Some pictures seem to come to life. Portraits with eyes that follow you around the room. Painting so vivid that you can fall into them. Landscapes so realistic you can smell the flowers, feel the salt air. Living pictures is a way to approach our text.
There are 3 frightening pictures. Ferocious wolves in sheep's clothing. You know these words of Jesus' are the basis of every cartoon where the wolf is dressed obviously in wooly fleece. This is the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and her saying, "Grandma what sharp teeth you have." My point is that this frightening figure has been made child's play. "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?"
I am. You should be. You're rightly frightened by a mean dog that is someone's pet. You're rightly frightened by a dog that is snarling, growling, and lunging. Picture this. A wild wolf that has never been tamed. Not coming at you in wolf's clothing shaped and looking like a wolf, but as a gentle, cuddly sheep. His ferociousness is completely hidden. He looks harmless, but he is there to devour your body and tear you limb from limb. But you don't know it.
Such are all the false prophets who would snatch your soul away from the saving truth. There are literally too many wolfs in sheep's clothing for me to describe. There's the wolf who charismatically tells you your Baptism is no refuge; there's the wolf that talks about faith, faith, faith but never points you to the Sacraments where faith hangs its hat. There's the wolf who invites everyone to the Sacrament even if they don't agree with what is taught at his altar. There's the wolf that says if you're really a Christian you will do this, this and this too.
What a frightening picture. Not a ferocious wolf circling a flock of helpless sheep, but a wolf among the sheep and the sheep unaware. But I will show you a more frightening picture still. Not the familiar painting of Jesus knocking on the door. But you knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door and Jesus on the inside with a "who are you?" look. You know its heartbreaking when that happens to loved one's in the case of Alzheimer's. But this picture isn't heartbreaking but terrifying because if Jesus doesn't recognize you, you're going to hell.
But the real unnerving part of this picture is hard to paint. You're on the outside calling Jesus Lord,' and doesn't Scripture itself say, "No man can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit?" And you're one of the many, note Jesus says many' not few," who have prophesied, exorcized, and performed in His name. And yet Jesus has a "Who on earth are you?" look. And note Jesus doesn't deny you did prophesy, did exorcize, and did miracles in His name. But, "I never at any time knew you." It's the strongest way Greek has to say never.'
What happened to knock and it shall be opened to you? What happened to seek and you will find? What happened to, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me." That's the picture we have hanging in our home, but that's not the picture in this text. We need the one in the text to come alive. We're so concerned with what doors on earth are opened to us that we take for granted heaven is. We're thrilled to be recognized by the famous, bothered when someone forgets us, and brokenhearted when our loved one doesn't, but we don't give a thought to whether or how we can know if Jesus will recognize us.
A still more frightening picture is left. This one doesn't have to be painted for you. Google house going over damn. A picture from Austin June 15, 1935 will appear. It's really a houseboat but it looks like a white frame house going over a pre-Mansfield damn. All of the elements of this text are pictured here. The rain came down; the river came up, and winds blew and the house was swept away.
Picture yourself in that house. See your face in the window. See that certain death awaits you.and you know it. And see that in the text this is what Jesus is talking about. He's talking about the death that is going to come to us all. The rain, rising water, and wind are not marriage problems, family problems, money problems, health problems, happiness problems problems we make so much of and focus so much of our energy on dealing with. No, this is the storm of Death that bears down on us all. Death is the only "problem" strong enough to level our lives completely. The only "problem" no one "weathers."
Is this any way to end a sermon? This is how Jesus ends the most famous sermon in the world. The King James accurately translates the Greek, "and great was the fall of it." Is this any way to end a sermon with pictures of terrifying wolves hidden under the disguise of a sheep, a look of who are you?' painted on Jesus' face, and your terrified face in the window of a house going over a damn? Would you kiss your child goodnight and leave him in a room with such grizzly pictures hanging on his wall? Only if you were dealing with a rebellious child who was certainly going to be lost if he stayed on path he was on. The words right before our text are about the broad path that leads to destruction and the narrow path that doesn't.
