22nd Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 25) LSB #979
Text – Mark 10:52
And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight & followed Him on the way.
WHAT TO DO WITH SIGHT?
Does that strike you as a Mr. Obvious question? You might notice something else obviously different this Sunday that also has to do with sight. Eyesight is one of those blessings we totally take for granted until we begin to lose it. Even though these glasses help my vision, they don’t do the job anywhere near as well as my eyes did without them just five years ago.
It’s been getting more & more difficult to read, first the fine print, then even the regular print once it gets late into the evening. When I wear these glasses, I’m having to re-learn how to use my sight, because they aren’t nearly as effective an instrument as my eyes used to be.
To see clearly, I have to move my head around a lot more so the lenses are pointing directly at what I want to see. Yet, even when my eyes did work very well on their own, I still didn’t always know what to do with sight. Here’s an illustration of what I mean by that.
It was spring drama season & Jan was in full frantic mode just days before the opening night of the production. That meant working late into the evening. On this particular night we were headed to the Meijer store around 11:15 PM, in order to pick up some last minute drama supplies. When we got to the main entrance the sliding doors did not open.
As if on cue, we turned to look at each other at the same moment, with the same question in mind, “How come these doors aren’t opening?” Then, at the same time, we turned & looked back at doors, finally noticing the bright red sign, 12 inches in front of our noses, that read – “EXIT ONLY.”
Our eyes had been working fine all along, but apparently we didn’t know what to do
with sight. We failed to pay attention to what our eyes were seeing. There are times when that failure just makes for a funny story. There are other times when it’s downright dangerous to not pay attention to what your eyes are seeing. That’s true physically if you’re driving a car. It’s also true in a spiritual sense if you’re alive in this world.
Two Sunday’s ago, the sermon title was – What does unbelief look like? I mentioned that even if we know what it looks like, there are times we still have to pay attention & actually look – you know – open our eyes, focus on & think about what we’re seeing. We should process the information that our eyes are taking in, because unbelief is hell – literally.
Sometimes, we need to intentionally process the information our eyes take in because those of us who still are able to see tend to take that blessing for granted. Though we are able to see, we don’t always know what to do with sight. However, the example Jesus gives us to ponder, in today’s Gospel reading, is quite the opposite of unbelief.
Listen again to the Word of God concerning the blind beggar named Bartimaeus, “…immediately he recovered his sight & followed [Jesus] on the way.” Bartimaeus is an example of someone who did know what to do with sight – he followed Jesus. How about you? Do you know what to do with sight?
How many hours of the week do you dedicate to following your Lord? If that’s uncomfortable to think about, you could throw out there that Bartimaeus was a beggar so he had nothing to leave behind. Certainly, he could just pack up his mat & follow. You have a life. You have responsibilities, commitments, maybe even a job.
If you’re feeling the Holy Spirit tugging at you though, you might suspect that answer isn’t going to stand up to scrutiny. So here’s a Bible verse for you: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, & leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22 ESV) There isn’t much leeway there to say it was easy for Bartimaeus to follow Jesus, but it’s much more difficult for me. You see, a man wanted to follow Jesus, but his father had died & he said, “Lord, let me first go & bury my father.” (Matthew 8:20 ESV) Jesus’ response is like a sledge hammer – hard & unyielding: “Follow me, & leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Jesus is God, after all, & no human being, not even a child of God, should think that we have the right to qualify or demote, in any way, the priority of Jesus’ authority. Yet, Jesus knows that His followers will not always fully acknowledge the priority of His will.
Like all sins, our failures in that regard need to be confessed. It is through repentance alone that God’s Holy Spirit turns us back to the loving relationship we have with our heavenly Father. Through repentance, God’s Spirit restores the proper priorities in our lives. As you may guess, repentance is extremely painful for our sinful nature to endure.
That is precisely why the questions we ask at confirmation include the following, which reaffirm & renew the promise that, by God’s grace, we will follow Jesus to the end:
“Do you renounce the devil & all his works & all his ways? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession & Church & to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” The child of God replies in the power of the Holy Spirit: “I do so intend with the help of God.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus – following is not only for the easy or for the good times.
