Sunday, September 25, 2011

Who Will Hear and Obey?

Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32

     WHAT DO YOU THINK?  SUPPOSE you're the CEO of a multinational corporation, and you decide that methods and procedures at a certain branch office need to be radically transformed.  Whom do you think will be more responsive to the changes: the upper-level management types who pride themselves on their work ethic and devotion to the company, or the slackers in the cubicles who do whatever they can to avoid putting in a day's work?

    And suppose you don't communicate your wishes directly, but send a representative to announce and implement the changes.  Would that have any effect on how well the staff listens?  If the representative's credentials are all in order, should it matter?

    If this were just a tale of modern life, you might think that the leaders who acted all gung-ho about the company would be the first to get on board with the CEO's big plans.  And that if somebody in a suit just showed up one day and announced he was from the CEO and the whole product line was about to be revamped, people would be wise to question his authority.

    But of course, my analogy isn't just a tale of modern life.  We have read our passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and we know that when it comes to responsiveness to God's will, talk is cheap, and true faith and devotion are displayed in obedience.

    The chief priests and elders of the people should have known better than to treat Jesus the way they did.  They were the ones to whom God had committed the office of interceding for the people through the sacrifices and temple rituals, so they could be forgiven and blessed.  They had the responsibility of teaching the people the law of Moses, so they could keep the covenant the Lord had made with them back at Mount Sinai, and so live in prosperous, joyful communion with their God.

    But it often happens this way in companies, organizations, and families: The leadership at first identifies their interest with the organization.  They say, "what the organization wants, I want."  But gradually they get entrenched, they start feeling their own power, and they forget what it is they're there for.  Now it's "What I want, the organization should want.  And if it doesn't, I know best."  Never mind what the chief executive, the family patriarch, or whomever might say.

    This attitude isn't always defiant or deliberate.  When we get it into our heads that we know best, we're generally convinced we have the good of the group at heart, but it's really about the good of yours truly.  So when something comes along that truly is about the good of the group, we can't see it, we reject it, we refuse to obey it.

    God Almighty was doing something radically new and fresh in His Son Jesus Christ, only it isn't really new, it's what God has taught His people to expect one day, all along, as our passage from Isaiah testifies.  And it's the leadership elite, those who prided themselves on their devotion and faithfulness, who rebel against it and refuse to obey.  If they can question Jesus' credentials, they can ignore the obligations He lays on their lives.  So St. Matthew reports that a number of chief priests and teachers of the Law came to Jesus as He sat teaching in the Temple courts, and demanded, "By what authority are you doing these things?"

    What things?  Well, in the past day or so Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah by accepting the title of "Son of David" and refusing to shut up the children who are praising Him by that name.  He has overturned the tables of those who were buying and selling in the Temple and called the Temple "My house" as He was driving the merchants out.  He has ridden like a king into Jerusalem and allowed His disciples to render Him praised and worship with their palm branches, their garments laid down on the road, and their shouts of "Hosanna!"  It must have galled the Jewish leaders to see how Jesus took all of this in stride, as if it were His due. 

    And it wasn't just Jesus' behavior in the past day or two that irked them, it was His conduct the past three years.  How He taught the Scriptures as if He were their Author.  How He healed people and cast out demons and did all those miracles they couldn't deny.  Especially, how He went around talking as if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were His actual Father.  Who gave Jesus the authority to do all that?

    That really is the question, isn't it?  A lot of people show up even today claiming to be somebody, calling people to follow them, and on what basis should we?  If the chief priests and elders really are good stewards of the commonwealth of Israel, if they really do have the glory of God and the best interests of their fellow Jews at heart, it's right that they should investigate Jesus' credibility.  Is He really from God?

    But responsibility and good stewardship isn't really what motivates them, and Jesus knows it.  He turns the question back on them.  Answering a question with a question is a time-honored technique in debate.  It helps reveal the underlying assumptions of the person asking the original question.  So Jesus asks the Jewish leaders, "John's baptism-- where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?" 

    That gets us to the foundation of it, doesn't it?  John the Baptist said he was sent by God to announce the coming of the Christ who would bring in the kingdom of God.  People came to him at the Jordan River and were baptised by him to testify that they'd turned from their sins and were preparing to meet the King when He came.  So did John really baptise in the power and authority of the God of heaven?  Or was his activity just a sideshow dreamed up by John and his disciples for notoriety and profit?

