Following His Steps
In the ancient Collect of the Day we pray “that following His steps, we may steadfastly walk in the way that leads to eternal life.” Yet, the Gradual warns that God’s path are “beyond tracing out.” You know the solution to this conundrum? Follow the incarnate God with feet who leaves tracks, not God the Father who is Spirit and footless and so leaves no reliable tracks.
Even when you’re following the steps of the One who has footprints, be careful of staring. “Don’t stare” parents tell the toddler who can’t help but stare at a disabled person. We say that because it’s impolite. Other times for their safety we say, “Don’t stare” at welding or at the sun. Still other times like when driving by an accident we might say, “Don’t look.” That’s for their peace of mind.
Even pagans know the danger involved in staring. Nietzsche famously said, “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” (Beyond Good and Evil, IV, 1467). The question the man asks in the text is an abyss of the true God. “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” We say in our Lutheran Confessions: “We should not explore the abyss of the hidden foreknowledge of God, even as Christ answered the question, 'Lord will those who are saved be few?’ by saying, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door…” (FC, SD XI, 33). Concern yourself with your salvation rather than with the abyss of how many or how few will or won’t be saved.
Another abyss is the hidden will of God, that which He has not revealed. Luther makes this distinction: “For God preached desires this – that, our sin and death be taken away, [that] we might be saved…But God in His majesty neither deplores, nor takes away death, but works life and death and all things; nor has He, in this Character, defined Himself in His Word, but has reserved unto Himself, a free power over all things” (Bondage of the Will, 172). Luther says nothing but what God first said in Det. 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” What the Holy Spirit has not revealed in Scripture we should be glad not to know.
Don’t stare into the abyss; don’t stare into the hidden will of God. But where should I look? Read Hebrews. Heb. 11 confronts you with a laundry lists of saints who suffered and died confessing their faith. Then chapter 12 admonishes us to run with perseverance the path the Lord has laid out for us. We run but where does Hebrews tell us to fix our eyes? “Fixing our eyes on Jesus the Author and Perfector of our faith.” If you need a child to cross a narrow wall, a tree across a stream, you say, “Look at me.” What you stare at you steer towards. They tell you that when shooting flying birds. Focus not on the barrel of your gun or on how far you’re leading the bird; focus on the bird itself and that’s where your gun goes.
But we’re back to staring aren’t we? Be careful what you stare at; you might see something horrible, unsettling, really scary. In the opening scene of Twilight Zone: The Movie two men are driving late at night and to pass the time they tell each other the scariest things they’ve seen. After doing this for awhile, the passenger says, “You want to see something really scary?” The other guy leans closer, looks closer. Suddenly, the passenger turns into the monster of monsters. Or how about the screen savers of the 90s? They drew you in to focus, to stare more and more at the screen only to suddenly morph into something hideous.
Luther said of last line of our text (“There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last”), “’It is to frighten the greatest saints’” (Buls, Exegetical Notes, C, After Pentecost, 46). Judas who is one of the 12 has his lot of the ministry, does miracles, casts out devils and yet is a devil himself. What about the many disciples who turned away from following Jesus when confronted with the reality of the Real Presence of Jesus in John 6? How about those who believed on Him, yet Jesus says their father is the Devil? From first these all drop to last. And then there is Peter, the gross denier who trips over the Levitical laws, and Paul, the crass persecutor and murderer of the faithful. These go from last to first.
How about you? You who use the Means of Grace when your feel like it? You who believe the lie, that knowing a fact is the same thing as trusting in it. You are going to eventually see something really horrible. You will never forget that Jesus was born on Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose on Easter as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. You will know all that right up until Death takes you to hell. Because you know something doesn’t mean your trust it. You can’t make yourself trust in the facts of the Gospel. Only God can do that through the Means of Grace that you either use negligently or not at all. You who decide each week if you’ll come to Divine Service; you who starve yourself spiritually by communing every now and then; you who have God’s Word mailed directly to you; you who never have to miss a Sunday’s preaching, but miss almost all. You think you’re going to trust in what God’s Word says saves you? You think you’ll run to the Word and Sacrament you have so evidently despised?
