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There are places in this world where constant surveillance is absolutely necessary. Military men and women who have served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan understand this. Simple missions like delivering fuel or supplies to another base are conducted in a state of high alert because you never know where the next roadside bomb might be planted.
I. The certainty of temptations to sin
A. The meaning of temptation
Today, if you will hear His voice, Jesus warns all of us, military or civilian, that constant surveillance is necessary. He's not talking about roadside bombs or land minds, but about something even more dangerous and deadly – sin. "Temptations to sin are sure to come." Roadside bombs have no power to take the life that Jesus Christ has given through Holy Baptism and His Word. But sin does. Sin has the devastating power to maim and mangle a life in far more painful ways than an IED.
In the language of the New Testament, the word for 'temptation' is "skandala.' It's where we get the word "skandal." Literally, a "skandala" is a stick. But not just any stick. Maybe when you were a kid you tried to catch squirrels by propping up a box with a stick. You put some bait under the box and tied a long string to the end of the stick and waited until some unsuspecting creature took the bait and wham, you pull the string that moves the stick and makes the box came down. And usually, by the time all that happened, the squirrel was up the nearby tree laughing his tail off.
A "skandala" can also be a stick that laid across a trail for the purpose of causing someone to stumble over it.
A "temptation" is a trap meant to catch you or cause you to stumble and fall.
"Temptations to sin are sure to come." You can't escape them. There's no utopia in this world that's 'temptation free.' Men and women have created communes and convents and monasteries in order to escape the temptations to sin. But they're there too. Some people think that churches are safe zones where you should be no temptations to sin. But we all know that that's not so. From the very beginning, even in the Garden of Eden of all places, there's Satan, "the tempter," tempting Adam and Eve to sin. "Did God really say?"
B. The nature of temptation
If only the temptations to sin were as obvious as talking serpents or those squirrel traps we tried to rig up as kids. If terrorists buried their roadside bombs in flowerpots, they'd be a whole lot easier to avoid. But of course, the tempter is more devious than this. Temptations to sin are so dangerous because they come hidden in what is good.
Money and material possessions are good things given to us by God. But we're tempted to want more money and possessions than we need or could ever use and we fall into the sin of greed. Food is good, and good food is great. But we're tempted to eat more than we should and we fall into the sin of gluttony. Sex is a good gift from God. But we're tempted to use this gift outside of the bonds of marriage and we fall into the sin of adultery.
You name it and whatever is good, the tempter knows how to twist and turn and make it a temptation to sin. Last week I attended a conference in New Jersey where the topic had to do with the growing temptation of pornography. The human body is a good thing. But it too can become a temptation to sin and many are becoming addicted to pornography.
Since the tempter uses the good things that God has given to us to tempt us to sin, there's literally no place where we can go to escape temptation, because God is not going to stop giving His good gifts. If He were to take away everything that's dangerous and has the potential of tempting us to sin, He'd have to take away everything that is good. So, temptations to sin are sure to come in our church, in our homes, in our marriages, in our schools, where we work, in our government, in our community. The roadside bombs are buried everywhere!
C. Who can stand?
Who can stand against this kind of all out assault? There is only One who was tempted to sin who did not, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. And so He alone is able to rescue those who are tempted and who do fall into sin.
But we are to resist temptation. Jesus doesn't say to us, "Temptations to sin are sure to come but you should treat them lightly since I will rescue you." He says, "watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41) Luther famously put the situation like this, "You can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair."
But we don't watch and pray, as we should. And the temptations are too clever and too many and too persistent and we are too weak and too gullible and too vulnerable. And we are not passive in this either. We embrace these temptations just as actively as Adam and Eve grabbed that forbidden fruit.
When we do, sometimes its like running over roadside bomb – great damage is done in an instant. Sometimes it's like a construction project – one fall into temptation at a time. Each one stacked on top of the previous one until there's a wall of separation that stands between us and our Lord and us and our neighbor. Sometimes it's like a progressive cancer. It starts small but spreads throughout the body until it eats you up with its guilt and shame.
