Lord’s Day 24.
Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Most of the times when we read the Gospel according to Luke, what we read makes us happy. Luke relates the words of Elizabeth, mother of John, ‘In these days [God] has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ He informs us
about Mary’s happiness when she becomes the mother of the Lord, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ In the weeks before Christmas and on that day itself, we are automatically drawn toward the joyful words of good tiding of Luke. But the words we just read in Luke 17 are of a different character. The period of Christ’s life and work Luke relates in that chapter was apparently a time of depression. Warning after warning, critical remark after critical remark, not just written down by Luke, but literally spoken by the Lord. ‘Jesus said.’ ‘He replied.’ The opening of Luke 17 is a string of citations that kind of hold us down. Just read along with me.
‘Woe to that person through whom will come what causes people to sin.’ If
you’re a child and one of your parents corrects you, the tone of your father or mother’s voice tells you how far you still can go. And when they raise their voice you just know you better stop, or you’ll get it. We don’t hear the voice of our Lord here, but when Luke
adds that old word ‘woe,’ we know we’ve reached the limit. As a Bible reader, you probably are familiar with that expression. ‘Woe.’ And as a Bible reader, you might well be curious to know who will have it this time. The gentile peoples? The leaders of the people? The scribes and Pharisees? But no, this warning ends with the words, ‘So watch yourselves.’ Then you know who has reached the limit. You have. And apparently things are still to get worse. For Jesus said, ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come.’
How’s that? You are supposed to watch yourselves, that you don’t cause people to sin,
and at the same time it will happen. What makes them sin will come. These words, this chapter is not encouraging.
Just listen how the Lord continues. ‘If [your brother] sins against you seven times
in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.’ So the disciples ask, and we ask the same, ‘Lord, increase our faith’ – for for forgiveness, we
need faith. But the Lord answers that just a grain of faith would be enough already to move mountains. That is a depressing message for us, who don’t even have enough faith to move a molehill. And this whole episode ends with the conclusion, ‘We are unworthy
servants; we have only done our duty.’ Therefore, the conclusion of the disciples and for any reader of the first verses of Luke 17 must just be depressing. The Lord won’t make a
profit on us. That’s what is meant by the expression ‘unworthy servant.’ The Lord won’t make a profit on us.
1. The first thing that we as believers then have to do is to admit that these words of Jesus actually hurt us. I know most of you are seasoned Bible readers, and that’s exactly why I have to warn you, or should I say, us. We, who are well trained Bible readers, we have to take care not to cover the stinging words of our Lord with a blanket of familiarity. When the Lord wants to make some critical remarks, some sharp warnings, we have to listen first. He speaks words of truth, even if He isn’t always nice. In Luke 17, the Lord goes against our human calculations, against what within our interactions is considered acceptable, against our relational administration.
The first critical point Jesus makes is that we might become responsible for things that cause people to sin, especially the people Jesus calls ‘the little ones.’ He’s not warning you that you might be the direct cause of someone else’s sins, but He’s warning you against the indirect effects of your behaviour on other people, especially on the little ones. Now I think it’s in our nature, when we move forward, to look ahead and to look up. We want to know if we make progress, and we want to know what the people above us think of it, or the people surrounding us. What happens in the wake of things is secondary,
and some collateral damage is inevitable. But Jesus holds us responsible also for the remotest consequences of our behaviour. That hurts.
The second things He says is then, that you are called to forgive, again and again. Doctor Luke prescribes this drug, seven times a day. Another gospel at another occasion says seven times seventy in total. Anyway, more than we can deliver. Do you remember the last time you actually forgave somebody? Or (sorry for being cynical, and don’t feel
hurt if it doesn’t apply to you) - or can’t you remember the last time you forgave
someone? I really think our Lord Jesus Christ for one reason or another wants us to be honest here, also when it comes to our failures and shortcomings, even if that doesn’t feel
good. Forgiveness sometimes seems to be against human nature. It’s way more convenient to remember and to remind people who wronged you. That’s how we keep
track of interactions with others. That’s the way our relational administration works. And
Jesus asks us to let go.
