Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sermon: Trinity 8

13 July 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 7:15-23 (Jer 23:16-23, Acts 20:27-38)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the best-selling short story writer of all time. He who is the Word made flesh is the greatest Wordsmith ever to walk the earth. In today’s Gospel, the Author and Perfecter of our faith uses a character of perhaps the second greatest storyteller of all time – Aesop. For the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is from Aesop’s fable that was being told five centuries before our blessed Lord’s birth.

The wolf in sheep’s clothing is the personification of deception, and we all know who the father of lies is. In our Lord’s warning, these wolves who clothe themselves as gentle lambs are really ravenous wolves. Their goal in playing the sheep is to eat the sheep. Their aim is to deceive in order to kill, and to kill in order to serve themselves, to take the life from your flesh so that they may live another day.

It is not an accident that the word “pastor” means “shepherd.” Neither is it an accident that St. Paul, in our reading from Acts, refers to the Lord’s redeemed people as a “flock” – even as he refers to those who protect the flock as “overseers”, literally the “episkopoi,” the “bishops” of the flock.

Pastors are given to you by God and, as overseers of the flock, are called to “shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Where there are the Lord’s shepherds, there are always the Lord’s sheep. Where there are the Lord’s sheep, the Lord’s blood is never far away.

But the wolf is not interested in the Lord’s blood. He is interested in the Lord’s sheep. And he must resort to the lie, the deceptive act, trickery, treachery, and subterfuge in order to violently and mercilessly steal that which was purchased by the blood of the Lamb Himself. For these are the “savage wolves” who “will come among you” as St. Paul says, “not sparing the flock.” They are doing the self-serving work of their father, the father of lies himself.

It is very important to note that our Lord is warning us about our enemy – and he is using the character of Aesop’s Fable to do it. The devil, the demons, and their servants in the world do not show us their twisted faces, their snaggled rotting teeth, their rancid breath, and their grotesque form reflecting the distortion of sin and the decay of death. No indeed! The ravenous wolf wears the same skin as we. He looks like one of us. He speaks gentle words that we want to hear. He has a beautiful camera-ready face and a set of teeth only money can buy. The wolves draws us in with the sweetness from their mouths, the winsomeness of their beings – and their greatest weapon is their chameleon-like ability to blend in.

Listen to the prophet Jeremiah (who lived about the same time as Aesop) in his description of these same hucksters: “They speak a vision from their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord. They continually say to those who despise Me, ‘The Lord has said, “You shall have peace”’ and… no evil shall come upon you.’’”

These preachers speak sweetly and softly. They certainly don’t look like hungry wolves. And that’s the point.

Jeremiah continues: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart…. The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream: And he who has My Word, let him speak My word faithfully.”

From the time of the fall, wolves have sought to eat sheep. They do not live in peace and concord, but rather violence and discord. The wolves rely on deception and cunning to destroy the sheep, and the Lord provides shepherds to watch over the sheep and protect them from predators.

From the time of the fall, there have been two legged wolves who do not live in peace and concord with their neighbors, but rather, in the pursuit of their dreams of domination and lust for power and riches, they too rely on deception and cunning to destroy the Lord’s sheep – and the Lord provides shepherds for those flocks as well.

The Lord is warning us, His Church, His flock, we sheep and shepherds alike, to be watchful and diligent. We must be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing, even as we must examine ourselves, not allowing the sinful wolf, at the behest of the devil, to rise within ourselves.

Our Master Storyteller shifts gears at this point, and speaks in another literary metaphor:

“Every good tree bears good fruit,” says our Lord, “but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

This is not only a warning for us to watch out for false teachers, dear children, but we must also take heed of ourselves. For the false teachers only reflect the doctrine of their father, the father of lies himself, whose deceptions not only include the lie that we are not saved by grace, but also the lie that our good works are meaningless, maybe even something to be avoided.

We are surely saved by grace alone, but as the blessed reformer Dr. Luther himself said: “by grace alone… but grace is never alone.” Our works do not merit salvation, but our works do confirm, like good fruit, that the tree is healthy.

Pay close heed to those who preach and teach. For our Lord says: “By their fruits you will know them.” And listen to this chilling warning from the lips of God in the flesh, who tells no lies: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Don’t be deceived, dear brothers and sisters. The life-giving Word that is preached is neither self-serving or patronizing. It is neither in the interest of the preacher nor designed to make everyone feel like a good tree regardless of the fruits they do or do not bear. The preaching of the Word is not based on dreams or clever psychology – but rather on the Word Himself, the Word made flesh, the Word whose breath creates and sustains the world, the Word who went to the cross, defeated the devil, redeemed us sheep, protects the flock from the wolves, and who gives us His true body to eat and His true blood to drink. The wolf in sheep’s clothing is only a flatterer. The Good Shepherd, the Word of God, the Master Storyteller whose words give life, and are life, tells us the truth. He does not abandon us to the mercies of the devil, nor does He leave us in a state of lawlessness.

Indeed, He gives the flock shepherds who will not talk about dreams, but will repeat the Words of the Master. The shepherd who tells of his own prophecies, dreams, and visions, the preacher whose buttery words do nothing but flatter and tell people what they want to hear, the teachers who point to their own doctrines – are false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Mark and avoid them, dear brothers and sisters.

By contrast, those whom the Holy Spirit has made overseers, bishops, pastors “to shepherd the church of God” must always point away from his own dreams and instead preach the Lamb whose blood purchased the Church, he must preach the law in its severity lest the flock become lawless, and he must, like St. Paul, always say: “And remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

For our Blessed Lord is the Lamb who is also the Shepherd, the Truth who has crushed the head of the father of lies, the Word whose word creates and renews, the One whose blood has purchased the flock and whose preached Word exposes and defeats the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He is the greatest Storyteller of all time, but also the Author of the story itself. He knows how the story ends even as He is the Alpha and Omega Himself. To Him, the Word made flesh, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, be glory forever and ever. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

No comments: