This sermon is on the assigned texts; all the assigned texts; and almost nothing but the assigned texts.
Let us begin with the text from Isaiah 44:6. Therein God speaks through his prophet saying:
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
Isaiah spoke this Word of God when the people of Israel were surrounded by tribes and nations who worshiped false gods. The Hebrew Bible mentions a number of them. I would mention just a few:
Jeremiah 46:25 tells us that the Egyptians worshiped Amon aka Amun or Amun Ra. Amun Ra was the sun god. The Egyptians thought of him as the creator of the world. In our Bible, in the book of Genesis, the sun is not created until the 4th Day. Some people say that is history, others poetry. Whatever else it is, it is pure theology. Genesis proclaims that the sun god is no god at all, but a part of the creation of the one God, the God of Israel, who says, “besides me there is no God.”
In 1st and 2nd Samuel we read that the Canaanites and the Phoenicians worshiped Baal and his consort As-her-ah. As-her-ah was also known as Ash-tor-eth. She is closely akin to Goddess variously called Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite, or Venus. Venus was associated with the planet Venus, also known as the Evening Star. Baal and his consorts—by whatever name they were called, were fertility gods. They were carved from rock and wood, but they were served in the flesh by cult prostitutes, both male and female. Jeremiah tells us that when the people of Israel trooped to these harlots, they “committed adultery with tree and stone (Jeremiah 3:9).” The image is a metaphor, but more than a metaphor. It is little wonder that idolatry and adultery are so closely associated.
According to the Pentateuch the chief deity of the Ammonite’s was Molech. The Ammonites were so enslaved to Molech that they often sacrificed their children to this false god. I once had a woman get up and walk out of a service when I read the story of Abraham and Isaac. She missed the point of the story. The story not only affirms Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience to the Lord, it affirms that the God of Israel does not require the sacrifice of children. That story was a comfort to generations of mothers in Israel.
I would mention one more false god. 2nd Kings records the name of Baal-zebub a popular deity of the Philistines. Baal-zebub means “lord of the flies.” The Greek from of Baal-zebub is Be-el-zebub. In the New Testament, Be-el-zebub is one of the names given to “the prince of demons” by the Pharisees. (Matthew 12:24) Jesus himself refers to Satan by that name. (Matthew 12:27-28) Whatever else Satan is, and is not, he is a false god, who was, at one time, worshiped alongside the other idols.
Isaiah pokes fun at people who worship idols. He says that foolish people cut down a cedar or an oak, and parts of it to warm themselves, and bake bread, and roast meat, and the parts of it they carve into a god that they worship. (Isaiah 44) The One True God warns that we must not pray to that which cannot save us. God would spare his people that disappointment.
Even today, the worship of false gods is a snare to God’s people, and not all idols are carved from wood and stone. The 19th Century evangelists, D.L. Moody wrote:
You don’t have to go to (foreign) lands to find false gods. America is full of them. Whatever you love more than God is your idol. A person may make a god of him or herself, of a child, of a parent, or of some precious gift that God has given. Many make a god of pleasure or money. Others take fashion as their god, for they fear what others will think of them. Many a heart is like some a primitive hut, so full of idols that there is hardly room to turn around. (Summarized by WNG).
When life tumbles in the things that mean so much to us become so much chaff, which the wind blows away. As H. G. Wells once observed, “Old men getting ready to die are like boys putting away their toys.” By contrast, in 1st Timothy 6:6,7 we read, “6 There is great gain in godliness with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.”
The second texts to which I would refer is Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus puts a parable before his followers saying:
24 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
This is one of the greatest texts in the New Testament. In it Jesus says that judgment is coming, but it is the householder, obviously God himself, who will make the decision, not us. In this parable Jesus forbids his people from sitting in judgment of those who do not believe or act as we do. He recognizes that there are weeds in the garden of the world, and weeds in the garden of the church; but he argues against pulling up the weeds lest, in pulling up the weeds, we damage the wheat.
There is a wonderful metaphor at work here. In the early stages of their growth—weeds, here named as “tares,” and “wheat” look remarkably alike. Those who are so zealous for God’s kingdom that they wish to purify it, and pull up the weeds are cautioned that they can mistake one for the other, and do more damage than good.
This parable has often gone unheeded. I never cease to be amazed at the number of people who wish to sit in judgment of others, despite the fact that Jesus said that when it comes to judgment, the measure we give will be the measure we get. I like the caution of St. Paul who says, “Who am I to judge the servant of another?”