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately [Bartimaeus] recovered his sight & followed Him on the way.” So how come Bartimaeus was able to follow, yet we often fail? How was it that Bartimaeus, unlike you & me, so quickly knew what to do with sight?
God has continued to bless most of us with sight. How are we serving our Lord with it? There are a lot of opportunities here on Sunday mornings to serve. There are many more opportunities at the school & childcare, during the week. Whether you need glasses or not, are you doing anything with your sight that counts as loving your neighbor? Is your sight being used to drive someone to appointments or events they could not otherwise attend without your help? Could you say that you spend even ten minutes a day in reading the Word of God?
That list can go on & on. The point is, “Where is Jesus on your priority list?” The choices we make, on how to spend our time, make it perfectly clear. You’ve heard that saying, haven’t you, “You can fool some people all of the time, & you can fool all people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.” People do see our priorities.
Sinful human beings that we are, none of us can ever fool Jesus. Are we truly following this Jesus whom we claim to be our Savior? If we’re honest, in a sense, we are as helpless as the blind beggar named Bartimaeus. I am completely unable to help myself, let alone heal myself. What about you? Maybe we are more like the Pharisees than like Bartimaeus.
Jesus said, in the Gospel of John: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, & those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near Him heard these things, & said to Him, ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” (John 9:39-41 ESV)
Jesus is stating that the Pharisees had refused to confess their sin, & repent. In that spiritual state, they truly are blind. They have no idea what to do with sight. Do we live our lives like the Pharisees? They were self-help experts.
Bartimaeus was done with that. He admitted, not only that he was physically blind, but spiritually blind as well. He confessed that he could not follow Jesus without God’s help. So he asked Jesus to have mercy on him. When is the last time, in a heartfelt way, you confessed that you are totally unable to follow Jesus without His help? If you’re still wondering how Jesus can expect you to just pack up & leave, to follow Him, the words of James 4:2 might help. They’re pretty direct though, so hang on & don’t jump to conclusions: “You desire & do not have, so you murder. You covet & cannot obtain, so you fight & quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.” (James 4:2 ESV) I warned you it was direct.
If you’re still wondering how Jesus can expect you to just up & follow Him, the reason you fail, or don’t even desire to follow in the 1st place, is that you don’t ask. You’re probably afraid to ask, because who knows where Jesus might lead you. The years of blindness took away any fear of asking that Bartimaeus might have had: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
In this morning’s Prayer of the Day, there are these words: “O God, the helper of all who call on You, have mercy on us & give us eyes of faith to see Your Son that we may follow Him on the way that leads to eternal life…” If there are trials & suffering in our lives, our heavenly Father fully intends to work through them to humble us & take away our fear of following Him.
Whatever our sin may be, & there are many to choose from, we too can seek His mercy & receive healing for our troubled heart & soul. Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This healing Jesus performed on Bartimaeus was a direct fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah:
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come & save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened…” (Isaiah 35:4-5 ESV)
To stay close, Bartimaeus has to follow Jesus, because our Savior isn’t standing around. He’s on a mission. He’s going to Jerusalem to suffer & die & be raised up again. To truly see, or understand the healing of Bartimaeus in all its saving glory, we have to know where Jesus is going. And with this one miracle, Jesus sums up His entire serving & saving ministry.
The Son of God opens the eyes of the blind man in order that the new, ‘seeing man’ may
follow Him on the way. To put things into context for our self-help & ‘I know my rights’ culture, the return of sight to Bartimaeus is not the real issue. It’s not the big deal. Bartimaeus’ restored sight is but a symptom of the real healing that occurred in his heart & soul – the gift of faith, life & salvation. How could Bartimaeus not follow Jesus?
The heart & soul of the formerly blind beggar has now been restored & reconciled to His almighty Creator. In fact, Jesus came to earth to renew all of His creation, which sin had broken after the Holy Trinity finished creating it. Bartimaeus was able to follow Jesus in this instance, because he surrendered his heart, soul & will, to his loving Creator.
