The 18th Sunday After Pentecost October 12, 2014
4, 254, 424, 26(1,6)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
How many of you flew around this week on Air Force One, or hung out in the White House? No one? Why not? Because you’re not the President of the United States and haven’t been invited, therefore, you are not entitled. Everyone understands that.
So walk it back a bit. How many strolled into your governor’s mansion, kicked off your shoes and watched some TV or helped yourself to whatever was in the refrigerator? No one? Why? Again, because you are not the governor and you weren’t invited, so you would never presume to have such privileges. Similarly, you wouldn’t even presume to walk into any ordinary private residence uninvited and make yourself at home.
What we get from this is that the American people still have at least a modicum of understanding as to the limits of their entitlement. But even that tiny scrap evaporates when it comes to God Himself. In that case, for whatever reason, our society has come to imagine that they deserve virtually everything, always, and in every situation.
It doesn’t seem to matter that they reject God’s Son as their Savior, they still imagine that God must hear and answer every one of their prayers. Though they have sinned—and unashamedly refuse to repent of that sin—they imagine that God owes them forgiveness. Though they freely admit that they have in no way earned it, they still imagine that God owes them Heaven.
Yet, all of these things, and countless others, are not entitlements that God grants to the general public. They are special privileges that He individually promises only to His children according to His grace—to you who through the working of the Holy Spirit believe that Jesus Christ paid your sin debt. You are entitled to such things because God has promised them to you. The godless, who by definition live in open rebellion and rejection of Jesus Christ, have no such promise.
Today, we focus in part on another privilege to which our society mistakenly believes it is entitled: the continual care and protection of God’s holy angels. Are they so entitled? Are we? We turn for answers to our text found in Matthew’s Gospel account, the 18th chapter:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”
These are the words of our God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit for our growth, instruction, and edification. That these great gifts might also be our personal possession through the study of these holy words, we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Jesus’ own disciples were not immune from the entitlement mentality, were they? They began in our text by asking Jesus to settle an argument about who would be the greatest in Heaven. We would like to be able to put a good spin on this, but this is obviously something that the disciples thought about a lot and argued about on more than one occasion. They wanted to serve Jesus, but there always seemed to be an element of “What’s in it for me?” That spirit was eventually exorcised by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but it plagued even Jesus’ closest followers throughout the time of their earthly walk with Him.
Before we go one step further, stop and ask yourself just how you feel about that. Not how you feel about wanting to be called great in Heaven—we’ll get to that, but how you feel about condemning this unseemly attitude or character flaw in Jesus’ disciples. Do you find it easy to do, enjoyable even? If you are honest with yourself, don’t you have to admit that it’s kind of fun to identify faults in others? In fact, we could pretty much do that all day long and it wouldn’t really bother us in the least, would it? Why is that?
The obvious answer is that it is easy and non-threatening to point out problems in others. The problem in this is that it would be hard to imagine a better way to make the Christian faith more superficial and less relevant than to spend our time pointing out the flaws and failures in others. Even if we were to go a step further and conclude our general condemnation of others with a good strong proclamation of how Jesus died for their sins and that they are, therefore, by God’s grace, forgiven and saved, we would still remain insulated and detached from the whole exercise. Examining even the truth will turn that truth into mere trivia unless and until that truth is applied personally: “I am a sinner, therefore, Jesus came to save me.”
Focusing always on the faults of others—even if we include how the sins of others are forgiven—does insulate and detach us. Examining and condemning faults in others doesn’t tend to help us, guide us, encourage or strengthen us. In fact, it’s exactly that sort of thing that turns Christians into good little Pharisees—those who strain gnats and swallow camels, or who pick at specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the massive plank that is all theirs. A good Pharisee comes to imagine that condemning sin in others is actually the good work that he does to earn his way into Heaven—which is an extremely seductive lie.
You and I have way too many obvious failures in our own lives to spend our time and energy on others. We err greatly if we read the words of our text and think of others. These words were not preserved down through the ages just so that the living could condemn the behavior of the dead. They were preserved as warnings for you and me. More specifically, the sentence we are about to read again was not carried across the centuries for Peter, James, and John, but for the living, breathing reader—for you and me. The particular passage we want to apply to ourselves is this: “Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” [vv.5-7]
If you are honest with yourself, my guess is that most, if not all, heard these words and thought about someone else—some other parent who is failing in particularly spectacular fashion to raise his children as he ought. Or maybe, a teacher in a public school or university. Maybe just a famous role-model who is living a particularly heinous lifestyle.
