Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets which come to you
in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know
them by their fruits."
If we are a typical congregation, I submit that there are a number of
you who are afraid of snakes. If a large snake came slithering down our
center aisle, I am sure you would probably move very close to the wall.
I recently read about the reason for our phobia about snakes. It seems
that many of us have an unreasonable fear of snakes because of the story
of the fall of man in the Book of Genesis. Remember that the villain in
the story was a snake. Something happened to many of us as children after
we heard that story and we developed an inordinate fear of snakes because
of it. Now I know there are others that fear snakes because they know that
some of them are poisonous, but it seems that many, many people are afraid
of snakes because of that story in the Book of Genesis.
Perhaps if we were to understand why the snake is the villain in the
story, maybe that might change our attitude a little bit. The people of
Israel entered the land of Canaan, inhabited by people called, properly
enough, Canaanites. The Canaanites were people who worshiped all kinds
of false gods. For example, they worshiped what are called astrodeities:
the sun, moon and stars. They had names for them and worshipped them. When
we hear the story of creation, the author of the Book of Genesis says,
"He created the lesser light to rule the night and the greater light to
rule the day and created the sun, moon and stars. With one sweep of his
pen he just wrote off all of those astrodeities.
Now, one of the most abominable forms of worship that the Canaanites
indulged in had all kinds of unsavory elements in its celebration. It involved
the worship of a fertility god. Guess what symbolized that god: the form
of a snake! When the author of Genesis came to write the story of the fall
of man, he took the principal god, or at least the basest god, of the Canaanites
and make him the villain. Again, with one sweep of his pen, he has put
down the Canaanite religion. Now, some say, because the Genesis story,
a lot of people developed a fear of snakes.
I think another unreasonable fear might also have developed because
of the Scriptures: the fear of wolves. Because of the gospel reading this
morning, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing,
but inwardly they are ravening wolves", the wolf gets a very bad press.
It might be interesting for you to know that there is no documented case
of a wolf attacking a human being. But wolves were looked upon as evil
predators. Because of that, they were hunted nearly into extinction in
the lower 48 states. We have developed greater sophistication in later
years and we understand now that wolves have a very essential place in
the ecosystem. Now they are a protected animal. In fact, in northern Minnesota,
near Ely, there is a place where naturalists study the habits of wolves.
Perhaps because what Jesus said here about wolves, that they are "ravening"
wolves, they get very bad press. They become the villains of Jack London
stories. It's very unfortunate that sometimes the fiction develops in a
culture and people develop an inordinate fear of wolves.
If we don't have to fear the wolves, at least we have to listen to what
Jesus our Lord has to say about the wolves. I never knew a wolf yet that
dressed up like a sheep to attack a herd of sheep. That's all symbolic,
isn't it? And yet, what Jesus teaches is that there are some who would
mask themselves as angels of light and really they are angels of darkness.
They are evil. From the time of Matthew's gospel all the way to the present
time, there have been those who have clothed themselves in sheep's clothing
and have attempted to destroy the flock of Christ. In every age there has
been one or another kind of heresy, a deviation from the teaching of Jesus
Christ our Lord.
Time after time, the apostles had to deal with what was called Gnosticism
in which Christianity and the teachings of Jesus became the foundation
of an elitist religion. If you have the "inside" knowledge then you were
a lot better than those ordinary Christians and certainly a lot better
than those pagan types. But whether it be Gnosticism or Manichaeism or
Albigensianism or Quietism or Puritanism - no matter what it is, all through
the ages it has always been an aberration. The individuals that were involved
in them were like wolves in sheep's clothing. It looked so good. It sounded
so right. And it tended to deceive people time after time.
In our own time there are still heresies around. They still abound.
One of them is called New Age. New Age theology, if you want to call it
that, is simply a belief that we're all gods and if we only knew that,
we could just develop our potential. But we are not gods. We are made in
the image and likeness of God, but we need the redemptive work of Jesus
Christ our Lord by his passion and death and resurrection to restore this
impaired human nature of ours. We know that. Yet, so many people would
embrace this New Age thinking. Now there are some good things about it.
It involves a lot of beautiful meditation, but not all of the spirits conjured
are benign; not all of those spirits are of the Holy Spirit.
There's another heresy that abounds in our society: secularism. Secularism
is, simply, the separation of religion from life. You compartmentalize
the two. "Religion is fine for old folks and children, but for anyone who
has a brain, no thanks! We are more sophisticated than to believe in myths
of the Bible and that kind of thing. It really doesn't have anything to
do with real life". Individuals can again masquerade as sheep and they
are ravening wolves. There is a great danger in that kind of thinking.
The separation of religion from life, secularism, is a very subtle thing.
It would mean that we need Jesus and we love religion, but it doesn't have
anything to do with - or anything to say to - what is real. These individuals
would have us believe that there is nothing that religion can contribute
to our understanding of society, of economics, of politics, of any of these
things. Truly, the separation of religion from life.
What would Jesus say to an individual like that? Did Jesus come into
the world to build some kind of pie in the sky notions without realizing
that you and I had to live in the real world and did he not give to us
truths by which we could live in this real world? Secularism is a very
subtle form of heresy.
And yet the people that would espouse the heresies now as they have
in the last two thousand years are not people with horns and evil looks
in their eyes. These are people who are, to all appearances, very benign
and very good and righteous. Sometimes, some of the things that they say
are true and good. But so much of what they say, if followed to its logical
conclusion, would end us in destruction. So Jesus was warning us and He
says, "Sometimes they look great but they're ravenous wolves."
How can you tell what is of God and what is of man? After all, the heresies
are of man, not of God. How can you tell the difference? Jesus tells us
very simply, "By their fruits, you will know them. "What kind of fruits
would we look for if we were looking for something that is true and authentic
religion? Would we look for some kind of exclusive little club that gets
together on Sundays, pats one another on the back, and wishes everybody
"happy alleluia"? And then goes home and does whatever they can during
the week to stab their neighbor in the back? No. That wouldn't be right.
"By their fruits you will know them".
Jesus our Lord intended that you and I receive the Holy Spirit, the
Spirit of truth. He gave us that Spirit to dwell in us individually and
collectively in order that we can discern what is true and authentic, what
is false and ignoble. Jesus our Lord has given us the Holy Spirit in order
that you and I can see whether or not the community is up-building, whether
it is growing, whether it prospers, whether it really does care about one
another. That is of the Spirit. Anything else isn't. And even though one
can masquerade in all kinds of things, it is not of God. We have to discern
spirits all of the time. We have to see what is the fruit of an individual's
or a movement's philosophy.
It doesn't take the proverbial rocket scientist to understand, for example,
that there really was something strange about communism. In fact, the people
who had to live under it said, "We don't want this." And the first time
they had the opportunity, they got rid of it because it subjugated man
to the State. Not to God, but to the all-powerful State. It was wrong.
You and I must discern what is right and what is wrong. You and I must
discern what is the fruit of God's work and what is not. You and I can
listen to someone and we can say, "Yes! That's right. This is what I believe."
Sometimes we can hear something and we say, "You know, there is something
off here. There is something that is not quite right". We don't have to
be able to assemble a great treatise on why it is wrong. The Spirit Himself
teaches us, speaks to our spirit, to say, "This is not of God. This will
not build up the kingdom of God in the world. Therefore, it's not for you."
You can listen to that Spirit and follow it. That is what Jesus our Lord
We don't really have to be afraid of snakes. We don't have to be afraid
of wolves. In fact, we do not have to be afraid of false doctrine. All
we have to do is do what Jesus told us to do: take a look at it, prayerfully.
"By their fruits you will know them."
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.