If you & I are not following Jesus, it’s because we are refusing to. Whenever that is true there’s no way we can know what to do with sight. Golfing has a lot to do with sight, & with blocking out distractions, so listen to a golfer named Linda Ballard. She writes for a group that sends daily devotionals to people who really like golfing. Someone else sent this to me:
“In my own experience as a Christian, I have found that I can only refocus when I redirect where I am looking. If I look at the distraction – the illness, the fear, the hopelessness – I am overcome by it. If I look to the one who made me & focus on Him, I gain strength & a clear vision of His purposes for me. God’s greatest desire for each of us is for us to acknowledge our inability to do anything in our own strength & to lean on him every minute of every day. Let’s say it again: We overcome distraction by narrowing our focus toward the only One who can save us. Remember, ‘…they that wait upon the LORD will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run & not be weary, they shall walk & not faint.’” (Isaiah 40:31)
The story of Bartimaeus is a story of sight being given to the blind. You & I struggle with unbelief & that means we need Jesus to restore our sight. To which we cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Amen.
Lord, who once came to bring, on Your redeeming wing, healing & sight, health to the sick in mind, sight to the inly blind: Oh, now to humankind let there be light! Spirit of truth & love, life-giving, holy dove, speed forth Your flight; move on the water’s face, bearing the lamp of grace, & in earth’s darkest place let there be light! Amen. (LSB 979 v. 2 & 3)
21st Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 24) LSB #’s 783, 785
Text – Ecclesiastes 5:13, 16
There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt… This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, & what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?
TOILING FOR THE WIND
The video you’re about to see was taken while I was on sabbatical. We visited Judy, my sister who lives on the north side of Chicago. While there we went to the Chicago Botanical Gardens & that day it was hosting its annual kite show. To be honest, I didn’t expect much more than a bunch of children running around flying kites.
Instead, we saw numerous impressive demonstrations. In this video, it took about 20 seconds for me to zoom in & get the feel for following the kites. After that the video improves.
Now, a kite is a fairly simple object, yet the interplay of the music, the wind & the kites was fascinating to experience. The human flyers choreographing it all are the key. They have to work together so they don’t tangle their lines, or crash their kites into each other. They have to listen to the music & turn the kites in synchrony with it.
It’s a lot like human dancing, except for an added variable. Most of all, the kite flyers have to “feel” the wind, & read it, so they know how to adapt the routine they’ve planned to any variations. You see, there are always variations. No matter how much they plan & practice their routine, the wind never blows in exactly the same way twice.
St. John’s Gospel, chapter 3, describes that phenomenon: “The wind blows where it wishes, & you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (verse 8a ESV). Human dancers have to listen to the music & turn together. Kite flyers have to listen to the music, turn together, & make adjustments on the fly, together, according to changes in the wind. Now, listen to all of verse 8 from John’s Gospel to hear the point Jesus was illustrating: “The wind blows where it wishes, & you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
You & I do not know where the Spirit comes from or where it goes. The problem that creates for God’s children is this, we have to learn to make adjustments on the fly. I grew up as a university of Michigan fan, because that’s where my father graduated from. Now, I’m a Michigan State fan. I graduated from high school planning on studying to become an engineer.
Less than a year later I joined the Navy & signed up for the nuclear power program. I planned on working at a civilian power plant when my six year enlistment was up. When I got out of the Navy, I moved back home & planned on working in my electrical contracting business until I retired. One thing I never planned on was becoming a pastor.
Those are big picture changes, & though I had to make adjustments on the fly, none of them were fast moving. The ebb & flow of life also requires us to make changes to the details of our plans & those tend to be much more rapid decisions.
With 10 seconds left in the game, the university of Michigan punter fumbles the snap. Should he try to get the punt off, or should he attempt to fall on the ball & cover it up? That required a rapid adjustment on the fly. Coach Harbaugh certainly did not choreograph the play in that manner.
Life as a child of God also requires us to make rapid decisions, choices that can affect our spiritual life, & the life of those around us. Someone says a word that makes you angry. On a dime your heart & attitude change instantly. How do you respond? Do you fight fire with fire? Do you turn the other cheek?
Or, do you make a huge & embarrassing blunder. Then someone calls you on it. Now, you’re faced with the instantaneous decision of owning up to it, or denying it. On the surface that’s all you see. Spiritually speaking, however, you will be making a choice to continue on the path with Jesus, or to turn away from Him. Do you own up, or deny? Follow the truth & suffer embarrassment, or do you follow a lie, in the false hope of saving face?
