In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Having just celebrated our nation’s 243rd birthday, it is right and necessary that we give thanks for the blessings of Providence, of God, upon this land and its people, and for the bravery and sacrifice of those who have fought to make and keep this land free. It is incumbent upon us ever to be mindful that freedom isn’t free. It is also right and necessary that we continue to pray for our nation, its several states, for our public servants, and for the defense of our God-given freedoms, especially “the first freedom,” the freedom of religion. This freedom openly to worship the one true God has been infringed and eroded of late. Yet our fellow Christians in other lands still look to us to maintain our religious liberty not for our sakes only but for their sakes also, as a sign of hope and encouragement to them, that their cause is not lost and that they too may one day enjoy this same freedom, by the grace, mercy, and providence of God.
We are richly and wonderfully blessed to be here in America, to be Americans. Yet as rich a blessing as that is, there is a far greater blessing, a far greater citizenship, to which our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul direct our attention. Twice in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples to say in the places they go, “The kingdom of God has come near” (Lk 10:9, 11). In the Epistle, St. Paul exhorts us to “do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith,” and he prays for “peace and mercy … upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:10, 16). We have heard of “the kingdom of God” often, and think we understand it; being “the Israel of God” we don’t hear as often or understand as readily. The Apostle Peter further identifies both the kingdom of God and the Israel of God as one and the same (1 Pe 2:4–5, 9–10):
Coming to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but [to] God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …
But you are chosen [kin], a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
This nation and people, this kingdom and Israel, is the handiwork of the one true and Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Christ, founded upon Christ as the Cornerstone, the Holy Spirit raising us “living stones” to be His own dwelling, chosen in Christ by God the Father to be His own kin. We are the householders of the Most High Counselor, brothers and sisters of the King of kings, children of the Great King. What honor He bestows on us!
This is the Creator of whom Psalm 19 proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (v. 1), and Psalm 66, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth! … All the earth worships You and sings praises to You; they sing praises to Your name … Come and see the works of God … His eyes keep watch on the nations” (vv. 1, 4, 5a, 7b). The Hebrew word for glory, kavod, indicates heft, weightiness, plenty, might. As the heavens and the earth are His handiwork, showing forth God’s weightiness, so also are we “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:10). In Christ Jesus, God the almighty Creator of heaven and earth has come to us as one of us, to outweigh the sin of the whole world. Our first parents turned away from God to follow their own ways, their own desires; ever since then, we, their children, carried on the fine family tradition of sin and rebellion against God. The world out there, the surrounding culture, sure seems to have become more and more self-centered. In his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah spoke with a young nurse called Sheila. She said:
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s “Sheilaism.” Just my own little voice … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. And, you know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.
“Sheilaism” is shorthand for a do-it-yourself, well-meaning, feel-good mish-mash of ideas from different religions. There are many such people to whom Jesus is sending us today. By ourselves and our own religious feelings, we are no better, no less sinful, no less in need of the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God than the world out there. By the grace of God we know it, and thanks be to God that He has brought us to that knowledge and sustained us in it through the preaching and teaching His holy Word and the administration of His blessed Sacraments, the work that He has given His Church on earth to do.
Jesus sent out the seventy(-two) in pairs, sent them out in person, with His Word of instruction. He still sends out workers into the harvest, as we hear His voice in His holy Scripture. What’s the first thing He tells His disciples to do? “The harvest is plentiful,” glorious, “but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Lk 10:2). He tells them to pray, and not just a quickie of a prayer, but “pray earnestly.” Why is it so often that we, Christ’s Church, God’s people, put prayer at the bottom of the list of what to do? In stewardship, we often speak of firstfruits giving; but what about firstfruits praying? True Christian prayer is grounded in the Word of God. When we do remember to pray, do we keep His Word foremost in mind, or do we forget it right away, because we have more important things to do?
Jesus did not tell the seventy(-two) to measure their success. That was their own idea. They came back rejoicing that even demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name. Jesus did tell them to expect resistance, rejection, and even persecution. This still applies to us today. More Christians are being persecuted for their faith today than at any other time in human history. If we don’t meet persecution, we will meet “sheilaism” or a myriad of other forms of self-made religion, what is really self-worship. We must repent of our own, and repent of turning to all sorts of manmade gimmicks to bring in the Lord’s harvest and proclaim the coming of His kingdom. For He has given us His ways to accomplish His work, in which He has honored us—all of us, each and every one of us—to participate and partake. He excuses no one, and He leaves out no one.
Jesus has not called us to be successful, but rather to be faithful. The Holy Spirit gives the growth, blessing the work in His time, according to His good and gracious will. In the Catechism, you confess that the Holy Spirit “has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” So it must be for any who would believe in Christ Jesus. “In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Remember, when we faithfully speak Christ’s Gospel, and those who hear reject it and reject us, Jesus says their refusal is on them, not on us. “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” (Lk 10:16), rejecting Jesus, and with Him, God the Father.
One evening a couple weeks ago, I happened to catch the tail end of the NBA Awards Show on TV. I was eager to see if Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks would win the Most Valuable Player award. He was also nominated for Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz won that instead. Giannis’ expression seemed to say, “Will I ever hear my name called?” Though he had been dubbed “the best player on the best team,” there was no guarantee; he was one of three finalists. At last, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the mike, opened the MVP envelope, and said, “Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks.” I lifted my arms, clapped my hands over my head, and said, “YES!” Giannis was a bit more emotional. Before he thanked many people—and there were many—through tears of joy, he thanked God. And then He thanked God. And then He thanked God a third time. Three times giving thanks to God! Almost like it means something (even if he didn’t realize it at the moment).
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a talented young man. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision,” neither talent nor lack of talent counts for anything, neither wealth nor poverty counts, nothing of this old, fallen world, “but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). The new creation begins with Christ the Crucified, His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. A new creation in Christ is what God made you in your baptism, and what He continues to make and sustain through His Word and the body and blood of Christ. In the Judgment, when the names are called of all the heirs of life eternal, you won’t have to wonder, “Will I ever hear my name called?” For already Jesus has said to you, and to all His believers, “Rejoice that your names are written in the heavens.” Your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, not with ink, but inscribed with His holy, precious blood! What is inscribed and sealed in His blood cannot be erased. And the words that Christ the Lamb writes are holy words of God. In Him and by Him, your name is holy, chosen and precious to God. The heavens and the earth declare the glory of God; above all, His greatest glory on the Cross, when His glory outweighed all sin of all people for all time. And He declares His glory in and through you. Show forth His glory, that others may hear and believe, and their names also be inscribed in the heavens as new creations in Christ.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.