Today’s sermon theme is: “When Jesus rebukes.” I know this doesn’t sound like a very uplifting topic. I didn’t put it on our outdoor church sign like I usually do with our sermon themes. But Jesus offers three different rebukes in today’s text, and throughout the Gospels there is quite a bit of rebuking going on by Jesus and others. I think it would do us well to explore this subject.
Many years ago when I was a young pastor there was a man who came to the church I was serving and asked about our communion policy. I explained our policy to him, and he let me know he didn’t agree with it. “That is not the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” he said, “consider yourself rebuked!” And he walked away.
That obviously got my attention. I had been involved in lots of theological conversations before, but never one that ended like that. “Rebuking” to me seemed like something you did to the Devil, as in the rebukes of Jesus in today’s reading. It sure didn’t seem like a very effective way to interact in the church. Certainly not polite.
Rebuking doesn’t just happen in the church, of course. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that rebukes are given much more often out in the world.
About a week and a half ago our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, answered questions before a congressional hearing on the deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. Many people wonder whether these hearings are really meant to discover information or simply serve as some kind of forum for some to give a public rebuke to others. At the same time, what seemed to capture the American attention the most during that hearing was when Secretary Clinton strongly rebuked her questioners with an exclamation of “what difference does it make?”
As we know, people have all kinds of opinions about these public rebukes. Some view a raised voice and a strong command as a sign of strength. Others see it as a sign of weakness or even a cover-up.
And then there’s the question of whether that person’s words are best described as a rebuke or a rebuttal, an admonishment, a reproving or a refuting. There are slight differences, perhaps.
According to my Greek Lexicon there are six different words which fall under the general category of a “rebuke.” One of these other words is a stronger word – often translated as “scold” (Mk. 14:5). Another stronger word comes from the word “to strike.” Others are more centered on the argument being made—a rebutting or refuting. The word used in today’s text carries with it the normal idea we are used to with this word—that of “expressing strong disapproval.” There’s emotion contained in this word. Even anger perhaps.
When we hear Jesus rebuking the evil spirit that possessed the man in today’s text, and when we hear him rebuking the fever (yes, that’s what it says) of Peter’s mother-in-law, we should hear in his voice the deep care that Jesus has for afflicted people. He is emotional. He is not happy that people are struggling with things such as evil spirits and illness. Jesus’ strong rebuke shows his concern for those who suffer.
We’re all fine with Jesus rebuking evil spirits and anything else which causes the innocent to suffer, like in Mark 4 when he rebukes the storm, but what about when Jesus rebukes people? We might assume that Jesus would frequently rebuke his opponents, and indeed he does at times have strong words for them. But today’s word for “rebuke” is not used that way. In fact, the only time Jesus rebukes people is when he is rebuking his own disciples. In Luke chapter 9 he rebukes them so that they will not tell others that he is the Messiah. And later in that chapter he rebukes them for wanting to call down fire upon those who would not receive him.
Since Jesus rebukes evil, and sometimes also his own disciples, what does that mean for us? Are we, the followers of Jesus, to also speak words of rebuke?
In Luke 17:3 Jesus says these words to his disciples: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Here we have a command of Jesus to use a word of rebuke. We do so when our brother sins. It seems like a pretty straightforward message, right?
St. Paul said similar words in his second letter to Timothy, the 4th chapter: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort.”
These are clear statements of the need to rebuke, but the church has also recognized that rebuking is something which must be done carefully. Both of these statements of the New Testament are best seen as being directed toward those in position of authority. Certainly the Timothy text is directed toward pastors. And by chapter 17 of Luke, the group of disciples Jesus is addressing is not a large body of followers but a smaller band of those being molded to be leaders.
Luther teaches us to think about our God-commanded tasks according to the position of our vocation. When we find ourselves in a position of authority – such as pastor, teacher, parent, government representative, etc. – we may need to exercise a strong, yet caring rebuke in order to push people toward upholding the Word of God.
