The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 27, 2008
1 Corinthians 12:12-21,26-27
293, 528(1-5), 342, 528(15)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Grace be to you and peace, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was gracious enough to reveal Himself as Lord and Savior, even to sinners like us. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
There is a big difference between what we want and what we need. The fact is we actually need very little. The overwhelming majority of what we struggle so desperately to acquire falls under the category of want, not need. Now, having said only this much, let me ask you what came to mind when you heard of wants and needs? It is more than just unfortunate that we almost always think in terms of material things, even when we are asked such questions in a sermon. Why is it that we never think first about spiritual things? Our thoughts turn most naturally to material things and yet material things will all but take care of themselves when we tend to our spiritual needs. So our Lord taught us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
Today we are going to tend to the spiritual needs—we are going to talk about spiritual needs and wants. What we will find from our study of God’s Word is that, once again, what we want is usually not what we need, and what we need is usually not what we want. Our text is found in the fourth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel account:
Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So far the very words of God. May God the Holy Spirit give each of us a wise and receptive heart so that we might accept these as the words of God alone, and to utilize and treasure them accordingly. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Has there ever been a Child of God who has not felt inadequate in one way or another or perhaps in nearly every way? Who ever feels that he knows enough, reads enough, studies enough of God’s Word? Who believes that he prays enough, is wise enough, is strong enough in the faith? Who imagines that he can grow no more, witness no more, encourage no more? Who among us can claim perfection—or even near perfection—in anything?
The good news, thanks be to God, is that our ability to achieve perfection is not the basis for our eternal hope and confidence. We have no perfection of any kind apart from Jesus Christ. God the Father did not send His Son to save the righteous. Jesus came for sinners—wretched, helpless sinners. The Lord did not look down from heaven and see strength and wisdom and compassion. He saw weakness, foolishness, and brutality. In other words, He saw each one of us as we really were—stubborn, rebellious, unlovable ingrates. God the Father’s reaction? He gave His most treasured possession to redeem and rescue us. Rejoice, fellow Christians, you have been washed clean, and you stand now before a just and holy God without spot or blemish. You are perfect in his sight. All has been paid by our dear Lord Jesus Christ.
How can it be then that we continually find faults and imperfections in ourselves? How are we to understand the apparent contradiction that a perfect God sees us as holy, though we sin every day and are still mired in imperfection and lovelessness? The explanation is not that God overlooks our sin, or that He turns a blind eye to it, pretending that it doesn’t exist. The explanation is that the punishment for the sins of the world has been visited upon Jesus Christ. Our sin debt can never exceed the payment made by our Lord Jesus. Again, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
What is troubling now to those of us who recognize what Jesus has done for us is the fact that we continue to see so much that is wrong in our lives, so much that needs correction or improvement. There are times when we see little in our lives (if anything) that is as it should be. All of this should serve not to discourage us, but to magnify our Savior, and our need for our Savior.
Once again we come back to our theme: What We Need and What We Want. Our text speaks of needs and wants and here again an honest evaluation will reveal that our priorities are a jumbled mass of inconsistencies while Jesus, as always, was perfect. For example, when you heard the part of our text that read, “…as His custom was, [Jesus] went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day…” [v.16] how did you react to those words, if at all? It is, after all, what we would expect, isn’t it? We simply assume that Jesus, being a spiritual person, would go to church whenever He could. We could never even imagine Jesus saying something like, “I don’t feel like going to church this morning because I just don’t get much out of it.”
But was Jesus’ attendance in the synagogue a need or a want? In other words, did Jesus go into the synagogue because He needed to go to church or because He wanted to go to church? The answer is probably, “both.” Jesus certainly loved to be in his Father’s earthly house and therefore His attendance was a want. Did he also have a need to be there?
We tend to think of Jesus as always giving and never Himself needing anything. That simply wasn’t true. Jesus went to church in large part because He needed to go to church. He needed the strengthening that came also to Him through the Word of God. Remember that Jesus is described as being a man just like you and me, only He was without sin. He was also true God while on earth, but He set aside the full use of His divine power when He placed himself under the requirements of the Law.
Think back on how often we read that Jesus “went away for a time to pray” or even “continued all night in prayer” (Luke 6:12). Jesus, as true man, needed spiritual strengthening. He sought and found that strengthening by hearing the Word of God at church, through study of and meditation upon that Word of God, and through prayer. The next question is obvious: “If Jesus needed to make regular church attendance His custom, don’t we? If Jesus recognized His own need to pray regularly, what does that say to you and me?”
The rather obvious fact is that every human being has a need to be fed by the Word of God.; but unfortunately that’s usually not what we want.
There is another example of needs and wants in our text. In this case it is an example of Jesus knowing that what we want to hear when we do go to church and what we need to hear are often two different things. Our text describes a time in Jesus’ life when He was very popular. We read here of Jesus that “He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” [v.15] At this point in His life Jesus could easily have maintained that popularity. All that He had to do was to adopt the politically correct speech of His day. He could, for example, condemn the worship of idols. He could condemn prostitutes, thieves, murderers, extortionists, rapists, and all Gentiles—especially the Romans. Jesus could have gone on preaching some fine sermons and enjoying the favor and support of all the people, yet He lost their support—in a big way. We read later in this same chapter that the very same crowd that in our text gave Jesus its rapt attention, suddenly turned on Him viscously. Why did they turn on him? Not because he spoke what was not true, but because they did not like what they heard. We read of their reaction in Luke 4:28-29: “So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.”
