Sometimes, I think we downplay God’s law and judgement, as if they are no longer important. A third century Christian by the name of Marcion rewrote the Old and New Testament to elevate only Jesus as the gracious God while eliminating any references to God the law giver and judge.
(If you are using the Revised Common Lectionary, you will notice how the reading from Isaiah today demonstrates how the modern selection of Sunday morning readings does the same thing).
Isaiah speaks about how Jerusalem will rejoice when the Lord God has defeated all its enemies, while the appointed reading stops short of the divine judgement which follows the reading which says “behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire” (Isaiah 66:15). The modern church doesn’t want to hear about law and judgment, just feel-good messages about grace and salvation.
In the same way as Jesus sent his followers to preach the good news, a modern-day, although tired and weary evangelist knocked on another door, fully expecting to have the person in that house slam the door in his face. And sure enough, the older woman who answered, angrily demanded that he leave at once after she had figured out why he was there. She slammed the door, however, it bounced back open, and the woman shouted, “Get your foot out of my door!”
“But ma’am…” the evangelist began, and without being able to say much more, the woman again slammed the door in his face and once again the door bounced back open. “I said get your foot out of my door!” she angrily yelled at the young evangelist. Again, she slammed the door and once more the door bounced open again. “But ma’am…” the evangelist tried to explain, only to be cut off mid-sentence. “Don’t talk back to me!” the woman screamed in a rage. “Get off my property or I’ll have you arrested!” as she slammed the door a fourth time, only to see it bounce open a fourth time. As the evangelist made a hasty retreat down the sidewalk, he yelled back, “Ma’am, you’ll be able to close your door if you move your cat out of the way!”
“The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them ahead of him, two-by-two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). Two things stand out when you read this first sentence. Who are the Seventy, who are only mentioned by Luke, and why is their evangelical mission different from that of the Twelve, who were also sent, two-by-two, by Jesus? For you see, in order to understand the gospel according to Luke, you have to understand that the author is a magnificent storyteller, weaving together the historical story of Jesus while creating parallels which draw in the stories from the Old Testament. In this way, he brings the stories of the Old Testament to life when they are retold his community of the saints.
So then, let’s begin with the Twelve. Luke has already mentioned the sending out of the Twelve in the previous chapter. “[Jesus] he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1-2) while Luke omits an important command by Jesus. Matthew describes how Jesus sent out the Twelve to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). The essence of Jesus’s mission is clear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) as there is no mention of a Gentile mission until we meet Paul of Tarsus.
But the gospel reading today begins with “the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). There is no mention of where they came from, no mention of who they were and no mention anywhere in the New Testament to where they went. To discover their origin, their names, and their mission – we have to turn to the writing of myth and folklore. For example, one of the names that appears on the list of the Seventy, is the well-known Joseph of Arimathea, from the account of the burial of Jesus, who is considered to be the first missionary of the good news into Britain. Another member of this questionable list is Luke, the author of our gospel.
“[Jesus] he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed Twelve, whom he also named apostles” (Mark 3:13-14). As we move into the Acts of the Apostles’ and after Judas Iscariot has killed himself, the first order of business is to re-establish the Twelve, as Peter calls for an election such that “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). This is the last time we hear about the Twelve – who were called and established in parallel with the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke turns his attention to a different Old Testament story in order to retrieve the parallel he creates for the Seventy. Jesus sends out, not only the twelve apostles, but he also sends the seventy disciples, his faithful followers, who are sent to minister to people and proclaim the good news. They are sent to every place that Jesus himself planned to visit, sending them and saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few” (Luke 10:2). Jesus sent them ahead for the purpose of introducing himself through them, to the people of those towns and villages. It was a simple way to lighten the load of evangelism. They were preparing the way, as the Baptist might say. Jesus sent them ahead to prepare the townspeople to meet him in person.
