The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel had spoken against the shepherds of Israel and Judah. These men—prophets, priests, and kings—whom God had set up to lead His people, care for them, feed them with His Word were not seeing to the tasks to which He had sent them. So He declared woe upon them.
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2b-4)
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:1-2)
Because they had done this, God declared that He will be their shepherd. (cf. Ezekiel 34:23; Micah 5:2) In a stable outside the little town of Bethlehem, that Shepherd was born. Conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus is God-with-us, the Shepherd promised of old. He is the one who fulfilled the promise made through the prophet Ezekiel:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16)
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who feeds His people with the pure Word. He guards and protects them. He gives them everything they need to support this body and life. This you confess as you confess the Creed, speak the Lord’s Prayer, and recite the Ten Commandments and meanings. Jesus is and was everything the prophets, priests, and kings who came before never were and what those who come after Him never can be.
But it wasn’t just God’s coming in the flesh by which He accomplished this.
Jesus’ life was one of hardship. You Christians have reaped the same rewards as He had for the kind of life He lived. He lived a life of perfect obedience to His own law. You bear His name upon your brow and heart; you are claimed by Him. He was mocked and scorned for His life. You are mocked and scorned for being His. He suffered and died as a result, you might say, of disrupting the religious status quo. You are constantly under the threat of death, and many of your brothers and sisters in Christ have given their lives for the confession of faith in Christ, even to this day. Your life as a Christian is hard for the sake of Jesus Christ; His life was immeasurably more difficult.
But His difficult life was one He endured willingly for you. You are a sheep, having been scattered, as it were, under the false pretenses of those who would teach you falsely about God and His Christ. Daily, you are bombarded with false messages of salvation from left and right, front and behind, in your minds and from those whom you encounter. It’s enough to make one run away screaming in confusion and delusion. To what do you run? Perhaps its the latest fad or something that makes you feel comfortable or relaxed. Perhaps you feel more comfortable just cowering in a corner. Whatever it is, off you go, running from Jesus.
His sheep still scatter. Jesus’ life of hardship, suffering, and death for you resulted in the scattering of the sheep, too—this time, for all of the right reasons, not the false teaching of the deceitful shepherds of the past. After Jesus and the disciples had celebrated the Passover meal, they made their way to the Mount of Olives. Luke leaves this point out, but from there, they would all scatter. Mark says that Jesus even told them that they would be made to scatter.
The sheep will scatter because the Good Shepherd will be struck. “I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”
Sorrowful to the point of death—He was looking His own death squarely in the eyes—He goes off to pray in solitude. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Who wouldn’t sorrow over all that is going to happen, if you knew it was going to happen? I speak not merely of Christ’s crucifixion, but of His entire Passion—the binding that will happen, the beating and being spat upon that will happen, and even the scattering of the sheep. It’s enough to make a grown man cry. These things had to happen, though.
It’s a symptom of this fallen nature. Imagine, if you will, being one of Jesus’ disciple. Jesus is a pretty neat guy, if you get to know Him, learn from Him, and receive from Him. You wouldn’t want Him bound, struck, and killed. You may even try to get in the way when He says that it will happen (cf. Matthew 16:22)—that it MUST happen. And even knowing that it will happen, when it does happen, in fright you scatter.
But these things had to happen, Jesus declared. And the hour had come. Judas, that wolf in sheep’s clothing, arrived in the garden with the guard, and betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The guard laid their hands on Jesus and took Him. They bound Him and led Him to the chief priests and scribes to be put on trial. Along the way, they beat Him bloody. Not even on the cross yet, not even before the Praetorian guard yet, Jesus already shed His blood for you.
It’s a gruesome sight to behold, and it’s only going to get worse. I sympathize with those who try to recreate Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion, who try to find a balance between portraying the violent death He endured and toning down that violence so that it can be watched. Only one production that I am aware of doesn’t strike this balance, and it is violent in much the same way that Jesus endured violence. And if you watch it, you will be tempted to scatter your looks away. You can hardly bear to watch Jesus—even if just an actor—undergo the treatment that you for your sins deserve. One viewing is enough—more than enough, perhaps—for some.
And the disciples fled. “Then all the disciples left him and fled,” Matthew wrote. (Matthew 26:56) According to Luke, only Peter followed him, and that at a distance. Were you there, you would have high tailed it away, too, fearful for your own life, frightened over what is happening to your teacher. Though you may have said like Peter, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death,” you, too, would forsake Him, and even deny Him thrice before the rooster crowed.
But the Shepherd does not deny you. He has not, nor will He ever. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not merely for being everything the shepherds of the past were not, but because, as Jesus put it, “I lay down my life for the sheep...The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:15, 11) Jesus, the Good Shepherd, must give His life for the sheep, for in His life given for them—for you—they have redemption, life, and forgiveness. No, this Good Shepherd doesn’t deny you; though all would forsake Him and flee, He goes steadfastly to the cross...for all—for you.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t deny you. Though all forsake Him and scatter, He still gathers those who believe in Him. His suffering and crucifixion are frightening and life-threatening events, even to this day, but Jesus has suffered and died for you, that you may be forgiven, and live as one of His own. It was on a dark, Good Friday, as Jesus was lifted up on a cross, that He drew all men to Himself. (cf. John 12:32)
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16)
Though scattered, you are drawn to and into the Lord, Jesus Christ in His crucifixion, because you are covered in the blood that He shed there. On the cross, He sought you out, lost, driven away, broken, and sick—all sin—and He found you, brought you back, bound you up, and strengthened you, all by grace, without any worthiness or merit in you, all because of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. This speaks volumes about your God and His love for you.
And in order that you may be His own, He rose again from the dead that your place in eternity would be secure. Jesus lived, died, and lives again, and you are in Him so that in Him you live, die, and live again. Jesus gathers you back to Himself, who would, for myriad, selfish, sinful reasons, abandon, deny, and forsake Him—and His gathering you is accomplished by the forgiveness of your sins, which He won for you as He was struck and pierced on the tree of the cross. This is the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ for you.
Jesus was incarnate, was born, was betrayed, captured, and struck, was crucified, and was buried for you. His death for sin is your death to sin. The forgiveness He won on the cross as He spilled His blood covers your sin, even the sin of forsaking Him. To you, the blood of the Lamb was applied for life and you were declared righteous as you were washed in the water and the Word, and it is your daily sign and seal of a life redeemed and gathered from the scattering your Old Man prefers. For by that water, blood, and Word, you are the righteousness of God. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
The advancements in modern technology and western medicine are terrific gifts from God. What man is able to accomplish and know thanks to the available technology today cannot compare with what man had done and known in the past, though it is hubris to think that things would be where they are now without the work and knowledge of the past. And with regard to modern western medicine, the drugs and treatments for various ailments have turned what once were thought to be death sentences into conditions that can be cured and recovered from in a matter of days in some cases, and certainly treatable and livable in many others. In fact, I would not be surprised to hear of a treatment in the coming months that would alleviate the symptoms of and improve the mortality rate for this new Covid-19 disease—and, in fact, I have heard that work is underway attempting to accomplish just that!