    The leaders of the people already don't believe John baptised in the authority of God.  They didn't want to believe he baptised in the authority of God.  Believing that would mean believing that the Messiah was at hand.  It'd mean accepting that the Messiah God sent wasn't exactly the kind of Christ they'd envisioned or planned.  It'd mean falling down at Jesus' feet and admitting that they were totally wrong in their schemes for redeeming themselves by their own works.  Their stubborn hearts simply were not prepared to be changed like that.

    Jesus wants us to see the irony in this.  These men claimed to be submitted to the authority of heaven.  The common people thought they were the holiest people alive.  So their discussion among themselves shows how Jesus has boxed them into a corner.  If they truly are the godly ones, and they say John's baptism was from God, why didn't they believe John and repent?  But the fact is that they refuse say John came in the authority of God.  They'd much rather believe his whole ministry was a product of popular enthusiasm-- from men.  But they're not about to stand up like men and say so out loud, because it would outrage the common people.  These held that John the Baptist was a prophet, and wouldn't want his memory insulted.  So the leaders say to Jesus, "We don't know."

    Meaning, they refuse to say.  And Jesus gives them the answer they deserve: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."  John's divinely-granted credentials were right before their eyes all through his ministry, and they refused to believe and repent.  They do not now deserve that Jesus should declare His divine source of power and authority to them.

    Brothers and sisters, we like to think we'd do better than the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees who refused to accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.  We'd believe Him to be who He said He was.  And maybe we would.  But mere mental belief isn't enough.  As James the half-brother of Jesus says in his letter, true faith is demonstrated by action.

    Jesus tells a parable to show us this is true: A father has work that needs doing in the family vineyard.  He tells both his boys to get out there and get to work.  First kid says, "No, I'm not going!"  But then he changes his mind and goes and works. Second son says, "Oh, yes, Father, certainly, Father, anything you say, I'm here to do your will, nothing pleases me better!" But he continues to sit on his rear doing the 1st century equivalent of watching television or playing computer games.

    So who actually did the father's will?  The men who'd challenged Jesus are forced to say that it was the first kid who did what his father wanted.  You know, the openly rebellious one.  The slacker.  The goof-off.  The blatant sinner-- who repented, submitted to his father, and went and did what the father commanded.  No hypocritical lip-service, no extravagant claims of devotion followed up by self-seeking disregard of the father's wishes, just genuine repentance with suitable action to follow.

    Friends, don't underestimate what terrible sinners the tax collectors and the prostitutes were!  The tax collectors were traitors to their nation and the prostitutes were and are traitors to their own humanity.  But they were cut to the heart when John came preaching about the kingdom and the King who was coming, and they turned from their sins and were baptised.  God was radically transforming His people, the wonderful effects of it were right before the eyes of the priests and elders, and still they refused to repent and believe what John had to say.

    And now they were refusing to repent and believe what Jesus had to say.  Nothing He said or did, no prophecy He fulfilled could break through their insistence that they knew God's purposes better than God did Himself.

    And so, the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, and maybe instead of them.

    In the next two chapters Jesus will hammer home the guilt of the Jewish leadership, in shamefully failing to lead the people into the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.  Why is this necessary?  Why does Jesus have to be so harsh about it?

    Jesus must expose even the sin of those who claim to be the righteous and holy ones, so that every human being is shown to be guilty before God and in need of a savior.  As Paul says in Romans 3:19,

    Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

    Who will hear and obey?  Obviously, not those who consider themselves good enough in themselves.  But open sinners aren't capable of hearing and obeying, either.  Not of themselves, not when they're submerged in their sin.  They need the Holy Spirit operating in the power of the word preached, they need the washing of the baptism of Jesus Christ, better than the baptism of John, to apply His blood to their uncleanness and wash their sins away.

    And, brothers and sisters, so do we.  Do you think you have everything under control and don't need Jesus or His prophets to call you to repent?  Or, will you listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and daily humble yourself, repent of your sins, and follow Him?

