Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sermon: Wednesday of Trinity 8

20 July 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Matt 7:15-23 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel text, Jesus is warning us against preachers who deceive us, who teach false doctrine, who tell us things that are not true, things that do not come from the mouth of God. He tells us to be very careful, for our very eternal destination may depend on it.

There have always been false prophets, from the days of the serpent in the garden, right up until today. And these deceivers don’t come to us with horns and a tail, with ugly contorted faces, with a big sign around their necks that say: “Liar!” Indeed not! For what sheep would follow the wolf if he looks like a wolf? For this is why false prophets adopt sheep’s clothing. This is why they look and sound so warm, fuzzy, and wonderful. This is why they fill our eager (and sinful) ears with promises of wealth, prosperity, empowerment, and even being like God himself. No false prophet worth his sheepskin coat is going to offer us trinkets. No, false prophets swing for the fence! False prophets tell the Big Lie – the very thing we want to hear.

Jesus’ warning that we would have to contend with false prophets – even in the Church – calls to mind our Old Testament lesson. The Prophet Jeremiah was known as a sad sack, a regular gloomy Gus. When all the prophets of Baal were coming up with dreams of peace, with visions of prosperity, old whiny Jeremiah was always a stick in the mud. He was a faithful preacher, who did not make up “visions” or pass his own dreams off as the Word of God. Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s Word faithfully – and that Word is like a fire that burns away the chaff, and like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. Jeremiah was sent to a stiff-necked, unrepentant people – and his divine call was to preach the law to them, so as to turn their hearts, to break their pride, to re-orient their faces toward the Lord – so that the Lord might again embrace them and forgive their sins. But they didn’t listen. They would rather hear the phony “good news,” the false gospel of wolves in sheep’s clothing than to heed the warnings, the faithful preaching of the law of a simple preacher who lacked the ability to dazzle with brilliance and baffle with nonsense.

A con man is able to get away with fooling people only because people allow themselves to be fooled. People become victimized by pathological liars because they want so badly to believe them, and their false promises. Every day, people respond to e-mails that promise that a million dollars will be deposited into your account if you only give out your bank information. Of course, there is no million dollars – only criminals in Nigeria sucking money out of your checking account. Con men thrive on their victim’s sinful nature. And con men have been running variations of this scam since the serpent told Eve she would get better than a million dollars if she would only disobey God. Her greed got the best of her, and Adam allowed her to do it.

And it is this selfish, sinful nature that chooses the snake who lies to us instead of the God who gives us life. It is this sinful nature that chooses the smiling prophet of Baal with his dreamy visions over the droopy-faced Jeremiah with all his warnings. It is this sinful nature that falls prey to the wolf who lies to us about self-empowerment over the shepherd who proclaims Jesus to us.

For just as in Jeremiah’s day, we need to hear the Word of God call us to repentance. We desperately need faithful preachers who clearly and without waffling warn us – with all the alarm of Jeremiah and our Lord Jesus Christ! We need pastors, not politicians. We need the fire and hammer of God’s Word calling us to repent, not feel-good programs and watered-down doctrine that oozes out of our synodical and district offices. For in the final analysis, a cowardly preacher – all of his cutesy words and smily faces notwithstanding – is not being loving. Jeremiah risked his life preaching the truth to a hostile crowd. Paul was beheaded for his preaching. And we know what happened to our Lord.

Dear Christian friends, I know we sometimes sound like a broken record, but it is because we need to warn you – again and again. Don’t follow a preacher because he gives you a warm feeling inside. Don’t send a preacher money because he promises you health and wealth. Don’t listen to a preacher because he is a polished speaker who makes you laugh. Don’t be deceived by televangelists who even claim the ability to work miracles, who say “Lord, Lord!” and who quote the Bible chapter and verse.

