It’s very easy to be impressed with our work for the Kingdom of God. That’s our fallen human nature; to be impressed by our own good works, or even to expect that others will be impressed by our good works too. Our Lord has called every Christian to work for His Kingdom, there’s no question about that; but there is a fine line between rejoicing in what the Lord does in and through us, and rejoicing in we might see as our own accomplishments.
It is what Jesus did and does for all creation that really matters. He fulfilled the Law in our place, died on the cross for our forgiveness, rose for our justification, and continues to sustain us even today through His Word and Sacrament while interceding on our behalf before our Father in Heaven. We would all agree, I think; that Salvation does come not by our works for God, but rather by God’s work for us in Christ. Yet it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our works are important because we do them. Don’t get me wrong… the scriptures in no way advocate being a couch potato, but they clearly say that all the good work that we’re supposed to to be doing for the well-being of our neighbor is just the way that it’s supposed to be, which of course means that we must so often lay aside our pride, our fears that we won’t be served and place our trust in another entity or entities for our well-being.
So it was for the 72 who had been sent out penniless, nap-sackless and shoeless; they had been sent out on Jesus’ authority, to speak only His word, to proclaim to them only what they themselves had heard, they were to stop and talk to no one else along the roads, and were to be fed only what the people were willing to feed them and so it was after a little while; “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Maybe you caught it; They were impressed that the demons were subject to them. And one can imagine that having seen demons flee, having witnessed the great things they had seen that they would fall into the thinking that they did. It seems like a subtle point but in reality it is not as we see in Jesus response to them; “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20).
Evil spirits obeyed the seventy-two disciples whom Jesus had sent out to proclaim the Gospel; and as we’ve learned before, in the times when Jesus cast demons or sicknesses out of people, Jesus does this only by His Word. Demons, sickness and even diseases are subject to Jesus and it was by His word that these things happened but it didn’t take long for the disciples’ rejoicing in God to turn into spiritual pride and rejoicing in themselves. But Jesus reminds the 72 and indeed us today that no demons could be cast out, no sickness or disease could be cast out without Him; further none of those 72 and indeed none of us would be able to do it if He had not called you by baptism to do these things and given you the authority to do it.
Jesus corrects the 72, teaching them that spiritual pride wreaks havoc on the Christian’s soul. And this is important because we are all Spiritually Proud. We’re often proud of ourselves, and our spiritual accomplishments, some of us flaunt it, and some of us keep it smugly internalized, but the amount doesn’t matter, the ways that it’s shown or as the case may be, not shown doesn’t matter. Spiritual Pride is idolatry, a violation of the 1st Commandment; You shall have no other god’s before you.
Yet, some may say it’s not pride it’s just an awareness of what Jesus says in verse 2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” It’s discouraging sometimes because we know how gracious God has been and yet we see that the number of people in our churches have declined. We know the great gifts that He still provides for us and all people yet we see in our every day lives people who want to have nothing to do with these things. Brother’s and Sister’s Jesus knows this, He knows how rich the harvest fields are, and He it is His words you utter when you look out into the barren wasteland of our fallen world, but the laborers have been few since before Jesus’ day, in fact, out of millions of people in the middle east Jesus chose 72 plus the 12 and what’s most interesting about what our Lord says is what He does not say: He doesn’t employ a savvy mission technique, He doesn’t equip them with seminars and tracts to hand out, He doesn’t say go out and change the world for me, He doesn’t even say go out and tell people about me in order that they’ll believe; By now you’re probably wondering where all of this is headed; you might even be at the beginning of despairing of being a Christian in this world but these words are not meant to lead you to despair but to freedom.
Brother’s and Sister’s if you’re looking for what Jesus does say to do, look at what he says; “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” He says to pray; pray that God will place workers into the places that He desires. And brother’s and sister’s this includes you; it is here where your prayers for faithful laborers might very well take the form of teaching you, just how simply our neighbor might be served by God through us. God knows what is necessary, He knows where the work is necessary and He will provide the workers in those places.
