Protecting the Faith of Little Ones (Luke 17:1-10)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + October 2, 2016
Text: Luke 17:1-6 (p. 876 in pew Bible)
When you first hear this passage in Luke 17, it may seem like a cobbling together of different teachings of Jesus.  In fact, this is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of chapter 15, alternating between teaching his disciples and his enemies.  First Jesus addressed His opponents with the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son.  Then in chapter 16, Jesus turned to His disciples to teach them about the difference between what God values and what we value.  Lastly, Jesus rebukes His enemies with the true teaching of the Law of Moses and the Prophets.
Given that background, the beginning of chapter 17 ties together all that Jesus has been teaching.  So here, Jesus is answering the question, What is the Kingdom of God really about, if not these human ideas?
As we work through this summary teaching, we need to dig deeper, so please open your pew Bibles to page 876.
“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [stumbling blocks] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin [stumble].”
When we hear about temptations to sin, we often think about those things which lure our already-perverse desires toward what is evil.  It’s like the old cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the devil’s telling us to do what we know is wrong.
If you look at the footnote on “temptations to sin,” you’ll see that the Greek literally says “stumbling blocks.”  Skandalon (think of scandal) is a snare used by hunters, so that their prey will stumble and be caught.  Think of how traps are made: they are built to entice by appearing genuine.  Food is laid out for a hungry rodent—only that when the cheese is taken, the snap comes down.
Jesus is talking about those things which ensnare people in their faith and cause them to doubt or fall away entirely.  This happens when Christians don’t practice what they preach—when they live contrary to God’s Word.
(This is what we pray to be protected from in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name”: “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the Name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”[1])
The point is that unchristian behavior doesn’t just put your own soul in peril through unbelief.  It endangers the souls of those who are young or weak in faith.
This point is so important that our Lord provides a gruesome illustration: Having a stone tied around your neck and being drown in the sea.  Surely it would be better to be executed this way than for another believer to perish in hell because you failed to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling,”[2] a manner worthy of the Name God placed on you in Baptism.
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Now Jesus teaches us how to avoid this terrible outcome.  How can we, the children of God, sinful as we are, avoid being stumbling blocks to the faith of others?  It’s done by calling sinners to repentance and forgiving them.
This is something we far too easily take for granted: Confession and absolution.  Oh yeah, that thing we do at the beginning of service.  But it’s so much more!  While you have your Bibles open, turn to Matthew 18 on page 823
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
For Christians, being sorry for sin and extending forgiveness is no trifling matter.  This is the heart of the Christian Church because in confessing our sins and forgiving one another is to exercise the Keys of the Kingdom.  By forgiving your repentant brother or sister, you open the gates of heaven to them.  On the other hand, if you fail to forgive them when they are sorry, you shut heaven in their face and endanger them being lost for eternity!
Now turn back to Luke 17 (page 876):
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
With all that’s at stake, and all the potential damage we can wreak, this is our prayer too!  Lord, increase our faith, because if it were left up to us, we all too often become stumbling blocks to those around us.  We have pointed the finger at our brothers and accused them on causing division in the congregation.  A cry has gone up to heaven because the people who are called Christian have behaved in an unchristian manner.  Lord, have mercy on us because we have sinned against you and against each other!
Our Lord’s response is good news for us: “If you have[3] faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It doesn’t depend on the amount of faith we have, but in Whom we believe.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard”—Even if your faith is weak and you struggle to believe that God is able to do as much as He says—“you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted’…”  It’s possible because, in the words of one commentator, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.” (Grantley Morris)
God is the one who makes such a monumental thing possible as sinners like us being forgiven—not only for what we have done against the God who called us, but also for what we have done to hurt our brothers and sisters.
By His great power, our Lord is also able to make this Christian Church, here in this congregation, a place where repentance and forgiveness are abundantly practiced.  He gives us hearts to confess our sins to each other, and yes, to forgive each other even seven times in a day if that’s what’s needed.
This is what the Christian Church looks like: a place where the lost have been gathered together by the Lord, where we have been given ears to heed the Word of God, where our sins have been forgiven by the Lord, and we also must forgive one another their trespasses against us.   Truly, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[4]  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, 3rd Part
[2] Ephesians 4:1-3
[3] Often mistranslated, the first part of this is not contrary to fact.  The NIV gets the first part right: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” then the NASB captures the rest: “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”
[4] Philippians 1:6

Longing for the Riches of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 25, 2016
Text: Luke 16:19-31
When you’re a kid you can’t wait until your birthday—when I’m 7, I’ll get to…   For adults that still happens, except that we’re not looking forward to being another year older.  We look forward to vacations, getting a raise, or buying a house.  This sense of anticipation, of longing for something better, is what drives people through life.
