Monday, October 20, 2014

There is No Other God: A Letter to My 2014 Confirmands



October 19, 2014

Dear Confirmand,

            This letter is based on Isaiah 45 verse 5.  “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god.”

    I wanted to write this letter to you on the day you are being confirmed.  I wanted to spend a little while letting you know what you are doing today and how important it is.  When I was your age, I didn’t think confirmation was all that big a deal.  It was something we Lutherans did–like the Catholics and others, but I personally didn’t see much significance in it.  It was one more hoop I was supposed to jump through to be an adult member of the church.  And that is exactly what you will be after today, but the focus of confirmation isn’t just about this.  It’s much, much more.

    For today hearkens back to the day you were baptized.  You were much smaller than you are now.  You couldn’t make any decisions at all.  You didn’t ask to be baptized.  You didn’t ask to be a Christian.  You didn’t even know God or Jesus.  Yet, your parents wanted you to be a Christian.  They wanted you to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  They wanted you to follow Him throughout your life.  They promised to raise you to become a Christian.  It was their promise; not yours. 

    Today, that changes; however.  Today you are going to stand before this congregation and say, “Today, I affirm what my parents did years ago.  It’s no longer their promise which holds me to the church–it is my own promise.  I now want to follow and serve Jesus Christ.  He is my Lord and Savior.”  This is a very important stand you are taking–a very important stand.   You may not quite understand this now–in fact you might not have thought about what I am going to tell you at all.  It’s okay, though.  It’s only been recently that I have really come to start understanding just what it means to be in a relationship with Jesus.  It’s only recently that I really and truly understood what the Gospel meant.  It’s only recently that I have come to see just how different the Christian faith works in this world.

    You see, for the longest time, I wanted to be important.  I wanted to be valued.  I wanted what I said and what I did to count.  I wanted people to tell me what a good job I was doing.  I wanted people to like me.  And I wanted to make a name for myself.  As a pastor, you get this one of two ways: either by growing a church bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where people can’t help but see what you do or you toe the party line and suck up to the power structure so that they will bring you up through the ranks.  I’m not one to suck up to people in power and authority.  I never have done well with that, so the other alternative was to make a church grow–and grow big.  Do you know what this caused me?

    It ended up causing me a lot of grief.  For you see, when things were going good at church and people were joining the congregation, I was happy.  When everyone was getting along and our pews were full of people, I was all smiles.  Everything was wonderful.  But, you know, things do not always work out in the way we want them too.  Our church hasn’t grown as fast as I wanted it to.  There were some people who left the church for various reasons, and it hurt me.  It hurt me a lot.  I thought I had to make everyone stay because my value and my worth came from whether or not this church grew and grew and grew.  And when it didn’t grow and grow and grow, I became angry and tired and frustrated.  It was my own fault really.  I was simply doing what the world had taught me to do.  I was following a lot of false gods.

    You see, the world teaches us from the time we are born that our value; our worth; and our happiness comes from what we do.  You all know this very well by now; so well you probably think this is how everything works in life.  You know this very well as you go through school.  If you want a good grade, then you have to study and prepare and do your homework and school work.  You know that if you want to participate in athletics or cheerleading or any extra-curricular activity, then you have to keep your grades up.  You also know that in order to fit in with a particular group at school, then you have to dress a certain way or act a certain way.  If you don’t do those things, you will not be accepted.  You have also reached that age where designer labels matter.  It’s not enough to buy a pair of blue jeans; they have to have the right label so that no one will judge you or laugh at you.  You also know that your value in sports and in activities is directly linked to how well you can perform.  If you can hit a baseball well, you will be in the starting line up.  This is just how the world works.

    And it won’t change much as you grow.  More and more you will find things telling you that if you want value; if you want happiness; if you want some sort of worth, then you will need to do certain things.  If you want a good job, then you will have to get an education.  If you want to be happy, you will need to buy a certain type of car. If you want to experience peace, then you will have to give up money to travel to a certain vacation spot.  If you want your children to be happy, if you are blessed with children, then you will have to buy them a particular toy.  Over and over and over again, you will be told this.  Just about everything in the world operates this way.

    And if you believe this; if your mind and heart is captured by this, then you will find yourself just like I was: tired, worn out, angry and burned out.  You will find yourself wondering if you really have worth and value.  You will wonder if you will ever find true happiness and joy.  And whether you know it or not, it will be your fault because you will have spent a lifetime pursuing a lot of false gods instead of the One True God–the God who says in our first lesson this morning–there is no other God, except Him.

    Now, this might sound a little bit arrogant.  I mean, aren’t there a lot of people who worship in other religions?  Aren’t they sincere in their faith?  Don’t they try to be devout people who do good things?  Why in the world should we say that the God we worship is the only True God and that they are not worshiping our God?   Shouldn’t we be respectful instead of thinking that we are better than them? 

    Here is the thing, if you are worshiping the One True God, then you will be respectful and humble.  You will care for people who you disagree with.  You will give people freedom to go their own way, and you will still love them even if you know that way is headed down the wrong path.  If you worship the One True God, then you will recognize that other people can be good and moral and nice–sometimes even being better and nicer and kinder and more loving than you.  But you will still realize that they are pursuing false gods.  You will still be able to recognize that the way of the One True God is vastly different than the way of every other god and especially the way of the world.

    I will try to show you how.  You see, last November, I went to visit my grandfather.  He’s 95 now, so he has a world of accumulated wisdom.  My grandfather was a pastor, and he and I talked a lot when we visited.  He talked a lot about the things he did as a pastor.  As he talked, I learned a lot.  He never served a large congregation.  He was a country pastor.  He never worked his way up into the higher offices of the church.  You could say that he never really advanced very far in his career if you wanted.  He never wrote a book or became a famous theologian.  He knew this, and he was more than okay with it.  I know this because as he talked to me, he said something that hit me to the very core.  He said, “You know, I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”

    That stopped me dead in my tracks because up until that time I realized what I was trying to do.  I realized I was trying to accomplish a lot in the eyes of the world.  I was trying to get my value and worth and happiness from my accomplishments.  I was buying into what the world said, “Do this, and you will be loved and appreciated.”  But our Christian faith does not say this.  Our Christian faith says something completely and utterly different.  Our Christian faith says being on good terms with the Lord is the most important thing, and that does not come about from anything we do.

    And this is the most important point that I want you to hear this morning as you confirm your faith.  This is the central thing I want you to grasp and hold onto.  The world says, “Do this and you will be accepted.”  All other religions say, “Do this and God will love you.”  Christianity says the exact opposite.  Christianity says, “God accepts you; God loves you; now live into that freedom.”

