Eighth Sunday after Trinity
I got to preach today at the church we attend. It was refreshing to be in a pulpit again. Here's the sermon:
Grapes and thorns and figs and thistles—these fruits of grace and wrath, holiness and sin: they are marks of right preaching and false teaching. And, so, Jesus says, "Beware of false prophets...You will know them by their fruits."
Thorns and thistles...what are they? A look at Genesis 3, where God pronounces his judgment for Adam's sin, reveals that thorns and thistles are a reminder of God's wrath for sin. As a source of pain and anguish, thorns and thistles remind us of our sinful condition.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
Curses and pain and toil and sweat were unfamiliar companions while Adam and Eve lived in paradise—in Eden. Since their exile, these were their constant companions. They haunt and linger their descendants to this day, a fact you can attest to.
For, who among you has never scraped a knee or suffered a paper cut? Has anyone here never suffered from a headache or upset stomach? Surely there are some here who have had to have a gall bladder, appendix, or something removed or operated on; certainly, someone is a cancer survivor or has recovered from a horrible disease. And we all have grieved or will have to grieve the death of a loved one. All of this serves as a reminder that we were conceived and born into sin. Death is the wages of sin, and pain and suffering are the currency.
Grapes and figs, on the other hand, are a reminder God's grace. As much as thorns and thistles serve to remind us of our sinfulness and God's wrath, grapes and figs serve to remind us of God's presence and grace. During the Exodus, as God's people were about to receive the second set of stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, they were told once again that they were being led to a good land that God was giving them. In this land were many good things that would keep His people without want:
[T]he LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
Now, scientists and nutritionists can tell you about the beneficial content of grapes and figs. They can tell you all about the antioxidant and vitamin contents and their affects on cholesterol or heart conditions or kidney health, and so on. However, seeing as these are two of the many good things God was giving to His people to eat, they are good fruit.
Jesus warns, "Beware of false prophets...You will know them by their fruits." Simply put, false prophets yield fruit that is thorns and thistles. True prophets yield fruit such as grapes and figs. When a false prophet speaks, his words are worthless; they can only cause curses and pain and suffering and death. When a true prophet speaks, his words are full of life and salvation.
Take, for example, the preaches of Krishna or Buddha. We know that they do not preach Christ and Him crucified. Oh, they may mention Jesus as some great person. They might call Him a great teacher. They probably refer to Him as a great example. But, they never claim that He is true God, "the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." To these false prophets, Jesus is little more than a person in history.
Or, we could mention the preachers of Islam. They would say more than the preachers mentioned earlier. Yes, they'll call Jesus a great person. They'll call Him a great teacher. They'll even call Him a great example. But, they'll further proclaim Him to be one of the prophets in their history, a man sent by their god, Allah. In fact, their text calls Him the "Word from God," but calling Him the Word of God is punishable by death. It all sounds intriguing; so much so that there are many that say that Christians and Muslims worship the same god (so it shouldn't matter what he's called or what you're called).
In both cases, these preachers are false prophets. Their words result in nothing but thorns and thistles. Their preaching does nothing to save people. On the contrary, it leads to death and hell. Where Christ crucified is not preached, He is not there to save. If He is not there to save, people are left to their own devices and without hope. Nothing and no one can save except Christ; and He has done so through the cross. And He continues to give His gifts in right preaching and in the administration of His gifts—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
There is another danger to mention. Around our home there are several bushes. From a distance, they look fine; they look like ordinary bushes. I couldn't tell you what kind they are, as I don't have a knowledge of plant types. But I can tell you this: when you take a closer look at some of them, you will see a second plant growing within. This second plant has thorns. It is hidden well in the bush, so well that you wouldn't know it's there at first glance.
I use this to illustrate this point: There are preachers out there who claim to preach Christ, but their fruit tells otherwise. Outwardly, they look like those ordinary bushes; inwardly, they conceal stalks of thorns. Outwardly, these preachers look like they belong to the Church, but the Christ they preach is not the true God. While they claim to be Christian or bear His name and title in other ways, it is not Christ they really preach.
