The 14th Sunday After Pentecost August 25, 2013
7, 416, 433, 467
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May God the Father bless you with a love for the one thing needful, and with the dedication and courage necessary to spend yourself in His service. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
It’s one of those cute little contrivances that you see in about two out of every three movies: The old “It’s-not-what-you-think” scene. These scenes can happen in real life as well. Someone gets tangled up in an innocent but very guilty-looking situation and then at just the wrong moment just the wrong person walks in. You’re making change for a $20 out of petty cash, and the boss walks in just in time to see you stuffing company money into your pocket. “It’s not what you think.” A man stops at his girlfriend’s place to drop something off on his way to work and the door is answered by a very handsome young man who has obviously spent the night. “It’s not what you think. My brother is staying with me for a couple of days.” You get the picture.
The interesting part of this sort of situation is the fact that it only happens because first, all of us tend to believe what we think we see, and secondly, all of us tend to put the worst construction on what we see.
The fact is there is a whole world of misunderstanding out there in so many different aspects of life—an entire universe that we can only look at with the eyes of wonder and perhaps fool ourselves into believing that we know, that we understand. We don’t know why things happen as they do. We can’t know. How many times God must look at us during the course of every single day, shake His head at our naïve misunderstanding of so many things, and want us to understand that “it’s never what you think.”
The point is we do not really understand, for such understanding would really only be possible if God Himself were not infinitely greater than we—immeasurably more wise and understanding. It ought, therefore, to come as no surprise that the only things we can really know for certain are those things that God Himself has revealed to us—those things that God Himself labeled as true and right.
So it is that we never seek to learn, grow, and be guided by man’s wisdom, and particularly not in the Sunday sermon. We seek God’s wisdom. Man’s wisdom will always be suspect at best. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, is always and only perfect—flawless in every possible regard.
We turn now to our text—God’s Word—and there seek to be filled with that which is pure and holy and true. The part of God’s Word that will guide us today is found in the book of Genesis, the 18th chapter:
Then the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day. So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, and said, “My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant. Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant.” They said, “Do as you have said.”So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd, took a tender and good calf, gave it to a young man, and he hastened to prepare it. So he took butter and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate. Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” So he said, “Here, in the tent.”And He said, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.)Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore, Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.”
These are God’s words, absolutely perfect in every way. May God the Holy Spirit grant you the grace to trust that these are from God and to hear and learn from them accordingly. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us by the Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Our society is obviously plagued by many things. One of the very worst is pride. Nor have you and I escaped unscathed.
It is pride that has caused our culture to elevate our own opinions far beyond what they deserve based on their own merit. “What I think” has been elevated almost to the status of the divine—something that must be believed simply because of the source. Pride makes us believe that we are almost never deserving of correction, admonition, or instruction, which would only be true if our every thought and opinion were divine.
The latest twist I recently heard on this whole subject is that the greatest flaw in our society today is the fact that we fail to seek to understand that two people can actually believe absolutely contradictory truths and that both can be right. In other words, our supposed greatest sin today is failing to recognize agreement between the man who, for example, believes that Allah is God and the man who believes that our Triune Creator is God. Our great sin—according to modern thought—is in focusing on that which seems to divide us, rather than on that which actually unites us. To put it in other terms, if one man believes the earth is flat and another believes the earth is round, both are right as long as you focus on the fact that both believe that the earth exists. This is what as passed off today as the latest in cutting edge theological wisdom.
Again, Christians are not immune. We are in constant danger of arrogantly believing that something is true because I believe it. This is the first way we need to apply today’s sermon theme: “It’s Never What You Think.” Nothing is true simply because you believe it to be true. You and I aren’t the ones who give weight or substance to truth. The truth is only true when, if, and because God says so.
That’s why our first and greatest struggle as Christians is to establish that the Bible is God’s verbally inspired Word and is, therefore, the only source of absolute truth. That’s also why we begin every single sermon by quoting John 17:7, “Your Word is truth.” Nothing is true because of what you or anyone else thinks. Truth is always and only determined by God alone.
Here’s where the problems start for Christians. Knowing God’s Word to be truth, Christians are in constant danger of coming to believe that everything that they think must also, therefore, be true. Here’s an example: God tells us in His Word that the earth is about 6000 years old, so we hold that to be fact and politely disagree with those who teach and believe otherwise. But now let me ask you if the earth is warming, or cooling, or if mankind is somehow effecting climate change? Since to my knowledge the Bible doesn’t address this question, we need to be able to acknowledge that we are in the area of human opinion—it might be, it might not be. You’re free to have an opinion. The problem, again, is that Christians are tempted to confuse what we know to be fact, based on God’s Word, with what we believe to be true based on something else. It’s the old, “I’m right about this, so I must also be right about that.”
