It was a clear, cold day in January 1961. Washington D.C. was covered with the previous night’s snowfall. In front of the newly renovated United States Capitol building, the man who would serve as the 35th president of the United States was being inaugurated into office. He was assuming the office at a pivotal point in world history: the arms race had begun between the two most powerful nations and political ideologies in history: America vs. the Soviet Union; communism vs. capitalism. One front of this battle had been fought in Korea, a war that ended in 1953 not by victory or defeat, but by an armistice – a cease-fire – which exists to this day. The other long-lasting result of this arms race is still in the news these days – it’s that tiny island 90 miles off of Florida known as Cuba. It was at this time of global tensions that President John F. Kennedy addressed his fellows Americans and appealed to them to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
When it comes to the civil realm, the realm of nation and government, that’s a fine principle. It’s good and it pleases God for citizens to take an active role in serving our nation; whether that be by enlisting in the military, running for political office, or simply casting a vote and being a good neighbor. But is that approach fitting when we are talking about the spiritual realm – the realm of God’s kingdom? When we’re talking about our relationship with God, which is most important – where should we find our joy and hope: in what we do for God or in what God does for us? That’s the question our Lord addresses in our text this morning as he gives his own encouragement to his disciples to Find Your Joy in the Right Place.
Luke chapter 10 takes place near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has time for one last preaching tour before he makes his final journey to Jerusalem and the cross. And to get the cities and villages ready for his arrival, he sends out 72 of his disciples in pairs to prepare the way. He sent them out with his blessing and with some simple instructions: Heal the sick [in the towns you enter] and tell them, “the kingdom of God is near you.” (Luke 10:9) And he gave them this assurance: he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me. (Luke 10:16) We don’t hear anything more about the adventures of the 72, we don’t know if they were welcomed or dismissed, if people rejoiced or rejected the gospel message they proclaimed.
But one thing we do know, the consensus as the pairs returned was overwhelmingly positive, they returned with joy, and they stated the reason for their joy: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Jesus rejoiced with his faithful disciples, saying: I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
There are an awful lot of interesting details in those two verses, aren’t there? First, Jesus testifies to a truth that fewer and fewer people acknowledge: Satan is real, and really dangerous. He is an angel who fell from heaven when he rebelled against God. He continues that rebellion as he tries to ruin as many people as possible by leading them away from Jesus. There’s a reminder for us here. While our country is consumed with a presidential race, fears over terror attacks and the Zika virus, and countless other problems – let us never forget that there is something, or rather someone we should be more concerned about: Satan. There is no military or medication that can protect us from his attacks – and he will continue tempt us and try to mislead us no matter who the next president is, whether the Zika virus comes to Wisconsin or not, whether any of the other problems we worry about grow or go away.
But didn’t Jesus say that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven? Yes! When did this happen? Interpreters are divided. Was it the moment Satan rebelled and God cast him out of heaven? Was it the moment Jesus was conceived with the express purpose of conquering Satan? Was it when Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness? Or maybe Jesus was looking to the future, to the cross where he would crush Satan once and for all. Any and all of those may be true. But the point is not when it happened, but how. The disciples were overjoyed that they were able to drive out demons in Jesus’ name. That’s the key in this context. Jesus is telling disciples of all times that wherever and whenever His name (really the Gospel) is proclaimed, Satan falls from power, he loses his control, he is defeated. (And no, we shouldn’t go looking for snakes and scorpions to step on. Those are simply metaphors for the delusions and deceptions of the devil – those cannot overcome believers.)
So Jesus rejoices with his disciples and the wonderful results of their work in his name. If you read between the lines a bit, you can even see a smile on Jesus’ face – “what did you think would happen when I sent you out with my word and my power?” But in the same breath, Jesus wants them to step back and think about the real source of their joy – is it because of what they have done, the work they accomplished in God’s kingdom, or is there something more, something greater? Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. In other words, Jesus reminds them that the work he has given them to do – including the authority to defeat Satan and his demons by the proclamation of the gospel – that’s all well and good; but they can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. There was a better place for them to find their joy.
