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Archive for July, 2011

Sinful Fishers of Men 

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, July 24, 2011 by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret,  And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.  And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.   And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.   And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.   And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.   When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.   For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken:   And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.   And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)

My wife and I love to go fishing together.  If we had a boat and a place to keep a boat, we would spend far too much time on the water.   I was blessed with a wife who is the most patient fisherman in the world.  She can cast and cast all day long, never catch a thing, and still be perfectly happy to sit there all day long and throw in the line just one more time, hoping that on that next cast, she will catch one.  Now, my dad is exactly the opposite.  Go fishing with him, and if you haven’t caught anything in 30 minutes, he’s ready to go home.  We do this kind of fishing primarily for recreation, but people like Peter, Andrew,  James, and John, did it for a living.  They knew how to fish.  Truth be told, I am not a very good fisherman.  Most of the time, when my wife and I go fishing, we catch very little, and we often put up our rods and reels with a sense of disappointment for we have caught so few.  I just can’t find the fish, or I can’t get them to bite.  Last year, my son-in-law and I went fishing with a man who had a top-of-the-line fish finder in his boat.  He would drive us to certain spots in the lake, look on his fish finder and say, “There they are, about 15 feet down.”  But even though we knew where they were, we couldn’t always get them to bite.  I imagine that fishermen like Peter, James, and John would have loved to have had a fish finder, for like many fishermen of all kinds, they often knew what it was to fish all day, or all night, and not catch anything.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find this incident where the disciples have been toiling all night, casting their nets into the lake again and again, and catching nothing.  But Jesus encourages them to go back, make one more try.  Peter thinks this is rather foolish.  He is the fisherman.  Jesus was the son of a carpenter.  What did he know about fishing?  Now, if I’m fishing, and a man pulls up beside my boat, and says, “Try a yellow worm with purple spots,” I’ll probably take his advice.  But Peter, being a professional fisherman, thinks that trying again is a waste of time.  But you know the story.  They go back out and make a huge haul, so much so that their nets begin to break, and their boats begin to sink under the weight of all the fish they catch.  When Peter and they others see this catch, they are astonished.  But Peter is more than astonished that a great miracle has taken place.  For some reason, when he sees the number of fish, he is convicted of his own sinfulness.  For he looks at Jesus and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  Something has happened to Peter that has made him aware of his sinfulness in the presence of someone who is holy.  It is possible that for the first time,  Peter has recognized that Jesus is God, that he is in the presence of the divine, for in verse five, you notice that he calls Jesus “Master.”  But in verse 8, he refers to him as “Lord,” possibly indicating that he realizes that Jesus is God.   Since he is in the presence of the Holy One, he is embarrassed and ashamed of who and what he is.  This awareness of being sinful is a typical reaction when people realize that they are in the presence of God.  Remember how Job, throughout that book, calls God on the carpet and demands an explanation for the way God has been dealing with him.  But when God does reveal himself, Job says:  “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.  Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).  Notice that Job doesn’t start rejoicing, boasting about how the Lord has appeared to him.  He doesn’t start testifying about what a wonderful experience it is to be in the presence of God.  No, the presence of God makes him aware of his own sinfulness.  Peter is having the same reaction in the presence of the Holy One.   When Peter looks at the purity and holiness of Jesus, he finds his own sinfulness disgusting.  Didn’t Isaiah have much the same experience?  When Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, he said, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).  Peter is having that same experience of realizing how unclean he is in the presence of such dazzling holiness.

We aren’t told exactly why this miracle made such an impression on Peter that he realized he was in the presence of the Divine.  Peter had seen Jesus perform many miracles already.  In the chapter previous to this one, we have read how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, but we don’t read that this brought Peter under conviction about his own sinfulness.  We are also told in that fourth chapter that Jesus had cast unclean spirits out of people, and these spirits would cry out saying that he was the Christ of God.  Chapter four tells us how Jesus healed all kinds of sick people.  But for some reason, it is this miracle of the great catch of fish that causes Peter to recognize who Jesus is.    Some have speculated that the reason Peter is so impressed in this instance is that Jesus had performed a miracle in the realm where Peter was an expert.  Peter knew fishing.   Peter knew there were no fish out there.  They had been toiling all night with nets that some Bible scholars say would have been 300 feet long.  If there were any fish in that area, they would have caught them.  Others have pointed out that in that part of the world, they fished at night because the fish wouldn’t be able to see the nets.  Now that it was morning, it would be pointless to go back into the water and fish, because the fish would see the nets coming and run away.    Though all of these circumstances pointed to the fact that they would be unsuccessful in their attempts to catch any fish, they make the biggest haul they had ever made.  One of the commentaries I read said that this was no miracle.  Jesus just had a keen eye and saw the fish out there.  Well, Peter had a keen eye, and I’m sure that if there had been any fish there, he would have seen them.  No, this is clearly a case of Jesus showing that not only does he have the ability to calm the raging of the sea, but he also has the power to control the actions and motions of fish in the sea.  When he does so, Peter is made aware of the divinity of Jesus and his own sinfulness.  Peter knew fishing, and he knew that this was a miracle.  Jesus had broken into his life in such a way, that Peter recognized who he was.

Our Lord has a way of breaking into our lives in certain events so that we begin to see him for who he really is.  Surely, Peter had some idea of who Christ was.  Andrew, his own brother had come to him and said, “We have found the Messiah!”  Peter had been following Jesus for a while.  He had seen the miracles.  He had heard his teaching.  But here something has happened that makes him clearly see who Christ is.  For many of us, there is a moment in time when Christ breaks through to us, and we say with Job, “I have heard about you, but now I see you.”  This can happen when you are reading Scripture and a verse or passage jumps out at you, one that you have been reading all your life, but suddenly the Holy Spirit reveals to you the glory of Christ in a way that you have never seen it before.   It may happen during the sacrament of Holy Communion.  You may have been taking the sacrament for years, and though it was always special and very meaningful to you, one day you look at these elements and you say, “Christ is here.  He is really here.”  The priest says, “The body of Christ which was given for thee,” and you realize that this is the body of Christ.  You realize in a way that you never have before what Christ suffered for your sake, and you want to say, “Depart from me, O Lord.  I am not worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.”  Sometimes, this new reality breaks through to you when you are hearing the preaching of the word.  You have been listening to sermons all your life, and you may have even found them to be boring and tedious, but suddenly, what the preachers says pierces your heart, opens your eyes, and you see the glory of Christ.  It may be that the Lord does something providential in your life,  and you see his glory and his goodness.  Remember how St. Paul says that the goodness of God leads us to repentance.  Sometimes, when God blesses us in unexpected ways, we are also made aware that we are not worthy to receive even the least of his blessings.    These blessings are actually an embarrassment, for we realize that we deserve nothing but the judgment of God, and with Peter we say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter’s reaction may seem a little strange to us.  If Peter had been like most people, he would have said, “Lord, stay with me.  We are going to make a killing.  As long as I have you in the boat, we will catch fish like this every day, and we will make a fortune.”  Remember when people saw Jesus multiply the loaves and fishes they began to follow him because they saw him as a free meal ticket.    Peter could have seen Jesus in exactly that same way, but all that Peter is aware of is that he is in the presence of the holy, and he is a sinner.

Peter’s request that Christ depart from him comes from a deep humility caused by a sight of his own sinfulness.  But sometimes, people ask Christ to depart from them for all the wrong reasons.    Often, people ask Christ to depart from them because they love their sin, and they don’t want to be convicted about it.    When Job describes the wicked he says, “They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.   Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways.   What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?” (Job 21:13-15).  Here we have people who ask God to leave them alone.  They don’t want to know his ways because they know that God will ask them to leave their sinful ways behind.  These particular people are having fun, making money.  The knowledge of God and his ways would interfere with their lives and their plans, so they tell God, “Leave us alone.”  They are like the people in the story of the Gadarene demoniac.  You remember that when Jesus cast the legion of demons out of that man, he sent them into the swine which then proceeded to run off a cliff and into the sea.  The people of that area came to Jesus and asked him to leave.    The very presence of Christ was causing them trouble, interfering with their profits.  Better to have demon-possessed men around than someone who upsets our lives.  When we see people running from God, they are, in effect, simply asking God to leave them alone.  When people become atheists, agnostics, skeptics, it is just their way of asking God to leave them alone.  Sometimes, when we see our children grow up to rebel against the faith and the teaching of the Church, we see that as departing from God, and it is.  But in another sense, it is their attempt to ask God to leave them alone.    So often people tell the Lord to depart from them so that they can continue to live in their sin without being troubled by the voice of conscience.  Oh, they might not literally say, “Depart from me, O Lord,” but their actions are designed to blot him out of their minds and memories.    They party constantly, they work without pause, or they engage in the endless pursuit of trivial things.  As long as they can stay busy, as long as they can keep their minds occupied, they don’t have to deal with the claims of God upon their lives.  The presence of Christ troubles them, and they want to be left alone.

