How do you feel about sugar-coated realities, deceptive ad campaigns, and bait-and-switch marketing techniques? Do you appreciate them or hate them? When your doctor gives you the results of the test, would you rather have him sugarcoat the truth or tell it to you bluntly? When you sign up for phone, cable and internet, do you appreciate knowing ahead of time that the low price is only a one-year promotion or are you content to let that little fact hide in the small print? How about when it comes to the Christian church – and being a member of the church. How do you describe our church to non-members? Is it a family? Is it close-knit, loving, caring, and supportive? Do you invite people to come here because of how nice everyone is? We know enough not to claim that the people here are perfect, but would you call them good, kind, compassionate? Would you? Really? All the time? Could you make those claims with a clear conscience, or would you be guilty of sugar-coating reality? Whether we like to admit it or not, we know the truth. We know that the church, her pastor and members are far from perfect. We know that we have hurt others and others have hurt us. Does that mean that “the one, holy, Christian church” is just one big fabricated lie? No. But we do need to come to grips with the reality that the church on earth is made up of sinners who are bound to sin against each other. This morning, Jesus tells us the truth. He doesn’t sugar coat it, he tells it the way it is and what God expects of us. And when we realize what it is that God demands of his children, we will be led pray, Lord, increase our faith.
Jesus begins with a concise assessment of life in this world: Things that cause people to sin are bound to come. Don’t be deceived by the lie that when a person becomes a Christian he will stop sinning. Temptations are bound to come – and sometimes you and people you know will fall right into it. Our reality is very much like a Tom & Jerry cartoon: where the mouse, Jerry, is on one side of the room – his hole-in-a-wall home, is on the other side; and Tom, his arch-enemy has scattered mousetraps across every inch of floor in between. From where we stand, heaven seems to be far off – and Satan has littered the world with temptations designed to lure us away from God, trap us in sin, and strangle our faith. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it, he doesn’t misrepresent what life in this world will be like for his disciples. It won’t be a cakewalk. Things that lead us to sin are bound to come.
But woe to that person through whom they come. ‘Woe’ as Jesus uses it is more than just a throwaway word. ‘Woe’ is a judgment, a verdict – God’s judgment and verdict – on anyone who leads another into sin – eternal ‘woe’ in hell is the sentence for that person. And in case ‘woe’ doesn’t clearly represent what Jesus means, he continues to make it crystal clear: it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Only the cruelest criminal minds have ever decided that cement shoes were an appropriate means of dealing with one’s enemies. But here Jesus says that something equivalent to cement shoes would be better than to cause one of these little ones to sin. When we hear little ones, we naturally think of children – and how true it is that children are like sponges, soaking up and imitating the words and actions of the adults around them – especially, it seems, our sinful words and actions. But here Jesus is referring to all of his little ones – each and every person who is God’s child through faith.
Remember, Jesus is not speaking to the unbelieving world here – Satan already has them on the broad road that leads to hell. No, Jesus is speaking to believers like you and me: sin will come, but woe to us if we are the cause of it. How do we lead others into sin? It happens when we intentionally or unintentionally give the impression that sometimes it’s ok to disregard what God says; sometimes it’s ok to sin. When we come here and use our tongues to thank and praise God, only to use them later to slander and gossip about others, we can be tempting others to join in breaking the 8th commandment. When we pray for God’s help in overcoming temptation and then go and indulge the greedy and lustful desires of our flesh – we can lead others into believing that’s ok. When we nod our heads as God encourages and urges us to worship regularly – only to show that worship is more of an option in our own lives – what message are we sending? What impression are we giving if we loudly condemn homosexuality as a sin against the 6th commandment – but we ignore the equally damning sin of heterosexual family and friends living together outside of marriage? Woe to me, woe to you. We would be better off dead at the bottom of the sea.
Temptation will come, so watch yourselves, Jesus says. Not only should we take care not to lead others into sin, but we are also responsible for dealing with sin when it happens. If we are going to walk the walk of Christianity, then this is our responsibility to each other: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And this isn’t only when someone happens to sin against you personally. We are to rebuke fellow believers whenever they fall into sin – even if the world would say it’s none of our business. It’s tempting to think that only the elders and the pastor are responsible for pointing out and rebuking sin – but Jesus teaches here that every disciple is responsible for pointing out, rebuking, and forgiving sin. To refuse or fail to do so is a sin itself – a sin of omission. Why? Why is it my responsibility to warn others about sin? Well, why would you warn a child not to play in the street? Out of love and concern for them. That’s what God does for us in his Law and that’s what we owe each other. Paul writes let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8) Christian love recognizes that unrepented sin puts the souls of our family and friends in eternal danger. In love Christians gently but firmly rebuke sin.
