How Will I Know? Luke 1:5-20

This series of sermons is based on a book called Five Questions of Christmas, by Rob Burkhart. Check it out on Cokesbury.

To get to the manger, you have to go through John the Baptist. 

That’s kind of a “science-fiction-time-bending” statement. At the manger, John would have been an infant, scarcely able to preach repentance and baptize believers! Yet, during this Advent season, if we are to seek the manger, the birth of Christ; and, if we are to use that story to symbolize the birth of Christ into our own lives, then, we must first understand the message of John the Baptist – “Repent!” 

To get to the manger, we have to go through John the Baptist. 

Today’s scripture deals with John’s birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth. It was, like many other biblical births, a surprise! Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before him, Zechariah doubted the promise of a coming child. Zechariah didn’t trust that what the angels predicted would actually happen. The question we examine this morning comes from his own lips – “How will I know that this is so?” 

Luke 1:5-20 (CEB) 

During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty.Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. 

13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers[a] back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” 

19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.” 

Zechariah’s question echoes through my mind today, as I look at our world.  “How can I be sure of this?” Or “How will I know?” Zechariah is promised an extraordinary blessing, and responds with doubt. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he asks a question we’ve all been asking lately – “Lord, how do we know your promises are true?” 

Preachers and Christians the world over “talk a good game,” shower us with blessings and good words; but, when it comes right down to it, how do we know it is true?  

Especially, how do we know God’s love and care is real in the face of loss? In a world torn apart by conflict? We might ask – “If all you say, Lord, is true, why is this world so violent, so cruel and cold?” 

How can we proclaim anything vaguely resembling “Christmas Joy” this Christmas season?  

Good news and bad news: 

  • Bad news: I have no definitive answer 
  • Good news: I know from life experience that – for those who love Christ and are surrounded by others who love Christ – the pain doesn’t last forever. 

All I can do right now is point to poetic words that comfort me, and hope they comfort you. I come back, time and again, to the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” 

O little town of Bethlehem 
How still we see thee lie 
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
The everlasting Light 
The hopes and fears of all the years 
Are met in thee tonight 

Life is a curious mixture of hope and fear. Always has been! It certainly was for Joseph and Mary, as they pondered what it meant to birth the Son of God in a dirty stable. Maybe that mixture lay at the root of Zechariah’s question? He and Elizabeth were old, had been hoping for a child but feared their hopes were futile. Gabriel’s words were too good to be true.  

For us, life is still a mixture of hope and fear. We hope for a long and happy life, but fear we won’t make it. Some days hope wins and we forget all about fear. Somedays, fear has had the upper hand.  

If life were not such an odd mixture of hope and fear, faith would not be possible. If each day was more happy and hopeful than the day before, pretty soon we’d forget about our troubles and forget God. I’m not saying that God makes life hard so we will turn to him; life is already hard, has been since the beginning, and God is there to comfort us.  

Gabriel’s words are so unbelievable that Zechariah is speechless – and remains so until the naming of John. In our world, we are definitely not speechless! We argue, fuss, criticize, judge, berate, fight, condemn, post, block, tweet and retweet, unfriend, and unfollow. More often than not, all our voices only make it worse. Maybe we should be struck speechless, too!  

As “hopes and fears of all the years” meet in Alabama this December, I know the final victor will be hope. Fear may win tomorrow, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” All along that arc, hope and fear are battling it out!  

When we wonder how we can know that God’s promises are true, when we ask for certainty, look around. Hope is there. Like a little baby in an out-of-the-way manger, hope is there and growing. Until hope wins it all, we have to nurture it. It’s hard, but hope will grow. And, one day, we will know.  

Money, money, money! – Matthew 6:19-24

1973 – The O’Jays. “Money. Money. Money. Money – money!” You know the song? Maybe you remember that bass line that sticks in your head. Maybe you remember the back-up singers’ refrain. The words, though. I think the O’Jay’s have read the bible! 

 Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it
For the love of money
People will steal from their mother . . .
People will rob their own brother . . . 