You know how the State puts up "Wrong Way," "Turn Around Don't Drown," "Do not Enter" signs to keep you off the wrong path? Here your Savior puts up 3 pictures leading to the broad easy path, but even in these painting there are images of the Gospel.
Here's a Gospel picture. Dead wolves hung on a fence. You can't drive too far in the Texas countryside without finding coyotes hung on a rancher's fence. I don't really know if they warn coyotes but they comfort me. Jesus says His disciples will recognize the wolves in sheep's clothing. He's says they will have no more problem recognizing them than a person does distinguishing grapes from thorns or thistles from figs. He says twice "By their fruit you will recognize them."
The fruit of a teacher is what he teaches not how he dresses, the good works he does, his popular personality, the way he easily makes you laugh. The teacher who points you to yourself your decision, your commitment, you're doing something for Jesus for certainty of salvation is a wolf. The teacher whose main subject is you or him and therefore the verbs he uses refer to you or him isn't talking or teaching about Jesus. The teacher who roots faith in your heart, head, or will rather than in what Jesus does in Baptism, says in Absolution, or gives in Communion is a false one. Picture this: you spotting the wolf before he spots you. They always run when that happens.
I'll show you a more comforting picture still. Picture a heaven where people are streaming in from all directions. Picture a heaven like Revelation does with not one gate but 12. Picture not a closed door with Jesus on the inside with a "who are you look?" but 12 wide open huge gates all leading to a Jesus with arms wide open.
You try to approach heaven based on what you have done and you run into a closed door. Approach heaven based on what Jesus has done and still does and you're not knocking at heaven's door you're entering. But what about only those who have done My Father's will going to heaven? What is the Father's will? The Father's will was to send His only beloved Son into the world to keep the Laws that make you guilty. His will was to punish His only beloved Son on the cross instead of you. The Father's will is that you be baptized in Jesus' name for the forgiveness of sins. The Father's will is that you believe my words of Absolution are His Words. The Father's will is that you eat His Son's Body and drink His Son's Blood for salvation.
Let this picture come alive. He's standing in an open door with that, "I know you look!" "Why I baptized you! I remember it as if it were today. I know you; you're the one who confessed that sin that I can't remember but I can remember forgiving. I know you; you're the one who I gave my Body for Bread and my Blood for Wine to just the other day. Of course I know you. Come on it."
The last picture I want hanging in your mind or conscience is also a photograph. Google "lighthouse overwhelmed by wave." In a series of still photos you'll see a lighthouse in Spain absolutely enveloped by a gigantic wave. It's called "Powerful ocean wave consumes lighthouse." This is the Death that is coming for us all. It's a rainstorm that will take away our sight; it's howling waves that will drive the breath right out of our lungs; it's the rushing tide sweeping away our soul from these frail bodies. You build on the sands of doing your best or your best excuses for not doing perfectly, you build on the sands of medicine or diet and exercise and you will be swept away.
That lighthouse wasn't. The waves consume it, but the last picture is of the lighthouse standing, the wave receded. This is what happens when Death descends on the Christian. Its storm of rain will bring blackness; its howling waves will take the breath of life right out of our lungs; its rushing tide will sweep the soul from these bodies of clay. But Death doesn't carry us away. We're still standing because we've been built on the forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name. We've been built on His perfect life not on our imperfect one; on His paying for our sins not on our best attempts or worst excuses.
Don't focus on the rain, the wind, or the rising wave, focus on the Rock, Jesus. Death couldn't swallow Him but had to spit Him out. Joined to Jesus by Baptism you go where He goes. His Words of Absolution have the last Word as to what happens to you not the Law's commands or the Devil's demands. Eating and drinking His immortal Body and Blood gives you immorality. See the wave of Death, Devil, and Sin receded and there you stand like that untouched lighthouse.
I don't know if the digital generation carries physical pictures or just has them on electronic devices. Something is gained in that you can have hundreds, but something is lost in that you can't touch, hold, kiss an electronic image the way you can a picture. It seems less alive to me. So let the frightening pictures of the Law be electronic ones. Let the comforting pictures of the Gospel be living ones. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday after Pentecost (20140622); Matthew 17: 15-29