    In Matthew chapter 21 we see Jesus in Jerusalem, headed for the cross.  That cross demonstrated once and for all how rebellious we are, how sinful, how apt to ignore the call of our heavenly Father, for it took the blood of the sinless Son of God to wash our sins away.  But the cross of Christ also makes it possible for us to hear, to repent, and to obey.  Not in our own strength, not in our own goodness, not in our pride, do we say, "Yes, Father, I will," and get up and work in His vineyard, but in His strength, goodness, and worthiness alone: to whom be all power and glory, in the unity of the Holy Trinity, now and forever.  Amen. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Earth's Wrongs and Heaven's Rights

Texts:  Isaiah 61:10 - 62:5; Matthew 19:1-12

          WHEN I WAS A KID, ONE thing my dad would always say was, "Two wrongs don't make a right."  He'd catch me doing something I shouldn't, and I'd plead, "Well, Big Sister did it, too!" but it never worked.  Two wrongs didn't make a right.

    Sadly, in our denomination, and indeed, in our whole culture, people do make the argument that two wrongs make a right.  We're all aware that homosexual rights groups are lobbying relentlessly for same-sex marriage throughout America. The arguments in favor of it have come from all angles.  People say that marriage is a good thing, and no human being should be deprived of it, no matter what their sexual habits are. On the other hand, it's also argued that "You can't really say that the marriage bond is sacred, since heterosexual couples get divorced and violate it all the time.  You heteros have already trashed it.  So it's not going to hurt anything if homosexuals get married, too."

    We can't say, "No, that's not true!"  Divorce rates are skyhigh in America, even among those who claim to be committed Christians.  These days, any and every cause seems to be a reason for husbands and wives to split up.

    So do we give in to the proddings of the homosexual rights groups and let two wrongs make a dubious right?

    No, we don't.  We can't.  For heaven has a say in this question as well as earth, as we see in our Gospel passage from St. Matthew, chapter 19.

    A group of Pharisees come to test Jesus.  They ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

    When the Pharisees ask Jesus if easy divorce was "lawful," they're thinking of a command of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and a current debate among various rabbis over allowable grounds for divorce.  One group said divorce was only allowable for sexual lewdness, the other that a man could divorce his wife for about anything, bad cooking or body odor or simply because the man saw someone else he liked better.  However He rules, the Pharisees figure Jesus will get Himself into trouble.  For one thing, easy divorce was popular with the people-- the male half, at least.  But Jesus doesn't waste time weighing in on this debate over allowable grounds.  No, He goes straight to the heart of the matter.  He upholds the basic integrity of marriage as recorded by the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  He says,

    "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,' and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Do you see what our Lord has done here?  In one fell swoop He  has managed to offend or wrong just about everybody, His original audience and us living today.  He offends the Pharisees by implying they don't know how to interpret Scripture.  He offends the homosexual rights advocates of our day by reminding them that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, instituted by God since the beginning of Creation.  He offends all of us who think marriage is for our personal fulfillment or convenience, by pointing out that in the marriage bond, especially in the relations of the marriage bed, husband and wife are no longer themselves, but together they are a new creature, one flesh.  He offends all of us, married or single, who regard marriage as something we can define and do with what we will, by asserting that God is the active agent in marriage, and when God has joined a man and woman together in matrimony, no human person, not even the spouses themselves, have a right to break that union apart.

    A pastor at my home church once preached around this by saying that if a marriage ends in divorce, that means that God didn't actually join that couple together and the marriage wasn't a real one according to Genesis and Jesus.  I spoke to him after the service and said, "Thank you very much, Pastor, you've just declared my sisters and brother and me to be illegitimate children."  I don't recall how he answered me; it was pretty lame, as I recall, and not worth remembering.

    We can't get this out of what Jesus is saying!  God joins couples together wherever and whenever a man and a woman get married, whether they're Christians, Jews, or pagans, whether they acknowledge Him as the Creator or not!  In this word, Jesus convicts us all of wrongdoing, and at the same time, He asserts heaven's right. 

    The Pharisees think they've got Jesus after this.  And if you've ever been through a messy divorce, you might be secretly cheering for the Pharisees at this point.  "Oh yeah, Jesus?" they retort, "then what about Moses' command that a man should give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

    That's Deuteronomy 24:1, and the Pharisees have twisted the text into a pretzel.  You'd think God wanted men to find excuses to divorce their wives!!  Bur Moses never commanded men to divorce their wives, he didn't even command them to give the women certificates to show they had been divorced.  Moses merely takes it for granted that as sinful human beings sinful, marriage-breaking things would happen between husbands and wives, and he passively allows the break-ups to proceed, since the evil of divorce was perhaps less than the evil of a cruel and miserable marriage.  As Jesus says, Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of people's hearts.