Everyone who is born of the spirit hears its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. The future is known only to God. Yet, every day we’re challenged by our sinful & by our saintly nature. Do we toil for the wind, or do we put ourselves last because we trust that Jesus will eventually make us first?
Toiling for the wind is something that Solomon strongly discourages. Chasing the wind is a waste of time. We can’t collect it. We can use it, like windmills do, but not gather it up & store it. Manna was the same in the wilderness. They could use it but not store it up. Kite flyers can use the wind, but they can’t keep it locked away for another day.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon equates the wind with money. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income…” King Solomon had experimented with everything this life has to offer. In the end, he found himself to be the richest empty-hearted man in the world.
Many a person who has made his or her first million will simply shrug their shoulders & blindly press on in pursuit of the second. When material goods are the goal in life they never satisfy. As Solomon said, under the Holy Spirit’s direction, fulfillment comes from the work itself, not from the pay.
If pay becomes the measure of your worth, it creates an open-ended situation where enough is never enough. The work becomes joyless because it ended up secondary to the pay. “There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt… As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, & shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” Solomon’s point is a simple one, we come into this life with nothing & we leave the same way. We leave the world with the same amount stuff that we entered the world. Financially speaking, both the rich & poor break even.
Solomon continues, “This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, & what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation & sickness & anger.”
That’s what toiling for the wind is good for. That’s all it can lead to, because toiling for wealth is like trying to store up the wind. It always leads us away from God, & the end of that road is nothing but vexation & sickness & anger. It’s like the chipmunk that was in our back yard a couple of weeks ago.
I was outside walking the cat, who was stalking his way towards the neighbor’s pine tree. Since the little critter was on the back side of the tree, I couldn’t see him until we got closer. As I approached around the right side of the tree, I saw the rodent busily stuffing his cheeks with birdseed. Being only a foot from the tree he must have figured he could outrun me up the tree.
He just gave me a cursory glance over his shoulder & kept on eating. Unknown to him, however, our cat was stalking him around the left side of the tree. Distracted by my seemingly unthreatening appearance Mr. Chipmunk didn’t see the feline predator until it was too late. Too late to get away that is. Don’t feel bad, we make our cat practice catch & release.
Mr. Chipmunk lived to see another day. You & I should learn from his obsession with gaining wealth, because Satan does not practice catch & release. He uses wealth as the bait, but it is our obsession with it which destroys. Every time God calls us on it we’re faced with the instantaneous decision of owning up to it, or denying it. Do we get back on the path with Jesus, or do we just give Him a cursory glance over our shoulder, continue to ignore Him & keep on stuffing our cheeks with birdseed?
You & I do not know where the Spirit comes from or where It goes. The problem that presents for God’s children is this, we have to learn to make adjustments on the fly. In order to have life, we need to listen to the music, which is the Word of God. We need to work together, making adjustments on the fly, as we ‘read the wind’ of God’s Holy Spirit & follow His lead.
How are we doing, here at St. Matthew, in reading the wind? What are we doing to adjust to the vast changes in our culture & our community? Or, are we just toiling for treasures here on earth, where moth & rust destroy, & where thieves break in & steal? Shouldn’t we, instead, be toiling for treasures in heaven, which are eternal?
“And Jesus looked around & said to His disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” Wealth, & even regular blessings, do not make us happy unless we realize, & acknowledge every day, that they come from God. Look at how many have no relationship with Jesus & are unhappy even though they are wealthy.
“And [the disciples] were exceedingly astonished, & said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them & said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’” (Mark 10:26-27 ESV)
In spite of the fact that all the presidential candidates are wealthier than any of us, several of them are making a big deal in this campaign about the evils of money. It’s true, money is often used for evil, but nowhere in the Bible does it ever call money evil. It does say:
“…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith & pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:10 NLT) That is the point that God’s Word, & not the presidential candidates, is addressing. Toiling for the wind is how Solomon described it, because the love of money can never gather enough of it. And the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for it always leads us on a path away from the Savior of our sins. If you remember from last week, that’s what unbelief looks like
Due to the love of money, it easily becomes an idol, & they are not to be toyed with. As a countermeasure, one strategy is to give things away. Sell that expensive home or car & get out from under payments that are stressing life & family. Stop pursuing whatever the next thing is that comes along through the smart phone or the Gameboy which promises to entertain you.
