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Count the Cost

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[Jesus said:] “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:26-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus is at the height of His success as we measure it. People are flocking to Him—the numbers growing as He gets closer to Jerusalem. Yet, Jesus has to ruin it by telling the people a bunch of hard truths they can’t handle. He can’t help it. Jesus never compromises the truth, for that would be compromising Himself.

The Lord’s criteria for discipleship are as simple as they sound horrifying: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” You can almost hear the church growth gurus gasp. “That’s not the way to win a following. You have to give the people something they want. Jesus, we know following You involves sacrifice, but if You can, please keep those demands to a minimum. Otherwise, they’ll go and listen to the preacher down the street.”

But that’s not Jesus. He doesn’t want anyone to be His disciple who hasn’t “counted the cost,” for such will not be disciples for long. And let me tell you: The cost of discipleship is high! Remember, Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits Him there. He knows that this crowd will reach its peak on Palm Sunday as He rides triumphantly into the city. He knows that as the week wears on, the crowds will thin. By Friday, they will not cry “Hosanna!” but “Crucify Him!” He knows, in the end, He will be alone. His many followers will abandon Him. Even His Twelve closest friends will scatter. One will betray Him for the price of thirty pieces of silver. Another will deny even knowing Him.

Jesus knows all that, and so He sets forth the conditions for following Him. First, there must be a willingness to leave family ties. The word “hate” sounds harsh to our ears. Jesus means to shock you, to make you realize that nothing dares come before Him in your life as a disciple.         

No, Jesus Christ—Love Incarnate—isn’t commanding you to “hate” as we use and understand the word in English today. For Jesus, “hate” is not so much a feeling, but a choice of the will, a matter of priorities. To “love” one thing and to “hate” another gives preference to the former. Jesus is not calling for you to despise your family members; He is calling upon you to love Him more than them. He is telling you to keep the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” That’s what Jesus means!

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh! That’s all He meant!” you must realize that even this level of commitment is far beyond you. Quite naturally, you place family above the Lord. Stalwart supporters of sound doctrine and church discipline may find fault with a pastor or congregation when that doctrine and discipline is applied to their own wayward children. Spouses and children give in to the temptation to skip worship at the request of an unbelieving family member. And who is courageous enough to correct a false teaching when the family is gathered around the table for Christmas dinner? Nobody. You believe that keeping the peace is more important. The cost of discipleship is high, way more than you are willing to pay.

And just so you understand this clearly, Jesus gives it a second go-around: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

What’s Jesus doing? Not only does He not understand all the latest marketing techniques, He seems to have some crazy death wish. Crucifixion is a cruel and agonizing way to die, a form of punishment reserved for the vilest offenders and sub-human slaves. For the Jews, it was the death of the damned. But here, it looks like Jesus is telling you that you have to embrace this terrifying, shame-filled way of dying, this cross and its curse, in order to be His disciple.

That’s right! That’s exactly what’s He’s saying. If you don’t bear your own cross, you’re incapable of being His disciple. Following Jesus means self-denial. It means the sacrifice of your own will for the sake of Christ.

“Cross” here, does not refer to the troubles that commonly come in life to all people. Many of those come as a consequence of our own foolishness or the sins of others or of just living in a fallen world. Rather, for a believer, “bearing a cross” means to accept whatever suffering might result from a sincere commitment to Christ and His kingdom. Sometimes it means standing toe-to-toe with those who are speaking lies or teaching falsely. Other times it means not speaking up for yourself when you are personally attacked, but rather taking the blows for the sake of the greater good of the Church. For most of the disciples present on that day Jesus spoke these words, bearing the cross was more than just a figurative expression. Their confession of Christ meant their own martyr’s death—often on an actual wooden cross. But even if it does not mean literal death for you, the cost of discipleship is high. It is way more than you can pay. And you better realize that before you begin.