    But earthly wrongs never make heaven's right.  This custom of divorce is not the way God planned it, it's not the way God wants it, it's not the way God ordained it from the beginning.  In His will, it has always been one man, married to one woman, for life, till death did them part.  And so Jesus tells us, "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

    Jesus' standard is both beautiful and fearsome.   We gaze on that ideal and we think, "Oh, how beautiful!"  But then, we lower our eyes to the earth and see how messy and painful the reality gets to be. How can this word of Christ have any practical meaning for us?

    But this word of Christ is one that has to be preached and heard, because marriage is not just an arrangement we make for our own good.  It's not even merely a contract entered into for the good of society.  Marriage is a model of the relationship that God desires and commands between Himself and all of humankind. 

    All humanity-- not just Christians, not just Jews, all humanity--was created to be in an eternal, unbreakable, sublime love relationship with our Creator God.  As a bride marries her husband, we were all as one to be married to Him.  But as we know, humanity sinned, and was unfaithful.  So God called out Israel to be His spouse, to live in faithful relationship with Him alone, to seek no other lovers, whether they were the foreign powers of this earth or the false gods of the nations.  Over and over in the Old Testament the covenant between the Lord and Israel is described in terms of marriage; our passage from Isaiah is only one example of this.  The earthly nation of Israel foreshadowed the spiritual Israel, the Church, and we read in Ephesians 5 how earthly marriage is a reflection and model of the eternal relationship between Christ and His Bride.

     So a man who divorces his wife for any reason other than adultery is not modelling the behaviour of God who keeps on seeking humanity out, keeps on sacrificing Himself for us, regardless of how spitefully we behave.  Unlike God, he has broken the most important covenant he will ever enter into in this life.  And a woman who leaves the marriage and weds another for anything short of her husband's sexual unfaithfulness makes of herself a living picture of humanity's unfaithfulness and idolatry against God.

    This is the word of Jesus.  Whatever the cause, divorce is a sign of our failure and sin, to be repented of, not celebrated.  But here we all are, sinful, failing, and very uncomfortable human beings, thinking about all the divorces our loved ones have gone through, thinking maybe about the divorces some of you have gone through yourselves.  The disciples cry out: "If this is the situation between a man and an woman, it is better not to marry!" Maybe you're thinking the same.  Why bind yourself to a impossibility Why make promises you can't keep?

    You may have heard of the Rev. Dr. Jack Rogers.  He used to be known as a prominent evangelical in our denomination.  Several years ago I was at a pastors' training conference where Dr. Rogers was one of the presenters.  This passage in Matthew came up, along with the corresponding passage in Mark, which doesn't mention the exception for adultery.  Dr. Rogers said that the exception must have been added in by some later church scribe, and that made Jesus' standard for marriage so impossibly high, no one could achieve it.  And since heterosexuals can't avoid divorce, neither should we expect homosexuals to fulfill the requirements of Scripture and repent of their sexual sins.   The very fact that the standard was so strict, Dr. Rogers taught, gave us all leave to ignore it and do whatever we pleased. Dr. Rogers, I'm afraid, had joined the world in proclaiming two very big wrongs to equal one very non-existent right. 

    But for our Lord Jesus, the alternative to accepting the godly standard of marriage is not "anything goes," it's celibacy.  It's making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, as He puts it in verse 12. 

    But Lord, how can we accept either of these words?  Both perfect godly marriage and perfect godly celibacy are out of our ability.  After all, here many of you are, divorced and remarried. And if you're not, like me you may have loved ones who are. What's done cannot be undone!  And even if it could be, would it make things any purer or better?  No, most likely it'd just make things worse.   Two, three, or more wrongs never make a right!  But what can we do?  We can't pray God's favor on our sin!