Slow down. Ponder what it is to be a creature whose needs are met by a loving Father. Look our culture in the eye, & tell it, “no.” Long for what God is doing in Jesus, for you & for the world. Seek 1st God’s reign in your life, & all these things will be added unto you. Thus we pray to our heavenly Father, “…give us this day our daily bread…”
There’s no need to be toiling for the wind. It’s a never-ending cycle where we lose sight of the goal for which our heavenly Father created us. We get lost in our own choreography, so Jesus has promised to send the Holy Spirit to choreograph our lives for us. He knows the will of our heavenly Father, reads it perfectly, & guides & directs the days of our lives according to it.
This OT reading teaches about the utter folly of making 2nd things 1st. We are physical beings & need a certain amount of possessions. This text is not a call to asceticism or to denial of the physical. Rather, it is a call to faith & to the acknowledgement that, ultimately, every good thing I have in life is what God has given to me.
This faith is rooted in the Messiah who taught that our heavenly Father provides for the lilies of the field & the sparrows who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. That same heavenly Father has washed away all of our failures, all of our sins, because Jesus’ holiness is now ours. Having already received eternal life what else is there to toil for? For that reason, in the joy & freedom of God’s everlasting love, we listen to the music of God’s Word. As His Church here on earth we synchronize the efforts of our ministry with each other, & we “read the wind” of the Holy Spirit as He guides & directs us in the choreography of our lives. Amen.
Take my life & let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee; take my moments & my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my voice & let me sing always, only for my King; take my lips & let them be filled with messages from Thee. Take my silver & my gold, not a mite would I withhold; take my intellect & use every power as Thou shalt choose. Take my will & make it Thine, it shall be no longer mine; take my heart, it is Thine own, it shall be Thy royal throne. Amen.
 Ecclesiastes 5:10
 Ecclesiastes 5:13, 15
 Ecclesiastes 5:16-17
 Mark 10:23
20th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 23) LSB #765
Text – Hebrews 3:19
So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
WHAT DOES UNBELIEF LOOK LIKE?
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is the most well-known verse in the Bible, but one just two verses later is not mentioned so often: “…whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
What does unbelief look like? It’s helpful to know. But even if you know what it looks like, there are times when you still have to pay attention & actually look – you know – open your eyes, focus on & think about what you’re seeing. You have to process the information that your eyes are taking in.
Back in August I was pulling dead brush off the fence line between our house & the city baseball diamond. My eyes saw the 7 foot high vine-like plants flourishing along the top of the fence, but my brain was not processing what I saw. Generally, poison ivy plants aren’t flourishing that well, or that high off the ground, so I never gave it a thought.
The next morning my right eye began to itch. By that evening, it was swelling shut. By the next morning it was difficult to see out of either eye. Yes, those 7 foot high vine-like plants were monster growths of poison ivy. Fortunately, the steroids the doctor gave me did the trick. Still, I should have given much more attention to what my eyes were seeing.
This morning, we’re going to try & give some attention to what unbelief looks like. Generally speaking, we all know what it is, but how often do we focus on & think about it, when our eyes see it? I know very well what poison ivy looks like, but with it that high off the ground, on top of that fence, I never bothered to pay attention & actually think about what I was seeing. My brain wasn’t processing the information that my eyes were taking in. That oversight caused a lot of discomfort, & the fact that I made such a serious blunder irritated me even more. However, unbelief causes exponentially more pain & suffering than any amount of poison ivy ever could. What does unbelief look like? It’s a helpful thing to know.
The author of Hebrews gives us a start when he writes, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Imagine that for the rest of eternity you will never be able to rest. Imagine being so tired you can’t keep your eyes open & it is physically impossible to remain standing. Now, in that state, think again about the Words of Scripture I just read:
“And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
The point God’s Holy Spirit is making is that heaven will be like rest, & hell will be the opposite. So we already have one answer to the question, “What does unbelief look like?” It looks like the complete opposite of rest. Disobedience will never lead to finding rest.