However, these advancements have also increased the doubt and skepticism of those who spend their entire lives living with these luxuries. In fact, it has turned any talk of demons and demon-possession into myth and fantasy. That which was at one time thought to be the work of demons is now, by-and-large, seen as a disease or syndrome that can be cured or treated with a pill or injection. Now, I can grant that a great many conditions so treatable or curable were at one time confused for demon-possession, but I’m also not so naïve as to discount the work of demons masquerading as a medical condition or that demon-possession can also be confused for some sort of medical condition.
Discounting the work of demons is nothing new to fallen man. You see that in the words of some of the people who witnessed the exorcism that Jesus performed in today’s Gospel reading. “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Now, you can gauge by Jesus’ response to them that they had accused Jesus of being a demon or in cahoots with the demons in order to put on a good show. It’s the kind of thing that some televangelist healers pulled off on their miracle shows: a plant in the audience that would fake an injury or illness and would be miraculously healed for all to see—the supposedly lame walking, the supposedly deaf hearing, the supposedly blind seeing, etc. In any event, these people doubted the validity of the work of demons in their midst, consequently, that Jesus was really casting demons out.
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
No, what Jesus was doing was serious business. He wasn’t a snake-oil salesman or sleezy televangelist. He was really casting out demons, pronouncing the wrath of God on those minions of the devil and the grace and mercy of God to those who were under their possession. And, as it turns out, these exorcisms, like all of his miraculous works and signs, pointed to Him as the promised Messiah, and especially to His work on the cross.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) This is the curse that God spoke on the serpent as Adam and the woman were cast out of the Garden of Eden. It’s called the Protevangelium, a fancy word which means first gospel; so-called because it prefigures the death of Jesus on the cross, whereat He ultimately and forever crushes the serpent’s—read, the devil’s—head, or authority, over creation.
It is by way of Jesus’ crucifixion, by the spilled blood of the Lamb, that Michael and his angels defeated the devil and his angels in the war that broke out in heaven. (cf. Revelation 12:7-12, especially v. 11) It was at the crucifixion that Jesus crushed the devil’s head. Consequently, it is by way of His crucifixion that Jesus cast out the demons during His ministry. It’s not that the devil never was the Lord’s devil, as you may recall from the sermon two weeks ago, but that the victory over the devil at the cross was the ultimate blow to any thought, dream, or desire that Satan might have had to conquer the world and turn all of creation against God.
Now, the devil still tries his best to turn man against his Creator and Redeemer. That’s the reason for the woe you hear in Revelation after the devil and his minions are cast to earth: “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” That’s the reason for the warning you hear from the pen of St. Peter: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) But you are armed with the Word of God to combat the devil and his angels, just as the Word of God incarnate did. You are armed with the truth that the devil is an enemy defeated at the cross. And though devils all the world should fill, though the devil may rage and scowl, one little word can fell him: liar. (cf. A Mighty Fortress is Our God)
I’m convinced that the devil is still at work, masquerading himself in all kinds of ways available to him, not the least of which is all of the luxuries with which the modern world lives. Whether that’s diseases or knowledge or what-have-you, the devil still works to deceive you. He has myriad more subtle ways to do so, and, I’m sure, has no problem not outwardly receiving the credit for the falling away from God of anyone. “We are more enlightened than they were centuries ago—we know better than to call this the work of demons and that the work of some god,” they may say, and the devil is all-to-pleased to have the company.
That’s the world’s stance on all of this: devils and demons are myths and fairy tales. But Jesus has overcome the world (cf. John 16:33)—He is crucified, dead, buried, risen and ascended. That’s the devil’s take on all of this: he lies and deceives in order to turn you from your God and devour you. But Jesus has crushed the serpent’s head—He is crucified, dead, buried, risen, and ascended. But there’s still that sinful flesh of yours.
To how much are you willing to be subjected for your belief in the existence of demons? For your stance that demons are still at work in this world? For your confession that the devil still prowls around seeking to devour even you? The world will hate you for all of this, and likely the more you speak about the devil and demons, the more the ridicule will increase. It’s nothing new. Jesus was mocked for his work against the demonic, as evidenced in today’s text. So, you should expect nothing different. And, you should not be afraid to keep quiet about these things. Jesus cast out demons; they are real, and they are dangerous—and the mocking and ridicule can be too much to bear for the sinful flesh.
If you’re willing to budge on this, it could easily lead to budging on any number of doctrines of the faith. In fact, as the world considers the devil and demons myths and fairy tales, so it also does with God and His Christ. If you want to keep silent about the devil and demons and their evil work, how hard would it be to convince you to keep silent about God, His Christ, and the salvation and victory He has won on the cross?
That silence is the work of the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh.
Thankfully, God has giving you armor and the weapon with which to stand against that evil triumvirate, and they all center on the cross of Christ.
[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… (Ephesians 6:11-17)
The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, as shoes the readiness given by the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God—these are your arms and defense against the world, the devil, and your sinful flesh. The truth is that demons are real, and so is Jesus, who has conquered them in the fight on the cross. The righteousness that is your is yours by way of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, given to you for His sake. The gospel of peace is that while once you were enemies of God, in Christ and His shed blood you have been reconciled to His Father and yours. Faith is that which trusts in Jesus and His merits for your salvation. Salvation is the fact that you are saved, that is spared the wrath of God that is due the devil and his demons. And this is is declared to you and to the world in the Word of God. Against these no devil can stand, be he alone or with seven of his friends.
That Word of God declares to you that your sin is taken from you by the Son of God and was crucified with Him on Calvary. From there, by the work of the Spirit, begun as the Word is declared to you and you were baptized, and continued in you as you continue to hear the Word of God, you are sanctified, made holy, for the sake of Christ. It is all His work, and done because of God’s great love for you. The Spirit is at work in Christ to change your likeness into His likeness—He is crucified, dead, buried, risen, and ascended.
So, while demons and the devil continue their evil work in this world, you have the Word of God and His means of grace and gifts. His Word and means of grace have the power to cast the devil and his demons out, and through them, Jesus is still at work doing just that and forgiving sins and healing all manner of diseases by His Word, means, and gifts, which very well include those advances in technology and western medicine, certainly gifts from God. But it is in the Word of God and His means of grace that the kingdom of God is present. In your hearing of His Word and use of His means, the kingdom of God comes upon you; in fact, by them you are placed in the kingdom of God. And it is in this kingdom of God that you hear these miraculous words: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
“Betray” is the word of the evening.
Three times in St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus predicted his Passion. Twice in the 9th chapter and once in the 18th chapter, Jesus told His disciples that He was going to suffer, die, and rise again. The second prediction doesn’t go into as much detail, but that second time, Luke 9:43-45, Jesus used the “betray.”
But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
“[T]o be delivered into the hands of men…”—betrayed.
Tonight, you heard that betrayal starting to take shape.
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.
For just about the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees and chief priests sought a way to capture Jesus. They didn’t like how He healed people. They were offended at the fact that He forgave people. They were maddened that He claimed that He was the Lord of the Sabbath (as He is), and extended that lordship to His disciples. They refused to come to terms with the fact that Jesus was offering a new way of holiness through Himself. Then, when one of His own gave them the means to make that capture happen, they were overjoyed at the prospects.