    No, but we can receive His mercy and forgiveness.  In our Isaiah passage, Israel is likened to a bride who has been divorced.  But God her husband is taking her back.  He is rejoicing over her as His chief delight., for He has made her new.  Brothers and sisters, this is a picture of what Jesus Christ even now is doing for us.  In Christ, the right of heaven will prevail for you.  Whatever you have done in your marriage, regardless of whether you've been married once, twice, three, or more times, regardless of the sins you have committed in any area of your life, the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ washes you clean and His broken body nourishes you to eternal life.   In all the ambiguities and uncertainties of life, He can and will bless you with His grace.  You with all the Church are His beloved Bride, and He invites you to this Table to enjoy sweet communion with Him.  Will you come to Him and be stored?  Will you flee to Him to find your deep enduring love and only true joy?  He is your Lord, whose love and faithfulness endure forever, and in Him, every wrong is made right.  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget to Forgive

Texts:  Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35

    "NEVER FORGET!"  WE began to say this to each other in the aftermath of that terrible day ten years ago.  Never forget what happened in New York, Washington, and Shanksville.  Never forget the terror, grief, and bravery of the innocent passengers and crew who died on the four hijacked airplanes. Never forget the workers in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who were killed simply for showing up to put in a day's work.  Never forget the City and Port Authority policemen and the firemen who ran into the inferno and sacrificed their lives that others might live.  Never forget the wives, husbands, parents, children, whose loved ones will never come home and who will live with that pain to their dying day.  Never forget that it was the strength, freedom, and prosperity of America that turned the hijackers' evil against us,  never forget the evil that they did, and never such a thing happen again.

    Never forget!  That is our 9/11 cry. But in Matthew chapter 18, we read of a king who makes it his business to forget.

    Jesus has been teaching His disciples how to be reconciled when a brother-- that is, a fellow-member of the church-- has sinned against us.  This sets Peter to wondering.  Other rabbis put the forgiveness limit at three times, but probably Jesus would say to forgive more.  So, how many times should he forgive the brother or sister who sins against him?  Seven times?

    Jesus' answer is stunning.  He says, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."  He backs it up with a parable of a king settling the accounts with his servants.  Now one of his ministers owes the king a sum that amounts to millions, even billions of dollars in today's money.  How could he run it up like this?  He's invested the king's money badly. Or failed to turn over tax revenue he's collected.  At any rate, it's an extraordinary, astronomical sum and his master has been severely damaged financially.  How can the king forget that?  He orders that the man, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery to pay the debt.  If the man and all his family slaved away for a thousand years and a day, they could never come up with what he owed.  But there would be justice in this condemnation, after the harm this worthless, incompetent servant has done.

     In desperation, the servant falls on his face before his master.  Give him more time, he pleads!  He'll get something going that'll earn both himself and the king thousands of talents!  Just give him another chance! 

    This is ridiculous, and the king knows it..  If this minister were a successful investor, he wouldn't be so far in the hole.  Sell him into slavery and be done with it!  But the king does an amazing, unthinkable thing.  He takes pity on his servant, cancels the debt, and lets him go free.  He chooses to forget.

    Now with the class envy being promoted these days, some people would say that the king could afford to do this.  That he probably got rich off the back of this same servant.  But Jesus doesn't give us any room to think this way.  His parable begins, "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants."  Whenever we consider the a king in association with the kingdom of heaven, that king is Christ Himself, the Son of God. No one can claim he's made God rich, no one can charge God with obtaining His power and glory by taking advantage of any human creature, no one can pretend that anything he has on this earth is anything but a loan or a gift from Him.

    How could we every repay Him for the ordinary blessings God gives us?  But we get ourselves further in the hole by withholding what is God's by right: our thanksgiving, our worship of Him alone, our obedience to His laws, our love and care for our neighbor.  From the cradle we've failed to give Him what we owe.  Our offenses are an ocean of red ink on God's books, worse than the United States national debt.  Most sinful of all, we have no idea how massive and unpayable they are.  We imagine we could make it up to Him if we just tried a little harder; we say, "Don't worry, Jesus, I'll start being good tomorrow, then You'll see how perfect I can be." 

    Ridiculous!  We're in the same impossible situation as the servant in the parable.  We can never pay the penalty for our offense;, God the king has the right to bind us over into slavery to sin and death forever and ever.  But He didn't.  Out of His own free grace He chose not to remember our sins against us.  He refused to say, "Never forget!"; He cancelled the debt of sin that stood against us, and let us go free.

    It cost Him, oh, it cost Him.  Our forgiveness cost the life's blood of Jesus the Son of God, spilled in infinite agony on Calvary's cross.

    So now, in Christ, we are forgiven! God has forgotten our sins!  How could you or I or anyone ever forget such a blessing?  That'd be like a servant who'd been forgiven a debt running into the billions forgetting the loss his gracious master had willingly suffered for him!