Watch yourselves, Jesus says. Watch out for each other. Point out sin – and when the sinner repents forgive them. But that’s not always easy either, is it? It’s not easy to forgive a friend who betrays us or tells lies about us; it’s not easy to forgive someone who repeatedly and intentionally hurts us; there are few things harder than forgiving the spouse who has broken the bond of marriage. But we have received God’s free and full forgiveness – God has never refused to forgive us – who are we to refuse forgiveness to a brother or sister who repents? Even, Jesus says, if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him. And it’s not that seven is somehow a magic number. God’s forgiveness is limitless, and we are to imitate that kind of forgiveness with each other.
So what do you think? Do we have what it takes to resist sin, rebuke it and forgive it? Can we live up to our Savior’s high calling? The apostles were a little tentative, they knew this was no easy thing Jesus was asking them to do, so they asked Him Lord, increase our faith. They understood the difficulty of what Jesus was asking them to do, they recognized that there is nothing harder for a group of natural born sinners than to avoid offending one another and to properly deal with sin when it comes.
But with this question, the disciples also demonstrated that they still didn’t really understand faith. They thought that only someone with a superhuman, miracle-working faith could do the things Jesus demanded. It’s also seems that they were using weak faith as an excuse to avoid the more difficult duties of discipleship. Have we ever done the same? I know that this isn’t right and goes against God’s will, but hey, no one’s perfect; It’s not my job to go and tell so-and-so that what they’re doing is sinful – leave that to someone else; I don’t have a strong enough faith to forgive those who have sinned against me. Yes, you do, Jesus says 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. By comparing faith to the smallest of seeds, Jesus is telling us that the power of faith doesn’t lie in how much you believe, it lies in what you believe. So, where do we find the strength to watch ourselves, to resist the temptation to sin and avoid leading others to sin? Not inside us, but in the Word. Paul wrote to Titus: the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2:12-13) Where do we look for the courage to rebuke and forgive sin? It’s not found in courageous faith, but in the Lord’s unfailing promise: If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23) Do we have what it takes to do our duty as Jesus’ disciples? Yes. Because faith doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God.
Finally, Jesus addresses the attitude with which we live and work in God’s kingdom. Because when we diligently and faithfully do our duty, it’s tempting pat ourselves on the back and believe that God is pretty lucky to have disciples like us. So Jesus tells a story to illustrate the proper attitude his disciples ought to have: suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat?’ Would he not rather say, ‘prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Whether you write the paychecks or receive them, you know that employers don’t generally thank their employees for doing their job. When we do what God demands, we don’t earn anything, we don’t deserve a pat on the back – because we are simply doing what God created us to do.
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what a life of discipleship will look like. He asks us to do some hard things: to watch ourselves, to rebuke and forgive sin. In humility we are to recognize that no matter how much we do for God and his church – it’s never more than the duty God has given us. Do we have what it takes? Honestly? No. And that’s why we look to Jesus. Because we will never be perfect servants, he was. Peter says this about him: he committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. (1 Peter 2:22-23) He was tempted in every way we are, but he didn’t sin. Even though it made people angry enough to kill him, he never failed to rebuke sin. And even as he was hanging on the cross, enduring the bitter insults of the people he came to save, he didn’t lash out, rather he prayed: Father, forgive them. (Luke 23:34) And, in his amazing grace, God has made a deal with us, a trade: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Trusting that when God looks at us, he doesn’t see our failures and sins, but Jesus’ perfectly dutiful life and sacrificial death – that’s what great faith is all about. We can confess without hesitation: we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty because we know that for Christ’s sake God will pick us up and say: well done, good and faithful servant…come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21) Don’t be deceived, neither this church nor any church is perfect and discipleship will never be easy – but what a privilege it is to serve a master who loved us enough to give up his life for us! May God increase our faith in his Word and promises so that we live in his grace and according to his will. Amen