Betrayal is an interesting concept. If you look the word up in the dictionary, the sense is there but not explicitly stated. In order for one to be betrayed, the betrayal must take place by one whom is trusted or in whom confidence is placed. Only someone who is “on your side” can betray you. This is why, sometimes, betrayal is also known as a cross. The word betray shares the same Latin root as the word traitor. The famous traitor from the history of this country, Benedict Arnold, betrayed the fledgling country to the British, leading a British force against the very men on the American side that he had once also commanded.
So, when Jesus predicted His betrayal to the disciples in Luke 9, it should be no wonder that the saying was hidden from them. Had they understood it, they would likely have deliberated over it and debated it among themselves, being consumed with the thought of who among them would betray Him, and would not be mindful of the things He would be teaching them from that time forward; of course, it wouldn’t be until after His resurrection, that their minds would be opened to all that He had taught them (cf. Luke 24:45), but it stands to reason that they wouldn’t even be able to be reminded of what Jesus had told them, because they would be too consumed with the betrayal even to listen to Jesus from that time. It wasn’t until Jesus reclined at the table with His Twelve at the Last Supper that His betrayal wasn’t concealed from them, and at that time, they did debate among themselves—you’ll hear more about this next week. However, it is likely that at the time of Luke 9 Judas had no desire to betray Jesus, whether or not he was getting annoyed with Him.
But, the time did come, and Judas did betray Jesus, for a sum of money. And while Judas’ betrayal is at the front and center of tonight’s text, his isn’t the only betrayal of Jesus. All the other disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. Peter denied Jesus three times when Jesus was before the Council. At one point or another, everyone who followed Jesus, to one degree or another, betrayed Him in one way or another. The disciples had all told Jesus that they were willing to die with Him, but Jesus, predicting Peter’s denials, indicated that He and He alone could and would die for the sins of the world.
And those betrayals continue to this day. Hypocrisy is rife in those who call themselves Christian. You believe in Jesus, confess a faith in Him, but with your actions, you betray your confession and your Lord. Your lips say one thing, but your deeds another. Are you really who you say you are? Do you really believe in the Jesus that you confess? Do you, by your actions, deny that Jesus is who He says He is?
There’s a stark warning for those who betray and deny Jesus. “[W]hoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33) You don’t want Jesus denying you before the Father. But that’s the consequence of saying, “I don’t know this Jesus.” Jesus says, “I do not know you.” (cf. Matthew 25:12; Luke 13:25, 27) Are there any more frightening words to hear from the world’s Redeemer? “I do not know you.” Betrayal and denial carry the consequence of not being known by Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t want to know you.
Judas betrayed Jesus, and with it set in motion the events that would lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He was an instrument in your salvation, although one with evil intent. Jesus knew this and for this purpose chose Judas to be His disciple; He said as much! (cf. John 13:18) Was there hope for Judas? Absolutely, there was. Jesus died for Judas as much as for anyone else! But, Judas, in his despair, ultimately denied Jesus and “turned aside to go to his own place.” (cf. Acts 1:25)
The same could be said of Peter and the other disciples. They all abandoned Him, and Peter denied Him three times in a time where, legally, Jesus could have used witnesses in His trials. Was there hope for any of them? Absolutely, there was! And they each were restored to their places as disciples and apostles. Peter’s restoration is especially notable. Following His resurrection, Jesus was with His disciples, and He asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?”—once for each time Peter denied Him. After answering in the affirmative all three times, Jesus told Peter to feed and tend His sheep and lambs, restoring him to the office of disciple, and especially of apostle. (cf. John 21:15-17)
Both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus. Both Judas and Peter were contrite. Both Judas and Peter despaired over what they had done. What was the difference? Peter, in faith, repented. Nowhere in Scripture is that stated overtly, but given the outcomes of both men, one has to conclude that contrition met with faith in Peter and produced repentance. That faith was missing in Judas. Did he ever have it? When did he lose it? Once again, nothing is said so overtly, but if faith doesn’t meet contrition, then all that is left is rebellion or utter despair. In despair, Judas hanged himself and “turned aside to go to his own place.”
So, you, when you betray your Lord and Savior, you also have hope. Jesus Christ shed His blood and gave His life for you, as much as for Judas and Peter. When that sin is laid bare before you, it produces contrition. And you have been given faith by God to trust that He merciful and gracious toward you for the sake of Jesus. So, that brings you to repentance—all of this done to you and for you and in you from outside of yourself—and in repentance, you joyfully receive these words: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
The parable of the sower is a pretty familiar text. It’s familiar in the sense that you all know, even without having just heard it moments ago, that a sower scatters seed on his land. In the process, some lands on the road, some on rock, some among thorns, and some on the good farm land. Jesus also explained the parable for His disciples—in this case, probably more than just the 12—and told them what the different places where the seed landed represent.
When Jesus first began explaining this parable, He essentially divided these people into two types. It’s a hard saying, but since Jesus says it, it must be heard and believed. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” Those two types? Those who have been given knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom by God, and those who do not know the mysteries.
Let me help you reconcile this.
I’ll begin by briefly talking about what everyone always wonders about when it comes to this text. Most everyone is concerned with the soils, and with good reason. “Why soil type do I fall into?” More importantly, perhaps, “How can I be sure I’m that fourth soil type—the good farm land?” Well, I think Dr. C.F.W. Walther1 might say that if you want to be that fourth type, if you are so concerned about being that fourth type, then you probably are that fourth type. What you are likely more concerned with, then, is what it means to hold fast to the Word of God with steadfast endurance.
I’ve spoken at length in the past what that means. Simply put, it is similar to how things go when you love or admire someone. After all, one with faith in Jesus certainly loves and admires Jesus. So, in this love and admiration of Jesus, you would hang on every word He says. Some of the things He tells you are able to pull you through those times of tribulation, be it temptation or suffering, so you are emboldened to hang on even more. And some of the things He says point you to the goal of this faith and eternal life, and so you are able to hold fast to it with steadfast endurance. All of this, by the way, is by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you and nothing else, as He works through the means of the Word of God.
And that brings me to the point that I want to make, something that is so easily glossed over in this text, and that probably because it is treated in so few words—seven in this translation. Before even getting to the soil types, Jesus said, “The seed is the word of God.” What does that mean, especially in regards to today’s text? Well, no matter the soil type, the Word of God does things—primarily, it creates faith. Notice how that was stated even about the path soil type; the Word of God was taken away from them so that even having come to faith (which would be a better translation of the Greek) they would not be saved.
The Word of God has the power to create faith. This it does by the work of the Holy Spirit, when and where it pleases Him. But, not all come to faith, not in that it doesn’t please the Spirit to bring people to faith. And in some who do come to faith, the faith created lasts but a short while. I could stand up here and wax poetic about this all day; suffice it to say, some are so obstinate that they refuse to believe, and, at least for the sake of this text, some believe for a while, but come to a point where they lose that faith. Maybe there’s something more alluring in the devil’s playground, so the Word is taken away. Maybe temptations are overbearing in that they don’t trust that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is capable of overcoming them. Maybe the worries of this life are more compelling than the glories of the life to come. But in every case, the Word of God creates faith.
