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Pentecost 17A Sermon
Matthew 21: 23-32,
Philippians 2:1-13
October 1, 2017

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

What do you think? Which of the two sons in Jesus’ parable did the will of their father? It is a pretty easy, straightforward question with an easy, straightforward answer. It is the one who may have said that he wouldn’t go into the vineyard, but who ended up going out to work. This one is a no-brainer, and the fact that Jesus asks what the Jewish authorities think about it reinforces the fact that the fact that it is an easy question. The question I have for you, though, is why do you think he told the parable in the first place. On the surface, the religious authorities have come to ask Jesus a simple, straightforward question: By what authority are you teaching in the temple? In other words, who told you that you could take up residence in this very Holy place? Who said you could be here?
Instead of answering this easy straightforward question, Jesus turns the tables on them. He asks them an easy, straightforward question right back! “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It’s easy – and it takes a one-word answer: either heaven or human … but maybe it is not so easy! There are political implications with their answer. If they say, “heaven,” then Jesus will ask them why they didn’t believe him; if they answer, “human,” then the crowds will be stirred, since they liked John, and this would mean that they didn’t respect his authority. It’s a case where the question is not as easy and straightforward as it may seem. The same thing would happen if you asked me, “Do you support NFL players kneeling during the national anthem before their football games.” For me, it isn’t an easy yes or no answer … and it’s not just because we pastors like to give long answers to supposedly easy questions! There are deeper implications to the answer of that question.

This interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders is not a simple question of, “who told you that you could be here?” It is the first of five very rapid-fire confrontations that the leaders have with Jesus where they are intended to disgrace him; to steal away from him the honor that he has been gaining with the people of the community … and in their culture, honor and shame was a very important thing. There was only so much honor to go around, and a person gained more by shaming someone else. So they are really trying to trick Jesus here; then they try to trick him by asking if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans … then they ask who a person’s husband will be in heaven if she had been married to many men … then they ask what is the greatest commandment … and finally they test him to see whose son is the messiah, David or God’s. None of these have anything to do with finding how much Jesus knows about the Jewish faith. It has everything to do with shaming him to steal away his honor.
The religious leaders were going about the task of humiliating Jesus. This is not the same as the humility about which Paul speaks in his letter to the Philippians from our second lesson. Humility is the very essence of Jesus’ life, and it has everything to do with how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus. In our English translations, this reading begins with the word, “If,” but that word can also be translated, “Since … or because.” Paul is making the point that since we have encouragement in Christ; because we have consolation from love, sharing in the spirit, compassion and sympathy, NOW we are able to make our joy complete without selfish ambition or desires by (in humility) regarding others as better than ourselves.

This is what Paul means when he tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We already have the love of Jesus as a free gift; our forgiveness and eternal life is guaranteed. So, now you are forgiven in Christ … Now WHAT? It makes a difference how we live, even if we have fear and trembling from trying to do the right thing in the sight of those who oppose us, those who would want to humiliate us because of our faith. Paul is not treating salvation in this text as if it is an individual destiny. Salvation is the quality of our corporate life together as it is lived under the rule of the savior. Salvation is not future - it is now; and it is to be worked out now just as Jesus worked out his own salvation by humbling himself to the death on a cross. Did you know that the one thing that would bring more shame on a person and their family in Biblical times than anything else was to be crucified on a cross? Jesus willingly took that track; he accepted that fate because he knew and personified the love of God which regards others as better than himself in all that he did.

There is a distinct difference between humiliation and humility. Humiliation was what the religious leaders were trying to do to Jesus by tricking him – catching him in a war of words where he could not win, and would be shamed by their cunning. Humility is willingly putting others ahead of yourself; knowing that your worth comes from the love of God given to you as a gift so that you can love others as a humble servant like Jesus did. It is that humility that suddenly becomes holy, worthy of great praise and love. That is the love that deserves the knee to bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth as we all confess Jesus as Lord. That is the model of humility that Jesus lives for us all.

So, let’s go back to that easy, straightforward question that I refused to give an easy, straightforward answer to earlier: Do I support the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem before football games? Absolutely NOT! But the reason is not what you think. To me, the only one that every knee should bow for is Jesus Christ, the one who humbled himself as our crucified and risen savior. No one should kneel before the flag – that is placing a false idol before our real source of life and love and salvation. BUT – should the players have some kind of platform to peacefully protest the injustices that they see in the nation so that change can come about? Absolutely. It does not have anything to do with disrespecting the flag or nation or military or anything. It has to do with acting in humility, as if someone else is better than we ourselves are … even if they are called, “millionaire spoiled athletes” by some.

What do you think? Who is doing the will of the father? In all things, it is those who know their place as beloved children of God, but do not regard that as something to be exploited. It is those who regard others as better than themselves, no matter how they answer the easy, straightforward questions. It is those who bow their knees only for Jesus. Amen.