READING: Romans 12:3-18
So – you’ve been waiting for the winner of the competition for shortest sermon of the year.
Me too. The thing is I get excited about the treasures we find in Scripture. Psalm 19 makes it clear – this is gold. Look at the number of words describing how rich God’s word to us is: Psa 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. Psa 19:8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. Psa 19:9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. Psa 19:10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
So what do we glean today from Romans 12? What new treasures. Sweetness. Richness.
Quite a lot really.
Those who offer themselves as living sacrifices (see last week’s message) – in service or 24/7 worship – giving glory to – God, acknowledging his worth – that He is worthy of all recognition and praise, have all kinds of options to make this practical.
In relation to God’s infinite greatness in rescuing us and receiving the credit in or praise and thanksgiving, we must however look out that we don’t make ourselves as important as God. That after all is the Adam and Eve trap – wanting to be like God. Or making ourselves equal to God (compare Jesus in Phil 2 – Php 2:5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Php 2:6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, Php 2:7 but made himself nothing ).
So – verse 3 could keep us busy today: Rom 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
You could lay this alongside Philippians 2 again:
Php 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Php 2:4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others
While we are living sacrifices worshipping God every day at work and play, we are to put ourselves into perspective in the context of the body of Christ – the church.
Rom 12:4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, Rom 12:5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Paul then proceeds to talk about giftedness. You see this humility is not self-loathing or hiding one’s light under a bushel or a bowl because the tall poppy syndrome makes you think your light is useless.
We have gifts, he says. Use them.
That’s why churches put people to use. Not because we are obsessed with our programs. People then become commodities.
No, rather because we are obsessed with the generous grace of God. “Grace” means “gift”.
Charismata – from which we get the word “charismatic” is the word for “gifts” in the plural.
Ephesians 4 lists people gifts. Pastor, teacher, evangelist, apostle and prophet. 1 Corinthians 12 lists “spirituals” including tongues, prophecy, healing etc.
Romans 12 lists people’s gifting. Simply put – if a person has gift A, then let him use it in proportion to his faith. In other words as he or she trusts God to make that gift fruitful.
The list is there:
Rom 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.
Rom 12:7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach;
Rom 12:8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
What do you notice about these gifts?
They are all for the benefit of others.
Prophecy – in 1 Corinthians 14 terms needs three things to be genuine. (Everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 1 Cor 14:3)
Serving – serves others. (versus self-serving)
Teaching is about the learners learning. (Tired teachers miss this! “School is so nice when the kids are on holiday!”)
Encouragement obviously helps the recipients to keep going! They need to be helped not to give up!
Contributing to the needs of others is obviously for others.
Leadership – is meant to help people follow! It’s for the group, not the leader. (As the saying goes – if you’re out front leading and no one is following you’re – you’re really just out for a walk.)
And mercy – well that too is to be shown cheerfully. Interesting idea – you can’ really show mercy with a gloomy grumpy attitude. Would seem a bit strange if we said: “Ah well I suppose I’d better be merciful. Sigh. You don’t deserve it and i don’t feel like it, but there it is””
In a word – this is not all about you and me! And your and my needs. It’s about the needs of others.
Strangely obvious really.
But for some reason people don’t pick up on it.
They are locked into the thinking of the age – their minds are clearly not transformed (Romans 12:2) – because it’s all about them. Consumer Christianity abounds.
So much time wasted because people are “not having their needs met”.
Now don’t get me wrong. We should be helping people grow in faith. But they should be able to feed themselves too – like children learn to feed themselves physically.
Serving, teaching and encouraging should be working for people’s good.
But note that this is a letter to the church in Rome. Not to Timothy or some individual – or to elders or pastors.
These people gifts are, to put it bluntly, often hiding in the pew. As the story goes – church is a bit like football (aka soccer) – 22 people charging around on the field in great need of a rests, and 22 000 others in the stands in great need of exercise.
So when we have our ACM today and receive reports about what we have managed to do through the past year – remember that we are looking back.
And let’s be honest financial accountability is a key part of this – with a dose of transparency. And a lot of gratitude for the resources we have. And that especially includes people.
When we meet at this meeting today – whether you stay or not this applies. If for some reason you have been left out in the long lists of thanks. Please remember – it’s probably just an oversight.
Remember this too – it’s not about me. Or you. It’s about giving glory to God. And being a blessing to others. And as Jesus taught in Luke 17: Luk 17:10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’
Point 2 of the sermon is really a question. How are you doing when it comes to using the gifts God has given you?
Sometimes the only one stopping you using your gifts is you.
If you have a desire to be part of the future teams making things work here so that we can reach people here and beyond with good news, and help care for those who do need encouragement and mercy because life can be tough – please use the gifts God has given you in proportion to your faith.
As you step out and have a go, your faith will become stronger too.