The third critical question of the Lord is about our faith. I just suppose that you who are here are all believers, one way or another. And I guess most of you would consider your faith to be average or so. Now maybe you can imagine someone you know who has a lot of faith, a strong faith, you name it. Imagine you taking him or her with you to Cultus Lake and asking him or her to focus on a small tree, just a bush will do, and then move it by pure faith into the lake. Will that happen? I don’t think so. Our Lord told his disciples, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.’ A mulberry tree is not
that big. A mustard seed is really small. Our calculations on the actual size of our faith are apparently not the way Christ sees it, nor wants it to be.
This whole approach of Jesus Christ doesn’t make life easier for us. Since in this
world you have to be aware of your qualities and you have to stand up for your rights, you very easily make the mistake of approaching God in the same way. Now I know you all are believers. This is not the way you are used to go to the Lord. But you have to realize that there is a heathen within you, who is always willing to hire out himself to the
gods. A heathen within you, who knows his qualities and what he deserves. But that’s not the attitude Christ teaches us. ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ Do you feel how this confession is hurtful for the heathen inside us? This is not a natural confession; this is not how the world should work according to us, to our old nature. Christ really has to compel us to confess, ‘Lord, you won’t make a profit on us.’
So let me repeat your own confession, Q/A 62 of the Heidelberg Catechism. ‘But
why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it? Because the righteousness which can stand before God’s judgement must be absolutely
perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.’ Lord, you truly won’t make a profit on us.
2. Now that we are confronted by Jesus Christ with the huge difference between what the Lord could expect from us, and what we actually give Him, now we are ready to take a second look at a deeper level. Apparently the administration of grace differs fundamentally from our relational bookkeeping. Apparently He calculates loss and profit in a different way. That’s why the Heidelberg Catechism asks in Q/A 63, ‘But do our good works earn nothing, even though God promises to reward them in this live and the next?’
Now one could interpret this question from a minimalist point of view, that we really have to understand that we are nothing and that we never will be more than nothing. Then the Catechism would only pretend a real question, while underneath the only reason for asking is to make us understand there is no escape. That’s what happens in Lord’s
Days 5 and 6, for example. Then in this case the Catechism would be like a strict school teacher, proactive against you trying to find a way to get away with it. Now the Catechism can act like that, just as our Lord Jesus Christ sometimes is a strict teacher. See Luke 17. But in this case, the purpose of the Catechism is not to prevent us from escaping judgement; it’s actually showing a way out. If God Himself were nothing but a strict master, than the answer to this question would be, forget it, period. But God’s
bookkeeping of good and bad deeds is not directed toward correct payment. In his administration of grace things work quite different.
Therefore we have to see Q/A 63 in the light of the grand opening of the Heidelberg Catechism. What is your sole comfort in life and death? The fact that I belong to Jesus Christ, who bought me with his precious blood. That’s how God sees us, because He wants to see us like that. That’s how He sees all those in themselves far less than
perfect good works of us. We, we have to realize, even if I did all I had to do, because of who I am it will never be enough, never enough, never. Lord, you won’t make a profit on us. No, but God’s accounting works completely different. We don’t have to return Him
any profit. He made the choice to amaze us with the added value of his grace. He is happy when a child comes to Him empty handed so that He can fill them with joy. The administration of grace.
But then we have to make a choice. And because of who we are, this choice is a difficult one. Look, if even the reward of your good works is nothing but grace, then everything is grace. To accept that reward of grace implies that you distance yourself from every human claim that God and the world ought to be pleased with your contribution. This is truly a matter of the heart, your inner attitude. I have no problem if you enjoy what you manage to do, running a household, doing your daily work, I’m fine
with that. But here you stand before God and now you have to admit, Lord, you make no profit on us. That’s a hard thing to admit. But please realize how things really are. Here you stand before God and He shows you how deep his love for you is in Jesus Christ. Why on earth would you even try to get your good works acknowledged, when Christ is offering you his reward – for free?
Whoever confesses to live by grace and grace alone, he will be rewarded, both in this life and the next. I’m afraid I have to explain that a little bit. I’m afraid that believers
all over the world again are fascinated by the gospel of prosperity, which is a lie, actually. Believers all over the world are interested in the gospel, because they expect results, they expect rewards right away, today, or at least, say, within a year. ‘I lost my money in
gambling, I prayed to God, and He made someone send me an envelop, with two thousand dollar in it!’ Yeah, sure. Look, God enjoys blessing you. And yes, blessing can mean that He makes you prosper, see Solomon. But I for one cannot understand that people really believe all those preachers who guarantee you wealth if only you believe in God. See Solomon, I would say. God blessed him first of all with wisdom, and this king knew there is no greater blessing. And that God granted him richness as well was just an extra. God’s reward in this life and the next is first of all spiritual blessing. If that’s a disappointment to you, you have to rethink who God actually is, and who you really are.