    The world and every religion wants you to earn your own way.  The world and every other religion wants you to justify yourself–justify your value; justify your work; obtain your own happiness.  Christianity says Jesus gives you love and acceptance and value and true happiness without any work on your part.  It is the exact opposite of the world.

    And Jesus gives this all to you despite the fact that you are imperfect–despite the fact that you are a broken piece of this broken world.  I know I don’t have to tell you this too much.  I remember very well what it was like in school.  There were kids who used to pick on me all the time and highlight my imperfections.  You probably have that happen to you as well.  And the way I used to make myself feel better was to pick on others and highlight their imperfections.  I didn’t know any other way, but I do now.  I accept my flaws.  I accept my brokenness, and I ask Jesus to change me.  He’s got a lot of work ahead of Him in that regard, but He willingly works on me.  And on you.  And on everyone who calls upon His name.  Why?

    Because He loves us.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.” 

    Christianity is the only religion or philosophy in the world that teaches that God dies on behalf of the world.  It’s the only religion that says you are accepted before it ask you to do anything.  It is the only religion in the world that gives you value even when you really don’t deserve it.  And when someone gives you something you know you don’t deserve, you do not become arrogant.  You become humble.  You become thankful.  You become respectful of others, and you want them to know that God has done the same for them that He has done for you. 

    It is my sincere hope for you today that as you confirm your faith, you realize just how rebellious you are being.  You are turning your back on a world and on all the false gods who want you to earn your value and worth and to justify yourselves.  You are saying to them, “I wish to follow a different path.  I wish to follow the One who has already loved me; already given me value; and already given me joy.  I renounce all you false gods, and I place my trust in the One True God.  The God who died for me.  I put my trust in Jesus.”  May we all have the courage to do just that.

Sincerely,

Pastor Kevin Haug

Friday, October 17, 2014

Remembering My Grandmother

I believe the good Lord creates each and every one of us with a filter to help us keep our mouths from blurting out every single thought that comes out of our brains.  This filter is very helpful because it prevents very awkward situations from occurring time and time and time again.  I am convinced my grandmother's filter was corrupted.  The thoughts just rolled right on out without anything impeding them.

It made for more than a few awkward and humorous situations.

For instance, Grandma was never one to accept new technology on her own.  She was quite content to deal with what she knew.  A big part of this was her frugality.  If she could do without something, she would.  Why confuse matters with the latest and greatest?  Even if things could make her life easier.

Take the time Grandma finally got a microwave.  She never, and I mean NEVER wanted a microwave.  "Why do I want a microwave?  I don't need a microwave.  Don't y'all ever get me a microwave.  I don't need no damn microwave."  Did I say she didn't want a microwave?

Well, the rest of us had kept up with the times, and we knew the value of a microwave.  My parents especially were tired of going over to Grandma's house to cook and heat up things and dealing with the inconvenience of not having a microwave.  Therefore, for Christmas, sometime in the late '90s, my folks bought Grandma a microwave.  They wrapped it up and put it underneath the tree.

Grandma always opened her gifts last (partially because we all wanted to hear what she was going to say.  You know, the whole lack of filter and everything.).  On this occasion, we were not disappointed.  We gave her the box, and immediately she started ranting, "This better not be a microwave.  I don't need no damn microwave."

She removed the wrapper.

"It's a damn microwave.  You know, you just need to take that back.  I'll never use it.  You just need to take that back!!!"

Awkward and humorous.

The reaction was typical and expected.  Water flowed off the duck's back, and the microwave was set up in the kitchen over the loud objections.  A few weeks passed.  A month or so, and Grandma was using that microwave like there was no tomorrow.  About three weeks ago, her microwave went kaput, and she demanded a new one.  It had become indispensable.   Like  her cordless telephone.  And her satellite television.  And a host of other things that she found helpful even though she had ranted against them previous.

Sometimes, it took Grandma some time--and a little effort on behalf of her family to get her there, but she eventually did. 

But one thing we never had to "get her convinced of" was the need to spoil her grandchildren.  Grandma exceeded in that arena.  I personally was the grand recipient of a lot of spoiling.  I will not speak for my sister or my cousins at this point, but I will damn sure let you know, she spoiled the crap out of me.

One story highlights this marvelously.  In my early teen years, I was enamored with Transformers.  I owned several toys (and still have them).  One week, Eckerd Drugs was having a sale on the Insectobots.  I wanted them, and Grandma was keeping my sister and I.  Grandma promised we could take a trip into town, and she would get them for me.  I was going to hold her to her promise.

There was just one problem.  Grandpa had parked his pickup behind Grandma's car.  We couldn't fit in the pickup, so it needed to be moved.  Here the problem manifested itself: the truck's battery was dead.  Disappointment rose mightily.  I wanted those Transformers--badly.  (Selfish, sure.  I know better now.)

"We could push the truck out of the way," I suggested.

So, my 60+ year old grandmother, my sister, and I pushed the truck out of the way to go get two little toys which I thought were such a big deal back in those days.  I don't know how many of your grandmothers ever pushed a pickup truck out of the way to take you to town, but mine did. 

Such was her nature of generosity. 

Grandma showed that forth in many other ways.  For four summers, I worked at the Banquete Grain Co-op.  My parents had bought me microwave meals to eat for lunch and supper, but those things must have looked unappetizing to my grandmother.  Every evening, she cooked extra and packed me a home cooked meal for my day.  She had breakfast ready for me when I awoke.  There was a snack in the evening when I got off work.  She washed my clothes when I stayed, and we would visit in the evenings. 

She took care of me when I worked just like she took care of her husband and her kids growing up.  Grandma sacrificed time and again so that her kids and grandkids could have.  It was her nature.

It's not surprising.  She chose Proverbs 31:10-29 to be read at her funeral:

10 A capable wife who can find?
   She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
   and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
   all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
   and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
   she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
   and provides food for her household
   and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
   with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
   and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
   Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
   and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
   and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
   for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
   her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
   taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
   she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
   and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
   and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
   and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
   her husband too, and he praises her:
29 ‘Many women have done excellently,
   but you surpass them all.’ 


As this passage was read this Monday, I saw many reflections of what my grandmother tried to do.  If indeed my grandmother held this in her heart (which I expect she did), then it is little wonder she did many of the things she did.  Despite some of the off the wall things that came out of her mouth, her actions showed beyond the shadow of a doubt a woman full of kindness, compassion, and love--especially love of her family.

It all flowed from a deep abiding faith.  A faith which was not blatant and in your face, but that was lived out.  A faith which was rarely talked about, but was central to her life.

My sister informed me that my Grandma had final approval of her obituary.  When Grandma was shown the first draft, she nodded rather approvingly, but then added, "It's okay, but where is my baptism date and my confirmation date?"  Two simple items--left out by many in these times, but items of vast value and importance to my grandmother.  Others may leave them out, but she would have them in her obituary.   She was a child of God, by God, and that was the most important thing of all.

She entered into the fullness of that childhood at around 6 o'clock Friday, October 10, 2014.  The promises of God to her were made complete. 

Thanks be to God for my Grandma: Estella Kieshnick Haug.  Until that day when we meet again...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

God's Wrath

    During the summer while I was teaching a class on the basics of Christianity, I talked a bit about the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.  For those of you who may not be familiar with this part of biblical history, let me give you a quick refresher.

    The Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians and through the mighty, miraculous acts of God, they had been freed.  A man named Moses, who was called by God, led the people out of Egypt and toward the freedom of the Promised Land.  They traveled to a mountain called Sinai, and while there, God made a covenant with the people.  God would look after the people and bless them, and the people would worship God alone and follow His commands.  All parties agreed to this arrangement. 

    After this agreement, God called Moses to come up on the mountain.  Moses was gone an extended period of time, and the people became concerned.  In their anxiety, they turned their backs on the covenant they had agreed to and forged an idol out of gold.  Of course, it was a calf.  They worshiped and held a celebration to this god who led them out of Egypt.  As you can imagine, God’s anger was kindled mightily against those who were worshiping this false god.  Moses came down off the mountain and exposed the people to God’s wrath–many were consumed by that wrath as God literally opened up the earth and swallowed them.

    In our day and age, some might scratch their heads in bewilderment at God’s actions here.  I mean, why kill thousands of people for simply worshiping another god?  What were they hurting?  They were just following their hearts and beliefs.  They weren’t killing anyone or stealing or anything.  Why would God get so angry and upset over something which is rather trivial–at least according to modern standards?  Why didn’t God simply forgive them instead of consuming them?  Here’s what I told my class.

    A God who does not become incensed at sin is not a God worth worshiping.  Let me say that again: a God who does not become incensed and wrathful at sin is not a God worth worshiping. 

    That might give some of you pause, especially given what many folks believe about the Christian God.  I mean, we in the church proclaim over and over and over that God is love.  And this is most certainly true!!!  One of my favorite passages of scripture to quote is 1 John 4: 7-8.  “7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  There’s actually a camp song I learned as a child which goes along with this passage, and perhaps because I learned that song, this passage is burned into my brain.  And that is a good thing.  It is important to know and understand and realize God is love. 

    But don’t confuse the fact that God is love with the fact that God is also a God of justice.  God is not simply one to walk around with a flower lei around His neck; putting flowers into firearms; and saying, “Let’s just love one another.  Everyone will come into my love eventually anyway.  Peace, man.”  God’s anger burns brightly at sin.  In fact, I’m not sure I can adequately convey to you this morning just how angry God gets when He sees us falling away from His ways.  Hell fire and brimstone doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

    I mean, I’ve known pastors and preachers who yell and scream about hell and damnation.  I know they do so to scare the living daylights out of people and get them to repent.  This is not my method of preaching.  “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” the saying goes.  And this is true.  But, if you think God is simply honey, then you don’t get the fullness of what God is about; and you certainly will not understand the Gospel.

    I mean, as I read through Scripture, as I read about how God hates sin, I can’t yell.  It’s as if I am sitting in a horror movie, and the fear is so great, I cannot even scream.  God’s wrath is that terrible.  It’s that menacing.  And we just don’t seem to get that anymore.  We don’t seem to understand how God looks at our imperfections–our unwillingness to follow His commands–our inability to live out His teachings–and His wrath is kindled.  God is angry!  Tell me you don’t see the same thing in our Gospel lesson this morning from the 22nd chapter of the book of Matthew.

    Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to...”  Think about this.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who threw a wedding banquet for His son.”  Those first invited turn him down.  He gives them another chance, and this time the king’s messengers plead with those invited.  The best of the best is prepared for the banquet.  “Come to the wedding!!!”  The invitation is sincere.  It is heart-felt.  The king wants to honor his son and have the guests celebrate, but they refuse again.  This time, they get nasty.  They move onto things they consider more important.  They refuse to listen to the slaves, and some become violent with the king’s messengers.  They beat, torture, and kill the slaves.  And what does the king do next?  Sometimes we gloss over this passage because we know Jesus is making a comparison with God.  We don’t like hearing what God does next to those who flat out refuse to come to the feast.

    He sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city.

    Does this sound like a God of love to you?

    Does this sound like a king full of compassion and charity to you?

    Wrathful.  Vengeful.  Angry.  These are the words that come to mind.

    But who now will come to the wedding?  Who now will honor the king’s son?

    “Go out into the highways and crossroads and invite anyone and everyone to the feast,” are the instructions.  “Those who were first invited were not worthy.  Throw open the doors.  Let everyone else in.  The party must go on.”

    Now, this sounds more like it.  This sounds more like the God we know and love.  All inclusive.  All loving.  The good and the bad are let in.  Everyone is having a great time. 

    But here we go again.  The parable does not end there.  The king comes in to check on the guests.  He comes to see how things are getting along at the party, and the king stumbles upon a man who is not dressed appropriately!! 

    “How did you get in without a wedding robe?” the king asks.

    Now, before some of you who were raised to wear your Sunday best to church start looking disapprovingly of my blue jeans and boots, let me fill you in on something here.  Remember, first off, the king brought folks from the streets and intersections of the roads.  These folks were of all walks of life.  They were good and bad; rich and poor.  They all came to the feast, and not all of them had wedding robes to wear.  However, it was customary that if a person could not afford a wedding robe, a king would gladly provide one for them for free.  This is not a place to cry, “Wear your best clothes to church!!”  This is something much, much different.  This is about a guest who was provided with the clothes to wear, and he refused to put them on.  He refused to be clothed in the proper manner when all was given to him. 

    “Throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  He’s not allowed to be at this party anymore.”

    For not wearing a robe?  Thrown out because of his attire?  The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. 

    If you don’t understand God’s wrath.

    If you don’t understand God’s justice.

    If you think God just lets us do whatever we want whenever we want with no consequences.

    But God is not that way.  The parable shows that irrefutably.  God’s anger burns hot against sin.  Even ones we consider inconsequential.  Why?  Because He abhors evil.  He abhors when violence and hatred arise.  He abhors it when we hurt one another and take advantage of one another.  And such pain must be paid for.  Such violence must have an answer.  Think about it, if you are taken advantage of, do you just rub it off?  If someone angers you or breaks your trust, do you continue to have the same sort of relationship with them as before?  If someone steals from you, do you just write it off and let bygones be bygones?  Do you rejoice when such things happen and just say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just love them and they will be okay.”?  Does anyone actually do this?  No.  Deep down, we don’t.  We know crimes must have some sort of punishment.  Justice must be served; for without justice there is complete and utter chaos.  And if justice is not meted out in this world?  If God knows about such injustice and He just overlooks it?  What then?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He overlooks such things?  Do you have a God worth worshiping who turns a blind eye to violence and hatred and pain?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He simply says, “Oh well, this all happened, but I’m sure folks feel sorry for it.  They can come join me without consequence.”?  Is this the kind of God you worship?