Jesus gives two examples to emphasize this point. The first involves counting the costs of constructing a tower. If you were to launch a major building project, wouldn’t you first sit down to find out how much money you need and how much you have before you begin? Otherwise, you may be mocked for starting something you couldn’t finish. Think also of a king. He’s planning for war, but then finds out he’s outnumbered two-to-one. Knowing he will face certain defeat, wouldn’t his best course be to seek terms of peace before he engages in battle?

Count the cost. You simply can’t afford what it costs to be Jesus’ disciple. You don’t have the necessary level of commitment. You don’t have enough to defeat your enemy. You simply can’t do it. No one can meet such impossible demands. The cost of discipleship is just too high.

So what are you to do? Do you throw in the towel, give up, and say, “Why even bother?” Are you like the rich young ruler who wanted to be a disciple? When he heard what Jesus told him to do—to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor—he simply gave up his desire to be a disciple. Jesus says: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

This news should leave you disturbed, troubled, anxious. But before we go on for relief, let me point out two other things.

First, this text well illustrates why I waste no time telling you that you are saved by your commitment to Jesus or by how much you love Him or how hard you are trying—because no one can do it. No one can achieve the level of commitment to hate his family, hate himself, prepare to die, and renounce all things. I certainly include myself in that list!

Second, and far more importantly, I must point out that I have only spoken in terms of the Law so far. Remember, the purpose of God’s Law: It tells you what God demands of you if you are to be perfectly holy and righteous before Him. It is also to show you your sin, to show you that you cannot do it. When Jesus says this, He is preaching the Law. He is declaring to all who hear that the cost of discipleship is extraordinarily high, and it is one that you in your sinfulness are incapable of paying.

Being Jesus’ disciple is impossible! Believe it; get used to it. You don’t have enough “hate” for the things of this world to love God enough. You certainly don’t have the commitment to bear the cross for your own sins. You don’t have the money, the ability, or the strength to build a bridge across that chasm or a stairway to heaven. That’s what Jesus wants you to learn today. When you count the cost, you’ll discover that the cost of discipleship is just too high!

I said earlier no one can meet such impossible demands; but that’s not completely true. There is one exception! The God-man Jesus Christ. Jesus loved His heavenly Father more than His family and His own life. We read in the Gospels that Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him to plead with Him to stop teaching, maybe even to haul Him away. Rather than give in for the sake of family peace, Jesus continued to do the Father’s will that He might go to the cross for us.

Jesus put His heavenly Father’s will over His own. We hear His prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Though He did not wish to suffer, Jesus gave up His own life to complete His Father’s plan for your salvation.

Jesus kept the Law for you and He gives you the credit for His obedience. By His grace, He covers you with His righteousness. Therefore, the Father looks upon you and does not see your sin; He sees Christ’s perfect obedience. Jesus does not demand that you die for your sin, because He has already died for it. Instead, He calls you to confess your sin, to acknowledge that His death is the one you deserve. And then He declares that He shares His death with you. He joins you into His death so that you do not have to die for your sin yourself.

What you cannot do, Jesus does for you. From the cross, He builds His Church. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. No one can pay what it costs, except Jesus. Only He frees you, a lost and condemned creature. Only He has purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

For you, it’s impossible. The cost of discipleship is too high, way more than you can pay. You just can’t do it by your own reason and strength. But the Holy Spirit has called you through the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, and sanctified, and kept you in the true faith. He does what is impossible—to make you Christ’s disciple, to make you God’s own dear child.

And surprisingly, you will find that you have taken up your cross and followed Jesus. How did this happen? The Apostle Paul says in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, that, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in  a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (vv 3-6).

In baptism, you were crucified into the death of Christ and raised to life in His resurrection. You have eternal life. And you have the promise that though you die, the Lord will raise the bodies of you and all believers on the Last Day.

The baptismal life is one of dying and rising. The Old Adam must be put to death daily. The Old Adam in you should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

That makes bearing your cross an entirely different matter. To bear your cross is to bear Christ’s cross, and it is not nearly as heavy as when He carried it to Calvary. In fact, your burden is as light as a feather—even lighter! You bear His cross when it is traced upon you in Baptism. This is the cross that you might outwardly sketch upon yourself as you hear the Invocation and receive the Absolution—you will feel no greater a weight or pain of Christ’s cross than that, for He has suffered all the weight and all the pain for you.