Still, Jesus does not force this faith on anyone. That’s why Jesus gives His Word in parables, so that those in whom the Spirit has worked faith and the knowledge of the kingdom hear it and receive it in faith and those who do not have this knowledge don’t receive it, but reject it. It may not seem like it, but this is all in keeping with the old Lutheran adage: if you’re saved, it’s all God’s doing; if you’re damned, it’s all your fault. God gives his faith-creating Word. You receive it in God-given faith, or you reject it out of disdain or doubt.
So, do not hear Jesus’ explanation of His parable to mean that there are some that Jesus saves and others that He doesn’t. This isn’t a text that proves the heterodox doctrine of double predestination. The Word of God is proclaimed to all; there are some on whose ears it falls, but they do not receive it in faith. Nevertheless, it is the desire and goal of God that all to whom the Word is proclaimed—which is everyone—are brought to the knowledge of salvation. As St. Paul wrote, “God our Savior…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), so it follows that He would have His Word proclaimed to all the world. So it is that He Himself said,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18b-20)
Nevertheless, “[G]ood news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (Hebrews 4:2)
So, the reconciliation is this: Those who have been given the mysteries of the kingdom of God receive the Word of God in faith, in and through which they receive the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Those who do not know the mysteries reject the Word of God in disdain and doubt. If you are saved, it is all God’s doing. If you are damned, it is all your fault. It is the Word of God that does things for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. That’s what Jesus was teaching with this parable.
So, I don’t think you need to concern yourself with which soil type you are. As I said, if you are concerned about being that fourth soil type—the good farm land—if your concern is how to be and remain such, then you probably are. How can I say that? Well, the one who is truly concerned with keeping the Word of God, bemoans those times when he does not keep the Word of God. Such a mindset is indicative of a faith which trusts in Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation; a faith which is created, nourished, and sustained by the Word of God.
Do you have your moments of disdain and doubt? You most certainly do. You live in this Vale of Tears, in this fallen and cursed creation. But, God has broken through the fallen-ness and curse and sent His Son as your redemption. The Word of God is proclaimed to you creating faith. In that faith, you have come here to confess your sins—your disdain and doubt of His Word—and His Word is proclaimed to you again, restoring, nourishing, and nurturing that faith that it first created in you. The Word of God is cast once again into the soil, transforming you into His righteousness and good soil, forgiving you for all of your sins.
Here’s the set up for today’s text. A man asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” After a bit about who or what is good, Jesus told the man to keep the commandments. Then, as if there are some more worthy of being kept than others, the man asked Jesus which commandments should be kept. (cf. Matthew 19:16-18)
Could you imagine asking such a question? I suppose not, given the tone of my question, but it shouldn’t be so surprising. Man has been looking to grade and divide the commandments into those which would be most important and those which are of least importance since God first gave the commandments. For this reason, James wrote, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10)
Anyway, Jesus, ever gentle with once such as this, replied with the second table of the Law, those commandments which govern your interaction with each other. That’s not too difficult an ask, at least outwardly—some commandments might likely be easier to keep outwardly than others, and differently so from person to person. Still, this young man answered Jesus that he had kept all of those, but he knew he still lacked something. So, Jesus replied, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At this, the young man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (cf. Matthew 19:18-22)
Then, Jesus turned to His disciples and told them, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” This distressed the disciples a little. They wondered if anyone could be saved, then. Again, Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” So, Peter spoke up and boasted for the others, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (cf. Matthew 19:23-27)
This prompted the parable you heard as today’s text, but not before Jesus first answered,
Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:28-30)
So that might help to give a little context for the parable—the parable where a master goes to the marketplace several times to find workers for his vineyard. It might also give you pause to how you have most often heard the parable explained—that God is equally but unfairly gracious to all whom He has placed in His vineyard, regardless of how early or late in the day that was, and in this case, the day being the lifetime of a person, so how early or late in life one came to faith.
Now, I don’t mean to dissuade you from such an understanding. It is an obvious understanding of the parable since the master goes to the marketplace throughout the day to hire workers. Then, at the end of the work day, he pays them all the same, no matter when they were hired. It is, therefore, a good sense to have of your heavenly Father, who is a most gracious Master, equally and unfairly so.
So, if you’ve been a Christian since infancy or have only very recently come into the Church Militant, you are a Christian, one claimed by Christ the crucified in those Holy Waters and made a son of His Father and Yours, and co-heir with Him of heavenly riches. Those heavenly riches—forgiveness, life, and salvation—He gives equally to all of His beloved children, though unfairly, because all have need of them, no matter when in life they have come to faith. You are all equally forgiven of your sins, given eternal life, and saved from this valley of tears, for the sake of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul described oneness in Christ regardless of heritage, station in life, and gender, but you could add age and longevity in the faith to that as well. You are all one in Christ; that should be cause for great rejoicing!
But think also of the master paying the hired hands each the same thing regardless of how much they have worked and how hard they have toiled under the heat of the day or didn’t. The parable now sounds like a warning against expecting more of what is promised for more labor, as if the work that you have been hired to do somehow earns you more than what is promised.
What is promised is forgiveness, life, and salvation. How much you’ve left behind to follow Jesus, how much good that you’ve done in the name of Jesus, how much you’ve given for the sake of Jesus…all of this has no bearing on the promise that God has made to you—forgiveness, life, and salvation. To expect something else or something more is to turn an evil eye toward God; or, to put it more precisely, to turn one’s eye evil by taking one’s eyes off of God. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs explains it thus:
The master’s actions are stunningly unexpected. However, they are only insulting or hard to swallow…if one takes one’s eyes off of the owner. One can imagine the scene as the parable sets it up. Wages are paid out, beginning with the last group and ending with the first. As the first group stands in line and waits their turn, their gaze falters, leaving the master who has hired them, given them meaningful work, and promised them a fair wage. They stop looking at the master, and they start looking at their fellow workers. That’s when they get into trouble. Their eye actually becomes evil because the master is good to others.
It would seem that the most at risk for obtaining this evil eye would be pastors and those in offices with similar work as the apostles. Most simply put, it is to the disciples that Jesus told this parable, because Peter boasted on behalf of all of them that they had given up more than anyone else to be a follower of Jesus. And, being apostles, they could easily have thought that they have done more work for the Church than an ordinary Christian—church history would agree with them in this regard. Pastors, missionaries, and teachers in the church might say that they do more work in and for the church than anyone else. Who else spends as much time in study and preparation and delivery and administration in order that you might hear and receive the salvation wrought by Christ? While there are certainly laymen who spend as much time, if not more, doing “church work,” by-and-large, the bulk of this “church work” is done by church workers.
That is not meant to sound as a boast on my part, though it certainly can become one. And in the event it does, then my eye has become evil toward God, especially if in that boast I expect more or something other than what has been promised to all who have been made a part of God’s vineyard, the Church. God guard me and all pastors and workers in the Church from this arrogance.
