Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2012
Mrs. Smith is a parent. Barry and Sam just got into trouble for doing something they were told not to do. She says to both of them, “You are grounded for a month.” Now, in actuality, only Barry is grounded for a month. Sam is not grounded at all. The same words were to both children, and by the same person, Mrs. Smith. Why does what she said apply to one child and not the other?
It is because she is Barry’s parent but not Sam’s. Sam was over at Barry’s house to play when they both got into trouble. Mrs. Smith is not hoping that Barry will be grounded, she is actually bringing the punishment about by speaking it to her son. With Sam, however, she has no authority in this regard. It is his own parents who have the authority to ground him.
At the same time, if after they got into their trouble, Mrs. Smith said to them, “Neither of you are going to get a snack this afternoon,” both of them are going to go hungry until dinner time. Because Sam is in her home she does have a degree of authority over him and therefore her speaking of the words of them getting no snack actually brings about that state of affairs for both children.
These two illustrations teach us a lot about words; perhaps something we don’t think about enough. Words obviously tell us things. “It’s raining,” tells us something. It tells us that it’s raining. But if it’s not raining, saying, “It’s raining,” doesn’t make it so. Words tells us things but don’t always bring into effect what they say. However, words don’t only tell us things they also do indeed bring things about. And this is probably what we don’t think about enough.
When Mrs. Smith tells her son he’s grounded, those aren’t just words stating a fact. They bring about the fact. But when she doesn’t have the authority to enact such a discipline, such as on her son’s friend, her words aren’t performative; they don’t bring about what they say. She might say, “If you were my son, I’d ground you.” But she can’t actually ground him because she is not in the proper position to do so. Obviously people attempt all the time to do things they don’t have the authority to do. There are certain things recognized as authoritative and actual and that’s what we’re talking about. As a member of a jury I can stand up, walk over to the witness stand, and swear in the next witness, but my speaking of it hasn’t accomplished it. The bailiff saying the same words, has. That’s because he is speaking not simply words, but words in the context of his having authority to do so. When he swears in the witness, the witness is actually sworn in.
What this has to do with you is that you are the recipient of certain words that are spoken. How will you hear those words? These aren’t just any words. They are the words of God. They are words that don’t simply tell you things. They are words that bring about what they say. They are words spoken in the context of one having the authority to say them and under the God who has the power to bring about what the words state. How will you respond to these words? Will you hear what they actually say and believe what they actually accomplish? Will you take God at His word and believe that the words are what He says they are and that they accomplish what He says they accomplish?
Or will you continue to listen to them as the words of men? Will you hear them for what you want to hear them as? Will you go to the pages of Scripture and see there another example of what we human beings need to do for a God who needs us to do things for Him? Will you place your focus, as is your natural inclination, on what you must do, because, after all, God’s words to you are just the starting point. There is a life to be lived by you and it must be filled with what you must do, how you must obey more, that you must be more faithful in your walk with the Lord, that you must turn things around in your life because you're getting sloppy in your spiritual life, or that you just must plain love God more than you do. Conversely, will you take hold of that insidious temptation your sinful nature holds up and hear all of this as a freedom from living godly, reverent, moral, serving lives?
Either way you go you are not really hearing the words of God. If the Bible is nothing more than, “Hey, folks, I created you, you know. And it sure would be nice if you would do what I say. If you’d live the kind of life I command you to live,” then there is nothing more to the Bible than any other religious book. If Christianity is nothing else than God telling us what to do and us obediently following then there is no difference between that and any other religion. That may sound like a simplistic way of describing it, but listen to how people talk about God. Listen to how they talk about their spiritual walk with Christ. If you really listen you will be amazed at how man-centered it is. You see more and more that mostly what people are talking about is themselves and what they must to, what they must be, how they must act.
If you’re honest with yourself, you will come to the conclusion that you place things like these as where the rubber hits the road rather than the work of your Lord in your Baptism, or in the proclamation of the Gospel, or in the Lord’s Supper. If you take stock of what you believe in your heart of hearts you will find yourself looking to yourself rather than hearing the words of your Lord and actually believing that they actually bring about what they say.
Christians, the ones who are to be telling the unbelieving world the Good News, the Gospel, the message of grace, the message that Christ has accomplished salvation, so often spread a message of the Law. Too often Christians make known a message of what people must do in order to be saved. This is exactly the opposite of the Gospel. You hear it all the time. You must repent. You must believe. You must have faith. You must be faithful. You must obey. You must do what God commands. You must turn your life over to Christ. You must respond to God’s invitation. You must accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
It’s a trap that is so easy to fall into. Actually, it’s not. We’re trapped in it from birth. We are simply content with staying trapped in this twisted way of thinking. If only we try to do better that will be good and God will be pleased with that. Therefore, He will be pleased with us.
