Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-10
Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18
Matthew 21:23-32

Yea, and if I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all: and in the same manner do ye also joy, and rejoice with me.

I had a problem the other week that required calling the customer service line of a major retail company. The person on the phone was helpful, but her answers to my questions were not completely satisfying. She did not have the authority to give the refund I was expecting. She did a few things and then offered to turn me over to a supervisor. The supervisor was able to accomplish much more, and while I was not completely happy at the end of our conversation, the compromise was suitable and the matter has been settled.

We all know that when we are dealing with a problem like mine that we have the option to request someone who has more power and authority. While the person who answers the phone might not be able to give a refund, someone else can. I think most of us have probably experienced this with the cable company. The person who first answers the phone has to say “No, no, no” but they turn you over to someone else who makes all sorts of concessions. They have the authority.

Where do they get that authority? It usually has to do with experience and position. It also has to do with knowledge and wisdom. When I was in retail, my cashiers did not have the authority to do some things; they had to call me. I could make a decision based on the circumstances. The cashiers were often not privy to the information we had. There were some customers who always tried to take advantage of the cashiers. The managers, who spent so much more time in the store, often knew those customers. We knew when we should concede to a customer’s legitimate request and when to reject others. We could answer the customer questions with knowledge that the cashiers did not usually have because we had been trained to deal with those situations. And when we were faced with a problem that had not been expected, we had the authority to deal with it. We were given that authority by the company that trained, paid and trusted us to do what was best for both the company and the customer.

I had the authority, but that did not mean I was always right. We human beings often make mistakes. We have knowledge, but we don’t know everything. We have bad days when we are less willing to compromise. We concede too easily to a slick talking person who seems trustworthy. We base our decisions on personal experience, not always on the reality of the situation.

The chief priests and elders had authority. They were granted that authority by God to serve the people and care for their spiritual needs. They had the right credentials and were trained by those who came before them. The people trusted them and gave them the respect required in an ordered community. The people believed that they had the authority to do what they were called to do.

They did. God called them to His service. Unfortunately, they were human beings who made mistakes. They did not always have the right mind for the work they had to do. They were selfish, just as we are selfish. They liked their power. They liked the prestige. They liked the respect they were given. They wallowed in it.

They were threatened by Jesus. The people were looking to Him for answers to questions that only they had the authority to give. Jesus was teaching lessons that seemed to contradict their preaching. Jesus did not have their background or their education. He didn’t have the experience required to do God’s work in the Temple. He was not given the authority to do what He was doing by anyone they recognized. They confronted Him about this.

Jesus was a good Jew and He knew where they got their authority. Sadly, they didn’t even seem to know. The chief priests and elders have followed human traditions for so long that they forgot that their authority was from God, not men. This forgetfulness led to a misunderstanding of their authority. They made choices that did not benefit God or the people, but benefitted themselves. Jesus was doing things that put doubt on their authority and thus threatened their position with the people. They demanded to know who set Him against them.

Stories like this one today is always a little uncomfortable for us. We understand the importance of order, education, and traditions. We know how dangerous it can be for someone to assign their own authority. We’ve seen whole communities of believers follow leaders who are selfish and self-centered, who have created a religion that serves themselves. Many of those communities end badly, like the Branch Davidians and the cult around Jim Jones. The strong personalities who usurp authority destroy people’s lives.

The chief priests may have had selfish reasons for confronting Jesus, but shouldn’t we question those who seem to take power for themselves? Shouldn’t we doubt people who seem to take authority for themselves? Here’s the problem: Jesus proved over and over again that He did not usurp the authority. His work, His healing, His words all proved He was exactly who He claimed to be. They missed it. They doubted because they had lost touch with the One who gives the authority. They didn’t know the God of their forefathers. They didn’t know the God they were supposed to serve.

Jesus refused to answer, but instead asked a question. Instead of seeking God’s answer, they tested their answers against the responses they might get. Jesus wanted to know where John got his authority. They couldn’t answer because they knew if they said “From God” then they should have believed him, but if they said from man, the people would be upset. They said, “We do not know.” They were avoiding the answer that they knew could destroy their power.

Yet, imagine the grace they would have experienced if they had finally believed in Jesus?

When I was a retail manager, I had several different types of employees. I’m sure we could find these types of people in other areas of life, such as among students in a classroom and believers in a community of faith. There were those employees with whom it was a joy to work. They were anxious to get to work. They looked for work to do and they completed all their tasks with enthusiasm and enjoyment. The work was well done, as the employee had gone above and beyond the ‘call of duty.’ These types of people aren’t found in our parable today. We hear about the other two, though.

Jesus first talks about a son whose father sent him to the vineyard to work. The son answered, “I will surely go,” but he never got around to it. I had employees who were the same. They accepted assignments with enthusiasm, but they never finished the work. They were easily distracted by other things and though they might have started a task, they got caught up in other things, often using those other tasks as excuses for their inability to get the work done. For example, I had one employee whose job was to take care of the stationary department of the store. Now, this department (pens, notebooks, office supplies) was definitely hard to deal with because there were so many small items on the shelves. This employee was also often called to serve as a cashier during busy times. She was distracted by other work and might have had a good excuse, except that even when she was not on the cash register, she managed to waste time. She found a way to make her brief stints at the register become lengthy time away from her regular duties. She lingered around the check-out station, stopped to chat with other employees and excused herself to the break room. She had been called away and used that as her excuse for not completing her work even though she could have returned to it immediately and accomplished it in plenty of time.