    No.  Not at all.  God becomes extremely wrathful at sin.  Even small ones.  For those small sins lead to larger ones.  Think about the progression in how Sunday mornings were once reserved for worship and family.  Think about how they slowly progressed to the point where some select sports now schedule tournaments on Easter Sunday.  And we who let things slide early on can now just scratch our heads in bewilderment.  God doesn’t do that.  God’s wrath burns hot against small sins as well as large ones–whether you’ve rejected the invitation or failed to wear the robes provided for you.  God’s anger burns.

    This parable does not seem to have much good news in it.  Not if we are honest with ourselves.  For oftentimes we are much like those first invited to the wedding feast fo the Son.  We know we are supposed to follow the Son–to worship Him regularly and dine with Him and celebrate His goodness.  And yet, we find other things to do.  We get involved with other activities–sports, outdoors, sleeping, work.  We place all these things of value in front of our relationship with Jesus.

    And even though we know we’ve been invited to the party, most of the time we don’t wear the appropriate clothing.  “For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourself with Christ.”  So said St. Paul in Galatians 3.  But how many of us during the course of the day really feel like we show forth Jesus?  How many of us believe we truly are wearing Him and being a good representation of Jesus?  Be brutally honest.  From what you know about Jesus, do you honestly think someone would mistake you for Him?  Not much of a chance of that, is there?

    And so, if we are honest with ourselves, we see that we are like those who refused to come; or we are like the one cast out because we failed to wear the clothes provided.  It would seem as though all hope were lost to us.

    But there is one who hasn’t really made an appearance in this parable.  Who was the wedding banquet thrown for?  The Son.  What if, the Son comes to His Father and says, “Dad, wait a minute.  Before you consume everyone because they are not worthy...before you cast those who are not wearing the robes out into the outer darkness...let me act on their behalf.  Let me take their punishment.  Don’t destroy them.  Yes, they deserve punishment.  Yes, they deserve your wrath, but let me take it.  Let me save them.  For I love them.”  And what if the king said, “Yes, Son, you may take their place.  My wrath will be satisfied because of what you do.”? 

    And what if the Son was stripped of His robes?  And beaten?  And tortured?  And crucified all for the sake of those who deserved God’s wrath?  And what if, the Father, the King were so distraught and so overwhelmed by what His Son did, that He raised His Son from the dead to show that death would not be the end?  That love and justice could meet in an absolutely beautiful event?  Where God’s wrath would be satisfied and His love could be extended?

    Would that be a story worth sharing?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that all those who believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be save through Him.”  The wrath of God has been satisfied.  And you are welcome at the banquet because of it.  Amen.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

When Gay Marriage Causes Family Strife: Or How to Love Someone I Vehemently Disagree With


    As I promised in my “Pastor’s Ponderings” email a week or so ago, I will be dealing with a submitted question that we received through our new website.  Anyone is welcome to ask questions you would like me to cover in a sermon at any time, so if you have a topic you would like me to cover, don’t hesitate to ask.

    The email we received stated, “Need help/understanding in the part we as a family play when members are involved in a same sex marriage. We have a relative who married in June. Can't and don't want to turn them away, but with Holidays and family gatherings approaching next...help.”

    Now, obviously, this email is from someone who views such marriages as sinful and out of the norm.  There are some in our society, and even in our congregation who do not view such things as sinful.  For these folks, there is no problem in what has been done, and it would cause no strife at all.  Usually, their response to someone who has such concerns would be, “You just need to get over it and change your mind.  They really aren’t doing anything wrong.  God made them that way, and you should just accept them as they are.”  Essentially, they would tell you, you are the one with the problem, not your relatives.  You are the one who needs to change, not them.

    On the other hand, there are those who believe just as strongly that homosexual marriage is sinful and the problem resides with those who engage in it.  They are the ones who need to change or keep their relationships completely and utterly private so that it doesn’t cause any discomfort to anyone else.  Keep such matters to yourself and do not flaunt it in my face.  I don’t want to see it; or hear it; or think about it.  It’s your problem, not mine.

    This tends to be the extremes that we get pushed toward in dealing with such matters, and the real issue is never tackled by either side.  The real issue is not who has to change.  Let me say that again.  The real issue is not who has to change.  The real issue is how do we live and interact with others who do not share our views about life and morality.  Again, I will repeat: the real issue is: how do we live and interact with others who do not share our views about life and morality.

    In the extremes of this issue, one side says, “I can’t interact with you unless you fully accept me.  You have to change.”  The other side says, “I can’t interact with you unless you change your lifestyle or bury it deep.”  Both expect the other to change to accommodate because, “by God, I am right.  You are wrong.  I don’t need to change, and you do.”  This leaves little room for maintaining a relationship when lines get drawn so firmly.  In fact, when lines are drawn in this manner, it makes for some very, very uncomfortable situations, to say the least.

    But what if there was a way forward in which acceptance is not a requirement for relationship?  What if there is a way forward in which we could love someone and interact with someone even if we consider them unlovable?  What if we can indeed accept that another’s position is wrong, yet love that person anyway?  Is such a thing possible? 

    I think it is.  Full disclosure at this point.  I believe very strongly that Scripture condemns homosexual marriage.  I believe that any sexual relations outside the bounds of a marriage relationship between a man and a woman is sinful.  God intended this gift to be used between a man and a woman within those boundaries.  I think Scripture is absolutely clear on this despite those who want to offer up all sorts of other interpretations.  I know what you have to do to get those interpretations, and if you applied those methods to the whole of Scripture, you basically can make the Bible say any darn thing you want it to say and excuse any and every behavior known to humankind.  That being said.  I also have relatives who are homosexual.  My wife’s uncle came out of the closet quite a few years ago and was in a very steady relationship until just a couple of years ago.  My wife and I regularly met and stayed with her uncle and his partner.  I also have an aunt who I am pretty sure is homosexual, but she hasn’t exactly made public profession because it would cause quite the ripple in the family.  Yet, she and her partner have been together decades, and I love them both dearly.  Therefore, I come at this issue from the particular standpoint of one who believes that homosexual marriage is sinful, but loving family members who are and who quite possibly are homosexual and have had long term relationships with exclusive partners.  How can I hold such things in tension?