But in Peter’s case, his desire that the Lord should depart from him sprang from a genuine humility caused by the sense of his own unworthiness, and, in that respect, is admirable.  But on another level, this request was actually foolish.  When we ask the Lord to depart from us because we are sinful, we are making a huge mistake, for the best place for a sinner to be is near to Christ.  Sometimes, this “I’m so humble,” routine is just a subterfuge to justify our refusal to follow Christ.  We say, “Oh, I’m just too sinful.  The Lord would never receive me.”  That sounds so humble, but we are really hiding behind a false humility in order to cling to our sins.  If we are truly humbled by the sight of our sinfulness, we will want to seek a solution to it, and that remedy can only be found in Christ.  As Alexander MacLaren put it  “And so the man who knows his own need of Christ and Christ’s grace will not say, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man,’ but he will say, ‘Leave me never, nor forsake me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord; but in Thee I have forgiveness and righteousness.”  Have you truly seen your own sinfulness?  Then, by all means, don’t ask the Lord to leave you.  Draw near to him, realizing that it is only through drawing near to Christ, kneeling at his cross,  and being washed in his blood that  you can be cleansed of your sin.  Every time we come to the Lord’s Table, we confess our unworthiness, but we do not ask the Lord to depart from us because we are unworthy.  Rather, we draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to our comfort, asking that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.

While it is a good thing that Peter saw his sinfulness, it was not wise to ask the Lord to depart.  It is for that reason that the next words that Jesus speaks to him are, “Fear not:  from henceforth thou shalt catch men.”  I want you to notice that Jesus does not disagree with Peter when he says that he is a sinful man.  Jesus doesn’t say, “No you aren’t.  You’re not a sinful man.  Stop being so hard on yourself.”  But Jesus wants Peter to know that his sinfulness does not stand in the way of his being useful in the Lord’s service.  Christ is telling Peter that though he is a sinful man, he is going to use him to catch men.  He will use him, sinner though he is, to go preach the gospel to people, and they will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  Sinner though he is, he will catch men in the Gospel net.  What a comfort to all of us to know that Christ uses sinners to save sinners!   Don’t let your past failures stand in the way of serving Christ.    Don’t say, “Oh, God could never use me.  Think of all that I have done in the past.”  Well, look at Peter.  Was he a perfect man?  Why, in a short while, this man, destined to catch men, will deny that he ever knew Christ.  I wonder if after the resurrection, when Peter saw Christ,  he had this same reaction, “ Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  Perhaps.   It would be only natural.  But preachers and commentators down through the years have pointed out that there was another miracle of fish that is very similar to this one. You remember after the resurrection that Peter and John are fishing, and someone on the shore shouts to them, “Children, have you caught anything.”  They said, “No.”  Then, this stranger on the beach says, “Try on the other side of the boat.”  Now, you might think all kinds of bells would be going off now, but it doesn’t seem to dawn on them what is happening.  They cast the net on the other side, and again, they catch so many fish, they can’t get the net in the boat.  Finally, John says, “It is the Lord.”  This time, when Peter hears these words, he does not say, “Depart from me, O Lord.”  Instead, Peter jumps in the water and starts making his way toward Jesus.    Maybe Peter realizes now that sin, not even the sin of denying Christ, lessens the Lord’s love for us.    This time, instead of asking the Lord to get away from him, he wants to be near to Christ.  Then, once again, even after the sin of denying Christ,  our Lord Jesus gives him the commission, “Feed my sheep.”  It is as though our Lord is saying, “Sinful man though you are, even guilty of denying me.  Feed my sheep.”  Here is the greater miracle.  The greatest miracle is not that our Lord could direct fish into the net of fishermen.  The greatest miracle is that he can take sinful people, sinful people like you and me, and use us to bring others into his kingdom.  Today, let us recognize that we are sinful.  But let that be no barrier to drawing near to Christ, and committing ourselves to be useful in his service.  Amen.

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The Blind Leading the Blind

A Sermon

 Preached on Sunday, July 17, 2011, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?  Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.(Luke 6:39-42) 

            When we think of people who have achieved great things in spite of enormous obstacles, surely one of the most amazing stories of the past 150 years is that of Helen Keller.  Though Helen Keller was born able to see and hear, she contracted an illness when she was nineteen months old that left her deaf and blind.  As a child, she developed some kind of sign language to communicate her basic needs with family members, but she did not really begin to blossom until Anne Sullivan arrived and became her guide and teacher.  Under her instruction, Helen Keller, blind and deaf, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and became a popular author and speaker.    What would have happened if Anne Sullivan had never come into her life?   The title of the 1962 movie about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan was entitled, The Miracle Worker.  No doubt, Anne Sullivan deserved that title.  Though Helen Keller remained physically blind, Anne Sullivan taught her new ways of seeing, so much so that she learned much more than many people who have the gift of physical sight.  But she needed a guide to teach her to see in this way.