I think the greatest number of employees were the other type. They were the grumblers and complainers. They were the ones who were vocal about those tasks they hated to do. They often found work on the floor quickly so that they would not be assigned to those tasks they hated to do. They never said “Yes” with or without enthusiasm. They said “No, I have other work to do.” Yet, I often found them doing the work later, having realized how important it was to get it done. It was those employees that had to do the work of the enthusiastic employee who never got around to it. I would rather have these employees because at least I knew the work would get done.

And according to the parable, this second group of employees was like the son who was obedient. He grumbled, but he did it. He immediately said “No” but ended up completing the work anyway. They didn’t make the promise but eventually changed their mind and changed their actions. This parable initially talks about those who believe in Jesus and the kingdom. The first son represents the ones who initially said “Yes” were like the chief priests and teachers of the law who were religious but who refused to do the work of the Father (to believe in Jesus). The second son represents those who initially said “No way, I like what I’m doing too much!” but who later realized their mistake and believed. The sinners were the ones who would receive the Kingdom because they were the ones who did the work of believing in Jesus.

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.

Paul writes, “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. Jesus willingly gave up the splendor of heaven for the muck of earth.

Jesus put aside the glory of heaven to become like us. He came from heaven, sent by God and given great power and authority. He was perfect in every way, generous, knowledgeable and loving. He was the Son of God! But Jesus never boasted about who He was, He lowered Himself to be like a servant and referred to Himself as the Son of Man. He willingly went to the cross and died for our sake. Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi to have the same mind as Christ with the words of an ancient Christian hymn (verses 5-11). The “Kenosis” hymn was a creed in which the early church confessed their faith that Jesus humbled Himself for our sake. “Kenosis” means “to empty”; Jesus emptied Himself of that which made Him equal with God to be a man like us.

We respond to Jesus’ humility with the realization that if Jesus, who was the Son of God, could be humble, we should also. We are certainly no better than Jesus or anyone else for that matter. In this way we can be just like our Lord Jesus Christ, humble before the Lord and each other.

The temple leaders didn’t know what it meant to be humble. They ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father without His suffering. Paul took on that same attitude, 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.

It is by God’s grace that we live in faith. Thanks to Christ Jesus our relationship with God has been restored and we have been called to trust in Him. In faith we can sing praise to God even in the midst of our troubles. We can turn to the Psalms to seek comfort and peace when the world around us seems to be falling apart. David sang, “Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul.” In the midst of our troubles we need not have the strength to bear up under the burdens. Instead, we are called to believe God’s Word, humble ourselves as Christ and seek our strength through the power of God’s Spirit. In such trust we can and will get through any storm no matter how difficult it may seem.

There are, among the common proverbs of our time, a number of ‘dueling maxims’ which are contrary proverbs. Take, for instance, “The bigger the better” and “Good things come in small packages.” Which present is better, the big one or the small one? “Actions speak louder than words” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Is one greater than another? Is it better to write letters to the editor about a problem or face your enemy? I love this pair: “You’re never too old to learn” and “You can't teach an old dog new tricks.” If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, how is he supposed to learn? We often live our lives according to this proverb: “It's better to be safe than sorry.” But we also know “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” So, should we live safe or should be go forward with courage? And finally we know that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but also “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, will we remember those we love if they stay away or if they are under our noses?

Perhaps proverbs change with the changing world, although I think we can all think of times when both sides of those dueling maxims were true. I’ve received big presents that were great as well as small boxes filled with jewelry. The pen is mighty, but there are times when action will do more to relieve the problems. Long held habits are hard to break, but you do learn something new every day. We have to be courageous and careful. Separation can build a relationship, but temptations fulfilled can destroy.

The proverb in today’s Old Testament passage may have seemed true to the people of Israel in the day of Ezekiel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?” It is an often quoted proverb based on Exodus 20:5 which says, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” So, the Israelites were complaining that their troubles were caused by the sins of their forefathers and they thought it was unfair. There are pastors even today who still teach this, calling the phenomenon “generational curses.” Poverty, health problems, addictions are blamed on the generational curse; the sins of the parents brings the wrath of God on the children.

“As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.” God puts a halt to the blame game. Each one receives justice for their own sin; each person pays the price for their own unwillingness to obey God’s Word. Though we can talk in terms of each sinful action and the consequences we suffer from our wrong living, the sin of greater concern is that which separates us from God. This is our natural inclination to be our own god, to take control of our own life and to seek justice and fairness according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.

The blessings and the consequences of Israel’s history and their relationship with God seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They were a people dependent on national identity and the relationship to the past. Yet, we also see in the lives of those forefathers that God is interested in a personal relationship with individuals. God cares about each of us and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals. There may be some truth to the proverbs of our day, and in the proverb in today’s passage, but when it comes to the things of God, human wisdom will never stand.

John the Baptist, and later Jesus, called the people to a more personal relationship with their God. They could not blame suffering on the past or receive blessing through heritage. The Kingdom of God was given to those who believe, who had a change of heart and made God be the center of their lives. God loves us and He wants us to reach out to Him, to seek Him, to follow Him. He wants us to raise our hands in worship and in prayer. He longs to receive us as His own.

Jesus turned the world upside down. He didn’t usurp the authority of the chief priests and elders but had the authority given to Him by God. He invited everyone who heard His words to live in the relationship that God intended for His people, even those chief priests and elders. Jesus called for a change of heart; they weren’t willing to change. We are called to believe; they refused to believe. They might have reason to question Jesus for the sake of the people they were charged to protect, but instead they tried to protect themselves.

They claimed to worship God, but they forgot the God who gave them the authority to serve Him. They missed Jesus because they relied on their own self-righteousness. They could not see the grace of God in His life that was centered in love and mercy. We are reminded by their failure to believe in Him and as Paul encourages: to take on the mind of Christ, humbling ourselves and living in joyful service and sacrifice for the sake of others.

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