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Sermon for Epiphany V

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ February 7th, 2011

Sermon on St. Matthew 13:24-30

Epiphany V

6 February 2011

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field” (24). Jesus spoke these words in the midst of a series of agricultural parables on the kingdom of God. Just before our Gospel Lesson, He told the familiar parable of the sower, where the kingdom of God is depicted as the place where seed takes root and spouts up in good soil (13:1-9). Just after this Gospel Lesson, He told the parable of the mustard seed (13:31-32) and the leaven (13:33), where our faith is like a mustard seed that grows into a strong plant and like leaven hidden in the flour. The common theme of these parables in Matthew 13 is an earthy depiction of God’s kingdom of grace, a kingdom where Christ alone rules and we are His faithful subjects. In the case of this parable, the Son of Man sows the seed, the field is the world, and we, the believers, are the good seed in God’s kingdom (13:37-38), what later Christians would generally call the church.

The Augsburg Confession describes the reality of being the good seed in God’s kingdom of grace, the church. We pray together Article VII, “The Church”:

It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.

Two things strike us about this confession from The Book of Concord, the confessional documents of the Lutheran church. First, the holy Christian church will remain forever. Even when we, the good seed in the kingdom, are beset by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh; even when we are attacked by false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice, we have the sure and certain promise that the church of all believers will abide to the end. We are the planting and vineyard of God Himself, for He Himself foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified us to be His own chosen people (Rom. 8:30).

Second, the church is not necessarily found wherever you see a church building or sign that says “church,”but where “the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” Regarding preaching, the church is found where the full strength of the Law is preached to root out your sin and bring you to repentance, and where the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified is scattered, cultivated, and watered in every facet of our life together. Regarding the sacraments, the true church is found where there is full baptismal regeneration, absolution for penitent sinners, and the regular giving of Jesus’ true body and blood to feed, tend, and nourish the wheat in God’s vineyard. Yes, where these gifts are given, we can sing in today’s Hymn of the Day, “Thy people’s pasture is Thy Word / Their souls to feed and nourish, In righteous paths to keep them” (TLH 500.2)

All would in order, then, were it not for the “twist” in this story: an enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went away, so that the wheat and the tares grew up together. The word translated as “weed” or “tare” indicates a poisonous weed which is related to wheat in the early stages of its growth, but hard to distinguish from the wheat (Jeremias, Parables, 224). The wheat and the tares were so closely mingled that the servants asked, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?” (v. 27). Jesus later explained to His disciples that the weeds are the sons of the evil one and the enemy who planted them is the devil (13:38-39). You know the old saying: wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. Martin Luther, preaching on this Gospel lesson for this very Sunday in the church year, told the following old wive’s tale: “When God formed man out of a clod of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, so that became a living soul, the devil, seeking to emulate God also took a lump of earth, in order to form a man out of it; but instead it turned out to be a toad.” Just a charming legend about the toad, of course, but the story is insightful. Again, from Luther: “The point of the story was to show that the devil is forever and a day trying to ape our Lord God, presuming to cloak himself with [divinity] and appearance, pretending to be God” (House Postils I:265). So the believers and unbelievers are mingled together in the field of this world, a reality that is also echoed in Article VIII of The Augsburg Confession:

Although the Christian church, properly speaking, is nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners remain among the godly, the sacraments are efficacious even if the priests who administer them are wicked men, for as Christ himself indicated, “The Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2).

Perhaps you are wondering why the Reformers have two articles on the Church. It is by and large a reflection of today’s Gospel Lesson. There is one Church, but it has two distinct natures, both visible and invisible. The visible nature of the Church is the good news that she can be found wherever the Gospel and sacraments are rightly given – at 36-01 Bell Blvd., for instance. But the invisible nature of the Church is the sober reality that the church, like the field of this world, is a comingling of wheat and tares. For here the true believers are mingled with the false Christians, hypocrites, open sinners, and even unbelieving priests. Thank God that the sacraments are still effective, even when administered by such wicked men! How does this bring us to repentance? Have you have heard of someone who refuses to come to church because of the way we sometimes act in church? You know how it goes: above all else, we poor sinners desire power. We want to be our own gods. We claim to love Jesus on Sunday, but break His commandments as we whore after our false gods on Monday. This lack of outward piety has led many to stand on the sidelines and refuse to come to church. “There’s sinners in that church,” they say. And they’re absolutely right. It brings us to repentance for living the wrong way. And Jesus’ teaching that the wheat and the weeds grow together should bring the sideline critics to repentance for denying themselves the Lord’s gifts because the wheat and the weeds are mingled together in the church. As we know for from the parable of the sower (13:1-9), the seed outside the soil will die.

What to do? The landowner instructed his servants not to pull the weeds in haste, lest they root up and kill the wheat. Rather, he said, “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (v. 30). Jesus later explained to the disciples that the harvest is the close of the age and the reapers are the angels (13:39, 41). And so the Son of Man will send his angels to root out all the weeds of this world, to bring to the light the hidden things of darkness, the evil counsels of the heart, the secret sins and adulteries, and every evil deed that was not absolved in this life. The angels will seize “all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41-42). But the wheat will be gathered into God’s own barn, i.e., the righteous will be taken to heaven, where they will shine like the stars in the kingdom of their Father (13:43). This truth we confess in Augsburg Confession, Article XVII, “The Second Coming of Christ”:

It is also taught among us that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the last day for judgment and will raise up all the dead, to give eternal life and everlasting joy to believers and the elect but to condemn ungodly men and the devil to hell and eternal punishment.

This is the final Epiphany of our Lord, His last manifestation to this world. If you’re like me, you’re enjoying the long Epiphany season this year, as determined by the last date of Easter. Considering the weather, we will probably need the late Easter in order to thaw out before the Easter egg hunt on the Great Lawn! The longer Epiphany gives us more time to pause and consider every aspect of Epiphany. We always meditate on the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12), the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), and Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11). And we always end the Epiphany season with His transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9), where we usually consider His baptism (Matt. 3:13-17). But today, an all-too-rare Epiphany V, presents our life of suffering in the midst of the weeds, setting before us the many dangers of this life, of temptations in this world, and the consequences of forgetting that we are God’s own planting. But this Sunday also presents a rich portrait of eternal grace, a grace so strong that it simply cannot fail. He who died for us and rose again is with us in the field of this world. So our end-times hope, even as we suffer in the church, is in Jesus Christ and His final judgment. On that day, He will “give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven” (SC XX). As the hymn puts it, “That we like to Thee may be / At Thy great Epiphany / And may praise Thee, ever blest, God in man made manifest” (TLH 134.5).

God grant it unto us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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