What Now?

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:15 mark.

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

There are some things that should go without saying. And yet, sometimes, those same things need to be said. One of the things that should go without saying, but probably needs to be said, is that not every word in the Scriptures is written directly to or about us. Not every word in the Scriptures is written directly to or about us. This should go without saying. After all, the Scriptures are the story of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. But it probably sounds strange to our American ears because for at least a couple generations we’ve been taught to read the Scriptures as if every word applies directly to us and our lives. But it’s just not true.

A couple examples: First and Second Timothy and Titus are letters written by Paul to two pastors in particular places, with instructions about what pastors are to be and do. Not every word applies directly to every pastor at every time, and not every word applies to every Christian. Certainly, we can all learn what pastors are for and what they ought to do, but that doesn’t mean that every word is a word directly to me. When Paul tells Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach and his frequent ailments (5:23), that’s not a word to me. I’m not going to argue with him, but he’s not writing that specific word to me.

Or think of the prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets are writing to Israel and telling them what God has to say to them. Take the favorite passage that appears on religious graduation cards: I know the plans I have for you, says Yahweh, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future. Well, unless you are part of Israel in exile in Babylon, and you’re going to be sent out of Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, those words do not apply directly to you. There may indeed be an indirect application: that is, through Jesus, the promise of God is to bring all His people out of the exile of this world, subject to sin, death, and the devil, and into the new creation and the eternal land of promise. But that is only indirectly to you through Jesus.

One more Old Testament example, which is probably getting a lot of use this weekend: 2 Chronicles 7:13-14, where God speaks to Solomon at the dedication of the Temple: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is a word from God to Solomon for the sake of Israel. It is not a word to Christians in the United States in the 21st century so that if Christians pray, God will somehow vicariously heal America, or for Christians in any other country, for that matter. That was for the Israelites in Israel. The only healing that is coming for America is through the Church when people hear and believe Jesus and are converted by the Holy Spirit by the Word of Jesus. There is no other healing for America or any other nation, except at the resurrection.

Much of this is true also of Jesus’ words in Luke 9-10. In the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus sends out His twelve apostles, whom He has specifically chosen to be the foundation of His new Israel. He tells them to cast out demons, heal the sick, and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come. He tells them not to take extra stuff for the journey, to stay in one house and not move around. Then He sets His face to go to Jerusalem in v. 51, and He sends messengers ahead of Him, to where He is going to go. He continues that in chapter 10, when He appoints six times the 12 apostles to go ahead of Him to the villages and towns where He is about to go. They receive almost exactly the same instructions that the Twelve receive.

But whatever may apply indirectly to us, the commands Jesus gives to the Twelve and to the Seventy-two are not commands to us. Unless Jesus gave you a command to go to Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum, these words are only for them, about what they were to do. Can we learn things, like the fact that pastors should be careful not to give the impression, by moving around a lot, that they’re trying to get to a better and better place, that they’re greedy for material gain? Sure. But even Jesus’ words, “The one who hears you hears Me; the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects the one who sent Me,” which have been applied to preachers of the Word ever since, even those are not a direct word to me. I’m not an apostle. I’m not an eye-witness of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When I preach to you the Word of God, that I’ve received through the prophets and apostles, do you have to listen to that Word? Yes. If I give you some other word than God’s Word, do you have to listen? No. If you reject God’s Word because it comes through my sinful mouth, do you reject Jesus? Yes. And if you reject Jesus, do you reject God altogether? Yes. But the words I proclaim to you don’t come directly from Jesus, as those apostles’ words did. The only words I have to give you are the words of the prophets and apostles, which means that you can judge my word by their words. And you should. But my word is God’s word only indirectly.