The author of Hebrews also positions the word unbelief as a synonym of disobedience. He’s writing to the NT Israelites, or the children of God, but he uses an example from the OT Israelites as a warning. They had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, treated harshly & brutally. Yahweh rescues them & delivers them right to the doorstep of the Promised Land.
And there, they refuse to enter. They disobeyed God’s command to take the Promised Land from Him as a gift & a blessing. Here’s how Moses summarized Yahweh’s response:
“Then the Lord said, ‘I will pardon them as you have requested. But as surely as I live, & as surely as the earth is filled with the Lord’s glory, not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence & the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt & in the wilderness, yet again & again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.’” (Numbers 14:20-23 NLT)
What does unbelief look like? In Moses’ day, it looked like wandering in the wilderness for 40 years until an entire generation of Israelites died there. They disobeyed God & the book of Hebrews describes that disobedience as unbelief.
A large number of Americans today will scoff at the idea that there is only one way to heaven, as Jesus taught. That seems far too exclusive for the equal rights mantra of our day. Given that mindset, the idea that unbelief, as Holy Scripture describes it, is fatal for all eternity is simply too much to swallow. How could one particular faith be so decisive?
Many Christians now buy into the line that all religions lead to the same place, even if they take a different path to get there. Verses like the sermon text for today are brushed aside as hopelessly outdated at best. At worst, they’re considered to be one reason for banishing religion from any sort of public influence. Be religious if you like, but you better keep it to yourself.
That sort of attitude sounds eerily familiar to the 3rd chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “…this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, & people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light & does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20 ESV)
So we’ve looked at the disobedience of the OT Israelites, & we’ve given thought to our own culture. Finally, we need to consider, “What does unbelief look like in your heart & in mine?” Four weeks ago, the Gospel reading was about the father with a demon possessed son. He brought him to Jesus out of desperation & when challenged by Christ, he confessed, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Even if it’s not the damning variety, unbelief does exist in our heart. The classic Lutheran understanding is that even as true children of God, we are still, by nature, 100% sinner. Now, there is good news too. We teach that at the same time, we are also 100% saint. It’s the very dichotomy St. Paul speaks of when he wrote:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind & making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25a ESV)
One of the common ways that unbelief expresses itself in our lives is when we worry. To do so is to believe that God is not in control of our future, & cannot protect us. Worry is a form of unbelief. Or maybe, given the wealth of our nation, our unbelief takes the form that it did in the Gospel reading for today:
“And he said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, & said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have & give to the poor, & you will have treasure in heaven; & come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
This man struggled because he trusted in his possessions more than he believed in Jesus. That’s one reason that giving a regular & generous offering to God is so important to our faith life. It’s a way of doing battle against our sinful, selfish, unbelieving nature. It’s one way of resisting the temptation of unbelief that lives within our heart & soul each day.
Another way in which unbelief rears its ugly head is through the times we choose to live with something less than the truth. Jesus said that He is the Truth, therefore, anytime we hide it, or obscure it, we are allowing unbelief to find a home in our hearts. I could go on & on, but I think you get the point. Unbelief looks a lot like the way we make decisions, & the way we live our lives. Unbelief looks a lot like the priorities we establish as we go about our day, too often Jesus is in anything but first place. In last Sunday’s sermon we considered the problem of drifting away from faith in Jesus as Savior from all of life’s problems. That drifting always begins with putting something ahead of Christ in our daily priorities.
The letter to the Hebrews aims to strengthen faith & hope, to encourage patience in the face of life’s trials, with a joyous & resolute holding fast to the Christian confession. The message has three primary characteristics. It’s founded on the OT, centered in Christ & marked by an intense consciousness that all the days, since the coming of Christ, are last days.
Jesus’ coming is the beginning of the End. The new world of God has become a reality in the midst of the old. Eternal issues are being decided now, in faith or in unbelief. We’re confronted by an eternal & inescapable either-or. It’s a difficult place to be, yet it’s far better than the only alternative, which is to never know Christ at all. I believe. Help my unbelief.
