September 27, 2020 Sermon—The Unchanging Message of Jesus Christ
Scriptures: Ezekiel 18:1- 4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-4,12-15; Matthew 21:23-32
We’re hear a lot of slippery messaging these days: Almost daily, the CDC reverses it positions about the virus. Politicians who used to champion the right to abortion are now grabbing the Evangelical vote by waving banners for the so-called “right to life.” Military and political figures who killed thousands of United States soldiers and civilians are now being styled as “patriots” whose statues we should honor.
I don’t know about you, but I want to hear a message I can trust—spoken by someone whose word counts for something, someone who can stand the test of time.
Jesus began public life being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. You remember that—the Holy Spirit appearing like a dove, the heavens torn open, and the voice of the Father declaring Jesus “my Son, whom I love” (Mk 1:10). Then after defeating the devil’s wilderness temptations, Jesus started proclaiming his message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).
From the mouth of the Son of God—from the beginning, now, and forever–that message never changes.
In today’s Scripture, we read of a confrontation between Jesus and some Jewish religious leaders who challenged him. Jesus had just finished clearing the Temple by driving out people who were using it as a shopping mall. That upset the status quo, so the chief priests and elders came to him and demanded, “By what authority are you doing these things?”
Now Jesus—God in the flesh—could have simply ignored them. But it suited his purpose and his proclamation to issue a counter-challenge. They might have expected that. It was the style of Jewish debates in those days: answering a question with question. But Jesus’ question to his challengers was what we might call a “Catch-22.” He asked them an either-or question that they couldn’t possibly answer without hurting themselves.
Answer this, Jesus said, and I’ll tell you about my authority: Where did John get his authority to baptize—from God or from men? The chief priests and elders were stumped. Either way they answered, they would show themselves to be hypocrites or cowards. So they said, “We don’t know.” Check and mate. Jesus replied, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Mt 21:27).
And then, in his typical style, Jesus told them a story. But the story wasn’t to calm the situation or make anyone feel better. It was to shine a light and hold a mirror, to show the hearers who they truly are. Jesus said, “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’ The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on, he thought better of it and went. The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went. Now, which of the two sons did what the father asked?” (Mt. 21:28-31).
The religious leaders answered right away: “The first.” The first son was the one who did what the father wanted, even though he had to do a 180o to get there. That’s right, Jesus said. And then Jesus turned the light into a laser: “And I’m telling you that thieves and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. When they heard John’s message, they repented and turned their lives around. But you who parade all the trappings of religion continue to go your own way and live to please only yourselves (Mt. 21:31b-32).
I wonder whether those chief priests and elders—those religious professionals—had ever really listened when the prophecy of Ezekiel was read: “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. . . . Repent and live! (Eze 18:30b-32).
Now, where have we heard that message before? Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion; he told us that. He came to fulfill the faith the chief priests and elders claimed to have.
Can a disciple of Jesus Christ ever wander so far from the Way as to endanger his very salvation? Yes. That’s what Jesus wanted those faithful Temple-goers to understand. That’s what he wants you and me to understand.
It must bring incomprehensible sadness to the heart of God that when we hear him say “repent,” we almost always receive that word as condemnation. But God’s call for repentance isn’t a warrant for our arrest. It’s an application for pardon, already signed by the Presiding Judge in the highest court of all. God invites us to repent because he is ready to forgive and restore.
Because we mistake God’s intentions, we misunderstand what it means to repent. God is not calling for groveling, for hiding our face before him. He is calling for honesty. In a modern-day image, we might describe repentance as fingerprint or face-recognition. When we repent, we humbly present ourselves before God to admit who we are and who we aren’t.
We have sinned. We have fallen short. We have missed the mark. We are not, by our very nature or inclination, the persons God designed us to be. To live in right relationship with God, we must continue to admit that, and accept his pardon and power to turn around and walk in the way he wants us to go. That requires faith—faith that God is as good as his word—that he will hear our prayer, pardon our offenses, and supply what is lacking in us so that we might live to please him.
And here’s the truly wonderful, often forgotten truth: Not only does God issue the invitation to accept his pardon. He gives the faith to apply for it in the first place. In Scripture, God tells us that Jesus is “the founder and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2a). “Faith is a gift from God” (Ep 2:8b).
Jesus wasn’t condemning the chief priests and elders because they sinned. Everyone sins. He was calling them out because, in their arrogance, they refused the gift of faith. And because they refused the gift of faith, they refused to admit their sins and apply for God’s pardon. They pridefully depended on their religion, instead of on the Lord of Law and Grace.
Their own religion. But before we go away thinking that this is just a history lesson about someone else’s religion, about something that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with today, I leave you with two truths:
For one thing, as most of us are second- and third-generation church-goers: The chief priests to whom Jesus was speaking came into that office through their blood lines. A man was a priest because he was of the tribe of Levi; his father, his grandfather, and on and on, as far back as far as time could tell—that man inherited the priesthood. But make no mistake, no one inherits faith in Jesus Christ; no one inherits a reconciled relationship with God. Active, personal faith is required. Your parents and grandparents could not repent and believe for you. And you can’t do that for your children and grandchildren. That’s why our humble witness to them and prayers for them are absolutely vital.
And, in the second place, just as we cannot inherit our relationship with God, we also cannot say “we’re sorry” one time and then go our way wiping our hands as if to say, Thank God, that’s taken care of. I won’t have to do that again. Repentance is not a one-time thing. Repentance is a way of living.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains: “ . . . the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again.” Contrition and repentance are the inhale and exhale of new life in Christ—breathing in the faith from God to own up to who we truly are and breathing out a confession of our sins and ourselves. We must meet God every day, looking to him who gave us breath and who gives us new life as we repent and believe.
One final, and I hope, pertinent story about my granddaughter, now all of two years old: The last time I was at their house—my son and daughter-in-law’s—I witnessed a little ritual that was new to me but obviously often repeated in that household. It was a simple thing, but it gives me a picture for remembering God’s invitation and acceptance.
My daughter-in-law had just supervised my granddaughter’s washing her hands. That’s a big deal to her; she was all about hand washing even before the virus. So she and her mother lathered up and rinsed and dried, and came out of the wash room. As soon as they cleared the door, her mother said, “Inspection” and winked at Daddy, who was sitting across the room at the table. At that, the little two-year-old marched straight over to her father, holding her hands out in front of her. She looked up into his face as he took hold of her hands and inspected them, turning them over to see the backs and the palms, looking at her fingernails. Then his judgment came in a solemn but joyful voice, “Clean!” He bent down and gave her a hug, and she smiled from ear to ear.
Not repentance, of course, but a kind of offering oneself for judgment by the father and receiving his approval with joy.
Jesus’ message never changes: Repent and believe. And if that’s the ticket, I’m okay with entering beside the thieves and the prostitutes. There, by the grace of God, go I. Come along with me. Amen.
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.