Still, there are degrees of difficulty in the work that God gives to all of His children. To this one He says go there and do that work which will take you the better part of the day; to another He says go here and do this work which will take you only an hour. Some have a harder task in the Church than others, but in every case, God provides the means to see to the task that He has given you. So, perhaps you were hired at the third hour, or sixth hour, or eleventh hour—to you each God has given a task and the means to accomplish it. And while in the parable the promise isn’t repeated, it is still the same for being brought into the vineyard—forgiveness, life, and salvation.
It is as St. Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) Recall Jesus’ parable of the talents, wherein the master, going on a trip, gives to three of his servants a different amount of talents, “each according to his ability,” Jesus said. (cf. Matthew 25:14-15) So it is with each of you. The work you have been given to do is according to the ability that God has given you. Some do more than others, who in turn are doing less than the some, but each are doing what it is that God has given them to do.
To then look at what your brother and sister have done in comparison to your work and see that they receive the same forgiveness, life, and salvation which God has promised to you is to take your eye off of Him who promised this to you and turn your eye evil toward Him. The promise that God has made to you to forgive your sins, give you eternal life, and save you is not dependent on the work He has given you to do—you cannot get more of any of this promise for having done more than your brother or sister in Christ. Likewise, you do not receive any less of this promise because you have been given less to do than a brother or sister in Christ.
So, what does doing the work with eyes fixed on the master look like? Well, simply put, if you’re not looking at anyone else around you, then you are not comparing what it is you do, how hard it is that you’re working, or how long you have been working to that of anyone else. With your eyes fixed on Jesus, your work becomes a joyful task in which there is no boasting, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, as St. Paul put it. (cf. Philippians 3:14)
Then, the end of the day will come—the end of days will come—and the Master will call all to account for what they have done. Like sheep and goats, recall, is how the King will separate mankind. The sheep—you, dear baptized believers—will be ushered into the everlasting life that was promised to them, their good deeds recounted for them, unawares of having done so much. That’s because joyfully doing the work that God has given you to do with your eyes fixed on Jesus involves no score keeping; there is no evil eye involved here.
But St. Peter wanted to keep score. James and John wanted to keep score, according to the request of their mother. (cf. Matthew 20:20-21)(cf. Philippians 3:4-10) It’s inevitable that score keeping will happen; it’s part and parcel of life in this Vale of Tears. Fixing your eyes on Jesus is an impossible task for you. Only Jesus can fix your eyes on Him, and when He does, He draws them to His cross and empty grave—to His death and resurrection, the means by which He makes the promise to you—forgiveness, life, and salvation. There, see the greatest work done to earn the promise; after all, who among you could give your life and take it up again?
There, at the cross, Jesus took all your sin upon Himself and died with it. His death destroyed the score. His death destroyed the boasting of working longer and harder in the vineyard. His death took all of that and more away from you—all your sin and death and guilt and evil desire—and destroyed it once and for all. His resurrection brought to light immortality and life. These all Jesus gives to you freely, without any worth or merit in you, all for His sake. Therefore, “On the Last Day, the reign of God in Jesus will come in all its fullness. All who have been called as workers in the vineyard—all disciples of Jesus, without distinction—will receive from the Master what he deems just, in accordance with his pledge when they were first called,” Dr. Gibbs wrote.
Do you believe this? Then let it be done to you as you believe. You are saved. You have eternal life. You may not feel it now, even as you struggle with your Old Man, but these are all yours because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
You probably know the story well enough. You heard part of it this morning. And while it is certainly not as grand a story as the parting and crossing of the Red Sea, it has similar elements, and there is similar typology involved. This is how Joshua led the people of Israel through the Jordan and into the Promised Land.
The Children of Israel arrived beyond the Jordan from their 40-year exodus in the wilderness. They camped near the eastern bank of the River Jordan, north of the Dead or Salt Sea at a place that came to be called Bethabara, or “Place of Crossing.” When the time had come, God told Joshua to cross the Jordan, to have the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant set foot in the Jordan, and the waters would part so that the whole company could cross over on dry ground. This they did, and the Children of Israel set foot in the Promised Land.
Joshua himself was commanded to have a man from each tribe pick a stone from the riverbed. From these twelve stones a monument was made at the place where they next camped: Gilgal. These had to have been large stones, for they were commanded,
Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:5-7)
And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever. (Joshua 4:20-24)
Furthermore, twelve more stones were placed as a monument in the middle of the river where the Children of Israel crossed.
The story was told again and again. Children would point to the stones at Gilgal and ask, “What does this mean?” Parents would tell their children the story of how the waters were parted, how the Children of Israel passed through the Jordan, how they finally made it into the land that God had promised to give them—how they had left behind the wilderness and all of it’s hardships and killings and that land of sin and slavery and entered into the land of life and bread and iron and copper. (cf. Deuteronomy 8:9) In short, they Children of Israel passed through the waters from death to life!
So, when I say that the crossing of the Jordan is a type of Baptism, you can see how that works. For you, yourselves has passed over from death to life by way of the waters of the font. Now, this font, and many like it, may never have or may never in the future contain Jordan water, but for your sake, the source of the water isn’t important, and that’s because your Baptism is connected to that of your Savior, Jesus Christ.
It was to the Jordan that Christ the Lord went in order to be Baptized by John. Here’s where things really get interesting. According to John the Evangelist, the location that John was baptizing as Jesus arrived was “in Bethany across the Jordan.” (cf. John 1:28) Where is this? Well, the name has changed slightly, but it’s all there in that phrase from St. John’s Gospel. The place where John was baptizing was at Bethabara, the place of crossing.
It was no coincidence that John was baptizing there with a baptism of repentance, but was chosen deliberately. Remember the stones in and across the river? They served as a reminder of the people of the work of God to bring the people out of bondage. The bondage then was slavery, but as John was baptizing with a baptism of repentance, the bondage he had in mind was to sin.
So, as it happened, before Jesus arrived, John spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to his baptism.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10)
God’s wrath is coming, and it is inescapable. If there would be anyone guilty of not repenting of sin, it would be the Pharisees and Sadducees, who thought themselves sinless, though I’m sure at times you might include yourself in that group. Remember, it was of them that Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 15:31-32) So, John’s message was as much for them as it was for everyone who came to him at Bethany across the Jordan. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. What greater place than this, where the bonds of slavery were removed from the Children of Israel and they crossed from death into life?”
And what about “these stones.” It’s fascinating that that phrase is used both in Joshua and Matthew—these stones. That might be an indication that John was using either the monument at Gilgal or the twelve stones in the Jordan to make his point to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” The prospect of that is exciting, if you ask me. John points to a set of twelve stones, a reminder of God’s providence and mightiness, and tells them God can make from them His own children.
Anyway, to this spot—this spot from Joshua 3 and 4—Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, arrives to be baptized, in order for He and John to fulfill all righteousness. Down into this spot in the River Jordan the two men descend, the place where the Children of Israel passed through on dry land, and place where, for all rights, had they done so without divine providence, they should have all drowned and died, and Jesus takes that death for them, and comes out of the water as their very life. But, He comes out of the water as your very life, too.