It’s a wonderful ride and great to be part of a team of which it can be said – we are working on Romans 12:9-18. Sincere love, brotherly love and devotion, harmony and peace – well you can read the rest of those verses. We don’t get it all right. But we really do have a heart for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done in this place. (I recommend that you read Romans 12:11-18 as you reflect on this through the week.)
Reading: Luke 10: 25-37
Nearly 20 years ago – on a Saturday night – a car crashed in a tunnel in Paris. The occupants were severely injured. But the photographers who recorded the scene for the world press did nothing to help. Three out of four people died, including Princess Diana.
Ironically, France is one of the few countries which had a law – a Good Samarian Law – that makes it a crime not to help people in need.
Since that accident, the law has been revisited around the world. One state in Australia – the Northern Territory – has such a law. Very few people have been prosecuted under it – so it seems. Some US states have a similar law – but the argument against it, amongst many arguments is that it infringes on individual liberties. And of course people don’t want to be sued if their help harms people inadvertently.
Although in one survey it was found that more people would help someone in need because they were legally obligated than for moral or ethical reasons.
The issue has become much more prominent since then. It turns up in interesting places. For example – have a look at this scene from the final in the series of the American series Seinfeld – which I hasten to add I never did watch. The humour is unpalatable – and as you will see the background knowledge of the writers dodgy. I think it makes the point though.
Have a look.
If you think that’s bad, you should read some of the comments made about this. One person wrote this:
MegaSoldier64 1 month ago – The good Samaritan law is modeled after great Britain’s good Samaritan law, it became law when the queen of England had a heart attack and all those paparazzi just stood there and took pictures instead of helping her…
This lawyer in Luke’s gospel is also an interesting character. “What must I do?” is a great question about obligations. In this case its “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” that gets Jesus into “teaching by story” mode. Jesus’ response is straightforward – it’s one of those “haven’t you read your Bible” kind of responses:
Luk 10:26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
Luk 10:27 He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'”
Luk 10:28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
The legal eagle is not satisfied. Maybe he wanted controversy – more of a debate – maybe he was trying to trick Jesus.
He certainly opened up a new can of worms for those of us who like to be passive observers along the road of life.
Luke says he wanted to justify himself. I’m glad he did – as we get one of the two greatest stories of the bible – as a result of his probing. The other more famous one they say is the prodigal son. You can decide which is the top one.
It’s not unusual for stories to have three characters. Dig deep into your literary knowledge and you will find some – Goldilocks and the three bears, the three little pigs. I am sure you know what I mean. It’s all about story technique.
Jesus’ listeners would be listening out for the third character in the tale.
They would have wanted the hero to be one of them. Not a fancy Levite or indifferent priest. They are the bad guys in the tale.
They would have been waiting for the third person – a good guy who shows up the others – one of them – ordinary folk with some moral backbone.
They listen carefully – here it comes. “a Samaritan…”
- “no way Jesus! One of the enemy???”
He’s not mentioned as a “good” Samaritan. That has become a title added on by us.
- He’s more than good though.
- He’s extravagant! Remarkably generous.
- It’s an absurd story.
- It’s not about who is our neighbour.
- It’s about who we are neighbours to. It’s about action.
It’s another variant of “love your enemies.” The wounded man is bound to be Jewish. And the hatred was mutual.
LET’S DO THE PLAY NOW
Let’s choose characters to play based on who you identify with the most.
When you ask kids to do this – and probably adults – not many people want to be the half dead guy.
The boys love being the robbers!
Perhaps we don’t want to think about what it’s like to be needy.
I don’t think we can get into those shoes very easily. Unless you’ve been attacked and beaten up perhaps.
How would you do as the lawyer?
Note that he can’t even say the word “Samaritan”. Jesus asks him this question at the end: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
He can only say this: “The one who had mercy on him.”
“Go and do likewise” says Jesus.
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANT THING TO TAKE HOME?
This is not a moral or legal story primarily. It’s not that we are to decide to be “good Samaritans” either because it’s the right thing to do or because we might be prosecuted.
It’s really about what motivated the Samaritan in the tale.
What did he have? Pity – is the word in the NIV in verse 33. Most better translations use the word “compassion” – that word we talked about a couple of weeks ago – that involves the inner parts, heart, stomach, the lot. It was the feeling Jesus had in Luke 7 towards the widow of Nain that caused him to stop the funeral procession – and raise the woman’s only son.
It’s the word in Luke 15:20 we are still to get to, that the Father has for the Prodigal son.
Its appears in passages referring to Jesus and God the Father.
And there is a strong argument that the Samaritan here is functioning as God’s agent.
After all, the lawyer identifies the man as showing “mercy” – another word which throughout Luke is associated either with an act of God or God’s agent (Luke 1:47-50, 54, 72, 78; 17:13; 18:38-39; the only exception is when Father Abraham refuses to show the rich man “mercy” [16:24], an exception which ultimately proves the rule that in Luke’s Gospel only God and Jesus show mercy).