Why? Why would Jesus pour cold water on their faithful work and their resulting joy? Because outward activity and success don’t guarantee salvation. In fact, in Matthew 7, Jesus reveals that on the Last Day many of those who seemed to being doing God’s work, who seemed successful, even those who drove out demons will not find a place in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:22-23)
This ought to be a wakeup call for us as well. Where do you find your joy? What is it that gives you comfort and confidence to stand before God both today and on Judgment Day? Will we tell God about all of our dedicated service in his name and for his church? Will we present a receipt of our offerings to gain access? Since Jesus is addressing called workers here, can pastors present their sermons, bible studies, baptisms and marriages as an atoning sacrifice for their sins? Will God welcome us into his heavenly home if we show him how kind, patient, and faithful we have been as children, students, parents, brothers and sisters, employers and employees? If that’s where we are finding our joy, if that’s what we are trusting to gain our entrance into God’s kingdom – Jesus warns that we will be in for a shock: ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Why? Why does Jesus warn that many who worked and preached in his name will go to hell? Because, apart from Christ’s justifying and sanctifying work all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) Everything we do, even the good things, are tainted by sin. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know it, don’t we? How much of what we do is driven by a desire to be noticed, to be praised, or to feed our sinful pride? How much of our service to others isn’t motivated by self-less love but by the expectation that our kindness will be reciprocated? Too often, even the good things we do are done grudgingly and joylessly. In the end, the real question is: how many of our good works meet God’s standard of perfection? None of them. If you’re finding your joy and confidence in the things you do, you’re looking in the wrong place, because nothing we do can accomplish the one thing we need above all – getting our names written in the book of life in heaven.
So Jesus redirects our focus, away from our work to his. He says: rejoice that your names are written in heaven. This is where we are to find our true joy and confidence – that Jesus’ life mission was our salvation. This is not something you do. (Note: this is a passive verb, literally: have been written.) This is not something you look for or decide on. This is something God does for you. Purely out of undeserved love, in spite of our far from perfect service in his kingdom, God has written our names in heaven using the cross as his pen and the blood of his Son as the ink. This is what Jesus is on his way to accomplish, as his earthly ministry draws to a close. He will allow his name to be written where ours belonged: on a plaque nailed to a cross. Hanging under that plaque he will accept the guilty verdict and the punishment that should have been ours. On that lonely hill outside Jerusalem God will slam down his gavel and pronounce our sentence on his Son: cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law. (Galatians 3:10) The name of Jesus Christ, the perfect, sinless Son of God, is cursed to the depths of hell so that ours might be written in heaven.
How can we be sure that God knows our names? You can be sure because God himself called you by name when you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through his called servant the triune God called you by name and put his own name on you. You may not remember it – but God will never forget it. He’s written your name in his book and when Christ returns he will use your name to raise you from the dead – and Satan can’t do a thing about it. This is the right place to find your true joy and confidence.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t want to serve God and work in his kingdom? No. God does want his children to serve as his witnesses in the world. Jesus does want the people he purchased with his blood to support his church with their time, talents, and treasures. And above all, God is pleased when his children faithfully carry out their individual callings – whatever that might be. As you leave here today to go back to work in your own little corner of Christ’s kingdom, praise God that he has given you the ability and opportunities to serve. Do find joy in working in God’s kingdom – and know that Jesus rejoices with you.
But don’t lose sight of the main thing. Remember that your membership in Christ’s church is not based on what you do for him. If you can do a lot, don’t let it go to your head. If you can’t do much, don’t feel like you are unloved or worthless in God’s sight. Because the main thing is not about how much we do for God. The main thing is always what God has done for us in Christ – and every time you remember your baptism, every time you hear and read the Gospel, every time you receive your Savior’s body and blood – you are reminded how priceless and undeserved that gift really is.
With all due respect to President Kennedy, Jesus has a different appeal for us today: “Ask not what you can do for God. Ask what God has done for you.” That’s faith, not works. That’s rejoicing in the main thing. Jesus didn’t want 72 of his disciples to get mixed up on this and he doesn’t want us to, either. Yes, we do rejoice that God blesses the work that he has given us to do in his kingdom. But our real joy – the one, indispensable, unchangeable, eternal joy we have is this: Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Amen.