Pentecost 20c

Preached: October 10, 2010

What's the Power of a Mustard-Seed Faith?
Luke 17:1-10

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit comforts us in Jesus is Luke 17.

He said to his disciples, “It's impossible for deathtraps not to come. But woe to him through whom it comes. It would be better for him if a millstone had been laid around his neck and he had been thrown into the sea than that he would set a deathtrap for one of the little ones. Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven time in a day and seven times returns to you saying, 'I repent,' forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”

The Lord said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would have obeyed you.

“Who of you, if you had a slave plowing or shepherding, would say to him when he comes in from the field, 'Come here and sit back at once'? Rather wouldn't you say to him, 'Prepare my supper and dress to serve me until I eat and drink. After that you may eat and drink'? He wouldn't thank the servant for doing what was commanded, would he? So also you, when you have done everything commanded of you, say, 'We are unworthy servants. We have only done what we ought to do.” (Luke 17:1-10)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

A mustard seed is quiet small, but it comes in many varieties. There's yellow mustard, white mustard, black mustard, and more. People debate which plant Jesus had in mind as he talks about faith as small as a mustard seed. The leading candidate is the black mustard, Brassica nigra. It can grow to fifteen feet from such a tiny seed. But we're not here today for a horticultural lesson.

Think about this question instead: What makes a seed powerful? It's size doesn't matter, does it? It's what's inside. That's where the power and life is. That's where the embryonic plant grows. So also the power of faith isn't in its size but in the promise that faith holds on to. The promise is the heart and core of faith like the germ inside a seed. The promise. That's what brings strength and life to faith. The word of promise. Faith is only as good as the promise it's holding on to. Keep that in mind as we take to heart Jesus' words in Luke 17.

A. The power to spiritual help others

1. What can snap down on faith to destroy it?

Jesus lays before us some difficult things. First, he talks about not causing others to fatally sin. “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come” (Luke 17:1 NIV), Jesus says. Jesus uses the Greek word σκάνδαλα (skandala), which the King James translates as offenses. But the thought goes far beyond offending someone or causing them to sin. We talked about this a year ago in a sermon on Mark 9. At that time we used a mouse trap to illustrate the meaning. The thought here is a deathtrap. It's tempting someone, like placing cheese on the trigger, so that their faith is destroyed.

How serious that is! For without faith, there is no heaven, no eternal life. Only death, hell, and unending torment. No wonder Jesus says that dying the horrible death of drowning in the sea with a huge millstone around the neck is better than actually causing someone to lose their faith.

Now what snaps down on faith to destroy it? Two categories come to mind: False teaching and false living. Since the power of faith is the promise and since false teaching distorts or destroys God's promise, false teaching kills faith. Likewise, since faith believes God's promise and so wants to obey God, faith cannot coexist with willful sinning. So watch yourselves.

2. What makes rebuking sin difficult?

Jesus continues. Rather than causing a death-trap to destroy someones faith, we want to put our faith into practice to spiritual help others. How do we do that? Jesus tells us, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3 NIV).

Remember we just said that willful sinning destroys faith? Not only do we not want to lead others into the deathtrap of willful sinning by being a bad example, but we also want to keep them from wandering into sin. We warn and rebuke them with the heartfelt goal of forgiving them. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3 NIV).

How difficult that is! Notice how Jesus did not limit it to only sins someone commits against you. Often when someone hurts us, it's easy to rebuke them, maybe not with the right attitude, but the rebuking comes naturally like revenge. But Jesus doesn't limit it. If your brother, your fellow Christian, sins, whatever that sin might be, if there's no repentance, he needs to be rebuked. For impenitence over any kind of sin destroys faith. If you saw a little baby crawling toward a set mouse trap, what would you do? Even if it's not your house, your baby, or your mouse trap, you would not ignore the danger. How much more so when a fellow Christian, a brother or sister in the faith, has placed their soul in mortal danger by willful sinning!

How difficult this is! For we are not to rebuke them with a proud attitude that puffs myself up while I push them down. We are not to ignore it thinking, “Who am I to say anything?” We are not to nitpick calling something a sin that isn't. And as soon as there is repentance, we are to forgive and not belabor the point. If they are living in repentance, we dare not harp on their sins. We are not guilt the repentant as if they were not forgiven.