They may add a Christ to a list of gods—make Him one path among many. They may proclaim Him as a great example to live up to. Some of them add to His teaching, teaching that what we have of His instructions is incomplete. They'll say Jesus is good and everything, but you still need to earn God's favor and salvation. Or, they may go in the other direction and teach that all you need is to believe in Jesus; you can leave the little details and doctrine to trained theologians, and so never know who this Jesus is that you believe in—and if that's the case, then your Jesus can be whomever you make him out to be.
In every case, these preachers deny the Gospel. If Jesus' death and resurrection is not proclaimed as the way to forgiveness, life, and salvation—the only way—then the Gospel is denied, because that is the Gospel!
Those thorns growing within an ordinary bush illustrate another point, as well: Thorns and thistles can be found among the true Church...not within, but among. In those places that do proclaim the Truth, that do preach Christ and Him crucified, can be found those who deny it and those who refuse to believe it. They are not part of the the true, invisible Church; they occupy a place in the visible Church.
These are wolves in sheep's clothing. And therein lies a point. These false prophets and false believers most likely believe they are believing and proclaiming the truth. I have heard it said, "No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to be a false prophet!'" In fact, in a church history course, a seminary professor of mine once said, "All heresies were taught with the best of intentions." Of course, we have no doubt heard it said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Here lies the warning to us. Look at the rose bush. The flower is beautiful and bears a sweet aroma. It is one of the most appealing flowers in God's creation. But the plant also bears thorns. The false prophet may gather around himself a large following. He may have a beautiful personality and a sweet charisma. He can amaze and wow with a litany of good works and even miracles. His message may even be logically appealing—things like earning God's favor make sense, as if His favor was the reward for doing good works. Like the rose bush, though, his personality and works are as the flower, but his message is as the rest of the bush: full of thorns.
No matter how appealing these false prophets are, the fruit of their message is death—for them and for those who follow them.
Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!"
Those who produced thorns and thistles, even if doing so in Jesus' name, are unknown by Him. Their good works and miracles were done in denial of God's grace in His Son. If Jesus doesn't know you, then your place is the lake of fire with Satan and his minions.
We learn to judge a prophet's fruit, a preacher's words, by the Word. It is the Word you hear proclaimed and taught here. It is the Word you read and study at home. It is the Word which tells you of your Savior and of His work for you. It is the Word which strengthens your faith. It is the Word of God which serves as the measuring stick by which a preacher's words are judged.
"Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?" No, if you want grapes, you go to a grapevine. If you want figs, you go to a fig tree. If you want good fruit, you go to a good tree.
Friends in Christ, there is one good tree which bore the best fruit ever given to mankind. It is the tree of Calvary. On that tree, the blood of God was shed for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. God in Jesus Christ died on that tree so that we could receive life; the tree of Calvary is the new tree of life.
There are no thorns and thistles on this tree, spare the crown of thorns which adorn our Savior's brow. Those thorns show you that your sins and the sins of the world are borne on the cross by Christ. They are there to show us that the weight of this world's curse and pain and toil and sweat are now upon Jesus as He hangs on the tree. They are there to show us that the fullness of God's wrath is thrust upon His Son as He is nailed to the tree. And if the fullness of God's wrath is thrust upon His Son, then there is none left for you.
On the cross, God took the lifelessness of our thorns and thistles, transferred them to His Son, and exchanged them for the grapes and figs of His grace. On the cross, God in Christ died the death due us, and exchanged it for His eternal life. He did this for all, including the false prophets, that they may turn from their error and trust in Him.
While not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, the other side of that statement is that there are some who say, "Lord, Lord," who will. There are those who say, "Lord, Lord," who deny the Gospel and God's grace, but there are also those who say, "Lord, Lord," who do the will of the Father in heaven. What is this will of God? In John 6, Jesus answers, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." This is a faith taught in and received from the Word of God, for it is written, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." Faith is a gift of God; there are the grapes and figs, dear friends!
What wonderful fruit, these grapes and figs. They are fruit won for you and for all on the tree of the cross. You should take this personally. On the cross, Christ was crucified for you. From the cross, good fruit is given to you, faith and life. Look at the cross, you faithful, for from it these fruitful words are uttered to you: you are forgiven for all of your sins!