    But that's the sad point of Jesus' parable. The forgiven servant does forget.  He forgets so thoroughly, that  directly he goes out and finds-- not encounters by accident, but seeks out, looks for, finds-- a fellow servant who owes him a measly hundred denarii.  That'd be about $650.  Immediately he begins choking him and demanding his money back right now.  He refuses to listen even when the other man begs for time to pay.  The other debtor's plea for time was reasonable.  But no, the forgiven debtor initiates legal proceedings and has his fellow servant thrown into debtors' prison.  He wants justice!  That other guy was withholding something that was rightfully his and he should pay up on demand?  "Never forget!" was the first servant's motto, and he'd remember that debt until his fellow-servant had paid the last penny.

    Justice?  Their fellow servants don't think so.  They tell their master the king, and he angrily has the first servant called in.  "You wicked servant!" he cries.  "I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?"    And in righteous anger the king turns him over to those who can put the screws on him-- literally-- until he should pay back all he owes.  Which, considering the magnitude of his debt, will be never. 

    Are we listening?   Jesus drives the lesson home: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."


    But it's worth asking, Who is my brother? The Scripture is clear: it is not Al Qaida hijackers and any other terrorist, Muslim and otherwise, who even now are seeking the destruction of America and Americans.  The brother-- or sister-- is always a fellow-member of Christ's church, born of the blood of Christ and adopted as God's child by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible knows nothing about a universal brotherhood of man.  But this makes the application harder, not easier.  It might be possible for us to extend forgiveness to some faceless Arab we've never seen and who hasn't harmed us personally.  It's a whale of a lot more difficult to forget the sins of the person sitting in the next pew.  I can name numerous wrongs that fellow church members have done to me, and I'm sure you could share the same stories in return.  We've been betrayed and deeply hurt.  How can we not remember?  How can we forgive?

    But that is what Jesus demands, that we forgive one another for the sake of the immeasurable forgiveness He has already extended to us.  We must forgive by a deliberate act of our hearts; that is, by an act of our wills, whether we feel like it or not.  And Jesus commands us to keep on forgiving, seventy-seven times, seventy times seven, until we've lost count and the offense is overwhelmed in love. 

    But how can we?  Again and again those old hurts bubble up and we feel the injustice that was committed against us.  Not one of us is able truly to forgive his brother from the heart.

    But we have a Brother who can forgive like that, Jesus Christ the righteous.  All forgiveness is ultimately from Him and through Him.   He has forgiven us from His heart, and in the daily work of forgiveness we draw on His grace, His strength, His mercy.  We choose to remember the truth we may not feel: that as heinous as any crime committed against us may be, the offenses we have committed against His majesty and love are infinitely greater.  And yet, we are forgiven!  Oh, that God would grant us the dark blessing of knowing the depth of our sins, for then we would see the depth of the grace that Jesus Christ has lavished on us!

    Forgiveness begins with our brothers and sisters in the faith, but it doesn't end there.  As Americans on this tenth anniversary of the 911 attack, it's good for us never to forget the sacrifice and the heroism of that day.  We must never forget to do what we must as citizens under God to defend our country and its liberties from attack.  But when you consider those who perpetrated this attack, and those who would if possible attack us again, remember that they, too, are men for whom Christ died.  The Muslim tragedy is that they cling to "Never forget, never forgive!" and their hatred lasts for centuries.  That is not our calling as Christians.   The blood of Jesus Christ covers their sins as well as ours, and it should grieve us that these desperate men should die without repenting and turning to the Lord of all forgiveness. 

    We are all debtors in the sight of God, but for us, the debt has been cancelled by the atoning death of Jesus our Savior.  Trusting in His grace, walking in His footsteps, let's commit ourselves daily to show everyone the same grace that we have received.  Never forget how much Jesus Christ has forgiven you.  In light of His mercy, let us show mercy to our brothers and sisters, and mercy to those we hope will be our brothers and sisters someday.  And never, ever, forget to forgive.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Greatness of Humility

Texts:    Exodus 32:7-14     Matthew 18:1-10

    IT'S GREAT TO BE GREAT.  ABOUT ten years ago BBC television in the UK and PBS here in America produced several programs, all testing the question, "How well could modern people cope if they had to go back in time and live as their ancestors did?"  Ordinary people were selected to live for months in an historically-authentic, isolated environment where the only modern things were the film cameras.  Barring emergencies, the participants had to survive with only the tools, clothes, diet, and social relations used by the people of the long-ago time.  