If Christians had paid attention to this parable, we would not have marched off on the Crusades against the Muslims, and we would not have killed thousands of Jews in the Spanish Inquisition.
Martin Luther preached a sermon on the parable in which he affirmed that only God is able to separate false from true believers. Luther also noted that when we kill heretics or unbelievers we end any opportunity they have for salvation, and “we do a double murder upon ourselves.” Luther concluded, “although the tares hinder the wheat, yet they make (the wheat) more beautiful to behold”.
Roger Williams was not only the founder of Rhode Island, but also a respected Baptist theologian. He used this parable to support government toleration of all of the “weeds.” He said that civil persecution aimed at the “weeds” often inadvertently hurts the “wheat.” He said, “It is God’s duty to judge in the end, not man’s.”
Wolfheart Pannenberg is one of the leading theologians of the 20th Century. He is the one who believes that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is so compelling it meats all the canons of historical fact. He also pointed out that judging from a strictly historical point of view, the truth of Christianity is superior to the truth of the other Abrahamic faiths, because both Moses and Mohammed permit violence to non-believers, which Jesus forbids. Jesus Christ really is the Prince of Peace. He invites all people to enter his kingdom, but he insist it is not a kingdom of this world built on power and conquest, but a kingdom of the Spirit that is rooted in the love of God for the whole world.
That leads us to the Epistle lesson from Romans 8:12-17. The Apostle writes:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13 for if (we) live according to the flesh (we) will die, but if by the Spirit (we) put to death the deeds of the body (we) will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For (we) did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but (we) have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
The message of this passage is simple. Those of us who know the truth are expected to live by the truth that we know. We are debtors, not to the flesh, but to the Spirit, and all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. Elsewhere Jesus warns that much is required from those to whom much is given. (Luke 12:48)
That leaves a final text. We have seen that there is one true God. We have seen that we must leave it to God to Judge between true believers and false. We have seen that if we wish to be a true believer, we are debtors not to the flesh, but to the spirit. Finally, we might ask, “And what if we are persecuted and even attracted by the non –believer?”
There are times when nations rise up against nations, and Christians are caught in the middle, but not all persecution is limited to nation against nation. It can be quite personal, even if it hits us obliquely. In Psalm 86, the Psalmist says that insolent men have risen up against him, and a band of ruthless men are seeking his life. He says that these men have no regard for God. Yet the Psalmists insist that he does, and that he has trusted his life to the Lord God, who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He asks for God’s pity, and a sign of God’s favor, that those who hate him may be put to shame.
God has so ordered the world that the authorities often protect us from one another. As Paul says in Romans 13:3, “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” I recently saw this demonstrated.
Two days this week I was in line at the Social Security Office before 7:00 a.m. On the first occasion I got there second, and everybody queued in the line as we arrived, giving place to those who arrived before us. On the second occasion, I got there first, and I was thrilled. After me, a man who had come here from Cuba arrived, and got in line after me, and another man after him, and so on. This went on for an hour and a half. Then one woman walked up, and centered herself on the door. She stood there for perhaps ten minutes, just rocking back and forth, like she was a bout to start a race. I told her that she probably should be in line, as new people were coming all the time, and I explained to her that at 9:00 a.m. a security guard would come out and ask, “Who is first?” She told me that I was silly. She refused to take my suggestion saying and I quote, “We are all going into the same building.”
I felt sorry for this woman. All she wanted was a little respect, yet she had not learned that before we get respect, we must give respect. I could not help but be delighted when the security guard came out a 9:00 a.m. and asked, “Who is first?” The man from Cuba pointed at me and said, “He is first, and I am second, and the gentleman behind me is third, and everyone else is in line, but that woman got here just a few minutes ago. I had the satisfaction—twinged with sadness, of seeing her sent to the end of the line.
Of course, there are times when there is no authority to act; but sometimes, things still work out. Fred Craddock tells the story of taking an airline flight seated across the aisle from a man who drank heavily, and spoke at the top of his voice, and whispered curses every time the stewardess turned her back. As soon as they started serving drinks, the man ordered another drink, and a beautiful stewardess brought it. Craddock said he found himself wondering if there was any justice in the universe. Then the airline hit an air pocket, and dropped about a hundred feet. The drink flew in the man’s lap, and the stewardess fell into Craddock’s lap. Dr. Craddock said he could not help but exclaim, “There is a God.”
Things do not always work out so quickly; but it is because of our faith that the good and righteous God who separates the wheat from the tares, can protect the tares from the wheat. Sometimes, the vindication of the righteous seems to take forever, but sometimes, gratefully, it comes swiftly.