People can’t even walk the street . . .
Because they never know who in the world they’re gonna beat
For that lean, mean, mean green
Almighty dollar, money. 

For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat . . .
For a small piece of paper it carries a lot of weight
Call it lean, mean, mean green 

Almighty dollar!

Money can change people sometimes 

Don’t let, don’t let, don’t let money fool you
Money can fool people sometimes
People! Don’t let money, don’t let money change you,
It will keep on changing, changing up your mind. 

The O’Jays, just like Jesus, know that money has power. Money can change you! Where your treasure is, there is your heart. You cannot serve two masters or worship God and money – though Lord knows we try! 

Here’s a thought: the O’Jays are more biblically accurate than the Osteens.

The ideas they sing about are closer to scripture than the ideas that preachers like Joel Osteen preach about. Some call their ideas “The Prosperity Gospel.”  

Kate Bowler, professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School, and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, in a New York Times article, defines Prosperity Gospel as, “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.”  

 “The Prosperity Gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering,” she says.  

 “It popularized a Christian explanation for why some make it and others do not. They revolutionized prayer as a way of getting God to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.” 

“Sometimes it works,” she says. But sometimes, it doesn’t. She has learned, through her struggle with cancer, to face life and realize that, “at some point, I am going to need to let it go.”  

At its worst, “Prosperity Gospel” makes God a “Sugar Daddy,” who lavishes favor on a special, fortunate few who know how to make him happy. The idea that God wants the best for us is not bad, but there is more to it than that!  

Cathleen Falsani, in a Washington Post article called, “Worst Ideas of the Decade” says this:  

 “Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich. 

 Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.” 

That “cautionary tale” most often reminds us that the love of money, the worship of money, can warp us and lead us to selfish, mean, and angry lives – far from the lives Christ teaches about.  

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the gospel of Matthew lately. So, I chose today passage from Matthew. I think it is significant that in his first, big, sermon, his first public teaching, his “debut,” if you will, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this:   

Matthew 6:19-24 (CEB) 

19 “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20 Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! 24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 

Money can become our master, our “Lord.” Money pervades every aspect of our lives. Herb Miller, author of many books on church finance and stewardship says, money has four basic influences on our lives: 

  • It influences the way we live 
  • The way we relate to others 
  • our life goals  
  • the way we are described by others.  

Miller says, “the way money exerts these enormous influences in our lives is determined less by how much of it we have than the philosophy we have adopted regarding it.” It doesn’t matter what you have, but it matters what you think about what you have.  

We cannot serve two masters, according to Jesus. We’ll love one and hate the other. Some of us try to balance two “gods.” We divide life into two realms – a spiritual realm and a material realm. We say that money is accepted and even vital in the material realm, but it doesn’t belong in the spiritual realm. One realm is for praying and getting in touch with God; the other is for making, spending and amassing wealth. 

Jesus taught that the two realms should come together. Money is important – in all of life, material realm and spiritual realm. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The way we look at money has a physical and spiritual impact. “The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus says. If we have a healthy outlook (on anything, not just money), then our lives will be “full of light.” If our outlook is distorted, unbalanced, unhealthy, then our lives will be “full of darkness.” 

Our attitude toward money pervades our entire personality. It can be a dangerous or enriching way to express that personality. It can get us into trouble, or strengthen our relationship with God. It can fill our lives with the darkness of greed. It can fill our lives with the light of generosity and joy.    

We mistakenly think that controlling and amassing a fortune is the key to happiness – but it isn’t. If we truly seek contentment and happiness, Jesus has an answer for that, too: 

Matthew 6:33-34 (CEB) 

33 Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. 

We know that verse as “seek ye first the Kingdom of God . . .” We often sing it, and finish with “and all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu, alleluia.” When we “seek first,” the “added unto you” doesn’t come as Prosperity Gospel claims – like a “vending machine.” “All these things” come in the form of new priorities. Things that were important when money was our god, are not important when God is God! Worries we had when our “eye was full of darkness” are not our worries anymore.   

“Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 

The bottom line is this: Jesus doesn’t care how much money we have. He cares about what we do with it. 

Do we worship money? 

Does our use of money betray the darkness that is inside us? 

Or . . . Do we worship God? 

Does our use of money show that worship? Does it show people where our priorities are? Does our use of money allow God’s light to shine forth from our lives? 

 

“Money. Money. Money. Money!”   

Matthew 5:1-12 – “How to be a Saint”

Today is the day we remember those church members who have passed away, “gone on to be with Jesus.” Traditionally, November 1 is “All Saint’s Day” – a day of remembering and honoring those who have “gone marchin’ in” with all the other saints.  

 It may sound odd to call them “saints,” because we knew them in life. They definitely weren’t perfect! “I didn’t know Methodists had saints,” you might say. We don’t. Not like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, anyway.  

 The Apostle Paul uses the term often (so does Wesley) to refer to believers. In this sense, “saints” are those who can be counted among those who follow Christ, no miracles, no divinity required. So, today, we remember those who have died in the faith; these people who, by their life among us in this fellowship of believers, evidenced a life in the faith. 

 The scripture for the morning reminds us of what that life in the faith looks like: 

Matthew 5:1-12 (CEB) 

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:  

 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. 

 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.  

 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.  

 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.  

 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.  

 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.  

 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  

 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.”. 

Thanks to Robert Schuller’s book, The Be-Happy Attitudes, many of us might think we know what this sermon will be about. We might expect a preacher to say something like, “The path to happiness goes through theses states – hopelessness, grief, humility, etc. This is the way to what you’ve always been looking for.” 

If you’ve been listening to me preach for the last 3 ½ years, it might be a good bet that is not what I am going to say. I think the Beatitudes are more than that. They aren’t commandments (“Go be hopeless, poor in spirit. Go show mercy and make peace.”) that teach us how to “be happy.” Happiness is “elusive and ill-defined,” something different for everyone. (James Howell, Ministrymatters.com)

Jesus was more concerned about other “nesses” – righteousness, forgiveness. Happiness (as we think of it today) might never have entered his mind. After all, look at what he didn’t say: “Happy are the successful, the wealthy, the good-looking people.” None of these scriptural blessings sound much like “Norman-Rockwell-American-Happiness” to me.   

 Jesus stood on the mountain and spoke. Matthew purposely uses this setting (Luke has Jesus say the same words on a “plain,” not a mountain) to remind his readers of another teacher and another mountain – Moses at Mt. Sinai.  

 With that level of authority, the same amount of power as Moses himself, Jesus speaks. He looks out on a bunch of put-down, stepped-on, powerless nobodies, and – with a Messianic authority – says, “You are blessed.” Not the rich. Not the powerful. Not any of them. You are blessed.”  

 In their world (and ours) blessings meant comfort and success. In Jesus’ world, the “last were first and the first last.” Blessings were for everyone!  

 Rather than taking the Beatitudes as a list of distinct steps to happiness, let’s look at them as a picture. Jesus was “painting a picture” (Howell on Ministrymatters.com) of the life of God’s children. Earthly “happiness” might elude them, but they were still God’s children. 

I prefer Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. It captures this notion of God being with us when life seems awful: 

 Matthew 5:3-11  

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.  

 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.  

 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.  

 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.  

 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.  

 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.  

 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.  

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.  

 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. 

Can’t you just hear Jesus talking like that to a bunch of down-trodden “losers” that the powerful people had “thrown away”? 

 James Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC and author of a book called The Beatitudes for Today, says the Beatitudes “can be read as autobiographical.” Who do the words most accurately describe? Jesus. In Jesus’ life, he created a space where the poor in spirit felt blessed. He welcomed and loved the people that the world threw away. When everything seemed lost, he was with them! 

So, if today, were are remembering the saints, considering how to be saints ourselves, ask these questions: 

Do these words describe us? 

Are we living a life in which the “poor in spirit,” the meek, the grieving feel blessed? Or do they just feel worse in our presence?  