The fact is Christians are supposed to be all about those things that we know because God says so. There are divine truths that we have been given to know and share, mysteries hidden down through the ages, and it is concerning such things that we need never doubt or apologize. Satan, on the other hand, takes great delight in dividing us according to our opinions. There we need to remind ourselves: “It’s never what we think. It’s always and only what we know.” Great damage is done whenever and wherever we allow sinful pride to intervene and fail to keep the two straight in our minds.
The reason this is so important is the Gospel itself, where it is never more true that “It’s never what you think.” Today’s text serves as proof.
God promised Abraham that his descendants would one day become a great nation and that through Abraham God would bless all nations by sending the Messiah. One problem: Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were childless, and Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89—well past the normal child-bearing age. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why God did it the way He did? Why didn’t God just give Abraham and Sarah children according to the normal course of events, the normal way things like that happen and be done with it? Why did He wait until both were well beyond the time of bearing children?
The answer is that from first to last the Gospel is always “not what you think.” God wants mankind to take Him at His Word. Why? Because there will always be two options for salvation, one that leads to life and the other that leads to death. The curious thing here is that the one that leads to death always seems more rational and reasonable to the mind of man, while the path that leads to life just seems too good to be true. The path of death tells us that if we do bad, then we need to make up for it with good. That actually sounds right, sounds good. If man incurs the debt, man must pay the bill. This is exactly why it is absolutely critical that we learn the simple truth that “it’s never what we think.”
Man has nothing to offer to a holy God to make up for his past sins. Even perfect living from this point forward would not pay for a single sin in your past. Strange and terrible things happen when man looks to himself for solutions.
Do you recall what Abraham and Sarah did when they began to doubt God’s promise? They took the matter into their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her servant, Hagar. Abraham fathered a son through Hagar by the normal course of human events. Hagar’s son also grew to be the father of many nations—all of which torment Israel down to this very day. That’s what happens when man decides to leave God out of the picture and to take matters into his own hands.
All reasonable hope was gone when God came in our text saying that a son would be born through the 90 year old Sarah. By that time Sarah was so beyond hope that she laughed at the very promise of God. Again, why did God do it this way? Why did he make Abraham and Sarah wait until all human hope was lost? To make them understand that theirs was a faith based not on the effort of man but on the promise and power of God. Christian faith calls for complete dependence on God in every aspect of our lives—beginning with God’s plan for our salvation.
This was the lesson taught to Abraham and Sarah in our text, and through them taught also to us. Just as man’s attempt to give offspring to Abraham through normal human effort resulted in disaster, so also every effort of man to earn his own way to Heaven will always result in utter, eternal disaster. Salvation is never what you think, never what you would come up with on your own. It is provided, never earned. It is miraculous, never normal. It is a gift from God, never a wage that is owed. You heard Sarah’s utter amazement at God’s solution in our text, along with God’s answer: “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord (Abraham) is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?” [vv. 12-14 ESV]
That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Salvation by man’s effort is as impossible as having a baby at age 90. No one can live the perfect life that is necessary. So God provided salvation through a promise. He sent Jesus who earned our sin payment in our stead. His goodness is now ours not by doing, but by believing God’s promise.
What is God’s message to you today? “Your sin calls for punishment, but it’s never what you think. I punished my Son in your place. He paid for your sin. Believe this and you will enter Heaven as my perfect, holy child.” Like Sarah, we naturally hear such things, and laugh. Can God really clean up the mess I’ve made of my life so easily? Can God, has God, really made Heaven that easy? Hear the Lord’s reply to Sarah addressed also to you: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” [v.14]
And then know something else to be true. As your salvation plan was not what you would have thought, so also your Christian walk through life will never be what you imagined. It will never be a straight line, carefully laid out by you where you make all the right plans, do all the right things, and make everything work out just right. Here too our God allows life to get messy because we need to be reminded that he is the one that is in control. You don’t preserve your own health, He does. You don’t provide your own wealth, He does. You don’t protect your loved ones, He does. This is a good thing, too, as inept and incapable as we are. Because nothing is too hard for the Lord. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
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.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.