Rather than demanding your body and blood as a sacrifice for your sin, Jesus gives you His body and blood into death for the forgiveness of your sins. In His Supper, He now gives you His risen body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. That is what it means to bear your cross—it means to be forgiven, for in forgiveness Jesus shares His cross with you, taking away your death and giving you His resurrection.

Therefore, set aside all pretenses of your commitment to Christ, for the Lord exposes how weak and unsatisfactory that commitment is. Instead, boast in the Lord. Confess your sins—including your pride in your dedication to Him, and trust solely in His grace and mercy. Give thanks that He has made you His disciple by His commitment, by His sacrifice, His once-for all ultimate sacrifice.

This is the Good News we proclaim to the world: Yes, the cost of discipleship is high, but it has been paid by Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Living in the Resurrection Now

The Poor invited to the feast - Luke 14:15-24
JESUS MAFA. The Poor Invited to the Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

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[Jesus said]: “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13-14).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

On first reading, this text appears to be an assortment of different, unconnected moments in the ministry of Jesus. We have a healing (vv. 1-6), a parable (vv. 7-11), and then a teaching about regard for the poor (vv. 12-14). When you look at the text more closely, however, you see this all happens on one occasion. The text begins with a reference to a meal on the Sabbath at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees and it is not until verse 25 that we leave this occasion.

Recognizing this unity encourages us to look for the connection among these seemingly unrelated events. Like a friend telling us what happened last night at dinner, Luke relates many of the details of this occasion with something in mind. When you look at what Jesus is doing, you will find the connection: Jesus is patiently revealing what the Resurrection truly means.

What comes to mind when you think about the Resurrection? For some, it might be all clouds and angels and souls taking flight. For others, a reunion with loved ones. For the more Biblically minded, it may even be the broken world suddenly and fully restored. In each of these cases, however, notice how it is an event located in the future. Not something we seriously consider as we choose whether or not to go out to lunch with a transgendered co-worker.

For Jesus, the Resurrection is not just a doctrinal teaching located in the future, or worse yet a line from the Creed that we say and move on. No. It is something which shapes our lives now.

Consider the focused patience of Jesus. He uses questions and healings and parable and direct address, all to bring about a glimpse of His eternal Kingdom among those who are gathered.

The reading opens with Jesus celebrating the restoration that occurs in His Kingdom. He heals the man who has dropsy and, by a question, invites the Pharisees and lawyers to see how this is fitting for the Sabbath, a time of rest in the reign and rule of God.

Receiving no reply to His question, Jesus tells a parable that invites those gathered to see the great reversal happening in the Kingdom of God. God works by grace and, therefore, those who exalt themselves will be humbled but those who humble themselves will be exalted by God.

When there is still no response, Jesus speaks directly to His host, inviting him to live in the liberality of God. The last line of the text seems odd: “For you will be repaid at the Resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). But this one small phrase opens up for us what lies at the heart of these various activities of Jesus.

Here, at a dinner, Jesus is offering a glimpse of the grace that will prevail in His eternal kingdom. The sick will be healed. The poor will be fed. The humble will be honored. The faithful will be rewarded. Even the host can live now in the liberality of God. No need to think of himself or his social obligations. He doesn’t need to look out for himself because he knows that he will be taken care of. Such divine assurance means he is free to extend God’s care to others.

The question this text poses for us today is, “What does it mean to believe in the Resurrection?” Is the Resurrection only about the future? Or, could it be possible, the Resurrection opens our life to the present? If so, how do we go about living in the Resurrection now?

An ancient group of philosophers called the Stoics believed it was important for everyone to remember death each day. Their reasoning was, “You’re going to die. You don’t know when, but you know it will happen.” Making people depressed was not the purpose of this, but rather helping people actually savor life and not sleepwalk through it. They also believed that if you remembered life’s impermanence, you would not be so quick to take your loved ones and friends for granted. Who knows, after all, how long you will have their company, and they yours? There is a good dose of common sense in this perspective.