For the remainder of this week, as you find rest in God’s forgiveness of each of your sins, spend some time actually looking at, & focusing on, the areas of unbelief in your life. Get to know them well so you can repent of them, & find ways to counteract them. God’s Holy Spirit is eagerly waiting to help you, to forgive you, & to the restore the life He offers, each day.
“Take care, brothers [& sisters], lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13 ESV) Amen.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence faith sees a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err & scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, & He will make it plain. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy & will break in blessings on your head. Amen.
19th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 22) LSB #861
Text – Hebrews 2:1
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
The place Jan & I live in has a bedroom in the basement. A couple years ago we had an egress window put in so the bedroom would be legal, since it now has two means of escape in case of fire. So outside there’s a large window well going down 4 feet into the ground. For some reason lots of critters are attracted to it. The most common are the frogs & the toads.
Last week we found a chipmunk down there. Frogs & toads are easy to get ahold of & remove, but the chipmunk, not so much. Our cat would have loved the opportunity to go after it, but we thought that would be too cruel. So first, we tried angling a long tree branch down in for the chipmunk to climb up on & crawl out. He wouldn’t do it.
He just sat there with his tail curled around his body, like he was content to remain in his predicament for a long time. He wasn’t going to find food or water there so the handwriting was on the wall. He wasn’t going to survive for long even if our cat did not find him.
Next, we tied a rope to the handle of a bucket, put some walnuts in the bucket & lowered it into the hole. We hoped the rodent would go after the walnuts & then we could pull it out along with the bucket. Until the bucket came to rest on the ground he ran & jumped & jumped & ran, trying to get away, with nowhere to go.
Once the bucket was settled, he curled up into his resting pose again & sat there. We needed another plan. Since lowering the bucket the first time caused him to run & jump around, we thought we might be able to catch him in midair with the bucket. We tried that for a while, swinging the bucket around in the hole, but could never get the rodent to drop in.
What we did notice however, is that with each swing of the bucket around the hole, the
chipmunk got more agitated & afraid. Finally, with what was likely a large dose of adrenaline, it was able to jump & then climb right up the cement block of the basement wall, & out the top of the window well. It then scurried off to the neighbor’s front porch & out of sight behind their flowers. The chipmunk was now set free from his prison cell.
Mr. Rodent had seemed happy to just curl up in the window well & rest. He would have starved to death eventually, like the frog carcass that was already down there. We finally scared him enough that he climbed right out. No more drifting away into the cozy slumber of death, for the chipmunk, at the bottom of our window well.
He needed someone to rescue him, but it looked like he didn’t know it. That’s where many people have been throughout history. It’s where many of the people in our nation, & in our state, & in our community are at today. People you know are in this predicament. They’re stuck in a prison cell & they’ve gotten used to it. They’ve resigned themselves to it.
Sadly, like the chipmunk in our window well, many of them also do not want to be rescued. They’re content to just sit there, with their tale curled around their body, & accept their fate. Even though it’s much easier to rescue frogs than chipmunks, from our window well, it’s still a lot easier to rescue chipmunks from death, than it is to rescue to human beings.
I’ve quoted these words of Jesus many times to make this same point: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets & stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, & you were not willing!” Those words do not only apply to the people of Jerusalem!
The fact that we’re here this morning is a sign that most of us consider ourselves to be children of God. I’m sure the chipmunk in the window well considered himself to be a chipmunk. But if he stayed in that window well for long he would have ceased to be. Our status as children of God can end as well. In the 6th chapter of the book of Hebrews the author wrote, “For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened… who then turn away from God.” (Hebrews 6:4 & 6 NLT)
The point I’d like to emphasize is this: We can lose our faith in God, & commonly that happens through drifting away, rather than quitting in one fell swoop. The devil is clever enough to realize that most people won’t just get up & walk away from their Savior. However, if he can inch us away from Jesus over a period of time, we may not even notice.
That’s what the sermon text is all about: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” That is the greatest danger to anyone’s faith in Jesus as Savior from sin – drifting away. It’s like being caught in a cozy little prison cell & the inmates have gotten used to it. They’ve resigned themselves to being trapped.