When we meet someone who feels lost and afraid, are we with them? 

Want to be “a saint”? Then, be able to say yes to those questions. Live a life like Jesus lived.  

The Beatitudes challenge us to be church, to make Jesus present and visible in this difficult world.  

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King issued a similar challenge:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…”

Want to be a saint? Want to make a difference? Then be a church where the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble are welcome and where they feel blessed.   

Matthew 22:34-40 – The Hardest Commandment

Previously, in Matthew . . .

Jesus has been facing challenge after challenge

  • He has “cleansed the temple” (21:1-17)
  • Three times faced challenges to his authority to do such a thing (21:23-22:14)
  • Resulting in three parables – 2 sons, wicked tenants, and a wedding banquet
  • The Pharisees directly challenge him on the matter of taxes (22:15)
  • The Sadducees challenge him on the resurrection – and they don’t even believe in resurrection! (22:23)
  • Today, the Pharisees come back at him with another challenge

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[b40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

We hear Jesus talk about love and we picture the smiling, gentle man, with children on his lap. Realize this: Jesus speaks his most famous words on love in the middle of a fight for his life – seriously!

Sometimes, it is possible to be “both formidable and loving in the cause of righteousness.” You can love someone and still contend with them. Jesus is passionate about his cause while loving his enemies. Right in the middle of a verbal fight for his life, Jesus says, “The most important thing is love God with your whole self.” They knew that! They’d been reciting that verse their whole life.

He is showing that kind of total commitment by taking the fight right to them; he’s not backing down! In this battle all three sides – Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees – have the same amount of passion for the same God! They all believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have all staked their lives on that belief. We give the Pharisees and Sadducees a hard time, but, in this debate, all three sides are on the same team!

Sound familiar? Has our passion put us at odds with brothers and sisters of the faith? Every day? Every election cycle, at least!

Here’s how it happens in my life, occasionally:

I make a comment on a Facebook post. That leads to one of those virtual, semi-anonymous, from-a-safe-distance arguments. I try to stop before it gets to far gone, but sometimes I don’t. I “leave” the argument feeling animosity for the person – until I see them in person. When we see one another, we remember our friendship, our common faith, and the bond that brought us together.

When we love something – or someone – so strongly, our passions can divide us. But, our presence with one another unites us. It doesn’t erase the differences, but presence can drown out the shouting of division. When the tide of these divisive times leads us to arguments with friends, and we are tempted to break that bond, remember:

In the same situation, Jesus was still able to challenge his opponent to love.

Instead of cursing the Pharisee, who dogged his every step with challenge and argument (and, make no mistake, Jesus knew what their plan was!), Jesus never let his passion override his compassion.

What can we learn?

We learn that love means passion and commitment. We overuse and misuse the word, “love”. Love is as much “tiger” as “teddy bear.” When Jesus speaks of love, he speaks of commitment. When he shows love, it is often strong and fierce like a tiger. Rarely, if ever, does the Bible describe love as a kind of “teddy bear” affection. Even the love of a shepherd for his vulnerable sheep is a love of fierce protection and commitment.

The first half of Jesus’ response is a challenge to give total commitment to God. The Pharisees knew it as the “Shema,” which meant “Hear.” It was the centerpiece of their prayer life. Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This verse was the “John 3:16” of their day. By quoting it, Jesus reminds them that they are all called to the same total commitment of faith. Heart, soul, and might! They have known that all along.

Loving God with total commitment sometimes takes us to fierce places. We defend those places like a tiger!

Jesus’ second statement reminds us to take that ferocity and use it – not against others, but for others. Being called to “love your neighbor as yourself” means we take our neighbor’s needs seriously. It means we fight for them, not against them! No matter the position, no matter the difference, love calls us to defend and protect rather than demean and reject.

If we are totally committed to God – with heart, soul, and mind – we are totally committed to one another – with heart, soul, and mind.

Marcus Borg, in a sermon on this passage, puts it this way: being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves.

We are not immediately such a person, we become that person. Change happens, even for those who already believe. This kind of transformation occurs in the book, The Same Kind of Different as Me,  by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (now turned into a movie).

Ron is a wealthy art dealer, and a believer in Christ. While he travels with work, his wife, Deborah, volunteers at a local homeless shelter. Ron occasionally drops by and volunteers a little. At the shelter, Deborah meets Denver, an older black man. Denver grew up in a Louisiana share-cropper’s family. After leaving home, he drifts from place to place, ending up in Deborah’s homeless shelter in Texas.

By the time he and Deborah meet, Denver is a bitter man; the Christian faith of his childhood has not weathered well. He later confesses she is the first white woman he has ever held a meaningful conversation with. Their friendship strengthens, and Denver’s faith is awakened. When Deborah receives a cancer diagnosis, Denver prays for her.

When Ron first met Denver, he was wary. He judged the homeless man as dangerous and stayed away. Denver viewed Ron as just another rich, white guy volunteering out of pity. As Ron watched the friendship between his wife and Denver, he learned that Denver often had more depth and wisdom than he did. As both men watch Deborah suffer and eventually die, a deep and supportive friendship forms.

Two men transformed. They were already the kind of person who could love God. They became the kind of person who could love what God loves.

It didn’t happen all at once. It didn’t happen without total commitment.

When Jesus says it, it sounds so simple – Love God. Love neighbor. And, really, when you think about it, it is simple. Love God? Check! Love neighbor? Of course!

But, when the “rubber hits the road,” if our total commitments lead us into conflict (which they seem bent on doing!), it’s the hardest commandment of all. That’s why it takes a heart, soul, and mind commitment to God, for whom all things are possible.

Matthew 22:1-14 – Do More Than ‘Just Show Up’!”

Jesus responded by speaking again in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!” ’ But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them. 

“The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy.Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’ 

10 “Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. 11 Now when the king came in and saw the guests, he spotted a man who wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. 12 He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to his servants, ‘Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’ 

14 “Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.” 

 

The kingdom of heaven is like going to my cousin Dana’s wedding.  

It was banner occasion of 1988 in the Freeman household. It was the first time I ever officiated at a wedding. I remember getting the phone call. Standing in the kitchen, stretching the wall phone cord as far as it would go. No one was home at the time, so I left a note on a yellow paper towel (remember those colors?): 

August 13 – Dana and Jimmy are getting married and they want me to do it.” 

It was so important that my mother framed it. She framed a paper towel. Undoubtedly the oddest request her friends down at The Frame Shoppe (real name – creative, huh?) ever had.  

Anyway – we all went to Dallas. Everyone was invited. No one, not a Freeman, not a Stallings, nor Roe would turn down the invitation. All was merry until we got dressed to go to the church. 

I had chosen a dashing ensemble – dark blue suit, of course, with a white dress shirt with a red pinstripe which perfectly matched the tie. My mother took one look at my already-dressed self and said, “You’re not wearing that. This is a wedding. Did you not bring a white shirt?” 

In my estimation, this was a white shirt – with a red pinstripe. “Does it really matter?” I asked, “I’m going to be wearing a robe!” I shouldn’t have said that. 

After several more escalating ultimatums, she laid down the final gauntlet, “You are NOT leaving this house in that shirt. Wear that shirt and you will be ‘cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’!” 

With that volley, the war was over. Mama won – doesn’t she always?  

I know what Jesus’ unsuspecting party-goer feels like! There was absolutely proper “wedding garments” to be worn.  

 When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . ” we know we are getting into some “tall weeds.” The meanings are never a straightforward allegory. Even though it sounds like “King equals God,” and “banquet equals salvation,” the truth is so complicated that we are still searching for it – 2000 years later! 

And – remember – I’ve said for the past few weeks that we have to look at the whole picture, not just the individual elements. When we step back and look at the entire story, a few things become clearer. 