The reason that Jesus teaches this way is because He knows the pitfalls that can come when good things happen in Christ’s church that we will gladly take the credit for it ourselves. He warns against this because this sort of thinking is sinful and kills faith. We are not saved by our works, but by Christ alone. We must be careful not be too hasty about setting off, for far too often we become over zealous to serve by our own agenda and conditions. Too often we’re conditional, only wanting to serve where we want to serve, and not necessarily where God has called us by baptism and vocation to serve. I once had a person come into my office asking how they might be able to help the church; I simply told them this; “The church is in desperate need of a custodian, we need the toilet paper to be changed, the floors to be mopped and the garbage to be be taken out.” Much to their dismay they responded “That’s not really what I had in mind, perhaps I’ll look for another church that’s more mission minded.” Brother’s and sisters these things actually happen with the all too common result that many finally end up thinking they’re supposed to be the minister to all the lost souls in Rochester, and what then suffers is that once many start to think this way nobody will be left listening to those who are Divinely called by God to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.
Brother’s and sister’s, you are not called to be a minister. You are called to be a hearer. A hearer who goes from this place, this day, to confess Christ to your neighbor what you have heard. You are not called to make the message cutting edge, relevant, or popular, instead, you are like the 72 in our text sent out with the Word, with no nap-sacks, no sandals and no money bags… so to speak; you are given to hear what your Lord says to you and are then called to be the workers for the harvest. Remember hoe Jesus had said that we should pray for laborers; He had you and me in mind, knowing that our prayers would be for discernment that we might be able to see that as fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, members of Pinnacle and citizens of the United States. Whether we are called to work at Wegman’s, Xerox, Bauch and Lomb, Kodak or the University of Rochester, to drive bulldozers, raise crops or be a homemaker, grandmother, grandfather or to teach high school orchestra. God has placed you there as a worker in the harvest for His Divine Purposes.
Take solace also in the fact that He has not called you to grow His Church. Incidentally, He hasn’t called me to grow it either. That’s God’s job through the Holy Spirit. He instead calls all of us to be faithful, faithful to our baptismal callings and faithful to His word. He calls you to your vocations, and He calls me to mine. Another of my vocations is to be your pastor. It is my vocation to preach the Word and it is your vocation to hear. It sounds too simple; just speaking and hearing, doesn’t it? But this is the exact model Jesus set up in our text for today: “I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road… Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Luke 10:3-11 ESV)“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16 ESV)
Friends, if the Lord chooses to bless us with a congregation bursting at the seams or unlimited cash flow to work for His Kingdom, all thanks and praise be to Him. He gets the credit because He produces the growth. Do not rejoice in what you deem to be measurable results for sometimes the results are so small that you and might be lead to believe that small amounts are an indication of how much or how little our Lord loves and takes care of us; do not rejoice solely that the demons are cast out, that sicknesses have been healed and that you could tread on scorpions and snakes but rejoice fully that your names are written in heaven.
Christians aren’t called to produce results. We’re called to be faithful; you and I are lambs in the midst of wolves. Some of us will be devoured by the world, the flesh and the Evil one, sometimes we will watch as loved ones are devoured. Each of us will have to suffer in our own agonizing ways. But we are comforted even in the midst of the promises that the preaching of Christ will be rejected, along with the people who proclaim it. Cities like Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, Rochester, New York City, Boston, Rush and Henrietta, will continue to be unrepentant. We are called by baptism and our vocations to keep confessing Christ. Pastors will keep preaching. Christians will keep confessing. We are called to be faithful unto death; rejoicing not in our works but rather in the work of Jesus for us.
He is ever faithful. He is the Lord of the harvest. Your Lord still works through means, through you in your vocation, to serve your neighbor, and even to call your neighbor to faith. The Lord is the One Who does it. He answers the prayer of His Church to send out laborers into the harvest; He calls me to be your pastor and you to serve in your vocations. Dear friends, we may never see the results of our labors. In fact, much of the time it will appear that our labor is in vain. But it doesn’t matter, let God worry about the results. We rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Our labor is not in vain, even when it appears to be, because God, Who is faithful, has promised His Word will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish that which He desires (Is. 55:11).
This is a very freeing thing. The Lord will always accomplish what He desires. You don’t have to worry about it. He speaks His Word to you and through you. He feeds you with His body and blood. He washes away your transgressions, forgives your sin and brings you constantly back to new life in Him. He heals you and restores you. We don’t rejoice in our works, but in Jesus’ work for us. St. Paul said it best; “(F)ar be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). Rejoice in the cross. Rejoice, for your names have been written in heaven, and God’s Name has been written upon you. Amen.
A special thanks to Pastor Krenz at Epiphany Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Dorr Michigan for the template of this sermon.