God is big. We are small. But to God we are somebodies in Christ.
A sermon preached on Matthew 16:21-26 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on September 13, 2020.
It took only 5 months, 3 weeks, and 1 day for him to become invisible. It was 5 months, 3 weeks, and 1 day since he retired. He had been ready to retire, no doubt about that. But now, after 5 months, 3 weeks, and 1 day …nobody noticed him. Nobody emailed him asking his advice on this or that project. He realized that all of his friends had simply been work-colleagues. At church his name did not come up when there were elections. And at home, he discovered that his wife did not really need him anymore, except for his income. He had become invisible. And thus began yet another chapter in the crosses our Lord was asking him to bear.
Except he wasn’t willing to bear that cross. So as the depression started, he decided to leave Sioux Falls, head west. This would turn out badly, as it always does when we avoid taking up our cross daily and following Christ and his Word.
It is the case that many Christians are not very good about taking up their cross each day and following Christ, though it is necessary. Whether it is the cross of dealing with your own painful past, or enduring your relentless desires that you must learn to control, or going through each day feeling like a nobody, bearing our cross is painful, internally (chapel—ran hands over cross to feel the roughness which would cause physical pain, just like the cross we bear for Christ causes internal pain). And bearing our cross is necessary. Because as Christ himself said in our gospel lesson, if you do not take up your cross and follow him and his Word, you will lose your own soul.
He drove west. When he stopped for gas in Rapid, it was so busy he had to wait 5 minutes for a gas pump; finally a pump became available and just as he put his car into drive, a big SUV zipped in in front of him. A dark rage boiled in him and for the first time in his life thoughts of murder/suicide flicked into his mind. He kept driving until eventually he found himself at Glacier National Park. The next morning he drove into the Park and the sun was just coming up over the mountains. And that’s when it happened. The sun was coming up over the mountains. And for a boy from the prairies, the beauty of it took his breath away. He pulled over, got out, sank to his knees.
He noticed two very different emotions rising inside himself. He felt what our psalmist must have been feeling when he wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—Where does my help come from?” As he looked at the mountains, this retired man felt awe at how powerful, how big, God must be to make something like this; he felt like the hymn writer, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all, the works thy hand hath made” (CS #256 v.1) But almost immediately he felt something else as well—as he looked at these large, large mountains, he suddenly felt very, very small. As small as an ant. An insignificant ant.
It was a horrible feeling. Because nobody wants to be a nobody. It has been said that the cause of conflict in families, and at work, and at church, is that we are struggling to prove to that we are not nobodies, that we are somebodies. This is why some students act out—to prove they are somebodies. This is why mothers whose children are grown and no longer need them so much sometimes become manipulative—it’s their sinful way of proving they are still a force to be reckoned with. This is why men can become so competitive or so wedded to their work or be so interruptive in conversation—to prove they are somebodies. It is why being young can be so difficult—because you are so often treated as if your opinions are hopelessly naïve, as if you are someone to be humored rather than someone to be taken seriously. Which, come to think of it, is often how those who retire get treated, eventually.
When such things happen, you are being given a gift—the gift of a cross to bear. Are you aware of that? This cross of feeling like a nobody is a cross meant to cause you pain internally. This pain is to wake you up once again to repent, same as my pain is to wake me up to daily repent. To repent of our shameful work-righteous idolatry that motivates us to find our somebodyness in ourselves, in well I can get others to do what I want, in how well my kids turn out, in getting enough likes on my posts. But finding our somebodyness in any other place than Christ is a form idolatry. And every idolater will have to face a very angry God and will be destroyed, eternally destroyed.
But that is not what our Lord wants. And so, in calling us to repent of finding our somebodyness in ourselves, he then replaces our idolatry with a much better thing—the truth. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Eve, we are told in Genesis 2, was created to be Adam’s helper, which some have taken exception to. But being a helper is not a demeaning thing; here God himself says that he is our helper. And what a helper! He so completely “helps” wash away our sin by Christ’s blood shed on the cross that there is no more washing that needs to be done. He so completely “helps” open the door of heaven by Christ’s resurrection that the door of heaven stands wide open to this very day. He so completely “helps” make us somebodies in Christ that there is nothing we need to do, no promotion we need to get, no number of likes we need on our Instagram post in order to make us a somebody. By faith in Christ, he gives us the gift of being able to say each day, “I am somebody because of Christ. My life is a valuable life, a life worth living, because, ‘My help (including the “help” I need to be a somebody) comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.’”