Anticipation is also a prominent feature in lives of God’s children.  We live in anticipation of something better, more glorious, and perfect.  As St. Paul says, “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]
It’s wonderful to meditate on the hope of eternal life, where we will be with the Lord and never have to leave Him.  But while we’re here in this life, the flip side of our anticipation is longing.   It’s a longing that we’re filled with every time there’s a reminder of how far off heaven is.  Chronic illness, poverty, temptation, and children being drawn away from the faith.  Doubt and affliction assail us and fill us with a hunger that cannot be satisfied here in this life.
The story of Lazarus[2] and the Rich Man is a picture of this longing to be satisfied.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
We’re told very little about Lazarus, but what we are, we can assume that this is how his life was.  He was constantly hungry, perhaps he never had good health, and what little housing he had was barely adequate.  He lived in destitution.  In stark contrast, we see the rich man, who is the exact opposite—filled to the point of being gorged, dressed luxuriously, and having no pangs of want except when it’s time for the next meal.
Then comes that great equalizer: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”  And now there’s a great reversal between the two men: the rich man is in agony, while Lazarus is comforted.   But this isn’t to say Lazarus is being rewarded for his years of poverty, or that the rich man is being punished for having it easy.  While Jesus goes on to stress the importance of hearing the Word while we’re living, this is what the Word of God tells us: This is a broken and corrupt world because of sin—human sin, and we are all contributors.  Poverty, disease, injustice, hatred, and even death are the fallout of sin.  Some of the things we’re personally responsible for, but others like natural disasters and freak accidents no party can be blamed.
The hope for healing this sick world came when God sent His Son into it.  Of Him, John the Baptist says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[3]  Through the Christ, God will right what is wrong and bring about a new creation out of this one.  He began it in Jesus’ birth, completed it on the cross and in His resurrection and ascension, and He will fulfill it completely when Jesus comes again in glory on the Last Day.
As God’s children, we live in between those two monumental events: the Ascension and Last Day.  Our way to Abraham’s bosom has been secured by Christ and received by faith.  Our share in His eternal, perfect Kingdom will mean an end to all suffering, as the angel tells John in Revelation: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[4]  That is our sure and certain hope.
But today we wait, and next week, and next year…until whenever He gathers us to Himself or comes like a thief in the night.  As life wears on, though, it becomes more difficult to feel at home in this world.  As we age, lose our health, see friends and family members die, and maybe even end up stuck in a nursing home, we can identify with Lazarus more and more.  We long to be satisfied because we’ve had it with the sin and trouble of this place.
But even while we wait on the Lord to deliver us, we have the comfort and strength we’ll need.  Just because we’re in anticipation doesn’t mean that God has abandoned His people.  The sons of Israel waited 40 years before they were brought across the Jordan, but His presence went with them in the Pillar of cloud and fire.[5]  The exiles in Babylon waited 70 years before He brought them back to Zion.[6]  The point is that He has been faithful to His people in anticipation in generations past, and He’s no different to each of us in His Church today.
Lazarus was poor in every earthly respect you can think of, destitute of the “good things” of this world.  Yet even though he was poor and needy in these ways, Lazarus was rich through his faith.  God had showered upon Him the riches of being a son of God, a citizen of His Kingdom.   As a man of faith, Lazarus also realized that he was a sojourner on the earth.  His stay in this body riddled by disease and pangs of hunger was passing away with each day.  But because God had an inheritance overflowing with goodness, Lazarus departed this life for his permanent home with the Lord.
It’s the same way for you and me in Christ.  Whether we’re rich or poor in daily bread, God showers us with spiritual, eternal riches.  In popular culture we’re bombarded with dreams of eating out all the time, driving a new car, having a vibrant retirement where you travel the world.  But don’t feel that God is depriving you if you shop at Grocery Outlet, nurse a beater with 190,000 miles, and are too riddled with arthritis to make it down the stairs (much less to Tahiti).  God is not depriving you because you are His child.  The gifts He promises, He abundantly fulfills.  You have His Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit living in you!  You have His full forgiveness and victory over death itself!  You have a God Who neither slumbers nor sleeps and Who commands His angels to guard you against dangers physical and spiritual![7]
We live in anticipation as God’s beloved children, never alone and never forsaken.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the Lord says, “for they shall be satisfied.”  At long last, the day will come for us to leave this valley of sorrow and be gathered to Abraham’s bosom.   In full assurance that God will grant this, let’s pray the last stanza of one of our hymns:
Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
    That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
    Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
    My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.[8]  Amen.
[1] Romans 8:24-25
[2] Different person from Lazarus of Bethany.  Lazarus is the Greek form of Eleazar, “one whom God helps.” (Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary)
[3] Luke 3:5
[4] Revelation 7:15-17
[5] Exodus 33:14
[6] Jeremiah 25:12
[7] Acts 2:38-39, Job 19:25-27, Psalm 121 and 90.
[8] “Lord Thee I Love With All My Heart” (Lutheran Service Book 708:3)