Pray for Servants
June 8, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Matthew 9:35-10:8 Jesus gives us our marching orders. And they are shocking and disturbing – to say the least! We are to cast out demons (10:1, 8); raise the dead (10:8); preach only to the Jews (10:5-6); and take no pay for our work (10:8). But even more upsetting than those tough words is the command to pray to God to find and send people to go out and get his work done (9:38).
Signing-Up the Misfits
That’s right – we’re not to recruit, train and select these servants of the Lord. No, that’s for God to do. All we are to do is to pray to God – asking him for help with this. What a strange way to get things done. It flies in the face of common sense which trades on searching out candidates with particular talents and abilities, who are diligent, reliable, educable and likeable. But God doesn’t seem to care about any of these criteria. He seems to pride himself in having losers to do his work for him. If a company or corporation tried to run their store in this way, they would go out of business in no time. So why is God so reckless?
Well, if he wasn’t, we never would have had the likes of Moses leading God’s people. Do you remember that he was a murderer (Exodus 2:12), insecure (Exodus 3:11; 4:1), tongue-tied (Exodus 4:10), defiant (Exodus 4:13, 24; 5:22; 6:12), uneducated – and even despondent and suicidal (Numbers 11:15)? And yet Moses is praised (Joshua 4:14) and even returns from the dead to be with Christ on the mount of the holy transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). And think of David, who is praised (Psalm 132:17-18) and even called a father of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1) – and yet he was an adulterer and a murderer (2 Samuel 11:4, 15, 24). Then there’s that angular John the Baptist who ate bugs and lived in the desert (Mark 1:4-6) whom God highly prized (Matthew 11:11) – even though his lips dripped with biting condemnations (Luke 3:7-9) – which inspired Martin Luther (1483-1546) to call him a “fiery angel” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 308].
None of these faithful servants were pleasant or polite. If it had been left up to us, they all would’ve been cut from our hiring process. So thanks be to God that he ignored us and our standards for what makes for faithful servants. From this we can see again the great wonder, love and grace in God not answering our prayers as we first frame them. On this vexing matter of our prayers going unanswered, Kierkegaard writes (Kierkegaard’s Writings 5:36):
God surely did not deceive you when he accepted your earthly wishes and foolish desires, exchanged them for you and instead gave you divine comfort and holy thoughts; that he did not treat you unfairly when he denied you a wish but in compensation created this faith in your heart, when instead of a wish, which even if it would bring everything, at most was able to give you the whole world, he gave you a faith by which you won God and overcame the whole world. Then you acknowledged with humbled joy that... from your impatient and inconstant heart he created the imperishable substance of a quiet spirit.
Now that’s a mighty compensation. And with a quiet spirit firmly in place, we even leave off caring about what we originally asked for. Then we find ourselves praying prayers like this:
Lord, my God, I really have nothing at all for which to pray to you; even if you would promise to grant my every wish, I really cannot think of anything – except that I may remain with you, as near as possible in this time of separation in which you and I are living, and entirely with you in all eternity (KW 5:392).
Only God Knows Our Hearts
Another reason why it is good that this selection process is in God’s hands and not in ours, is that we don’t even know who the right person for the job would be. We’ve all had this experience. We have family and friends whom we can’t get through to in matters of religion and morality. We’ve tried and tried and we get nowhere with them. So we long for some other person to talk to them – just the right person, whoever that may be. And God can make that happen, because he alone sees into the human heart (1 Samuel 16:7). All we can do is guess who it might be – and we don’t even do that very well. But God nails it every time. He knows exactly what they need and who can deliver it. That’s because we’re structurally aligned with God, like no other in our lives:
Ostensibly it is an imperfection in earthly life that basically a person cannot entirely, cannot thoroughly make himself understandable to others; on closer inspection one will surely be convinced that it is a perfection, since it suggests that every individual is religiously structured and is to strive to understand himself in confidentiality with God. Most people probably do not notice either this imperfection or that it is a perfection (KW 24:92).
Because of this odd, yet wonderful, perfect imperfection, God alone is the one who picks the right person for the right job.
And our own lives confirm this to be so. Each of us have people in our past whom God gave us to speak his challenging and redeeming word, in ways no one else could have done. In my life it was my maternal grandpa, Harry J. Lien (1892-1966) and my college pastor, the Rev. Karl A. Ufer (1913-1981). I have vivid memories of both of those men, to this very day, with their sage words and durable examples on how best to live a Christian life, day by day, in a hostile world and a wayward church.
God’s Unusual Kingdom
But we still need to know more. We need to have a more straightforward explanation for God’s quirky selection process since it goes against common sense. So recalling wonderful examples of tried and true servants in the past is not enough. We also need to know what the rationale behind all of this is. Why does God go against common sense?
The answer is that God and the world are at enmity with each another (James 4:4; John 15:18-19; 1 John 2:15-17), and so the natural, customary, worldly way of selecting servants isn’t appropriate in God’s kingdom. And that explains the fruit-basket-upset when it comes to the nature of God’s servants – as Luther writes:
[When considering the] best qualified for service in his kingdom,....
Christ studiously avoided the city of
And why again was that a good idea? Because Christ “wanted to establish a kingdom... in which nothing but God’s grace would have currency, no matter how good and valuable it might be otherwise.” This is similar to God’s point made to Gideon on the eve of his battle against the massive armies of the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 7:12). God tells Gideon to weaken himself by cutting back the size of his army, so that when victory comes, the Israelites will not be able to claim it for themselves (Judges 7:2). Luther continues this train of thought by saying that Christ
wanted to drive home the truth that such a kingdom was not based on
reason and human wisdom.... Thus the kingdom was constructed, and thus
it is sustained to this day. Christ is not greatly impressed by great
kings or powerful lords, by the rich of this world, or by royal lineage
and great pomp, which otherwise carry weight in the world.... As
So pretty people may make for good movie stars – but not very good servants of the Lord. And that’s because “God saves no one but sinners, He instructs no one but the foolish and stupid, He enriches none but paupers, and He makes alive only the dead; not those who merely imagine themselves to be such but those who really are this kind of people and admit it” (LW 25:418-419).
Luther therefore makes the highly contentious claim that “venison, properly seasoned and prepared, tastes just as good in a wooden dish as in one of silver.” Extending this image, he argues that “a poor speaker may speak the Word of God just as well as he who is endowed with eloquence.” But try to explain that to people who sell dinner plates. Or try to convince people that their favorite preacher is expendable. To clinch the point, Luther concludes that whoever disagrees with him would be “like a tired and hungry man who would refuse to eat unless the food is served on a silver platter.... One dare not despise the treasure because of the person” (LW 22:529). And the Lutheran Confessions drive Luther’s point home saying – equally contentiously – that
Christ... built his church not on the man but on the faith of Peter.... [Consequently] the person adds nothing to this Word and office commanded by Christ. No matter who it is who preaches and teaches the Word, if there are hearts that hear and adhere to it, something will happen (BC, pp. 325, 324n.4)
Just think of it – we add nothing to the word with our faithfulness, rhetorical inflexions, subtle literary nuances, personal sincerity, historical insights, philosophical acumen and encyclopedic grasp of world affairs. None of this is worth anything – at least when it comes to God’s word getting through to us. Therefore
[God’s] Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference. Why? Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashions them at my pleasure. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach.... That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart. Therefore we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it. We have the jus verbi [right to speak] but not the executio [power to accomplish]. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure (LW 51:76).
So if the sermons we hear extol God’s word but still are not helping us any, we shouldn’t complain to, or attack the preacher (Luke 10:16). What we need to do instead is pray to God that in his great mercy he would open our hearts so that his word would become a blessing to us (Luke 11:13). However, if the sermons do not glorify God’s word, then Luther thought the preacher should be “chased out by dogs and pelted with dung” (BC, p. 360)!
Good servants of the Lord, then, are not the good looking, well educated, highly skilled, deeply compassionate, richly talented, creatively imaginative, hard working, and immensely popular ones. No, they’re not the best servants. And this is because
Christ wants to have disciples who are simple-minded, who will humble themselves, who will give ear to the Word of God, cleave to it, and be willing to learn. When they hear the Word, they do not presume to criticize and master the teaching; they let the divine Word reform, rule, and teach them. They become disciples of the Word (LW 23:51).
Our Great High Priest
This puts God’s servants both on a higher and a lower plane than before. They’re on a higher level because they’re chosen by God himself. But they’re also on a lower level because in the eyes of the world they are losers. But that doesn’t matter since Christ himself is actually our one and only, victorious and “great high priest” (Zechariah 9:9; Hebrews 4:14) – by any standard of evaluation whatsoever. And that’s because only Christ Jesus shields us from the wrath of God by his blood (Romans 5:9). No other servant of the Lord can help us out in that way – for only Christ, “the mediator, can be pitted against the wrath of God” (BC, p. 136).
This is regularly skipped over in the church today because all we hear about it, if anything, is that Christ redeems us from our sins (Hebrews 9:15). But it shouldn’t end there. We also should hear about “how and by what means” this redemption is accomplished (BC, p. 414). If we don’t hear about that too, then it’s a problem because our salvation is thereby severely blunted because its costs are ignored (1 Corinthians 6:6:20; 7:23). And when they are hidden, the greatness of God’s love is diluted (1 John 4:10).
Now we don’t have to dream up the mechanics of our redemption in order to fill out the account. Romans 3:24-25 tells us that it happens by God putting forth his own Son “as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” As an expiation, Jesus is far more than an innocent victim (John 10:17), done in on the cross by a band of first century thugs. No, his death is also a sacrifice offered up to God for the sins of the world (Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 9:14; 1 John 2:2). This was needed in order to satisfy God’s demand that the sins of the world be punished (Isaiah 53:11; BC, pp. 309, 328, 414, 549). So in the death of Jesus, God was punishing him in our place, and for our sins, to free us from the consequences of them (Isaiah 53:4-5; 1 Peter 2:24; BC, pp. 561-562; LW 26:284). Without Christ’s sacrifice, we would all be headed straight to hell. Only his death makes salvation possible.
But what makes it actual – going beyond being merely possible – is our faith in it. Without our faith in his blood, salvation is ineffectual – lying there “in a heap” on the floor, no good for anything [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 7:333]. But when we believe and entrust our lives to Christ, then his victory over sin becomes ours too. For we, by our faith, in fact end up dying with Christ (Romans 6:6; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). And this faith and trust in the Lord is not squeezed out of us by our own exertion (Romans 9:16), but is a gift from on high (Ephesians 2:8; James 1:17). It doesn’t just pop into our heads willy-nilly. No, it is generated only by hearing Christ preached for our salvation (Romans 10:17). So rejoice in the Lord and give thanks for his mercy. Through Christ’s sacrifice and your faith in it, you are given the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life – and a more faithful life now as well (1 Timothy 4:8). In that more faithful life now, we will see the wisdom in the lowly, humble, despised servants that God picks to be the leaders in his church on earth.
Now we also know that “it is God’s will... that believers walk in good works [since] faith is a... mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good” (BC, pp. 552-553). So let our good work this day be 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which admonishes us to “pray constantly.” Now what holds us back from doing this? It’s our doubt that God hears our prayers and answers them. Against that doubt pit these two texts. The first is the parable in Luke 18:3-8 which says:
There was a widow who kept coming to the [unjust] judge and saying, “Vindicate me against my adversary.” For a while he refused,... [then he said] “Because she bothers me, I will vindicate her.”
This parable is given that we “not lose heart” when praying (Luke 18:1). So pray, knowing that eventually God will surely help you – even if it’s not in the way you wished. And take heart in the example of Luther who prayed three hours a day – in addition to his daily chores [Marva J. Dawn, Morning by Morning (2001) p. 242].
And remember also, when you pray, to say: Not my will be done, but “thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10, 26:39). That will help keep your prayers “brief, frequent, and intense,” as they’re supposed to be (LW 21:143). Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)