Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sermon: Trinity 17

4 Oct 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 14:1-11 ( Prov 25:6-14, Eph 4:1-6)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

One Sabbath day, our Lord Jesus Christ went to a meal. The lawyers and Pharisees, we are told, “were watching Him carefully.”

Surely, they must have been keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, so they could learn from Him. But sadly, this was not the case.

The lawyers and Pharisees were interested in Jesus, to be sure. Not to learn from Him, mind you, but to try to trap Him. They often flattered Him to His face, but behind His back, they were plotting. They asked questions of Him – not to genuinely learn, but to try to trip Him up, to use His own words out of context later on, and in some cases, outright lying about Him to other people in order to hurt His reputation and to get Him into trouble with the authorities.

This Sabbath was no different. They “were watching Him carefully” for the sole purpose of seeking to destroy Him and the Prophetic Word that offended them. And worst of all – they did not even realize that what they were doing was sinful. They convinced themselves that their sins were virtues, and that they were acting in the best interest of the people.

To us today, their level of self-delusion seems almost unbelievable. For who among us would ever witness our Lord perform a miracle, using the proclamation of God’s healing Word in the service of the Kingdom – and then complain that some human regulation or bureaucratic procedure had been violated? Separated by two thousand years from this scene, we almost want to yell into our Bibles and ask: “What are you people thinking? Jesus has come to you, forgiven your sins, and is bringing the kingdom to you, all by grace, all as a free gift, all by His own mercy and sacrifice – and you’re thanking Him by charging Him with violating the Sabbath?” It boggles the mind.

Worst of all, in addition to their seemingly endless intrigue and plotting against Jesus, they are missing the entire point.

There is only one explanation for their baffling behavior: unbelief. They have become so self-centered, so worldly, so used to being puffed up for their religiosity and standing in the community that when our Blessed Lord, God Himself, calls them to repent, rather than do so, they go on the offensive. Rather than heed the message, they seek to crucify the messenger. Their hearts are hardened, and unless they do repent, they will lose their seat of honor by the hand of the Lord Himself who will humble them.

Our Lord warns the lawyers and Pharisees gently with a story. He tells a parable about the seating arrangements of a meal – much like the one they are at. Those who think too highly of themselves, are ultimately embarrassed, being removed from their self-chosen important seats by the host, and instead ordered to give their seat to someone of lower social rank – thus humbling the self-important. By contrast, those who conduct themselves with humility will be removed from their lowly estate and exalted by the Lord, who sees their good deeds in secret, and yet rewards them in public.

The unbelief of the lawyers and Pharisees was closely tied to their haughtiness. They thought so highly of themselves that they refused to submit to the Lord and His Word – especially when He called them to repentance and preached the law to them. Instead, they gossiped, plotted, tricked, and betrayed Him. And as our Lord elsewhere pointed out to them, they are acting no differently than their own ancestors who persecuted the prophets who spoke unpopular words to them.

For the Word of the Lord is not soothsaying. It is not designed to make us leave church with a song in our heart and a bloated sense of self-esteem. We are to be cut to the quick because of our sins, and then and only then, restored by the balm of the Good News. Such preaching is not only hard for the hearer, but hard for the preacher. And yet this is what we are all called to do: to be the people of God, to hear the law, confess, to hear the Gospel, and be absolved.

Had Jesus simply preached more Gospel and less Law, had Jesus simply stroked the egos of his hearers, had Jesus simply done everything by the book and thrown compassion and a concern for the kingdom to the wind, had Jesus simply done what the Very Important People told Him to do, no-one would have gotten hurt. But then again, no-one would have gotten redeemed, either.

For the plotting of the lawyers and the Pharisees, as evil as it was, as disastrous as their unbelief was to them unless they repented – their actions were used by the Lord for good, on a Friday we now call “Good.” The lawyers and Pharisees who demanded that Jesus do things their way on the Sabbath, were shocked to find an empty tomb on the morning after the Sabbath.

For in his own humiliation, our Lord exalted the lowly. And in His own exaltation, our Lord humbled the haughty. And in so doing, our Lord calls all of us from the prison of unbelief and bids us to join Him in the freedom of faith. He sends forth His Word to convict all men of their guilt, calling us to repentance, to confession, to true contrition, and ultimately, to belief that the One harassed by the lawyers and Pharisees has died for all of us lawyers and Pharisees.

St. Paul, languishing in prison, teaches us how to live out this freedom won for us by Christ: “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

True humility does not consist of giving lip-service to the abstract theological assertion that we are all sinners. True humility is demonstrated in real confession of real sins – and the blessing of being absolved by a real pastor with real words from the Lord. True humility seeks to serve the Lord and is not interested in social rank or dragging others down – whether through prejudice and looking down on those of a lesser standing, or by plotting and seeking to raise our own reputations at the expense of others.

The Lord is not interested in lip-service. He could not care less how religious we are. He does not kowtow to how much money we give to the church nor how many hours we put in for the sake of the kingdom. He is not impressed that we are pastors, elders, big wheels in the parish or movers and shakers in the local community, or that we are the grandchildren of such people. King Solomon says as much when he exhorts us: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.’”

The lawyers and Pharisees and all unbelievers will be humbled eternally and the seats they think are theirs in the Great Banquet Hall will be taken from them and given to the thieves and tax collectors who do hear the law, repent, hear the Gospel, and believe. The thieves and tax collectors will be elevated from their lowliness and will be received into the king’s presence.

And it all boils down to this: the lawyers and Pharisees did their good deeds to be seen by men, to be exalted by their peers. They had their reward already when their gossip and plotting and self-exaltation landed their Lord on a cross. They had their reward, but their unbelief brought them a different kind of reward: the humiliation of condemnation. By contrast, our Lord’s good deeds were done out of compassion, like a farmer who tends a fallen ox on the Sabbath. The compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ is so great that He even went to the cross for the sins of the world: including the sins of all of us lawyers and Pharisees.

The Lord bids us all to repent, to be hearers of the Word, and doers of the same. He implores us to stop foolishly putting our trust in our reputations, and to stop savaging the reputations of others. He calls upon us to be compassionate and forbearing, not self-righteous and manipulative.

And in such humble pursuit, the people of God, the Church, so despised by the unbelieving world, will be raised from her lowliness and rewarded at the Great Banquet in eternity. The Church is to be busy with works of compassion, to be about the Kingdom, and tirelessly pushing forgiveness. She is not about self-promotion and getting over on someone. We Christians have been forgiven. We have been given the kingdom by grace. We have no reason to glorify ourselves, as we have already been glorified by Him. To Him alone be the glory! The Church is His holy bride, and thus she is exalted to the side of her Bridegroom, showing honor to Him by her compassion and humility.

For “there is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

And this is why the Church “watches Him carefully” and pays heed to His words. Let us all be listening to the Lord so intently in order to learn, in order to be called to repentance, and to be forgiven, so that we learn to crucify our inner lawyer and Pharisee while the Crucified One Himself compassionately exalts us to be with Him in eternity. Amen.

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


Jonathan said...

Needs a good lawyer joke in there, Fr:

What's wrong with lawyer jokes?

Lawyers don't think they're funny, and nobody else thinks they're jokes.

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

Fr. Hollywood,

Try this exegesis on for size.

Many of the Pharisees believed that the kingdom of God belonged to the Jews as Jews in distinction from Gentiles and "unclean" Jews.

However, God was not king. Caeasar was. This was a clear disconnect.

So anxious were some Jews to right this situation that they were willing to resort to terroristic violence against Rome and establish the kingdom of God by force. (Could it be that Barabbas was a Pharisee? I wouldn't doubt it. Consider the murderous Saul, later St. Paul.)

Keeping the Sabbath (and in some cases, keeping regulations that grew up outside of the Bible intended to safeguard the keeping of the Sabbath) was one way of showing in the present that you were indeed a true Jew and thus one of those whom God would show to be in the right (i.e. justify) when he came (or his messiah came representing him) to put the world to rights.

This putting of the world to rights would be the day when God would deal with the Gentile problem once an for all. He would smite the Romans and all others who oppressed His people.

So, for Pharisees of this ilk, and they were the dominant group up until the Jewish Roman war of the late sixties, keeping the Sabbath was a way of affirming your status as God's people and denying that status to anyone who was not given the Sabbath from God (i.e. Gentiles). Keeping the Sabbath was about demonstrating yourself to be one of the chosen, while thumbing your nose at those who clearly were not chosen. Keeping the Sabbath was a revolutionary statement.

In comes Jesus. And He isn't about leading an armed rebellion at all. In fact, pointing to a Roman soldier, He says "I haven't found such faith in all of Israel." Apparently, from Jesus' point of view, the kingdom of God is open to all believers and not just Jews or those who become Jews by assimilation, circumcision, and subsequently keeping the Jewish Law.

As a way of demonstrating the inclusivity of God's kingdom, Jesus heals an outcast on the Sabbath. This is a double whammy. Not only does He bring an outcast into God's kingdom, but He does it on the Sabbath, thus turning notions of violent revolution against the outcasts and Gentiles on its head.

I believe this is, in large measure, why the Pharisees hated Jesus. He was including people in the kingdom that they had no time for.

To them, Jesus replies, "You think that the best seats in the house belong to you. In fact, you think that all of the seats in the house belong to you. You presume too much. Humble yourselves. Make room for the Gentiles and the outcasts to sit at the table with you. I'm bringing them it. If you don't, you may find yourself thrown out of the party all together."

One point of application for today might be this: There is no room for division in the church based on culture, race, nationality, or family heritage. We are all one in Christ.

What do you think?