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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Everybody expects the pastor to tell people that it’s important for them to come to church. But do you know why it is that you need to be here every week to hear the preaching of the Gospel? It’s not to make me happy (although it does); it’s not even to make God happy with you (He already is with those who are in Christ). In large part it’s because the world is preaching to you a counter-Gospel every single day of the week, and you need to be strengthened and built up and defended against that. Even if you don’t go to church, you’re still going to hear preaching–just not the preaching of the Gospel. Worldly philosophies and theologies are being directed at your ears wherever you are–work, home, school, recreation. And if all you’re hearing are the pop-culture sermons of the world, pretty soon you’re going to start to be led astray from the truth of Christ.
Don’t be naive about this. Every time you watch a TV show or movie, you’re being preached to–there will be some morality, some worldview that is being pushed on you with disarming humor or compelling visual imagery. Just as a small example, think how many movies have employed the idea of a person’s soul or consciousness moving from one body to another. Of course it’s just fiction and entertainment, but over time there is a false theology and a false way of understanding soul and body that is being taught. Or on another subject, a pastor friend recently remarked that on a popular TV sitcom, the unmarried characters are the ones having sex, and the married ones aren’t. There’s a subtle and subversive message being delivered there. So also, when you listen to music or go to some concert or entertainment venue, you’re being preached to and marketed to and spun with all sorts of emotional hooks–not only in political ways, but in lifestyle ways. And lifestyle is always about theology, what you believe about yourself, God, others, how you should spend your money, and so on. And even in the workplace or at school or college, especially in today’s politically correct, social justice warrior environment, theology and ethics are bound up in the policies about your speech and conduct, in the school or the company's “vision” that you’re asked to buy into, or in all the buzzwords that keep getting repeated. You see, there’s a way of understanding life and spirituality and what’s good and bad that’s inherent in all of these things–and that understanding is often laced with ideas that don’t align with God’s Word. So don’t be deceived. In this present darkness, hearing the preaching of God’s Word once a week is pretty much a bare minimum.
Jesus makes it very clear that we should take the danger of the world’s false preaching very seriously when He says, “Beware of false prophets.” That word “Beware” is the equivalent of a road sign with flashing red lights. “Danger!” “Watch out!” He wouldn’t warn us so seriously like that unless the threat were real and important to be alert for.
That road sign Jesus gives us is a reminder that there are two paths that you can take in this world, and only one leads to life. The road that leads to destruction is wide and broad and feels right. It is the path that most everyone is taking. It is the way of pleasing people rather than pleasing God, loving yourself more than Him. You’ve heard the preachers of this path. They tell you to do what brings you self-fulfillment. They tell you that you have an inner light within that you must connect with, that you must follow your heart and your dreams and your passions. Just believe in yourself. As the Oprah once said, you should speak your truth and live your truth–as if there were more than one truth, no Truth that is higher than us regardless of what we think or feel, just the truth that supposedly flows from our hearts. But then there’s God’s Word which says, “The heart is deceitful and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus Himself said, “From within, out of the heart...come wickedness and deceit” (Mark 7:21-22). That’s no place to be looking for truth. Still, like drivers ignoring a “Bridge Out” sign, people take this broad road and are led over a cliff to their destruction.
The path of life, on the other hand, is narrow and difficult and is often contrary to what feels right. It involves going against the flow, following the Word of God and not the crowd or your heart. The way of life is narrow because it is found exclusively in Christ who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This path is difficult because it is the way of the cross. It’s not about self-fulfillment, but self-denial. as Jesus said, "Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Me." It’s not about loving yourself above all but loving others and esteeming others better than yourself. It is the way of repentance and sacrifice. It is the Way of Jesus who bore the cross for you so that you may follow Him through suffering to share with Him in the resurrection of the body. Jesus walked that narrow way of sorrows for you to Calvary. He died to take away your sins; He cleared the path and opened the narrow gate of faith in Him so that you may have eternal life purely by His grace.
Beware, then, of being lured off the narrow way of Jesus. You know you’re being tempted by the spirit of false prophecy when your biggest fear is being accused of being judgmental; when you tell yourself that it’s not your place to speak up, to speak the truth in love, even to a close friend or family member who needs to be called to repentance and faith in Christ. No, better just to keep the peace and not rock the boat and hope that they’ll magically return to Christ apart from His spoken Word. But all you’re doing by that is showing that you love God less than you love your relationships with those people. And in fact it’s not really showing love to those people, anyway, to ignore unrepentant sin which invites God’s judgment on them.