II. Forgiveness – The miracle of release.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus follows His warning that "temptations to sin are sure to come," in a way that we may not have expected. We might have expected Him to proscribe certain precautions to take to avoid temptations to sin or how to detect and disarm the traps that the tempter has set for us just like soldiers are trained to detect and disarm roadside bombs.
But He doesn't do that. Rather than giving us a remedy for success, He gives us a remedy for our failure. "If your brother sins…" Here's what you are to do.
First, "rebuke him." We live in a world that has learned how to disguise sin by calling it good or normal or acceptable. Sometimes the temptation to sin can be so subtle that the brother or sister in Christ doesn't realize that they've fallen into it. Sometimes a rebuke is necessary to wake the brother or sister up to the fact that they're drowning in sin.
Frankly, this may be the case sometimes, but not usually. God has written His law on our hearts and neither civil law nor social customs can overrule it. Most of the time, the rebuking that takes place is self-rebuke. Our own conscience rebukes us when we sin. And usually, we rebuke ourselves far more harshly than we would ever dare rebuke another. If you've missed worship and neglected the Lord's Supper for too long, I'll call. And usually, I'll simply say, "We've missed you. Is everything okay?" I don't have to quote the 3rd Commandment or anything but you know why I'm calling. And usually the response is, "Yeah I know." And so the gentle rebuke is usually received like a drowning man receives a lifeline thrown to him. "Thanks for caring enough for me to call."
B. Repent and forgive.
Second, "if he repents, forgive him." Jesus doesn't say, lecture him, disassociate from him. He doesn't say, 'punish him.' He says, "Forgive him." And not just once but repeatedly. "If he sins against YOU seven times a day and seven times a day says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." Where there is no repentance there can be no forgiveness. But where there is repentance, genuine sorrow and contrition and desire to amend his sinful ways, Jesus says, "you MUST forgive."
This gets to the very core of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for the forgiveness of all of our sins. A true disciple is not above his Master. As followers of Christ, we take up His cross and bear our brothers and sisters' sins just as Christ did ours. And just how do we bear one another's sins? By forgiving them as Christ has forgiven them.
St. Paul writes to us saying, that we are to "bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." (Col. 3:13)
Is it necessary for me to point out that this is not easy? I don't think so. The three hardest words in the English language to say are not, "I am sorry." They're "I forgive you." Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends, co-workers know how to argue with each other and may even know how to say, "I'm sorry" to each other. But how often is our response is, "just forget it," or "don't worry about it. No big deal." When the response that is called for is, "I forgive you." Because we are lacking the faith in the forgiveness that we have been given by Christ, our Lord.
As difficult as it is to forgive one another repeatedly, often the one whom we have the most trouble forgiving is ourselves. Forgiving others their sins against me is easy compared to the trouble we have forgiving ourselves. Because we are lacking in faith in the forgiveness that we have been given by Christ, our Lord.
It was in response to His command to forgive without limit that the apostles cry out to Jesus, "increase OUR faith."
C. The miracle of release.
St. Paul says that, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17). You have heard the word of Christ already in the Absolution – "I forgive you all of your sins." You'll hear the word of Christ again in the Lord's Supper that is for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
Listen, God has also set us a trap of His own. The trap was set with the stick of the cross – a real "skandala" if there ever was one. Jesus Christ, the Son of God was the bait. And Satan couldn't resist. The tempter was out tempted. The stone that sealed the tomb came down on His head and crushed him. Christ tied that millstone around his neck and threw him into the sea of hell.
The Lord would catch you in His trap too, but not to crush you in your sins, to forgive you all of your sins.
It is truly a remarkable thing that Jesus Christ has given us the power to perform this wonderful miracle of release. "If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." (John 20:23) Where there is no repentance there can be no forgiveness. But where there is repentance, you have the power and to set men and women free. That one human being has the authority to announce to another human being the entire forgiveness of all his sins in Jesus' name – and by that forgiveness, set him free, shatter her darkness, tear down the wall that isolates them, lift the darkness of shame and guilt – it's truly a remarkable thing. And a terrible thing to waste.
"Temptations to sin will surely come." But just as surely, the day is coming when every temptation to sin will be gone. Until then we continue to watch and pray, "lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil."