The 19th Sunday After Pentecost October 19, 2014
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
459(1-6), 338, 353(1-5), 353(6-7)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:10-11 ESV)
Dear fellow Christians:
You’ve all heard or read words used incorrectly, sometimes creating strange, unintended imagery. An old English professor of mine who was in attendance at an essay I delivered several years ago, pointed out just such an instance. I had written, “…died in the wool.” Obviously, I meant “dyed in the wool,” but the effect was worth the error. My English professor said it put him in mind of sheep that passed away just before shearing. In my mind it conjured up images of men who wanted to be buried in their best suit.
I’m sure you’ve seen others like “I could care less” which means the person does care—the opposite of what is usually intended. Or “If worst comes to worse” which actually means that things are getting better. One of my personal favorites is, “literally.” “Literally” today literally means anything but “literally.” Literally. “My boss literally blew up in front of the whole staff today.” Highly unlikely. “No, he literally just melted down right on the spot.” Again, probably not.
While some find this sort of thing highly entertaining, there’s a problem. We tend to assume that no one literally means exactly what they say in our day-to-day conversations. No one literally hits the showers, keeps his nose to the grindstone, or shoots the breeze. Worse than that, we always exaggerate—as just now when I said “always.” “I’ve literally told her about a thousand times not to do that.” “I could literally give you a million reasons why that is a bad idea.” The real problem is that that same general mindset is carried into the understanding of God’s Word—and that’s not good. God’s Word means what it says. It does not use exaggeration or embellishment to make a point. It speaks literally.
Bear this fact in mind as you read our text for today, or any part of God’s Word, and you will discover new depths and insights. Our text is found in Luke’s Gospel account, the 17th chapter:
Then [Jesus] said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him. ”And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith. ”So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”
So far the very words of our God. Note well—No exaggerations, no falsehood, no embellishment. God’s Word is all truth, all the time. Literally. In humble acceptance of these facts, we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
What a completely different and unique perspective we can gain from the reading of our text just by bearing in mind that God communicates with sinful human beings, but He does not communicate like sinful human beings. He neither embellishes the facts nor exaggerates the consequences. He does not brag, nor does He use what is false in an effort to communicate what is true. In the concrete terms of our text, that means that it really is impossible that “no offences should come,” and it really would be better—literally better—to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than to offend one of God’s little ones.
Think about those two truths for just a moment. When we use the word “impossible” we really only occasionally mean impossible. Not so with God. Again, God does not communicate with exaggerations or overstatements. In this case, once we understand that God really, literally, means impossible here, we can and should move on to explore just why such offenses are impossible to avoid.
Likewise, with the second thought in this text. We tend to read statements like the “millstone” statement as if God meant what we would mean if we wrote such words. So we might say something like, “I’d rather have a root canal without Novocain than to go out with her again!” but we don’t really mean it. So we end up reading statements like “better to have a millstone hung around his neck” and naturally assume what we are really not permitted to assume. Once we get past that fallacy, we are free to explore the real truth of the passage.
In this case, since it really is true that death by millstone is better, then we turn our attention to just how horrible it truly is to cause one of God’s precious little ones to sin. Quick and certain death is preferable in God’s estimation.
In this manner, we continue to scan down through our text, and several things jump out at us. God really does mean, for example, that we are to forgive our neighbor his trespass—even if he does the very same thing to us seven times in one day. Nor is God exaggerating when He says that even a very small faith can accomplish extraordinary miracles.
Do we tend to read such things as though God is exaggerating a bit? Almost certainly. As evidence, who among us has ever imagined that he could, with a word, uproot a big old Mulberry tree and have it obey his command to be planted in a nearby sea? Who has ever really believed that he could walk on water, as did Peter; or who could raise someone from the dead, heal the sick, make the blind to see or the lame to walk? God is in no way embellishing the facts when He promises that such things can lie within the power of each of us. It’s a staggering, sober thought, isn’t it?
With this as our background, we are prepared to examine the scenario outlined last of all by our Lord in today’s text. It is the picture of a servant—a slave really—who returns from working in his master’s fields only to serve his master’s evening needs before finally tending to his own. The point of the account was undoubtedly to drive home to the disciples that even perfect obedience on their part did not earn them anything from their Master. The obvious application to our lives today is that even perfect obedience to every commandment of God’s Law is supposed to be regarded as the simple, reasonable service of every servant of God. No more, no less. Literally.
