Saturday, September 6, 2008

Proper 18 of Series A (Matthew 18:1-20)

“It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew 18. Dear friends in Christ, aren’t babies wonderful? Well, ok, I can’t speak from experience, but at least the ones I have encountered seem quite fun. Always smiling, laughing, and having a good time, they have to be the most wonderful gift anyone can receive from God. And they are, but I’m sure all of you here who have raised a few can tell us that there is another side, a side that includes sleepless nights, temper tantrums, and dirty diapers. But despite those things, babies are wonderful gifts, and they can teach us a lot. That’s right- babies have much to teach us! Jesus tells us in our text: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” You see, babies have this faith and trust in those who take care of them that causes them to place their entire lives in the hands of others. And their faith extends to Christ! Children have this love and trust in the Lord that we adults can only dream about. Big people have so many other things to worry about that it is tough for us to put our trust in Christ like a child does. Yet Jesus calls on us to follow their example- in everything else they are learning from us, but in faith we are learning from them.
This childlike faith, created in hearts big and small by the Holy Spirit, is vitally precious to our Lord. You were given this faith when you were baptized, even if you were baptized as a big person. Jesus reserves His strongest condemnations for those who lead others astray from this faith: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” As those who have been given this childlike faith, you are constantly in danger of being led astray by others- Satan seeks to threaten your faith at every turn. On the other hand, unfortunately, we too often become Satan’s tools to lead others away. How do we do this? Most often, we do this by living in open sin. When we flaunt our sinful lives, we are placing a stumbling block in front of other Christians and helping them to fall. Especially when we hold positions of responsibility or leadership, our ability to lead others astray is multiplied. We do all sin every day, but what I am talking about is sinning openly when we know better, and flaunting our sin before others. As baptized children of God, we are to live lives of repentance, begging for forgiveness for all of our sins, not wallowing in the pigsty of our sin and encouraging others to come in and roll in the mud! Jesus has very strong words for us when we do this: “It is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”
But even though Jesus has strong words to say about those who do these things, He wants His Church to bring them back in. When those whom Christ has given the gift of a childlike faith live in open sin or are led astray by those who live in open sin, we are not to simply cast them to the curb. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” We are to point out their sin to them in private, showing them their fault from the Scriptures and praying for repentance. We do this with persistence, not from the joy of pointing out their sin, but out of concern for the path they are on. Sometimes, however, more is needed. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” We hope and pray that several people may be able to convince our wandering brother or sister of their wrong, leading them to repentance. But if they continue to be obstinate, one more step must be taken: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The Church cannot allow others to be led astray by the sins of this person- the childlike faith of those whom Christ has claimed for His own must be protected. So the person is sent out of the Church. But at that point we do not forget about them. What do we do with Gentiles and tax collectors? We preach the Gospel to them, in the earnest prayer that they may come to faith. When a person is excommunicated, they simply go from being a member to being a prospect.
We too often look at these principles as a list of rules we must follow to get someone kicked out of the Church. We forget that our primary duty is to restore our brother or sister to the faith, to bring them to repentance and back into the faith. We are called to be watchmen, as Ezekiel was in our Old Testament lesson. “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” We must point out sin to our brothers and sisters, not to embarrass or prosecute them, but in order that they may see the error of their way and may be restored. Our concern is for those who have strayed- we are compelled by our love for them to go out and rescue them. Paul speaks about this love in our Epistle lesson: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We can only show this love because Christ first showed it to us. You were lost in your sin, wandering off on paths that could only lead to death, but Jesus sought you out in your sinful condition. He came to us as one of us, but yet true God. He gave up all of the heavenly glory that was rightfully His to become a poor shepherd. And as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for the sheep. As Jesus said in our text for today: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Because the Father did not want a single one of His little ones, you and me, to perish, Jesus came to save. As we heard last week, the Father’s will, the divine ‘must’ of salvation was that Christ would die for your sins. He was the one who truly humbled himself as a child, and He humbled Himself to death on a cross for you. He did not cause any little ones to stumble, but He was the one who had the millstone hung around His neck for your sins of causing little ones to stumble. He took on the punishment you deserved and took it to the cross. The sheep did not have to die for their wanderings, though they rightfully deserved it. Instead the shepherd died, and in His death, you have the forgiveness of all of your sins. But the Good Shepherd did not only lay down His life- He also took it up again, and now wandering sheep have eternal life. You will die an earthly death, but on the last day, Christ will raise you as He was raised, and you will live with Him in glory forever. Thanks be to God that the millstone does not hang on your neck, but instead Christ bore it to the cross for you!
And because Christ loved you so much that He went to the cross for you, He continues to bring you the forgiveness He won each and every time that you wander off the path. Jesus told us in the Gospel lesson today: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Jesus’ love for you is so strong that even when you rebel against Him, even when you wander away from the Good Shepherd, He will give up everything to bring you back to Him. As we heard earlier, the Church, Christ’s hands and fingers in this world, is to expend every effort to bring anyone who falls into sin back into the faith. Those in the Church are to show the love that Christ showed to any and all who fall. Christ spends a lot of time seeking after lost sheep, but He does this with joy because He loves His sheep, each and every one that He has given a childlike faith. All who have been given this faith are truly ‘great.’ Our text today began with the disciples asking Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Because of what Christ did for you on the cross, because He placed His Name upon you in Baptism, creating that childlike faith, you and all Christians are great in the kingdom of heaven. This greatness is found in Christ and His love. Jesus’ love brought Him to the cross for you, and now His love brings Him to forgive you whenever you wander, to bring you back into the fold. We hear again what He said in our text for today: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Christ is always at work seeking out lost sheep, and He does so through the Church. He does this whenever you go to your neighbor and point out a dangerous sin, or when you bring two or three trusted members with you, or even when that person is put out of the Church. Christ’s love for His sheep, for you, never stops. It sent Him to the cross, and it sends Him out to seek you whenever you wander away. Christ restores wandering sheep especially here in this place, because it is here that He has placed the means of restoration. He ultimately restored the broken relationship between you and God in your Baptism, where He made you a child of God and gave to you that childlike faith, breaking the barrier that separated you from your creator. Each and every day we live in our Baptism, dying to sin and rising to Christ, being reconciled to Him every time that we repent. And especially every Sunday that you come to this place as a sheep who has wandered and stumbled, or perhaps caused others to stumble, you receive forgiveness here through His Word, and every time that Christ works through His under-shepherd, Pastor Werly, to give to you His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Here in this place salvation and forgiveness comes to you, here Christ restores wandering sheep with joy- the joy that is motivated by His love. May you also have this joy every time that your brother or sister is found by our Good Shepherd, the joy that is motivated by your love for those whom Christ has claimed as His own, Amen.

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