Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was in high school I played on the football team. I didn’t have the most successful career, but there were a few highlights. I joined the team in grade 10, but didn’t get to play much until grade 12. That year I got to be a starter on defence. This was huge, the two previous years of hard work in practice was finally paying off. Our first game of the year rolled around and I was out there, on the field, playing defence. I remember that game well. As the game went on the score remained close. We were winning, but not by much. Then the biggest play of my football career happened. I was out there playing defence and the quarterback tried to throw the ball to the player I was defending. I saw it coming, though. I stepped in front of that pass and intercepted it. I ran a few yards with the ball, but then got tackled. That didn’t matter though, my team had the ball now and we were in scoring range. A few plays later our kicker came out and kicked a field goal. In the end we won the game by three points. I had made my contribution and I was proud of it.
All of us players always ended up having a party after the games. Other kids from school would come and congratulate us if we won. Lots of people came and congratulated me that day and I loved it. I had my moment in the spotlight, I made the big play, and we won the game. For a few days I didn’t hesitate to remind everyone what had happened in the game.
It seems like the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in our Gospel reading today came back feeling kind of the same way. They came rushing back to Jesus and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” They had been sent out by Jesus into the towns and villages that lay along His route to Jerusalem. They went to these places and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus who had come into the world to bring peace to people struggling and afflicted with sin. They had heard and believed this good news and now they went out to spread the news far and wide. Jesus gave them power, power to heal and to cast out demons apparently, and the results of that power were impressive. They were successful, they did it, and the results showed.
They come back to Jesus brimming with confidence, proud of everything that they had accomplished in Jesus name. They are excited, thrilled by how things have gone. They just can’t wait to tell Jesus all about it. But Jesus is going to burst their bubble a little bit.
When they get back to Jesus, He has some interesting things to say to them. His first words seem to be even more encouraging for them. Jesus says, “I saw Satan falling from like lightening from heaven.” Jesus has seen their success too, Satan fell like lightening from heaven as they went out and preached the good news. They proclaimed the forgiveness of sins and the reign of God in Jesus name and nothing sends the devil packing quite like that. They must have been even more proud that this point, look what they had done! It was even more than they had imagined! But then Jesus’ tone starts to change, “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy and nothing shall hurt you.” He hasn’t burst their bubble yet, but He is getting there. Here he reminds them where their power to do these things comes from. They know this already, but they need a reminder. Their authority comes from Jesus, it is not their own. And then Jesus says this, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Pop! There goes the bubble. All this stuff you are so excited about, don’t rejoice over that. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven instead.
These disciples are riding high, they are full of zeal for Jesus, full of energy for the work of the Lord, pumped up with joy at seeing what Jesus is doing in the world around them, and Jesus turns around and bursts their bubble just like that. Don’t rejoice over these things, Jesus says, rejoice about what God has done for you instead. That’s what really matters.
Success and accomplishments are addictive things. Success isn’t bad and accomplishments aren’t bad, but our sinful nature becomes so obsessed with chasing these things that we lose sight of what really matters, we lose sight of Jesus, the cross, and His salvation for us that came through suffering. The concept of success and failure is so pervasive in our culture that it has invaded the church and the lives of Christians. In everything we do we want to be successful. As a church we want to be a “vibrant, growing, welcoming community of people,” or, in other words, a successful church. After a successful event at the church everyone is riding high like the disciples when they came back to Jesus, look what we did, look what we accomplished! We value these things and we assume that Jesus will value them too. But Jesus says the same thing that He said to those disciples, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Our bubble needs to be popped sometimes too.
The flip side of the success coin applies here too. Sometimes in our desire for success we come up noticeably short. Our church might be shrinking or our event didn’t go very well, not many people came, or something like that. And, focusing on our lack of success we get down about it and are discouraged. Again our focus is in the wrong spot, being a Christian and a church is not about what we do or don’t do, it is about what Jesus has done. “Do not be discouraged over these things,” Jesus would say, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Our sinful human nature always tries to turn the focus back onto ourselves, onto our success and our accomplishments. Those 72 disciples knew that everything that they had accomplished on their journeys was the result of the power and authority of Jesus, they knew that, but the idea of success has still gone to their heads. We know the same thing, we know that everything good that happens in our church is the result of what Jesus is doing, not what we are doing, but we still like to take some credit for it. We want to be proud of it. We want to boast about it for a while. This is our sinful nature turning attention away from Jesus and putting it on ourselves. It’s not about what we can do, have done, or will do, it is all about Jesus and we need that reminder every moment of every day as we live our lives as Christians in this world. It’s all about Jesus.
It is because of Jesus that our names are written in the book of heaven. This is a real reason for rejoicing. Whatever successes we have in this life as individuals, as a church, as Christians, or any other kind of success, it is all fleeting. It does not last. Success is replaced with failure, highs with lows, and we are back where we started. But Jesus gives us a reason to rejoice outside of the ups and the downs of our human lives and what we can accomplish. He has given us a salvation that defies our expectations of success and failure. He has opened up heaven to us through His death on a cross and His rising from the dead.
Imagine what those disciples must have been thinking as they watched Jesus die. Surely this seemed like the ultimate failure. They had thrown everything that they had, their whole lives into following this Messiah but here He was dying. The worst possible failure. But that failure was actual the ultimate success. Victory was won once for all on the cross. Sin was paid for, the Devil was defeated, the gates of heaven were swung open. Just like the thief who was crucified there beside Jesus to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus has a place in paradise for you too, your name is written in heaven. It was written there when you were baptised into Jesus’s death and resurrection and it is still there. Your name is recorded in heaven. That is a real reason for rejoicing. Even in the face of death that is a reason to rejoice.
The thing is that as Christians and as a church we are not called by Jesus to be successful. We are called to be the people of God in this fallen world. In a text like the one we have today it is impossible to get away from the fact that we have been sent out into this world too. You haven’t been called to be pastors like I have and you aren’t the same in every way as those 72 disciples that Jesus sent out (no one has given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions- don’t try it), but you have been sent out into this world as the people of God. You hear His Word here and then go out into the world carrying that with you wherever you go. Through living in your life- at home and at work- as a Christian you proclaim to the world that that Kingdom of God has come near in Christ Jesus our Lord. But in this calling that we share as a church, as we are sent out by Jesus into the world, we are not called to be successful. The church will not always be successful, at least not by the world’s standards. The church lives under the cross of Jesus Christ.
Life under the cross means a life where suffering and failure and defeat are inevitable; they will happen. There will be pain, anxiety, sadness, and all the others things that we are all too familiar with in this life. But life under the cross also means that we look up at that cross at our Lord and Saviour who hangs there dying and have a reason to rejoice. Our names are written in heaven because of that cross.
We don’t need success, as desirable as it might be; we need Jesus. Our names our written in heaven because Jesus’ blood was shed for us. Whether we succeed or fail according to worldly definitions we will always have this assurance: our names are written in heaven. So now, as the people of God, we have the privilege of rejoicing in what our God has done for us. We take that rejoicing out into the world around us and as we do, God’s Kingdom spreads, by the power of Jesus Words. So let us rejoice each and every day. Amen.