This passage occurs after Palm Sunday, and the “Cleansing of the Temple”. As you might expect, the “powers that be” – the Chief Priests and the elders – approach Jesus. They asked him, basically, “Who do you think you are, tearing up all this stuff?” 

By the time our passage comes around, Jesus is still answering the same question from the chief priests – where do you get your authority? 

“Well,” he says, “Tell me. Where did John get his?” They can’t answer because the people liked John, thought he was a prophet. They wouldn’t want to offend their constituency!  

“Got a story for you,” Jesus continues. “A man had two sons. One said he would work, but didn’t. The other said he wouldn’t work, but did. Who really does his Father’s will?” 

“The one that worked!” they answer triumphantly (finally, a question they could answer). 

“Then, why don’t y’all get to work? You say you are doing your Father’s will, but you aren’t. There’s tax collectors and prostitutes over there doing more of God’s will than you are!” Jesus was really getting into trouble now!  

Then, last week, we heard about the vineyard owner who just wanted to get what he was due; but, the workers kept killing his servants! Finally, he sent his own son. They killed him, too! Jesus insinuated that he was the Son, and the Chief Priests were the murderous workers. They got it! Verse 21:45 says, “they knew Jesus was talking about them.” 

“But you won’t have to worry long,” Jesus goes on, “God will take the Kingdom from you and give to people who really do his will.”    

Never one to “leave well enough alone,” Jesus had another one. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a King who threw a wedding party for his Son . . . ” We remember who the Son is. Let’s hope the Elders are still listening.  

This whole thing, this whole movement of which Jesus is the leader is a party – a celebration! Just like the vineyard owner who tried to reach his servants with a crazy love, this king is trying time after time to get someone – anyone! – to come to the party! 

Let’s not be dense, we are the invited guests! Some of us don’t even want to come. There is an abundance of joy, nourishment, and love, and we just ignore the invitation. We’d rather just stay home.  

Some of us run the other way and do anything other than come to God’s party. Hunting, fishing, football games, vacations, doing the laundry, or the housework. Anything but accept God’s invitation. Why, we’ll even abuse the ones who invited us – thankfully, most of us stop with harsh words and don’t go as far as the folks in the parable! 

Jesus intimates that God’s patience is not infinite – he might just destroy the invitees altogether and make up a new guest list! That’s harsh!  

If that’s not enough, we who get to the wedding find out we are wearing the wrong shirt! The host was expecting a white dress shirt, not one with a thin red pinstripe!  

Even the ones who finally accept the invitation are expected to show that they are invested in being there. John Wesley preached a sermon on this passage called “The Wedding Garment.” The garment to be worn is the grace, the forgiveness, the “sanctifying grace” (to use a real Wesleyan term) that helps us grow into perfection (another Wesleyan term). We can’t just accept the invitation without showing that we take that invitation seriously.  

We must take our salvation seriously by showing our intent to wear a “new life;” to change out of our old, ratty life and put on the “wedding garment.” 

This sounds a little judgmental, because we love to talk about how God accepts anybody! Just come on in! You’re part of the family! That is true. But there’s more. You have to show evidence of change, put on a new life, to truly be part of God’s wedding festivities.  

Let me put it this way, since when is “just showing up” an effective way of doing anything? 

Does it work for a job? No. You have to do the work. 

Does it work for school? No. You have to study!  

For football team? No! 

For a politician – that’s a bad example. 

A preacher? Tried that. Didn’t work! 

In no other area of life is it enough to just get in the door! It should not be accepted in God’s Kingdom. God does invite everyone to the party! Some ignore. Some run the other way. Some do even worse! 

But those for who accept the invitation, there are beautiful, new “garments” to be worn. Put aside your old life. Put on a new life, growing more holy the longer you’re at the party! 

Crazy Love – Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable,” Jesus says. Haven’t we had enough parables lately?  

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .” Another vineyard? What’s with all the vineyard talk, Jesus? Workers in the vineyard, two sons in the vineyard, now a landowner in a vineyard? 

