16th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 21) LSB #613
Text – Ezekiel 18:31a
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, & make yourselves a new heart & a new spirit!
A FRANKENSTEIN HEART
“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, & my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, & a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
Those are the words by which author Mary Shelley described the ‘coming to life’ of the monster that was created, & animated, by Victor Frankenstein. As a novel, Frankenstein was a forerunner of the multitudes of horror novels & horror movies that have been written & filmed ever since. Nevertheless, horror did not begin with Mary Shelley or with Victor Frankenstein.
Depending on whom you speak with, one of the greatest horror movies ever produced was released just ten years ago. It was titled The Passion of the Christ. Scores of people could not watch the crucifixion with open eyes. Many refused to set foot in a theater or living room that was showing the movie, & that execution happened almost 2000 years ago.
Jesus’ crucifixion was a direct response to the horror of sin & the way it corrupted everything our heavenly Father had created. Over 6000 years ago it poisoned the relationships between Adam & his wife Eve, as well as between both of them & their Creator. It didn’t take long & their firstborn son murdered the second born.
In one way of looking at it, ever since Lucifer tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, all of human history has been one long horror show. Not only disease & death entered, but hatred, bitterness & betrayal. We don’t just make mistakes. People don’t just ‘goof up.’ Willfully, intentionally & with malice we seek to injure other people, often the ones within our own circle of friends, family & congregation. In fact, the horror of sin is so brutal that you & I spend most of our lives suppressing the reality of it. We cover it up, push it aside, stick our head in the sand, whitewash it & flat out deny it.
Horror novels allow us to ‘pop the lid,’ so to speak, on that tightly kept box where we hide the darkest secrets of our soul. Horror movies are sort of like a coping mechanism which enables us to relieve the pressure of sin boiling beneath the surface of the beautiful image that we want others to see. The truth is all of us have a problem with being authentic.
If we are actually transparent to others, most of them will not be able to live with us. They’d be shocked & dismayed with the thoughts & the feelings that course through our mind & soul. Yet the same sin that has corrupted & twisted me, has done similar things to you. The greatest problem mankind suffers from is having a Frankenstein heart.
We try to make up & build & bring to life a heart of our own. It’s instinctive for us sinners to think we aren’t all that bad, because all we’ve ever known is the corruption of sin. Not a one of us has ever seen holiness & perfection. We have no way to grasp what that means. Listen to St. Paul write about this in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
“Once you were dead because of your disobedience & your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil – the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires & inclinations of our sinful nature.” (2:1-3a NLT)
Like the rest of the world you & I are also tempted to believe we can make our own path to God. Haven’t you heard thinking like this, “We may be on different paths, but they all lead to the same place”? It’s become popular to say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” meaning you’re free to choose from a buffet line of religious options. The implication is that you can put together your own spirituality. You can build your own path to heaven. You can create your own heart in order to be in relationship to the ‘greater power.’ All those suggestions deny the reality of what sin has done to me. Because of our sinful nature, we cannot achieve any sort of path to heaven. As St. Paul wrote, “…you were dead because of your disobedience.”
Now, aside from Victor Frankenstein’s theory, what can a dead body do? How many of you have been to a viewing at a funeral home? How many times have you gone to a funeral service? Haven’t you heard someone speak these words, “He looks so good”? Yet not one of us expects that body to sit up & begin doing things again, let alone building a path to heaven.
That’s what St. Paul is talking about in regard to spirituality, & Paul wasn’t writing to dead people; they can’t read either. Paul was writing to living, breathing, walking Christians & telling them that apart from Jesus Christ they used to be dead. They used to obey the devil. Paul wrote that all of us used to live that way.
People, there are only two paths in this life. One is the straight & narrow, & Jesus Himself said that few will find it. The other path is broad & easy, but it leads to destruction. It leads to hell. That is where building your own spirituality will take you. It’s like trying to make yourself a new heart. It’s going to get ugly. Hear these words of Victor Frankenstein:
“Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?”
Going back, again, to Ephesians 2, “All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires & inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.” (2:3 NLT)
Horror movies are successful because in some way they act as a coping mechanism, allowing us subconsciously to address our fears. A far healthier alternative to hiding the darkest secrets of our soul is to confess them to our heavenly Father. He will not be shocked & dismayed by the thoughts & the feelings that course through our mind & soul. We don’t have to worry that our Savior will be unable to live with us if He knows the truth. He already did live with us, & died for us here on earth, in time & space.