    There are a couple of things that guide me along the path.  The first is St. Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth.  This particular passage does not get a lot of playtime in churches as it takes a back seat to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 7, “Thou shalt not judge because with the judgement you give, you will receive.”  I have argued all along that Jesus’ admonition here does not mean we aren’t supposed to judge things as right and wrong–that would be absurd.  I mean, honestly, does anyone believe we should say, "I cannot judge a child abuser because Jesus said I shouldn't judge?"  That is the consequences of extending this teaching all the way down.  No one believes or practices this.  Even Jesus didn't--especially if you read through the Gospels.  We can and should judge right and wrong, but we shouldn't take it to eternal consequences.  We shouldn't judge whether or not a person is or is not loved by God.  I personally have argued this is exactly what Jesus meant, and I think  Paul fleshes that out perfectly in 1 Corinthians 5.  He says, “11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13God will judge those outside.”  “Outside” refers to those who are outside the church.  They are non-believers.  We do not offer judgment here.  We only judge those who are within the church–those on the inside. 

    At this point, you may be ready to pounce on me and say, “Well, okay, but aren’t we supposed to get everyone in the church?  Isn’t the goal to get people to become Christian?  Aren’t we supposed to point out to others that they are sinful and they need to avoid hell–therefore, they need to stop sinning?  And what do we do about all those folks who have joined the church who still practice gay marriage and homosexual behavior?  Don’t we have to confront them as well?”  And I’m going to play the devil’s advocate for just a moment, because remember, this issue cuts both ways.  Because there is another side which is ready to pounce and say, “So what do we do about all those people who are rendering judgement on gays and lesbians?  What do we do about those who are judgmental and self-righteous; who look down their noses at anyone who believes differently than they do; who won’t love and accept people who are different than they are?”  You see, we still haven’t really resolved anything even with guidance from St. Paul here.  So, where do we go next?

    I think we go to the Gospel.  I think we’ve got to get to Jesus.  We’ve got to look at what He did and what He has done.  And to do just that I want to look at John chapter 8–our Gospel lesson.  Believe it or not, I have seen this lesson used both to condemn homosexuals and to bolster a case for acceptance.  But I want to get away from rendering such judgment for the moment, and I want to deal with this passage as it stands, and then to take us through the implications.

    The story progresses straightforwardly enough: a woman is caught in the act of adultery, and she is brought before Jesus by the scribes and the Pharisees.  Now, whether or not they were peeking in the windows or what to discover she was committing adultery, I don’t know.  What I do know is that her life hangs by a thread.  She knows that her life hangs by a thread.  The scribes and Pharisees know that her life is forfeit according to the laws of Moses.  Both Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 have passages demanding that the adulterer and adulteress be stoned.  (Which raises an interesting question of where the guy is in all of this!!!)  This woman is all but dead; she knows it, and the scribes and Pharisees know it.

    But they also know it is an opportunity to trap Jesus.  If Jesus allows this woman to be stoned, He will be seen as callous and uncaring.  If Jesus allows the woman to go free, He can be accused of telling people to break the laws of Moses–and of God.  “Teacher, this woman was found caught in the act of adultery.  According to the laws of Moses, we are supposed to stone her.  What do you say?”

    Jesus wrote in the dirt.  Apparently, He didn’t want to answer.  Apparently, He wanted folks to figure it out for themselves, but the scribes and the Pharisees kept pushing Him.  They kept asking.  They kept demanding an answer. 

    Jesus finally replies, “Let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

    We are told that one by one, all drop their stones and leave.  And here is where things get interesting, in my estimation.

    The only one left with the woman is Jesus.  Think about this for a minute.  Everyone else has dropped their stones and walked away, except Jesus.  Jesus is still there.  Why is this so important?

    Let me ask you this: is Jesus without sin?  Yep.  Think about that again for a minute.  If Jesus is without sin, could He have cast the first stone?  Could He have brought the punishment of death upon this woman who was caught in adultery?  Yep.  Absolutely.

    But does He?  “Is no one left to condemn you?”  He asks.

    “No one, sir,” she replies.  Yes, they have all gone, but Jesus is still there.  Jesus still holds her life in the balance.  Her life is completely and utterly in His hands.  Whether she gets that or not, I don’t know.  So I do not know how she receives these next words–they may have come with a shock as she realizes He could have cast the first stone; or they could have come with relief as she discovers He will not cast a stone Himself.

    “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says.  “Now go and do not sin again.”

    Think hard about those statements and in the order they appear. Think really, really hard about them and the actions leading up to them.  Think about what Jesus has done for this woman.  Think about how He just saved her life.  Think about how close to death she had come and how now she has another chance.  How do you think she will respond to hearing what Jesus said?  How do you think she will walk away from this encounter with the man who saved her life and then said, “Go and do not sin again.”?  Will she follow His instructions?

    Would you follow His instructions if He just saved you from a painful, horrible death?  I’d imagine you would.  If someone saves you and shows you great love in their saving acts, you generally take their advice and teaching. 

    And the question I have for each and every one of us here this morning is this: if you want another person to change what they are doing, are you willing to save their life and show them great love before you ask them to change?  Are you willing to endure the ridicule of modern day scribes and Pharisees–whether they be on one side or the other–to show such love in hopes that another person will change?  You see too often, we in the church are very willing to tell people, “Go and sin no more.  Change your life or you will go to hell.” or what have you without a single note of compassion, love, or mercy.  We expect the other person to change without any cost to ourselves.  And then we get angry when they get angry with us.  We end up in a vicious cycle of blaming and finger pointing because we ourselves have not been transformed by the Gospel.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”

    You see, Jesus didn’t just save that woman caught in adultery.  He also saved you and me.  We were and are living in sin.  We have been caught in our brokenness.  We have not followed the laws of Moses.   We deserve death. 

    But Jesus took our place.  Jesus died the death we deserved.  He saved us because He loved us.  And he still loves us.  He still has great mercy and compassion on us.  And when we realize this, it changes us.  It leads us to repentance.  It leads us to fight against the sin in our own lives.  And it leads us to proclaim what Jesus has done–to tell others what He has done for them as well.  Because when the Gospel takes root in our lives, we know that we don’t change other people.  We know we can’t make their hearts move in another direction.  Only Christ can. 