How could this be? One moment they were admiring, almost worshipping Jesus and the next they were trying to toss Him off a cliff. What happened? The exact thing that is not happening in so many of our churches today: Jesus gave the people what they needed rather than what they wanted. Jesus told them what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
By way of explanation, consider a rather common difference between women and men. Women, in many ways, are realists. Men are often idealists. Ask a man how long it will take him to finish a job or how long before he can come in for supper, and the answer is seldom more than “10 or 15 minutes.” The woman (a realist) then automatically converts this figure into real time and comes up with the more accurate “about an hour.” Fifteen minutes in “man time” equals about one hour in real time. The same sort of reality shows up when men and women go used car shopping together. If a man likes the price and the general looks of a vehicle, he will refuse to notice any flaws. We men figure we can iron out the rough spots with some rubbing compound in maybe fifteen minutes, tops. A woman will walk straight up to a problem and pick at it, point it out, magnify it. It will be brought to the attention of the salesperson.
Jesus used the realist’s approach to sin problems. This was the approach He knew He had to use with the Jews. Remember that these were Jews in the synagogue—pillars of the church. They had a nice coat of paint that hid all of their obvious flaws. As He approached them, Jesus had two options: He could treat the problems as if they didn’t exist in which case He would continue to enjoy popularity, or He could expose the problems and offer solutions, knowing that He would pay the price.
Why did He choose the latter option? The answer lies in the very text that Jesus read to the Jews. Notice that Jesus did not just happen upon these words from Isaiah. We read that “He found the place where it was written…” [v.17] Jesus was looking for this text and He read it at this time and to this crowd for a special reason. Remember this was Jesus’ hometown. He knew these people well. He knew that they had been lulled to sleep in their religion. Most had undoubtedly heard this text dozens of times, but like all other texts in God’s Word, they had long since tuned their ears to hear only what they wanted to hear in these lessons. To them “freedom for the captives” probably meant release from Roman rule. “The poor, the captives,” and “the blind” to them were all references about how mistreated they were. In their ears these words spoke to them as innocent victims, not at guilty sinners in need of a spiritual savior. Jesus turned the passage completely around to its correct understanding and it shook the Jews to their very core. It enraged them. Jesus told them that they were indeed the “poor… captives… blind… and oppressed,” but they were all of these things spiritually, not physically, not materially, and not politically.
Jesus had come to save “the poor, blind, and oppressed prisoners.” Yet He could do nothing if they refused to be helped. The Jews refused to acknowledge that they needed help of any kind. They were perfectly content with the hollow praises they had been used to hearing. They didn’t want Jesus to look any closer than the paint job. That was just how their game was played.
That same damning sleep has crept into the church today and it can and will seduce every single one of us if we allow it to do so. This country is full of churches where the pastors say only what they know will not offend the members of the congregation. The most popular churches today are those that give no condemnation of error and almost no mention of specific and applicable sin. This is the same unspoken temptation that calls to every pastor every single week: “Tell the people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.”
I recently heard an extended interview with the pastor of the largest congregation in the United States. When asked to comment on the criticism that he almost never mentions sin or the need for Jesus as Savior, he unabashedly admitted that he avoids that sort of thing so as not to alienate any part of his audience. He said he feels called to improve and make people feel better about life on earth and that others might feel called to deal with those “other things.” His oft repeated mantra is that he wants to cast as big a net as possible. One can only wonder to what end are souls caught in his net.
Jesus did not operate in this way. No Apostle operated in this way. This lesson is therefore vitally important for every single Christian. Our own sinful flesh will never want to hear that we too are thoroughly sinful human beings. Our Old Adam will never want to hear that we are poor, blind, oppressed prisoners apart from Jesus Christ bound by our sins and captive to the Devil. Nor will we ever want to be told, once we have come to faith, that there is room for improvement in our lives, let alone when and where we have fallen into sin. And yet John said, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). Jesus Himself said that He did not come for the “righteous” but for sinners (cf. Matthew 9:13).
When it comes to sin, therefore, it is the denial of that sin that causes the sinner’s downfall, never the sin itself. Jesus came to pay the full debt for all sin. Any denial of sin is therefore a denial of the work and person of Jesus Christ as Savior and it is that unbelief that damns. What an utter tragedy therefore when any human being is taught to ignore or deny sin, rather than to acknowledge and repent of that sin.
Acknowledging your total corruption apart from Jesus, cling instead to the salvation that He won for each of us through His perfect life and innocent death. We were the captives, but we have been set free. Proud, work righteous human beings do not want to hear such things, yet it is what mankind needs to hear.
One final question remains: “Will you give your neighbor what he wants, or what he needs?” God grant each of us wisdom, strength, and courage for the tasks that lie ahead. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.