Remember that I said that your baptism is connected to His. In every step of Jesus’ life, He was fulfilling the Law and all righteousness for you, and that includes His baptism. He and John go down into the River Jordan at the place of crossing for you. He did it with you in mind and carrying you in His own flesh and blood, only to come out of the water to the words thundering from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So, if you are there with Him, by way of your own baptism into His death and resurrection, then those words are as much speaking of you as they are of Him.
So, while you may have been baptized in this font or one quite like it, with water poured from this or another tap, with Christ you have been baptized in the River Jordan at the place of crossing. Your baptism is connected to His by way of His word and command—for it is the Word of God which makes this washing the sacred thing that it is—Jesus entered the Jordan for and with you, and tells you to be baptized in His name for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. And it is because of the command and Word of Christ that Luther included this sentence in his flood prayer: “Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood, and a lavish washing away of sin.”
Because Jesus was baptized for you, your baptism now grants you everything that His perfect life, death, and resurrection earned. So, by way of your baptism, God reached down and turned your dead heart of stone into a living heart of faith and life and the Voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” At this font or one like it, you passed through the River Jordan on dry ground, passing from your bondage to sin the freedom in Christ, from the death of the wrath of God to life everlasting for the sake of Christ. For, just as with the Children of Israel, without divine providence, you should be drowned and die yourself with your sin and all evil desire, but God has instituted baptism for a saving flood for you for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Once you were enemies of God, but in Christ you have been reconciled. Once, you lived on the east side of the Jordan, lost in sin and death, but in Christ, you have been crossed over to freedom and life. And while it is so easy to plunge back into death and enmity—to succumb to one sin or another, to lose yourself in one vice or another—remember this, you are still covered in the blood of the Lamb, the one that John pointed to at Bethany across the Jordan, and proclaimed him to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
You are one of those stones that John pointed to and said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” The Sunday School kids get it right: “Father Abraham had many sons; many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!” So, if you ever find yourself at Gilgal or Bethany across the Jordan, find that pile of stones, and see in them the Lord’s promise to you. Remember that you were brought through water to the Promised Land of peace with God and salvation. You have been taken out of death to life for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Father has said of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus Christ was baptized there at Bethany across the Jordan for you and with you—into this you have been baptized, and you are forgiven for all of your sins.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) So the author of the letter to Hebrews reminds you of the means of God’s presence in the Old Testament. God is always present in His Word, and long ago His Word was most often proclaimed by the prophets. But, at many times and in many ways, God also spoke to the fathers. Abraham had dinner with God. (cf. Genesis 18:1-15) Jacob wrestled with God. (Genesis 32:22-32) Moses spoke with God in a burning bush. (Exodus 3) Isaiah was granted a vision of the heavenly throne room. (Isaiah 6) Daniel had night visions.
But now, in these latter days, God’s presence among men is through His Son. There are still prophets, so to speak, who relate to men the Word of God. However, unlike the prophets of long ago, the prophets today speak the Word already revealed in the Scripture, nothing that was told them in a vision or dream, because that’s how God interacted long ago. So, to you it is given to hear the Word of God as it has been handed down from the Apostles and Prophets, recounted for you again and again, because you need to hear it again and again, hear the message of the Gospel again and again, that the Son of God was incarnate of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried, and rose again, all for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The beginning—long ago—the Word existed as was given to man by way of dinners and wrestling matches and visions and dreams. Now, the Word still exists and is given to man in flesh and blood.
First, the flesh and blood of the Word of God is the same flesh and blood as yours. Assumed in the womb of the virgin Mary, the Word became flesh and dwelt among man. God gave Himself as His own creation to mankind in order to walk with them, talk to them and teach them, eat with them—kind of like what He did long ago, at many times and in various ways. But Jesus also healed them and forgave them. And He charged His church to continue giving Him to His people in Word and Sacrament.
So, the people continue to hear and receive the Word of God as He is proclaimed to them—without the visions and the wrestling matches and the burning bushes and dinners. None of those other things happen with any regularity or as a matter of new revelation—so, if they happen, they cannot be discounted out of hand, but must always be measured against the Scripture. Well, maybe the dinners still count with some regularity, in a manner of speaking.
You see, in the second place, the Word of God is still become flesh for you. In the simple means of bread and wine, the Word of God comes to you in flesh and blood, giving Himself for you for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Up there on the altar, the Word of God makes these means what they are for you, because He still dwells among you in order to walk with you, talk to you and teach you, and, yes, even eat with you. He gives Himself to you to make you His own. That is His glory, which He reveals to you.
It was revealed on the cross, a most inglorious death, but by His death on the cross, He shed His blood and gave His body over to death in order that you would be forgiven for all of your sins, won back from death to life, and saved from this body of sin. In that, the Father and Son glory, for it is their victory over sin, death, and the devil—their enemies, and yours.
So, that you may continue in this, the Word of God, He continues to come to you in Word and Sacrament. There is no need to look for the visions, burning bushes, wrestling matches, dinners, or any other such thing for God to interact with you. He doesn’t promise to come to you that way. But He does promise to come to you in His Word proclaimed to you—flesh and blood comes to you in order to teach and heal and forgive and renew and restore. He does promise to come to you in Sacrament, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—flesh and blood comes to you in order to teach and heal and forgive and renew and restore.
He gives to you all that you need for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Word became flesh and dwells among you. God lived and died for you. God rose again and ascended for you. God continues to give Himself to you and be with you, flesh-and-blood, so that when He returns, He will take you to be where He is for eternity. The Word became flesh, and you have seen His glory, full of grace and truth, and the truth is that you are forgiven for all of your sins.
[ NB: I'm getting over a cold, and my throat decided to seize up during the preaching of this sermon ]
History is filled with young kings and queens, some of whom were even crowned as infants.
Tutankhamun—affectionately known today as King Tut—was a boy king. He became Pharaoh at eight or nine years of age and ruled until his death at the young age of 18.
Mary Stuart was six days old when she assumed the throne of her father, James V, to become Mary I of Scotland. You might know her better as Mary, Queen of Scots. Regents ruled Scotland in her stead while she was young and lived in France. Interestingly, her father was 17 months old when he became king, and her son was 13 months old when he became king. Ruling young seems to run in the Stuart family.
Henry VI became king of England when he was eight months old. On top of that, he became king of France when he was 10 months old. His reign over France didn’t last long, though, as Joan of Arc was a force in taking the country back from England.
Ivan VI became Tsar of Russian at two months old. His rule lasted all of a year before he was deposed and kept in solitary confinement in one fortress after another for over 20 years. When he was 23, he was murdered by one of his prison guards.
John I became king of France on the day he was born! He died five days later, though. It is thought that his regent, Philip, who was also his uncle, poisoned him. It was Philip who assumed the throne on the death of John.
Not to be outdone, according to legend, Shapur II became Shah of the Sassanid Empire (think modern-day Iran) while still in utero! The legend states that Persian nobles put a crown on the belly of King Hormizd’s widow, and so was the first (and only, as far as I know), coronation of a fetal king. How they knew he was a he is beyond me, so I wonder if they would have called him something other than Shah had he been born a girl or if the coronation would have been declared illegitimate. I’m sure you could work some pro-life argument into this legend, too. Nevertheless, Shapur II is considered a successful ruler, having done so for 70 years!