            In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that we all need a guide, for we are spiritually blind.  As we read through the Scriptures, we find that people are often described as being in a case of spiritual blindness.  In II Cor. 4:3-4, St. Paul writes,  “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”  Whenever we share the gospel of Christ with other people, we wonder why they reject it, or why they don’t understand it.  Sometimes, we blame ourselves, thinking that we are not proclaiming the gospel in the right way.  We think that if we used different methods, we would be able to reach them.  We need to understand that the problem is not with the message, and it is not with the way we are presenting it. The problem is that the other person is blind.  The God of this world, Satan, has blinded them, and they cannot see the truth.  If you set before a blind person the most beautiful painting in the world, bring them up close to it, no matter how beautiful that painting is, they still won’t be able to see it, because they are blind.  Though we present the love of God in Jesus Christ in the most beautiful way possible, unbelievers can’t see it, because the God of this world has blinded their minds.  In Ephesians 4:18, the Apostle Paul described those outside of Christ as “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.”    “Blindness of heart” is a very important term, for it indicates that though people might be able to understand the facts of the gospel, they are blind in their hearts.  This gospel is something that that they can’t see because they hate it.  This gospel is offensive to them, and though presented with all clarity, people still reject it because of blindness of heart.  They cannot see the glory of God.  They cannot see the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They cannot see the reality of spiritual things because they don’t have the eyes to see.

            Realizing that people are in this condition of spiritual blindness, what do we do?  Do we give up and say, “Well, they are just blind.  There is nothing we can do to help them.”  No, we mustn’t take that attitude for we were blind at one time ourselves, but now we see.  As St. Paul said, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).  We were once in this condition of spiritual blindness, but God had mercy on us, and shined the light into our hearts so that we might see the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This light comes to shine in our hearts through the preaching of the gospel.  In Acts 26, St. Paul tells us what the Lord told him to do when he appeared to him on the Damascus Road.  He said, “But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;  Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,  To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me”(Acts 26:16-18).  Though people are blind, we still have the command to teach the gospel, trusting the Holy Spirit to take our words, perform a miracle, and open their blind eyes that they might see.  It is the preaching of the truth that God uses to open blind eyes.   As Christians, we are to function as guides to the blind.

            But if we are going to be guides to the blind, we must make sure that we are not blind ourselves.  In Luke 6:39, Jesus says, “Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”  In this little proverbial saying, we have a warning to two groups of people.  First, there is a warning to those who are following a guide.  Then, there is a warning to those who would set themselves up as guides.  First, let’s look at this warning to those who are following a guide. 

            Jesus is teaching us to be careful whom we follow.  If you choose a blind guide, you will both fall into the ditch.  Although this is a kind of funny proverb, it has a deadly serious warning.  In this part of the world, there were many ditches or pits,  and one had to be careful, especially at night, because there was the danger that as people walked along the road, they  might not see the pit, and fall in.  Our Lord is telling us is that when follow the wrong guides, we put ourselves in danger.  Following the wrong teacher has disastrous consequences.  Following the wrong kind of teaching can lead to emotional distress, bad choices in life, ruined homes and marriages.  Following the wrong teaching can lead you to fall into the pit of hell itself.   

      When Jesus warned his own disciples about the danger of following the blind, he had the Pharisees particularly in mind.  You know that the Pharisees prided themselves on being experts in the Scriptures.  They were confident that they were qualified and able to tell other people how to live in obedience to God’s word.  But over and over, Jesus said that they were blind.  There is an incident in the Gospel of Matthew that I find rather amusing.  After Jesus has been telling people that it is not what goes inside a man that defiles, but what comes out of him, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you said.”  I would have loved to have seen the look on Jesus’ face when they said that.    He must have wanted to say something like, “Do you think I’m worried that some Pharisees were offended by what I said?  Of course, they were offended.  I expected it to offend them.” But Jesus responds by saying, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).   In Matthew 23, Jesus keeps telling the Pharisees that they are blind:   “Woe unto you, ye blind guides…(16),  “Ye fools and blind… (17),  “Ye fools and blind”… (19), “Ye blind guides”… (24),” and “Thou blind Pharisee” (26).  Jesus is warning his disciples not to follow the Pharisees, for they were spiritually blind.

