Monday, September 26, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-27, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "A Question of Authority"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s Gospel in Matthew 21, the chief priests and elders raise the question of authority. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were in a time and culture where authority commanded great power and respect, and the idea of “unauthorized activity” was a major source of contention. Questioning His authority, they wanted to silence Him unless He could justify His authority. Jesus’ teaching and other activities seemed to them to be “unauthorized”—without the proper authority.

Our present culture comes from a quite opposite position as them, and we’re more inclined to be suspicious or distrusting of authority. We’re surrounded by messages and attitudes like “Question authority” or even “Question Everything.” Bumper stickers proudly declare “I do what I like”—implying “don’t expect any consideration from me.” Or T-shirts that read: “Get your laws off my body”—suggesting that the government is overreaching when trying to limit abortion, for example. So along with all these attitudes and opinions about authority floating around, would anyone argue that there is a general trend of increasing respect and cooperation with authorities in society today? That people are generally growing more respectful and obedient toward law enforcement, the government, toward the church, schools, or parents? Or are we cynical and dismissive of authority? Of course some of the distrust and “questioning” is directed against corruption or misuse of authority.

Now the Bible does grant a much higher importance to authority than we might be accustomed to today, but unless it’s God’s authority being described—that authority is never unqualified or unlimited. We are to honor our father and mother, the fourth commandment teaches. We are to respect and obey government and other authorities placed over us. But our respect and obedience doesn’t extend to doing things against God’s will. If the government or any other authority were to command us to do something sinful, we must obey God rather than men. If the government or other authorities were to permit or allow something that is sinful, that doesn’t mean that we could sin in clear conscience just because it was legal. We have a higher authority to obey, that is God. His authority is over all, and commands our respect.

So when the chief priests and elders raise their question of authority, and Jesus answers a question with a question. The timing of this was Holy Week, the last week of His ministry, when things were escalating to a confrontation as Jesus returned to teach the final time in the Temple. Only shortly before this episode, on Palm Sunday, the chief priests rebuked Jesus because He didn’t stop the children from praising Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” That week Jesus had turn over the tables of money-changers and chased the animals and merchants out of the Temple with a whip—a pretty gutsy move—and they were demanding an explanation.

By what authority do you do this? Who do you think you are? Who gave you this authority? Did you take it for yourself or has someone given it to you? We’ve got a pretty-nicely oiled religious machine going here, and who do you think you are to throw a wrench into things? Are you telling us we don’t know how to worship God? They wanted some clear answers about Jesus’ authority. Their questions assumed that Jesus had no such authority to do these things, but that He had wrongfully taken the authority upon Himself. They were blind to the possibility that God sent Him. They failed to worship the One whose praise the children sang.

In a style common to Jewish debate, Jesus answers a question with a question. He promises to answer their question about His authority, if they can answer His. His question is about John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner. John was none too popular among the priests either. When John first began baptizing in the wilderness, he faced the same questions of authority from the priests and Levites about who he was and why he was baptizing. He answered that he was the “voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord;” quoting the prophet Isaiah (John 1:19-27). John also called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy. John had been another irritant to them. So Jesus’ question is, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Jesus proved what they should have learned long before: it doesn’t pay to dispute with God. Jesus’ own question of authority throws them into another pickle. Admit that John’s baptism came from heaven, and Jesus’ quick reply would be—then why didn’t you follow him? He was acting with God’s authority, so why didn’t you repent and turn from your evil works, and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah?

But obviously they didn’t believe John’s message, and couldn’t give this answer without admitting their unbelief. Alternatively, answering that John’s baptism was from men would put them in political hot water with the crowds. It was political suicide to tell the crowds that John was no prophet, and just spoke on his own authority as a man. The priests were in a tenuous political position as it was—trying to please the Jews who favored the Pharisees on the one hand, and the Romans who held the political authority on the other. Jesus’ question exposed their heart. They wanted to answer the question, not according to principle and what was true, but by what was safest to say or politically expedient.

Jesus had them cornered, with no way to escape to the right or the left, and instead of answering the question directly they chose to give the lame excuse for an answer that they didn’t know. Their hearts were already made up, and they didn’t believe that John’s baptism was from God any more than they believed Jesus’ authority was from God. But they wouldn’t even admit this answer, because they wanted to try to avoid the anger of the crowds. Fear prompted them to act in the safest way, instead of principle guiding them to say what is true regardless of the consequences. We may face similar challenges and tests of conviction. Will we allow fear to keep us from doing what is right or saying what is right? Or will we be driven to take the safest avenue to avoid trouble? Jesus pushed them to face the real question of His own authority—was it from heaven, or was it from man?