Yet stoicism doesn’t come anywhere close to plumbing the reasons why Christians, from early times, have also frequently and intentionally remembered death. Stoicism lacked framework to truly see death as it is. To the Stoic, death was just a natural part of the cycle of life: you are born, you grow old, and then you die. Death is just the concluding chapter of life.

Christians, however, remember the beginning: Genesis. We remember that death is not a “natural” part of the world because it is not what God intended for His creation. We remember that the Creator’s gift was life, a life in which all things were good.

“Death” was at first only a word in God’s new creation, part of a warning attached to the fruit of a tree. It had no concrete place in human existence until man wanted his way instead of God’s and let the monster in and turned it loose. When Christians remember death, even remembering it daily, we’re not merely recalling that there is an end to life that comes at an unexpected time. We’re recalling that our first parents’ disobedience let loose an enemy into the very fabric of creation and that it is even now at work in our own bodies and souls.

Every Ash Wednesday, in countless congregations around the world, Christians line up and come forward to receive a strange mark, ashes smeared on their forehead, while hearing the words God spoke to Adam and Eve on the day death entered the human body. “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Yet on Ash Wednesday, the ashes are not placed in a single blob, but in the shape of a cross. This remembrance, then, is not only about being “dead men walking,” headed to the grave. Rather it is also a remembrance that out of incomprehensible love, there came forth from the Father His Only Son, into our flesh to know this death in His own body nailed to the cross.

It was on the very night that His sufferings began that Jesus spoke to His disciples some astounding words: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:1–4).

It sounded so good to the disciples; but Thomas was confused. He said, “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Jesus’ answer is one of His most famous sayings: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Jesus not only provides the way to the home He has prepared; He also is the way. How He does it is called “the blessed exchange.” Jesus prepared a way for us to come home and stay there forever by becoming man, like us in every way except without sin. He willingly entered into our death—even death on a cross—to pour into it His own divine life, destroying death from the inside out.

When the Christian thinks of death daily, he or she also remembers this above all: that Jesus entered into death for us to open the way back to the home God created for us at the beginning. Because this is so, the Christian daily thinks of death in order to learn to think of it as a defeated foe. If through Christ, the way home has already been opened, then death itself has been truly robbed of its sting. Death is no longer seen as the end, but a sound sleep from which Christ will one day awaken us with a word.

Have you ever noticed how most cemeteries are oriented with the graves going east and west? The casket is placed with the head to the west and the feet to the east? There’s a good reason for this custom—the Resurrection. It is thought that on the Last Day when Christ returns to raise the living and the dead, He will come from the east. So, for us Christians, we have this wonderful image that when we arise from the sleep of death, the first thing we will see is our Savior.

Such an unshakeable hope in the Resurrection affects not just how we face death, but also how we live each day now. As Jesus reveals, the Resurrection gives us courage to live each day in the radical liberality of God. Christ is not concerned about social consequences in His kingdom. Let the Pharisees talk—He receives sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:1). He loves justice. He does mercy. He walks humbly with God. Regardless of the consequences. Such living could get one killed, (which it does,) but God, His Father, raises the dead and, through Him, establishes a kingdom where mercy reigns. Even now.

Imagine living in that kingdom now. Something as mundane as inviting people over to dinner can be touched by the reality of the Resurrection. Rather than living in a world governed by social stratification—a world where there are those we invite into our homes and those we do not, people we need to impress to secure our future, and love we need to give or withhold depending upon who is watching—we live in God’s Kingdom governed by His gracious promise of resurrection. No need to push in line or rush about or always seek to be first. You literally have eternity to enjoy the moment. No need to secure our place, that is already taken care of by Christ. Instead, we are free to take care of others. Something as simple as whom we talk to or even how we talk to that person can become an occasion when we confess our belief in the Resurrection of the just.

