The following sermon was preached by Rev. Prof. Esko Murto in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in celebration of St Michael and All Angels, 29 September 2015. The text is Matthew 18:1-11.
In the year 2010, movie theatres showed a film based on true events, called “127 Hours”, where a man named Aron Ralston is caught in a rock climbing accident. His right arm gets stuck between two massive rocks, and after multiple failed attempts he realizes that death by either hypothermia or dehydration is unavoidable unless he finds a way to get himself freed. In a desperate and frankly gruesome scene, Ralston wraps a tourniquet around his arm, and using only the short blade of his multi tool, uses the cuts through his skin, flesh, bone and nerves, until finally his right arm is severed and he is free again. Suffering from shock and loss of blood, he manages to climb the cliff and walk eight miles to reach safety. As viewers, we are moved by his horrible suffering, but at the same time we can’t but admire his resolution, endurance and sheer strength of will that enabled Ralston to go through such pain to save his life. And still we can’t but wonder: would I have been able to do the same thing, had I been his position? Or would I have been unable to bear the pain, thus remaining trapped until death unavoidably claimed me? Needless to say, we hope we would never, ever find ourselves in such a desperate situation.
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus talking about similar gruesome things: cutting off your arm or foot, or tearing away your eye, if they tempt you. But now our Lord is not simply talking about saving ourselves from the dangers of hypothermia and dehydration in order to preserve our temporal life; he is talking about temptation to sin and choosing between eternal life and the fires of hell. The stakes are higher, and hence also the task is even harder for us, for even though a man may be capable to go through horrible things to preserve his temporal life, our sinful nature will not and cannot save ourselves from sin and judgement, no matter how hard we might try.
Christ says “IF your arm tempts you”, but knowing from experience, we might just as well leave out that little word “if”. Replace it with “when” and what happens? You cut away an arm, a foot and one eye. You still have one of each left, and they will surely tempt you as well. Cut them out too, and eyeless, armless and footless, you still are tempted. For Christ says: out of the heart come murder and adultery. But then, to cut out your own heart, it would mean killing yourself. The thought horrifies, but has some desperate rationality in it: the only way to stop the temptation once and for all would be to rip out your heart and die.
But that is not what Christ says. He hears his disciples wondering once again how to become great in the kingdom of heaven. Or perhaps he today hears someone despairing over the question of how could I ever be allowed in the kingdom, no matter great or small! So our merciful lord suddenly turns everything around by taking a little child and telling them and us: whoever humbles himself like this child, will not only enter, but also be great in the kingdom of heaven.
Children are not exemplary because of what they have, but rather, because of what they don’t have – they have no strength, no cunning or wisdom, no merit or glory. They are exemplary in the way they need and receive care from others. To be spiritually child-like means to confess before God that we do not deserve, nor can we earn anything by what we are or do, but must rely solely on God to save us.
With this understanding, how do we hear the words of Christ about cutting away our feet or arms or plucking out our eyes, if they tempt us? The Bible regularly uses “arm” as a metaphor for strength and power, whereas “eye” is used to symbolize understanding and discernment. So perhaps we should understand Christ’s words as warning, yes, but not directed only against those things in us which we consider our most shameful shortcomings, but also against the things we might perceive as our greatest strength and source of our pride. The things we consider our best assets are often the areas where the most dangerous temptations occur: temptations of pride, arrogance, false wisdom, spiritual hard-heartedness, and most of all, self-justification – the reliance on our own strength and understanding above God’s power and his wisdom.
Call to become like children is, in a sense, both law and gospel to us. It is certainly law in its sharpest form when it strips away all delusions we might have of entering the Kingdom through some merit of our own. Yet the promise in these words is still greater, the trustworthy promise of Christ, that we who are like children who find themselves without any strength or merit of our own in the eyes of God, will see the gates of Heaven opened.
How can this be? Christ Jesus became blind for our sake, when the soldiers put a blindfold over his eyes and struck him. He allowed his hands and feet to be pierced by nails and his side, innards and heart penetrated by the soldier’s spear – for our sake. His body was cast away into the tomb, so that we would not be cast into the lake of fire. And through his resurrection he has given us a certain assurance that not only our feet, arms and eyes, but out whole being will also one day rise in glory, free from sin and temptation.
Today we celebrate St Michael and all the angels, and they too can be seen as examples of this. In today’s gospel lesson our Lord describes the angels of these little ones as ones who always see the face of our Father who is in heaven. Christ could have truthfully said a lot more about angels, about their spiritual power and understanding so superior when compared with us. But we only hear this one definition: they always see the face of Father in heaven. Their strength lies in the fact that they are constantly strengthened by God. Even the great captain of the formidable angelic host, Michael, bears this testimony in his name: Michael, ‘who is like God’, Michael, whose whole strength and essence is from God alone.
Today we will come to the Lord’s Table and pray: “Save me Jesus, not only from my crude sins and vices, but also from my prideful spirit and self-centered virtues, in short, save me from myself, for all that I am and what I have is tainted by sin, and is need of your saving mercy.” And the same Christ who once took an earthly child and placed him in front of his earthly disciples, perhaps he will turn to his angels and, pointing to his church on earth, say: look, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, for these are my children, who always see Father in me.” And the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven will say– -Amen.