This was more than just a matter of indecision…they were chief priest and elders of the people—leaders! If anyone was responsible, they were—to distinguish between true and false prophets, between true and false teaching. But they surrendered their authority and responsibility to the people by their unwillingness to take a stance on John’s authority and ultimately Jesus’ authority. The warning for us is not to get caught in the same cowardice of not facing the truth—even when it’s uncomfortable. We are responsible and accountable to the truth. Trying to be “safe” by being indecisive about Jesus just isn’t an option. There is no neutral position of “I don’t know.” Jesus won’t allow us to sit on the fence about Him. His authority is either from God or from men. There’s no two ways about it.

How do we answer the question about Jesus’ authority? Do we clearly and with the conviction of faith confess that Jesus’ authority is divine? Or do we try to hedge our bets about the authority of Jesus and His Word, and choose the easy-to-swallow parts and the parts that fit with what we think, while rejecting the more difficult teachings? Do we pick and choose what we accept on His authority? If we answer that His authority is divine, from our Father in heaven, then we aren’t free to build halfway-houses, and try to take some of God’s Word and leave the rest. Instead we are to be truth-tellers, to be people of conviction. If all Jesus asked of the priests was that they go along with what they already accepted and agreed with, then they would’ve had no problem following Him. But He calls them and us to a full declaration of His authority and to submit to God’s Word in every way.

This is a radical commitment and has big implications for our lives. It means giving up our indecision and fear of the world. But what kind of authority are we submitting to? Certainly not a corrupt or abusive authority; like the kind that creates so much distrust and suspicion in our world. Rather Jesus’ authority is exercised in justice and peace, now and forever (Isaiah 9:7). Jesus rules as the very Son of Man, whom the prophet Daniel saw being given an everlasting dominion, an eternal kingdom and glory (Dan. 7:14). Jesus is the Son of Man whose authority extends over heaven and earth, and all powers, dominions, and nations will serve Him. To submit to the authority of Jesus and to trust in Him as our Savior is to be under the authority of the one who commands the stars and the heavens, who rules over every nation, who has the power over life and death. The One who has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mt. 9:6). The One who has the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again, as He did when He died on the cross for our sins and rose again (John 10:18). The One who has authority over all unclean spirits (Mk. 3:15). His authority is an authority of justice and righteousness.

Jesus is the One who has the authority, given by His Father, to exercise judgment over the whole world (John 5:27). Yet now He exercises that authority not for our condemnation, but rather that we and the world would believe in Him, be spared the judgment of our sins, and find instead His salvation (John. 3:17; 5:24). And when the last day comes, Jesus will acknowledge us before the heavenly Father if we acknowledged Him; or deny us before the Father if we denied Him (Matt. 10:32-33). Jesus exercises a great an awesome authority over us and all creation, but He is the gracious and compassionate God who exercises it for our good.

Accepting His authority may be difficult, especially as it means turning from your sins; but far better to stand on God’s side, and have His power and authority exercised for you and your protection; for your very salvation—than to stand opposed to God’s authority. As subjects in His everlasting kingdom, He exercises His authority to destroy sin for us. He forgave it from the cross. He gives us His Spirit to wage battle against the power of sin in our lives. He destroys the power that death holds over our lives. He gives us a living hope and faith that shatters death’s grip on us, because Jesus shattered death’s grip on Him. He is the one who has the power to cast out fear from our lives, because He gives us a courage and confidence that only He can supply because He has defeated our greatest enemies of sin, death, and the devil. Through His cross and resurrection, we receive all the blessings of His authority and rule: forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. To trust in Jesus is to have God on our side! Of whom, then, shall we be afraid? Truly, for those who believe, Christ’s authority and rule brings blessing and peace.

Now may that 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. What is the difference between the attitudes about authority that the Jews of Jesus’ time held, and the attitudes about authority that many people hold today? What examples do you see today of disrespect or disobedience toward authorities?