The last verse of the OT reading stated, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, & live.” There, our Lord is calling us to believe that He will forgive our sins. He will wash us & make us clean. In fact, in Psalm 51, King David even tells us how to: “…make yourselves a new heart & a new spirit!”
In this prayer to God, of Psalm 51, it states, “Let me hear joy & gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, & blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, & renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:8-10 ESV)
That clean heart & right spirit is the spirituality every sinner needs, & whether or not people understand it, Jesus gave the one true religion to us in the Words of Holy Scripture. Yes, human beings, & human churches, do not always get things correct. Sin gets in the way of pastors & church leaders. Still, it is through the church that our Savior has chosen to work.
He sent His disciples out with the mission of establishing congregations to provide shelter & rest for the soul, as well as to proclaim the Holy Word.
Frankenstein the monster never could have brought himself to life. We can’t either, but instead of using lightning to bring life as Dr. Frankenstein did in the book, God uses His Word & Sacraments through which I die & rise with Christ in His death & in His resurrection. We die to our sinful nature & rise to our saintly nature.
In 2 Chronicles 12:14, God’s Word says of King Rehoboam: “And he did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the LORD.” (2Ch 12:14 ESV) In the reading from Ezekiel, God is not asking us to literally make a new heart for ourselves. The previous verse makes the point clear: “Repent & turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgression that you have committed, & make yourselves a new heart & a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 18:30b-31a)
When God’s Holy Spirit converts us from unbelief, one of the greatest gifts we’re given is the ability to repent of our sins. That repentance, empowered by God, is what makes a new heart for me, & for you, & for any of God’s children. That repentance is what Ezekiel is writing of when he says, “…make yourselves a new heart & a new spirit!”
Through the prophet’s words, our heavenly Father is calling us to seek the Lord, & to do so with our heart, not simply with our mind. Yahweh wants to create within us a new & clean heart, but He will not force us to accept it. He offers it to us freely, with no strings attached – simply trust & believe.
Those are not always easy things to do, especially when our very lives, & everything we’ve ever known, are hanging in the balance. Yet we only need look to our own efforts at creating life to find what a disaster we are apart from our Savior Jesus.
The monster cried to Victor Frankenstein, his human creator, “‘Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony, ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’”
We’ve known those feelings in regard to some of our own creations, our own attempts to make for ourselves a new heart, or a new life, or any hope, other than, & apart from, our Savior. When we’ve failed in that way, Satan would tempt us to surrender to despair. Lucifer wants us to turn our back on God, believing that He could never forgive.
Yet, Jesus took on human flesh, born of the virgin Mary, in order to live & to die in our
place. He came to disprove the devil & to declare Satan a liar. Jesus is risen indeed. He’s calling you even now to rise to new life again this day. Your sins have already been paid for by Jesus. To repent of them is simply to receive the new heart that our Lord & Savior gives. It is faith in Jesus that truly makes you well. Amen.
O Lord, my God to Thee I pray: O cast me not in wrath away! Let Thy good Spirit ne’er departs, but let Him draw to Thee my heart that truly penitent I be: O God, be merciful to me! O Jesus, let Thy precious blood be to my soul a cleansing flood. Turn not, O Lord, Thy guest away, but grant that justified I may go to my house at peace with Thee: O God, be merciful to me. Amen.
 Shelley, M., Frankenstein, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), p. 34-35.
 Shelley, M., Frankenstein, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), p. 33.
 Shelley, M., Frankenstein, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), p. 93.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 20) LSB #716
Text – Philippians 1:23-24
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
SELF-CENTERED OR OTHER-CENTERED
How many of you, at some point in life, have owned & maintained a car? If you’ve done that for at least two years, you’ve probably learned the answer to this question. Which windshield wiper blade always stops working first? It’s the driver’s side, isn’t it?
While driving your car you can make do without the passenger side blade, yet it never seems to be the one that stops working first. This happened to a man one day while driving home in the middle of a blinding snow storm. I think it was last winter. Unable to see, the man pulled over & tried to figure out a quick fix.
