October 21, 2001 Luke 17:1-10
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 So watch yourselves.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
My Dear Friends and Children in Christ,
One of the most awful sins that you can commit is the sin of arrogance. When you have come to the point where you say to yourself, “I know all there is to know,” or, “the devil cannot touch me,” I am afraid that you are close to being lost, if you have not been lost already.
When Jesus was confronted with arrogance, He had an interesting way of dealing with it. He gave it a challenge - a command. There was a rich young man who claimed that he had actually obeyed his parents ever since he was a boy. He claimed to never covet - never steal - never lust. So Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” With this command, the young man was humbled. He was given a mirror which said to him, “you love your money more than you love your Savior.” It was an ugly picture to look at, and the man went away sad. Instead of letting the rich young man feel good about himself, Jesus took the millstone of God’s law and hung it around his neck.
This was one response when Jesus issued a challenge and command from God. The other one is found in today’s text. Perhaps Jesus disciples were becoming arrogant. Maybe they were thinking to themselves, “this Christianity thing isn’t too hard after all.” And so Jesus issued some commands. However, as disciples of Jesus, they didn’t sadly walk away. They threw their hands up and prayed, “Lord increase our faith!” After we look at these words, you will either walk away sad, or you also will cry,
Lord, Increase Our Faith!
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves. Jesus literally told his disciples to “pay attention to” themselves. When your classmate or child spends hours in front of the mirror, you would call such a person self absorbed - and arrogant. It would seem strange then, that in order to fight arrogance Jesus would tell you to look at yourself. But before Jesus told his disciples to look at themselves, he didn’t say, “you are such good disciples. You fight temptation so well. You listen so well.” Instead, he did the exact opposite.
He first of all warned them that things that cause sin are bound to come. Those things that cause sin are bound to come - are literally called scandals or stumbling blocks. When you’re walking down the street and you aren’t watching, it is easy to stumble on one of those cracks that stick up out of the ground. That’s what Jesus warned was coming. In Revelation, John said that it had come through false teachers. In Galatians, Paul was dealing with a false practice of circumcision - that was leading people to stumble and fall. With Judas, it was the greed within. With David, it was the lust of his sinful flesh. Stumbling blocks come in all shapes and sizes.
So Jesus warned his disciples, “woe to that person through whom they come.” Notice the way he puts that - to that person THROUGH WHOM they come. Imagine if you were at work and a deadly disease was transmitted to you. How would you feel if you unwittingly took that disease home, and unwittingly killed your wife and children? What a terrible thing! What could be worse? Jesus says it could be worse if you caused a little one - someone weak in the faith - to sin. What is even more incredible is that Jesus said in Matthew 7, Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Here we have an instance of people who thought they were doing good, but who were actually instruments of the devil. If the devil could so persuade someone that he was doing miracles and chasing out demons when he was actually doing evil, then what about you?
Jesus says, “watch yourself!” This isn’t a compliment. This is a testimony to the sinful nature - to the deception of the devil - to the dangers that lurk within and without. If Judas - a close and inner disciple of Jesus Christ - could fall from faith never to return, and if David - a man whom God said was a “man after his own heart” could commit murder and adultery - then so can you. Somehow these men had to convince themselves that what they were doing was “good” - was “justified”, before they did it. They became instruments of wickedness. This call for self examination is not a call to arrogance. It is a revealing exposure of the sin within.
Several weeks ago my son was trying to put up one of those little tents in our house. You know, the kind where a child will take several chairs, put them together, and then put a blanket over the top and a couch cushion in front for the door. Well, it just so happened as he was putting this house together, that the cushion on the couch wasn’t staying up. So he started actually yelling at the couch cushion. “No, naughty cushion.” After that didn’t work, he then let out a major grunt, “grrhh.” At first I thought this was rather humorous. Why was he talking to a couch cushion? But then I realized what had happened. I had taught him this rare art of getting angry and talking to something that cannot listen. I had taught him impatience. That’s when this passage really hit me between the eyes. It would be better for me to have a millstone hung around my neck then to do what I did to my son. Why? It would be better to drown in a sea - if I would die - rather than to lead my son into sin and have myself into a lake of fire. As an impatient parent, I just earned hell through my example. I made my son stumble, taught my son how to sin with impatience.