And what a difference this will make to those around us. Instead of conflict and anger at home, at work, at school by which we try to prove we are somebodies, there will be respect even when we disagree. Instead of manipulation by which we try to prove we are somebodies, freedom to let others live their own lives. Instead of feeling like a nobody when you stack up failures or get laughed at, there will be painful disappointment…followed be re-engagement with life and the desire to make the most of what I have been given. For your life has been purchased with the blood of Christ, and that makes your life and what you do with it of great value, especially to him. Especially to him. In fact, it is so important to him, so important, that he will on the Last Day bring up all the good works you did, not to earn heaven for that is his gift to you, but because you took the somebodyness he gave you in the gospel and put it to use (Matt. 25). So important is what you do each day with this somebodyness that he gives you in the gospel, that he promises a “reward” (that is to say, to bless) even for our limpest good works. As our Formula of Concord (one of our Lutheran Confessions of Faith) puts it so succinctly: “With (good works) God is pleased for Christ’s sake and…he promises a glorious reward in this life and the life to come.” (Triglott, p.951)
But this retired man was not doing that. He threw off his cross and instead of saying “no!” to his feelings of being small, being insignificant, being a nobody, he let those feelings swirl around inside of him. Which was why he ended up in a bar. Which was the worst place he could be; but we sinners are resourceful like that. Why he ended up calling his wife on his cell phone and leaving her a nasty voicemail. Why he challenged a burly biker to a fight. But the back of the burly biker’s leather jacket read, “Bikers-for-Christ.” So there was no fight. Instead, the biker took out a folded up sheet and laid it in front of this retired man. And the sheet read, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—Where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
And the biker said, “You got any kids?” And the retired man said yes. The biker said, “When they were little, did you ever step into their bedroom at night, just to check on them, make sure they were breathing, just watch them a little?” The retired man said yes. And the biker read, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over foolish-retired-men-who-try-to-pick-fights-with-bikers will neither slumber nor sleep.” He said, “That’s what God does for you, all night long, man, and all day long, too. Whether it seems like it or not. This is what he does. For real.”
This biker knew his stuff. But one thing this biker did not know was that the Hebrew word for “watch over” has a tender connotation. The Hebrew word for “watch over” (used six times in this short psalm, three in the present tense, three in the future tense) is a word that has the same feeling as that Robert Munsch book, “Love you forever, like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” Which is, in a manner of speaking, what God said to you at your baptism, when he adopted you into his family, declared himself to be your loving Father for the rest of your life, and that you would get to live with him in his house, his mansion, forever because of Christ and you have his Word on it. And interestingly enough, the last verse of this psalm has been used in the liturgy of Lutheran baptisms for…I don’t even know how far back it goes–“The LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forever.”
Well, the words had their effect. The retired man thanked the Christian biker and left the bar. As he stepped out of the bar, he took up his cross once again. Even though he still felt invisible, small, like a nobody, he kept repeating under his breath, “But to God I am somebody because of Christ. To God I am somebody because of Christ. To God I am somebody because of Christ.” Then he said right out loud, “And so, I better start acting like somebody because of Christ.” And as he watched the sun set behind the mountains, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed his wife.
Across the street from this retired man’s house there is a thirteen-year-old boy. There is something very dark about his mood. He is sitting on the cement wall in front of their house, watching the ants scurry thither and yon on the sidewalk. His foot is dangling inches above them. He thinks to himself, I could snuff out their life with my big foot in an instant and it would make no difference at all, just like if my life was snuffed out in an instant, it would make no difference at all.
But this boy is wrong. And I hope the retired man gets home soon enough to tell this boy that he is wrong before something bad happens. I hope he gets home soon enough to tell this boy that while it is true that God is big and we are small, small as ants, it is also true that to God we are somebodies by faith in Christ. And as such, there’s no one who can take your place, not as far as God is concerned. There is no one who can take your place, not in this world, not in heaven either. And this is why Jesus came into our world. To be our Savior. To save us from our sin, to save us from death, and to save us from being nobodies. Amen.