Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2014 (Proper 18 A)
Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Become like children and have to humility to ask for what is needed
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our Lord.
Daddy, will you make us pancakes this morning? Those words are a joy for a father to hear. On this side of heaven the answer can’t always be yes, for various reasons, but a child coming and asking for such a simple thing, knowing that they can only have it if their father or mother gives it to them is a true display of humility. As much as my children like to help make pancakes, as much as they are learning everyday to do more and more on their own, they are not yet at the point where they can read a recipe, accurately measure ingredients, thoroughly stir them and then pour the batter on a hot griddle. The very question shows humility, they understand at least in this instance, what they are capable of and what they are not.
That is Jesus point that Jesus is making when He says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
The sin that infects you is the same sin that affects the disciples who ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The problem isn’t so much wanting to know who is the greatest, but thinking that it might be you. Jesus response is first to tell them that without a little child’s humility you won’t even been in the kingdom of heaven let alone the greatest.
The little child understands that she needs her father to make her pancakes, the Christian understands that she needs God’s grace and mercy to see the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus goes on to explain how repentance, the turning from sinful pride to humble dependence lies at the heart of the Christian life.
When Jesus speaks of temptations to sin, he is using a word that means a trap or a stumbling block. Yes there will be things in life that try to trap us, snares set in our path by the devil and the world so that we fall away from Christ. But every time somebody falls away from Christ it is because he first thought too highly of himself. Either one thinks he knows better than God’s Word, or he is not a sinner and therefore doesn’t need Christ, or perhaps he believes himself to be a sinner so great that God cannot forgive him. But even that is not humility for it assumes that God’s Word becomes null and void by our actions. So you see to fall into sin, as Jesus speaks of it hear, is to think more highly of oneself than one ought.
Such temptation are bound to come Jesus says. The devil the world and our sinful flesh will always prepare traps for us that tempt us to turn away from God. Indeed that is what the serpent does in the Garden. He gets Adam and Eve to turn away from God, to set God’s Word aside and eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, to take for themselves rather than wait for God.
Jesus warns us that those traps are still sure to come, so do not be surprised when you stumble upon them in your life. The greater sin, Jesus says, is to become the trap yourself. To be the one who leads others away from Jesus is a greater sin than simply transgressing the commandments.
Here especially false teachers are denounced. For those who promote false doctrine are leading others away from Christ into their own falsehoods. That is the opposite of humility. As Jesus said of the Pharisees, they are blind guides leading the blind and both will fall into the pit. Yet the Church, following Jesus in our text, has always distinguished between those who hold to false doctrine and those who teach it. Luther will often speak compassionately towards those who remains under the errors of the papacy because they had always been taught such errors. He even acknowledge that many of them because they had been baptized and had heard the word of God at least occasionally, were truly Christians. But on the other hand he renounced the teachers of the papacy as those who should know better, but were leading others astray. Those he had very harsh words for. I am convinced that is the exact same point Jesus is making when he says, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”
Now many people today object at the harsh words Luther and others who followed him have used in their debates with teachers of other denominations. Our society today desires tranquility more than peace. The sea is tranquil as soon as the hurricane has passed, but the town on the harbor only has peace when all the ships have safely returned to port. Peace in the Church comes only from Jesus. We can ignore false teaching and let things remain tranquil on the surface, but will not be peace as long as false teachers are leading God’s people astray.
As long as people are stumbling the Church may not settle for tranquility, but must identify and denounce stumbling blocks, because only when the erring have returned will there truly be peace. Yet there is the desire among many to settle for tranquility. It is easy for us to sit here and say, we have our ninety nine, who have never left, let’s be content and let those who wander wander.
But Jesus will have none of that. He risks everything for those who have strayed. Though we have fallen into the traps of the devil and we have even become traps and stumbling blocks for others, we have turned away from God and led others away from Him, Christ does not turn away from us. He sets His face toward the singular goal of returning us to His Father. And nothing causes Him to stumble on His way to rescue us.
The temptations of Satan in the wilderness did not cause Jesus to fall. The stumbling block placed before Him by Peter who urged Him not to suffer and die, did not slow Him down. Jesus did not stop His effort to rescue you when it meant His disciples disowned Him, the leaders of the people mocked Him, the soldiers spit on Him and He hung dying on the cross and His Father forsook Him. No, He remained in perfect humility and commended His soul into the hand of the One who forsook Him.
In Christ you see the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And apart from Him no one will enter heaven, but in baptism He turns you. He grants you His humility, His faith, His life. He puts you in your proper place not the place you would take for yourself as the greatest in the kingdom, but the place of humility, yet with the honor of calling God your Father.
For what then shall we ask our dear Father in heaven? Pancakes, or the forgiveness not only for the sins our neighbors, that they might repent and join us as His little children depending on His every Word for everything needful, but also forgiveness for our own sins—our sins that lead others to turn away from Christ because we bear God’s name but do not live as His children, our sin of letting our neighbor stray without seeking his return;our unwillingness to practice Church discipline because we desire tranquility in the church more than the peace of God that passes all understanding for both ourselves and for our neighbors; our sin of delighting in pointing out the sins of another, not so that they repent, but so that we can be vindicated before men? Dear Father in heaven, for the sake of your Son loose us from all this sin and bind us to your mercy.
For Christ’s sake, it is done.