He found it in a yellow cotton work glove lying on the floor. With it wedged under the windshield wiper arm, it did a decent job of keeping the windshield clear, & the road visible. Not only that, since the storm was brewing in broad daylight – you’d be surprised at how many people waved back. PAUSE
Where I grew up, it was such that looking out the back of the house, you couldn’t see another home or barn for a full country mile. And out there, if you were driving on the back roads with a car, or a tractor, or a bicycle, it didn’t matter when you met someone coming your way, if you knew them or not. Waving at them was just the neighborly thing to do.
It’s a very down to earth, polite & friendly way of being other-centered. When St. Paul writes, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” he’s writing from an “other-centered” viewpoint. In the verse right before he admits that his own desire is: “…to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better.” Human beings have to be taught to live other-centered lives. That attitude doesn’t come naturally in a sin-filled world. For example, young children just learning to speak instinctively seem to love learning the words “No” & “Mine!” They say them with such gusto & with feeling. Growing into adulthood, we learn not to let it show that crassly, even if our overall outlook on life remains totally self-centered.
At that childish level it’s easy for adults to recognize what is a self-centered outlook & what is an other-centered viewpoint. Each of us has been on the blunt end of another person’s selfishness & has no difficulty identifying that attitude or behavior.
But haven’t you also been on the receiving end of some very other-centered behavior? There are times we receive it from friends where we sort of expect it. There are times when a total stranger gives us a blessing & in that case doesn’t it have a more dramatic shock effect?
The extremes in life aren’t that difficult to recognize. It’s when the issues are closer to the middle ground that we have a lot more trouble sensing where the fine line is between God’s will & our own. St. Paul is trying to help us distinguish that fine line, for our own thoughts, words & deeds, as he writes his letter to the church at Philippi:
“For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” To remain in the flesh is the other-centered desire.
You see, Paul has been in prison as he begins writing this letter, & the sentence of death has been hanging over him. He literally did not know if he was going to live, or if he was going to die. It was up to the judge. In that day it was not at all uncommon for Christians to be persecuted & executed simply for speaking the truth about Jesus.
As a worthy pastor should do, Paul wanted to leave the members of the church at
Philippi prepared for whatever the future might hold for them in their walk with Christ. Death was a very present reality for God’s children in that day & time; quite unlike it is for most of us, most of our lives. So they struggled with that fine line between the desire to depart & be with Christ, or to remain in the flesh – still working in the kingdom of God here on earth.
Although going to heaven is a good thing, in Paul’s middle ground context, far from any of the extremes, there is still a fine line between that good thing we all desire, & the necessary thing which is for the sake of others. If our lives were filled with persecution & the constant threat of execution we might have even a greater desire to depart & be with Christ.
Yet our lives are filled with luxury in comparison to St. Paul & the people of the churches he served. That’s probably another reason we don’t struggle so much to remain here on earth. We have life pretty good. It’s a far cry from life in prison as St. Paul was experiencing. He said, “My desire is to depart & be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Nevertheless, Paul is thinking far differently than we: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Not only is Paul thinking in an other-centered way, he recognizes that in living for others he is taking up his cross & that is truly following Christ. In fact, Paul is so focused on following Christ that he willingly confronts the possibility of his own death:
“…that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” To this great missionary apostle his life or his death are equals all because of Jesus Christ. Either one will bring glory & honor to Jesus’ name, because Yahweh will not allow the work Jesus accomplished to be shamed.
Whether he will die for his crimes, or be released to a continued life of hardship & deprivation, St. Paul has complete trust in Jesus as his Savior. Do you & I trust our Savior that completely? Do we “believe” in Jesus so we can go to heaven, or do we “believe” in Jesus because we long to know Him, whether that’s in death or in life? If we don’t see our living here & now as being in Christ then we’re not going to die the death that is gain. No human being will be able to “game” the system our Lord has set up whereby eternal life is received.
A few token coins in the offering, & making an appearance here once a month, does not constitute taking up our cross & following Christ with our living. Not only when we fail, but when we sort of, maybe, kind of actually refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves, have we taken up our cross to follow Christ with our living?
So we should consider why our Lord & Savior will apply the second half of Paul’s sentence to us: “For me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” For comfort & hope & peace, especially when our sins & weaknesses make us anxious, we turn to the last part of the Gospel reading for today:
“‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, & the first last.” The point Jesus is making is that the Christians who looked good, the ones who were always in church, & gave the full tithe as their offering; they’re the ones who are jealous.
