Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lectionary 26A
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…

Modern signet rings are generally worn by alumni of a school, showing others that they were students. At some universities, the rings are part of an ancient tradition and help alumni connect with others. When they see a ring from their school, they know that they have found a brother or sister. The ritual behind the rings is often elaborate with an event that rivals graduation. Receiving the ring means you’ve almost made it, that you have almost finished one era of your life and are about to embark on a new adventure.

Ancient signet rings had a much more important purpose. The rings were engraved with a family crest or a coat of arms, an identifying picture engraved in reverse that was used to seal documents. A lord or king had a signet ring that established authority. Anyone carrying a message with the seal was accepted as the voice of his master. The seal made it official and the king’s subjects were expected to receive the messenger as if he or she were the king. He had authority to make decisions in the king’s name and the subjects were expected to abide by those decisions. The king gave the authority by marking his chosen with the seal.

As one with the king’s authority, the messenger was expected to make the decision in the king’s and the kingdom’s best interests. In those days there was no such thing as cell phones or the Internet. The messenger could not email the king and ask his opinion. It might take days or even months for a messenger to get from one place to another. It was important that the one chosen be responsible and faithful. Given the seal or even the signet ring did not give the messenger the power to do what he or she wanted, but the authority to do what the king commanded.

Paul writes, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” These words are from the Carmen Christi or Hymn of Christ. They speak of a mind like that of the king’s messenger: a mind of humility, obedience and self-denial. Christ is like God, is God’s Son, is God, but He lowered Himself to be a servant, to do God’s will for the sake of others. His life was given for the sake of the world, that all might be saved.

The intent of God is that all will come to Him. Does that mean all will come to Him? We can’t possibly know. The scriptures are clear that some will be outside the city walls where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. God does not want anyone to die. He does not want anyone to suffer the fate of the wicked. He is waiting with mercy and grace for all who turn to Him.

We think that we are different than those who lived in biblical times, but we have the same broken hearts and perishable flesh. The people to whom Ezekiel was speaking knew and understood the scriptures from a point of view that they were specially chosen and preferred by God. So, they saw suffering as a punishment for sinfulness. If someone was sick or poor, they were so because they’d done something wrong. Those who were righteous were given the blessings of God. We think with that same mind. When we face some sort of suffering we ask the question, “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” Then, when our suffering is extended to our children, we accept the proverb because we know that God promised it to be so in the Law. Deuteronomy 5:8-10 says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them; for I, Jehovah, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.” So, we see in the Ten Commandments that the sour grapes of our parents will set our own teeth on edge.

There may be something about this proverb, after all, the sins of the father might just cause suffering in the children. A smoker does not know the damage he does to the health of his children. An abuser can cause the abused to become an abuser. We often hear stories of the children of criminals that are left with little choice than to continue the pattern of crime because they have no parents to teach them the ways of righteousness.

However, Ezekiel tells the people, “When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth therein; in his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” God will judge a man or a woman according to their own deeds, not the deeds of their fathers; it is only the person who sins that shall die.

There are those who say that generational sin is unavoidable. The son will continue the sins of the fathers and therefore continue to suffer from it. Yet, we know that it is not true. A son can break away from the lifestyle that sends a father to prison. A daughter can live a life that that does not begin with motherhood too early. We can break away from the past and do what God intends for our lives. The final verse of today’s passage reminds us of God’s hope for all His people, “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord Jehovah: wherefore turn yourselves, and live.” We can turn and live.

Now, there are those among the people of God who thought it was unfair that the sinners might be saved. We find it hard to accept the lesson of last week, where the generous landowner paid the late workers the same amount as those who worked through the heat of the day. Yet, in salvific terms, the deathbed conversion is as welcome in heaven as the person who was baptized as a baby and who lived the Christian faith for their whole lives. According to the Gospel lesson for this week, the one converted on the deathbed might just be more welcome than the lifelong Christian.

I suppose that doesn’t sound fair, but listen to the words of Christ, “But what think ye? A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to-day in the vineyard. And he answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented himself, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Which of the two did the will of his father?” So, what’s the answer? Which of the two did the will of the Father? The one who came to obedience late, or the one that said the words but never really obeyed?

The chief priests and elders thought they had the authority to speak for God, yet they were acting on their own authority. They had interpreted God’s Law in a way that made it a burden for the people that was impossible to carry. Even they only carried the burden as far as it was convenient, but condemned the people for their unrighteousness. They took the authority given to them by God and made it their own. Instead of speaking in God’s voice for the sake of the people, they spoke their own voices for their own sakes. They made living for God a self-serving endeavor.

That’s what Jesus was telling them in today’s story. They wanted to know by what authority Jesus was speaking and doing. He turned the question back on them, asking by what authority John worked. They wouldn’t answer because they didn’t believe it was by God’s authority, but they knew that the people would rebel if they said so. Jesus then told them this parable, showing them that the one who truly believes God’s messenger is the one honoring the king. They didn’t believe John, and therefore were like the son that said “Yes” but did not do what was asked. The people believed John and turned to God.

The point Jesus was making is that many people appear to have faith in God and they say that they will do God’s will, and yet they do not turn to Him when He calls. The Pharisees thought they were doing all that the law required of them. They prayed the right way, gave the right amount, acted according to all the rules. However, they did not believe God’s word, the Word in flesh that had come to give them the kingdom of heaven. They said “Yes” to God the Father but rejected the authority of those who came to speak for Him, especially the Son.

However, the sinners and tax collectors initially said, “No” to God and lived their lives according to their own desires, but when Jesus came they heard His message and repented, turning to God. They were like the first son who initially refused God’s grace, but turned and did God’s will. They were also like the workers hired at the last moment, receiving the same grace as the workers called at the first hour.

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ…” That attitude is one of humble submission to God’s Will. As we look at the life of Jesus Christ, and more particularly His death, it is hard to imagine why anyone would die for the sake of sinners. If we truly consider our failures in light of justice as we know it, it was completely unfair for Jesus to die for my sins. Yet, Jesus did not simply die because I can’t control myself; He died because I am separated from my Creator. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because I am incapable of willfully obeying God’s Word. He died to reconcile God and His people. Whatever has happened in history is no concern; the father’s sin would not kill the child. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings.

The temple leaders ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He also knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father on their own. It required the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, the final marking of God’s seal, to overcome the chasm that divided us from God. Jesus did the will of the Father, obediently and humbly taking upon Himself the wrath of God so that we might hear His voice and turn. Paul took on that same attitude as Christ, knowing that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.

We are nearing the end of the season of Pentecost, the time that we look at what it means to be a Christian. An ongoing theme over the past few weeks seems to be trusting God. We trust God to do what is right. We trust God to be merciful. We trust God to be just. We trust God to save. We trust God to lead, instruct and teach us how to live. We trust that God will give us that mind of Christ, so that we can live as He has called us to live.

We trust that God is active in the world today, not a passive being that set the ball rolling at some point in history. He knows each of us. He loves us all. He wants us to be saved. He calls us, guides us, and helps us so that we might also be active in the world today. The first work is to believe, but in faith we continue to constantly work out our salvation. It is not by our own power or authority that we can do this, but it is God who works in us as we humble ourselves before Him. In trust we can pray as the psalmist, seeking His help to do all He has called us to do. God is active for our sake so that we’ll be active for the sake of others.

So let us have the mind of Christ, humble and obedient before God. Let us hear His messenger and turn to Him, learning and following His Word. Let us trust that God is fair, in His way, and that He will be faithful to His promises for our sake and for the sake of the world. For God does not want any to die. He has marked you with His seal and given you the authority to take His grace to the world, for this is pleasing to God.

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