More recently, Oyo was crowned king of the Toro Kingdom in Uganda. That happened 24 years ago, and he was three years old at the time. At 27, he still rules the Toro Kingdom, though his reign is more as a cultural icon than an actual head of state.
So, it’s not unusual that a child would be made king or queen. Such a monarch was surrounded by regents who would perform the duties of the king or queen in his or her name until such a time that the monarch was old enough to assume those duties him- or herself. Their age and vulnerability would also have made them easy targets of those who sought to usurp the throne, such as (possibly) in the case of John I of France. History is filled with young kings and queens, some of whom were even crowned as infants.
That said, there is only one case in history where a King became an infant. In all of those cases where an infant became a king, it was done so in order to rule and reign, either as the puppet of another or to preserve the dynastic line. There really is no other reason to crown an infant. But, in the case of the King who became an infant, that was done in order to save.
The angel said to Joseph,
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The Son of God left His throne in heaven and took on the flesh of His creation. He was conceived in a virgin’s womb and born. Wrapped in swaddling cloths, nestled in the arms of Mary was the King of the Universe. Joseph would do as the angel commanded him; eight days after He was born, this Infant gets a foretaste of another coronation that He would undergo as He is circumcised and given the name Jesus, “[F]or he will save his people from their sins.”
Mind you, dear hearers, that this is no simple or ordinary abdication, though. In fact, this is no abdication at all. When you hear that Jesus left His throne in heaven, even as you might sing in some Christmas songs, an abdication is not at all what is meant. What is meant is what St. Paul described in his letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
And so you have that wonderful hymn, found in Lutheran Service Book, number 539—Christ is the World’s Redeemer. The third stanza in very brief fashion describes the work that Jesus did from His crucifixion on: “Down through the realm of darkness / He strode in victory, / And at the hour appointed / He rose triumphantly / And now, to heav’n ascended, / He sits upon the throne / Whence He had ne’er departed, / His Father’s and His own.” (emphasis mine) From there, He lives and reigns to all eternity; His kingdom is everlasting—very much unlike the reign of any and all of those infants who became monarch.
It is well that He didn’t leave His throne in the sense that He abdicated it. Had that been the case, then He wouldn’t have been the fulfillment of the prophecy, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel—“God with us”—would be a lie. When a king abdicates his throne, he is no longer king; if the Son of God would have abdicated His throne to become Man, He would no longer be God, so He would not have been “God with us.”
Were He not “God with us,” then He wouldn’t be your Redeemer. Only God can redeem you from your sin. Only man can shed his blood as propitiation. Only “God with us” could do both! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is your Propitiation, for He took on flesh and blood like yours in order to shed that blood on the cross and give that flesh over to death in order to save you from death; He is, therefore, your Redeemer, who bought you back from death to life with His own precious, holy blood the price.
But the Son of God did leave His throne, in the sense that St. Paul wrote. He did not come as Infant in order to rule with a mighty arm. The rod of iron is in His hand for those who reject Him, as the Psalmist wrote. (cf. Psalm 2:9) But this King sets aside His throne to come in grace and with favor for man, to serve man with Salvation, and to do so by way of His death, resurrection, and ascension.
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:10-11, 14)
He now rules from that throne as your most gracious King, ordering all things for your benefit, edification, and salvation.
And this King has regents, too. This is not in the sense of the regents of those infant kings, but in the sense that He has given authority to certain men on earth to forgive sins in His stead, proclaim salvation on His order, and distribute His treasure, His recompense, His reward, the great mysteries of the Sacraments, as He has directed. These regents, then, are stewards of the promises of God, pastors as you know it.
Therefore, in the stead and by the command of the King who became Infant, I joyfully proclaim to you that the Son of God is your Redeemer. The infant in Mary’s arms, Jesus is your Salvation. He is your Propitiation. He has come for you, and so you are forgiven for all of your sins.
So cried out St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:22) It’s the Aramaic equivalent, written in Greek, of the prayer of the bride of Christ. It is the prayer that John wrote as you heard in the text this evening: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’”
μαράνα θά! “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” Or, perhaps more appropriately, “Come now, O Lord!”
What you heard from the Apocalypse this evening is the epilogue of the book. After granting the Apostle the beatific vision of the end of creation, with the signs in the sun and moon and stars and trees, the creatures with multiple eyes and heads and wings and horns—enough to drive any man mad—the angel tells him, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
Then Jesus tells him, “And behold, I am coming soon.” μαράνα θά!
What John was privileged to see and relate to the church was enough to drive men mad. To see creation being burned up, the sun and moon destroyed, the various beasts and creatures, and to hear the martyrs under the throne would be quite frightening. But not so for one such as John; not so for those who bear the image of Christ as John did.
Even today, to see what goes on beyond these walls, out in this world where the devil is allowed to reign for a time, it can be a frighteningly maddening sight—even more so when that which is perpetrated is directed squarely at the Bride of Christ or the individual Christian. Mockery and hatred and persecution and death—these are your lot in this Vale of Tears for bearing the image of Christ. What does the angel say about this? “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy…”
This can be your mantra, too, dear hearers. While you face evil and hardship from all sides outside of this refuge (and perhaps even in it, as this place is still a location in this fallen world), you, too, can say, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy.” Dear Dr. Luther wrote as much in his quintessential Reformation hymn: “And take they our life, / Goods, fame, child and wife, / Let these all be gone, / They yet have nothing won; / The Kingdom our remaineth.” Let the evildoers do their worst, they cannot rob you of your salvation!
Scripture is full of such exhortation for you. Jesus said, “[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28a) Both Peter and Jude warn of the coming scoffers in the last day, but that they are nothing to fear. Even Paul lets his listeners know that there will be evildoers to watch out for. Watch and be warned, they all say, because they are out to get you. But, do not fear them for what they can do to your body, but do not let them steal you of your salvation—do not let them drag out of the Church, do not let them cause you to doubt the faith that you have been given in Christ. Let them do their worst, but watch out for their schemes and games.
Knowing that they’re out there, knowing that they mean to cause you harm, spiritual harm, at the devil’s guidance, you should all the more desire the imminent return of Christ. After all, when He returns, those who do this evil will meet their end, and you will no longer have to concern yourself with them. So, the prayer becomes urgent as a result of the terror and evil all around. Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Come now, O Lord! μαράνα θά!
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and the murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” There it is! Those who have washed their robes have a right to the tree of life. The evildoers and filthy are on the outside; they do not have that access that those who are clean do. You know it from another passage from Revelation. Upon seeing a great, white host, an elder asked John, “Who are these?” “Sir, you know,” he replied. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14) It’s nothing other than the blood of Jesus which makes them pure, which grants them access to the tree of life. Those who are not purified by Christ are on the outside. The difference? Well, Jesus shed his blood on the cross for all; those on the outside refused the offer. In other words, if you’re saved, it’s all Jesus’ doing, but if your damned, it’s all your doing.
So, Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.” As Dr. Louis Brighton wrote,
Christ calls it my reward, not their reward; it is the reward which Christ himself earned, and which he freely gives to all believers by grace. The “reward” itself is the gift of eternal life in God’s holy presence, earned for God’s people by the death and resurrection of the Lamb of God. This “reward” is represented by the tree of life.