They might be toiling after worldly wealth, things that moth & rust will destroy. It might be in holding a grudge & refusing to forgive. The hardness of heart that requires strangles every ounce of life out of you. The drifting away might occur because you’ve bought the idea that you can be a Christian without going to church.
That works in theory, in an ideal world, but this world is no fairy tale. It is a place filled with the corrosive effects of sin. No one who lives in this life lives happily ever after. And the devil is constantly looking for self-confident Christians whom he can devour. In spite of all the Bible’s warnings, each of us is guilty of trying to live in our own fairy tale world.
So the author of Hebrews warns us: “…how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, & it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs & wonders & various miracles & by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.” (Hebrews 2:3-4 ESV) The greatness of our salvation is that it comes to us absolutely free of charge. All that’s required is that we believe it to be true, & our heavenly Father even creates that very belief within us. He does all that for us, because if He does not then we are still trapped, forever & always, in the prison of our sins. As John 15:13 puts it: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
The book of Hebrews begins with these words, “Long ago, at many times & in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son…” “…how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”
The author of Hebrews states the incomparable greatness of our Savior’s salvation for us, yet he merges it into a strong warning as well. God’s Word of mercy & grace are combined with God’s Word of warning & direction. For this sinful world they can never be separated as if they were two independent teachings.
If we neglect that great & wonderful salvation that was made known to us, if we should deliberately set aside & despise what we know to be the one way to heaven, there will no excuse for us when the Lord calls us to account on the Last Day. The drifting away may occur painlessly, but the Judgment will not.
Speculation is that the church, which the book of Hebrews was written to, was living primarily for earthly wealth & selfish desires. Their lives, plans & hopes were self-centered. Faith & love toward God, in a life of service to God, were of secondary importance at best. Revelation 3:14-20 speak of a similar church:
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful & true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, & neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, & I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind & naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, & white garments so that you may clothe yourself & the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, & salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove & discipline, so be zealous & repent. Behold, I stand at the door & knock.’”
This apathy towards God’s Word of stinging Law & comforting Gospel is utterly distasteful to our Lord, who will not tolerate it. Christ in patient love forgives a Christian who sins seventy-seven times. Such love draws us to live in sorrow & repentance, always looking to God for mercy.
Yahweh does not tolerate a life of imagined self-sufficiency which needs no repentance & no forgiveness. To the church of Laodicea, Christ speaks a terrifying & harsh word of Law, for He would wake the church from its spiritual drifting, which has put it in danger of eternal damnation. We would do well if our ears would also hear.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple & fine linen & who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came & licked his sores. The poor man died & was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died & was buried, & in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes & saw Abraham far off & Lazarus at his side.
And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, & send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water & cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, & Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, & you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us & you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, & none may cross from there to us.’
And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses & the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses & the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31 ESV)
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” Every sin we commit is a drifting away from our heavenly Father, but strung together with pride & indifference, they lead us a long way from Jesus. Contrition & repentance are the way back to Him, but they aren’t something our Lord leaves us to do on our own. He actually stirs them up within us, restoring us to life for the journey: “That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, & they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking & discussing together, Jesus Himself drew near & went with them.” (Luke 24:13-15 ESV)
Jesus came to rescue us from the prison of our sins, even during those times we have no clue that we’re trapped in them. Jesus never toiled after wealth. He never held a grudge. Not once did He miss being in church on the Sabbath. He lived a perfect life in order to rescue us from our failure to keep the Law. He suffered & died to pay for the evil we have done.
Now, like on the road to Emmaus, He comes alongside us, to guide, direct & lead us, even to keep us on the path of eternal life. Whether drifting or doubting, it is in Jesus we stand. Even now, here in His house, He is calling us to gather together under His wings, from where ever we may have drifted to.
By the power of His Word & Sacraments, Yahweh is calling us to be forgiven & strengthened to face each new day. Amen.
Christ be my Teacher in age as in youth, drifting or doubting, for He is the truth. Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand, doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand. Christ be my Savior in calm as in strife; death cannot hold me, for He is the life. Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin & its stain can touch my salvation: with Jesus I reign. Amen.
 Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV
 Hebrews 2:3a ESV
Pastor Dean R. Poellet