So Jesus says, “watch yourself.” It does matter what you do and say. Keep a close eye on what you say and how you act - especially among “little ones” - people who could easily fall from faith or be led into sin. So look at yourself and ask, what kind of a parent am I? What kind of a big brother or sister am I ? Am I teaching my younger siblings to honor my parents? To be faithful to God? Is my behavior at school leading others to Christ or away from him? Is my work ethic an example to others? Or would it be better to just have a millstone hung around my neck instead?
No wonder the disciples exclaimed, “Lord, increase our faith!” When Jesus threatens hell if we cause a little one to sin, we need faith! We need faith to believe Isaiah when He says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow!” We need faith to believe that Jesus had not only a millstone hung around his neck - he had the sins of the world around his neck. It is no wonder that Jesus was so troubled at going to the cross. He knew He was about to be blamed for the sins of the world! What was worse, is that Jesus wasn’t drowned in the depths of the sea, he was drowned in the fires of hell, as he went through God’s punishment in our place. But God promises that he was raised from the dead because we were declared not guilty! (Romans 4:25) God promises us that the blood of Jesus purifies us from ALL sin - even the sin of leading little ones into sin! Lord, increase our faith! Give us faith to believe that Jesus has made us pure and holy!
I. So that we can watch ourselves
When you wake up in the middle of the night to get a drink or use the bathroom, it is often hard to find your way around. You might stumble over a shoe, a toy, or run into a wall. It was a little over a year ago that I woke up to get a drink, but when I got out to the middle of our kitchen, it smelled as if our sink had backed up. As I walked in the kitchen, I quickly found out it wasn’t the sink. Suddenly I felt a soft and squishy - yet sticky substance conform around the bottom of my foot and in between my toes. Come to find out, our new basset hound dog had done his duty in the middle of the kitchen. It took three karate chops, but finally I was able to dislodge this object from my foot. I learned a quick lesson that day. Turn the light on and don’t walk around in the dark, or you may stumble over something that you don’t want to.
Light is needed to see where you are walking physically, and also spiritually. Jesus once said, “I am the Light of the world.” And the Psalmist declared, “your Word is a LAMP to my FEET.” That’s how we keep from stumbling. We can’t just pray for it. We need to stay in the Word. It is the light of God’s Word that gives us a good view of ourselves so we can keep from getting in the way of someone else’s faith. If this weren’t enough work, Jesus gives us even more to do. Not only does he want us to watch our steps, but he also gives us another duty. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. Jesus wants us to watch where other brothers are walking.
Take for instance John the Baptist. He didn’t have any planks to pull out of his eye. But he didn’t then conclude, “I’ll let these Israelites live how they want to live. I won’t invade their privacy.” When the man who was supposedly called the King of the Jews - Herod, had taken his brother’s wife to be his own - John had some choice words to say to him. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” John had said. He took the spotlight of God’s law and exposed Herod’s sin to him and to the people.
Another example is Jesus. When the Pharisees were living greedy lives, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” Instead of letting them live their lives of self righteousness, Jesus exposed their sin. He showed them the path they were walking on was leading straight to hell.
And so Jesus tells us, if your brother sins, rebuke him. Most of you have most likely driven with “back seat drivers.” A back seat driver is one who tells you to “slow down, hurry up, park here, look out for that truck, you just cut that guy off,” etc. If I were to ask you, “how many of you like back seat drivers,” how many would answer yes? Not too many. But if I were to ask you, “how many of you ARE back seat drivers,” what would you answer? Why does it work this way? Because we don’t like it when people ridicule the way we are driving - especially when we feel we are doing nothing wrong. But we also don’t want to get in an accident!
In a sense, telling your brother he’s sinning - rebuking him - can be like back seat driving. Not many people like it. Often times, as a matter of fact, people get angry with you. How many times have you heard in today’s society, “who are YOU to tell me I can’t get divorced, etc. It’s my life, I can do what I want to do.” Or a friend or relative may be completely convinced that there is nothing wrong with their lifestyle. When you even try to point the Word of God out to them, they accuse you of being judgmental or a bigot. But when you’re sitting in the back seat - you get a different perspective on the road. You might be able to see cars in the blind spot. You may have gotten in an accident at the same dangerous intersection. And as much as we don’t like back seat drivers and don’t like to be back seat drivers, how often does it happen that a back seat driver has actually saved our lives? It’s a difficult job and it isn’t very appreciated, but it’s important! And so we pray, “Lord, increase our faith!”
