The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel on 18 October 2019 for the Feast of St Luke, Evangelist. The text is Luke 10:1-9.
The words of our Gospel are more than guidelines on how missionaries and pastors are to begin and conduct their ministries. They offer both the strategic plan and rules of engagement, from the Commanding Officer, our Lord, and his newly recruited 72 soldiers, as he sends them out on their risky yet crucial indispensable mission of saving the lost and condemned world with His powerful means of grace.
Yet it is a fairly straightforward, orderly and well organized plan. They are not asked to DO a lot. And at first glance it seems rather simple. A number of imperatives are listed: pray, go, stay, heal, and preach. Carry no bag. Focus on the mission and trust the Commanding Officer. By carrying out this plan, victory is secured for “the kingdom of God has come near”. But, at second glance, it may start to resemble a suicide mission! Especially when considering that this text follows Jesus’ radical description of the high cost of following him, leaving all behind. Leave everything behind to … gain nothing? Who would possibly volunteer for this service? A new seminarian may ask himself: “Why did I sign up for this?” You didn’t. God “signed you up”. The selection to the pastoral office is nothing less than a divine work (and thus too critical to leave to volunteers). It is by appointment only (“The Lord of the Church calls you to….”): God’s choice, not our own.
The Commanding Officer begins by informing his new recruits that the mission is widescale. A lot needs to happen. Yet there are only a few to carry out the task. So they are instructed to pray “earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest”. They are not asked to go find new troops by trying to convince them that it is an attractive job, high paying, with lots of benefits, as we often may be tempted to do, or wish were true; or by twisting arms of potential candidates or guilting them with “encouragements” such as “we need you”. Instead, they are asked to do something much more difficult. To pray. Why is that so difficult? Since it demands that they simply lay their lives, and every aspect of the mission into the hands of their trustworthy CO and faithful leader.
So they are to PRAY for more “church workers”, yet in the meantime, along with the Apostles, they are “it”, as they “GO”. Go where? “out with great cheer and joy to proclaim victory over our enemies!” No, not at all: “behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves“; lambs to the slaughter; outnumbered, obviously. Wolves travel in packs, so I guess two lambs are better than one. But even a flock of sheep is no match for a pack of wolves. You can almost compare the likely thoughts of latter detachments of Canadian troops reaching the shore of Vimy Ridge for battle; weighing out the odds of their survival. “They didn’t prepare us for this at boot camp.” At the very least, they should devise some back-up plans, just in case their leader missed something. Yet Jesus says: “carry no bag”. Well at the very very least, the responsible thing to do is to make some strategic allies during this operation; people that they could fall back on for help, if the mission doesn’t work out as well as they were promised. Yet Jesus says: “greet no one on the road”. In other words, “Trust the Chain of Command, focus on the mission and don’t get distracted. God is in control.” And yet, it must have felt like going to war without a weapon.
And when you get to where you are going, what do you do? A simple task: Speak. “SAY”, proclaim: “Peace be to this house”. Pretty straightforward. Not quite. For, it won’t always go as you had hoped and planned. Some will welcome your presence, others will reject it. Some will allow themselves to eat with you, while others will break that table fellowship with you. Some will feed with you (fellow sheep); while others will feed upon you (wolves!). Yet STAY and “remain” there, in spite of mixed reception, and don’t hop around from house to house (unless you are asked to leave, then shake the dust off of your feet). But until that happens stand firm on your ground, and keep on speaking, saying, “The kingdom of God has come near you”. Since it has. The presence of God almighty, made flesh, hidden yet manifested through your office, through your preaching of the “The Lord IS with you”, the very crucified one who carries on his cruciform ministry through His called and ordained ministers, offers condemning words to some (the retention of sins), and healing words for others, (“Your sins are forgiven” + ).
And it is actually, those very same words that you proclaim — humble servants following the word of the Lord — that gives you all necessary strength and comfort to carry out the Lord’s task, fearlessly and diligently. The kingdom of God has come near you”. Near YOU! Called, ordained, appointed (or soon to be). You see our hope and comfort comes, not from the imperatives which require much from us, nor from a numbered account of visible victories, but from the fact that ”The Lord appointed 72” and He “sent them”, in his great wisdom, grace and providence and with his unwavering, divine, strength. He sends them. He sends us.
And it even gets better. For where does he send them? The text says “where he was about to go”. What a relief! It may be unfamiliar territory to these new pastors, but not to our omniscient and omnipresent Lord. God doesn’t act in random ways. He doesn’t parachute them in from anywhere without strategic thought about how their future would unfold. Jesus knew exactly where his troops were going, which wolves would be there, which houses would accept these pairs of pastors, and which ones would reject them and eat them up; all in accordance with His divine plan for saving the world. He repeats that “I am sending you”. That should really suffice. There are no accidents in the kingdom of God and regarding the Lord’s called ones, when we follow His lead and Word. And when the peace that you offer is rejected and thus returned to you, when you are nibbled upon by the wolves or you can even count your bones, poured out as a drink offering, its not random. When you heal the sick, forgive sins, or cast out demons, none of that is random either. He sends them to prepare the way for His coming. And yet their very presence manifests that coming. What a wonderful mystery! They offer the peace (The peace of the Lord be with you always) and yet, in a deeply profound sense, they are that peace also (The Lord be with you). He sent them. He sends us.
No wonder then, now driven by faith, when the 72 return from their deployment they were surprised by how well it all worked out. The Lord is trustworthy and all His plans succeed. Immediately after this text, these victorious little warriors pronounce, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Yet Jesus responds with: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Don’t focus on the fruits of your ministry, but be content that you are saved.
For the strength and power to do the great works of God, the big stuff: forgiving sins and preaching to them; or the little stuff: healing and casting out demons, did not arise from within. It came from the Word and command of God. Those first pastors relied on God’s Word, a Word for all nations. A word they received, and word they delivered. The word sufficed, and still does. The Gospel word, that Jesus is Peace to “sons of peace”, the one and only appointed son of a gracious and almighty Father. This Word incarnate is a shepherd who can crush the heads of every wolf on earth with one swing of his shepherd staff.
Suicide mission? NO , at least not the way we think. For today we remember St. Luke, great physician, historian, artist, author. There is much that we could say more. St Luke is depicted as with a winged ox or bull, recalling both the strength and sacrifice of Christ Jesus, since nourishing the Lord’s people with that very sacrifice, the power of God, is the ultimate mission of the Church. Yet, as Christ operates through His ministers, they embody that strength in their teaching, preaching and even living. Yet also, they embody that sacrifice in their dying, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” So we could say that one of St. Luke’s greatest accomplishments is that he died for the faith (one tradition holds that he was hung from an Olive branch, by the wolves who rejected the peace that he offered). But even if it turns out that he wasn’t martyred, well he died in the faith. After all, as remarkable as he was, he would have been the first to have humbly said that he was only doing his job, carrying out his mission. And so it is with us, deployed, and sent out, by a Lord who knows what he is doing. He loves us, His troops, to the point of giving up His life for us, and empowers us to do the same. For ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ Amen.