Even within the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ command to the apostles changes. In chapter 22, right before His betrayal, suffering, and death, Jesus asks His Twelve: When I sent you out with no moneybag, knapsack, or sandals, did you lack anything? Nothing, they say. But now I say to you, take a moneybag, and a knapsack, and if you don’t have a sword, sell your extra cloak and buy one. Because this word is going to be fulfilled in Me: He was counted with the lawless. Jesus is going to be treated as a criminal, as lawless, and He’s going to be crucified like one. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, that opposition and hostility is going to be directed at His apostles. They’re going to be counted as lawless ones, as well: stoned to death as breakers of the law, martyred, and persecuted. And Jesus will give them the promised Holy Spirit from God, who will be their boldness and courage in the midst of suffering and death.

That hostility and opposition is still directed against Jesus’ disciples, down to this day. We should always be a little nervous when the unbelieving world around us is friendly and welcoming to the Church. Because unbelief is always, always, always opposed to Christ and His Word and His cross. If the world doesn’t oppose the Church, it may be a sign that we are not clinging closely enough to Christ’s cross and Gospel. The opposition comes both from within and from without. Around the world, our brothers and sisters are being arrested and killed, simply because they bear the Name of Christ. They are counted among and killed as the lawless, just as their Lord was. We’ve had a pretty good run of religious freedom in the United States, but perhaps the comfort, complacency, and apathy of American Christians shows that it is a mixed blessing. And we are starting to see the sort of unbelief that puts Christians among the lawless, with their Lord. So after the world attacks God as a foolish invention and imagination, it attacks the commandments in turn. It attacks the Fourth Commandment by denying children a mother and a father; it attacks the Fifth Commandment by attacking life, particularly at its beginning and at its end; it attacks the Sixth Commandment by attacking marriage and tearing apart what God has joined together in a man and a woman. And Christians have been complicit by not taking those things any more seriously than the world takes them, and sometimes less.

So the Church must stand firm, not only when she is opposed with hostility, but when things appear to be going well. We must bear witness, first among ourselves, that marriage, parents, and life are good gifts of God that the commandments are meant to protect. We will repent for our failures, and we will live from the forgiveness of Christ. And then we must work and pray for the good of mothers and fathers; we must work and pray for the good of lives God has created and for whom Jesus has died, both in the womb and in the nursing home, and everywhere in between; and we must work and pray for marriage, for the sake of children, and the world, and the witness of the Church to the union between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride. We will do this for the good of our neighbors, whether they recognize it as good or not. And then, maybe, the Church will be the refuge for those whose lives have been torn apart by hatred for God, for mothers and fathers, for life, and for marriage.

But however that fight goes in the world—and because this world is passing away, we are always fighting the long defeat—however the fight goes, we will not depend for our life on votes, or cultural shifts. Just as Jesus told the Seventy-two not to rejoice even in the good that evil spirits were subject to them, but to rejoice that their names were written in heaven, so we will do likewise. Where our treasure is, our hearts will be. And our treasure is not in the United States. It is not in the First Amendment, or a tax-exempt status, or religious freedom—as good and helpful as those things are. Our treasure is not in freedom, or independence, or the blessings we enjoy in this country. Neither is it in proclaiming the goods of marriage, parents, and life. Our joy and our life are only in Christ.

Why is this so important? Why am I emphasizing it so strongly? It is so that we will not lose our joy and our faith in the midst of this dying world. It is so we always remember that whether things are good or bad, whether we have the freedom to continue about the Church’s business or there is open hostility and opposition; no matter what, we will continue to live and rejoice only in Christ. Our only flag is the cross, and our only pledge is the Creed. We should not confuse the Kingdom of God for any of the earthly kingdoms in which God’s people find themselves. We probably should not fly in this embassy of Christ’s Kingdom the flag of the country in which we are in earthly exile. This may be a better Babylon than some others, but it is still Babylon. But above all, we will not do anything at the expense of giving Christ crucified and resurrected to sinners. He is our life, and even when we are working for the good of our neighbors according to the Law, we will rejoice always and only in Christ. Rejoice not the spirits are subject to you, or that things are good for civil life, but that Satan has been cast out of heaven, and your name has been written there in Christ. Your true citizenship is in heaven; your life is hidden with Christ in God, and in Him is your joy, now and forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/1/22

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