God Himself is the model of one who invites all classes of people to His great supper of salvation. In the Resurrection, there will be people of all economic strata, including the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We’ll be with them for eternity. How we treat other people matters—because we are living in eternity and our days are expressions, sometimes humble and other times courageous, of the certainty that God ultimately rules over all things with love.

Living in the Resurrection now makes a difference!

When facing health challenges, you can pray for healing, confident that God cares about you, He will be with you, and He promises to work all things for your eternal good. You also have the further assurance, that God will grant you healing—if not in this life, then in the Resurrection.

Living in the Resurrection now makes a difference!

Mourning the death of a loved one, you have a different perspective. You do “not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since you believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep … the dead in Christ will rise … Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

Living in the Resurrection now makes a difference!

What you do or don’t do on the Sabbath is changed when you are living in the Resurrection. Works of mercy, acts of loving our neighbor are not forbidden, but rather encouraged. And living in the Resurrection now, where will you be found each Lord’s Day? In the presence of the Lord, hearing the Word of God. Receiving Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening and preserving of your body and soul unto life everlasting. Celebrating with your fellow Christians, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the glorious foretaste of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Yes, living in the Resurrection now makes a big difference!

So, go in the grace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are living in the Resurrection now. You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The Question Jesus Never Answers

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“[Jesus] went on His way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to Him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” (Luke 13:22-23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

This week’s Gospel reading begins with a question. Luke does not tell us who asked it. But it’s a good question. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

The questioner in the text was probably asking about the people of Israel. There seems to have been debate about which behaviors among God’s people would result in loss of salvation, and it is possible the questioner had this debate in mind. This would also make sense within the context in Luke’s Gospel. He has been highlighting the increasing opposition between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, which will reach its climax when Jesus finally finishes His journey to Jerusalem.

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

Some of the rabbis of the day taught that all Israelites would have a share in the kingdom to come. After all, they are the chosen people of God. Descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Others taught that, yes, Israel is God’s chosen people, and He saves all of those who observe the civil, ceremonial, and moral aspects of the Law. The Pharisees emphasized their traditions, some 600 plus rules that “helped” you keep the Torah, the Law given through Moses. Jesus answers the question in quite a different way. As He often does, Jesus replies with a parable.

Several of the parables of Jesus compare salvation to a great feast, or banquet, given by a king. That is also the picture He uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a door. The first thing Jesus says about that door is that it is narrow. A narrow door prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time.

That narrow door is a symbol for Jesus Himself. One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus. Jesus urges His hearers to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” A Greek word is used in the original text which suggests a contest or struggle to enter. The struggle is not against other people but rather against our own sinful flesh and the temptations of the devil.

Jesus has something else to say about that door. The time will come when the Master of the house is going to close that door. There will be some who come knocking on the locked door demanding entry. But just knowing the Master of the house will not cause Him to open. Jesus is obviously picturing Himself as the Master since the people speak of His teaching in their streets. Just as the time will come when the unfruitful tree will be cut down (Luke 13:9), so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: don’t delay but strive to enter now.

Finally, we have a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables. As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there. But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in. Weeping and gnashing of teeth will express their disappointment and shock. They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who hear the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet.

But theoretical questions framed in the third person “put off repentance and do not lead to faith.”[i] Jesus will not let a questioner examine others without first examining himself. So Jesus makes it personal. He responds with direct warnings in the second person: “[You] strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “When … you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’” (Luke 13:25). “Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’” (Luke 13:26). “When you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28-29). These warnings seem to say, “O questioner, don’t worry about the others at this point. The more pressing question is will you be saved?”   

“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” Jesus urges. “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). The command to “strive” does not mean “that moral effort is necessary in order to enter the kingdom,”[ii] nor does it mean entrance is gained by exercising “human responsibility.”[iii] Rather, the struggle through which one enters is repentance, which is a work of God in the human heart. The struggle is produced when the Word of God—such as the teaching of Jesus here—calls one to repent and trust in Christ, but sinful human nature wars against God’s Word. The struggle is resolved as the old Adam is put to death by the Law and the person of faith is raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.