Jesus was awarding all the workers the same eternal life, no matter how their faith appeared on the outside. Those who are struggling & lost, when found, are given the same blessings as the overachievers. There’s hope in that message for you & me especially when we are struggling, or lost or feeling beaten down, worthless & defeated.
St. Paul was in prison for preaching Christ & he found hope in the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, that hope is waiting there for you as well. Hear it, & then with the power of the Holy Spirit, that God’s Word conveys, believe it, trust in it & live it. Here’s what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians just before the reading from today, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more & more in knowledge & depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best & may be pure & blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory & praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11 NIV)
That is where other-centeredness begins – in Jesus Christ. Being other-centered is one of the fruits of righteousness that God’s Holy Spirit creates within us, along with a clean heart & a steadfast spirit.
Isaiah wrote this, along the same lines, for our comfort & hope & peace, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, & the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, & to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
It is in our heavenly Father’s mercy & love that we find the confidence to state & believe, “For to me to live is Christ, & to die is gain.” It is in our heavenly Father’s mercy & love that we find the will & the power to live other-centered lives, even & all the while that He may be calling us home.
Because of that love you may even find yourself waving to a total stranger someday. Amen.
I walk in danger all the way. The thought shall never leave me that Satan, who has marked his prey, is plotting to deceive me. This foe with hidden snares may seize me unawares if I should fail to watch & pray. I walk in danger all the way. I pass through trials all the way, with sin & ills contending; in patience I must bear each day the cross of God’s own sending. When in adversity I know not where to flee, when storms of woe my soul dismay, I pass through trials all the way. My walk is heavenward all the way; await, my soul, the morrow, when God’s good healing shall allay all suffering, sin & sorrow. Then, worldly pomp, be gone! To heaven I now press on. For all the world I would not stay; my walk is heavenward all the way. Amen.
14th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 19) LSB #719
Text – Genesis 50:20
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
TURNING EVIL INTO GOOD
“Sticks & stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It was a common children’s nursery rhyme, & its purpose was to help the victim of the name-calling ignore the evil behavior of a bully. The rhyme has fallen out of favor in recent years for good reason. You & I are not able to turn evil into good simply by saying it isn’t so.
When someone calls you names it does hurt. Emotional pain & psychological harm can actually do far more damage to God’s creation than a simple broken arm. The human body was designed to fairly quickly heal itself of many physical ailments. Trying to repair a person’s emotions or soul is a far more complex & difficult goal.
Leading up to seminary I took several psychology classes, & once I was at seminary I took numerous counseling classes. What really stood out to me was how the secular counseling world could do a decent job of diagnosing what was wrong with a person, & yet they could never come up with a reliable solution, let alone a cure.
At the root of that failure was the unwillingness to recognize evil for what it truly is. Evil is sin. Evil is rebellion against the holy God. There lies the root of all our troubles. With that diagnosis off limits, with the truth being politically incorrect, no honest & accurate solution can ever be found.
If you’re suffering from damaged emotions, or a crippled soul, you can’t work harder or smarter at getting better. That’s like asking someone with a broken leg to just run faster. It’s like asking a person with a broken arm to just throw the ball harder. The best that unbelievers can come up with, for dealing with the effects of sin, is to say that sin will never hurt me. As they attempt to deal with the realities caused by sin, the only answer they have is to call it something else. So abortion becomes the woman’s right to choose. Homosexuality is sold as a natural lifestyle. If we’re telling lies, it’s because you have your truth & I have mine.
Their ‘plan’ to cure the world is to tell themselves often enough that what is evil is actually good. Yet, their words have no power. Their words have no effect. Their words cannot change truth. Their words cannot change reality & the prophet Isaiah had the same problem going on in his day, thousands of years ago:
“Woe to those who call evil good & good evil, who put darkness for light & light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet & sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20 ESV) You see, in a world without Jesus as the Truth, the Way & the Life, then every single thing is upside down & backwards. Without Jesus there is no truth, no reality, no healing. Without Jesus there is no life.
Oh, the people are alive all right; they just don’t have ‘life.’ There is no peace or wholeness. Everything is fractured & on the verge of disintegrating. You & I know that type of stress well because, even if we’ve been Christians all our lives, each of us still lives in a world that has been drastically broken by Adam & Eve’s fall into sin.
