Sermon on St. Matthew 7:15-23
21 July 2013
+ Jesu Juva +
Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matt. 5:20).
“Anoint them prophets. . . To human need their lips make eloquent / to gird the right and ev’ry evil break” (TLH 483). And so the church sings in a popular ordination hymn, “God of the Prophets.” As the Prophets of old spoke for God, so pastors today have a prophetic role to preach what is right and to rebuke all false prophets. Today’s Gospel Lesson equips us in these latter days to identify both false and true prophets by their words and deeds. “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Sheep’s clothing may have been the standard dress of Old Testament prophets. So perhaps Jeremiah and the other faithful prophets wore sheep skins, but so did the false prophets of Jesus’ day. The naked eye could not distinguish a true prophet from a false prophet, so how did the faithful know the difference? “You will recognize them by their fruits,” that is, by their words and deeds. They cannot bear the good fruits of repentance, faith, and holy living, so they bear the bad fruits of false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. They will put themselves and their pride first. They will sell their religious product without scruples or integrity. And, not to make too much of this trend, but perhaps you have observed that the false teachers tend to put their picture (with a big smile) on the front of all of their products.
Beware of false prophets, for you will know them not just by their deeds, but also by their words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Looking ahead to the final judgment of the living and the dead (the theme of the next part of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus warned His hearers of the day when everyone would stand before God’s judgment throne and know that Jesus is Lord. On that great and terrible day, everyone will say, “Lord, Lord!” Later in Matthew’s gospel, the foolish virgins cry, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” but He does not know them. And the unbelievers later cry, “Lord, Lord” and claim to have done the will of God in the final judgment, but it is too late. And notice how the false prophets claim to have done all in Jesus’ name: “Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But their use of the Divine name was in vain, not in faith. Those who claim to speak in the stead and by the command of Christ but are not themselves in Christ will be cast into hellfire as “workers of lawlessness,” that is, as those who are against the Word of God.
The false words and deeds of the bad prophets may sound familiar to you, for we live in a landscape that is dotted with false prophets. These prophets (again, by “prophets” here we simply mean preachers) may preach in a sanctuary and be called “Pastor” and they may preach an element of the truth. But even a little bit of false doctrine can destroy one’s salvation. Consider, for instance, the following brief quote from one of the most popular preachers of our day: “My message is not about doctrine. I don’t have to get 50 references from Scripture in a sermon for it to be a good sermon” (Joel Osteen, cited in Modern Reformation 18:5, p. 4). Again, that’s a preacher (and best-selling author, bolstered by a nice suit and even a snazzy haircut), whose message is not about doctrine and who does not need the solid foundation of the Word of God! Indeed, it would be an interesting exercise to write a computer program called “Theological Mapquest” (especially handy during these summer months of travel), where the churches of false prophets are identified by an upside down cross, and the true churches are identified by a beautiful crucifix. What would such a map look like on your computer screen? It would be loaded with upside down crosses, and you might be left to drive quite a ways on Sunday morning to find the words and deeds of faithful prophets.
So where is the Gospel in today’s Gospel Lesson? What comfort can we take home from this solemn and sober warning against false teaching? Consider yet again who is speaking these words and what He fulfills. Who do you think of from the Old Testament as you hear that Jesus went up the mountain, taught the Word of God, fulfilled the Ten Commandments, and then came down the mountain? Moses. For as Moses once stood on Mt. Sinai and gave Israel God’s Holy Law, so now Jesus sits on the mount and gives them the gospel of the Lord. And everything that Moses, the first prophet, gave to the people under the Law, Jesus now fulfills under the Gospel. Jesus went to our “Pharaoh,” Satan himself, and reclaimed us as His own. He became the Serpent, lifted high on the pole of the cross, for the sins of the world. Christ led us out of the Egypt of sin and through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism. He gives us manna in the wilderness: His true Body and Blood. And He will be with us in the wilderness to the very end, for He is with us in every church where the words and deeds of Christ are properly given and received.
And that is how we find a church and a pastor, isn’t it? Today’s Gospel Lesson helps us identify false prophets by what they say and do, but the Scriptures also help us find the true church by its words (Law and Gospel) and deeds (love and service). Martin Luther called them “the marks of the church,” i.e., those tangible signs that Christ is present, working through the words and deeds of His true church. For her words are Law and Gospel, both the full strength of the Law to bring us to repentance, and the full consolation of the Gospel (including the sacraments) to deliver the word of forgiveness. And the church’s deeds are a daily life of love and service to our neighbor, helping those in need and putting others before ourselves.
This quest for the true church was recently brought home to me and a colleague in the ministry from San Diego. For five weeks in Newport, RI, and again for four and a half weeks in steamy Ft. Jackson, SC, we looked for the true church, where the words and deeds of true prophets (preachers) were present. The base chapel in Newport had a Roman Catholic service, a liturgical Protestant service, and the curious anomaly of a “non-liturgical” Protestant service. We tried all three, and managed to pray the Ordinary of the Mass and sing “A Mighty Fortress” once, and the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) just about every Sunday. We requested off-base transportation to a LCMS church in Providence, but the request was denied because of distance. In Ft. Jackson, the situation was not much better. We sang Matins on our own every single morning, including Scripture lessons and a meditation. But we longed for the fullness of the Divine Service of the word and sacrament. Finally, after nine weeks of sacramental starvation (appropriately accompanied by the occasional MRE), we rented a car at our own expense and drove to a very modest Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC. Bible Study was basically the pastor’s family. The service and sanctuary were modest in size and scope. But here the words and deeds of true prophecy were set in motion, along with the sacraments, including individual confession. It was our oasis in the wilderness, the place where Christ Himself was placed into our ears in preaching and His Body and Blood placed into our mouths in the Lord’s Supper. And therein, as you receive them Sunday to Sunday, was life, salvation, and resurrection from the dead.
Finally, this week our Synod is meeting in convention, no doubt to discuss the words and deeds of both true and false prophets. Our Synod’s first President, C. F. W. Walther, had this to say about the prophetic power of the Word of God: “By the Word alone, without any other power, the church was founded; by the Word alone all the great deeds recorded in church history were accomplished; by the Word alone the church will most assuredly stand also in these days of sore distress, to the end of days. Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; but the Word of the Lord endureth forever’” (Moving Frontiers, p. 177).
God grant it! Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer