Like Seeing the Face of God: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity on St. Luke 15:1–32

Sermon audio here.

Esau absolutely hated Jacob. The rivalry between these two brothers is legendary. Compared to Jacob and Esau, the Blackhawks and Red Wings look like best friends. There was only one thought that comforted Esau when it came to Jacob, and that was the thought of killing him (Genesis 27:41).

Eventually Esau had the chance to do just that. Jacob was defenseless and Esau was coming with 400 armed men (Genesis 32–33). Revenge was in his grasp. Jacob threw himself on the ground and Esau took hold of him. But Esau didn’t kill his brother; instead, he kissed him. They embraced, wept, and were reconciled (Genesis 33:3–4).

Now that sounds nice and all, but it makes absolutely no sense! Why the sudden change of heart? Granted Esau didn’t have to kill Jacob, but he could have at least punished him a little. First Jacob took his inheritance (Genesis 25:29–34), then he stole the blessing his father intended for him (Genesis 27:30–41)! Esau had every reason in the world to kill Jacob. Killing him certainly would have solved that whole inheritance problem. At the very least he could have given Jacob a taste of his own medicine and robbed him.

Esau had every reason in the world to kill Jacob. But that’s just it; his motives were worldly, and the prince of this world is Satan. The devil loves to perpetuate conflict, whether it’s brother against brother or even you against God and His Law. The battlegrounds often look very ordinary, but make no mistake: Satan is behind every conflict. He has been waging war against heaven and God’s saints ever since his fall (Revelation 12). 

This means conflict is inevitable in the Christian life. It’s not like what the charlatan TV preachers say, who promise nothing but the good life for those who send them money or buy their books. Christians should expect more suffering and conflict than anyone else. It couldn’t be otherwise, since Satan concentrates all of his efforts on Christians.

We don’t call this the ‘church militant’ for nothing. There is war between heaven and hell, nations, brothers, and even war within your own body between the flesh and Spirit. As St. Paul teaches, ungodly desires course throughout your sinful veins and conflict with what you, as a child of God, know is good and right. As the hymn says, “The flesh has not those pure desires the spirit of the Law requires, and lost is our condition.”

Thanks be to God that Jesus seeks and saves the lost! He has rescued you at the font, but He doesn’t want you wandering off back into the camp of the enemy. This is what happens whenever you indulge sin. To willfully persist in sin is to live under Satan’s lordship and to become his prisoner of war. Resist, and repent.

Satan comes ready for battle. He’s dangerous, like a fierce dragon (Rev. 12:7) or a prowling lion (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus comes right out and calls him a murderer (John 8:44). Even gangsters as ruthless as Al Capone and John Gotti have nothing on Satan.

Satan is fierce, but God’s no sissy. American Christian presents us with a highly effeminate Christ. One pastor joked about how the Bible miniseries from a few years ago even gave us the “Vidal Sasson Jesus.” Rarely, if ever, do we hear about the Jesus who went into the temple in a rage and started knocking over tables and chasing merchants out with a whip of cords (St. John 2:13–25).

Though our culture has done its best to give Jesus the Caitlyn Jenner treatment, God is, as Moses says, a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). Today’s liturgy described God as being violent, wrathful, even destructive. Now this isn’t the essence of who God is, to be sure, but His patience has a limit.

Think about the flood during the time of Noah; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; or the drowning of Pharaohs and his army in the Red Sea. As much as God’s fury burned back then, it’s nothing when compared to the wrath the unrepentant will feel on the Day of the Lord when Christ comes as Judge. When God goes to war, He doesn’t mess around.

They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Esau & Jacob were caught up in divine warfare. It didn’t look like war; it just seemed like Esau got cheated. Same thing with the older brother of the prodigal. We can sympathize, because we all know what it’s like to be cheated. All those years he served his father faithfully while his reckless younger brother was off living it up, and his father never gave him even a young goat so he could celebrate with his friends! But then the golden child returns after blowing the family fortune in Vegas on gambling and prostitutes, and the father kills the fattened calf! It’s just not fair, and nothing makes our blood boil quite like injustice.

