Sunday, September 6, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 32:1-7
Romans 13:1-10
Matthew 18:1-20

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

We all make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time in my art, usually when I am trying something new. I once took up tatting, which is similar to crochet. It is often used to make doilies or lace collars. The stitches are very easy, but it takes some concentration to follow the complicated instructions for some of the projects. I kept making mistakes and in the end the projects looked nothing like the samples. I learned a lot about tatting from my mistakes and then tried not to make the same mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes gave me ideas for my own designs. We can learn from our mistakes.

Our children also learn from their mistakes. As a parent, I really want to stop them from making mistakes so that they won’t get hurt, but I know that they have to fail once in a while or they will never grow and learn. We walk a fine line between allowing them to make mistakes and keeping them from harm. A good parent will certainly not let a child go so far that their mistakes will cause lasting damage. We might allow a two-year-old to touch some things that could get broken, but we will not allow them to touch a hot stove. We give teenagers a chance to drive a car, but we take the car away if we become aware of irresponsible behavior. It is our task to ensure they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes while keeping them safe. There’s a fine line between the two.

Sin leads to death, not only in the spiritual realm, but also in the world in which we live. Smoking causes lung cancer. Foolish driving causes accidents. In today’s lessons we learn that it is our responsibility to call others to repentance, especially when they might harm themselves or others. We may think that their mistakes are none of our business, but we have been called to help others repent so that they will be safe. It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the sins of our neighbors. As a matter of fact, in our world today many are offended when we seem to interfere in their personal lives. Who are we to judge? Yet, sometimes God does call us to intercede in the lives of our neighbors for their sake, to shine a light so that they might see their error and repent. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary.

God does not want any to perish. Ezekiel was called to tell the people of Israel about their sin against God. The truly prophetic voice is not something that anyone would choose by their own will because the world does not want to hear it. In the first thirty-two chapters of the book, Ezekiel spoke about God’s judgment on Israel, Judah, and the nations. In chapter 33, God begins to speak words of consolation. It is the beginning of hope because the words of judgment brought repentance.

“Tell them, ‘“As I live,” says the Lord Yahweh, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die, house of Israel?”’ God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our sin, experience the cost of our mistakes, but God is ready with a word of consolation for us. We may be the one called to give that word to another. The call for repentance is the beginning of hope, a revelation of the mercy and grace of God. We might be afraid to speak those words, but God calls us to this ministry so that none will die. He calls us to share in the life-giving promise of His word.

What does it mean to repent? We don’t use the word repent when we talk about teaching our children how to get along with the world. We deal with misbehavior by demanding an apology when they have misbehaved. Unfortunately, our children don’t always understand what they have done wrong. “Tell your sister that you are sorry,” we insist, so the child says, “Sorry.” Minutes later we see them doing exactly the same thing. They said the word but were not transformed by the lesson because they didn’t know why they were apologizing.

There have been times when I’ve asked my children to apologize but later realized that they didn’t even know why. I was mad about something, but they didn’t understand. I learned to ask, “Why do you need to apologize?” because I knew that they were often sorry for something completely different than the lesson they needed to learn. Take this hypothetical situation: a child breaks something of value and hides the item to avoid punishment. The broken object is found and the parent asks how it got broken. Children will often answer, “I didn’t do it “or “I don’t know.” The truth eventually comes to light and the child admits fault. The greater offense was not the breaking of the object; stuff is stuff and can be replaced. The greater sin is the lie. When the child apologizes, he or she is usually sorry about breaking the item, but they don’t think about the lies. While they should learn to be more careful with other people’s things, it is important that they learn that the truth matters.

How will others know what they’ve done wrong if we do not tell them? In today’s text, Jesus teaches us the way to call our brothers and sisters to repentance. If our brother offends us in some way, or to be blunt, sins against us, it is not enough to demand an apology. We should sit down with our brother or sister and explain how they have hurt us. We do it privately to keep the infraction from the gossips. If he (or she) refuses to hear us, then we take another person who can testify with us about the behavior. Again, this is done privately to avoid embarrassment. If our brother still will not hear what we have to say, then we take it to the church, together we can help our brother see his error and help him to be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we are to treat them like a pagan or tax collector.

There are a few things to consider as we follow this process. When we go to our brother about our problem, what is his answer? We may need to consider our own role in the brokenness. I had a friend who constantly complained about his wife, and then ex-wife. His complaints were one very one sided; she was to blame for all their problems. As I listened to his complaints, I could see that he was at fault, too, but he refused to accept his own need for repentance. We are all sinners, we all have sinned against God and our sin affects our relationships. His ex-wife may have been more at fault than my friend, but he refused to see his own need for repentance.

So, as we deal with those who have hurt us, we need to ask whether we also need to repent. That’s why it is helpful to include a third party, a mutual friend to help guide our conversation if our private encounter does not bring reconciliation. An intermediary might provide some insight into both people involved. If one does not help the situation, then we can bring it out in public with the body of Christ to find a solution. If that doesn’t work, Jesus says to treat them as if they were not a brother or sister in Christ.