    Which finally brings us to the answer to the original question.  How do you deal with someone who you disagree with?  Who you believe is living in sin?  Who you would like to see change?  First, be changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Let it transform you so that you show great love to others.  Second, share what Christ has done for you.  Third, let Him bring about the change, for He will do the same to others as He has done in you.  Amen.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Worship...In (a) Church...That You Disagree With

Because of a lack of time--and the lengthiness of the post, I did not come full circle as I wrote about worship.  Today, I'd like to finish the thoughts on worship and come back to the extended quote by Timothy Keller:

If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?  In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you.  For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship.  Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands.  A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won't!  You'll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten a hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  (Kindle Location 1901-1907)

If we worship to come in contact with Jesus--to hear about what He has done and how we are saved purely and solely by His action...

And if it is at worship where we attempt to shut out all the other false gods of the world and concentrate on Jesus...

And if in the midst of doing so, Jesus begins tuning our hearts toward Him...

...then we should feel quite a bit of discomfort.

And I know we do not like feeling uncomfortable.  Take another quick look at the reasons I wrote for folks skipping worship on a given Sunday (or for an extended period of time):
  • I am spiritual, but not religious.  
  • I can worship God anywhere.  I do not need to be in church to do so.
  • I do not find anything compelling when I attend worship.
  • This person hurt me, and I do not want to run into them at worship.
  • I do not like the decision the church made, and I will not worship.
  • I do not like the way the pastor preaches. 
  • I do not like the music.
  • I want more organ music.
  • I want more contemporary music.
  • I like being anonymous when I go to church and do not like small crowds.
  • I like being welcomed and part of an intimate group and do not like large worship services.
 What do they all have in common?  Well, let me rephrase that question: who is at the center of all of these questions?

Me.  Myself.  And I.

It's understandable, really.  We live in a consumer oriented culture.  We live by the mantra, "Have it your way."  (Even though I detest Burger King.)  If we find a restaurant does not tickle our taste buds, we find another.  If a repair shop does not satisfy us with the job of repair, we find another.  If we do not like the prices at one store, we find another.  Hey, I'm just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to this.  I needed a part for my SUV, and after consulting with a few shops, I gleefully ordered it online and saved $30!!!  Saving money made me happy and much more comfortable.

And we really, really like our comfort zones. 

In quantum mechanics, there is a rule which governs atomic particles: those particles like to remain at the lowest possible energy state.  It takes extra energy to get them "excited" and changing or maintaining a particular position.  If everything is same ol', same ol', they simply will not change or move to another level.

The more I have studied humankind, I believe we too are influenced in the same manner.  We are all to happy to remain right where we are.  We are all to happy to stay entrenched in our thought processes, beliefs, and actions.  Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing in all circumstances.  For instance, you would be hard pressed to get me to change my belief that Jesus is the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, and resurrected Savior.  But am I so comfortable in that belief that I do not ask myself why I believe it to be true?  Am I so comfortable in that belief that it makes little difference in what I do and how I do it?  What challenges that belief and makes me think through why I believe what I believe and do what I do?

If I go to a church where I never end up asking myself those kinds of questions, I have a Stepford Church.  I have a church/congregation that simply affirms me and makes me feel good about myself.  I have a church that never challenges my ideas or makes me do the messy work involved in a REAL relationship.

And face it, real relationships are messy at times.  We disagree with others.  We misunderstand others.  We are forced to examine our own contributions to the problems in relationships.  We have to invest time and energy and money into real relationships.  We argue.  We fight.  Sometimes we don't talk to one another for a while.  But within those real relationships, we also find love, compassion, caring, and intimacy at a level far beyond most of the superficiality we experience each and every day.

You will find neither challenge nor true intimacy without engaging an "other" who is different from you and does not see everything just like you.

A few have asked me why I remain in a denomination that I tend to disagree with on many levels theological and philosophical.  Why stay in a denomination that I feel has gone astray doctrinally? 

Unless said denomination has people within it who challenge it (and vice versa) it will never grow, and neither will I.  Unless said denomination has people of differing theologies, it simply has Stepford Members, and if I find a denomination that fits all my beliefs, then I have a Stepford Denomination.  There is no growth, and there is no intimacy.

Whether it is a Stepford God, Stepford Denomination, Stepford Congregation, or Stepford Member, none of these are real relationships.  Relationships should make us uncomfortable as we engage the "other."  It's how we grow.

And if you are not engaging the Holy Other--Jesus the Christ, on an extremely regular basis, you are not growing; your heart is not being changed; you are maintaining your comfortable place at the lowest energy state.

Perhaps you are happy with such a thing.  Perhaps you believe you have no need to change or become a better person than you are.  Then church and worship definitely isn't for you.  Church is for people who know they fall short.  Church is for those who know they miss the mark.  Church is for those who know there is more to life than what they currently experience.  Church is for those who know they have plenty of room to grow.  Church is for those who want transformation of themselves, their relationships, and the world.

And that transformation comes from Jesus who changes hearts at worship.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Worship...In Church?

For many years, I have struggled to answer this question.  In many ways, even some of the answers I have posted on this blog have left me unsatisfied.

I mean, I know what has been passed onto me:
  • Worship is central to the life of a Christian.
  • Worship is the place we encounter Jesus in the Word and Sacrament.
  • Worship is where we meet fellow Christians who share our joys and sorrows.
  • Worship is where heaven and earth intersect for precious moments helping us and equipping us to endure the grind of daily life.
  • Worship is where we are instructed and equipped for living the Christian life.
  • Worship is where we hear the Gospel.
All of these things (and a few more), I know deep within the depths of my being, but they are sorely inadequate in persuading people to attend worship on Sunday mornings.   Such points do not cut through the fortified walls people have erected in their lives--the walls of reasoning and thought excusing them from regular worship:
  • I am spiritual, but not religious.  
  • I can worship God anywhere.  I do not need to be in church to do so.
  • I do not find anything compelling when I attend worship.
  • This person hurt me, and I do not want to run into them at worship.
  • I do not like the decision the church made, and I will not worship.
  • I do not like the way the pastor preaches. 
  • I do not like the music.
  • I want more organ music.
  • I want more contemporary music.
  • I like being anonymous when I go to church and do not like small crowds.
  • I like being welcomed and part of an intimate group and do not like large worship services.
And the list could go on.  Instead of picking at each of these points and arguing their merits or lack of merits, I would like to approach things from a little different manner.

First, a lengthy quote from Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God:
If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?  In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you.  For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship.  Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands.  A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won't!  You'll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten a hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  (Kindle Location 1901-1907)
Can you connect the dots between worship and this quote?  I am sure many of you probably can, but if you are struggling, let me try and clarify.

At my congregation's last council meeting, one of the members brought up an interesting statistic: there are 8760 hours in a year.  If you worshiped every Sunday (at an average of one hour per worship service), you would only spend 52 of those hours in a place devoted to God--that's less than 1/2 of one percentage point of your time!!!