That makes the story more startling.
Jesus is seen in the Samaritan. The Samaritan is a Christ figure.
Who is it that stops to help – that binds up our wounds and anoints us with the oil of gladness – that pays for our safe haven – if not Jesus?
This is not an “example” story that we are to be Good Samaritans.
We are younger siblings of our elder brother Jesus in God’s family.
We are the body of Christ – we are Jesus in the world – stopping to help out of compassion and because of his mercy.
MUCH OF THE WORLD MAY WELL BE HALF DEAD AND IN A DITCH
We can relish our own security and purity if we like – or take the chance – the risk – of showing mercy at a cost of our time and money – to reach the broken ones of this generation.
And if we don’t have compassion – then we need some loving ourselves to soften our hearts.
In any case – it was the Samaritans that did not welcome Jesus, that James and John wanted to turn into toast by calling fire down from heaven.
It was one of them who got it right – the enemy models love. Must have been a son of peace – I would say.
Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46
We are reaching the end of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s gospel – just before he faces his Passion. Chapter 26 verse 1 says this: When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2)
It’s a turning point. And it’s interesting that this last teaching – in Matthew’s gospel anyway – is this parable of the sheep and the goats.
Coming to New Zealand for us was a very interesting experience. I used to joke about it when asked whether I would consider ministering here: “Oh too many sheep” I would reply. “I’ve got my hands full already!”
And when we did arrive in Wellington, it was quite a while before we actually saw sheep. I remember my wife getting quite excited when it happened – on the way up the Hutt River Valley towards Kaitoke Regional Park – one of our favourites and the site of the set of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings.
Sheep and goats.
This is a parable isn’t it? The comparison is in verse 32: “…he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
That’s about as far as the comparison goes. There is no other link – not even the tails up of the goats and tails down of the sheep (or is it the other way round?) give us anything to compare or relate to.
Here’s the fascinating thing. I mean you would want to be a sheep on that day would you not?
It’s time to resurrect my first song I taught the children here:“I just want to be a sheep, baa ba ba baa. I don’t want to be a goat, no no no no, cause goats have got no hope, I don’t want to be a goat.”
Of course we teach the children about following Jesus as good little sheep – but we seldom talk about the eternal punishment awaiting the goats. Eternal punishment! Unlike their time-out in the corner etc.
Some thoughts came to mind this week. Here they are.
- Okay it’s just a simile about separation.
- This will happen at the end of things? Yes/no?
- The sheep and goats will coexist (as they often did grazing together) – which means that the sheep and goats are in the church together? Right?
- Does that mean that some of you are going to the eternal fire! Right?
Well I don’t know. Have a word with the person next to you and ask them – is it you? Will it be you? What do you think of this parable?
(Pause for discussion.)
(That sounds like the last supper and Jesus trying to root out his betrayer – and they all say “is it I Lord?”)
HOW DO YOU READ YOUR BIBLE THEN?
- Is this the last judgement?
- Is the judgement based on ethical behaviour – and not faith or a lack of faith?
- I thought we were saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2 says after all: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (vss 8-9).)
- So do you think Paul wrote Ephesians before Matthew wrote Matthew?
- Did Paul even know what Jesus taught on this matter?
Well it’s more complex than that really. This parable or story is I mean.
- For one thing, the righteous in the account and the goaties have no idea when they did or did not do the right thing by Jesus – or to Jesus, when they were doing these things to the least of his brothers – or in the case of the goaties NOT doing these things. This needs some further thought.
Both reply to the King/Judge – “when did we do this/when did we neglect to do this”. They didn’t have a clue. (See verses 37 and 44)
Mat 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
Mat 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
The sentences seem to mean the same – but they don’t of course. The first means that they could not make the connection between the good they did and Jesus. They are “righteous” – and the Son of Man knows this – because they have been doing these important acts.
The second is an excuse. As Bonhoeffer has pointed out – an excuse for doing nothing. It’s almost as if they are saying – “now it’s not our fault if we couldn’t identify you” – a bit like the undercover boss programmes on TV. “I’ve I’d known it was the boss in disguise I would have behaved differently.”
- Secondly, who are the intended recipients of these acts of mercy and kindness? The least – Christians only, or the least – all created people. What are the chances of the Christians being hungry, thirsty, a stranger needing hospitality, needing clothes, sick and needing help, and in prison and needing some love and care?
Surely the Christians should be employed, wealthy and self-sufficient? When you listen to first world Christians and how scathing they can be about the unemployed who are on benefits, you would assume that we are all prosperity cult members.
And prisoners – nah Christians stay out of trouble. Yeah Right!