Entrance through the narrow door is gained not en masse by nationality or religious affiliation, but rather, individually, one sinner-at-a-time, by those who repent and see in Jesus the Lord of the eternal heavenly banquet.

But the question still stands. How many will be saved?

Jesus doesn’t answer it directly. Instead, He focuses attention on the Master. The people who are excluded, who are “evil,” literally “unrighteous” (not declared righteous by faith), are not known by the Master (Luke 13:27). Twice the Master says He does not know where they come from, even though they ate together and listened to Him teach (Luke 13:26).

The baptism of John and the preaching of the kingdom by Jesus had provided them with a narrow but opened door. Because they refused to repent and recognize Jesus as the Master of the banquet, they now stand on the outside. He denies that He knows them, even as they have failed to confess Him. He will not open to them, for the time of patient forbearance, of preaching and catechesis, when they were invited to know (believe in) Jesus, is finally over.

Jesus does not really answer the question that He is asked. Rather, He is saying to all who will listen, “Just be sure that you are going to be saved.”

The closest Jesus comes to answering the question is verse 29. He does not say how many will be saved, but that those who are saved will come from every direction—east and west, north and south. This reminds us that no single group has a monopoly on access to the Master. Through (and sometimes despite) us, God is reaching out to all nations. There can be no circling the wagons with the Gospel.

The Lord makes this clear in our Old Testament lesson: “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see My glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard My fame or seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord … to My holy mountain Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:18-20). Those nations mentioned to symbolize the worldwide gathering of the redeemed were on the outer perimeter of ancient Israel: Tarshish (modern Spain) to the west; Pul and Lud to the south (Egypt and Ethiopia); and Tubal and Javan to the north (Greece and Turkey).

Through Isaiah, God directs us to see what He would do with the believers that survive the coming judgment of Jerusalem. God will send some of the remnant of believers to be His missionaries. They will go out into the four corners of the world and bring scattered Jews to faith in the Messiah. They will convert Gentiles from all nations and gather them into the Church as well. Through their work, the Holy Spirit will gather believers into the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church will not be confined only to Jews, but all believers will be related by their faith in Jesus. Regardless of their nationalities and origins, they will be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.   

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

It is an important question to be sure. All Christians ask it at one time or another. You ask it as you wonder about neighbors who are barely connected to a church. You ask it as you pray yourself to sleep worrying about your child or grandchild who has drifted from the faith. You ask it as you notice members of the congregation who seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. A majority of Americans continue to identify as “Christian” in surveys. But when you consider how many have a meaningful connection to a Christian congregation, “few” seems a more accurate answer than “many.”

But still, Jesus doesn’t give an answer. Instead, He turns attention to the Master. To be saved, to be welcomed to the feast, is to be known by the Master. Jesus does not explicitly identify the Master in this text, but His behavior immediately prior to and following this text makes it clear that He is the Master (see His healing on the Sabbath in 13:10-17 and 14:1-6). In His resurrection from the dead, He definitely shows Himself to be the Master over all things.

The question we should be asking, therefore, is not how many will be saved. But rather, does the Master know me? In business they say it’s all about whom you know. With respect to salvation, it’s all about Who knows you.

Your Master knows you. This is a gracious knowing, to be sure. The Master created you. He sees you. Despite your unrighteousness apart from Him, He still loves you. He forgives you. He lives a perfect obedient righteous life in your place. He dies on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. He rises from the dead to give you eternal life. He sits at God’s right-hand interceding for you and reigning over all things for your salvation. He sends you His Holy Spirit to give you new birth.

God has made you His own child through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. He declares you righteous, opens the door to you, and welcomes you to His table—both here and now in the Sacrament, where He gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. And on the Last Day, He will return to raise all the dead and bring you and all His children to live with Him for eternity and join Him in the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. To be known and loved by the Master is a wonderful thing.

I bet for most of you one of the first Sunday School songs you learned began with the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know…” It’s a good reminder of Jesus’ love for each of His little ones, including you and me. But today I’m going to suggest a little twist on this old favorite: “Jesus knows me, this I love.”