But let's also put a little more perspective on this.  During those other hours, everything else in the world is striving to garner your devotion.  Yes, I said that purposefully.  Everything else is trying to gain your worship and adoration--from your job to your family to your children to your leisure time  to television advertizements to your possessions to even your self!!  Each of these things is trying to draw your heart toward it, and they are obsessed with owning you and your time.  Don't believe me?  Try giving any one of them less attention than you do now.  See what happens.  Not only may you get a visceral reaction from one of these things, you will also feel torn, like you are letting it down.  You will feel guilty for not obeying one of your masters.  That may sound harsh, but it is assuredly true.  False gods do not let go of you easily--and it is not easy to give them up.  They have a special place in all of our hearts.

And there is no way to totally get rid of the heart's desire to worship.  There is no way to get rid of the heart's desire to grasp onto an object greater than itself.  Consider what atheist author David Foster Wallace said during a commencement address at  Kenyon College,
Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

Now, you may argue that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the "default settings" our hearts want to worship.  I mean, we do need money to survive in the world.  Taking care of our health and bodies are important.  Positive use of power makes a difference to people in the world--especially to those with no power.  Reading and studying to increase one's knowledge is generally a good thing.  I won't disagree with these statements, but that is not Foster's point.  Foster's point is that when these good things are turned into ultimate things, they will destroy you.  Each desire--while good in moderation--becomes destructive when it turns into an object of worship--a false god.  The reality is: there is no object of worship that does not lead to guilt, self-righteousness, pain, hunger, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, except God.  Unless Jesus is the heart's desire, one will remain unsatisfied and without peace.

Which leads right back to the worship of Jesus in church during the week.  Why?  Because we must answer the question: how do we put Jesus at the center of worship?  For a heart will not willingly give up its objects of worship.  It will simply turn from one to another.  Again, consider this quote
from Thomas Chalmers in his sermon "The Expulsive Powers of a New Affection":

It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere process of natural extinction.  At least this is done very seldom through the instrumentality of reasoning or by the force of mental determination.  What cannot be destroyed; however, may be dispossessed.  One taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.  A youth may cease to idolize central pleasure but it's because the idol of wealth--the desire to make money--has got the ascendency; so he becomes disciplined.  But the love of money might actually cease to have mastery over his heart if it is drawn to ideology and politics.  Now he is lorded over by a love of power and of moral superiority instead of wealth.  But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object.  The human heart's desire for one particular object is conquered, but it's desire to have some ultimate object of adoration is unconquerable.  The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is to replace it with the expulsive power of a new one.  Thus it is not enough to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections; it is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of its evanessive character of their enjoyment; it's not enough to simply speak to the conscience--to speak of its follies; rather, you must seek as a preacher every legitimate method of finding access to the heart for the love of Him who is greater than the world. (As quoted by Timothy Keller here.)   
What Chalmer's argues is that our hearts move from object of worship to object of worship to object of worship, and this only happens when one object gets displaced by another.  We do not give those objects up freely or rationally.  Only when one object is substituted for another does our heart let go.  Tie that to what Foster said previous, and one must ask himself or herself: to what am I giving my worship, and is that worship leading me towards abundant life here and in the world to come?

If Foster is right, and I think he is, then the only worship which will lead to abundant life and not devour you is the worship of God--particularly the worship of Jesus Christ.  And, it is only at worship apart from the rest of the world and false gods, where the Gospel is proclaimed--the action God took to save you, redeem you, and give you value and worth.  It is only in worship where you hold the body and blood of Jesus and take them into yourself that He may transform you from within.  It is only in worship where you shut out all the other false gods which demand your time, effort and energy and turn your attention to the One True God.  It is only by hearing that you are broken yet forgiven by no action of your own that the false gods begin to lose their grip and be displaced by Jesus.

For He is the center of all Christian worship.  Not the music we play.  Not who may or may not be at church.  Not the size of the church.  Or whether or not I feel welcomed.  Or I find anything compelling (unless you are only receiving the Law and being told what to do over and over and over.  That is not hearing the Gospel, that is for certain.)

And you cannot hear the Gospel sitting by yourself in a deer stand, or on the beach, or while fishing.  You may see God's handiwork, but you do not meet Jesus--sorry, you just don't.  The Word takes root in proclamation not in doing.

I know this post makes a very big assumption--that people actually want to be transformed into something different.  It assumes people want to know peace and joy.  It assumes they want to have an abundant life--much more abundant than running around from activity to activity feeling tired and stressed and overworked and the like.  It assumes people are dissatisfied with the way things are playing out deep within themselves and they would like to find a place of peace.

If that fits you, I invite you to worship.  Regularly.  Not once a month.  Not twice a month.  As much as you can.  No excuses.  Come meet Jesus.  As your heart is moved toward Him, you will notice the difference.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Being Yes, Yes People



    Today’s Gospel lesson is very deep.  There are so many connections and nuances that it almost makes the head spin.  I know that some of you may question me about that.  I mean, on the surface, this text looks absolutely straight forward; it looks like Jesus is telling us to be like the first son in the parable He told.  Change your mind and do the work seems to be the main point, but if you connect the dots, I think you will see it is much, much more.  I think you will see Jesus is calling us to something much, much deeper than simply doing the “will of the Father.”  Jesus is calling for the complete transformation of our hearts.  How so?  Let me try and explain.

    The text begins with the chief priests and elders coming to Jesus and asking Him a rather straight forward question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  This question is an important question because of two events that preceded this conversation.  First, it was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey.  Jesus entered Jerusalem in such a fashion to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah said long ago, “Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Anyone with any background in scripture knew the significance of Jesus riding in like this, and the chief priests and elders certainly knew their scripture.  The second event followed: Jesus’ cleansing of the temple–casting out the money changers and overturning tables right and left shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  Again, you would be hard pressed to miss the significance of this act.  These are all actions of one who claims power and authority over earthly things and heavenly things.  These are the actions of one claiming to be the Messiah.  The chief priests and the elders want Jesus to come straight out and say this himself–probably so that they can trap him and arrest him.

    But Jesus doesn’t fall into this trap.  He doesn’t want to make things too easy for these folks.  He wants them to face the facts.  He wants them to face their own hearts–because, in the long run, he wants them to have a change of heart.  I’ll get to the details of this in a minute, but please trust me for the moment.  Therefore, Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own.  “The baptism of John–[or the ministry of John the Baptist]–was it of divine origin or human origin?”  This question is quite deeper than what it seems on the surface.  Sure, the chief priests and elders give one facet: they say, “If we say of divine origin, he will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ but if we say of human origin, we risk angering the crowd because they believe John was a prophet.”  This is the line of reasoning given, but Jesus is going deeper–much, much deeper.  Why do I say that?