Listen to the words of the Lord in today’s three Scripture readings. He is not. He is not pleased with you as you are. He loves you. But He condemns you to hell for your inborn sin. That is where you’re at when you content yourself with your insistence on what you must do and denigrating what God says and countering what it actually brings about.
Listen to the message in the three readings today. Repent. God’s word to you is “Repent.” This is His message to you of the Law. The Law is what shatters. The Law is what breaks apart. It is what beats down. It tears down and hammers away. It is relentless. It is insistent that you are not the solution, you are not the answer, you are not the key. You are in the mess you’re in because of you. This is the work of the Law. It works hard upon you because you work hard to build yourself up. You expend a lot of energy focusing on who you are, what you need, what you must do, what you’d like to see God doing in your life, what would be better if He’d just change a thing or two, especially in those other people.
God doesn’t do anything with this. He shatters it. Repent. This is His work. It is His word. It is a word that doesn’t just tell you something. It accomplishes something. It brings about what it says. Your repentance is the work of God. It is brought about in you by God’s speaking it to you. It’s so powerful that He doesn’t use some holy man to speak it to you. As evidence I present to you Jonah. Yeah, he was a prophet. But if you go farther into the book, after what we have in today’s Old Testament reading, you’ll see that Jonah was not doing his work of proclaiming because his heart was in it. He wasn’t sharing God’s word with the Ninevites because he loved them and wanted them to be saved. No, Jonah, how can we put this delicately, wanted the opposite. He knew that God is merciful. He knew that God wants everyone to be saved. And he knew something else. He knew that God’s word isn’t just words. It’s not plain information. He knew that it brings about what it says. It accomplishes. Jonah was hopppin’ mad that God did not wipe Nineveh off the face of the earth. But God used that proclamation of His word from the mouth of a seriously troubled prophet to bring about what those words said: repentance.
You and I both know those Ninevites were pagans. We know that they very possibly may have gone back to their old ways long after Jonah made his journey back home. But these things God hasn’t given us to know. The repentance of the Ninevites is. The word of God spoken by a reluctant prophet brought it about. God brought it about.
The same thing is happening in the Epistle reading. Paul is speaking of things that are. This world is passing away. Christ will return imminently. The words of Christ Himself said this. Paul simply repeats it here. Do you believe this? Do you take it to heart? It is so. It is so because God has said it is so but because you don’t take Him at His word you get caught up in the anxieties of life. You take the good things God gives you in life and you put them at the forefront. You think Christ’s return is a long way off. That it won’t be in your lifetime. You think that this world is just a holding room for the real deal which is in heaven. You think these things because your focus is not on Christ but on yourself.
How? You turn the good things God gives you into things you must do or not do. You become caught up in them so that you lose sight of God’s gracious love and care for you in this life as well as for eternity. You are anxious about many things because you are consumed with what you think you need rather than resting in what God gives you. You are wrapped up in the cares of this world instead of in the grace and care of God.
It’s tough to hear the word of God. Who wants to sit there and listen to God telling you to repent? Who wants to be told that they’re problem? But there’s good news here. If you listen to His word you will hear it. If you take it to heart you will see that His message to you is one of Good News. Of grace, of mercy, of love, of forgiveness. He calls you to repentance because He loves you. He swings His hammer down on you in order to destroy you. That’s good news, my friend. It means He is the one who is going to accomplish in you everything you know you should do. It means having brought to nothing all your good intentions and even all the things you have done He will accomplish in you something new and something great.
Did you hear Jesus’ words? The Kingdom of God is at hand. It has become present in your life in the Person of Jesus. He is the Kingdom of God in the flesh. There’s a person here today who knows this every bit as much as you do even though if you talk to him he’ll either make some sort of gurgling sounds or maybe cry because you’re not his mommy. Little William heard something today. It was the very same thing you heard. He heard the word of his Lord. The word of his Lord didn’t just give little William some cool new info that will be useful to him at some point when he’s old enough to understand and his mom and dad explain it all to him. What William heard was what he heard in the same way you and I have heard it. The word of Christ. God in His Son bringing about what God in His Son said. New life. Forgiveness of sins.
This is what God has done for William in Baptism and for you. When the words are spoken, “I Baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” those words are not just information, they bring about what they say. You are Baptized. You are chosen by God. You have eternal life. His Word has made it so. Amen.