    Recently I found these programs posted on YouTube, and I started watching a series called Edwardian Manor House.  But before I'd even gotten through the first episode, I couldn't help but feel upset.  As a 21st century American I found it hard to stomach the idea of everyone being kept strictly in their place and the people at the bottom having to be humble whether they wanted to be or not.  On the BBC website they interviewed the participants after the filming was over, and as you can imagine, those who'd been the "servants" were glad to get back to the freedom of 21st century Britain.  But the family who got to act as the family of an Edwardian baronet?  Not surprisingly, most of them wished they could have stayed in 1905 forever.  After all, it's great to be great.

    In our reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the disciples come to Jesus "at that time" and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  At what time?  Well, at the end of chapter 17 the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter on the street in Capernaum and asked whether Jesus paid it.  Peter said Jesus did, but when he came into the house where Jesus was, our Lord spoke first and taught him that by rights, He and His disciples didn't have to pay.  After all, they were sons of the kingdom, sons of God the heavenly King, and in those days, kings never collected taxes from their own families.

    So here are the disciples, and Jesus has just included them as sons of the kingdom of heaven.  Well!  It was also the custom, even up to a century or two ago, for kings to give the best jobs in the kingdom to members of their families.  So the disciples are thinking, "Hey, we're sons of the kingdom: Jesus must have some really high positions waiting for us when He comes into His own.  But who's going to be His prime minister?  Who will be the greatest?"  If you were one of them, wouldn't you want to know?

    In response, Jesus gives them a visual parable.  He calls in a little child and has the boy stand where they all could see him.  And he says, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

    It's popular these days for us to impose our modern view of children on this episode and miss what Jesus is saying.  We're all guilty of it, including me.  We say, "Oh, Jesus is saying we have to be innocent like a little child."  But a 1st century Jew, especially a Jew who was also the Son of God, would never imply that children were born innocent.  All of us are born in trespasses and sins, all of us stand guilty before God.  And in case you don't believe me, watch a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.  Or we say, "Children don't care about position and advancement."  Oh really?  Just observe a toddler who's been supplanted by a new brother or sister, and you'll see just how heedless of position kids are.  (Not hardly!)  Or we think Jesus is referring to how teachable children are.  Well, I substitute teach, and some kids take in knowledge readily, but a lot of them rebel and don't want to hear about it.  And absolutely, Jesus doesn't expect any one of us to go around talking ourselves down and talking about being "A worthless worm."  What normal child ever did that?  No, Jesus was telling His disciples and us that in the kingdom of heaven; that is, in the sight of God in His church, we must take a position like that of an insignificant little child.

    Maybe if you come from an old-school family where children were seen and not heard, you might be able to conceive of the radical upheaval this statement of Jesus must have produced.  It was like telling the lady of the house to take the role of the scullery maid, or the master of the house to do the job of the slave who washed everyone's feet.  Children, especially little children, simply had no say or authority in 1st century Jewish society.  In a great household even the adult slaves bossed them around.  And Jesus says we must humble ourselves to that extent, if we want to be great in the kingdom of heaven.

    And not only do we have to be humble like little children to have any greatness in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says we have to change-- to deny ourselves-- and become like children even to enter God's kingdom in the first place.

    We can fight against it all we want, but it's true:  We cannot believe in Jesus for salvation until we admit that we have nothing to offer God in return for His mercy, there's nothing in us that could attract God's favor; that as we are in our sins, to God we are obligations and not assets.  As with children, we have to realize that everything we have from our heavenly Father is a gift that we did not and could not earn.  We are helpless in our sins, we can't even be properly humble! until Jesus Christ reaches down to us in love and adopts us and makes us great in Him.

    This need for childlike humility applies to all believers, to the disciples, to you, to me.  But what about those who actually are children?  Does Jesus just use the kid as an illustration then send him away?  Can we?  No!   In verse 5 He goes on to say, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."