What does that mean? Does it mean we should sever the relationship? Does it mean that we should hate our brother who has refused to repent? Does “treat him as a pagan or a tax collector” mean that we should remove them from our lives (and our church rolls) forever?

Keep in mind that this text was written by a tax collector who believed and followed Jesus. Jesus didn’t reject him even though tax collectors were considered traitors to their fellow Jews. They worked with the enemy, and even if they did so honestly and according to the authority given to them, they were rejected. How did Jesus treat the pagans and tax collectors? He fought for them. He encouraged them. He invited them into His presence. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and called them to repent.

Jesus does not abandon us even though we continue to sin against Him. He comes to us with His Word, reminding us of His mercy and grace. He fights for us. Earlier in this text, Jesus talked about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. It is our task as Christians to constantly be working for reconciliation. Next week we will hear how often we have to forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again we meet those who have hurt us with grace, remembering that we were like the pagans and tax collectors. We needed God’s mercy. We needed Jesus’ compassion. And so, we fight for reconciliation, even when it seems impossible. Whatever we bind will be bound and whatever we loose will be loosed and whenever we agree with each other, God will be in the midst of it, working His grace.

Our biggest problem is that as adults we are stubborn. Just as the child that apologizes for one wrong, ignoring the bigger sin, we seek God’s grace for the obvious faults while ignoring the true sin in our lives. We’ll say “I’m sorry” for the things we do wrong but we do not accept that we have sinned against God.

Children know it is wrong to break something, but they have to mature to see the importance of truth. The deeper concept of lying and deceit is beyond their young understanding. This is why we have to teach them. It takes time. If we did not teach them, they would continue to think that it is wrong to break things but ok to lie. Even so, Jesus points to a child as an example of faith. It takes the faith of a child to live a life that is always working toward reconciliation. Remember your childhood friends. I constantly bickered with my best friend growing up, and yet we always found peace again. We may have lost a day of play, but we quickly returned to our old antics, the fight forgotten and the friendship restored.

The reason for this lesson from Jesus is that disciples were still focused on Jesus being a different kind of Messiah. They wanted to know who would be at His right hand when He came into His Kingdom. They wanted to understand the hierarchy, to know the pecking order. They wanted to know which one of them was most important. Jesus reminded them that the future of the Kingdom did not rest on their power or position.

I often wonder if Jesus got frustrated with them. They just didn’t get it. Jesus just told them that He would die, so it is understandable that they were wondering about the future. The natural human response would be to ask who would inherit His ministry. Who would be in charge? Who would lead the people when Jesus was gone? These are obvious questions for a group of men who believed there would be a future for their mission but who needed to understand what would come next. They weren’t much different than we are today; there is always a leader and followers. They wanted to know who would be the leader. They wanted to know who would have the authority.

Jesus turned their world upside down. Again. He told them that being the greatest had nothing to do with power or position. They needed to be like little children. Jesus refused to establish a hierarchy, and He told them that if they didn’t humble themselves, they would not even enter the Kingdom. They probably felt pretty confident that they were already in; after all, they were the chosen disciples. How could a little child possibly be greater than them?

Children didn’t have any clout in Jesus’ day. They were not doted upon as our children are today. They were meant to be seen and not heard. Actually, they were not meant to be seen, either. They were barely even people until they reached the age of maturity. They had no rights. They had no power. They certainly had no authority. It was beyond their expectation for Jesus to choose a little child as the example in this lesson.

“Unless you turn, and become as little children...” What is it about children that we should emulate? They are innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. They are not cynical. They are pure, naive and open. They have no preconceived ideas. They are creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. They are like sponges, taking in everything around them. They are trusting, accepting and vulnerable. They still believe in the unbelievable. They are willing to risk it all to try something new and they trust that all will be well. They are willing to forgive and forget; reconciliation and restoration is natural to them.

Jesus pulled that little child into His circle because he or she believed in Jesus. He said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” The child knew something that the disciples still had to learn: Jesus was the greatest and He always would be.

Despite their faults, Jesus did choose them to carry on His ministry. They didn’t fully understand it yet, but He was preparing them to continue the work of reconciliation He began, and that He would make possible through the cross. He would give them the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sin and bring others into God’s Kingdom. Oh, we need to reconcile with one another, to rebuild relationships, and to make peace between people. But most of all, we need to be reconciled to God, since our sin is against Him most of all.

This ragtag bunch of imperfect me were the ones who would lead God’s people into the future. We can easily list their faults, but God chose them to be His witnesses. We look at the people who are leaders today, both in the church and in the world, and we are reminded that God has given them their authority. Paul writes that we should willingly subject ourselves to the authorities whom God has appointed because they are there by God’s grace. There may be a time or a reason to stand against those who do not live according to God’s Word, but even then we need to trust God more than any earthly authority. If they reject God, He will reject them. If we die in the process, then God will be faithful to His promise to embrace us in His eternal Kingdom. The authorities are God’s servants, whether we like them or not. Paul writes, “Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the authority, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil.”