There’s nothing we touch that hasn’t already been damaged, & twisted, by the corrupting effect of sin. You may believe you’ve seen the perfect sunset a couple of times in your lifetime. Before the fall into sin, every sunset was perfect. So how do we deal with it? How do we cope with the fact that nothing is as it should be?
Joseph’s own brothers sold him into slavery. Their own father favored Joseph over all of his sons. Joseph was arrogant enough, in front of his brothers, to wear that coat of many colors his father had given him, thus rubbing in their face the truth that Joseph was the favorite. Now, the father has died. How was the ‘favorite’ son going to respond for all he had suffered? He was the 2nd most powerful man on earth. Would he gain his revenge? How often have you gained yours? Maybe you’re still in the process? When are you going to quit trying to turn evil into good simply by changing its name?
Even Christians struggle daily with unbelief, & in our unbelief you & I are still trying to turn our own evil into good, simply by calling it good. That is the best that human beings can do apart from Christ. Our heavenly Father can actually turn evil into good, as He does when He changes our heart from death to life, from darkness to light, from unbelief into believing.
In the events recorded in the 50th chapter of Genesis, Yahweh had already turned Joseph’s heart from unbelief to believing. Now, through Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers’ sin, Yahweh turns their hearts as well.
Punishing someone for doing evil is at times justified & proper, but it does not ever turn that evil into good. Only the almighty God, whose Word created everything there is, has the unlimited power & wisdom & patience needed to turn your sin & my sin into good. Thus Yahweh spoke through His servant Joseph, & those words created life where there was death:
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
In this reading from the book of Genesis, Joseph is a foreshadowing of Christ, hanging on the cross, asking His Father to forgive them, the brothers, for they know not what they do. Joseph not only forgives, but he comforts & he reconciles, and then provides for them. In that provision, the foreshadowing has moved on to the final judgment.
Joseph tells his brothers that even though they meant evil against him, God meant the very same thing for good, “…to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…” The same will be true at Judgment Day. As in the case of Joseph, so in the case of Jesus, many people will have been kept alive by the evil that was done against Christ, as He hung in our place on Golgotha. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” Those very words could have been spoken to Judas if he had been willing to hear them.
Since Jesus died for our sins on the cross, there is one Name we may be called which can never hurt us, even if the world would hate us & kill us because of it. The name of Jesus never hurts, but always saves. For the person who has had an abortion, even two or three, the name of Jesus can & will heal if they allow it.
For the person who’s been deceived by the homosexual movement, or any other perversion of God’s design, which is one man & one woman committed to each other alone until death parts them, for anyone led astray from our Lord’s design, the name of Jesus can & will heal if they allow it.
For all the lies we’ve told, when God’s truth wasn’t convenient, & we wanted our own truth instead, the name of Jesus can & will heal if we allow it. Any hurt, or pain or suffering we’ve endured can be healed by the name of Jesus, because our healing does not come from within us. Our healing, our wholeness, our peace, always comes from outside of ourselves.
There’s a fable that tells of a farmer who transplanted an old brier bush into a rose garden. The brier was puzzled: “What a foolish old man! Doesn’t he know I’m just an old brier bush? Why did he put me here with all the beautiful roses?”
As time went by the farmer proceeded to graft a rose stalk into the stem of the brier bush, & when summer came, the brier was topped with beautiful roses. The farmer said, “Your beauty, old brier, is not due to what came out of you, but to what I have put in to you.” That is absolutely true of every one of God’s children as well. No matter the suffering, the trials & even tribulations of life, our beauty comes from outside of ourselves, our healing comes from outside of ourselves, and our very life comes from outside of ourselves. Joseph’s ability to forgive his brothers for the evil they did to him came from outside of himself. It came from Christ, & it came to him through Jesus’ love demonstrated & proven on the cross.
“His brothers also came & fell down before him & said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you & your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them & spoke kindly to them.”
In the same way, our Lord & Savior longs to comfort & speak kindly to you. His love for you knows no limits, & He is perfectly capable & willing to turn every bit of your evil into good, for His name’s sake. It’s in His name, & by the power of His name, that you & I are turned & healed. Amen.