    Did you get that?  Jesus Christ the Son of God identifies with the child, the low, the insignificant, the humble.  This was not just cheap talk from our divine Master.  In Philippians chapter 2 we see how He put His words to work.  There it says that He was

    . . . in very nature God, [but he]
               did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
    but made himself nothing,
          taking the very nature of a servant,
           being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
           he humbled himself
       and became obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

    "Even death on a cross."  When we receive a little child in His name we welcome our crucified and risen Lord, and when we welcome our crucified and risen Lord, His humility for us should remind us to welcome and look out not only for young children, but for all who are the humblest of the humble and the lowest of the low, the little ones of His kingdom.  Because it's not about us anymore.  It's about Jesus Christ and each other in Him.  If you and I will focus on seeing and honoring Him in one another, Jesus knows that will go a long way towards keeping us from hurting and harming one another.

    For our Lord knows what's in us.  He knows that even in His church it's hard for us to keep on finding our greatness in Christian humility.  It's difficult to keep on weighing our actions and words in light of the good or bad effect they might have on  the little ones of the body, whether they're children in years or those who are young in the faith.  Even in God's congregation there will be people and actions that put stumbling blocks in the way of the humble. 

    The phrase in verse 6 that the New International Version translates "cause . . . to sin" is the Greek word σκανδαλίση [skandaliseh]-- the word we get  "scandalize" from-- and it literally means to trip someone up by putting a stumbling block in their way.  To quote R. T. France, one of my teachers in theological college, "One can be ‘tripped up' as much by a disparaging attitude, a lack of concern and pastoral care, or a refusal to forgive, as by a ‘temptation to sin.'" The ultimate evil in "scandalizing" a fellow-member would be that it turned him or her away from Christ and His salvation, or at least to made his or her Christian journey a trial rather than a joy.

    But what can we say?  All of us do or say insensitive or unhelpful things to one another out of sheer carelessness, and here Jesus says that anyone who trips up the young and humble in the church may as well have a humongous millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.  How can we avoid such sin and its condemnation?

    We must return to what Jesus has already said: Whoever wants to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven must humble himself and become like a little child.  When we're looking out for others' welfare we'll have a lot less time to be asserting ourselves and putting stumbling blocks in each others' way!

    And it isn't like we can watch out for the spiritual welfare of children and new converts, but go ahead and hurt and harm those who are older or who have been believers longer.  Jesus shows us in verse 7 that He wants us to be careful for all the members of the church.  In this fallen world it's inevitable, Jesus says, that skandalon-- stumbling blocks-- should come, but woe to the one through whom they come!  The way of the world must not be the way of the Church of Jesus Christ.  No, we who are His disciples should be so anxious for our mutual growth in Christ that if our hand or foot causes us or anyone else to stumble-- same word skandalizei again-- we should cut it off.

     Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, but does that mean we can disregard what He says?  No.  He intends to convince us of how deeply we must humble and deny ourselves for His sake and for the sake of our salvation.  There's nothing more important on earth than to persevere in faith in Jesus Christ and at last through Him to attain to the resurrection of the dead.  So if there's anything in your life, any sin, any habit, any ungodly relationship that harms others and separates you from Him, end it, cut it off.  If there is any attitude in you or me, any way of thinking or being that says, "I'm the greatest, I'm going to do things my way, and God and everybody else had better just give me room," end it, cut it off.  Even if you had to go through eternity maimed, that would be better than to depart from the way of Christ and go into the fires of hell with your self-image and pride intact.

    So does humbling ourselves means exercising no power or authority at all?  The story of Moses disproves that idea.  In Numbers 12:3 it says, "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth."  We see Moses' humility in our reading from Exodus 32.  When the Israelites sinned by making and worshipping the golden calf, God offered to destroy them and make of Moses a great nation, a replacement chosen people.  But in his humility Moses sought the Lord's mercy for the Israelites.  He admitted their sin and appealed to the Lord's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses was the leader of the Israelites, but he claimed nothing for himself.  Rather, he sought the good of the people, even in the depth of their sin.

    Whether we have major responsibilities in the church or simply faithfully attend, Jesus calls you and me to carry out our duties for the good of one another and to the glory of God.  As Paul writes, again in Philippians 2, we should "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."  In the end, if all of us strive to outdo one another in humility, encouragement, tender-heartedness, and love, none of us should ever have cause to complain that we're being oppressed or that others in the church are lording it over us. 

    And if we ever should think that Jesus doesn't understand how difficult being humble can be, let us look again to the cross where He died to take the penalty for our sins.  When Jesus calls us to find our greatness in humility, He is calling us to find our greatness in Him, the One who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." It's great to be great, and in the kingdom of heaven, true greatness is found only in the humility of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom by all wisdom, honor, and glory.  Amen.