For our Lord is warning us against them, and it is my vocation to do the same. If a preacher is telling you how to be a success in this world, he is a preacher sent by Satan. If a preacher tells you that your works, your prayers, or your money can make God love you, such a teacher is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If a preacher lacks the fire and hammer of God, and instead tells you just what you want to hear – run away like you have never run before! If a preacher is not preaching the cross of Jesus, there is a reason – because the cross is offensive to the devil. Why? Because that is what crushed his head and consigned him to hell. If a church or preacher has a problem with the cross – with Christ crucified, and with our cross that comes from following our Lord – that is a sure sign he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, one of Baal’s dreamers and con men – not a shepherd of the flocks of the Lord God.

And, dear friends, I wish with all my heart that I could simply point at the televangelists and preachers outside of Lutheranism, and even outside of the Missouri Synod. But I can’t do that. For our Lord tells us clearly that the false prophets would come “among you.” Just because we are Lutheran (LCMS Lutheran in fact) does not exempt us from our Lord’s warnings. For faithful preachers in our synod are under increasing pressure to compromise the Gospel, to play the numbers game, to make worship entertaining, to toss away the historic Christian faith in exchange for the dark pottage of a feel-good wishy-washy religion.

The devil will use any and all tactics to cripple and impede the proclamation of the Gospel. Satan will (and does) use the political leadership of our synod to attempt to gag faithful pastors from preaching the true Gospel to the Lord’s sheep.

Our Lord tells us that preachers who bear bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven. And what does it mean to do the will of God? In John chapter 6, the people asked Jesus: “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Our Lord replied: “This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he sent.”

Jesus is not saying that unless we are all perfect, we will be sent to Hell. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the Gospel! But to do the will of God is to believe in him. False prophets do not believe in him. They do not put their trust in the Triune God to rule and govern his church, instead relying on gimmicks and slogans. They do not depend on God the Son to redeem them from their iniquities, rather relying on their own works, their ablazing hearts, their purpose-driven life, rock music, or the latest fad being sold in so-called Christian stores.

As God’s beloved, redeemed people, if you want to tell the sheep from the wolves, pay attention to what they are saying. Do they preach and teach and confess the Word of God? Do they use the fire and hammer of God to purge and pound your sinful flesh? Do they warn you to turn from your sins – even begging with you, pleading with you because they truly believe the warning of our Lord in today’s text? Do they preach the pure Gospel that salvation is a gift of God secured by the blood of Jesus and given to you miraculously only through preaching and sacraments? Do they constantly point you to Jesus – not as merely a wonderful human being, not just as a teacher to imitate, but as God made flesh, as victim and priest, who died and rose again, that we poor miserable sinners might be reconciled with God? Anything less is of the devil. Anything less means you have a wolf in the pulpit.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I plead with you today not to listen to false preachers – no matter how “Christian” they may sound. I plead with you to avoid the all-too-common temptation to think that loving Jesus and being nice is more important than doctrine. I plead with you to heed the warning of Jesus that not every preacher is leading people to heaven.

Unless you are hearing that baptism saves you, that Jesus gives his flesh and blood to you for the forgiveness of sins, that Jesus has ordained men to absolve you of your sins, you are not hearing the Gospel. And if you’re not hearing the Gospel, you’re hearing something else – something evil and diabolical – something characteristic of the ravenous wolf.

The Lord has indeed provided his Church with faithful preachers in every generation – men who truly believe God’s Word, and who see themselves as restrained by it. Our Lord will not leave you to the cruelties of the wolves, but has given you, and will give you, true shepherds who preach the truth to you out of love for you, and devotion to the instructions of their Lord.

Don’t listen to them because of who they are, because of what they sound like, what they look like, or how they make you feel. Listen to them because they preach what is true. Heed them because they preach the Word of God. And rejoice with them not because they entertain you, but because they have been given the authority to proclaim forgiveness to you. A false prophet will never simply invoke the Holy Trinity and forgive your sins, asking nothing in return. Instead, a false prophet will make lavish promises that he can’t keep. He will never be content merely to be a servant of the Word, that is to say, a slave of Christ, and only to speak on behalf of the Lord Jesus saying:

“I forgive you all your sins…”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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