I leave all things to God’s direction; He loves me both in joy & woe. His will is good, sure His affection; His tender love is true, I know. My fortress & my rock is He: what pleases God, that pleases me. God knows what must be done to save me; His love for me will never cease. Upon His hands He did engrave me with purest gold of loving grace. His will supreme must ever be: what pleases God, that pleases me. My God desires the soul’s salvation; my soul He, too, desires to save. Therefore with Christian resignation all earthly troubles I will brave. His will be done eternally; what pleases God, that pleases me. Amen.
13th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 18) LSB #353
Text – Matthew 18:4
Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.
LIKE THIS CHILD
A story is told about Mohammed Ali, the heavyweight boxing champ who, during his career, was not known for his humility. During one of his many flights, the airplane ran into bad weather, so the pilot warned the passengers that they were encountering moderate turbulence.
Experienced travelers know that the word moderate in contrast to light means, “If you believe in prayer, now’s time to practice.” The passengers were instructed to fasten their seat belts, & everyone complied except Mohammed Ali. The stewardess asked him to please follow the pilot’s direction. Ali’s response was, “Superman don’t need no belt." The stewardess, did not miss a beat, when she replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane.” The saying, “Pride comes before the fall” is basically a summary of a Bible verse in the book of Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, & a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 ESV) Jesus’ disciples, like all of us, were susceptible to the same temptations:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the reign of heaven?’” After all, the very Son of God had personally chosen each one of them to be His disciple. They might have been thinking, “We have some pretty impressive credentials!” Don’t people just love to hear how impressive they are? Haven’t you seen the Hollywood stars strutting across the stage to receive their reward? Have you seen a politician or two, at their victory speech, gushing about how they are going to change the world so that it’s a better place? If any of them actually believed in sin, it’s as if they were going to single handedly rid the world of Satan himself.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the reign of
heaven?’” Talk about pride coming before the fall; those 12 followers of Jesus certainly are full of it. We should also consider that St. Matthew is writing this while looking back at himself as one of the men asking such a misguided question. Sadly, wondering who’s the greatest isn’t all that unusual, even among us today.
We may be aware enough not to ask the question, but there’re other ways we make our feelings & desires known. Trying to cut to the head of the line is a common one. Weaseling our way out of doing the menial chores is another. Feeling deprived when someone else deservedly gets credit for a job well-done is a sure sign that we expect to receive special treatment.
Questions like, “Who is the greatest?” come naturally to sinful creatures. For a sinful human being to humble himself is not at all natural, yet that is precisely the behavior which Jesus commends to us: “Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.” This morning we’re going to focus on the phrase ‘like this child.’
To begin with, every Christian needs to understand that it is God’s will not to leave us where we’re at when He finds us. It is always our heavenly Father’s desire to improve our character. He sees growth in humility as a good thing. So, what does it mean to humble yourself [to become] ‘like this child?’
Answering that question gives us the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching in the entire 18th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. In the ancient world there was no branch of government named Child Protective Services. Many of the Romans used to put their unwanted children outside the city walls, where, as evening arrived, the wild animals would eat them.
In Jesus’ day, children were completely helpless & totally dependent upon their parents for their survival. Because of the courts, along with all the rules & regulations of our society, children in our country are much more protected than they were in the land of Israel. To come up with someone who’s equivalent in helplessness & dependency today, Jesus would have to say: “Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this ‘unborn’ child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.” In the United States, a child in the womb has almost no rights whatsoever. Too many Americans they have no voice, no legal standing & are considered subhuman at best.
If we humble ourselves to become like that, then, Jesus says, we are the greatest in the reign of heaven. To our 21st century American ears that is a harshly shocking statement, which is exactly how Jesus meant it to be for the audience in His day.
If you want to be great, even in God’s kingdom, you must depend completely & totally on someone other than yourself to care & provide for you. To our sinful nature, that is absolute foolishness. It’s completely irrational. It’s like saying that Superman needs to wear his seat belt.
Have you ever thought about this? The wealthier a person becomes the more they isolate themselves from other people. They own larger & larger homes, finally ending up on an estate with fences & gates & security systems to keep other people away. Their goal is to become less & less dependent on others. That’s what they use their wealth for.
People strive to become great so they don’t have to depend on other people. Jesus says if you want to become great, you must depend on others more than anyone else. The apostle Paul explained our reaction to that in 1 Corinthians 2:
“The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NET) If Jesus’ teaching is causing you some anxiety, or to question whether or not you are a believer, remember that even God’s children struggle with unbelief.