2. How does the Bible command our respect and obedience to the authorities God has established? Ex. 20:12; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17. How does it limit their authority? Acts 5:27-29; Ps. 2:10-12; Lk 1:51-52; Eph. 6:9 Who has unlimited authority? Mt. 28:18

3. What recent events where the chief priests and elders challenging Jesus about in particular? Read Matt. 21:1-17

4. Where did John the Baptist’s authority come from? John 1:19-27 Why were the priests unwilling to admit it? What should they have done if they recognized his teaching was from God? Mt. 3:7-12

5. When have you found it easier to avoid the truth than to face it? Why is there no “sitting on the fence” when it comes to the question of Jesus’ authority? Matt. 10:32-33.

6. What is the nature of Jesus’ authority, when we submit to it? Isaiah 9:7; Dan. 7:14; Matt. 9:6; John 10:18; Mark. 3:15

7. How does Jesus exercise His authority concerning our judgment and salvation? John 5:27; 5:24; 3:17. Who will one day have to acknowledge Jesus’ authority? Phil. 2:9-11. How is His authority used in our lives for our repentance, our instruction, our comfort and our good?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Compassionate Employer"

Sermon Outline

1. The irregular behavior of the master of the house: a) went himself to the marketplace 5 times in one day to hire workers, though he had an employee, b) pays the wages in reverse, creating a stir among the workers, c) pays an equal wage to all.

2. Reasons? a) not because he underestimated his needed workforce, but out of his compassion to hire all the workers and give them the dignity of a living wage. Day-laborers were like the unemployment line. Personal visit to the unemployment lines 5 times. Even at the last hour of the day some were still waiting for work—didn’t want to return home to a hungry family empty-handed. b) could have done in normal order, everyone would have gone home happy—but to show the first workers his generosity and teach them about grace. c) the master was free to do with his own as he pleased. Didn’t need to go out at the 11th hour, but had compassion for the unemployed. What dignity did it give them? Last call.

3. God’s incarnation in Jesus, went in person, like the master, to call workers to the vineyard. Vineyard = the church. God is always hiring! By His Gospel He calls us, loud and long. Main audience of the parable are those who work in the vineyard and receive the reward of eternal life.

4. None of the workers were underpaid. The first workers agreed (symphaneo—harmony) with the master for their 1 denarius wage. Their complaint was with the grace of the master, that he treated the late arrivals as equal to them! “Equal pay for equal work!” that’s the accepted view of justice, right? How would you like to get paid the same for 12 hours of work as someone who worked only one? Strikes us as unfair. “How much am I going to get paid?” Want to be rewarded more in proportion to our amount of work. Entitlement. Missing the point of grace and generosity. Previous verses Peter is seeking a reward. There will be a reward (unearned) but don’t place yourself forward as first—you will be last. Last will be first. Work instead for the love of the master, trust in His justice, and give no thought to reward or repayment.

5. Parable doesn’t tell us the final outcome, it leaves the story open so the story finishes in our lives. Looked down on others? Who didn’t pull their weight, pay their dues? Danger that the first workers fell into—those who obeyed God’s will, now seeking to dictate His will toward others. Demand more than agreed, withhold grace from others.

6. Easy to enter first by grace, be grateful, overwhelmed, thankful, but over time develop a sense of entitlement. I deserve it. Merit-based system. Earn my love, trust, support, respect, etc. Natural to us, but not the way of grace. Does it sound silly? “I got here by grace, but you have to work your way!”

7. Vs. 15 lit: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I desire with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” No one can tell God what to do with what is His. What is an “evil eye?” Begrudging generosity. Resentment toward others. Someone else was honored instead of me. I deserve the credit. Not appreciated or recognized enough. Jealousy. Envy.

8. What does Jesus say about an evil eye? “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23). The Proverbs describe a person who is stingy as lit. “evil of eye” (Prov. 23:6), whereas “Whoever has a bountiful (or good) eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Prov. 22:9). If the lamp of our body is bad, how great our darkness!

9. We need a light shining in us, a healthy and generous eye, to have a body full of light. Jesus’ parable shines the light in our eyes to show the compassion of our God. God is free to do with His own as He pleases, and is free to show generosity as He wills. And He in fact does this. He breaks with our conventions and expectations about what is right or fair, and shows amazing generosity. This parable teaches “God’s mysterious way of reversing things” so that the first will be last, and the last first. (TLSB, 1624) Shows the compassion of Jesus, so that this mercy might take root in us, and cleanse that infected, stingy, evil eye with light. Light that drives out the darkness.

