9th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 11C)
July 21st/22nd, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
It’s good to be home. For the last two weeks my family and I have been travelling. We spent time in the U.P., North Dakota Badlands, South Dakota Badlands, and the Black Hills. We saw several national parks, including Mount Rushmore, we toured two caves, sat in a car surrounded by Buffalo, and visited some family. One night we even slept in a Tee-Pee on the banks of the Missouri River. Yes, at the end of a long school year followed by a quick transition to my new responsibilities here, it was nice to have some time away. Coincidentally, when I came back to work one of the first things that I read was a piece about how Americans in general have a hard time taking vacation. The piece noted that Americans take an average of 2 full weeks less vacation than European workers. Not only that, the piece also observed that for many Americans, time off isn’t fully time off – not with the invention of email and smartphones. Even on a typical day off, most Americans still check their inbox, giving them a brief glimpse of what is happening at work. Still, there are those days when we get to leave work behind and go do something else for a while.
Unless, of course, you’re a mother of young children. It struck me again this past vacation that for moms, vacation is not really all that different from every other day. I’d like to think I was some help to Becky on our trip, but I’m not sure how true that is. She was still doing laundry at the campground, making beds, making dinner, changing diapers, getting band-aids for scrapes, and generally keeping peace in the backseat during those longer stretches of driving. The scenery around her was a bit different, but I’d hesitate to say she got some real time off. For that to happen, I think the kids might have to go to Grandma’s house.
Time off. Time to relax. Time to sit back and do nothing. It is something each of us desires to some degree. But it is something that Satan has no use for. No, the devil never takes a day off. He is relentless in his assaults, tireless in his temptations. He knows his time is limited, he knows his days are numbered, and so he thrashes and flails in his death throes, never resting for a moment, always looking for the best way to distract the children of God, always looking for a way to take our attention off of Jesus and put it somewhere else.
Sometimes he is very aggressive in his attacks, like with the Apostle Paul in today’s reading from Colossians. This letter is one of what is known as Paul’s captivity letters, written under house arrest in Rome. As we know from the end sections of the book of Acts, Paul had been arrested for preaching the Gospel. He was imprisoned in Ceasarea for a few years, and was faced with the prospect of being sent back to his enemies in Jerusalem to stand trial, when he made his appeal to Caesar, an appeal that any Roman citizen could make. He was put on a ship and sent to Rome, where he remained imprisoned. This imprisonment lasted at least 5 years, maybe longer, during which time he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In each of these letters he speaks about being in chains because of the Gospel.
What is significant is that Paul rejoices in his suffering, rejoices in his captivity, because he knows he is doing it for the sake of the Gospel. He knows that it is not simply Jewish Rabbis or Roman Governors who are trying to silence him, he knows that it is Satan himself who does not want the message of Jesus spread, and so Paul is willing to suffer gladly the attacks of the devil knowing that the message was the most important thing. This perspective, which itself is a gift of the Spirit, gives Paul the courage and endurance to continue proclaiming the Gospel in the face of opposition, in the face of personal injury, even to the point of death. “For this I toil,” he wrote, “struggling with all [Christ’s] energy that he powerfully works within me.”
Satan will attack us in the same way. He will attack the church today with aggressive, head-on challenges. He has convinced our culture that there is no such thing as objective truth, with the result being that our culture now considers us unloving and hateful for claiming Jesus is the only name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. We are branded as unloving because we confess the truth of what our Lord’s word says about homosexuality. We confess what our Lord’s word says about any sexual relationship outside the bonds of marriage, and we are called old-fashioned and out-of-touch. We confess the six day creation and are labeled as ignorant, all while the world casually ignores the gargantuan moral and philosophical problems raised by Darwinian Evolution, not to mention the significant questions about origin and cause that such a model fails to answer. The list goes on and on. If we confess our Lord’s word, we will be attacked by the world around us. Like Paul, we can rejoice in the midst of those attacks, for so also they persecuted the prophets, so also they persecuted Jesus himself.
Even more dangerous, however, are the subtle attacks. Even more deadly are the ways that Satan tries to undermine the Gospel through seemingly pious and godly activities, like Martha in today’s Gospel reading. Another pastor described such a subtle attack in this way:
“First, you see a good work that needs to be done, you know it’s important, so you get after it. Martha saw Jesus and several disciples coming, she knew they would need something to eat and drink, that the house needed a bit of cleaning up, so she got after it. The Lord wants us to serve one another, after all, so we serve. So far, so good.
But then Satan begins his work. He whispers in our ears to effect a subtle shift from the importance of the work to the importance of ourselves. We begin to think “I’m important because this work is important.”
And this self-importance leads to isolation. “Look,” we say, “I’m the only one doing this work.” This is now getting dangerous, but it’s difficult to see it. We become self-absorbed, and there’s even a bit of self-pity. We start to think that if we didn’t do this thing, then no one would, and even though there is no joy is our work, we trudge on, playing the martyr in our own mind.
As this continues, our perspective becomes even more twisted. We forget what’s important, and bitterness sets in. What began as service to our neighbor is now actually distancing us from our neighbor.
This is the slide that Martha went down. We can hear it in Luke’s words, “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the isolation? “She left me to serve alone.” The self-importance? The loss of perspective? “Do you not care?” she asks Jesus. Do you see the bitterness, “My sister has left me?” And then this marvelous pride, “Tell her then to help me.” Do you see how Martha began by serving Jesus, but now she is accusing Him around, telling Him what to do, and imposing her will on her sister Mary. The devil’s work is done.”
How familiar does this sound? I think if we are honest, we can each see ourselves in Martha’s slide. In our families: My husband never helps with the kids. My wife doesn’t appreciate all the time I spend working. In our school: That parent never volunteers to drive on field trips. That family never donates anything for classroom parties. Why am I the only one who stayed to clean up? In our congregation: That person doesn’t help on any of the boards. That person doesn’t volunteer for any of the evangelism drives. I spend way more time here than that person, but they get the better part in Boar’s Head. Each of us faces the temptation to bitterness, to self-pity. We need to repent of such attitudes, and remember Jesus’s words to Martha: “One thing is necessary.”
That one thing is Jesus himself. That one thing is what gave Paul the ability to rejoice in the midst of the world’s attacks. Paul did not wallow in self-pity, questioning why he had to suffer the worst while other Christians got off easy. Instead, Paul rejoiced in his suffering because he knew that one necessary thing, that Jesus had already died to secure his eternal salvation. We too can find confidence in the face of the world’s attacks knowing that our place in heaven is secure. The world may laugh at us and call us ignorant, unloving, and a host of other names. But nothing they say can take us out of Jesus’ hand. In him we rest secure.
And when Satan tempts us to self-pity and an inflated self-importance, we remember Jesus. We remember the great love that he showed by dying for us, but we also remember that we needed to be died for. We aren’t perfect. Far from it. We are, in fact, by nature sinful and unclean. We deserve punishment from God, both right here and now, as well as for all eternity. That realization, given through the revelation of God’s Holy Word, will crush all our pride and bitterness. How can we stand in prideful judgment over our neighbor when we realize that in our sin, not only are we not any better than they are, we’re actually worse. Yet we have been shown infinite love. We have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. And because we have been forgiven, we now live a life of forgiveness.
It is here, in the Divine Service, that we find our truest time off. It is here where we sit like Mary at the feet of our Lord, hearing his Word and feasting on his Supper. After all, that’s what the Divine Service is – God’s service to us, our Lord coming to us to forgive us and strengthen us for service outside these walls. Here is where we find our Sabbath rest, gladly hearing and learning our Lord’s Word. The attacks of Satan, while relentless in this life, will come to an end one day. But the Word of the Lord remains forever. We rest in the comfort and protection of that word, humbly confessing our own sin, and clinging to our Lord’s gift of forgiveness.
As you enjoy a few days off this summer, remember that Satan does not take any time away. He is always there to tempt and attack, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways. But the answer to these attacks is always the same: we rest in our Savior and what he has done for us. He shares in our weakness that we might find the joy of salvation even in the midst of suffering. He humbles us in our pride that he might raise us up in his love.
Therefore You alone, my Savior
Shall be all in all to me;
Search my heart and my behavior
Root out all hypocrisy.
Through all my life’s pilgrimage
Guard and uphold me,
In loving forgiveness
O Jesus, enfold me.
This one thing is needful
All others are vain –
I count all but loss that
I Christ may obtain!