Beware of false prophets. They may look like fine, pious, upstanding people you should be paying attention to. But inwardly, Jesus says, they are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. The devil comes as an angel of light, as something good, and so do false preachers. The thing that makes the lie powerful is that it masquerades as the truth. Jeremiah said that false prophets, be they men or women, speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord. They don’t preach the truth God has given them in His Word, but what the people want to hear; they preach their own dreams and their own wisdom. They are without the true teaching of Christ, in which alone there is salvation.
That’s ultimately how you can tell false prophets from true ones, not by the wonders they can do or how successful they are, not even by how loving they are, but by what they teach, whether it is the pure Law and Gospel of Scripture or something else. I’ve had people comment to me about how packed this Lutheran megachurch is or that non-denominational or Assembly of God church is. The implication usually is that they must be doing something good and blessed by God to have those numbers. But do you remember the faithful prophet Elijah? He thought he was the only one left who worshiped the Lord in his day. The Baal worshipers had all the numbers. God reminded Elijah that still He reserved 7000 faithful among the hundreds and hundreds of thousands in Israel who worshiped the spirit of the age. Remember what Jesus says, “By their fruit you will know them.” The fruit refers not to their deeds (which can deceive) but to their doctrine. What spiritual food do they offer? What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon? I John 4 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” It is written in 2 John, “Whoever does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God.” “By their fruits you will know them.”
So in the midst of all the religion talk and God-talk that you hear, ask yourself, is the focus on me and my praising of God, or is it on Christ and what He has done for me and given to me? Is it about how I can have a better life in this world and find self-fulfillment and happiness through my own spirituality, or is it about how I can have a new life in Jesus solely through His suffering and death and resurrection?
And if you want to know whether a teacher is true or false, just consider: Does he direct you to the shifting sands of your own decisions and commitments (like an altar call where you come down to give your heart to Jesus or some such thing), or does he direct you to the solid rock of Christ’s commitment to you and His sure baptismal promise which He gives you? Does he direct you to your own efforts and works as a way of gaining eternal life or saving you from purgatory, or does he direct you always to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Does he only speak of things in mystical, inward, spiritual terms, or does he emphasize the concrete realities of the faith, that Christ took on your flesh and blood as a true man, that He was raised from the dead in the body, that He comes to you now with His true, real body and blood for your forgiveness in the Sacrament, that you will be raised bodily on the Last Day?
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” You'll note that the false prophets in today's Gospel were focused on their own works. "Lord did we not prophesy and cast out demons and do many wonders in your name?" They were talking about what they did! But the will of the Father is all wrapped up and centered not in what we have done but in Christ and what He has done. He is the one who does the will of the Father perfectly for you. He is the One who prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but Yours be done.” The will of the Father was that Jesus go to the cross to suffer and die as the ransom price to redeem you and save you. And so the will of the Father for you is that you be saved, that you trust in Christ and cling to Him alone for redemption and follow Him day by day in the callings He has placed you into. It is written in John 6, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” That’s what it means to do the will of the Father: to cling to Christ as the way of life, to believe in Him and stake your life on Him. He alone is the way into the kingdom of heaven, He who is fully God and fully man, made flesh, who was crucified, resurrected, and ascended for the salvation of sinners. The will of God is fulfilled in Jesus for you.
So beware of preachers who teach something different than the faithful pattern of Scriptural words that you’ve been given in the catechism and the creeds. Learn to know these things by heart; carry them with you as a defense against the world’s false preaching and the world’s allurements. Beware of those who cast aside the liturgy for something supposedly better and more contemporary, whose teaching doesn’t square with the words of divine service and the preaching that you hear in this place. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, just flee from them. And flee to Christ. Take refuge in Him, give attention to His words. Living in the gift of your baptism, follow that narrow way of Him who is Way, the Truth, and the Life. In Him you are safe.
The good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is the cross on which Christ hung. As it is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we having died to sins, might live for righteousness. By His stripes we are healed.” So you could say, Jesus is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is the reverse; He subverts the devil's ways. He is a sheep in wolves’ clothing. He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and sin at Golgotha in order to put them to death in His body, so that you would be delivered from all evil. The wolf has been conquered. Sin, death, and the devil have been undone for you. Believing in Christ, taking refuge in Him, you are saved and safe forever from all the lying anti-Gospels that are out there. As St. Paul said, you are the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood. Even when your heart and your feelings say otherwise, you belong to Him still; He will never leave you or forsake you. Nothing in all creation can separate you from His love.
Come, then, to the holy tree and receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life. Jesus is your true Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy. By His fruits you will know Him.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