II. So that we can watch each other
But one of the most difficult things, according to the apostles, was when Jesus said, If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Jesus told the disciples to forgive those who sinned against them - even if the same sin occurred seven times in the same day. What is forgiveness? When some missionaries first went to the Eskimos, they could not find a word in their language for forgiveness, so they had to compound one. This turned out to be: Issumagijoujungnainermik. It is a formidable-looking assembly of letters, but an expression that has a beautiful connotation for those who understand it. It means: “Not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” That’s what forgiveness is. God described it in Jeremiah as, “I will remember your sins no more!” When the blood of Christ covers our sins - God really forgets them. On Judgment Day, God won’t say, “what about the time you stole that candy? What about the time you had premarital sex?” Instead, to those who have faith in Christ, God will say, “I don’t remember you ever doing anything wrong. All I see is the blood and righteousness of Christ.” That’s what forgiveness is.
So when Jesus told his disciples to “forgive” the one who sins against you - how difficult is that? If you’re thinking to yourself, “pastor, that’s an easy job,” you don’t know what it’s like to be a Christian. From the day we are born til the day we die we struggle with this whole idea of forgiveness. To this day I can still remember a comment that a Burger King employer made to me approximately 16 years ago. I don’t hold a grudge - but it’s hard for me to forget it. Any seasoned Christian knows that it’s one thing not to hold a grudge, but it’s another thing to forget. Especially when the sin is being repeatedly committed against us. The disciples weren’t being weak when they said, “increase our faith!” They were being realistic.
But how did Jesus respond? He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” A mustard seed, as Jesus said, is small. Some would look at this passage then and say, “I have to have great faith to be able to forgive.” That’s what the disciples were saying through this - increase our faith - increase our faith. That’s what people talk a lot about today - their faith. “If it weren’t for my faith. . .” But notice that Jesus says that the faith is small - like a mustard seed. The point isn’t on the size of faith. If you think your FAITH is what gets you through - it’s another sign of arrogance.
How could a SMALL faith move a mulberry tree? The point has to be on the object of faith. Faith clings to Christ. Faith connects us with the Holy Spirit. Through faith the Almighty God works in us. And so when God asks us to do things that are difficult, even impossible, like moving a mulberry tree or forgiving our brothers, it isn’t about how strong our faith is - it’s about how strong our God is! The more we trust in HIM, and not in our faith - the more he can do. All things are possible with God. God can enable you to not hold grudges. The Holy Spirit can work in you the ability not to dwell on past sins that were committed against you. And the good thing is, even though we can never perfectly forgive, God CAN and God HAS through the blood of Christ.
III. So that we can forgive one another
When a seminarian is enrolled for his first year of schooling, he will often think to himself, “I already know all that I need to know. I’d like to get in a parish immediately and start serving.” By his second year, he might admit that there’s a few things that he needs to know more about. But by his senior year, he is ready to admit that he is but a novice in the Christian faith - and that he has much to learn about the Bible. What happened? Through his studying of the Bible, God works a humility in him - so that he realizes that he is not as smart as he thought he was.
My friends, if you came to church this morning thinking to yourself, “I know enough. My faith is strong enough. I don’t need this worship service, but to make God happy, I will give him an hour of my time,” Jesus, in His seminary of Luke, has issued you a command - to watch yourself - to watch each other - and to forgive each other. Like the rich man, you can walk away sad. Or like the disciples, you can pray, “Lord, increase our faith.”
My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would lead you to follow the disciples. That would pray with them, “Lord, increase my faith. Keep me from falling into sin and leading others down the same path. Keep your cross before my eyes and remind me of my forgiveness. Enable me to be willing to rebuke those who are about to stumble, and give me the faith to forgive those who sin against me. Lord, increase my faith.” By God’s grace your prayer will be answered - and He will grant your request. Amen.