10. He is the master of the vineyard who came and bore the real burden of our sin, and faced the scorching heat and wrath of God’s anger against sin. The load we carry is a light and easy yoke. But He earned our denarius. He paid the price for our wages, which was death, so that we might have the gift of eternal life. We are paid out of the generosity of the God who would not have us perish, but give us everlasting life—whether we come to God early or late makes no difference, even at the 11th hour, so long as we answer before His final call. Thanks to God that He has a good and generous eye toward all of us, and freely gives of what He owns as He pleases, for the love and benefit of those called to His service. Not paid according to merit, but according to His grace.

Sermon Talking Points
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1. What was the wage the first workers agreed to accept from the master for a day’s work? When the master returned four more times to the marketplace, why were there still workers there? (v.7)

2. What is surprising about the master’s trips to the marketplace, in light of the fact that he had an employee (v.8)? What about the order in which he made payment? How much he paid to each?

3. What does this parable teach us about the compassion and generosity of our God? What was the protest of the first workers? Were they underpaid? How and when do we show a similar jealousy or resentment? What must we do with sinful feelings of “entitlement?”

4. The end of verse 15 could literally be translated as “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” What does Jesus say about having an “evil eye?” Matthew 6:22-24

5. God commanded this same kind of mercy of His people in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and 24:14-15. This parable shows how God would (and does!!) keep those same commands. How does the parable show the incarnation of Jesus, and how He took on Himself the atonement of the world?

6. How can we look out for and help the “11th hour” unemployed? What is significant about the fact that this was the “last call” for workers to come into the vineyard? What is the “equal reward” for all who trust in Jesus? It’s not a “reward” in the sense of something we earned, but what? Romans 6:23

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "God's Mercy Received is Mercy Lived"

Sermon Outline:
1. Today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, repentance, and now mercy, begun last week. Various pitfalls to salvation.

2. Peter asks about forgiveness. 7 times is generous? Peter is asking the question out of the sense of fairness, not out of the sense of mercy. Mercy doesn’t deal with what is fair, but what is undeserved! No, 70 x 7. “Jesus raises the debt ceiling.” Don’t keep a record or count of sins. “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5). A lesson in mercy and forgiveness: Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. God’s mercy received is mercy lived.

3. Important details: 1) scenario of master settling accounts like the final judgment we all have before God, 2) 10,000 talent debt was beyond payable. 1 talent = 20 years wages for a laborer. 10,000 talents is 200,000 years of work!! Millions or billions of dollars. Like a single individual being held responsible for paying off the US national debt. 3) ‘Have patience with me and I will pay you everything’ was a futile cry--impossible to pay. But implored the master’s mercy 4) Incredible compassion of master to cancel (forgive) the entire debt--nothing still owed. Didn’t work out a payment plan or refinance. 5) Reaction of the servant (expected vs. actual) 6) 100 denarii debt-- 1 denarius = 1 day’s wage. 100 days’ wages or about 5-6 months. A very payable debt. About 600,000 times smaller than the first servant’s debt. 7) the unforgiving servant did not hear his own words in the 2nd servant’s plea, chokes him, shows no mercy 8) community is scandalized by his selfish misuse of his freedom and the mercy shown to him. 9) Mercy shown to him by the master is revoked after the servant shows an attitude utterly opposite of the master’s mercy toward his fellow servant.

4. “Living mercifully is a high holy art of faith.” (Harrison). Doesn’t come easily; selfish, sinful nature rebels against it. Receiving God’s incredible mercy for our enormous, unpayable debt to God is how we learn to live mercy. Compassion, undeserved kindness, grace. Mercy as Jesus teaches it is always a conviction or emotion that leads to merciful action. Mercy is not true or complete in just feeling sorry for someone, it leads to a compassionate action. Like forgiveness. Like feeding the hungry or clothing the poor. God’s mercy received is mercy lived. His undeserved gift, first given, translates into action on our part.

5. “As much as we Lutherans harp on the importance of forgiveness, it forever amazes me that we can be so inept, so silent, and so unable to speak absolution to one another. We daily live the parable of the unforgiving servant. Our innumerable sins (even those of which we are unaware) are forgiven by Christ. Yet we obsess, we stew, we fret, and we grind our axes over one sin committed against us. After one untoward word from a brother or sister in Christ or one of off-the-cuff remark from a family member, we are shouting “Pay what you owe!”” (Harrison, 80-81).

