This text is one that I think has had much harm done to it over the years by overly pious preachers and translators. They promise things that Jesus himself is contradicting. And their promises often make God out to be a monster and a liar. I don’t know if I manage to do it, but I hoped to set it straight. The persistent widow is not a tale about how we should pester God. That oddly feeds into a prosperity gospel trope of “asking consistently and believing”. Instead it is much more specific. What is she asking for? Justice? When does Justice for the Christian happen? At the return of Jesus. Until then we live in the now and not yet. The Kingdom is now ours; it has not yet been fully revealed. Hence we persevere is asking “deliver us from evil”. And we do that because we have faith in the one who promised. Because the Character of God is not one that needs pestering, but one slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love. Persistence in prayer is just outward proof of persistence in faith.
The right use of God’s name always ends in thanksgiving.
That I believe is the message contained in the story of the 10 healed lepers. It is not just a miracle, although it is that. Neither is it an overly simple, “aw shucks, we should give thanks” lesson, although giving thanks is a good habit. It is really a lesson on who has used the name of God rightly. There are three groups named at the start: Jerusalem, Galilee and Samaria. All three think they know how to use the name. The 10 lepers use the name in seeking mercy. But only one receives the grace. Only one receives the kingdom. This sermon contemplates the 2nd commandment from Luther’s catechism, which is a spiritual classic. And it ponders our lives, our prayer, praise and thanks, in light of the command and the text. What does it mean to use the name of God rightly? Think about it.
Biblical Text: Luke 17:1-10 (Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4)
If Christianity is reduced to one word, that word would be forgiveness. And Jesus doesn’t mess around in this text. I think there are two parts here. There is a warning to folks like me – preachers – not to mess up that message. Natural man does not like, cannot hear that message. Forgiveness is foreign to natural man. He can accept sin, he can demand justice, but forgiveness requires faith. Preaching acceptance or justice always goes over better. But should the preacher grind out that bad bread, it would be better that he had that millstone that ground it out around his neck. The second part is that with that faith the people of God must live out that forgiveness. And Jesus’ words about this are just as harsh. If we do this, we are merely doing our duty. The people of God are to be known by their grace. Just like their Lord. And we should not be dumb about this, this is hard. It requires a supernatural faith.
Today was the Feast Day of the Archangel Michael, one of two named angels in the standard protestant version of the Bible. I’m not sure there is a bigger divide between Biblical representation and popular imagination than on angels. Popularly angels are warm fuzzy things that inspire lots of speculation. Biblically, angels are powerful creatures that just “do their job” without demanding attention. What is more interesting is just what that job is. Bottom line, that job is to watch the people of God. What this sermon does is use the feast day to understand the creation we live in, what the victory of Christ means for “thrones, dominions, principalities and powers”, and how these powerful beings use they power for the good of the people of God.
Most weeks it takes translating, a little reading and a little pondering to come up with a sermon idea. And then it takes a grind to shape it into something I’d want to give. This week I thought I had a great idea already leaving church from last week. I still thought I had the great idea until Friday afternoon. But to be honest, what I had was more of a collection of ideas, and they didn’t fully hang together. Or I wasn’t as brutal as I should have been in cutting some parts. Or what I needed to do here was go full old style Baptist and just demand folks take out their bibles and go line by line exposition. When the Rhetoric isn’t working – which I should have known by late Thursday when I couldn’t get the general outline to work.
But, putting that aside, when I made the word cloud I was shocked to see centered what might be the theme – Good Son. And what the Good Son knows is whose house he is part of. Maybe part of my troubles is know that this message has dual effects. And this is the role of the Luther quotes. (Honestly Luther’s sermon on this text is a little scattered as well. He essentially abandons the text and just preaches a sermon.) But Luther recognizes that the commands of God are greeted in two ways. To those who know their Father and are comfortable in his house, the commands flow naturally from faith. God is good and the law is given for our benefit. But to those lacking faith, or to those who have not found real faith, those commands eventually become simply a work and a grudging one at that. (Think the response of the Older Son in the parable of the prodigal.)
The parable of the unrighteous servant is a commentary on the gospel parables that precede it. The children of the world know whose house they are in, and they act in appropriate (sinful) ways. The Children of Light should do the same thing. Be the good son. And in being the good son, you have your proof of authentic faith. Because a good tree bears good fruit.
The text, a quick read, is the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And these are such clear and tender pictures of the grace of the gospel, a preacher might be doing injustice to them by preaching anything but their simplicity. That is my request for a bit of grace at the start. Because that simplicity is there, but I push a little bit beyond that simplicity here. And the reason is that our context has changed. And I think that we as Christians need to change the context in our heads when we hear these parables. We need to be a little wiser in regards to law and gospel and ears to hear. So jumping off of a Luther himself sermon, this sermon looks at just who are the lost sheep, as well as the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, and the sinners and tax collectors, both those who come to hear Jesus and those who are riotously secure in houses on the sand.
The place where Jesus gets the roughest, at least to modern ears, especially modern protestant ears, is anytime the idea of discipleship or faithfulness or sanctification comes up. When Jesus turns the crowd and says something offensive or obnoxious or just strange, you can bet he’s talking about walking the Christian way. And that is what today’s text is about.
As this sermon lays out, following Jesus’ pictures, the financing of the tower is secure. Jesus has already paid it. Likewise Jesus has already won the victory over the enemy. We need not fear. But the tower needs to be built. The war needs to be fought. And we are called to do that. Yet many will turn away from it. And they will make peace with the world simply because they wish to avoid the cross.
The text as I read it has two clear parts. There is the introductory part which is the crucible around the man with dropsy. This part to me carries the full gospel – Jesus embraces sinners, heals us and releases us in peace. The second part is the parable or the parables. But these stories are not the cute little tales of fathers and sons or sheep and shepherds. These parables are less invitations to understand the goodness of the Father and are more warnings or wisdom sayings. (Hence the OT reading being from Proverbs.) They invite us not to ponder who God is, because Jesus has already demonstrated that clearly and completely in his action. Instead they invite us to consider how do we live having seen the revelation?
The world seat people, chooses honors and awards, in a certain order by its rules. Jesus knows this and gives that order the side eye. The warning is that we should know this as well. How the Father honors is different. How eternity with order itself is different. And if we are made for eternity, we should be acting that way today. As another parable puts it we should be using today’s mammon to be welcomed into eternal dwellings. If we eat up all our providence today, claiming the great seats now, when that day comes the shame will be known to all.
The journey inspires a lot of questions. One of them is simply who else is on this road? And that is a forked question. The first fork is what we typically hear today, which is a complaint against God. Just what kind of God are you that you might damn this person close to me. The second fork though is the buried concern for myself. Can I be one of the few?
Jesus I think answers the question rather straight-forward. First, you strive to enter. The other person’s salvation is not you concern, but your own is. You strive. And that striving is not earning it, it is simply living the life of Faith. The journey to Jerusalem is always up hill. It is always contrary to natural desire. Walk it. Second, just as we take Jesus at his word to strive, we should take him at his word that many will be outside the kingdom. The way is narrow. When the day of grace is done, there will be lots of people who knock on the door, but at that time it is just. Today, though, seek, strive, the door is open. Third, there is some solace in the midst of striving. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets. All the great cloud from East and West, from North and South. All will sit at the table in the Reign of God. All Israel will be saved. Can you be one of the few? Are you baptized?