And even when we do talk with someone about their sin, how often have they failed to listen? So we wonder whether we were clear enough or stern enough. How much time should we give them to think about it? Do we need to confront them again? Or maybe they reacted hostilely. Were we arrogant or unduly harsh? What Jesus says in so few words we spend a life time struggling to practice. I think you can understand why the disciples later called out: “Increase our faith.”

3. What makes forgiving sin difficult?

But there's more before we hear that plea. Jesus expands on forgiving others. You see forgiveness is what God's promise is all about: God's forgiveness to you because Jesus paid for your sins by his death on the cross. Unconditional forgiveness in Jesus. That's the life-giving power in the mustard seed. That's the promise faith holds on to.

What a deathtrap when we distort that message by not forgiving others, or making our forgiveness toward them conditional! Jesus says, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him” (Luke 17:4 NIV). Notice how Jesus makes this personal. “If he sins against you . . .” You've been wronged, mistreated, betrayed. You feel the hurt. He cut out your heart and stomps on it. It's personal. But if he repents, forgive him. Forgive him freely, unconditionally, just as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Consider how many times each day you sin against your God. Yet he gave his Son up on the cross for you. He's forgiven you the huge debt you owe him. So also we forgive our fellow Christians who sin against us. How difficult that is! No wonder the disciples call out “Increase our faith.”

B. The power that does not look inward

1. How much of the strength to serve God comes from digging down deep inside ourselves?

And what's Jesus answer? I think we might scratch our heads at first as we listen to his answer. He talks about a mustard seed, about planting a mulberry tree in the sea, and about slaves serving their master. What kind of answers are those? How does that increase our faith?

But Jesus is getting at the root of the problem. The disciples heard all that Jesus said about leading others into fatal sin and about rebuking and forgiving. What do you think was going through their minds? What went through your mind? “How can I do this? I just don't have the strength within me. It's all too hard for me. My faith just isn't strong enough or big enough. No matter how hard I try I'm going to fail.” Does that sound about right?

But do you notice where our thoughts were all focused? On yourself. How can I do this. What strength do I have. How great is my faith. Jesus' answer makes us stop looking at ourselves.

You think your faith is too small. Well, even that tiny, mustard-seed-size faith you have can do what's impossible. For it doesn't depend on your inner strength. It doesn't depend on how big you imagine your faith to be. It doesn't depend on your worthiness or self-worth.

In fact, you and I, we are unworthy servants. Even if we did all perfectly -- never leading others into sin, always properly rebuking and forgiving -- even then we've only done our duty. We've only carried out what was rightly required of us in the first place. We have no claim for credit or thanks.

How contrary to popular thinking Jesus' words run! If you want people to accomplish great things whether it's winning a football game, doing well at work, raising a family, or being a good citizen and church member, the world says you need to build up their self-esteem. Psych them up. Encourage them to believe in themselves, to find their inner strength, to reach for the stars, to fulfill their dreams. You've heard it all before.

How does that fit in with the little story Jesus told? Listen to it again, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink, after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10 NIV).

Jesus sort of leaves us hanging, doesn't he? He crushes our self-worth. “We are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.” And then ends it. So where does the strength and power come from? Where do we find hope and the confidence to go on? Jesus doesn't tell us here. But the disciples knew the answer, and so do you.

2. Where does the power come from?

The power of faith is not in its size but in the promise. The strength of faith does not come from within you but from the promise God has spoken to you. He owes us nothing, just as that master owed his slaves nothing. But look at his grace! He gave you his Son. He placed an infinite value on you. For he paid the price of the blood of Christ -- the holy, precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross for you. You are his blood-bought son or daughter, reborn into his family through water and word, no longer a slave but a son and daughter. What grace that did all that for you while you were a slave failing to do your duty!

And that same God, dear friend, who did such great things for you, is now working in you. Paul writes to the Philippians, “[I]t is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13 NIV). Does that not cause you and me to tremble in holy fear and awe! Unworthy servants that we are, nonetheless the Almighty is at work in you and me. How astounding!

Doesn't he have the power to work in us so that we don't lead others into fatal sin, like a deathtrap? Doesn't he have the power to work in us so that we rebuke and forgive? Yes, of course he does! And he wants to work those good works in you. Are you going to say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I'm going to do it my way. I've got the self-confindence”? That's not faith, not even a tiny faith. Or are you crying out, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!” That's a mustard-seed faith. That's your faith. What great things the power of God's promise will accomplish through you. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313