            If our Lord were here among us right now, I wonder whom he would point to as the blind who are leading the blind?  I think he would warn us about the same group of people.  Our Lord was looking at the people who were the leading religious figures of that time and culture, the Pharisees,. I have no doubt that he would also look today at our current religious leaders and say that, in many cases, they are the blind leading the blind.  We have in the Church itself, those who deny the inspiration of Holy Scripture, those who deny the deity of Christ, those who deny the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross, those who deny the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and those who cast away the law of God and teach that people may live according to their lights and opinions.  These are blind leaders of the blind.  If preachers and teachers do not lead us according to the fundamental teachings of the Church as summarized in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, they are blind leaders of the blind, and both will fall into the pit.

     When Jesus looked at the blind leaders of his day, he says that their blindness was chiefly revealed in that they thought that obedience to God was chiefly in the observance of man-made rules and regulations, in the observance of external rituals, while neglecting mercy, love, and justice.  We have still not learned this lesson all these centuries later.  We still think that Christianity is mainly about not going to certain places, not drinking certain things, not watching movies, or any number of things that we have added to our own private list of “Thou shalt not.”  We are very convinced about what we should not do. In the long run, we wind up doing the very things we forbid others to do (and worse), and open up ourselves to the charge of hypocrisy.  When we make our faith a system about what we don’t do, the world looks for us to slip, so that they can accuse us of hypocrisy.  We must be known more for what we do in the way of love, mercy, and justice.  While the whole point of obedience to God was to love God  with all our hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves, the Pharisees were only concerned with keeping rules.  To top it off, they were guilty of doing the same things that they told others they shouldn’t do.  They had not only missed the point of what it means to obey God, they didn’t even live by the standards they set up for others.  I think of all the Christians who are praising God in church today, saying “Amen,” when the preacher condemns certain kinds of behavior.  Then, after the worship, and at work the next day, they will be mean, spiteful, and cruel toward other people.  What an example of spiritual blindness!

     In Luke 6, Jesus keeps warning about hypocritical judgment.  People usually misinterpret these words, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” to mean that we should not judge other people at all.  That is not what Jesus was teaching.  We are told repeatedly in Scripture that we must make judgments about whether people are right or wrong, true to the faith or heretical, living morally or immorally.  Jesus was warning about judging people when you are guilty of doing the same things, and worse, than the people you judge.    St. Paul, said that this hypocritical judging was still a problem in his own time, when he wrote,

Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,  And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;  And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness,  An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.   Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?] Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? (Romans 2:17-23).   

St. Paul looks at the Jewish leaders of his day and says, “You think you are a guide of the blind.  You think you know so much about the law and that you are qualified to teach others how to live.  You tell people not to commit adultery, yet you commit adultery.  You tell people not to steal, but you steal.  In Luke 6, Jesus is telling us that if a person is not merciful, if a person is cruel and judgmental, if a person is guilty of doing the very things he forbids others to do, he is blind.  Don’t follow those people, for they will ruin your lives.  Be careful whom you follow as a guide.

     Then, our Lord gives a word of caution to those who would set themselves up as guides, those who would be instructors, or teachers, telling others the path that they must follow.  Jesus is warning us that if our eyes haven’t been opened to spiritual things, if we do not see clearly how to live our own lives, don’t try to show someone else how to live.  You will not only ruin your lives, but the lives of others in the process.    Our Lord warns us about worrying about that little speck of dust in your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye.  In other words, “Why are you so worried about the tiny faults of others when you have huge faults, huge issues in your own life that you need to deal with.  Get your own life in shape and then you can help your brother with his life and his problems and faults.”

            The only way that we can be qualified to guide others is by closely following Christ himself.  You notice that in that next verse Jesus says, “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”  Jesus encourages his disciples to look at him and choose him as their master.  You will never be any better than the teacher you follow.  You will never know more than the teacher to whom you listen.  It is only by following Christ that we can function as guides to the blind.

