“Doing the Will of God”
Matthew 21: 23-32, September 27th, 2020
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now this ancient lesson as recorded in the gospel according to Matthew, chapter twenty-one, verses twenty-three thru verse thirty-two.”
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For 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.
“Having listened to this intriguing exchange between Jesus and the Chief Priests and Elders, how shall we interpret its intended meaning for us in our present?”
“Doing the Will of God”
Jesus was always being questioned about where he got the authority to do the things he did; things like heal the sick, make the cripples walk, cause the blind to see, and bring the dead back to life. Therefore, it is not surprising to ‘yet again’ hear the Chief Priests and the Elders cross examine him in our scripture reading this morning. Not surprisingly, Jesus once again turns the conversation back to them as he asks these leaders a well-crafted question. Jesus’ ability to handle these closed hearted religious leaders, of his time, is well documented. After they conceded they could not, or would not answer the question, Jesus poses an allegorical story for them to consider. A story of two sons. It is a story we can easily understand and easily come up with the obvious answer, just as the Chief Priests and Elders did. The story speaks for itself.
By what authority do we make the choices we make, and who do we serve when we do or not do the things which need doing? Do we serve out of pride for what others will think of us? Many would call that an overblown ego. Do we publicly do seemingly good deeds while praying others will see how good we are? If we identify with this thought perhaps it is time to turn our efforts toward the needs of other, rather than feeding our own need for approval or appreciation! Was it not Jesus who healed others while asking that he himself – not to be exalted!? Did Jesus not humble himself, living in poverty, while actively giving of himself, asking only for others to believe in him?
Let us just make our discussion a bit more relevant to our setting today. We have two potential volunteers who are asked to serve on a cleanup committee after services each week. One agrees to help with the cleanup effort and the other says they cannot commit to the task. Yet, it is noted by several observers that the one who committed to the cleanup task ‘never shows up’ or ‘follows up’ in any manner. Whereas the other is often seen working to get the needed cleanup done. Clearly, the one that is seen doing the task, the work, is the better volunteer in this scenario. Which one will make a better power of example for others to follow? Which of the two is more dedicated to exhibiting the teachings of Jesus? The opportunities for us to be better volunteers or doers of the ‘will of God’ are often more complex then our simple example. Surely, Jesus wanted his disciples to be doers of his words and to teach others to do the same.
One theologian, named Matthew L. Skinner, sums this up in a challenging thought. “It is easy to make pledges when an issue erupts. It can be easy to write a check or to resolve to put our faith into action into particular ways. Following through by working for long-term change is more difficult.” Skinner’s words do not diminish the gifts we do make of our time, talent and treasures, yet he is saying sometimes the will of God is for us to stay involved in the issue at hand… at least until it is resolved or completed. Our commitment to follow through is the challenge. Let us take a current example. We have committed to help feed the hungry in Palm Bay, by having a monthly food drive to support an active and local food pantry which is run and operated by one of our neighboring churches on Port Malabar Road. This is a wonderful, meaningful, and needed ministry. Nevertheless, as the months pass by the question becomes: will we continue to care for the hungry when our focus gets drawn toward another worthy project? Let us say something such as: our Thanksgiving plans with family and friends. And then of course Christmas with all those extras which we get involved in. There is a harsh reality. The hungry need to be fed every day and our commitment to help feed them needs to continue. We need to honor our commitment.
Janet H. Hunt wrote “I expect most of us can think of times when we have been like both of the sons in Jesus’ parable today. Where have you seen this play out in your experience?” Surely, there are times when we volunteer and something important unexpectedly comes up and we cannot follow through with our commitment. That is understandable. Yet, when we make no effort to follow-up or let others know of our changing availability… well, that is something else entirely. On the other hand, if we are the one who will not commit to a task, yet we go ahead and get involved in the doing this is truly good. However, we may want to reflect as to why we are unwilling to make the commitment to help-out when needed; surely, that would be even better. Whichever of the two sons we identify with, consider how we might improve our efforts. Jesus’ analogies are just that, they are meant to parallel the deeper message. The heart of his teaching is to uncover our own hearts, as we move with integrity into the all too real-world situations that come up every day.
Here is a clearly rhetorical question on this point. Which is more important: what we say, or is it what we do? Even the pious know the right answer. However, knowing does not translate into doing!
Standing up in front of a crowd proclaiming we support ‘Black Lives Matter’, is a good start, yet not speaking against racial profiling when we see it happening, and not condemning the powerful perpetrators of injustice, then we are not doing what we say needs to be done. Perhaps we simply do not understand, to truly stand with the teachings of Jesus, we must live into those teachings! Consider this accounting. For twenty-six plus years I have struggled to live up to the sermons I have prayerfully compiled. In my youthful modesty, while serving as a licensed pastor in North Miami, I responded to a complement of one of my freshly preached sermons with these humble words: “I don’t know if I can live up to what I have just said!” When we reach the gates of heaven, let us all pray we can ‘all’ be as honest and sincere as that ‘young and inexperienced’ pastor that day!
Theologian and avid writer, David Ewart speaks of our doing rather than our saying. “It is we who are sitting in church who SAY (and sing and pray) many things. But this text puts the focus on what we actually DO. Just exactly what is it that we do after we leave church on Sunday? Ouch.” A very critical critique of us church goers to be sure. Surely, we would respond that this assessment of churches, is totally wrong! Wouldn’t we? Now that we got that out of our system let us consider why this might be said. What our writer has done is ‘challenge us’ and all church goers to a higher standard. If the service is all about… say, loving our neighbors, then we need to truly implement that posture as we go about our daily life. Perhaps the older woman next door, who lives alone, could use a friendly hello or some help with a task that she no longer can handle. Or the young family in our neighborhood could use an assist, after some hardships have come their way. Maybe, you can call that church member or friend that just found out the cancer has come back. He or she may need a thoughtful prayer or someone to talk with.
“What you do is more important than what you say.” The original author of this profound saying is unknown to me. My complements to that person. Surely, it speaks loudly to our need to live with integrity. What we say ought to emulate what we in fact do. If we do virtuous Godly things, righteous things, and selfless things, clearly, we are doing as Jesus did. If we follow in the teachings of Jesus, and the examples Jesus set forth then we are following the will of God! It is a wonderful thing to have a hundred people gathering on-line and in person to worship God every Sunday. Yet, it is far more important that we each live into the fullness, living into the action needed to carry forth the ‘will’ of God! It is one thing to speak of kindness – it is another to stop in the middle of a busy, busy day, and reach out to someone in need – without seeking something in return. It is the giving that counts!
Mercy and forgiveness make great sermon material; yet, living into a merciful ministry while forgiving those that confound our efforts – is a living message of compassion and hope! Reaching out to aid the needs of another from the abundance of our lives is worthy; yet, doing this when the abundance has dried up and our prospects are slim – that takes faith and courage. Sometimes, oftentimes actually, we must dig deep into our commitment of faithfulness to move ourselves to take that necessary step to help-out. Sometimes it is that hand of friendship or fellowship which is needed; another time it may take rolling up one’s sleeves and sweating a bit to get the job done. Jesus did both and much, much more. Let us do likewise!
Jesus not only welcomed the outcast and the marginalized – Jesus celebrated their lives! He turned the tables on the hypocrites, those who cheated God’s people – shedding light upon their corruption. Salvation comes to the righteous – not the hard of heart. It has been said it is far better to see one ‘living sermon’, ‘one sincere good deed’, then to hear ten insincere ‘proclamations’ within a lifeless message. Indeed, it is far better to walk the walk of faithfulness – then simply talk the talk!