And what about those who are not present? The neighbors and children and delinquent members who are far off? The promise in verses 29-30 offers hope: Many people will come from the four corners of the earth and recline at table in the kingdom. The last shall be first. Many who think they will be saved will not; but many whom we might not think will be there, will be there, saved by God’s rich and amazing grace.

This also offers motivation for you and me to continue praying and continue reaching out to others with the Master’s promise. “Jesus knows you,” we can assure them. “Come on in while the narrow door to salvation is still open!” And then, together, we graciously welcome them in the Master’s name.

For only in that name, do we find forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

So go in the peace of the Lord and serve His people with joy. The narrow door is open to you. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] M. Franzmann, Concordia Self-Study Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 1979) NT, 72.

[ii] I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 565.

[iii] J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, World Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 734.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Comes to Divide

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[Jesus said:] “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“This is the Gospel of the Lord,” we say each week after reading the Gospel, but there is no good news in these words from Jesus this week. It’s a hard text to preach on. The difficulty stems from a dominant (and often unquestioned) cultural assumption about God and His relationship to us. As a rule, Americans tend to believe life is primarily about the pursuit of happiness. They also believe that God, if and when they consider Him, exists to help them in their pursuit. This is why most prayers are for good things—like healing, favorable weather, economic growth, reconciliation, wisdom, strength, and … peace.

But here is the rub. Jesus is clear in this text: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). That’s not quite what we would expect Jesus to say. And I must admit it would be easy to pass on the Gospel reading this week and go with a different text. But I would suggest that our difficulty with this text means we need to hear it and take Jesus’ words to heart and ponder them all the more closely. This text confronts some of our deeply held views about God and our desire for peace.

As a pastor, I see more than enough division—divided families, divided congregations, divided denominations, a divided nation—and I work hard to bring peace. I’ve counseled families who are divided. I’ve met with couples who are in deep conflict, even contemplating divorce. I’ve seen firsthand what division can do to a congregation. Sadly, our own synod is divided—some calling themselves confessional, others missional. Some conservative, others moderate. And in our nation? The politics of personal destruction and partisan division rule the day.

Yet, Jesus states clearly that He is in the business of dividing. Jesus comes to divide—houses and families. Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This needs to be unpacked, of course. God’s ultimate purpose is not to divide spouses or separate parents from their children. His chief goal is to separate us from our selfishness and our sin, and in doing so, to unite us with Himself and all believers. His words in the reading today describe what happens when that division does not take place. To use a theological term, Jesus’ dividing work is His alien work. It is, indeed, His will and His work, but it is not His primary will and work. This division serves to accomplish Jesus’ ultimate will and proper work, which is the redemption and salvation of mankind.

For those who were originally there to hear Jesus say these things, His words would not have been as jarring. Luke 12 falls in the middle of the travel narrative in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, teaching the crowds. His message was not soft and flowery. Much like Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading for today, Jesus was calling them to turn from their sins and repent.

Jesus came to save us from sin. That is why He became flesh. That is why He lived a perfectly holy life. That is why He submitted Himself to endure His death on a cross. That is why He rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All of this was for you and all the world—to open the gates of heaven once more, that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

However, this grace is—by definition—a gift. Jesus offers it to all by means of His Word, but He forces it upon nobody. Not everyone will hold onto the gift of life He gives. Many in their sinfulness will reject it, throw it away. There will be those who repent and those who do not. There will be believers and unbelievers. That is the division that Jesus brings, that Jesus gives.

It is a blessed division. Apart from Christ, all would be lost. Because of Christ, many are saved.

But you know how it often goes: When division arises, it’s the Gospel that gets the blame.

It doesn’t make sense to blame the Gospel. Picture the aftermath of a shipwreck with survivors flailing around in the water trying to escape drowning. A rescue ship has arrived on scene, with rescuers pulling survivors aboard so that they’re safe. The rescuers are dividing the drowning from death to life. But instead of rejoicing to join those on-board ship, imagine some in the water screaming that it’s wrong that those on board are different. Imagine them declaring that the rescue ship should be scuttled so that everyone is united in sinking once again.

