Text: Matthew 18:1–11
Almighty, everlasting God, Who hast created us, who are so unworthy, after Thine own image, and hast appointed Thy holy angels as our guard: Grant us, Thy servants, that guarded by them, we may safely pass through the perils of all evils whether to soul or body, and after this life has run its course, cause us to enter into eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. [C & P #196]
God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Temptations to sin. Scandals. Traps for the faith. Giving offense. Those are all ways to express the theme in the section of St. Matthew where today’s Gospel is found. Just before this section, Jesus paid the Temple tax to avoid giving offense. Just after this, Jesus tells the parable about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find one, illustrating His concern about every single soul. After that, He instructs us on how to deal with sin when our fellow Christians commit them against us.
Jesus takes sin seriously, and so should we. As we observe the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we find the reference to angels buried deep in a section of the Gospel that’s all about the seriousness of sin. We’ll look at three aspects of that theme today as Jesus presents them in our Gospel: the problem of pride, the problem of offense, and the mercy of God.
The disciples asked a practical question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Who has the honor, the authority, the power?
This question was not only about their future, but the present. The kingdom of heaven is the reign of God, the exercise of His authority and will in the hearts of people. It begins even now on Earth, but will also survive this world and last forever. To be in the kingdom of heaven is to be like the disciples: with Jesus, the one who came into the world from heaven. But among those disciples there must be some kind of order. Who is the greatest?
Their question may sound childish to you, but Christians in congregations have been asking it ever since. A Christian church is a little slice of heaven in many ways, though we still must deal with earthly things too. Who is the greatest? Who gets to make the decisions? Who gets to tell other people what to do, to set priorities, to call the shots? We want to know for practical (grown-up) reasons, but also for personal reasons. You know what I mean. It is a childish question, but grown-ups find themselves wondering too.
Jesus took a child as His example. We must become “like children” ourselves. We must “turn,” which means “be converted to faith.” Lacking that, we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Forget membership in a congregation. If Jesus says you’re not in His kingdom, that’s that.
This teaching warns about pride over others. Do you remember what it was like to be a little child? Maybe not, so imagine. Most people are much bigger than you. They somehow walk or even run, balancing on their two feet all the time. They talk about important things using big words. They look at pages with words for a long time. Someday you might grow to be one of them, but it’s hard to think about because the days are just so long. It seems like someone big will be in charge of you forever.
Such a child depends on others all the time. Even a tantrum is a way of saying, “I need someone’s help” despite what the child may be thinking. But as we grow, we begin to think we are independent. We develop pride that is not paired with thankfulness for the gifts that God has given. We try to stand on our own, make our own decisions, follow our own likes and interests. We might even try to redefine who or what we are according to our own will. That’s not maturity. It’s the sin of pride. We will always be like little children before God. To think otherwise would be considering yourself His equal. He’s not your buddy. He’s your Father.
When we pray rightly, that’s how we approach God. He is our true Father, and we are His true children, so that we may ask Him with all boldness and confidence as children ask their dear Father. When we pray wrongly, we speak to Him as though we have something to offer. “I’ll do this if you’ll do that.” “I think I deserve that you should listen to me.” That’s proud and arrogant. It’s sinful, and has no place in the kingdom of heaven.
By the way, our Epistle tells of a war in heaven between the holy angels and the fallen ones. Some have thought their fall was also a matter of pride, but there is now no place in heaven for them either.
Then Jesus segues into offenses. Here the focus is on the importance of every individual child of God. None may be harmed without God’s judgment. None will be forgotten. That’s the meaning of one of these collars I wear as a pastor. It represents a millstone, and is supposed to remind me and you that every soul is important. We must cause none of them to fall into sin, for that is a great offense before God and a fatal trap for the unwary or trusting soul.
Causes of offense or sin must be avoided at all costs. Hands and eyes are not as important. (Here is an example where the natural and true meaning of Jesus’ words is different from the literal meaning. He doesn’t want us to amputate our hands. He wants us to recognize the evil of offenses. Jesus uses figures of speech as naturally as we do.) The consequence of living without a hand or an eye seems horrifying, but these are not fatal losses. There is also a consequence of being trapped by sin into losing faith in Jesus: eternal suffering in hell. We must avoid those offenses at all costs, and remove them when we see them. God’s children must not be led into misbelief, despair, and other shameful sin and vice. So we pray, “deliver us from evil” so that even when we are thus tempted, we may overcome and retain the victory.
God delivers us with His Word of truth. He teaches you His commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s prayer. He prepares and invites you to receive the Sacraments and sustains your faith through them. He forgives your sin through imperfect instruments like me when I tell you: your sins are forgiven. This is how He preserves you as a little child in His kingdom.
He also delivers us through angels. The fallen angels use their power to confuse and deceive, to cause offense and to accuse consciences. They try to lead us into spiritual despair by confusing God’s law with the Gospel, and they try to obscure and hide the message of forgiveness. At all times they try to wreak such havoc and destruction that we should think we already live in hell.
But God sends His good angels with the power to save life and limb. They come as our fellow servants of God most often unseen and unheard, but still there, defending us and doing the will of God. Holy Scripture tells us about Michael and Gabriel, about seraphim and cherubim. They are unseen allies here on earth, and we may look forward to meeting them in eternity. Thanks and praise be to God in the highest for the holy angels and their faithful service.
Today’s gospel may have brought an offense to your mind either committed against you or by you; either others leading you into sin or you leading others. I have something for you to hear about that. There is no sin so great and no deed so wicked that it can cause the blood of God’s Son to fail. Even the worst evil ever done by man was laid completely on the Son of Man when He bore His cross. His death made atonement for every sin and every offense, even yours. There was a moment when we would have held our breaths, a day when we might have wondered if it was really enough. But those sins of yours could not hold Jesus in the grave. He rose to new life and ascended to reign in His Kingdom in glory without end. He rules over the earth and will judge it too, but your sins have already been judged in Him. He is the sacrificial Lamb whose blood takes away the sin of the whole world. It cleanses you. When you repent, you are handing your guilt over to Him, giving up your pride, and becoming His child. He washes you. He feeds you. He covers you. He forgives you. And “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
Thanks be to God for His holy angels, and for the blessed message that He sends us: the message of peace, life, and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!