In our western arrogance we often see these people (especially unemployed and in jail – maybe not so much the sick) as those people over THERE!!!! – To whom we can give a few dollars on line. Which I do to of course. If you haven’t given something to the people of Vanuatu, then I reckon you could be in trouble here!
Commentators and New Testament students debate as to whether the people we should be helping here in Matthew 26 are family (church family) or simply all created people who land in trouble.
Calvin says – focus on the church, but remember it also applies to others!
Like Paul in Galatians:
Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Gal 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
When Jesus refers to the righteous – he’s talking about people who have responded to faith – chosen to follow him – and do his will!
The trail goes back to the earlier verses in Matthew’s Gospel.
Mat 12:47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
Mat 12:48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Mat 12:49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.
Mat 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
He has this family identified by obedience really!
Go back further in the Gospel and you find this:
Mat 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
Mat 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Mat 7:17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
Mat 7:18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
Mat 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mat 7:20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Mat 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Mat 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Mat 7:23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Mat 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
And of course we go to another simile (comparison using the word “like” or “as”).
Building your house on the rock is about building your life on the WORDS of Jesus! (I remember preaching on that right here!)
The bottom line in this account is that the king is the Judge.
And we will give account.
And when we follow Jesus we should be doing Jesus stuff.
And the key identifier is probably this one thing: mercy.
Matthew 5:7 reminds us: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
And Luke 6:36: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
It has no meaning – this Christian faith – if we are unchanged. Selfish. Like goats with our tails in the air so proud of ourselves – when we should be like sheep with our tails between our legs (or down anyway) because it’s not about us really.
So there it is.
Don’t end up with the devil and his angels. If you can’t get the idea of fire in your head, then listen to Jesus words to the reprobates: V41 – Depart from me….
Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 18:15-35
This is an amazing passage. If you thought the Sermon on the Mount had challenges, read Matthew 18!
The first few lines where we pick up the narrative in verse 15 are used by some churches as a process of excommunication. Listen to the process. It’s quite simple really:
Mat 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
Mat 18:16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
Mat 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
And of course treating them like pagan or gentile or a tax collector is not the end of the road. These people were not beyond redemption. Ask Matthew about his career!
- Being forgiven and forgiving
The story of the unforgiving servant is like stand-up comedy really. When you consider the amounts of money involved. Jesus’ listeners would have had a good chuckle! 10 000 talents equals about 100 million days’ wages. It raises some questions thought – as all good stories do. Why did the master let that debt get so big, for example? *
And of course the Master catches up with this man who fails the requirement to forgive as he was forgiven. So the debt is reinstated – all 100 million days’ wages worth. He gets handed over. The idea of a debtors’ prison has always struck me as odd. How do you pay your debts when you are in jail?
Here’s the line that speaks of consequences:
Mat 18:34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This would have got Jesus’ hearers in a tiz/tizzy too – Jews didn’t practice torture, but Romans did!
And of course, the original plan was this: Mat 18:24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
Mat 18:25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The most expensive slave in those days was worth about 1 talent. Even if he had three kids, the guy would have recouped only 5 talents.
So the grace act begins with the man’s plea:
Mat 18:26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
Mat 18:27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
So he goes off and demands that the other man pay him. You know the rest of the story. People notice the injustice and tell on him!
The story is in response to Peter’s questioning of course! Who else?
It is told to illustrate the teaching on forgiveness that Jesus gives. It should not have been a surprise to Peter – who starts the conversation. We’ve talked about this before – how Peter thinks that forgiving your brother up to seven times is okay. No, says Jesus – 77 times. Or is it 70 times 7?
It would have been no surprise to them because they would have heard Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer: Mat 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
So what do we do with this?
I think that the first passage from verse 15 is key to making things right. Accountability and truth telling are closely connected to forgiveness. And remember – follow this pattern and you won’t be using the old triangle method – You – person A – are mad with person B – so instead of going to sort things out – you tell person C. (Gossip and scandal – both serious sins). Listen again to the pattern:
When we see “church” here we sometimes assume that this is the big organisation of today – and “telling it to the church” means standing up and announcing to the assembled people of God that the person is being kicked out, after due process of course.
That’s probably a mistaken view. Here’s why.
The context is a shepherding or pastoral one. Right before this discussion is this telling passage:
Mat 18:12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
Mat 18:13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Mat 18:14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
Anything to do with sheep is what we call today a pastoral matter. And when people are excluded in some way for not responding to correction, the purpose is to bring them to their senses (or to bring them to repentance) so that they will admit that they have wronged and for the sake of the church’s witness and unity they should make right and return. Return to the fold!
And central to this is relationships. When “church” is mentioned in bible times the chances are it’s a small group probably meeting in a home. Not in a church building.
So relationships would matter a lot. You could not hide in a crowd in a small group.