Unwittingly, we walk into the devil’s traps again and again. It’s easy to get jealous when you’ve been cheated or to seek revenge against those who’ve wronged you, but that’s exactly what Satan wants. How you act toward others is a thoroughly spiritual issue. The battleground couldn’t look any more ordinary, but Satan has taken countless prisoners with his anti-sacraments of envy and hatred. If God works forgiveness, life, and salvation by His means of grace, Satan works slavery, death, and damnation by jealousy and malice.

This is why the apostle Peter tells you to “humble yourself,” (1 Peter 5:6). The older brother of the prodigal, and initially, Esau, thought they got a raw deal; they thought they deserved better. But the truth is that in Christ, God has given you so much better than you deserve. It’s like what the father said in response to his older son’s complaining: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours!” (St. Luke 15:31). What more could you possibly want or need? Christ is with you always! In Him, all of the riches of heaven are yours! He lets you sit with Him on His Throne in His Kingdom! As St. Paul says, “Already you have become rich! You have become kings!” (1 Corinthians 4:8).

Satan works jealousy and anger; the Holy Spirit works humility. By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit softened the heart of Esau. He resisted his vengeful impulses even though he had every opportunity to act on them and forgave Jacob even though he didn’t deserve it.

Such mercy is so exceedingly rare that Jacob told Esau  when he looked at him, it was like looking at the face of God (Genesis 33:10). That’s what God expects of you, too—that when others interact with you, they too would come away feeling like they had seen the face of God.

God called Israel and brought them out of Egypt that they might be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5–6). When the nations looked at Israel, God wanted them to see a reflection of His face. Our Lord has set His Church as a city on a hill, so that everyone who sees the works of His children would give glory to the Father (St. Matthew 5:14–16).

This means resisting the devil (1 Peter 5:9) and the urge to indulge feelings of jealousy and hatred. Let not sin reign in your body (Romans 6:12). As God warned Cain, sin is crouching at your door, but you must rule over it (Genesis 4:7).

But when you take an honest look at your life, it’s less like a bright city on a hill and more like a cold, dark cave. The fire of faith is constantly being snuffed out by the devil’s temptations. As the prophet says, you are poor, broken, and in captivity to your own sin.

This is why the Father sent His Son into the Flesh—to do for you what you couldn’t do for yourself; to do battle for you against sin, death, and the devil and overcome them. He proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and sets at liberty those who are oppressed (St. Luke 4:18).

He does this by His own poverty and by allowing Himself to be taken captive. The comforting joy and life of the Gospel comes only through our Lord’s bitter suffering and death. The most brutal acts of violence by the most ruthless gangsters don’t even begin to compare to what happened to Jesus when the Father, out of love for you, handed Him over to the Godfather of this world.

The more you realize how much Christ suffered for you, the more certain you will be that your sin will never be held against you. The prophet Micah says that God has given your sin the cement shoes treatment: He casts all your sins into the depths of the sea, mafia-style (Micah 7:19). There are some things there’s no coming back from: being thrown into the lake with cement shoes is one of them. That’s how God regards your sin.

When you consider just how much Christ suffered for you, it begins to make more sense why He is so zealous in seeking and saving the lost. Look at the cross and behold how much Jesus loves you!

A dear saint once told me about how after a child of hers died, someone told her it wasn’t that bad because she had other children. Now if her only child had died, she was told, that would be much worse.

While that’s an entirely wrong and terrible thing to say, sometimes you might be tempted to apply that logic to God. After all, He has more children than the Blackhawks have Stanley Cups! What does it matter if He loses just one? If this most recent championship has taught us anything, it’s that the love of winning certainly does not diminish with every victory.

It’s the same thing with children: parents don’t love their children any less the more they have. As any parent of two or more children will tell you, the heart has a remarkable ability to grow and accommodate more love than you ever thought possible with the birth of each new child. As the Psalm says, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalm 127:4–5a)

Even though God has more children than there are stars in the sky or sand on the seashore, He cannot bear to lose even one. He leaves the 99 behind to search after the lost one. He tears apart the whole house to find a single coin. He watches and yearns day and night for the return of His prodigal.

You have returned to the Lord’s house this morning, and the whole company of heaven rejoices. For you who were once dead in sin are now alive in Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:13). Come, celebrate with the angels in heaven! The Lamb has been sacrificed, the Table is set, and the Feast is ready!

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 15:1–32
The Third Sunday after Trinity, 2015: Like Seeing the Face of God
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