[Picture: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Public domain)]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the Eighth Sunday After Trinity, 8/11/2019. The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and old testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for the Eighth Sunday After Trinity, click here.
One fun thing parents enjoy is watching kids react to the stories they’re reading, especially when there are pictures to illustrate the story. Kiddos giggle and point and shout and bounce. And what could be better than that?
But it isn’t only a joyful thing to watch; it’s also informative. When you tell certain stories, you get to see just how perceptive little children can be. One of the best examples I know of is Little Red Riding Hood. (I’ll just trust that you know how it goes.)
When you tell them the story, watch how wide their eyes get when Red arrives at the cabin, and she sees the wolf lying in bed, clumsily disguised as her grandmother. It’s here that some kids will become so upset they try shouting through the book to warn Red –
That her supposed grandmother’s ears are not so enormous because she likes to listen to her, and those oversized and curiously furry hands are not better to hug her with. They already know the truth when the wolf finally admits what that big, terrible mouth is for: it is for devouring; first with lies, and then with teeth.
If only she could have seen through the shallow disguise… but she didn’t. Though she noticed that there was something wrong, she believed the wolf’s lies. The lies put her at peace. They were a twist on the truth that she loved to hear: that her dear grandmother loves to hear her and look at her and embrace her.
This is what the wolves that Jesus warns us about this morning do: they lie. And they do it remarkably well. Their lies are custom crafted for us. They are exactly what we want to hear, and they sound just similar enough to the truth to put us off our guard.
This is also what the false prophets in the OT text were up to. They would say to everyone who was in error that all is well; and to everyone stubbornly following his own heart that this would never harm him; that the God of Israel was not so serious as they thought, and would never send them into exile.
“But,” says the LORD, “If they had stood in My council, then they would have proclaimed My Word to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.” Jeremiah 23:22
The LORD is levying a judgment on the false prophets, to be sure, just as the huntsman soon comes to the grandmother’s cabin with those menacing words: “Do I find you here, you old sinner? Long have I sought you.”
But they are not the only ones addressed. Jesus is echoing the Word He spoke through Jeremiah to warn you.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Matthew 7:15
Jesus knows how easily sheep can be deceived. And that’s what makes Red such a fitting example. For if she is fooled by a giant wolf in a smock clearly stained with the blood of her grandmother, then how much more easily will you be fooled when the wolf’s disguise is actually convincing? How easily will you be fooled when the wolf’s clothing is good, pious, and impressive works?
What then? What do you do when the sheep’s clothing is an appeal to God – the wolf crying, “Lord, Lord?” What do you do when the sheep’s clothing is prophesying, casting out demons, and doing all manner of mighty works in the Name of Jesus? (verse 22) There is one way. Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
But that presses the issue all the more, because the fruits of which Jesus speaks in this place are not all those miraculous and impressive things listed later in the text (At other times, e.g. Acts, miracles are granted by God to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Apostles’ ministry). The prophecies, the exorcisms, and all the mighty works are not the fruit you taste in order to tell a good tree from a rotten tree – a real prophet from a fake prophet.
The wolves who dress as sheep do all these impressive things, but Jesus sends them away, calling them “workers of lawlessness.” Why?
Just like the false prophets in the OT text, they taught falsely. They preach and teach false doctrine. They do all manner of good works but will not simply have Christ’s good work done to them.
They obscure both the Law’s demands and the Gospel’s grace. They diminish the work of Christ for you.
Peter teaches clearly on this in the second chapter of his second Epistle. As soon as the Apostle gives clear teaching on the origin and authority of God’s Word, he observes that this false teaching is how the Church is attacked from age to age:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 Peter 2:1
So false doctrine is the bad fruit, and pure doctrine is the good fruit. God’s Word taught purely and His Sacraments administered faithfully are the good fruit. By the clear teaching of God’s Word, sheep are capable of spotting wolves. Remember, in this text Jesus is warning you.
So, what does this mean for us? For starters I’ll say that I am thrilled to be your pastor; and I sincerely hope to do many good works among you. But never let those good things convince you or entice you to put your guard down.
I am not to be trusted because of where I stand or what I wear or how well I speak; at least I am not to be trusted blindly. You are to test my fruit, the doctrine I preach, against the Word of God. Then you will know by Whose authority I speak, and in Whose council I sit: it is Christ, the living and victorious One.
He is not dead, as some false prophets have claimed. Of course, it’s true: that the big, bad, lying wolf did indeed devour Him, the only innocent One, the Lamb of God… As Jesus was suspended on the cross, all the world’s lies were shouted at Him. And in death the wolf’s jaws enveloped Him. But three days later the wolf’s belly was burst open.
Having suffered the lies of the evil one on Friday, Jesus arises from the jaws of deaths speaking Truth on Sunday. It is that singular Truth that is still spoken to you today: that Jesus’ life is your life. His death is your death. His resurrection is your resurrection.
And so the life you live now you live under His care as a beloved sheep. You have been given ears to listen to your Good Shepherd; eyes to see your neighbor in need; hands to serve the little, the least, the last, the lost, and the dead; and a mouth to speak well of them, and Truth to them.
For all of that you can live confidently, joyfully, and truthfully. Because you have a merciful Father and a gracious Brother, even Jesus Christ. He has eyes to see you; ears to hear your prayers; hands pierced for all your transgressions; a mouth to speak Life to you; and now His own Body and Blood to feed you, that you would never depart from Him, for He knows you each by name. Come now to this banquet, come now to Him, all you workers of righteousness.