Consider that fact for a moment in light of what we know about the perfect truth and sincerity of God’s Word. God is not exaggerating here. While we tend to think of perfect obedience to God’s holy Law as a maximum, Jesus is instructing us to think of perfect obedience as a minimum—our simple, reasonable service. Perfect obedience = bare minimum.
Plug that truth into your own circle of life in order to gain an ever greater understanding of just what God is saying to you. Suppose that you are eight years old and you decide to surprise mom and dad by waking up at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to clean the house—the whole house. Very quietly, so as not to wake them, you scrub every floor, clean every bathroom from top to bottom, dust every surface of the house, wash, dry and put away every last dish, do the laundry, and generally make the house shine—all before mom and dad even get out of bed. Suppose, however, that mom and dad get out of bed, examine your work, but notice that your bed hasn’t been made, as required, by the time specified. The verdict? The standard punishment: no television or computer for a week.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it? That, precisely, is the problem. It is our problem. We do not think of God’s Law in terms that our God allows. We do not regard absolute, flawless compliance as our reasonable service or duty. We have this idea that failing in one point can be corrected or justified by serving in another. Doing “most” makes up for occasional failure. That is how Christians sometimes justify their own sin, while condemning it in others. “I may also use really bad language, but I go to church every single Sunday.” The thoughts are generally not that crass, but the point is that we have come to regard God’s commandments as less than what they really are—a bare and reasonable minimum for every single one of his children to follow.
We don’t really even care to address in our minds the simple truth laid out in our text that we are “unworthy slaves.” We have trouble both with “slave,”—we’d prefer to think of ourselves as servants, and we have trouble with “unworthy”—we’d prefer something a bit softer, more complimentary, like “trusted.” “Trusted servants” sounds much better than “unworthy slaves,” but that is not what God said. God’s Word doesn’t deal in half-truths or hyperbole. God’s Word speaks literally, which means we need to wrap our minds around “unworthy slaves.”
What do you suppose would happen if our society, including you and I, would really come to grips with the fact that perfect obedience to God’s commandments is our minimum standard of conduct? What would happen if we would truly embrace the fact that an especially magnanimous act on our part was simply part of that which is always expected of us? What if we could truly learn to look at ourselves as “unworthy slaves”? Perhaps then we would finally look with open honesty into the mirror of God’s Holy Law, and see ourselves as we really are—thoroughly sinful human beings.
Better still, then also the message of the Good News that we have a Savior in Jesus Christ would break upon our beleaguered heart like the sun breaking through the clouds after days of cold, clouds, and snowy rain. Who then could find the message of a Redeemer to be boring or uneventful? Those that think of themselves as “good enough” don’t need a Savior. Saviors are for miserable sinners—which means that honestly acknowledging our sins makes Jesus instantly more valuable and infinitely more necessary than anything else in existence. Once we learn to recognize how utterly we have failed to keep God’s holy laws and just what God expects from each one of us, then how joyfully dances upon the ear and heart the news that another—Jesus Christ—has satisfied the demands that, for you and me, were literally impossible to supply.
It was Jesus who adopted the exact attitude He Himself mentioned in our text. He is the one who considered perfect obedience as His reasonable service and counted Himself as an unworthy slave of humankind. All this He did so that He might rescue us from the eternal Hell we had deserved.
Jesus is never diminished when we frankly and literally admit just how sinful we really are, and how far short we fall in our thoughts, words, and actions. In fact, just the opposite is true. Jesus is enhanced and becomes all the more precious to us. Then it is that we come to realize just how profound was our failure and how perfect was His sacrifice. Nothing else even comes close. How precious indeed is our Lord Jesus Christ—the Lord, the Savior of every single human being ever born.
Then too we can recognize the horror of damaging or destroying the saving faith of even one of God’s children, and how much preferred would be the millstone. How much better not only to teach them about their Savior Jesus, but to live our lives as examples which they can follow in every regard. What this means is that if you are doing the right thing, keep it up. If you are doing the wrong thing, stop it. This is too important for make-believe, too important to pretend that the on-going sin in our lives is unimportant.
We pray: “Lord, we are your unprofitable slaves. Give us the grace to strive to serve you with perfect obedience, and grant that each of us might recognize such perfection as nothing more than his or her reasonable service, for you Lord have given us life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
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.