6. If anyone of us cannot forgive our brother from our heart, we should hear this warning from Jesus carefully. The scandal of what the unforgiving servant did is that he acted so completely contrary to the mercy that the master showed to him. Utterly selfish misuse of the richly given freedom and mercy from the master. It was a denial of Christ to deny forgiveness to his fellow servant who sought the same mercy from him as he sought from the master. If anyone seeks our forgiveness or mercy, we cannot and should not deny it. If we do, God will withdraw His mercy from us.

7. As for someone who is unrepentant, Jesus already explained in vs. 15-18 about seeking repentance from the brother. If the person is still unrepentant, those steps apply first until they repent. But we’re not free to store up bitterness and vengeance or malice until they repent. We still are to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and forgive. Maybe our forgiveness cannot bring them to repentance, and that’s the closest we can get to reconciliation. Bitterness and malice are utterly foreign to God’s mercy received in Jesus, and serve no purpose either for the believer or for God’s glory. Rather, we are to root out any hint of bitterness in us.

8. But here Jesus is addressing those who will not forgive even those who are sorry and seek forgiveness. Again, if we cannot forgive our brother from our heart, we must repent of this selfishness and sin, and plead ourselves for God’s mercy. For it is only by again and again, daily and weekly and yearly receiving the mercy of God, that we will be filled with the mercy that enables us to forgive incomparably small debts (sins) owed to us. If we find ourselves unable to forgive, we must plead and fall at God’s compassionate mercy and receive, receive again His mercy. So our heart will be filled with His mercy toward others. So our heart will be able to forgive the greatest sins against us. Only by God’s mercy have Christians been able to forgive such a terrible sin as murder or something similar against them. Forgiveness of that kind isn’t easy, but it is possible, and this is the true power of God’s mercy.

9. Truly living mercifully is a high holy art of faith. It means that we will be able to endure being wronged, even many, many times, but still find the mercy to forgive. We plead to God for our own incapacity to forgive, and ask for Him to fill us to overflowing with His forgiving love.

10. Thanks be to Jesus that He paid our unpayable debt to God. We must know how great and indefinite our sin is before God. The infinite debt of sin that none of us could pay, that no human being could pay back in 200,000 years, in an immeasurable amount of time--Jesus was able to pay in full through His death on the cross. Thanks be to Jesus that He saw our unforgiving hearts and taught this parable so that we might see the danger of forsaking His mercy by blatantly denying it with unforgiveness and selfishness in our hearts. Thanks be to Jesus that He supplies an incomprehensible patience and mercy to us, in forgiving our sins, so we can overflow with that same patience and mercy to others. In Christ we will find a bottomless well of mercy, from which to draw, from which our hearts are filled with forgiveness like His. Instead of grinding our axes and stewing over old sins, we will run to others who have wronged us with the joyful message: “I forgive you! The debts are canceled! Our master has forgiven us an infinite debt! Spread that forgiveness to others!” Know what Christ has done for you on the cross and you will know the joy of forgiveness--in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen to audio at:

1. What did Peter think was a “generous” amount of forgiveness? How far was he off the mark, according to Jesus? What did Jesus intend to teach Peter when He said to forgive seventy times seven? Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:5

2. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, how great was his debt to the master? What does this unpayable debt represent for us? How did the master respond to his plea for mercy?

3. How much smaller was the debt his fellow servant owed him? What does that debt represent for us? How did he respond to his fellow servant’s plea for mercy? What was naturally expected from the master, as to how he should have responded instead? (vs. 32-33) How are we to respond to the pleas of forgiveness from those who “owe” debts of forgiveness to us?

4. What is the challenge and difficulty about living mercifully? What works against this high, holy calling? Why does mercy necessarily translate into merciful action?

5. What is the danger of abusing the mercy and forgiveness that God has shown us, by displaying an utterly opposite attitude of unforgiveness or selfishness? 1 John 4:7-21 (esp. v. 19-21).

6. How do we receive the mercy needed to forgive others? Who paid our unpayable debt to God? How did He pay it? 1 Pet. 1:18-19.

7. In contrast to the unforgiving servant’s attitude, what ought the life of a forgiven Christian look like? How will he or she respond to the mercy they received from God? How will they respond to the sins committed against them?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Faith of a Child

Every month we have a bulletin insert from an evangelical organization, which gives helpful Christian parenting advice, and an assortment of short articles and Q & A’s. I’ve often been blessed by the insights they offer into relationships. But the August 2011 issue had an article about “Your Child’s Faith,” titled: “Big Decisions.” It discussed a mother’s conflicting emotions over her 4-year-old daughter’s wish to make a “faith commitment” to ask Jesus into her heart. Even after reading her pastor’s response to the “dilemma,” I still felt it noticeably missed the heart of the serious Biblical question involved. That question, is “Can (or does) a child have faith?”

Before we look at some Bible passages to find the answer, lets first just consider how the situation described in the article would have played out differently, if the underlying premise had been “Yes, a child can have faith!” First of all, the child’s desire to have Jesus in her heart would not have been a source of any “conflicting emotions” or hesitation. Instead it would have naturally given way to the joy of knowing that by faith, her believing heart was already joined to Jesus. Secondly, her realization that it is “significant” that Jesus instructs us to have a childlike faith, would be transformed to realize that a child’s faith is the model or example of what faith should be! Adult faith is not the model or example Jesus praises (quite contrary to our modern thinking)!! And finally, there would never be any question about “keeping it personal” as though we are uncertain about the child’s sincerity of faith or commitment. Simply put, if a child can and does have faith, then the whole muddle is resolved, and every expression of a child’s faith is a beautiful gift to celebrate and be thankful for! And neither is it an unformed precursor of real faith; rather, childlike faith is the real deal!

Ok, so since I’ve already jumped the gun, let’s see if the Bible really bears this idea out. Do children believe? Let’s start with Jesus’ own words in Matthew 18. First Jesus begins by teaching that “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3). So far He has mentioned only that we must become like children to enter heaven, but He hasn’t mentioned faith. But then He goes on to describe how treacherous it is to cause one of these little ones to sin—that for such a person, it would be better to have been drowned. But here’s the essential words, that might easily slip your notice: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin…” (18:6). These little ones, these children, believe in Jesus! Children are capable of faith, and as said before, they—not us rational, expressive adults—are Jesus’ chosen model of faith! See also Mark 9:33-42; Luke 9:46-48.

How early then, can children believe? After all, how can we recognize faith, if it’s not expressed or spoken? Is this a capacity they acquire at an “age of decision” or “age of reason,” (when they can speak it) as taught in churches that don’t baptize infants? Luke 1:15 records the angel’s prophecy of the birth of John the Baptist, and how John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from His mother’s womb.” The unborn child showed that he was filled with the Holy Spirit by leaping in His mother’s womb at the sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice, while she carried Jesus in her womb (Luke 1:44). Neither is this unique to John the Baptist, for the Old Testament describes such infant faith as well. In Psalm 71, the writer exclaims how he trusted in God from his youth; yes even before! “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you” (Ps. 71:6). Psalm 22, while speaking first and foremost of Christ, also speaks of infant faith: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10). This latter passage even shows how it is that infants (born or unborn!) can believe. God made us trust Him! God is always the giver and creator of faith (Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 12:3), which is why children can and do believe in God.

You see, faith is not something we consciously bring into our own heart as an “adult decision-making process.” Faith is not something we can identify at an outward glance of someone. Faith also is not a product of our own human will, any more than our rebirth as a child of God is a product of our own effort (John 1:13). As Jesus put it bluntly but beautifully to His own disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16).

So where then does this leave us with our analysis of the Focus on the Family article? If adult faith, not childlike faith were the model, and if faith was the effort of our human will and rational mind (even if assisted by the Holy Spirit!), and if we in fact choose Jesus—then the Focus on the Family article makes perfect sense, and a child’s faith is good and admirable, but still somewhat tentative and suspect, and perhaps even private. And we should postpone drawing any conclusions about the quality of their faith until they are old enough to understand and decide for themselves.

But, as I hope I have shown here, if childlike faith is indeed the model, and faith is a gift of God by the Holy Spirit that He can freely give to anyone at any age level, and that Jesus is in fact choosing us to be His disciples—then a child’s faith is nothing tentative or private, but it is the reality of the Holy Spirit working in them, at whatever level or capacity they can understand. Even when they can’t verbally express it (like John). It is the gift of God! And children should be encouraged to be bold in sharing and expressing their faith. They’re usually much better at it than we are as adults! Any wonder then that they are the model of faith, and not us? Of course we should reinforce and encourage their faith at every step of the way, and help them grow into spiritual understanding and maturity. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have true faith before they reached maturity!

