Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15 (Proper 21), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 25, 2011 (Proper 21, Series A)

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place on Holy Monday, the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday morning, and His cleansing of the Temple on Sunday afternoon. So, when the chief priests come up to Him and ask by what authority He is doing these things, they’ve got reason to ask. They’re not just asking an abstract, academic question here. They’re not just asking about Jesus’ preaching and ministry in general. They’re asking about something He did that affected them personally. They’re asking Him about the fact that He went through and destroyed the profitable little gig they had set up, using the Temple and the people’s faithfulness to their God as a way to make a bit of extra money over and above what was donated by the people out of their own free will.
And so, instead of answering them straightforwardly, Jesus answers them with a question of His own, regarding what John had been doing in the wilderness, baptizing those who came to him for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And this also isn’t an academic, abstract question. This cuts right to the heart of whether or not these men really believe, teach, and confess the truth about the God they claim to be serving. It’s also a question that gets right to their own pride and willingness (or lack thereof) to repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Repentance will not be easy for these men, because it would involve a very public apology to the whole ancient Jewish community who came to the temple from all over the known world to worship, about the most basic doctrine these men were supposed to be teaching. Is Jesus the Messiah, come to bring peace with God through His innocent death and glorious resurrection, or is peace with God something that must be earned and bought with good works which, you know, to really do things right and get really right with God you’ve got to change your money to the temple coins and get your sacrificial animals right here.
And that sort of repentance is just hard. If repentance were simply a matter of making a new year’s resolution to do better at resisting sin and obeying God’s principles for living, well, that’s not so bad. Once you reduce the perfect Law of God down to a few things that you can improve upon in your life, a few principles that you can work on, a few bad habits that you can teach yourself to give up, repentance looks easy. And if some preacher on TV tells you that a certain donation will improve your chances of getting God’s blessings, that’s not so bad either. When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs, you know? That little slogan from the pope’s fundraisers in Luther’s time is no different from what many so-called “evangelical” preachers are trying to sell you today. Money is relatively easy to give up, even in these tough economic times, compared to giving up pride and admitting you were simply wrong about everything, which is what true repentance requires.
And that’s the problem. True repentance means giving up any claim we have on God’s blessings on the basis of what we do. God doesn’t want right and proper animal sacrifices if they’re being abused as a substitute for true repentance. God was the one who instituted the sacrificial system, but even in the Old Testament several of the prophets are told to tell the people that God hates their sacrifices. God doesn’t want a great big show of being a good and holy person, if the reason is to hide from others, God, and even ourselves that we are really selfish, corrupt enemies of God deep down on the inside. Good works are a stench to Him, something that comes from a den of thieves rather than a house of prayer, if they’re done to promote our own righteousness at the expense of His gifts.
And that’s why Jesus tells the next parable. It’s not the one who, in front of God and everyone else, tells you about his own righteousness that is the true disciple of Christ. It’s not the one who proclaims to the world how much he’s doing for God that is really working in the Father’s vineyard. It’s the one who looks for all the world like a rebellious teenager but who is crushed by the Law, repents, and believes that salvation is his for Christ’s sake alone who is really doing the will of the Father. It’s not about image, it’s about what is really going on in your heart. And what is really going on in the heart of the sinner is a rebellious refusal to do the Father’s will.
But what is the Father’s will? Not outward good works, first and foremost (though those will follow), but repentance and faith. The highest and holiest good work we can do is simply to agree with God in what He says. As the Lutheran Confessions remind us, the highest worship of God is simply to believe in Him, to have faith in Him (which is just another way of saying that we agree with Him and what He says). Sounds easy, right? Well, what God says about you is that you’re a poor, miserable sinner who is completely helpless and hopeless to do anything to restore, let alone improve, your relationship with your God. Agreeing with that is not so easy. In fact, it’s downright impossible by our own reason and strength. And what God says about Himself is that He is the only one who can restore you to a right relationship with Himself. Believing that is no more possible than believing you’re a sinner, because the two go together. The good news that only God can save us, and that He has done so in Jesus Christ, is only good news once we realize just how helpless and lost we are without Him. Otherwise it’s simply offensive to our human pride that thinks we can do it on our own, with some advice and counsel, and a few generous donations, to the chief priests or the traveling fundraiser for the new basilica at Rome in Luther’s day, or the TV preachers today. It’s only when we realize how lost we are that repentance and faith are something that can be worked in us. The son who made a big show of going and working, but never actually got there, is what we are by nature. The one who knew he was a miserable wretch and had his thinking turned around by the Holy Spirit through Law and Gospel and ended up working in the vineyard after all, is what we can (and do!) become by God’s free gift through the Word, the water, and Christ’s body and blood. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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