And confronting people is not easy. We are also sinners. Tom Wright puts it beautifully:
Every time you accuse someone else, you accuse yourself. Every time you forgive someone else, though, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful that God has already given you. From God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we all are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun. And so on. We can all relate to that.
The key thing, as I have already said, is not that one should therefore swallow all resentment and ‘forgive and forget’ as though nothing had happened. The key thing is that one should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal. If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, never revenge.
Forgiveness is fundamental to the fabric of who we are as a Christian community.
Wright says “forgiveness is like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.
Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. This is a hard lesson to learn.
Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 39-40). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
THE COMMUNITY WE BUILD
So all of this is about community in the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that we pray to come on earth “as it is in heaven”.
Our church Mission statement is printed every week: “Building loving communities that help people find and follow Jesus”.
These communities are more likely to “find” Jesus (although I hasten to add that he is not lost – usually we are) – people are more likely to find and follow Jesus in a community that is open, honest, and walking in the light. (cf 1 John 1).
We put people on committees when in fact they are needing community.
And community is more likely to sort out relationships than a large crowd of people who don’t really know each other anyway.
Which is why the apparent harshness of the final verse is so important.
Mat 18:32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
Mat 18:33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
Mat 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
There is a serious warning here. These are matters of the heart.
When someone apologises to you for doing wrong, you know when it’s not from the heart.
I’ve experienced that. And I saw it in action when boys who were fighting were forced to apologise without them actually understanding how damaging their behaviour was. Forcing kids to say sorry (usually to siblings or friends at school where there has been a scrap over something) usually involves body language that is the direct opposite of their words.
Without repentance – confession of sin can also be perfunctory. Unthinking, an obligation, a kind of a duty. Often self-focused – wriggling getting out of trouble without really feeling remorse.
Those kind of apologies usually say something like “if I have offended you or hurt you” when we all know that they did. And they follow with “it wasn’t personal” when you know it was totally!
Let’s learn to fix things!
* Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Location 3734). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Readings: Micah 5:2-4; 6:6-8 Matthew 9:3 (Following the Narrative Lectionary)
There are two things I’d like to share with you today. Nothing complicated. Very simple. But also challenging! You know the saying about preachers – we are tasked to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
We are reading prophets today. Even the New Testament verse refers back to Hosea the prophet (prophesying in the northern kingdom).
Mat 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
(Hos 6:4 “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.
Hos 6:5 Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.
Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
You can’t really read the prophets at all without getting a sense of when these words were spoken – context is everything.
I spoke about David, if you recall, who ruled for 40 years, as did Saul before him. Actually Saul reigned for 42 years.
And then Solomon – daughter of David and Bathsheba – reigned 40 years too.
So some 122 years of kingship. Unity ends in 931 BC.
And of course the kingdom divides in two after that. Israel (10 tribes) in the north and Judah (two tribes in the south). Israel – the northern kingdom – has 19 kings through this period ending in 722 with the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians.
And in Judah in the south 20 kings through to 586 BC when the Babylonians conquer the southern kingdom.
So Micah is a prophet in the southern kingdom, and a contemporary of Isaiah.
And his prophecy about Bethlehem is profound. Bethlehem is David’s city by birth (an overstatement in the Christmas carol – it’s a village or small town). We get all gooey when we read about Bethlehem as “O little town of Bethlehem” leaps out of our musical memories.
The issue is that Bethlehem is rather insignificant as a town. The Messiah comes from this small place – this little “house of bread!” Listen to verse 2 again:
Mic 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Oh by the way Ephrathah means fruitfulness.
Hold onto this thought – Christmas is just around the corner – and these verses whet our appetites if we have a penchant for Christmas.
Verse 4 is also lovely:
Mic 5:4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
There is a sense of something great – someone great – who will come from this insignificant town.
Small does not mean insignificant in the eyes of God. And the same applies to you – if you think you are insignificant in the greater scheme of things – stick around and see how God can use you as well! To be fruitful.
Just as Bethlehem was chosen to be the place – our small church in this smallish suburb is part of God’s plan to be fruitful.
That’s enough about
The real treat this week is Micah 6:8. It’s one of those famous verses that people love. In fact – apart from the reference to the Messianic ruler coming out of Bethlehem, Micah 6:8 is the only really famous verse in the book. I listened to a discussion of this passage between a New Testament professor and an Old Testament professor. The Old Testament man referred to the book of the prophet Micah, to which the NT guy responded – “Oh yes – that’s a nice yerse!”
What is the context here?
Pretty much the same as today – listen to the first 5 verses of Micah 6:
Mic 6:1 Listen to what the LORD says: “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.
Mic 6:2 Hear, O mountains, the LORD’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the LORD has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.
Mic 6:3 “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.
Mic 6:4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.
In other words – God is reminding them through the prophet – of how he had led them in the past! There is almost a mocking tone:
Mic 6:6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Mic 6:7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
It’s pretty direct really. What’s real worship? What really matters? Is it sacrifices (for us would it mean more offerings?).