    Let’s turn for a moment to Matthew chapter 3.  This is the account of John the Baptist’s ministry, and we find some very significant things going on here.  For brevity’s sake, I will not read the entire account which is found in verses 1 through 11.  I will, however, hit the highlights for, you see, John’s proclamation was not simply repent and get your stuff together because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  John’s proclamation was not simply start living your lives in a manner worthy of God.  John’s proclamation was not simply repent or else.   John pointed to the Messiah.  11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

    And, of course, we know John was referring to Jesus.  For in the next passage we have the baptism of Jesus where John flat it says, “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  John was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus knew this.  The chief priests and the elders knew it too, but they didn’t want to acknowledge it.  They didn’t want to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, and if they acknowledged John’s ministry as having divine origin–that meant they would have to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus was effectively answering their question, and they didn’t like it.  Not one bit.  So they weaseled out of it.

    “We don’t know,” they said.

    And it’s not that they didn’t know.  They knew, but they didn’t want it to be true.  They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would change their entire way of thinking and worshiping and acting.  They didn’t want Jesus to be the Messiah because it would involve them losing power and control.  They believed they were especially blessed and chosen by God to be in the positions they held.  If John’s claims were true, then, they were in trouble.  And they didn’t want to be in trouble.  Deep down, they knew this, but they were comfortable where they were.  They didn’t want to change.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, let’s continue on with what happens next and how Jesus continues to confront them.  Jesus says, “Well, then if you won’t answer my question, then I won’t answer yours, but what do you think about this...A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, “The first.”

    Let’s stop right here a moment.  Because I want you to have a very critical eye as you look at how the chief priests and the elders responded.  I also want you to have a critical eye in how Jesus responds to their answer.  Let me ask you this...does Jesus say they were correct?  Read carefully. 

    Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

    Does Jesus say they are right?  No.  No, he doesn’t.  In fact, the reality is, both sons did not do the will of the father.  In Matthew chapter five, during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught very clearly, “Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No.  Anything else comes from the evil one.”  In the first case, the word was No, Yes.  In the second case, the word was Yes, No.  Neither one is the will of the Father.  The will of the Father is Yes, Yes.  Yes, I will do your bidding.  Yes, I do your bidding.  This is what every parent dreams of his or her child.  It is the same dream God has for us. 

    You see, when John the Baptist proclaimed the message that the kingdom of heaven was near and the Messiah was soon to arrive, this hit the tax collectors and prostitutes where they lived.  They knew they were sinful.  They knew they were broken.  They knew their lives were not in accordance to the will of God, and they were remorseful.  This is perhaps a better way to translate the Greek for “changed one’s mind.”  The Greek gives the nuance of remorseful to the point of changing one’s heart.  The tax collectors and the prostitutes knew they were broken and knew they needed to change.  Jesus says, in effect, that this knowledge gives them the inside track to entrance into the kingdom.

    But the chief priests and the scribes have no such remorse.  They have no such change of heart.  Why?  Well, they don’t believe they need a savior.  They don’t believe they need a Messiah.  Yes, it would be nice if such a person came and threw off the Roman empire, but as far as their relationship with God was concerned, the chief priests and elders thought they were just fine–thank you.  They believed they were sitting pretty and were on God’s good side.  They believed God was pleased with them and their work and their position.  They had no clue of their own brokenness.  They had no clue of their own separation from God.  They thought they were doing God’s will, and they had no remorse for anything.  Their hearts were hardened.  Why?

    Well, think about it for a moment: if you think you are accomplishing all of God’s works–if you think you are living the right life–if you think you are moral and upright–why in the world do you even need God?  Why even worship God?  Why even kneel before Him in humility if you can carry out His every command?  If I can carry out all of God’s commands, well then, I must be a pretty good person.  I must be favored by God.  I must have status and worth, and if anyone else doesn’t follow those commands, then I am better than them.  They are beneath me.  Do you see the train of thought?  Do you see how this develops?  And if those people are beneath me, God must not like them very much.  They aren’t worthy of God’s attention, so they aren’t worthy of my attention either.  I don’t have to care for them.  I don’t have to love them.  I don’t have to have any sympathy or compassion for them.  And now, do you see how we have progressed to the point where the chief priests and the scribes have now become Yes/No children?  By thinking they follow God’s laws perfectly, they actually begin to break them.  And they don’t even realize they are doing it.  Hence Jesus says, “Even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before you because they heard John’s message and they had a change of heart.  Your heart’s stay the same and are unchanged.  They are not remorseful, and if you knew the Messiah was coming and was now here–if you believed and trusted John’s message–they would be.”

    Do you now see how layered and nuanced this passage is?  Do you now see how the webs are interwoven?  And can you begin to see the application for our own lives?   I mean, of course, we need to be people who are yes/yes people.  We need to be people who tell God, “Yes!” when He calls us as well as be “Yes” people in our doing.  There’s no doubt about that!  But how often do we do such things?  How often are we Yes/Yes people or even No/No people?  How often do we accept God’s direction and then carry it out or be courageous enough to say No/No?  Be honest with yourself and with me this morning.  Be brutally honest.

    The reality is we tend to be like either one of those two sons.  We tend to fall short of what we know we should do.  Most of us know we should be kind to each other, but we fail to do so.  Most of us know we should hold our tongues when it comes to talking about the actions of another person–yet we talk about them anyway.  Most of us know we should attend church more regularly and put God ahead of our recreational activities, but we don’t.  Most of us know we could and should be more generous, but we aren’t.  And the list goes on.  We tend to be yes/no or no/yes people who are driven by fear and guilt and anxiety.  We know we don’t get it right.

    Ah, but there was one who did get it right.  There was one who did answer Yes and then follow through.  There was one who understood the will of the Father, and by His wounds, we are healed.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.

    Yes, it’s all about Jesus here.  It’s all about the Son who completely did the Father’s will.  Who took on the mission of reconciling the world unto God; who faced temptation; who faced trial and tribulation; who faced suffering and death; who faced God’s wrath and abandonment; so that we wouldn’t have to.  Who took the payment we deserved and gave us the payment He deserved.  Who clothed us with His righteousness as He took our sinfulness upon Himself.  Who did so when we did not deserve it.

    And when we hear what Jesus has done for us, what does it do?  When we trust in what Jesus did for us on that cross reconciling us to God–what does that do to our hearts and minds?   It changes them.  It helps us break free of arrogance.  It helps us break out of self-pity.  It allows us to be remorseful for what we have done and continue to do while being secure that God’s love does not leave us.  And to the extent we trust what God has done, it begins to change our lives.  As our hearts become more and more trusting of His grace and mercy, we find ourselves saying Yes and then following through as we truly do the will of God.  Amen.