That being said, we must also do it very, very carefully. Ours is a culture where rebukes are regularly given, and even more so now that people can do it from a computer, without seeing the person they are rebuking. In the Gospels, Jesus may have offered a rebuke here and there, but more often he was correcting those who rebuked others unjustly. Jesus’ disciples once rebuked those who brought their children to Jesus, but Jesus gently corrected them. People rebuked a blind beggar who was crying out to Jesus, but Jesus ignored them and healed the beggar. On the day the people celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the Pharisees told him: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” But he simply answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
When Paul gives his command to Timothy and all pastors that they sometimes need to rebuke, he ends it by adding that they are to do it “with complete patience and teaching.” Time and explanations are needed. There may be sometimes when simply saying “because I said so” is sufficient, but more often, patience and teaching is needed.
It’s interesting to note that in today’s text the first rebuking by Jesus comes in a synagogue and the next one comes in a home. So also today, what we learn from our life together in church should impact the way we act at home. In April St. Paul’s will be hosting a parenting seminar by a group called the National Center for Biblical Parenting. We’ve used their materials before and found them to be very helpful. Today’s message made me think about one of their bits of advice—choose sad over mad. I must confess that I find that to be very challenging. For the most part I think that advice is right on, but I still wonder if there might be a place for a strong rebuke now and then.
Our use of a rebuke is certainly something to think through. But the main point of today’s text is still the power and authority of Jesus. He shows his power and authority not through the force of his rebuke, but rather through the results that he gets. Jesus heals. He casts out evil. He does what we cannot do.
Today’s text is the first in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus shows his power over an evil spirit, but there would be many more occasions just like it. Jesus encountered evil spirits in many forms, and he always had the power to free those in their grip. I have found, and I’m sure you have too, that there are still many forms of evil spirits in our world today. These are the spirits of lies and deceptions which make up people’s addictions, paranoia, anxiety and compulsions. And they are the spirits of temptation which hinder us all, and which some people allow to grow and overshadow that which is good.
Though Jesus heals with a dramatic rebuke, we usually do better to heal with a slow and steady identification and standing up to the lies and temptations which we know to be contrary to God’s Word. We draw on the power of prayer, God’s Word , love and faith. Evil spirits will usually put up a good fight, but they can be overcome.
And then there is the evil which is manifested in disease, illness and the “natural” forces which assault and ail us. In today’s text, Jesus rebuked the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law and she was immediately healed. Though healing usually doesn’t come as quickly for us, it happens nonetheless. Most of us experience many healings throughout life. And whenever we experience a healing of injury or illness it is a sign of God’s grace and the care He has for people.
It may seem to us that God’s healing does not last, for each of us will someday experience the breakdown of our body and breathe our last breath. But death is simply a sign of God’s judgment, just as God’s healing is a sign of his grace.
God does indeed judge us guilty because of our sin, but He has also sent His Son to save us. Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins. By his sacrifice we are given the ultimate healing—the complete forgiveness of our sins and the promise of bodies resurrected to life everlasting. Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate rebuking of evil. Those of us who place our trust in Christ as our Savior can be certain that our sins are forgiven and we will live with God forever.
In considering the rebukes of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, we do well to remember that God has always used this method to call us back to Him. We think of verses such as this from the Old Testament: “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his rebuke, for the LORD rebukes him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11-12)
Sometimes we are the ones who communicate this rebuke of the Lord. The word for “rebuke” which we have looked at is used one more time in Luke’s Gospel. Luke 23:39 says: “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
The rebuking criminal recognized that which was just. He knew God’s rebuke of his sin. He did not despise the Lord’s discipline, but accepted it.
He did not presume to receive God’s blessing, but he did cry out to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus heard him, and extended the mercy of God the Father, which was indeed his to extend: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So it is for all who hear the rebuke of God upon their sins and cry out to Jesus as Savior. May God lead us to ever confess our sins and turn to our Savior, and may He guide us as we communicate His Law and Grace to others. In the name of Jesus, amen.