Someone quipped that we don’t really have the problem of over-generosity today. It is hyperbole after all. Imagine ten thousand rivers of oil? There’s even an oblique reference to offering of one’s first born. “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Trouble is people did offer their children. Of course we would be aghast at that idea. Mind you – I recall a faithful and generous woman in our church years back who had a lot of kids – who told us once that when they were small she wished she could hang them up on a coat-hanger for a while.
Of course – Jesus is exactly that – if we become squeamish. Micah continues:
Mic 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God
What’s it all about? Not whether you exceedingly generous with your sacrifices – as if you could impress God or buy his favour like a politician in many places around the world.
No – it’s simple. Micah 6:8 it is:
- Act justly
- Love mercy
- Walk humbly with your God.
I loved the humility of Frank who spoke last week. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve heard of him before. There is a big world out there of course! You’re not meant to understand the intricacies of South African history and life.
What I liked was his honesty – how he felt that he had ticked all the boxes on God’s list – church, giving etc. and somehow he felt that God owed him something!
Someone penned this thought: “Moral indignation has never led anyone to Christ, but mercy has.” Mixed with acting justly and walking humbly before God.
I want that in my life! At Messy Church Friday we talked about being saintly – which actually means holy. Of course we talked about the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Catholic tradition lists 12 fruits: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. There’s a thought – adding generosity, modesty and chastity.
Micah gives us – Act justly, Love mercy, Walk humbly with your God. Good start if you are interested in being the light of Christ in this generation. This too is part of God’s plan for us as a church – to be fruitful.
New International Version – UK (NIVUK)
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
It’s Reformation Sunday! By all rights I should be speaking about FAITH ALONE, THE BIBLE ALONE, AND GRACE ALONE! The text could be Romans 3 – how all have sinned. And how we are saved by faith.
Instead we’re back to prayer!
In a sense prayer is everything – the outcome of all the issues that the reformers fought over – add up to this one thing. You and I have direct access to God.
And the conflict of Luther with the Catholic church of his day is neatly portrayed in these two characters:
- The Pharisee
- The Publican (or tax collector).
The one basis his relationship with God on his achievements. The other has nothing to offer – except to plead for mercy. The first is about salvation by works – the second salvation by faith, through grace.
Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at the loving kindness of God – his mercies that are new every morning. And we have looked at that persistent widow knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.
Today’s parable takes this further. We loved the story of the widow – because we like supporting the outsider, the underdog. Kiwis love this – they don’t like people who are too full of themselves – like the judge who didn’t care too hoots about God or people.
But we are stretched today.
Because the guy who walks away from the prayer time justified is a pretty bad guy really.
A publican. A tax collector. In a modern version of the story it would be like some terrible occupying army from Australia or the old Soviet Russia controlling our lives from day to day and taking our money. And one of our own working for the occupiers – and people from your own side would come knocking at your door to take your money – and extra for themselves.
This is a recipe for valid resentment, rejection, revolt, revision of your values – I mean why should you give these kinds of people time of day?
Think of other teachings of Jesus – like walking the extra mile. The contrast is equally radical! A Roman soldier had every right to make you carry his heavy pack for a mile. No more. And you would hate that – that sense of powerlessness and being trapped by other peoples’ rules.
Jesus says – carry the pack two miles! This is extending grace to an enemy and an occupier – one who threatened all you stand for and believe!
So the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying is also radical.
It’s a church goer who shows up and does the stuff – paying their 10 percent (we could do with more faithful people paying their ten percent here! ) and a rotten deceptive sneaky embezzler coming into church – like one of those guys who sold you a great investment – only for you to see your retirement money gone in a flash.
Everything in us wants to punish those horrible people.
Lucky for us this is Reformation Sunday! All have sinned (Romans 3:23) – that’s the point. Romans 6:23 talks about the gift of God. Romans 8:1 declares those in Christ to be free from condemnation.
It’s actually about grace! Unmerited favour and lots of forgiveness.
How good to see our mayor in the local paper this week – saying that he has received real compassion from Christians in Auckland.
Oh we should be careful not to judge!
THE DETAILS OF THE CONTRAST
Look at Luke again:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable
Well that’s a good warning – as self-righteousness is a serious problem. So too looking down on everyone else. I guess that’s pride or arrogance.
The prayer itself needs examination:
God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
We may think – gosh these Pharisees were bad – what a bad attitude?
And yet we are equally dismissive of the three categories
- Robbers – creative bunch. We’ve opened our home to homeless people – and they’ve wandered off with our things! (Tell the story of the Smiths in Witbank – or the thief that came back after being prayed for… )
- Evildoers – nice broad category really. We tut tut and the terrible things people do these days – forgetting that this is nothing new. Sometimes you read these historical quotes about bad people and you think it’s something written yesterday – only to find it came of some Pharaoh’s tomb or the writing was found on the wall of a cave dating back thousands of years!