            I began this message with a story about Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan.  Many people don’t realize that Anne Sullivan herself was visually impaired.  As a child, like Helen Keller, she had contracted an illness which left her very limited in her visual abilities.  When she was a teen-ager, she had a surgery on her eyes which enabled her to see print.  After that procedure, she could read books. Soon, she excelled academically and was able even to instruct others like Helen Keller.  I like to think that in some ways, Christians are like Anne Sullivan.  We too were blind, but we had a spiritual surgery as it were.  We were healed of our spiritual blindness.  At times, our vision of spiritual things is still somewhat impaired.  We don’t see clearly as we desire, we sometimes make mistakes, we don’t watch where we are going, and we stumble and fall.  But still, our eyes have been opened to see the glorious beauty of Christ, and it is our desire that others would see his glory and beauty themselves.    Though being a blind guide is a terrible thing, and though we often feel guilty because of our own shortcomings, let us not shun the responsibility to guide others and help them to see the glory of the gospel and help them to lead godly lives.   Now that our eyes have been opened, it should be our greatest desire to be instruments in God’s hands by which he opens the eyes of others.  We truly become miracle workers, when the Holy Spirit uses us to enable others to see the wonders of eternal things.   

            When Philip found the Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah, Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading.  The Ethiopian said, “How can I, except some man should guide me.”  The world still needs guides.  We have too many blind guides in the world now.  Let it be our goal to be those who see clearly.  Let us not be blind guides who might lead others to fall into the ditch. Rather, let us be competent, with clear vision, to lead others along the narrow road that leads to life.  Amen.

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The Value of a Soul to God

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, July 10, 2011 by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (Luke 15:8-10) 

            In the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, there is a scene in which a young man is describing how he had spent the night at a crossroads to sell his soul to the devil so that he could become a great guitar player.  Delmar, surely one of the great characters in recent movie history, says, “Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?”  The young man replies, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”  I can’t think of a better commentary on how people regard their immortal souls.  Our souls are of no value to us.  We think that we aren’t using them, so why not part with something that has so little value to us. In this Parable of the Lost Coin that we read just a few minutes ago, we see that our souls should be valuable to us, for they are of great worth in the sight of God. 

            The Parable of the Lost Coin, sandwiched between the Parable fo the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Son,  is the second in this famous trilogy of parables about things that are lost and then found.   This parable shares many things in common with the parable of the lost sheep.  In both parables, there are people who search diligently until they find that which is lost.  Then, after they find the lost object, they invite friends and neighbors to rejoice with them for they have found that which was lost.  Joel Green has noted has noted that as we go through this trilogy of parables, the value of each lost thing gets a little greater (573).   The value increases on the scale from one sheep, to one coin, to one son.  Then, we see the value in comparison with one’s possessions that were not lost.  There is one lost sheep out of a hundred, one coin out of ten, and one son out of two.  In each parable, it seems the value of each lost item is increasing.

            In the Parable of the Lost Coin, we see a sense of urgency that perhaps we don’t see in the parable of the lost sheep.  It would have been tragic to lose one sheep out of a hundred, but for a woman such as this, to lose one coin out of ten would have been an incredible loss.  The value of ten coins doesn’t sound great to us.  Such coins would have been valuable to some of us when we were growing up, because, when I was a boy, we could get into the movies for a quarter.  A quarter doesn’t mean much to children now.  One of my grandsons flashed a 20 dollar bill at me the other day and said, “I want to go spend some of my randon money.”  For him, 20 dollars is just “random” money to spend very quickly at a toy store or video game store.    But one coin to this woman in our parable was very important, because she is very poor.  Evidently, the house that she lives in has no windows, because we are specifically told that she lights a lamp to look for it.  This lighting of a lamp is mentioned because it probably wasn’t night when she lost the coin.  If it was night, the lamp would have already been lit.  In these days, a poor person’s house had no windows, so a lamp would have to be lit to find such a coin even in the daytime. 

            We are told that the woman had ten coins, and these ten coins may have represented her lifetime savings.  Bible scholars tell us that these coins would have amounted to about 10 days in wages.  The coin is called a drachma, which was about one day’s wages.  When you were this poor, losing just one of those coins would have represented a substantial loss.  Finding a coin like this could mean the difference between eating and not eating, so it was very important that she should find it.

            As you read the different commentaries on this parable, there is much discussion about how she lost the coin.  Some have suggested that she carried the coins in a little bag, with a knot tied at the top.  For some reason, the knot became loose, and one of the coins fell out of the bag.  Others have suggested that this coin was part of a wedding ornament.  In these days, there was a kind of ornament that women wore that consisted of 10 coins strung together.  The ornament would not only have been valuable from a financial standpoint, but would have also had great sentimental value.  It has been said that a poor girl would save all her life to save those ten coins, and when she finally had them, she would wear those coins around her head.  She would have valued it the way young women now value their engagement and wedding rings.  These head rings were so precious, that it was a law that it could never be taken from her, not even to pay a debt.  As you can see, this coin was a great value to this woman.