That’s the position in which the Church finds itself today, and always, in the world. You’re safe aboard the ark of the Church, saved by Christ from death to life. As the Church, we proclaim that there’s plenty of room on board; but the world will declare that Christianity is divisive for proclaiming life in Christ.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is a statement that divides between those who believe it and those who do not, and there will always be pressure exerted on the Church to change that confession to something like “Jesus is one lord among many.” But that says that every false god is as worthy of honor as Jesus. That leaves everyone without hope, united in hopelessness: everyone’s sinking, and there’s no true Savior to rescue. No, it’s far better to rejoice in the dividing Savior, to declare, “Jesus is the one true Lord and Savior—and He has died to save you, too!

If you think about it: Even a worship service creates division. Everyone is invited and all are welcome to attend, but a worship service is designed foremost to feed the people of God. It is the family meal, where the Lord feeds His beloved children. Some will visit a worship service and not like what they hear—I’m not so much speaking of style as I am of content. Apart from faith, people will not like the Gospel. This creates a division—some believe the Gospel and some do not.

As long as sinners remain, the division Jesus brings will be apparent. This is an important truth to accept, because many will argue that division is proof that Jesus isn’t there. Many will argue that peace and quiet is the proof of God’s presence. Look at the Old Testament lesson, the time of Jeremiah. God complains about the false prophets who proclaim “peace, peace,” where there is no peace. That’s the very sort of peace that Jesus comes to destroy, because it’s a false peace that denies the need for grace.

So it’s left to Jeremiah to be the bearer of bad news, to declare that the sin of the people has divided them from God, that judgment is about to fall with a heavy hand. And, who does everybody blame for causing division? Jeremiah, for telling the truth. But while he received the blame of man then, he now rests from his labors in heaven.

So there is such a thing as “bad peace” even as there is “good division.” But even “good division” is not without pain and cross, conflict and loss.

There are two places where this division becomes especially acute and painful. Jesus mentions one explicitly in our text: it is within families where some believe in Christ and some do not. This division may manifest itself in a subtle tension when some leave for church and some do not; or an underlying worry for the souls of those who don’t believe; or it may be open warfare when a non-Christian makes moral choices that contradict Scripture. This is a difficult cross for believers to bear, and the temptation will be to blame Jesus for the division, to decide that your loyalty to family is more important than your faith in Christ.

If you are in this position, you are in my prayers: and I pray that you would be delivered from the temptation of blaming the Lord. And I give thanks to God that He has divided you to life so that you might be His instrument in your own home and among close friends, that you might with love and patience speak His saving Word to them. There may be distress, but God will grant you the grace and faith to be His blessed instrument there.

The other place is within the family of the Church. The “problem” with the Church, of course, is that it is full of sinners; and where you’ve got a group of sinners gathered around the holy things of God, divisions are bound to develop along the way. I’m thankful that, at present, we have no great divisions within this congregation—it doesn’t mean that we’ve strayed from the Gospel, but rather that the devil’s attacks at present are of a far more personal nature on different members in order to harm the body of Christ here.

So when trouble arises, we first ask the question: is the disagreement over doctrine or over some other debatable matter? If it is over a matter of Christian freedom, then we respond by making sure that the strong in faith care for the weak. None of us is to try to get his way, but to look out for everybody else. This love for one another goes a long way in preventing people from being divided from the flock. And where it is a matter of clear, biblical doctrine, we firmly hold fast to it without compromise. We do so because we do not want to be divided from God for the sake of a manmade peace. We want to remain divided from death and united in Christ.

Because Jesus comes to give division, He divides you from death to life, from sin to holiness. Why, the word “sanctify” means “to set apart,” to divide away from that which is common or unholy. By His grace, He has set you apart from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from grave to heaven, from “enslaved to the devil” to “child of God.” He has done so by enduring the cross, that baptism of fire which damned Him so that you might be purified for His sake.

Blessed are you! For Jesus has come to divide you from death and give you true peace. He does so with these words: You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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