- Adulterers – gosh Auckland has been really in a tailspin about this one and our mayor. Trouble is Jesus again – look at what he said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28).
Tricky one isn’t it?
And of course the Pharisee lists his strengths! And they show discipline and generosity don’t they.
But it’s this line that gives away the arrogance: God, I thank you that I am not like other people…
And that’s exactly how Luke introduces this story: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.
What we need to really examine is verse 13:
13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The heart of the matter is humility. I have real issues with this. Humility is the virtue, the attitude that enables people to follow leadership, to trust others’ judgement, and to be teachable.
Being teachable – just by the way – is the thing that I look for in people – especially leaders. You may remember the acronym FAT – I’m looking for Fat people. Faithful, available and teachable!
What can we say about humility?
Lack of humility – its antithesis – is probably pride. Its part of every marriage argument, every case of broken relationships. And its there in the hearts of people who can’t for the life of anyone see the need to have God in their lives.
Because they are self-sufficient!
The longer I serve Him – the more inadequate I feel in myself.
Sin is there because we are sinners by nature.
And the inner battle goes on until the day Jesus takes us home.
So how is your prayer life going?
Persistence (last week – from the story of the unjust judge who got a black eye from a little old widow).
Be careful that persistence doesn’t come from a sense of entitlement and pride – that you think you actual deserve your prayers to be answered.
Luke 18:14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Too many of us get the words of the song confused – the one that goes like this… I’m thinking of the Michael Smith Song – It’s all about you Jesus. It’s called “The heart of worship”. The chorus goes like this:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
And it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus
Too many of us change the words and sing” And it’s all about me, it’s all about me Jesus…”
You get the point. Bruce Larson gives us this formula to help us get the humility thing right. We’ll end with this:
Being a new being in Christ means reversing our natural tendencies. Someone once said to me, “Larson, do you know what’s wrong with you? You judge other people by their actions and yourself by your intentions. If you could reverse that, it would change your life.” Since then I’ve been trying to judge others not by what they do, but by what they meant to do. Try judging yourself not by what you meant, but by what you did—which is how people perceive you. That’s a giant step on the way to humility.
And on this Reformation Sunday there is one extra thing – central concept – that is here:
The humble man “went home justified before God”. (v14)
Justification is at the heart of Paul’s teaching in his letters, especially His letter to the Roman church.
He was made righteous because his sin was blotted out! Pardoned.
That’s the heart of it.
It’s a dangerous parable. I last preached on it on the Sunday I came here with a view to a call. I did a pretty bad job of the sermon. And some of the people rated me badly and voted against me coming!
You see you rated me and decide whether I was okay or not. Clearly that is the grace of God (if it was based on the rating of that sermon!) Most – almost all -voted to have me as pastor here! 🙂
We’re always rating each other.
And on that Sunday I preached I warned of the danger here.
That all too easily we might say – “I thank God that I am a repentant sinner and not like that arrogant Pharisee!”
Justification by faith – the heart of the reformation – is what it is. We don’t deserve God’s love – and it is bounteous. I once tried to quantify it in a children’s chapel. We had glasses, then buckets, then wheely bins to answer the question – how much love is there?
The answer is – it reaches to the heavens – and to the end of the universe – to the multiverses out there – and beyond – way beyond where the Star Ship Enterprise and Captain Kirk will ever go.
What a relief! Enjoy this love today and always!
God bless you as you seek Him.
READING: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
So what do you feel when you hear this story? Who do you relate to? Which character? I was thinking – I’m a man who has two sons. Hmm.
Take a moment to become one of the characters. What you would say if you were them? How would you tell the story from their point of view?
So what did you think?
The father – many could relate to him. How challenging parenting is and how different our children turn out to be.
The younger son – I guess many could relate to him too. We have many in our churches who have come home to the Father (God) – some after years of being away. Many who wasted their resources and opportunities. Remember that the word “prodigal” which we use to describe this parable means one who wastes and squandours their wealth and resources!
The older brother – there are plenty older brothers who can easily be resentful.
And there are other points of view in the story – think of the mother (perhaps saying to her husband: “I told you it wasn’t a good idea!”).
Or the servants in the household wondering how this could be.
Think of the neighbours – the local rabbi if there was one – family friends and of course the lawyers of the day who were guardians of the way estates were handled and retirement planned!
MY REACTION TODAY
As a father – I understand completely. As a counsellor and as a pastor – I see so many fascinating dynamics in families. There are so many interesting possibilities. This story resonates with many of our experiences does it not?