Think again. You might be last come Judgement Day all the while thinking you’re first! And don’t think this doesn’t apply to me. Chrysostom said, “’It is a thing to be wondered at, if one priest be saved’” (Gerberding, The Lutheran Pastor, 376, NPNF, xxxiv, 3). Hear the text. Jesus doesn’t say, “I don’t know you or where you come from.” Nope, the not knowing has everything to do with where they come from. Literally, “Not do I know by revelation from whence you are.” Here’s the equation: Not from My Water, not from My Word, and not from My Body and Blood, not Mine! And this text does what the OT type of Judgment Day, the Flood, and the NT type of it, the Fall of Jerusalem, don’t do. Loving Lord Jesus depicts the damned standing outside a shut door pounding till their knuckles bleed and clawing till their fingernails pop. And it shows them pleading that proximity to Jesus means salvation by Jesus.
There is a kind of staring that is dangerous. It bores in on something that fascinates and fixates. It is hypnotic. There is a phenomenon where a person walking down a railroad track, sees the train coming, and can’t look away. They are so mesmerized they can’t move and are struck. As the heavy, damning judgment of God’s Law speeds toward you, you can’t move. I’ve talked to many hardened sinners. One said every Sunday he thought about going to church but it was like his feet were nailed to floor. Another said he wanted to go but what’s the use after a lifetime of staying away. These men were hypnotized by the oncoming judgement of God’s law and they couldn’t get off the tracks. Break the spell of staring by speaking. Say, “open sesame” and see what you thought was an oncoming locomotive with two headlights is really two motorcycles that go right by.
The expression ‘open sesame’ comes from a 17th century tale, but in the mid-20th century it became a reality. I didn’t know of automatic doors till the supermarkets put them in the early 60s. Kids were mesmerized. Just by walking up to the doors they swung open. It was magic; it was miracle. You didn’t make them open something else did. You don’t open the Door to heaven: Jesus says, “I am the Door and I’m open to all those burdened and heavy ladened.” Anyone who comes through His Person and Work, He says, “I will in no way cast out.” You go through the door of salvation not because you’re pure as the driven snow but because His flesh and blood are. You go through the ever open Door of heaven not because you suffered enough, did enough to earn heaven, but because Jesus did in your place. I can’t help but think of Paul McCartney’s 1976 jaunty, feel-good tune: “Open the door and let ‘em in”. Sure with the Church of all ages, Old, New, and ancient our Communion is closed but our Door to salvation is wide open.
Note carefully whom Jesus, the ever-open Door is shut to. “Away from Me, all you evil doers,” Jesus thunders in the insert. That’s just a bad translation leading you to think doing evil gets a person shut out. Wrong. What keeps a person out of heaven is not evil doing but literally doers of unrighteousness. Jesus, born free of Original Sin and never having actually sinned in deed, in word, or even in thought, is the very righteousness of God. In Baptism, His righteousness covers your unrighteousness. The Absolution sends your unrighteousness away and declares you righteous in God’s eyes. Communion is the righteous Body and Blood of Jesus for Christians to eat and drink, and so have His righteousness bodied and blooded to them. This is what Luther termed the Great Exchange based on 2 Cor. 5:21: “ God made Jesus, who did not know sin, to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Have Him in the places He promises to be for you, and it’s open sesame, let ‘em in.
Jesus’ blood and righteousness available to sinners in His Means of Grace is the certainty of your salvation, but that’s not where people look. No, they look inside themselves. What’s your heart telling, assuring you? Whatever it is I can assure you of one thing: it lies. Read Jer. 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The only way through the minefield of the Devil, the World, and your Flesh which you confess “do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come” is to focus and follow the steps of Jesus. But many scoff at doing this because frankly, they aren’t divine enough, glorious enough, but all too human. And what did we expect from a God who is Man, from a God with feet? A friend from Texas was going to hunt deer for the first time in Northern Michigan where I grew up hunting. He brought a special black light that illuminated blood even on snow. I said, “Have you ever tracked a bleeding deer in snow?” He said, “No.” I said, “Think about it. It’s like following neon road signs.” And that’s how it is with Jesus. His steps aren’t faint at all but Word-Sacraments all the way into heaven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20220911); Luke 13:22-30