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.

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