The reward is Christ’s, not yours. He’s the one who earned it. He’s the one who merited it. He’s the one who has done all the work in order to be rewarded—in order to be given a recompense. It is His! And what does He do with it? He gives it freely to you. To you, whom He has purified by His blood, given faith to believe and trust in Him for salvation, who take Him at His Word, He gives His reward: eternal life with Him in paradise, a place at His victory banquet, to be one among that great, white host who have come out of the tribulation.
μαράνα θά! Jesus said, “And behold, I am coming soon.” He gives you a picture of what His coming again is going to look like. It’s a frightening picture, but the outcome is a glorious one for the one who bears the image of Christ. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book,” Jesus said. The one who keeps these words are the one who is kept in the Word, who bears the image of Christ. Therefore, the one who keeps the words of this prophecy is you, dear Baptized, one who is forgiven for all of your sins. Therefore, the one who keeps the words of this prophecy is the one who hears Jesus say, “Behold, I am coming soon,” and replies, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” “Come now, O Lord!
The text tonight seems to describe Christ in His first coming to earth. The selection of Matthew 1:18-25 would back up such an assumption. There in St. Matthew’s Gospel is his short telling of the birth of the Messiah. Mary, with child, gave birth to a Son, whom Joseph, her betrothed, named Jesus. A little later in St. Matthew’s Gospel, after the visit of the Magi, the holy family flees into Egypt.
In the Second Reading for tonight, a woman is pregnant and giving birth. In the text, John described the woman almost like a princess: she is adorned with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown on her head. This woman gave birth to a male child who would rule all nations with a rod of iron. This rod of iron hearkens to a Messianic prophecy in the Psalms:
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:6-9)
This prophecy is confirmed to have been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ as Gabriel spoke to Mary,
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
St. John continued with the sign of the red dragon. This dragon makes himself out to look almost like the Lamb of God as described in Revelation 5. There, the Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes to signify that Christ is all-seeing and all-knowing. The dragon would use his seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns to make the deceptive claim that he and not the Christ is the all-knowing master and ruler of the earth. This dragon awaits the birth of the woman’s male child in order to devour it and prevent the salvation of the world. However, he didn’t succeed, as the child was caught up to God and His throne; more on that in a bit.
This very much sounds like Mary and Jesus, and much of Jesus’ life, death, and victory over the devil all wrapped up in a mere 6 verses. John seems to be giving—seems to have been given—a recap of events he knew of and even witnessed in many cases, being one of Jesus’ disciples, but in a metaphorical sense common to visions, where there is an air of reality, but also much symbolism. That is the case here, the woman is Mary, the male child Jesus, and the red dragon the devil.
Even the child being caught up to God and His throne fits into interpretation. That sounds very much like Jesus’ ascension. Dr. Louis Brighton, the now-sainted seminary professor and Revelation scholar, asserts however that,
[T]he incarnation and the entire ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ are compressed into the words “snatched up to God.” “The Seer shortens the Gospel history.” John’s purpose is to emphasize the final outcome of Christ’s incarnation and passion and resurrection, that is, the dragon’s failure to destroy the Child and the victory of the Christ over the enemies of God’s people.
So, it is the ascension of Christ, and so much more. And this “snatched up to God” phrase, as Dr. Brighton translated it, back-fills the rest of the pericope and makes is so much more than Mary and Jesus; more on that in a bit.
From there, the 12th chapter moves on the the War in Heaven, whereby Michael and his angels cast out the dragon and his angels from the counsel of God; he now prowls on earth defeated and with great fury, because he knows his time is short. (cf. Revelation 12:7-12) Yet again, John relates how being “snatched up to God” is the victory of the Christ over the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” The devil knows his time is short because he is defeated by the blood of the Lamb, the real Lamb of God.
The woman fled into the wilderness for 1260 days. 1260 days is 42 months, which is 3 and a half years. This number signifies a time of tribulation. It is likely based on the time that Antiochus IV Epiphanes terrorized Jerusalem from 167 to 164BC—roughly 3 and a half years. Elsewhere, this period is noted as “a time, times, and half a time;” though not a specific length of time, but 1260 days isn’t supposed to be specific, either. It is a time of tribulation. Here, the male Child is “snatched up to God,” and Mary endures a tribulation…
But, as I said, the “snatching up to God” back-fills this text to make it mean something more than this. You see, Jesus didn’t just come from Mary; He came from the whole people of Israel. That is to say, that Jesus is Israel reduced to one and that He came from from the Jews. The genealogies in the Gospels would indicate as much, for one thing. Jesus is a Jew of Jews, a Hebrew of Hebrews, come from a long line of Hebrews and Jews, and even a member of the royal line!
Therefore, the woman adorned like a princess, with the crown and stars would indicate that she is God’s crown jewel, His pride and prized possession. You might know it better as the Chosen Nation. They were the least among the nations, a nation of slaves who had to be rescued from that slavery by divine intervention, but that divine intervention is also their chosen-ness. God chose Israel out of all of the other nations precisely because they were the least of the nations—God has a way of working His will to His glory through the least and weakest among mankind, and even in the weakest of mankind’s moments. Remember, victory over death, hell, and the devil was won by the death of God on the cross, a most ignominious death!
The woman, then, is the Chosen Nation of Israel. The twelve stars are the twelve tribes. From this nation came salvation, as God was incarnate of one of her members, a member of the tribe of Judah. God comes to earth—to man—as a child, the least of all people, a member of the Chosen Nation, the least of all nations, and saves by dying on the cross, the least of all deaths.
And the child was caught up to God and His throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness for 1260 days.
But, let me back up again. The “snatching up to God” continues to back-fill this text and make it mean something more. Yes, the male child is Jesus. Yes, the woman is Mary. Yes, the woman is Israel. The woman is also the Church. The Church is the crown jewel of God, His prized possession, or so writes St. Paul: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27) Jesus may have come from the Jews, but He came for all of mankind!
Christ has come, died, rose, and ascended and His Word is spread throughout all the world. The death of Christ is proclaimed to a world in need for the forgiveness of sins, because the world is very evil, and you have a part in that! Word of Him spread by the Apostles, now making those twelve stars in the woman’s crown the 12 Apostles. The Church, Old Testament and New Testament, is bound up in the woman from whom and for whom the male Child came.
So, Christ has been “snatched up to God” and His throne. Jesus sits on the throne in heaven. The woman—the Church—is fled into the wilderness for 1260 days. Remember, that number is indicative of a time of tribulation. Jesus’ visible presence is removed from the Church, but His physical and manifest presence is not. The Church is in a time of tribulation, the 1260 days between Christ’s ascension and return. Notice, though, that while the church is in the wilderness—in this realm of sin—that God continues to nourish Her there because He has prepared a place for Her there.
Dear hearers, this is that place—well, this is one of many such places. Here, you find refuge as you live in this wilderness of sin, a place of solace, comfort, and peace, because the male Child, Jesus the Christ, was “snatched up to God.” Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again—and all of this for you. And because Christ is for you, you are forgiven for all of your sins.