This is perhaps a hard word in these days, but we can trust that God is always working to make things right. It is not up to us to decide who is His chosen and who is not. Who would have ever thought a denier like Peter could be the rock on which Jesus built His Church? Who would have accepted Matthew the tax collector as an Apostle? Who would have listened to Paul after he saw to the death of Stephen? We can find something, some sinfulness, in every person to whom God gave authority from the beginning of time. Paul says, “Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if customs, then customs; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” There are many we refuse to honor, but we’ll never experience reconciliation if we continue to disrespect and hate others.

Love is the fulfillment of the law, and we owe love to every neighbor. Unfortunately, we live in a time when everyone who offends us is an enemy. We would rather sever the relationship than repent of our own faults. This life Jesus is calling us to live: the humble life of a child willing to trust God even when we think we have good reason to reject others. He is the judge and He will make all things right. He calls us to be people who work toward reconciliation, not people who fight for what we think is right.

The disciples would continue Jesus’ ministry, but they would never take His place. Jesus did not need a human right hand man, but a group of willing disciples to continue His work. There is no hierarchy in God’s Kingdom; Jesus is King and those who believe in Him are His children. Jesus warned the disciples to take care of those who are innocent, the “little ones” who trust in Him. He warned them, and us, not to lead the pure, naive, vulnerable, fearless sponges on the wrong path. “Do not cause them to sin.” By this He means, “Do not cause them to stop believing in me.” Sadly, I think we do this much too often.

This talk of repentance and faith is important because those who sin against us become a burden on our hearts and minds. Each sin against another believer can cause them to doubt Jesus. How many people refuse to become involved in a church because it is filled with a bunch of hypocrites? We know that we are sinners in need of a Savior, but our sinful attitudes and actions can push a “little one” away.

As hard as it is for us to deal with sin, our own and those of our brothers and sisters, we must bring it into the light for the sake of the sinner and the one who has been hurt. Too many lose faith because we don’t deal with sin. We speak the words of forgiveness, but it is much easier to forgive than to forget. We have to deal with it or it will become a burden. We can’t allow sin to cause us or another to turn from Jesus.

The life of the repentant sinner is blessed because those who trust in God will know His forgiveness. He does not want to lose anyone; He is willing to go out of His way to bring us home. The psalmist recognized the joy that comes from the forgiveness of God. That forgiveness comes to those who are humble before God, who trust God and His promises. The blessed ones are those who are like little children, living in faith. Blessed are those who live together in the kingdom of heaven without trying to be greater than one another. Blessed are those who are willing to deal with sin and reconcile with one another.

Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” We are called to care for one another by helping each other live according to the Word of God. Love does not allow our brothers and sisters to continue to sin. God loves us as we are, this is very true. However, God has called us to something better. Though we fail, He speaks His word into our lives over and over again until we hear and are transformed by it. And thus we are called to live in community with others, speaking God’s word into each others’ lives.

The problem is that we don’t always live in faith, hope and love. We get angry when people and circumstances get in our way. We react negatively; we lose control. It is then that we slip from being the people God has called us to be. Paul reminds us to live in faith, hope and especially love. No matter what the circumstances, by loving our neighbor we will face tomorrow’s brokenness with God’s grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.

However, upon hearing God’s Word, we realize there is no way we can live up to His expectations. Paul writes, “Love doesn’t harm a neighbor.” I don’t think I can live even a day without doing something wrong to someone. It might seem insignificant. I’ve gossiped. I’ve lied. I’ve cheated. I have done a million things that I should not have done. The more I hear God’s Law, the more I realize that I deserve nothing but death for my iniquity.

That’s why God does not give us a word of instruction and judgment without a word of hope. He does not want any to die. God’s Law condemns, but Christ saves. We fail miserably on a daily basis. Yet, when we hear God say “I do not want to see any perish” we realize there is hope. God is holy and it is hard for us to look at Him, knowing we are unworthy of His love. Yet He calls us to do so. He calls us (through our brothers and sisters in Christ) to turn around, to repent, to seek His mercy. As we hear the promise found in these words, we can seek His face. We can be like little children, innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. We don’t have to be cynical, but can be pure, naive and open. We need not follow preconceived ideas. We can be creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. We can be like sponges, taking in everything around us. We can trust and accept what we hear from God. We can even be vulnerable. Most of all, we can believe the unbelievable.

That’s what God wants from us. He wants us to be like little children, open to His love and grace. He wants us to be humble and He promises that He’ll always come looking for us when we wander away. He doesn’t want anyone to get lost; He wants to bring us home. He wants us to deal with our neighbors with love, speaking His word of both Law and Gospel so that they might live. There might be a line we have to draw, a place where we have to break fellowship for the sake of others. But we must never forget that God is not limited to our side of that line, He longs for all to experience His salvation. Let’s not wait until it is too late to speak His grace into the lives of those who have turned from God or we might just find ourselves responsible for those who have been lost. Now is the time. Are you ready to pay that debt of love?

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