“So 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 from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, Jesus loves His little ones. Now, when we think of ‘little ones,’ our mind turns to children, the little ones that inhabit playgrounds and elementary schools. And that’s what Jesus has in mind as well. In response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He brings out a little child and says, “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.” We are not to exalt ourselves, but instead we are to have the humility of a child. When we do so, we are also called the little ones of Jesus; all His humble believers are His ‘little ones,’ the Father’s beloved children through the waters of Holy Baptism. Jesus loves us all as His little children, and He is ready to do anything to protect and deliver us.
He has to be ready, because His little ones are in danger. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” The little ones of Jesus are assailed by temptations to sin, they are threatened by those who would lead them astray. This happens in our world each and every day. The pressure for the little ones to fall from the faith and into open sin is often unbearable. Our world preaches lust, it proclaims selfishness and self-centeredness as its gospel. But as dangerous as the causes to sin are out there in the world, Jesus isn’t talking about the world in our text for today. He is talking about the fellowship of believers: Matthew chapter eighteen is all about the Church. He is talking to you and me when He says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Jesus is talking about those who are part of His Church and yet are leading His little ones into sin.
For when we live in open sin, we cause Christ’s little ones to wander. In fact, when we live in open sin, we are wandering ourselves. Lost sheep influence other lost sheep, and soon the whole flock is lost and wandering. They follow the voices of other shepherds, listening to what the world tells them. Lost sheep are in church directories; lost sheep are in church pews. They are wandering from the faith because someone influenced them into sin, and sin separates sheep from their shepherd. And the tragedy is that such wandering can only lead to eternal death. Jesus tells us that it is necessary that such things happen, necessary not because God wants it to be so, but necessary because we live in a corrupted and sinful world, and the Church is composed of sinful and corrupted people.
It may be necessary that these things happen, but it doesn’t mean that Jesus has to like it. The Good Shepherd doesn’t sit on His hands and watch as His sheep wander. Jesus asked, “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?” No shepherd has ever had a flock that wanders as much as Christ’s, but He does not grow weary. Instead, He continues day after day to seek out His lost sheep. He loves His little ones, even though they wander, even though they lead others into sin. He loves His little ones because He paid the ultimate price for them, He sacrificed everything to restore these wandering sheep. Jesus declares in John chapter ten: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd gave up His own life on the altar of the cross, shedding His blood for His little ones, His sheep who love to wander. His flock couldn’t return to Him, and so He came to us, taking on our flesh and blood and going to the cross. He sought out His lost sheep at the cost of His own life. The Good Shepherd will not abandon His little ones, even though they are harassed by temptations, even if they wander each and every day.
He does not abandon them, for those things that entice His little ones to wander are conquered enemies, triumphed over by the power of the cross and empty tomb. Jesus declared, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes 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 depth of the sea.” Jesus took on that punishment, He bore all sin upon His shoulders, He had that millstone fastened around His neck, and He was drowned in the depth of the sea. He faced the very punishment of hell itself to rob it of its power. Now sin is defeated, emptied of its ability to condemn. Satan is crushed, no longer able to accuse God’s saints. Death has no ultimate victory; Christ has conquered it through the cross and empty tomb. He holds in His hands victory over our enemies, and His delight is in finding the lost and bringing them back to Himself. “And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Only the One who has conquered sin, Satan, and death can deliver us from them, and Christ has great joy in finding us and bringing us to the Father, as He declares: “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
That statement defines Christ’s work in this world; Jesus doesn’t want any of His little ones to perish. He wants them protected from temptation, and He wants them restored when they wander. He is persistent, constantly seeking them out and returning them to His fold, because Jesus loves His little ones. And today He uses the Church, you and me, as His instruments to seek out the wandering and bring them back to Him. The Church is to have the same zeal and joy in bringing the wandering back as Christ Himself does. God’s will is to be our own: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” How do we restore wandering sheep? How do we protect Christ’s little ones from being led into sin?
Thankfully, Jesus tells us. “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.” That’s it; we simply call our brother or sister to repentance privately, and if they listen, we forgive them and we have gained back a wandering sheep. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so hard to put into practice, and I would guess that most of us fail to do this day after day (I know that I do). Instead of going to our brother or sister privately to tell them their sin and call them to repentance, we either trap our anger and resentment deep inside or else we talk to everyone but the person who sinned against us. If we do that, we have made no effort to gain back our brother, but have instead made the situation worse. Jesus doesn’t want any of His sheep to be lost, and so He teaches us here to focus on restoration. Even if we must bring two or three along with us or must tell it to the Church, the goal is always to gain back the brother or sister who has wandered. The tool that Christ has given us to use in this effort is repentance and forgiveness. Only forgiveness can restore the wandering sheep, only forgiveness can heal a broken relationship.
But if the person is stubbornly unrepentant, then the Church is to have the same zeal as our Lord Jesus in protecting the little ones. If someone is openly leading others into sin, they must be removed from the community. “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” This verse isn’t talking about our body parts, its talking about the body of Christ, the Church. If the hand is causing Christ’s little ones to wander into sin, it must be cut off. But that isn’t the goal. Matthew chapter eighteen isn’t intended give us a procedure to kick someone out of the church; instead, it is a process of restoration. We are to have the same zeal for the wandering sheep as Christ; we are to expend every effort to call our wandering brother or sister back to the flock. But if they refuse to be restored, then we must protect Christ’s little ones, and the cause of offense must be removed. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We are to treat them as an unbeliever. But Christ doesn’t give up on unbelievers, and neither do we. What do we do with unbelievers? We call them to repentance and faith; we preach the Gospel to them.
Matthew chapter eighteen teaches us how to show love to our neighbor, the same love Paul calls on us to show in our Epistle lesson. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” It is not love to leave a person in their sin. Even excommunication is not as harsh as eternal punishment in hell. We want to call a person to repentance so that we can forgive them, so that they can be restored to the community. We want to gain our brother or sister, to call them back to their Good Shepherd. The most unloving thing we can do is leave them in their sin. Christ didn’t leave you in your sin, but instead, while you were still a sinner, He died for you. He took sin seriously enough to suffer for you, to remove the threat and punishment of hell, to give to you the promise of an eternity with Him. He calls you to repentance and then restores you through the power of His forgiveness. He forgives you even for your lack of forgiveness, His grace covers you even when you do not have the same zeal for the wandering sheep as He does. For you too were a wandering sheep, but He found you, He restored you, He brought you back to His house with joy. In the name of our Good Shepherd, who constantly seeks out and restores His lost sheep, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.