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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 17:5-10
“Faith and Duty”
October 6, 2013 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

         Remember the “Karate Kid?” What did Daniel want to learn? How to fight back against the bullies making his life miserable. What was Mr. Miyagi’s first lesson for him? “Wax on. Wax off.” Miyagi sets his young student to performing all sorts of tasks that seem to have nothing to do with the skills of karate. Wax the car. Sand the floor. Paint the fence.

         After days of manual labor, Daniel confronts Mr. Miyagi. He’s had it. He hasn’t learned anything about karate. He’s only done all the grunt jobs Miyagi didn’t want to do himself. In a brilliant scene, Mr. Miyagi demonstrates to Daniel that all those repetitive motions with which he’s been waxing the car, sanding the floor, and painting the fence are actually defensive karate moves that he now has wired into his arms and hands. Miyagi throws blows at him and Daniel parries them all.

         Our text for this morning looks like a random collection of stuff Jesus said. You could include the previous four verses in that, the whole beginning of chapter 17. It almost seems as if Luke had a slow day of writing, something you writers in our congregation know about. So he just reached into the grab bag of Jesus quotes, sort of like, “Look, here’s some other cool things Jesus said.”

         These verses look random, but they are actually a kind of spiritual “Wax on. Wax off” conversation with His disciples. Jesus was teaching them, and is still teaching us, that being His followers doesn’t necessarily, doesn’t really very often mean being the hero in great spiritual battles. Much of the time, it’s the slow, obedient grind of “Wax on. Wax off.” Do what the master says even when you don’t get it, even when you don’t seem to be making any progress.

         We really need to back up to those first four verses of the chapter. I’m thankful they are not part of the lectionary reading today, because they are as difficult and painful as anything Jesus ever said. Verses 1 and 2 are a dire warning against causing a “little one” to “stumble,” against leading one of Jesus’ followers astray. But then verses 3 and 4 tell us how we are to treat anyone who does go astray, first with rebuke, but then with forgiveness.

         That last bit in verse 4 about forgiveness gives rise to our text, to the apostles’ request in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” Over in Matthew 18 Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive the person who sins against him. Is it seven times? On that occasion Jesus multiplied it totally beyond reckoning, “seventy times seven.” Here it’s just the number Peter offered, but the killer is that it’s “seven times a day.”

         It’s outrageous. A person repeats the same offense against you. She calls you a name, laughs at you behind your back, takes credit for your work, over and over. He puts you down in front of colleagues, flirts with your girlfriend, stabs you in the back, again and again. And Jesus says, “you must forgive.” Seven times a day, “you must forgive.”

         So it’s no wonder the disciples shout, “Increase our faith!” Lord, that’s hard to accept, that’s hard to believe, that I need to forgive someone who treats me like that, over and over. That, they think, is going to take a lot more faith than we’ve got. So show us how to have more faith, to become the spiritual heroes we need to be to do this thing.

         Read Jesus’ answer in verse 6. He just refuses to go there, to go where those twelve apostles want Jesus to take them. They’re like Daniel expecting Mr. Miyagi to start off demonstrating killer jabs or kicks, the key moves to take an opponent out. Let’s break some boards with our hands and feet. Let’s do something with some punch to it. But karate and spiritual life don’t start there, with the killer moves. And faith, especially, doesn’t begin with spectacular performance.

         “Increase our faith,” they say. But Jesus tells them faith can’t be quantified like that. Even the tiniest bit of faith is plenty. He tells them that with a more or less ridiculous image. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

         Consider that. Why would anyone want to pull up a tree and plant it in the ocean? It would just be a stunt, like breaking a board with a karate chop. It looks cool, but would you know anything about how to behave in a fight? Tossing trees in the ocean would be exciting and spectacular, but would you really be any better at trusting God?

         The faith Jesus wants to give us is not something we can learn directly, anymore than Mr. Miyagi’s karate was something he could just immediately show Daniel. No one can just show you the moves to have more faith.

         In Through the Looking Glass Alice meets the White Queen, who tells her that she is a hundred and one years old. Alice says, “I can’t believe that!” “‘Can’t you?’ the queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.’”

         Alice laughs, “There’s no use trying… one can’t believe impossible things.”

         “‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for a half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

         We laugh at the White Queen because we know that’s not how belief, not how faith works. You can’t make yourself better at believing something by closing your eyes and taking a deep breath. You don’t get more faith by practicing for a half hour before breakfast every day. You don’t learn karate by hitting boards over and over. And you don’t grow in Christian faith by staring at trees until they hop out of the ground.

         But Jesus isn’t telling His apostles to give up. He’s not crazy like the White Queen. He really does have something to teach them, more like Mr. Miyagi. There is something we can do to grow in faith. That’s what the rest of the text is about, verses 7 to 10. And it’s a lot like “Wax on. Wax off.” Jesus drops the subject of faith and starts talking about the proper attitude for slaves, for servants.

         That’s what Daniel complains to Mr. Miyagi, remember. He lists all the work he’s done for the man and shouts “I’m bein’ your [blank] slave here man, now c’mon we made a deal here!”

