Text: Matthew 7:15-29
Date: Pentecost 3 (Proper 4) + 6/1/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Shine in our hearts, O Spirit, precious light;
Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright
That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,
Till to our true home He has brought us. Lord, have mercy! [LSB 768:4]
Since the fall of Adam, all human beings are conceived and born in sin, that is, without fear of God, without trust in God, and full of evil lust and inclination (AC II). Because of this spiritual disability, this complete deadness toward God, the Bible rightly diagnoses that human beings cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through anything we think we might do to merit or deserve His favor. It’s just not in us! The good news, of course, is that forgiveness, salvation, spiritual rehabilitation and life has, nevertheless, been provided by God totally and completely as a gift as a result and for the sake of Jesus Christ. He came down from heaven, taking on our human flesh and blood of His mother, the blessed virgin Mary, and lived and died and rose again from the dead and ascended back into heaven not just to show us the way, not as some illustration or example for us to imitate, but actually to merit and win forgiveness of sin and salvation for the whole world. Now it is only through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us, that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us (AC IV). But how do we gain this faith? How do we come to believe? And how can we continue to believe? Again, it is God Himself who gives and works the gift and miracle of faith. And He does this invisible work through very visible, identifiable means.
“In order to obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, (that is,) giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means (instruments or channels), he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel.” The Word and Sacraments are like a funnel where all the benefits of Christ’s life and his cross have been poured in the one end and flow through the centuries to be poured into your ears and eyes, your mouth and mind. In this way the Holy Spirit produces faith in your heart. And the “Gospel” is this: “that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.” In other words, do you hope and wish to believe and to be saved? Then be where the Holy Spirit promises to give, create and strengthen the gift of faith, namely, where the Gospel is preached and taught to you, among the community of God’s people who have been born anew through Holy Baptism, who teach all things whatsoever Christ has commanded, who baptize others and who regularly proclaim the Lord’s death in His Holy Supper as He commanded. This is the essence of what the Church is all about.
And, we should add, it works, these means of grace! This is what is at the root of the problem with all “new” and exotic programs, methods, movements or gimmicks people come up with only in order to boost church attendance or membership rolls: that faithful preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments take a back seat or are even replaced because we begin to think God’s way doesn’t work, isn’t the most effective way to make disciples.
The Word before us today emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain and strengthen the gift of faith through the Word of God. It’s how faith is given in the first place, and how it is sustained, as we sing in the hymn, “that we may abide in the Lord who bought us, Till to our true home He has brought us.” The work of God the Holy Spirit, above all, is to “Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright.”
The words of our Old Testament reading emphasize how Israel, God’s people (and that includes you, now!) are to literally embody or be absorbed into God’s Word. While the Word of God comes from the outside in, it then works its way from the inside out. The Word is first to be “in your heart and in your soul” (Dt. 11:18). This happens when the Word enters through your ears and eyes and mind. It is to begin very simply through mom and dad bringing you to the water of Holy Baptism, reading Bible stories and teaching you how to pray. It happens through Sunday school, confirmation instruction, youth groups dedicated to Bible study, through sermons, the Divine Service, even through Christian conversation.
That’s what Moses meant when he said, “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Dt. 11:19). In other words, the Word of God is to infiltrate your conversation whether you’re just sitting around, or going on vacation. For instance, when you see a rock or something at a national park with a plaque on it that suggests the age of the rock or whatever as being in the billions of years old, there is an opportunity to tell your children that God’s Word disagrees with that “evolutionary” world-view; that that rock or river valley or whatever was created by God only thousands or maybe millions of years ago. The Word of God is meant to be read, spoken, heard and learned by heart. It is to be inside of you.
But that is not yet enough. For God says through Moses, “you shall bind (these words of mine) as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes…You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt. 11:18, 20), that is, God’s Word is to proceed from the interior to the exterior, from the heart and mind to action and life, and from there to those around you in the world.
This is what is behind Jesus’ words today when he says to you, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:15-16), that is, what’s inside inevitably shows itself on the outside.
The burden of these words from the end of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is to understand especially these words of Jesus: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” It is a burden because these words seem, at first hearing, to contradict the pure doctrine that says a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone without the works of the Law. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them” sounds like mixing good works with faith.
Yet these words are saying nothing other than the words we heard through Moses, namely, that what is in your heart and soul will show itself in your words and actions. What, after all, does it mean to “do” the will of the Father?
In Matthew 12 we are told of the incident when, while Jesus was speaking to the people, “his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.” When Jesus was told of their request he responded with the unusual words, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then, “stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” And He said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:46-50). Turn that around and you get, “whoever is related to me is doing the will of my Father.” He stretched out his hand “toward his disciples” when He said this. To “do” the will of the Father is to be a disciple of Jesus; to hear him, follow him, believe in him. Being in a saving, faithful relationship with Jesus is what “doing the will of the Father” is all about. So it’s not about specific works or activities but about faith.
Look at it this way. Nothing done by an unbeliever, no matter how good or praiseworthy it might be is a good work in God’s eyes because the first piece of the puzzle is missing, that is, he or she is an unbeliever, out of relationship with God. On the other hand, everything done by a believer, short of our continuing struggle with sin, no matter how mundane or ordinary it may be is considered a good work simply because he or she has become and is a child of God through faith in His Son.
The believer, the disciple does truly good works, does the will of the Father, most of the time without even thinking about it. We certainly do not keep a record of so-called good works in order to impress God or as a sort of transcript that we hope will get us into heaven. When you hear Jesus’ words and follow him in simple repentance and faith you’re already a citizen of heaven, as St. Paul says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20). Having been brought by the Holy Spirit to Jesus, and by Jesus to the Father, our sins washed away by Christ’s blood, given the gift of faith, even our most mundane or “secular” activities become truly good works because of the person doing them, children of the heavenly Father, the redeemed of the Lord, the Christian disciple.
A disciple is, literally, a learner and a hearer of the Word. That’s where it started and that’s where it continues and ends. For everything and anything else that goes on in the church or in the life of a Christian, let this be the priority: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, the preaching and teaching and hearing, the reading and thinking and praying of the Word of God—maybe especially as it is summarized in the little catechism, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and by continually receiving forgiveness and the strengthening of faith through Holy Absolution, constant remembrance of your Holy Baptism, and faithful (faith-full!) participation in the bread and cup of Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Communion, the promised means of God’s grace:
That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,
Till to our true home He has brought us. Lord, have mercy!