Our sinful nature does not want to hear, it rebels against any of the words of God, but especially against the most pointed words. Remember, most Christians don’t mind taking up their pillow to follow Christ, but taking up their cross, now that’s another matter. Most Christians don’t really mind if Jesus comes to suffer & die on their behalf, but following in His footsteps with their own suffering & even death, that’s a bit more of a problem.
Our pride takes a hit as we come to grips with the fact that Jesus still rules in the world today through His foolishness & suffering. You see, it’s not just you & me as individuals that are called by God to be totally helpless & dependent. It is also the Church, the very body of Christ, that is following in the footsteps of the Infant Jesus, born in a manger, no crib for a bed.
In the reign of heaven, here on earth, there is no place whatsoever for self-sufficiency. Apart from Christ we can do nothing. Our sinful nature, our pride, will always struggle with the fact that the weakest & the most dependent Christians are seen by our heavenly Father as the greatest among us. If you think about it, those are the people Jesus ministered to while on earth.
Jesus lived a life that was totally dependent upon His Father’s care. He spent 40 days in the wilderness with nothing to eat & then was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread. Jesus countered his temptation with the truth that, “…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 ESV)
Those words are well-known by many Christians, but listen again to the context leading up to them: “… [God] humbled you & let you hunger & fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
To have true life is to be a child of God, & that life only exists as we are utterly dependent upon Christ & His provision for us. The moment we move to leave Jesus behind, in even the slightest way, is the moment that pride begins to orchestrate our downfall.
Now that we understand what true greatness entails we can begin to apply Jesus’ teaching
to our own lives & circumstances. First off, in receiving those who are young children, helpless & dependent, unable to earn their keep, we are told by Christ that we are receiving Him. So, if we want to know Jesus, one way to do that is to receive the little children. Our childcare center & elementary school are thus a direct connection for you & me to know Christ.
In addition, the members of our congregation whose health is poor & cannot make it here on Sunday mornings, they also qualify as the needy & dependent who are the greatest in the reign of heaven. There are plenty of ministry opportunities for us to reach out & care for them.
The text from Matthew moves on to the issue of temptation. With exaggerated language, Jesus makes the point how much better it is to live life crippled or lame or blind, conditions that none of us would naturally recognize as greatness, than to be thrown into the eternal fires of hell with a body that is whole & healthy & great in the eyes of the world.
Finally, if your brother sins against you, he is now needy & dependent upon your generosity to lead him back to repentance, & to life. You hold, for him, the keys to the reign of heaven in his heart. Go to him one on one, in order to win him back, rather than gossiping about his sin to everyone you meet.
If one sheep goes astray the man who has them will leave the 99 to seek & to find the lost one. According to Jesus Himself, the most important Christian in our fellowship in Christ is the one who is weakest, struggling the most, greatly in need of patience, nurture & forgiveness.
There are times & situations in which each of us can end up especially beaten down by sin, evil & Satan, finding ourselves in dire need. In that hour any of us can be one of the little ones who are the greatest. Thus we are to look at our brothers & sisters in Christ with new eyes, with the eyes of faith, because we may be seeing one who is greatest in the reign of heaven.
God doesn’t leave us where we’re at when He finds us. Our Lord seeks to break the will
to greatness in His disciples & bids them turn instead, to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we resist His efforts to transform us, we’re rejecting God’s will for us, which is heaven. If we shall not live by God’s Word of forgiveness, we shall die by it. Repentance & humility are gifts that come with forgiveness. To reject them is to reject true life.
Ultimately, the message we offer is about the One, who while being the greatest, gave up everything to become the Least. He came here to die on the cross in order to rescue & to save the lost. And where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there He is among them. He is among us today, & you may even see Him in the face of a child. His promise is for you, & your children. His Word tells us that, & in a few minutes He’ll be offering you that promise again in His body & blood, given & shed for you for the remission of your sins. Amen.
Jesus came, the heavens adoring, came with peace from realms on high; Jesus came to win redemption, lowly came on earth to die; came in deep humility. Jesus comes again in mercy when our hearts are worn with care; Jesus comes again in answer to the earnest, heartfelt prayer; comes to save us from despair. Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing, bringing news of sins forgiven; Jesus comes with words of gladness, leading souls redeemed to heaven. Alleluia! Alleluia! Hope to all the world is given. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet