Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 1:3)
“How do WELS Lutherans grow the church? They don’t.” I heard that one recently, and it made me stop and think. It sounds like a mean spirited joke and punchline - especially as synod-wide, as a general trend over the past decades, we’ve been seeing increasing gray hair (nothing wrong with that) coupled with a decrease in attendance and offerings, and that worries some people. We’ve watched from a distance as some congregations are forced to combine, and others eventually close. Graduating classes of pastors and teachers come out of our worker training schools every year, by God’s grace, but what is so few among such great need? Jesus had it right when he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Lutheran Elementary Schools that once served a lively bunch of children eager to learn about their Savior now sit empty. Missionaries who had served in foreign fields find themselves back stateside - not for lack of work to do over there but for lack of funds to be had over here. (By the way, this kind of statistical trend is not unique to WELS or even Lutheranism - so what to do?) “How do WELS Lutherans grow the church? They don’t.” At face value, that sounds like bold faced cynicism. It sounds like a cruel joke with a nasty punchline, but it wasn’t meant that way at all. Rather, it was meant to communicate a beautiful truth of the gospel. How do WELS Lutherans grow the church? They don’t. Jesus does.
I think that point had to become crystal clear to those seventy-two who were sent out in our gospel lesson this morning. After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” So, how are you going to grow the church, dear 72? Well, you’re not. Jesus is - it’s his harvest, he’s the one sending workers, he’s the one whose way you’re preparing. Jesus had already sent out his own twelve disciples a chapter before this, but here, he commissions six times as many more proclaimers of his word with some similar instructions. Their task was to prepare the way for Jesus to come through every town and village on the way down to Jerusalem. Their job was to proclaim the truth that the Kingdom of God has come near - God’s ruling activity and sphere of influence in the hearts and lives of sinners was at hand, and had arrived in the person of Christ.
The “what” of their task seemed pretty straightforward – “Preach the Kingdom.” The “how” of their job is a bit puzzling: Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. Who goes on a trip and makes a list of all the stuff they’re not going to take? Even more, who goes on a mission trip to proclaim the Kingdom of God and doesn’t bring their wallet or a change of clothes? Add to that the fact that the recipients of their message are depicted as ferocious wolves, ready to pounce on thirty-six pairs of unsuspecting lambs, and I think the point is becoming clear. How are you going to grow the church, O seventy-two lambs among wolves? How will you ever convince those sin-hardened hearts of Pharisees, Romans, and synagogue going Jews that this Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of sinners? How will you provide for yourself, protect yourself, and prove your mettle when the going gets tough? After a commissioning and a job description like that, you might expect those seventy-two to throw up 144 hands and say, “No thanks!” So, let me get this straight Jesus: I’m going to be completely dependent on the charity of others, not have any financial safety net, or even a clean pair of clothes, and to top it all off, you give me instructions about what to do when people reject the message, so I assume that means there will be some rejection? I can see you’re passionate about this, but I’ll pass.
When it comes to the mission of the church, I think the temptation is to stop right there; to think about all the ways it can’t work, how hard it is, and how much of an uphill battle it will always be. I understand Jesus was teaching trust when he sent those disciples out into the world without carrying along their basic necessities, but I like being comfortable. I hear the Lord Jesus telling me to pray, literally to beg, for more workers, but if there are more workers then they’ll need more support, and I’m stretched pretty thin with all my financial obligations. Jesus, you’re right, I see the fields ripe for harvest, but frankly, I don’t think they’re going to listen anyways; we’ve tried that before; those types of people never get serious; it’s not worth the trouble. And so where does that leave me? Lamenting everything that’s wrong with the world out there; longing for the days when people seemed better and folks just cared more about church – but did that time ever exist? Where does that leave me? Isolated and alone. But did you notice the inherent problem with all those very reasonable sounding thoughts? They’re all about me – what I like, what I feel, what I think, what I predict. And that’s completely backwards – how do you grow the church? Well, you don’t. Jesus does. Listen to what Jesus said to those seventy-two, “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” As Jesus sends out his people to be his witnesses, who’s really doing the work? Jesus!
This is not Jesus cajoling reprobate sinners into action or guilt-tripping us with the law. Instead, he’s opening your eyes to the enormity of the opportunity of a harvest field the size of planet earth and assuring you of the perfect power that goes with you. This is not law, this is a gift of the gospel. So look back at the details we, at first, were tempted to think were so awful and instead see in each of them a reason to rejoice. The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them, who did? The LORD! The One with all power and authority shares with us this blessed work of proclaiming the gospel. He could’ve put this message on the lips of angels, (and received far fewer complaints!) but instead he chose you and me as his mouthpieces. Jesus sent them to every town and place where he was about to go, no matter how big, how small, how cosmopolitan, how Podunk the place, Jesus makes sure that the saving message of sins forgiven makes its way there on the lips of a preacher – even into the ears attached to your head. Are you seeing the reasons to rejoice yet?
Jesus speaks of a harvest that’s ripe for picking – and everyone who’s ever known a farmer can tell you that when it’s harvest time, you work and work and work until everything’s safely home. Jesus has so much urgency, for what? To save you from your sins. Nothing would stop him from making his way to the cross. He shouldered the unimaginable burden of your sins and mine, and paid for them all. And he’s in a hurry for you to hear that good news of the gospel and for the neighbor next to you to hear that same promise fulfilled. Rejoice! So how about that bit about not bringing anything along for the trip? No purse, bag, sandals – those seventy-two disciples would learn from experience the truth of a promise we know by God’s grace - that the God who loved me so much that he gave his one and only Son for me will see to it that I lack nothing else. And if you think it’s bad to be a lamb in world full of wolves, think again, because you’re in the flock of the Good Shepherd, and nothing can snatch you out of his hands. This is reason to rejoice!
If all that weren’t enough, listen to what Jesus says next, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Jesus has shown his power over the devil on multiple occasions, from defeating the devil and his temptations in the wilderness to driving out Satan and his demons and claiming poor souls for his own. Now he hands that power over to these seventy-two disciples. That same word of the gospel that sent the devil packing; the very same word of promise that the Spirit promises to work through to create and strengthen faith; that exact message of promise fulfilled is what Jesus placed on the lips of those disciples, and these disciples (you and me). And realize what happens when you let it loose - Satan falls like lightning. Whenever the gospel is proclaimed to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people - those in the church and those not yet in the church - Satan falls like lightning, because his dominion is coming undone. With every word of promise fulfilled in Christ, Satan is defeated. Because of the resurrection of Jesus and his promise to you in Baptism that you, too, will rise, Satan has absolutely lost the power to hold you in death. With every proclamation of the forgiveness of your sins, Satan has no power to accuse you. Jesus didn’t send his disciples with slick gimmicks or great programs. The seventy-two went out with nothing in their pocket but a word from Jesus – but in that word there is a God who provides; there’s power; there’s promise. We who gather in this place and for this purpose go out with that very same word from Jesus and a beautiful one word summary – Peace! Through faith in Christ Jesus, you have peace with a holy God. Your sins are forgiven. The Kingdom of God has come near.
This gospel lesson from Luke 10 is an interesting one, because it shows us not only how the church carries out its mission, but ultimately how any of it works. Jesus isn’t really giving us mission pointers and evangelism techniques – Go start a mission church without planning, take no money, and then go find some snakes and scorpions and show ‘em what you’ve got. So what’s he doing? Showing us where the true power lies; so don’t be surprised when it works. The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” … “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is squashing his disciples’ enthusiasm – Jesus, that thing you sent us to do and the word you gave us to proclaim? It worked! And Jesus replies, Don’t rejoice in that. But Jesus is hardly squashing their enthusiasm. Instead he’s showing them the greater, really the greatest, joy. Do you see what Jesus is driving at? Yes, rejoice that I’m sharing this task of proclamation with you. Yes, rejoice that I’ve promised to provide for your every need. Yes, rejoice that the good news of the gospel comes even to you. Yes, rejoice at the word of power that I’ve commissioned you to speak. Yes, appreciate the fruits of your labor, but realize there’s something bigger at stake here. The greatest thing to rejoice in is not something that you’ve accomplished, but in what you could never have done for yourself. Your name is written in heaven in God’s book of life. Jesus has done everything necessary for our salvation – through faith in him, we sinners stand righteous before a holy God.
The work of our salvation is done…so, end of story? The work of our salvation is done, and now Jesus turns us loose into a planet earth sized harvest field with every reason to rejoice and reach out. How do we grow the church? Well, we don’t. Jesus does. But, in his grace, he gives us an important part to play as his mouthpieces in the world proclaiming his victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil. So let the word of forgiveness sound loud and clear to someone who’s hurt you. Let the message of encouragement ring to the friend who doesn’t really see any reason to keep going. Proclaim the peace of salvation won and God’s kingdom neared to the anxious heart that is crippled with fear. Work and pray to support the ministry of the gospel that takes place in your name right here, not just to you, but to almost one hundred children and their families who walk through those doors every day. How do we grow the church? We don’t. Jesus does. So let his word fly into hearts and lives that need it, and then watch as Jesus does what Jesus does. “He who listens to you listens to me,” because Jesus grows his church.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.