         Isn’t that sometimes how we feel about Jesus? “C’mon, we made a deal! I believe in you. I go to church. I give some of my money. I pray every day. I study the Bible… So where’s the payoff? Where’s the help I need when things are tough? Where’s the strength you promised when someone’s kicking me around?”

         We do all this stuff for Jesus and what’s He doing for us? How are we ever going to have faith enough to be the good, forgiving, spiritual people He promised to make us? When are we ever going to launch some trees toward the coast? Or see a vision? Or experience deep and abiding peace? Or see someone we love come to Jesus? Or have yourself or someone you love healed?

         Jesus’ reply to all that is the rather hard little parable of the slave who comes in from working all day in his master’s field. Does he get to immediately sit down and rest and eat in verses 7 and 8? No, he needs to keep serving, to prepare his master’s meal and serve him. And in verse 9 does that slave even deserve any thanks for all his hard work? No, he was simply doing what he was supposed to do.

         The way to faith, says Jesus in verse 10, is to see ourselves as His slaves, as unworthy slaves, simply doing what He commands, doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s a hard way to learn faith, a hard way to grow spiritually, harder than it was for Daniel to understand what Mr. Miyagi was doing when he gave him all those chores. The way to faith is through faithfulness.

         Most of the life of faith is nothing more than a long, slow, steady obedience to our Lord and Savior. Pray, study, worship, give, serve. That’s how faith increases. Over the long haul. With the “wax on” of reading the Bible regularly and the “wax off” of confessing our sins at the end of the day, and with a dozen other little, simple, boring acts of service and obedience to which Jesus calls us every morning of our lives.

         Nothing about that kind of spiritual life, that steady, faithful, regular performance of spiritual discipline is particularly praiseworthy. We might be impressed by it because it’s so rare these days. In this world where we’re all like Daniel, expecting instant results and victories, it is truly hard to swallow your pride, knuckle down, and just plug away at the same old Christian duties. We’re constantly tempted to go rushing off to hear the latest spiritual technique at a conference or order the hot new bestseller that promises to transform us into superstars of spirituality. But faith grows when we just do our duty, when we’re just practicing the Christian equivalent of “Wax on. Wax off.”

         Friday I heard Jack Levison, the Chi Rho lecture speaker who will be in Eugene in February, talk about his book on the Holy Spirit, Fresh Air. One of the things “fresh” about what he said is that the Holy Spirit works through the kind of simple, steady, even dull faithfulness that Jesus is telling us about here.

         Jack talks about Simeon. He was the old man who was there in the Temple that day when Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to be dedicated. Three times we’re told that the Holy Spirit had prepared Simeon for this day, had led him to the Temple at the right time. But then Jack noted that everything Simeon says in his song of praise over Jesus, in his blessing of the parents and the baby, can be connected back to the book of Isaiah.

         So Jack said here is a man who has simply studied God’s Word, studied this one book of the Bible all his life. Years, decades, he’s read Isaiah over and over, absorbed it, meditated on it, faithfully lived in that book. So when the time comes, when the Spirit is ready to speak to him, he can hear it. He’s ready, he’s prepared to meet the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world. All that mundane, dull, monotonous, and repetitive study suddenly bears fruit in that moment, and he gets to hold that miraculous child in his arms and look into the tiny eyes of the One who is God Himself. That’s how faith grew in Simeon. That’s how Jesus wants faith to grow in you and me.

         That’s what Paul was saying in our reading from the first chapter of II Timothy today. He reminds Timothy of how he’s been raised, of his mother’s and grandmother’s faith. And then in verses 6 and 7 he reminds him to rekindle that same gift in himself, “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Just stay faithful. Just keep doing what his grandmother and mother did. Just keep doing his duty as a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s how faith keeps burning, how faith in God stays bright and strong.

         It’s hard. The world teaches us to expect the spectacular. “The Karate Kid” wouldn’t have sold many tickets if Daniel had just plugged along and never gotten in a fight. We want to see results, win some spiritual battles. I find it hard some mornings to just calm my mind and do the same old thing, read psalms I’ve read over and over, pray things I’ve prayed for years, confess sins that keep coming back, and just do the sometimes monotonous work, the spiritual duty of Bible reading and prayer. But I need to remember, we all read to remember that those things are training in faith, and that when the time is right God will bless that faith, send His Spirit, welcome us to sit down at His Table.

         Jesus is harsh in today’s word. He’s like Mr. Miyagi being tough and inscrutable and not letting us see much of the hope and grace that waits for us when we practice those simple, regular tasks He gives us. Yet it’s there. What does He say at the end of verse 8 about the weary servant who still needs to cook and serve his master? “Later you may eat and drink.”

         Here before us today is one of those “Wax on. Wax off.” duties Jesus gave us. Come to this Table. Eat a little bread, drink a little from the cup. Over and over, month after month, we come. And what does it accomplish? What do we learn? Where’s the payoff? Just this: As we eat and drink the Body and the Blood of our Lord in this plain bread and juice, faith is growing, faith that we will one day eat at bigger Table, a Table where with Simeon and Timothy and Mary and Lois, we will sit down and look into the eyes of Jesus. Until then, unworthy as we are, may we be faithful servants, just doing our duty.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated October 6, 2013