There are two issues I want to consider however – to stretch your thinking:
I would suggest that the younger brother didn’t repent when he was in the pig pen. Yes he was in a serious mess. People sometimes say that he did repent – but I think it’s more basic than that. Listen again:
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
They all come home when they’re hungry. I’m speaking of children of all ages.
And as an aside people come to church for all kinds of reasons too – they walk in here and discover while looking for a meal – a practical solution – support in their new language – songs for their children to learn at mainly music – skills for their boys to develop at ICONZ – while looking for these things they find the extravagant grace and love of God!
And by the way that begins in us – our being extravagantly gracious and generous!
This prodigal was driven by a famine! By circumstances! By his stomach! And he had some bridges to mend! The road to repentance begins here – but its not the whole explanation for what was happening.
What follows is a rehearsed speech – kids do this all the time – when they’ve crashed the car or messed up in some way. Here’s verse 18 again:
I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: And then there’s the speech. He would have had lots of time to practice it on the road: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’
Yes the speech includes “I have sinned against heaven and against you”. So people do argue that he repented. And following what I said last week – there is a change of direction and a change in mind here!
In the context of the other parables – remember the lost sheep and the lost coin before this parable in Luke 15? The shepherd found the lost sheep. Someone has noted that the lost sheep did not repent either!
In Romans 5:8 Paul reminds us: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And God – way back in Genesis – went LOOKING for Adam who had become the first prodigal!
Luther said that repentance follows forgiveness. In fact the first of his 95 theses that he nailed to the wall so to speak and got the Reformation going reads like this:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
The story of the prodigal son is a story if anything about forgiveness.
I mean the father didn’t even let the younger son finish his speech. And he didn’t do what dad’s do today: bread and water and to your bedroom! We’ll talk about this tomorrow!
He threw an amazing party! They celebrated with the very best! That’s an act of forgiveness. Welcoming him home is an act of forgiveness.
When you realise how generous God is, you repent! When you understand grace and the power of His love – you repent. The woman Jesus stopped from being stoned in John 8:11 would have repented when Jesus said – neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.
Christians who have walked the path a long time are more aware of their sins further down the track. And they repent. Pascal wrote this on the subject: “God is none other than the Saviour of our wretchedness. So we can only know God well by knowing our iniquities… Those who have known God without knowing their wretchedness have not glorified him, but have glorified themselves.” Blaise Pascal
And the fruit of repentance – the evidence of that repentance – for the prodigal son – would have been seen in the sequel or next story– “The kindness of the prodigal son to his grumpy bitter brother” and then perhaps in the next movie or newspaper article: “prodigal son puts in amazing hours on dad’s farm” followed by ” Prodigal’s lamb production puts large pig farm out of business”.
Forgiveness and grace – unmerited favour shown in love and kindness – lead us to full repentance as we realise how unworthy we are and that comes from the celebration of our return to God as well! Remember that in the previous parable where the shepherd find the lost sheep and brings them back, Jesus has this to say: I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.(Luke 15:7)
2. The other voice in the story.
There is another voice in the story. A second silent narrator if you like – perhaps outside of the story but commenting anyway.
It’s the voice of the accountant/retirement advisor.
It’s the voice of the one who looks at the Father’s high risk behaviour – foolishness – in giving the brother his inheritance in the face of the insult that he presents in the original request. After all, to ask for you money from dad before he dies is as good as saying he is dead. The dad takes the insult on the chin. And he gives the wealth away to his son who ends up squandering it – wasting it – spending it.
How similar that is to the very first story in the Bible that involves two brothers – yes the story of the parents of Cain and Abel. God in His grace gives their parents the right to name the animals and the responsibility to rule and care for the world on His behalf. They too are prodigal – wasting opportunity and resources as they turn to their own devices!
The voice of the account-cum- retirement advisor screams out – I told you so! You should not have done that! It was a bad idea.
But this Father is not into keeping up with the social standards of the day. His love is too extravagant.
He’s the dad that runs down the road! Bad bad bad! No self respecting dad would have done that in those days!
He’s the dad that kills the fatted calf! There’s no discussion about how the prodigal was to pay anything back. No restorative justice here.
One commentator, David Lose writes: Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand. Pulled down by the weight of their own claims, they can only sputter, “All these years….” “You never….” “This son of yours…”.
Yes the older brother is the spokesperson for the ones who want it to balance on paper – who want it to be fair.
David Lose also writes about this “other country” that the story describes like this: What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels, smells, even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it, even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.
What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean? No tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?”
Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason, people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place.
This is the Kingdom of God! The country of God, if you like.
This is Grace land – literally.
This is our place – God took a risk with the human race by putting us in charge here. And we too waste and squander. And he celebrates when we come home too!
So we too can fill in the blanks when we come back to our heavenly father: you can write your name in the spaces below:
______ was dead and is alive again; _______ was lost and is found.
It’s never too late! He too waits for us to come home!
Amen! May it be so for you today.