Children are the most wonderful and marvelous believers, and Jesus knew that and taught it to His reluctant disciples. To them belong the same gifts of God and His kingdom that are graciously given to us: Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life. Encourage and support the faith of even the youngest children, and never hesitate to affirm for them (even before they have words to express!) that their faith is real, genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ. Because it is through the object of our faith—Jesus Christ—that we are saved, and nothing else. It is not because of the intellectual capacity or ability for expression of our faith, but because of the simple trust in Jesus, the belief that even a child possesses (Matt. 18:6). Thank God for their example!

The One True God!

Why are the Scriptures so persistent in Old and New Testament in driving home the point that there is only One True God, and that He alone is to be worshipped? Why did the Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament apostles so strongly resist the age-old temptation to concede legitimacy to the diversity of other “gods” that have been worshipped in ancient and modern times? Why was God so angry with Israel when they combined worship of Him with the worship of other gods? Why can’t Christians be satisfied to have the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—be considered the equal, or even the alter-ego of the “god” or “gods” of other world religions?

Imagine a trusted family doctor had set up a practice in a small community. He had completed medical school with an exemplary record, and quickly developed the trust and respect of his patients. He gave them the best care, and was practiced in a wide variety of treatments. Then, a stream of other clinics began to open in town, with sleek new buildings and impressive equipment. Patients began to flock to these new centers and seek the treatments of the doctors there. But these “doctors” were really pretenders, who had no medical training, but were in fact scam artists. They prescribed copious amounts of bogus medicines, and promised miracle cures through quack treatments. The trusted family doctor looked on in horror as the patients whom he had so faithfully cared for, abandoned his trusted care for the work of these scammers.

He was pained to see them receiving bogus treatments that could be harmful or even fatal to their condition. What would such a doctor do? He would do all in his power to persuade those patients to come to their senses and come back to receive the proper medical care. He would expose the work of the charlatans and scammers so that people would take notice and avoid them. In a similar way to this analogy, God cannot tolerate the false presentation of other gods that exalt themselves next to the true God and woo people to themselves. Neither does He tolerate the false promises of salvation that promise a cure or healing, but in fact are empty promises.

But the reality is far worse than the limits of our analogy, because while in real life there are many trained and trusted doctors, and there are legitimate choices among doctors and treatments—when it comes to God, He stands in a “League of His Own.” There is no one, no other “god”, no other substitute, that can take God’s place or do what He does. Anything else is a fraud. God alone offers the eternal cure for the sickness of our sins, and He offers this through Jesus Christ alone (Luke 5:31-32). God testifies that there is no other God like Him, no other God who can declare and set forth the future. God says, “Is there a God like me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Is. 44:6-8; cf. Is. 45:21-22) God compares the sin of His people in turning away from Him to turning away from the fountain of living water and instead digging for themselves broken wells that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13).

Since God alone is the true giver of all good, and because He alone is the Living Water, the source of life and salvation, He is rightly angered when false gods or false paths of salvation are put before His people. It’s the anger of a doctor who has a deep and vested interest and care for the health of his patient, watching the patient pursue a harmful path that leads to death. It’s the righteous anger of seeing frauds or charlatans pose for the real thing, when beneath they hold harmful intent. God has a true and lasting love for His people and pursues us all the way to the end of our natural lives. The reason the message of the Bible is consistently and passionately exclusive in naming God as the only true God, is that it is literally a matter of life and death. Our eternal salvation is at stake in the question of whether or not we believe in the One True God. With Him, there is life and salvation, through the merciful life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for us. Apart from Him there is no salvation, only an eternity separated from His love and goodness. The persistence of God is the persistence of His love and His urgent desire that we not be misled. Give thanks that God is not apathetic towards us, but instead shows us His steadfast love!

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-20, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Save the Lost"

1. Matt. 18—several teachings all about pitfalls to our salvation. Embedded parable of the one lost sheep; Jesus seeks after it because “it is not the will of [His] Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” In this chapter, Jesus is doing the work of a Good Shepherd to guard His sheep against the pitfalls that would cause them to perish, or keep them from the kingdom of heaven. Sheep wander, and in our blindness or error, we can get separated from the flock, and fall into personal harm or injury. Spiritually, the stakes couldn’t be higher, as Jesus illustrates through several examples in the reading.

2. Disciples walk into the first pitfall, of pride and exalting oneself. Who is the greatest? Jesus teaches humility—not to think highly of yourself, but to count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:3). Humble like a child is the only way into the kingdom. Jesus turns the disciples’ (and our) paradigm upside down—adults are not the model of faith, but children.