Like any good, properly applied spanking, the Law has to sting intensely to do any good, and it has to sting me, not someone else. You and I have to feel the pain, or we won’t be interested in our Savior. Nor is this a minor problem. Every time we insulate ourselves by applying the Law always and only to others, we are diminishing our Savior. We are, thereby, making Him more and more unnecessary. And that’s when we start to get bored with and detached from the Christian faith. Even worse, the problem has a cumulative effect. It builds up over time. Every time I apply God’s Word to someone else, I become a little more self-righteous and a little more detached from, and disinterested in my Savior.
Remind yourself, therefore, every time you read God’s Word, that there God is not speaking to others, He is talking to you—young, old, married, single, parent, or grandparent…to you. Our text is not just talking about being a bad parent. It’s talking about giving offense—the sin our society has all but forgotten, and the warning is not for others. It is for me.
God’s Word identifies two different considerations that each of us is supposed to apply to our own actions. The first, is whether or not God has either forbidden or commanded that particular action. The second, is the one that is routinely ignored today. It is the impact my actions will have on my neighbor, including also my family members. The first looks inward and asks “What about me?” The second looks outward and asks “What about everyone else?” An action that is not in itself wrong can still result in great harm to those around me. Examples of this are nearly endless. The question to ask is not just “Can I do this without sinning?” but, “What lesson am I teaching my fellow Christians, including my own children, if I do this thing?”
Here is where we finally get to our theme: “…As It Is in Heaven.” What comes to mind when you hear these words? Quite likely, it is the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Who is it that sets that perfect standard of obedience in Heaven? God‘s holy angels.
God’s Word is masterful in providing timeless standards to which everyone of all ages can relate. Think, for example, of the second table of the Law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Knowing that everyone of every age would have a natural love of self, God identified our universal self-love as the standard for how we ought to love and treat our neighbor. So also in the Lord’s Prayer, the standard of following God’s will is how His will is carried out in Heaven. In other words, God wants the sort of obedience that the angels render—perfect obedience without hesitation, without question, without objection, and without reservation. That‘s how you and I, according to the new man in us, want to do it also.
Jesus subtly injects the angels and their perfect obedience into this discussion in the last verse of our text: “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” [v.10]
This is a powerful statement from our Savior. It is above all a powerful statement of Law designed to whip our sinful flesh into submission, forcing the sinner-saint to consider the consequences our offensive actions will have on the children that He holds dear—children that our text tells us are represented in Heaven by God’s holy angels.
So is that then the main message of our text? Is our text primarily, or even exclusively, just an exercise or function of the Law? Is that what Christianity is all about—doing the right thing, like the angels do, or else? Is Jesus telling us these things because He is angry with us? Is His primary interest just the correction of our behavior? Absolutely not! He is telling us these things because He loves us, and He wants us to join Him in Heaven for all eternity. Jesus didn’t come to earth just to correct our conduct. He came because He wanted to spare us the eternal torments of Hell. Our Lord is not here attacking us. He is attacking that which carries the potential to destroy us and others.
This was Jesus’ aim and goal every moment of His time on earth. It is why He came to earth—not to condemn and correct our behavior but to pay the debt that we could not. We are well familiar with John 3:16, yet the verse that follows is just as beautiful: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
Jesus came to pay our sin-debt. He came to remove the barrier that was preventing us from entering Heaven, namely, our sin. This He did. You and I stand holy and forgiven in His sight. What now concerns our God is not whether or not the debt of our sins has been paid. It has been paid in full. What concerns Him now are those things that carry the terrifying power to destroy the faith that He now credits as perfect righteousness in ourselves and in other believers as well. His concern should also be our concern.
So it is that we pray that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in Heaven not because we need to make up for our sins—that debt has already been paid. We pray in this way first of all, because according to our new man that is exactly how we want to live our lives. We also pray in this way because we know that sin carries the power to destroy the faith that now saves us—saves me, saves my family, my children, my neighbor. Our Savior loves us too much to simply ignore so great a threat to our eternal souls.
All of this, and angels to watch over us. How richly our God has blessed us and continues to provide for us and protect us moment-by-moment, often protecting us even from ourselves.
Give thanks to your Savior that He not only came to seek and to save, but also that He still makes our salvation His ongoing concern. Pray God that He will also give you that same loving concern for others. 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.