In the previous chapter, Jesus sends the Twelve to the “lost sheep of Israel” and today he prepares and sends out the Seventy into every town and place where he himself was about to go. But these disciples are sent forth with the alert, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). One thing I noticed when we lived in Saskatchewan was that when the harvest was ready – it had to be harvested. The weather doesn’t always cooperate with farmers and when you get up on Sunday morning and the ground is dry and the crops are ready - many members of the church are gathering in the harvest because it might rain on Monday. The sense of urgency at bringing in the crop was most apparent when many of the neighbours in a community pitched in to help each other get all the work done. That’s why the Holy Spirit gathers us into a church community, so that no single individual must do all the work, as we are all called to serve and help each other, because there is more than enough work that needs to be done in the life of a church community, than one or two Christians can do on their own.
After Jesus gave the Seventy their marching orders, he warned them that some people will listen to what they have to say, while others will not. When people listen and receive what the disciples have to offer, they are to allow their peace to rest upon the home and to admonish those in the welcoming home saying, "the kingdom of God has come near to you" (Luke 10:9). Whether they are received or rejected, the emphasis of their work is on God, and not themselves. They are not to say, "just look at everything we’ve done for you" but instead, they are to be transparent, like a windowpane as they declare "The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9).
In fact, the church of modernity doesn’t want to say anything negative which might cause a listener to not listen or reject the message proclaimed. All too often, people come to hear a feel-good message. Some, might prefer to take a pair of scissors to the Old Testament and cut out anything that speaks of requirements, law, or judgement. Even the scripture lessons appointed for any given Sunday, will often omit what might offend and turn potential members away from the church. This was not the case in the early church. The reading of scripture has always been an important part of the life in the church, as some evangelicals are beginning to return to the reading of scripture – apart from the preaching of the sermon. When Paul was sharing the good news, through the night, “a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer” (Acts 20:9) and then fell from the third story.
Now, having said all this, did you notice how the reading appointed for this morning skipped over verses twelve to seventeen – or did you notice? So then, what did we miss by skipping over this section? I can assure you that it wasn’t a feel-good message. Jesus has already expressed his sense of urgency regarding the harvest which is coming at the end of the age. As you leave those who reject you, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them, he begins.
What does that entail? That’s the part that somebody doesn’t want us to hear. After shaking the dust from their feet, Jesus adds, “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (Luke 10:12). Abram tried to bargain with God to spare Sodom if he could find a few righteous people living there. It didn’t happen. Then Jesus speaks about where he has already been, “woe to you, Bethsaida!” he begins, and “[Capernaum] shall be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:15]. Whoever rejects the messenger, rejects Jesus and whoever rejects him – rejects the One who sent him. When you and I proclaim the Gospel, it isn’t just what we say that is heard or not heard, accepted or rejected. In our proclamation, in sharing the good news, we are nothing more than a transparent window through which Christ salvation is proclaimed.
Finally, the Seventy return, rejoicing in the power they had over demons and evil spirits and Jesus replies, “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:19-20). The disciples return with great enthusiasm, and Jesus must bring them back to reality, reminding them that they need to focus their joy on their Father in heaven, and not the amazing power experienced on the mission. Martin Luther once said, "If it weren’t for the Christ child in the manger, no one could stand the manure on the stable floor." Too often, Christians become preoccupied with or distracted by those things that don’t matter. Some will go so far as to believe that “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them” (Mark 16:18) while forgetting what is truly important about being His disciple.
And so, the task of the Seventy is no different from the task that has been given to us. “[Jesus] sent them ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:1-2). In reality, you and I are now the Seventy. We have been called by Christ, gathered by him, and sent into the world. You and I, who are the baptized, who make up the body of Christ on earth, are now also sent into the world in order to introduce Jesus to those who do not know him before that great and wondrous day when Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, when everyone will have the opportunity to meet Christ in person – those who welcomed his messengers, as well as those who rejected his messengers.
Being transparent in the life of the church and in our work as the Seventy is our ultimate goal in life. Yes, our joy is in the knowledge that our names are written in heaven, but we mustn’t take this for granted. When we come to the stable, we will be blessed to see Christ in the manger. The gifts of the Magi might impress us. The foul smell of the animals and manure may turn us away. No doubt, there are many other things that will draw our attention away from the manger. But, no matter, we stay in his stable, not because we love the stable, but because we love Christ. And with the assurance that our names in written in heaven, we love being one of his Seventy.
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