Many times, God gives us passages of comfort and beauty in His holy Word. Our hearts are soothed in our troubles by messages of joy and promise.
Today Christ our dear Lord gives a hard and harsh Word of severe warning. This is a terrifying message.
Our natural impulse is to try to wiggle out of the Word’s path when it is so rough. Maybe this Word is not about us. Maybe the harshness of the sermon is because the Pastor is grumpy, and the message should not be that harsh. There are other ways we may try to squirm away from the focus of the warning.
If our heart followed its own impulses, we would only ever listen to the pleasant and soft words of our Lord. We would stop up our ears whenever anything harsh came along. But, like a child who only wants to eat dessert at every meal, this is not a healthy path. Therefore let us open our ears to our Lord.
Christ “began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles had been performed because they did not repent.” Here we see a true purpose of the miracles of Christ. He did not only want them to see that He is the Son of God and the promised Messiah. He did not only want them to see God’s loving care for them and be thankful. He did not only want to help those in need. He desired that they repent of their sins. When they received His healing care, they should have said, “My sins deserve far worse than this disease, yet by God’s undeserved grace I have been healed. I am sorry for my sins, and I put my faith in this Man who helps sinners like me.”
Many people, especially in the cities Christ names, evidently received the miracles in a way that did not include repentance. Perhaps they said, “Finally I got the healing I deserved!” Maybe they even said thank you to God, yet did not think that they were sinners who needed a Savior, much less that He had stood before them to give them miraculous healing.
That is what we all naturally do. If God is slow in giving us the healing we think we deserve, we can so easily fall into complaining, as if He were a slow waiter who was not giving us the prompt service we ought to receive. At our better moments, we say, “Lord, please help me, not as a I deserve, but out of Your gracious love.”
The really harsh part comes when Christ says that it will be better for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom at the judgment than it will be for Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Tyre and Sidon were condemned in the Old Testament. Queen Jezebel was a Sidonian. But even worse was Sodom, known for severe depravity and rampant homosexuality. Their sins were so bad that the Lord rained down fire and brimstone to utterly destroy them. THOSE people will not be as bad off at the judgment compared to the people of the cities where Christ did His miracles, yet did not repent.
We do not know exactly how it will be worse at the judgment for them. God will not say to Jezebel, “You were wicked all right, but Capernaum was even worse, so you get to enter heaven.” No, apparently there are some degrees of punishment and guilt at the judgment. We are not sure what that means, and that is not really the point, either. The point is that the people of the cities Christ denounced were to take warning and repent because they were in danger of hellfire.
Yet surely many of them thought, “Christ the Lord came to OUR town. Christ saw us as worthy of His presence. That is why we received so many of His miracles.”
At the judgment, that kind of talk will not float. God will look for repentance and faith. It will be especially shameful for those people among whom Christ came. The Son of God personally visited them and poured out grace on them. He did not do that in Sodom or Tyre or Sidon. The people Christ visited bear the greater guilt.
True, they were not outright heathens whom Christ healed. They did not bow down to false gods. They had the synagogues and heard God’s Word. Yet in their hearts there was not repentance, with all those advantages they had to hear and believe the Word.
Today, whom does Christ visit? He visits you and me. He comes among us in His Divine Service and gives healing medicine superior to what He gave at Capernaum. Take warning! Do not say, “Christ comes among us so that means He loves us so much,” yet secretly in your heart there is not repentance. Sorrow over your sins! Realize how little you deserve this Lord who stoops down to you! Receive Him with the kind of trust that says, “I deserve none of what Christ does. If not for His mercy, then I would be destroyed by fire as surely as the Sodomites. If not for Christ’s sacrifice, I would die forever. I am not worthy.”
Do not say, “How dare you, pastor? How could you warn us as if we were in danger of hellfire like Sodom?” If you think that, then you do not realize the danger, and you need the warning of Christ all the more. We all deserve fire. Only by grace will we escape.
But a Lutheran might say, “I went to confirmation class. I was taught by Pastor so-and-so. I’ve attended worship so many times that the apostles are jealous.”
When we are listing off our credentials as Christians, then we have missed the point. There is no repentance in credentials. There is no sorrow over sin in listing our faithful history. By God’s grace, may we all be as faithful as possible. But the point is that repentance and sorrow over sin are essential to true faithfulness. Without them, we may find on the Day of Judgment that Queen Jezebel is better off than us, as Christ says.
We have so many things that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom did not have. Even Capernaum and Bethsaida did not have what we have. We have the fullness of Scripture laid out before us, with the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation of God laid out before us. We have the fruits of the fullness of time put into our mouths. We have the washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit. We have seen, by faith, the Wisdom of God crucified on a tree.
Yet we are sometimes hesitant to give up certain bad habits we have that we know are wrong. We sometimes find it easy to compromise on God’s truth, or at least shut our mouths to speak it when we should. Are we sorry and kneel in pious sorrow because of these failings? Or do we repeat the same sins without a second thought? True repentance includes a desire and intention to do better in the future. But if we sin and feel a little sad about it but then don’t ever worry about it again, are we truly repenting? Or are we using the Cross as a way to not worry about sin?
Repentance is hard. It is not a quick emotion that we bring out of the back of a drawer in our mind, feel it for a few seconds, and then put it back again. No, repentance is the Christian way of life under the Cross. It drives us to desire the Absolution of God. It makes us hunger and thirst for the gifts of God’s grace. Repentance makes us realize that we are weak and helpless without Christ our Lord.
If we, with all the extravagant gifts Christ has given us, do not repent, then even Capernaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida will condemn us, along with Sodom, Tyre and Sidon.
Why does Christ our dear Lord warn us so sternly? Because He loves us. He does not want us to stand condemned on the Last Day. Where we have failed to repent, we still can.
God grant us to feel the ashes of repentance today, so that we do not feel the fire and brimstone of judgment hereafter. God grant us to wear sackcloth in sorrow now, so that we will be clothed in the glory of Christ’s righteousness, now and forever. Amen.
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