So, if the reward that God gives out of grace in this life because of your good works or at least your attempts to do something that looks like it, if that reward is a clear conscience, then you are rich, even if you are poor. If the reward God gives out of grace in this life because of your good works or at least your attempts to do something that looks like it, if that reward is perseverance in your suffering, then that is your wellbeing, even if you are fatally ill. If the reward God gives out of grace in this life because of your good works or at least your attempts to do something that looks like it, if that reward is reassuring his love to you over and over, then that’s your reward, and more than enough. Whatever God adds to that, materially or intellectually or health wise or relationally is an extra, not a necessary consequence of believing in God, nor an indispensable guarantee of his love. That’s the gospel and there is no other gospel.
3. The Catechism ends this Lord’s Day with the question, ‘Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked?’ And we all know the answer. ‘No. It is impossible
that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.’ Do you see how this question is asked from our human perspective of effective bookkeeping? This is how it works for us, ‘Even if this test is a C-, I’ll still have a B on
my report card. Good enough.’ But the answer of the Catechism makes clear that in faith
we should get beyond this way of calculating, toward God’s spiritual administration, that
in Christ everything is grace and then more grace, one blessing after another. He forgives us our sins, and gives us the grace of doing the right thing on top of it.
At the end of the sermon, I think it’s a good idea to look for practical ways to grow fruits of thankfulness in our own lives. Let’s follow the text we read in Luke 17, to
find such ways. Christ made clear that we should be aware not to cause his little ones to sin. We have seen how this counsel is contrary to what we are used to, as in ‘let the chips fall where they may.’ But Christ wants us to behave responsibly, especially in the church. So, if in politics the main goal is to destroy the opposition or to gain power for yourself, then in church the main goal must be the wellbeing of the others and to serve Christ to the utmost of your powers. So if we confess that even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin, let’s act according to that confession and allow brothers and sisters in the church to correct us if we accidentally step on their toes – or worse.
Christ made clear that we are called to forgive our brothers and sisters, every time and as many times as they ask for it. We have seen how this advice is difficult for us and how it goes against our need to see them punished. But we have also seen that God, the great Forgiver, has the right to ask us to think and live in line with his style. Two
st. If you have to ask someone for forgiveness (ask for, not give), practical consequences, 1
nddon’t hesitate, do it right after this service. And, 2. If someone asks you for forgiveness
and you have a hard time giving it, than start by admitting that you want to forgive, but you’re not strong enough. I admit that in putting it in this way, I am less radical than our Lord, but since He explains how small our faith actually is, I feel free to direct you a first step in the right direction. So if someone asks for forgiveness, admit it if you’re not yet
ready for it, but that you want to move towards forgiving. And then pray for it.
Christ made clear that our faith is of the size of a mustard seed, or less. We are not able to make trees jump into the sea or the mountains rejoice by the power of our faith. But we know that under the blessing of Christ and his Spirit our faith is there to grow. And then you can leave the trees where they are, and start to practise your faith in forgiveness, in service, in perseverance. Let the trees in the fields clap their hands for the Lord on their own initiative. Let the mountains and hills burst into song before Him
without your specific encouragement. You focus on faith and in faith on everything that serves God and his kingdom. Leave the moving of mountains to God.
Christ made clear that in the end, even if we were able to do anything good, we would only have done our duty. Lord, you won’t make a profit on us. Isn’t this a
depressing message? No, it isn’t. The point is not that Christ is in a negative spirited period of his life and work. The point is that the Lord is on his way to Jerusalem, when He teaches his disciples in such stinging words. He is on his way to Jerusalem, to suffer and to die. The child born in Bethlehem was set to die on Golgotha – and He knew it. We
are unable to do more than our duty ever. He was willing to go far beyond his duty. Now in the eyes of God this single act of endless love is valuable enough to credit anyone who acknowledges that this sacrifice is the only thing he needs. That’s God’s method of bookkeeping. That’s his administration of grace. He rejoices in forgiving you your sins,
He rejoices in giving you good works, and then He rejoices in rewarding them. Now you rejoice in the Lord.