Our sinful nature likes to quantify things though, and we like to establish the minimums and maximums of our behavior. We’d like to take this and say, “Fine! I’ll forgive him seven times, and no more. And I’m keeping track!” But elsewhere when Peter asked if 7 times was enough times to forgive his brother (thinking that to be very generous), Jesus replied, No, seventy times seven. Jesus showed there’s no limit to how many times we’re called to forgive. Can you imagine if God operated that way? That He kept a record of sins? The Psalmist, considering such a thought, said: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). We daily exceed 7 sins against God, easily, if we measure sins of thought, word, and deed. Yet God continually forgives us when we repent and turn to Him for mercy. So Jesus isn’t establishing any sort of quota, but is rather teaching us of the generous nature of forgiveness that doesn’t stop from forgiving the repentant sinner.
The apostle’s response to Jesus is the same thought in our own hearts: “Increase our faith!” We see that we’re not up to this task on our own. To have someone sin the same sin against you seven times in one day goes beyond trying your patience. It stirs up all kinds of negative responses in us, from anger, to grudges and desire for revenge, unwillingness to forgive, and even worse, hatred. Again, sin is a powerful force if left unchecked, and can abound to all kinds of other harmful effects. But we plead that we don’t have the strength, patience or love to forgive. True! But when we pray: “Increase our faith!” God is most willing to answer. In fact, giving the good gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the things that God most desires to give to us (Luke 11:13). God will strengthen and increase our faith; in fact that is the only way we’ll finally be able to show such great mercy and forgive each other so often. Yet as I said before, forgiveness is a crucial part of the Christian community.
Finally, Jesus continues His teaching on the challenges of discipleship by giving the example of a servant who worked all day in the fields—and how he shouldn’t then expect to come home and have his master prepare and serve him dinner. But first the servant is required to make the master’s meal and serve him, and only then afterward eat and drink. So the servant doesn’t receive thanks for doing his duty, what was commanded of him. Rather, we like the servant, after we’ve done all we were commanded, should say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” In other words, the disciple does not carry out his duties, or obey God and seek to do good, in the expectation of God’s applause or that God will be waiting to reward us for our work.
As one of my professors summarized this: “The fact is that Christians do extraordinary things, things that others do not do. Christians love more. Christians give more. Christians put up with more. Christians forgive the unforgivable. And now comes the clincher. Even if we do all these things, we are still unprofitable servants. Don’t expect God to say ‘thank you’. We all like to be honored, but this Gospel says that there are no honors in God’s kingdom, not even for preachers.” He points out that “The moment we become proud of ourselves, proud of what we have done, or even proud of our faith, we are denying salvation by grace.”..... “Faith is not self-admiration.” Rather, we are to do all our duty faithfully and responsibly, without thinking that we have earned any credit or approval before God. Faith doesn’t look at ourselves and our record of good works, but faith finds our full and complete approval in God’s eyes through Jesus Christ. Faith grabs onto Christ as the one and only reason we find approval from God.
Avoiding sin and temptation, rebuking others from sin in an attitude of humility, turning away from sin ourselves, forgiving our brother 7 times a day, and doing all this without expecting that we deserve something in return? If it seems too great a task, and it is greater than we can accomplish—then pray “Increase our faith!” God will grant us to do even more than this—even the impossible is possible for those who have faith like a mustard seed. Faith is as powerful as the object in which it trusts—and if our trust is in the true and living God, there is no task to great for us.
But should we still feel a sense of unfairness that we’re still but unworthy servants, let us stand together as Christians each week under the foot of the cross and contemplate the thankless suffering that Jesus endured there. Again, borrowing the words of my professor: “think of one servant who never raised any objections to what was asked of Him. He never complained. Though He was God, He did not use His prerogative as God for His own benefit. He did not boast. But…when He found Himself as a servant among servants, a slave among slaves, a human being among human beings, He humbled Himself unto death, and this death was not an ordinary death, but one by crucifixion. At that point, God lifted Him up and gave Him a name that is superior to all other names. At the name of Jesus every knee bows in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Standing before His cross might make it easier for us to say that after we have done all things, we are unprofitable servants.” Looking to the one truly worthy servant who suffered so greatly without complaint may return us to thankfulness and awe at the great salvation that was purchased for us. So great a cost to Him, yet free for us. Let us thank our Lord Jesus for His most worthy act of service. Thanks be to God, in Jesus’ name, Amen. (pray) Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Why is “Lord, increase our faith!” a fitting prayer for this section in Luke 17:1-10 on discipleship? How is your faith challenged, stretched, and strengthened by these words?

2. Why is temptation so serious? What promise are we given about temptation? 1 Corinthians 10:13. What strong warning against creating temptations does Jesus give? Luke 17:1-2. Who are the “little ones?” Matt. 18:6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:6; Luke 8:13-14.

3. What “checks” does Jesus put against sin and its power? What instructions and also cautions are given about rebuking sin? See Rom. 1:32-2:3; Galatians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:1, 20; James 5:19-20; Matt. 18

4. Why is forgiveness central to the Christian proclamation? Matt. 26:28; Luke 24:47; Acts 13:38 Why is it essential that it be practiced in the Christian community? Matt. 18; Galatians 5:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. Briefly picture for yourself a community without forgiveness. Then with forgiveness.

5. Why is Jesus not establishing a “quota” when He says to forgive 7 times a day? Why should we not keep a “record”? Instead of trying to just “cover our bases” what should our attitude be? Matt. 18:21-22, see again 2 Cor. 5. What if God kept a record of sins? Psalm 130:3

6. How does God respond to the prayer: “Increase our faith?” Luke 11:13.

7. Does a servant deserve thanks for merely doing his duty? How can we more greatly appreciate the unworthiness of our work, and the greatness of the undeserved love we have received? Isaiah 53:7

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