            Surely, one of the lessons we learn from this parable, as well as the other two is, that though we are sinners, we are of great value to God.  You remember when Jesus told us not to worry because God feeds the sparrows.  He says, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31).  We do have value.  Sometimes in our expressions of humility, we need to exercise a little caution.  It is right and proper to think of ourselves as sinners, and pile many adjectives in front of that word to describe ourselves.  Words such as “wretched” and “miserable are appropriate to describe our sinful condition.  But there is one adjective that we should probably not use, and that is the word, “worthless.”  It is right to say that we are “unworthy” sinners, but to say that we are “worthless” would not be correct.   It is true than when our worth is compared to the infinite value of God, we are worthless in comparison.  But when we think of the great love that God has for sinners and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to redeem us, we can see that God places a great value even upon the sinner.  To say that we are worthless would be an insult to God, for we have been created in his image.  We are sinners, but God loved us so much he sent his Son to die for us.    These parables are designed to show us how God searches for that which is lost.  This woman is searching for something that is very valuable to her.  When God seeks us in our lost condition, he is seeking something that is very valuable to him.

            We are far more valuable in the sight of God one coin out of ten, as valuable as that might have been to this woman.  If this was a ring of coins, think of how the woman would have felt each time she looked at that ring.  There would have been a gap in the ornament.  She would never forget that one of them was missing.  So it is with God.  God does not forget those who are lost.  We are cold and heartless, and we turn God into someone who is cold and heartless, if we think God forgets those who have been lost.    Far from forgettng us or ignoring us, God seeks that which is lost.             

         In this parable, we get a sense of how important it is for God to find the sinner.  We see that concern illustrated for us in the manner that she searches for the coin.  Everything she does suggest a sense of urgency, as though she is saying, “I must find it.”  Jesus says that she does three things in order to find the coin.  She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully.    In the parable of the lost sheep, the emphasis is more on the obstacles that the shepherd must overcome in order to find that which is lost.   He goes out and faces the dangers of the wilderness to bring back his sheep.  In the parable of the lost coin, what is emphasized is the thoroughness of the search.  The floor would have been a hard dirt floor covered with dry reeds.  If you dropped a coin into this kind of floor, in a dimly lit house, it really was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  She would have to go through the reeds, sweep around, hoping that perhaps as she swept, the light from her lamp would cause a little twinkle on the metal; or perhaps, if she hit it the right way, it would make a tingling sound.

            It is interesting as you read all the commentaries and sermons that have been written about these parables, that people have made all the objects in the parable represent so many different things.  For example, some people see the lamp as the Holy Spirit who enlightens the sinner so that he can see his lost condition.    Others have said that the lamp is the gospel, for it is the light of the gospel that enlightens people, shows them their need of a Savior, and who that Savior is.  Some have said that the broom that she sweeps with is the law because it sweeps away the dirt and exposes us in our sin.

      All of those ideas are interesting, but when dealing with parables, we need to keep the main point of the parable in mind.  Remember that what prompted our Lord to tell these three parables was that he was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners.  In each parable, Jesus is illustrating that God seeks sinners and rejoices when they are found.  One of the main features of this parable is the rejoicing that takes place when she finds that coin.  Think of the joy and happiness that beamed from her face.  She invites the neighbors, and there is no doubt, a festive party atmosphere over having found the coin.  All of these details are designed to reveal to us something of the character of God.  He searches for sinners until he finds them, and when he finds them, he is so happy.  Think of finding a coin that meant the difference between health and starvation. When God finds a sinner, he is just that joyful.

      You will notice that our text says that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.    Some have taken this to mean that the angels themselves rejoice when a sinner is found.  Angels are very interested in our salvation.  In Matthew 18, just before Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, he prefaces it with the words about not offending little children.  He says, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.   For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.   How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” (Matt. 18:10-12).  Angels are very interested in us and our well-being.  Angels are the ones who announced the birth of the Savior to the shepherds so long ago.  Angels look upon the Incarnation and God’s great love for sinners with amazement.    The Apostle Peter mentions this attitude of the angels in his first epistle when he writes, “Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you:   Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.   Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into” (I Peter 1:10-12).  The angels find our salvation fascinating, and they like to study it.   It amazes them that God would stoop to save sinful man.  God didn’t send his son to die for angels.  Christ did not become an angel to die as a substitute for fallen angels.  The angels marvel at the grace of God toward us.  We can imagine that when one sinner repents and comes to Christ, they rejoice.  They must think something like, “Look, it has happened again.  God has found a sinful human being and forgiven him.”  Perhaps the angels rejoice when one sinner repents.