3. Jesus affirms children’s faith in strong terms, and warns of the terrible offense that it is to God to cause a little one who believes in Him to stumble. Drowning would be a better fate than to face God’s judgment. God treasures little children. We have a greater protection under the law extended to minors, more severe penalties for crimes against them; minors held to different accountability, more vulnerable, not fully understanding the consequences of their actions. Children are incredibly precious to God, and we are to grant the same high value to them as God does, and see that they are protected against harm, against temptation, against exploitation, against false teaching.

4. Pitfall of our own temptations to sin. Stumbling blocks. Inevitable. Jesus affirms the reality of hell as a place of torment and fire. Vivid and brief description. How wretched it would be to lose a hand, foot, or eye? But still far worse would be the deadly spiritual consequences of sin and eternal suffering in hell.

5. “One need look no further than these words of Jesus to see how much the holy God hates sin. Here, the Law strikes us with all its fury. Who of us can say that our hand or foot or eye has not caused us to sin? We all deserve to be thrown into the hell of fire. Thank God that Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced for our iniquities and that His eyes beheld our sin in order to turn the Father’s face from it. By His wounds and precious death, we enter life” (TLSB, note on Matthew 18:7-9, p. 1621).

6. Flee temptation. Last week: “Abhor evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). Avoid falling into the temptations of others (Gal. 6:1). “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Cor. 15:33) “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)

7. The pitfall of unrepentance. We cling to our sin and will not turn to God and be forgiven. We deny our sin before God, and so deceive ourselves. Unrepentance separates us from God because it denies our guilt and responsibility for sin. It refuses to let Jesus take our sins away from us and forgive them. God’s goal and aim is to seek the lost. To gain the brother back for the Lord. This is to be our same aim when someone is unrepentant. If the sin is between you and an individual, Jesus says first to speak directly to them alone. Avoids temptation to gossip or slander a person. If the person listens to you, and you are reconciled, you have won your brother. This is always the goal. Next steps involve two or three witnesses, so the matter is established, and then take it to the church. At each stage, the goal is to win the brother, for them to repent and see their sin so that there can be reconciliation. Even if you meet with failure, and the person doesn’t listen even to the church, the final step of removal, or what is sometimes called excommunication, is still aimed to jolt them into repentance, to still gain the brother.

8. Jesus saves us by His death on the cross, He removes the penalty of our sin, He sets out a new life and identity for us. The Son of Man came to save the lost. Lost sheep He’s brought home. The Father wouldn’t have us perish. Guards us from all things harmful to our salvation. Humbles our pride, teaches us faith like a child. Simple and sincere trust and receptivity.

9. With His staff Jesus leads us away from the temptations and stumbling blocks set for us and that we would set for children. With the urging of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the voice of the church, Christ calls us to repentance for our sins. If we cling to them, He will bind them to us. If we repent of them and surrender them to Jesus, He will loose our sins from us. Humbly accept the prodding of His staff, follow His voice and learn from His teaching, be led back to the good and gentle pastures, and finally the place of rejoicing, when God celebrates over a lost sinner brought home! God’s aim that we not perish, but have eternal life. All thanks to our Good Shepherd!

Sermon Talking Points
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1. What are the several “pitfalls” that could keep us from salvation, that Jesus teaches about in Matthew 18? What are the spiritual stakes for going astray in the ways Jesus describes?

2. What does Jesus teach is the alternative to spiritual pride? What is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven? (18:3). How does Jesus reverse the disciple’s expected paradigm for what is the model of both faith and greatness in the kingdom? Philippians 2:3

3. How does Jesus affirm that children believe? Matt. 18:6. Why is it such a great offense against God to lead children into sin? What is the fearful punishment we risk if we do?

4. What point does Jesus make about sin in vs. 7-9? What would be the worse fate? Why do all of us deserve hell? Rom. 3:23; 6:23a. How are we spared from that punishment, through Christ? Rom. 3:24; 6:23b.

5. How does the Bible advise us to flee from sin and temptation? How to avoid it? Rom. 12:9; Gal. 6:1; 1 Cor. 15:33; 10:13

6. What steps does Jesus give for when someone sins against you? What is the goal and aim of the steps? (v. 15). What happens if the person is unwilling to repent, and doesn’t listen? What does that mean spiritually, when their sins are “bound” to them? How does a person reverse that situation and find forgiveness? Acts 3:19

7. How has everything Jesus has done and taught been the work of a Good Shepherd who would save the lost and not have us perish?