Trinity 8 Sermon, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Take my word for it, this will not be your favorite sermon.
And, that’s okay.
Because Jesus’ sermon, in today’s Gospel lesson, is no one’s favorite sermon—and it’s Scripture.
But before we get to that—I have two rhetorical questions for you.
They’re rhetorical questions—the answers are implied. These should be softball questions—the answers should be easy.
Would you rather hear a sermon preached by Jesus or a false prophet? The answer is, of course, is Jesus.
That’s one. And this is the second:
Would you rather hear a sermon that says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) or a sermon suggesting that (A) Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation, and (B) Only God can forgive sins?
Be careful. Which would you rather hear?
I hope you’d want to hear the first.
Those are Jesus’ own words.
His very first sermon—Matthew chapter four verse seventeen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When Jesus begins His ministry—that’s what He preaches. And, really, He never stops preaching that.
As for that other sermon—those are the words of false prophets.
“Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation” (AC IX.1). I’m sure that makes all of us a more than a little uncomfortable, but that’s from the Augsburg Confession—the foundational document and confession of the Lutheran Church.
I believe those words. This congregation believes those words. Every Christian should believe those words, because Jesus says, “Believe and be baptized and you will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
The testimony of Scripture is united in this, that the Christian life includes Baptism. It is impossible to be a Christian and to spurn Baptism. It is impossible to remain secure in the faith and choose not to be baptized.
That’s not what Scripture teaches.
But we like to hear that Baptism isn’t necessary, because we like to hear that nothing is necessary.
We like to bring up the difficult cases where, for example, a child dies without having been Baptized.
Baptism is necessary. It’s normal. It’s the rule.
And, like King David, when a child dies before receiving the sign of the covenant, we flee for refuge to God’s infinite mercy.
David confessed that his son would not come to him (because he had died) but that he, David, would go to his son—he would see him again (cf. 2 Samuel 12:23) in the resurrection.
That a child dies without Baptism does not require condemnation and hell for that child. And that’s not a reason not to baptize.
The rule is, “Believe and be baptized and you will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
False prophets preach the exceptions—not the rule.
It’s the same with the second half of that false sermon.
It sounds so pious—to say that only God forgives sins. We can’t emphasize the forgiveness of sins from God to us too much; however, the second half of that false sermon fails quickly.
We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (cf. Matthew 6:12). Very clearly, we forgive as we have been forgiven.
But Jesus also says to the first pastors, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Very clearly, we forgive as we have been forgiven.
And again, how many times have you heard these words: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins…”
The Christian’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness. Jesus says, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).
But we like to hear the pious-sounding lies, sometimes.
We don’t always want to hear “Repent!”
We never like it.
We don’t always want to hear “Baptism is necessary.”
We don’t always want to hear that Man can and does forgive sin in the place of God.
That’s why Jesus warns us as He does.
There’s no gospel in what Jesus says here. That’s why this is no one’s favorite sermon. Jesus preaches the Law, to convict us of sin—and to show us the right way to behave, the right way to treat false doctrine among us.
Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize [false prophets] by their fruits…”
He goes on: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23).
Bearing fruit is a wonderfully obvious thing.
A peach tree bears what? Peaches.
An apple tree? Apples.
See how easy this is?
And what fruit does a Christian bear? Words and deeds faithful to God, that is, true doctrine and good works.
It’s impossible for an unbeliever to bear the fruits of a faithful tree. They may look the part. They may teach pious sounding lies. “But inwardly [they] are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
This is why it’s good to hear “Repent!”
This is why it’s good to hear “Baptism is necessary for salvation” and “My forgiveness is God’s forgiveness.”
It starves the wolves and feeds the sheep.
Or, to say it in a less poetic way, Jesus’ warning, specifically, and true doctrine, generally, isn’t what we want to hear. It’s certainly not popular. It’s no one’s favorite thing.
But it’s what we need to hear. It’s what Jesus says to us.
It’s the tough saying we’d rather ignore that’s actually meant for our help and comfort.
The rest of Matthew chapter seven, the context for today’s Gospel lesson, fills in the blanks and helps us understand Jesus’ warning in the context of the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Christ.
Jesus says in the verses just before today’s Gospel lesson: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
That makes sense to us, because we’ve been raised in the Church and understand it through Lutheran-colored glasses.
But it doesn’t make sense.
It’s another reversal that, originally, would have stupefied Jesus’ hearers.
It’s typical of major buildings—capitols, hospitals, universities, you name it—to have before them a major road, a wide and easy path.
It makes sense—the places you want to go are easier to get to than the places you don’t want to go.
Have you ever heard of “cow paths”?
That’s what’s normal.
But Jesus reverses it.
It’s not where you want to be, heaven, that’s easy to get to.
It’s not the words you want to hear that you need to hear—that Jesus often speaks to us.
Where you want to go—the kingdom of God—the path is difficult. Narrow. And few are those who find it.
Where you don’t want to go, hell—all but one road named Jesus leads there. And it’s an easy trip to make.
Continuing that thought, Jesus then proclaims today’s Gospel lesson: “Beware of false prophets…” (cf. Matthew 7:15ff).
After that He says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).
A good tree bears good fruit.
The one who bears the will of God the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven.
And the one who hears Jesus’ words and bears them is like a wise man who builds on the rock.
It may seem strange to be warned of false prophets or to be taught doctrine.
In my lifetime, it was popular amongst some of the leadership of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to say that “doctrine divides.” I forget exactly what they say united us, some gimmick, I’m sure.
But doctrine, teaching, is life, as the Proverb says: “Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life” (Proverbs 4:13).
And St. Paul writes this to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). That’s you.
So, this is the exhortation Jesus speaks to us today: take the narrow path.
Beware false prophets.
Build on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ.
Or, to say it in a less poetic way, read your Bible. Pray the catechism. Rejoice in the doctrine of the Church.
This is the good fruit that faith bears.
This is the good and true foundation on which to build your house and family. It will survive the storm. It has.
The narrow and lonely path of Christ and Him crucified.
In a few minutes, we’ll sing these words:
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word; / Curb those who by deceit or sword / Would wrest the kingdom from your Son / And bring to nought all he has done.
But perhaps we can say it this way—not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear:
Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be Baptized and you will be saved!
In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you of all your sins.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!