The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 6, 2011| St. Matthew 13:24-30
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” Matthew 13:24-30
Wherever God builds a church the devil builds a chapel next to it. The devil is the great counterfeiter. He claims the name of Christ, the authority of Christ, and the teaching of Christ. But he lies. His lies look much like the truth. Many people embrace his lies thinking they are embracing the truth. Those who believe in God’s truth and those who believe in the devil’s lies look and act very much alike. At first, you can’t tell the difference between them. And so the devil builds his chapel. Deception appears to be truth. After its roots have gone down deep, it is revealed for what it is. But by then the true church and the false church are so intertwined that you cannot uproot the false without uprooting the true.
Christians must always contend with false teaching and false Christians. Jesus said so. There is nothing wrong with the good seed that Christ sows. The pure gospel produces faithful Christians. But the devil deliberately sows bad seed where the good seed has been sown. He does so out of malice and spite.
Christ defeated Satan on the cross where he bore the sin of the world and took it away. The Seed of the woman crushed the serpent’s head. We are living in the last times. We are living in the time when the message of Christ’s victory over the devil is proclaimed throughout the world and by that proclamation the Church of Jesus Christ is gathered out of the nations. During these last times, the devil – whose doom has already been secured – screams his defiance by attacking those for whom Christ has won the victory. He attacks faith. He attacks faith by attacking the truth. He attacks the truth by setting up lies as truth.
The Holy Christian Church on earth has always suffered from false teachers, heretics, and pretenders who lay claim to the name Christian and promote lies. This is the devil’s work. What are we Christians to do about it? We certainly cannot have any fellowship with falsehood. St. Paul writes:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:14-18
The truth saves. Falsehood damns. What could be clearer than that? To express fellowship with falsehood is to embrace death. Jesus and his apostles repeatedly warn us about false teachers and the damage they do. St. Paul warned the Christians in Rome:
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. Romans 16:17-18
Yet even as we are warned about those who teach falsely and are told to avoid them, we are also told to do them no harm. Don’t try to get rid of them. Don’t think you can drive them away or silence them. You cannot. You must not try. We fight lies with the truth. God’s word is truth. Just as we are born from above by the word of truth, so we rely on that same word when contending with lies.
Peter took his sword. He was willing to fight and die for Jesus. But Jesus who has all authority in heaven and on earth does not give to his Church the power of the sword or the gun. His kingdom is not a kingdom of power, but of grace. The power of his kingdom is hidden. The casual glance cannot see it. It is hidden under much weakness. It is hidden under the cross.
Throughout most of the world and throughout most of human history civil governments have supported certain religions and have persecuted others. As Americans we perhaps take for granted that the state may not promote one particular establishment of religion while prohibiting another. We take this for granted. It’s in our Constitution. It’s what we as Americans believe. Church and State each has its own authority and the one should not transgress the authority of the other.
This is not just an American distinction. It is a biblical distinction. Pilate marveled at how Jesus claimed to be a king and yet was apparently willing to suffer and die. Jesus explained that his kingdom was not of this world. When Pilate pressed him on that point, Jesus laid claim to the truth. He said he came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate replied with contempt, “What is truth?”
What is truth? Christians know. We know what truth is. We know Jesus who claims to be the way, the truth, and the life. He is full of grace and truth. The Holy Scriptures are God’s word and are therefore the truth. Jesus is the truth and speaks the truth. We believe, teach, and confess the truth.
And we do so right next to the lie. We don’t appeal to the civil authorities to silence those who teach a counterfeit gospel. We don’t run away from the world and form our own little Christian communes, separate from the devil’s lies. We ask only for the right to preach, teach, and confess the truth. God’s truth will bring forth Christians. As St. James writes: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” James 1:18 The word of God is inherently powerful to bring us to faith and to keep us in the true faith. Faith is always the fruit of the word. This is why we cherish God’s word more than anything else we have in this life.
Anyone can tell the difference between wheat and weeds. But not necessarily right away. When the leaf is seen then you know what you’re dealing with. But by then you can’t pull out the weeds without pulling wheat out with it. So we wait until the harvest.
Meanwhile, the Church is plagued by false gospels. Every false gospel has some truth to it. This is what makes it appear to be genuine. But we can be protected from the lure of false gospels if we know something about them. There are two characteristics of false gospels that, if we are forewarned of them, we are armed to do battle against the father of lies. These characteristics are legalism and rationalism.
Legalism teaches that the essence of Christianity is the law. Legalists may talk about the gospel, but they change the gospel from the message of the full and free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake into another law. Legalists teach that obeying the law makes you good, joins you to God, and makes you fit for heaven. Legalists talk about Jesus, God’s grace, heaven, and so forth, but their religion is a religion of human works. This is what you must do to get God to bless you. For the legalist, the Christian religion is not about what Jesus did for us on the cross where he suffered and died and washed away our sins by his blood, taking away Satan’s power to accuse us. For the legalist, the Christian religion is not about what God has done for us in Christ. It is all about what we do for God.
The devil is a legalist. He doesn’t want sinners trusting in Jesus. He wants sinners trusting in themselves. He contradicts the biblical teaching that poor, lost, sinners are justified by God and forgiven of all their sins freely, for Christ’s sake, through faith alone. He calls this cheap grace.
Legalism and rationalism go together. Rationalism is placing human reason above the Holy Scriptures and forcing the Bible to agree with it. Instead of taking their own thoughts captive to the word of God, rationalists change the Bible to get it to agree with their own notions of what is reasonable. They deny the holy mysteries of God. They reject infant baptism because they can’t figure out how babies can be sinners or how they can be brought to faith. They deny that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper really are the body and blood of Jesus because they can’t figure out how it can be. They deny that Jesus really is God, that his mother really was a virgin, that God is Triune, that the Bible is free from any errors, and the list goes on and on. Rationalists want a reasonable religion: one that works and fits together well in the mind.
The weeds or tares look much like wheat. But they have no fruit. God will judge. God will separate. As long as the Church lives in this world she will have to contend with the false church and the false Christians. The counterfeit looks more impressive to impressionable people than does the genuine article. Genuine Christians must bear the indignity of false accusations. When we faithfully confess the pure gospel of Christ that Jesus has done everything necessary for our forgiveness and salvation and that our good works don’t help save us, we are accused of rejecting good works. When we faithfully hold on to God’s law that still forbids fornication, abortion, homosexuality, and other popular sins, we are accused of being loveless. When we teach that God created the world in six days just as the Bible says and that our first parents were historical individuals named Adam and Eve and that we did not evolve from some lower life form, we are accused of being ignorant.
So what? Let God settle things in his own time. The day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. He will separate the true Christians from the false. He will vindicate the faith of the faithful. He will do it. We don’t have to. Amen