       But the text does not actually say that the angels rejoice.  It says that there is joy in the presence of the angels.  I think that the rejoicing that is spoken of here is the rejoicing of God himself.  In this trilogy of parables, the shepherd rejoices, the woman rejoices, the father rejoices and they invite others to rejoice with them.    The lesson seems to be that God seeks sinners, saves sinners, and rejoices when he finds sinners.  Throughout Scripture, God is depicted as a rejoicing God, especially rejoicing in the salvation of his people.    In Isaiah 62:4-5, we read, “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the LORD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.  For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.”  When God’s people turn to him, he is as happy as a bridegroom with a new bride.  In Jer. 32:41, we find this description of God’s happiness:  “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.  Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul.”  In Ezekiel, God is depicted as one who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather rejoices when people turn to him and do that which is right.    In Zeph. 3:17, we read, “The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.”  Do you ever think of God as a singing God, a God that is so happy in his people that he sings about them, and rejoices when he thinks about them.  God is the eternally blessed God, the eternally happy God, and all of these verses present the fact that one of his great joys is the sinner returning to him in repentance and faith.

      God’s happiness in the returning sinner reminds us of the purpose of these parables.  The enemies of our Lord looked at him and said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  You notice that in each one of these parables there is the banquet theme.  The shepherd and the woman call together their friends and relatives and invite them to rejoice.  The father kills the fatted calf and invites people to a banquet where there is rejoicing.  One of the reasons we celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday in this church is that it is a reenactment of these festive occasions when people are invited to rejoice over the lost having been found.  Each Sunday, we confess our sins, we receive assurance of pardon, and then we are invited to the Lord’s Table to have fellowship in this banquet, and God rejoices over his people who were lost and are found.

         Jesus was teaching that these Scribes and Pharisees were people who merely wanted to separate themselves from sinners, treat them with contempt, but when they do so they are nothing like God.  God seeks sinners, and he is happy when he finds them.  Our Lord Jesus eats and drinks with sinners to show us the love of God, and how he rejoices over sinners who repent.  Jesus eats and drinks with sinners, and when we gather at the Lord’s table, he is still eating and drinking with sinners–sinners who have been lost and are now found.  By faith, can you hear God himself rejoicing when we gather at his table?

       Norval Geldenhuys has written how these parables show how different Christianity is from all the other religions in the world.  He writes, “In no other religion in the world does one come to know God as the One who in His love seeks the lost person to save him through His grace.  In the writings of other religions we see how man seeks and yearns for God, but in the Bible we see God in Christ seeks man to save him for time and eternity” (403).  William Barclay writes, “No Pharisee ever dreamed of a God like that.  A great Jewish scholar admitted that this is the one absolutely new thing which Jesus taught men about God—that he actually searched for men.  The Jew might have agreed that if a man came crawling home to God in self-abasement and prayed for pity he might find it; but he would never have conceived of a God who went out to search for sinners.  We believe in the seeking love of God, because we see that love incarnate in Jesus Christ, the son of God, who came to seek and to save that which was lost” (203).

        All of us are like this lost coin.  We are disconnected, lost from our true owner.  We are lost in the dust as it were.  Every person, other than our Lord Jesus Christ, since the fall of Adam, has been in the dust.  We are lost under dust, under the filth and mire of sin.  But God doesn’t leave us in our sin.  He seeks us.  He is seeking you now.  He is seeking you through the Scriptures, seeking you in the prayers, seeking you through the preaching of the word. 

         Do you know the value of your immortal soul?  Don’t you seem from this little parable how much God values your soul?  You may not value it.  You may not be using it.  You may not think your immortal soul is important.  Or, you might think, “Because of my sin, I am utterly worthless.”  No, God is seeking you.  The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to seek you.  The Holy Spirit seeks you.    If you are lost, if you have wandered away like lost sheep, if you have rebelled against your Heavenly Father, come to Christ now.  Believe on him now, and you will find how joyful he will be to receive you.  Amen. 

Works Cited

Barclay, William.  The Gospel of Luke.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox P, 1975.

Geldenhuys, Norval.  Commentary on the Gospel of Luke:  The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes.  Grand Rapids:   Eerdmans, 1951.

Green, Joel.  The Gospel of Luke.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1997.

 

           

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The Value of a Soul

A Sermon preached on Sunday, July 10, 2011 by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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The Envy of All Nations

A Sermon preached on Sunday, July 3, 2011 by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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