06 October 2013

The Mulberry Tree and the Deep Blue Sea

Temptations to sin will come.  It is impossible to avoid them.  You live in a fallen and perishing world, a mortal child of sinful Adam.  The devil hates you and assaults both your body and your conscience with great wrath.  The kingdoms of this world entice you with their fake and fleeting glory.  And your flesh hungers for life and health and strength without knowing where to find it.

Be on your guard, therefore.  By the Word and Spirit of Christ, resist temptation and flee from it; that is, fill your ears, your heart and mind, your hands and mouth, with His Word and His good gifts.  Occupy yourself with the life-giving things of your Lord, and give no room to the devil.

And do not be a cause of temptation and stumbling to your brothers and sisters in Christ.  That is to multiply sin upon sin, and to bring death and destruction upon the children of God.  But, don’t.  Do not conspire with the world to entice your neighbor with addictions and vices and idolatries; nor adopt the Satanic accusation of the neighbor who is already bent and broken under his sins.

Rather, repent of your own sin.  Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God.  Turn away from the evil you have done, and do the good that your Lord has commanded.  Let your flesh be daily drowned and destroyed in the ocean depths of your Baptism, in order to be cleansed and sanctified.

In that humility of repentance, and in the confidence and gratitude of your Lord’s forgiveness, restore your fallen brother, or your sister who has stumbled, in a spirit of gentleness and peace.  As you have been rescued from the death and damnation you deserve, so rescue your neighbor.

This is the very opposite of causing one of these little ones to stumble.  It is not politically correct; nor is it to be confused with the sort of “judging” that the Holy Scriptures warn you against.  But the rescue of your neighbor is a twofold taking seriously of sin and addressing it with the Word of the Lord: First of all, by rebuking sin, and second, by forgiving your neighbor for Jesus’ sake.

To “judge” your neighbor is to accuse and condemn; and this, itself, is often a cause of stumbling.  But to “rebuke” your brother or sister, as the Lord Jesus instructs you to do, is to give a warning to the one who is in danger, and to call for repentance, that is, to return to the safety of the Gospel.

Judgment is rightly exercised on earth by those who are given the authority and responsibility to maintain justice, especially for the protection of the weak and the helpless.  The final and eternal judgment of the living and the dead belongs to the Lord alone.  But the rebuke of a brother who sins, in the fear of the Lord, with humility and gentleness, is an exercise of real love.  It is neither fun nor easy, but it is a precious thing to snatch from the flames the one who has fallen into sin.

Because the goal is salvation, you rebuke for the sake of repentance, and you readily forgive the one who repents.  Seven times a day, Jesus says.  And seventy times seven times over.  Without any bitterness, cynical despair, impatience, or resentment.  You forgive, because Christ forgives.

And that is hard, to say the least.  The whole idea and enterprise is impossibly difficult.  There are those who drive you to despair with their incorrigible ways.  You’d rather wring their necks than forgive them, yet again, and give them another chance, when they’ve already burned you before.  Besides, your reason, wisdom, and past experience tell you that nothing is ever going to change.

No wonder the Apostles cry out to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  How else shall they or you put up with it and persist in loving the recalcitrant neighbor who keeps on stumbling and falling into the same old patterns?  It’s no picnic to rebuke sin in the first place, and often not well received.

Pastors, in particular, like the Apostles before them, are tempted to despair, and to suppose that their preaching of repentance is in vain.  The soil they plow is rocky and hard and resistant.  The sheep they tend are stubborn and prone to wander away into danger.  No one seems to care, and positive “results” are few and far between, outnumbered by apparent “lost causes” and disasters.  They look around in dismay and see that righteousness is pummeled by wickedness and violence.

You, likewise, are tempted to despair in your vocation.  You go about your duties and do your job, but it doesn’t seem to matter or make any difference.  You love and serve your neighbor, but your neighbor doesn’t care, and he or she doesn’t respond with similar love and affection for you.  No one notices the work you’ve done; nor do things turn out quite the way you intended and hoped.

Alright, then, but here’s the deal: Your Lord hasn’t called you to work for a paycheck, far less for the praise of men.  Nor has He called you to accomplish and achieve whatever great things you aspire to.  No, He has called you to live and to work to the glory of His Holy Name, and to do so by faith in His Word and promise — a promise, so sure and so certain, it is more solid than gold.

Though it may not appear to be the case (it often doesn’t), the Word of the Lord has the power to rescue and restore the one who has stumbled, and to accomplish the good and gracious will of God, by the way and the means of His own Cross and Resurrection.  That is the contradiction that defies you and your proud reason, not with malice, but with the grace of free forgiveness and salvation.

So, then, stand fast; stay at your post, and stick to your guns, and simply do your job in the peace and confidence of Christ.  Wait upon His Word, and trust that He will bring it to fulfillment in due season.  That is to say, not only will He plant the seed and make it grow, and feed and water the sheep in His green pastures and from His streams of living water; He will also raise up the fallen.

Many of you may already know that a mulberry tree has deep and extensive roots.  It really digs in, and is potentially destructive to nearby structures.  Mulberry trees were not to be planted within 75 feet of a cistern, because they were likely to invade it with their roots and take it over.

But the Word of the Lord is able to uproot the mulberry tree, and to plant it in the sea.  Which is to say that He is able to disentangle and let go the baggage and patterns of addictions, of shameful vices and besetting sins, both in you and in your neighbor.  He is able to uproot the one who sins, and the one who has caused others to stumble and fall, and to plant them in the depths of the sea.

The roots of sin have been searching for water — seeking life — but they have done so by digging deeper and deeper into the ground: returning to the dust from which man was taken, and clinging fiercely to death and the grave, as though it were the answer to your problems and your needs.

Confronting that perversity in yourself and others seems utterly daunting and pointless.

Yet, again, the Word of the Lord does exceedingly more than you could ever hope or imagine.  The preaching of repentance shatters the dirt and scatters the dust to which the roots cling.  And the blessed speaking of forgiveness, patient and persistent, again and again, grants the life that has been missing.  But all of this by the Way of the Cross, which is scary and surprising.

The mulberry tree is ripped out of the soil and thrown into the sea, and surely that is certain death.  Exactly so!  You were searching for the water of life, and now you’re drowning in it, first of all.  That is the way of repentance: You die, in order to live.  The water fills you up and saturates you, cleansing you from sin and every evil, from the inside out, and immersing you entirely into Christ.

It is the Word that does it: Even a very little faith, like a mustard seed, if it lays hold of that Word and speaks what God the Lord has spoken, so shall it be.  Your faith itself is a gift of God, by the preaching and hearing of the Word of Christ; so do not doubt that His Word will do as He says.

Therefore, if your brother sins, rebuke him — in the faith of Christ, and in love for your brother.  And do not throw up your hands in despair and give up, if it seems to do no good; but neither be surprised when your brother repents, acknowledges his sin, and seeks forgiveness.  Where the roots have been allowed to grow unchecked, and they are numerous and deep, it may require seven times a day that you rebuke, and he repents, and you forgive: But, rest assured that Christ will prevail.

So, too, whatever the work that He has given you to do, be patient and persistent in that labor, in the confidence that Christ will accomplish His gracious purposes for you and for your neighbor.  Not as though to earn His thanks or favor, but to please Him by your faithfulness in your duties.  Not for a paycheck or a salary, as though to make a living for yourself, but as living for your Lord.

Does God give thanks to the rose bush for the flowers with which He has adorned it?  Or, does He give thanks and praise to the apple tree for the fruit that He bears and bestows upon its branches?  No, but the rose bush and the apple tree give thanks and praise to Him with their flowers and their fruit, by doing what He has created them to do, and by returning His gifts to the glory of His Name.

It is the same for you, whom the Lord God loves and honors far more than the trees and flowers.

Do not despise the work to which He has called you, nor despair of the purpose for which He has given you to do it.  Rather, find your contentment and satisfaction in the doing of your Lord’s will.

And do not doubt that He will glorify Himself in you — and that He will glorify you in Himself!

He does not owe you anything.  He is not obliged to give you thanks or pay you, simply for doing that which you are obliged to do.  Even at your best, if you were ever able to do and accomplish all that you are commanded, still, you are not worthy to be the slave of this Lord, the one true God.

Indeed, there is no righteousness, merit, or worthiness in you.

But you are the work of His own hands, solely on account of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.  You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for such good works as He has prepared for you beforehand, that you should walk in them by grace through faith in Him who loves you.

So has He raised you from the dust of the earth, and snatched you away from the devil, from out of the fire, and planted you in the deep blue sea of Holy Baptism.  He has plowed your field, and filled your furrows with more than mustard seeds!  He shepherds you in safety and in peace, and, by His Word and Spirit He increases your faith, in order that you may live.

Not as a payment for your services rendered, but as a guest of honor at your Master’s Table, you eat and drink from His hand.  For He does and will take care of you.  Even now, He tenderly invites you to come and sit down at His feast.  He has prepared this Meal for you, by His Cross and Passion, by the shedding of His holy and precious Blood, and by His innocent suffering and death.  So has He clothed Himself in humility, and girded Himself to serve you.

For it is Christ the Lord who has been patient, persistent, and faithful in all things pertaining to righteousness and godliness.  Though He is the greatest in the Kingdom of God, He is among you as a Slave, who plows and shepherds and serves to the glory of His God and Father, and for the good of His people.  He preaches and baptizes unto repentance, unto faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.  He catechizes you with His Word of Truth, which is the Lamp unto your feet and the Light upon your path, so that you are guarded from all danger and guided in His Way of real Life.  He leads you to His Table, where He gives you His Body to eat and pours out His Blood for you to drink, so that you may abide with Him in Peace, in the House of your Lord, forever and ever.

For He Himself, your dear Lord Jesus Christ, has been planted in the depths of the sea, that is, by His own Baptism unto the death of His Cross; and He has been raised by God to life again, by the Glory of His Father — that you might become His brother, or His sister, and live with Him in His Kingdom in the purity of His innocence and blessedness.  So it is in love that He rebukes you with gentle compassion, in order to work His repentance in you, and to raise you up in righteousness through faith in His forgiveness, unto the Life everlasting of your body and your soul.

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

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