Vineyards may be archaic or obscure to us. Maybe we have some scuppernong or muscadine vines in our gardens. Who knows? The vineyard, however, was a popular image for the people of God. Hear the poetic words of Isaiah 5:1-4: 

 Let me sing for my loved one 
    a love song for his vineyard. 
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 
2 He dug it, 
    cleared away its stones, 
    planted it with excellent vines, 
    built a tower inside it, 
    and dug out a wine vat in it. 
He expected it to grow good grapes— 
    but it grew rotten grapes. 
3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, 
    judge between me and my vineyard: 
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard 
    that I haven’t done for it? 
When I expected it to grow good grapes, 
    why did it grow rotten grapes? 

A prophet telling of his disappointment with the yield of a vineyard. A short jump to a Messiah telling of a landowner’s struggles with the workers in the vineyard. The image was already planted (no pun intended) in the minds of Jesus’ audience.  

This is the third of three responses to the Leaders’ question: “What kind of authority do you have to do these things? Who do you think you are?” 

  • First answer: Where do you think John got his authority? 
  • Second answer: There was a man who had two sons. One showed his obedience to his father’s will through his actions. 
  • Third answer: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .

He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death. 

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” 

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.” 

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?[a43  Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44  Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.” 

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. 

For Isaiah, the problem was the earth – the vineyard was cared for, but it still produced bad fruit. For Jesus, the earth produced the proper yield, but the workers were bad. In other words, the problem was not with “The Kingdom,” but its inhabitants. The people of God’s Kingdom were motivated by greed, for they, in the end, killed “the son” in order to “have his inheritance.” A misguided goal, at best, for what landowner would ever share his son’s inheritance with the people who killed him? 

Apparently, the meaning was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees. The symbolism is clear to us, too. Jesus is the “son,” and humanity is the “tenants.” 

This parable has always disturbed me for that reason. These people are horrible! Killing the servants and the son? Then, I realize that Jesus is talking about me! Stop! The punchline doesn’t make it any better – “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Darn it, Jesus! I’m trying! I’d never kill anybody, but my “fruit producing” sometimes leaves something to be desired.  

I continued to be bothered (which, by the way, is what a good parable is supposed to do!) until I noticed the landowner’s actions.  

We all would have lost patience with the tenant farmers, and answered like the chief priests, “Let’s put those miserable wretches to death!” Dang straight! They deserve it!  

What kind of landowner would ever send a second round of servants, much less his own son? A crazy landowner, that’s for sure! Jesus’ culture was an “honor and shame” culture. The sending of the son was an attempt to gain some honor; “surely, these tenants will show the proper respect to my appointed heir. That’s the appropriate thing to do.” Yeah, but who would risk it? They’ve already beaten and killed most of your servants! Are you crazy? 

Yes. The landowner is crazy – crazy in love with his tenants.  

The inference is clear. God is the “crazy in love” landowner! When it made enough “sense” for God to write us off, leave us to our own devices, “put those miserable wretches to death,” he tried again . . . and again . . . and again . . . even after we killed his son.  

The love of God for us is so “crazy” that it defies all logic!   

When it would have been reasonable enough, the Heavenly Landowner could have “put those wretches to death,” or, as in the case of Isaiah’s warning, withdrawn his protection.  

Our God tried even harder – sent his son, even! Forever reaching out to us, when it seems we are determined to be unreachable.  

Reggie Holder, a friend who is on the staff at Highlands UMC in Birmingham, told the following story at the recent funeral of Belon Friday, a retired UMC pastor. Lucky for us, Reggie posted it on Facebook. I tell it with his permission: 

Belon Friday was a “hale fellow well met” (as he might say) – a man of great wisdom and compassion. He never met a stranger and was always eager to help others, particularly those in a ditch, the down trodden or those out of luck. 

One particular gray, rainy and cold Friday morning shortly after I started to work at Highlands, I looked out the office window and noticed a frail, elderly woman wearing only a thin, short sleeved house dress, wandering aimlessly in the church parking lot. She held a rolled-up newspaper still in the plastic rain sleeve in her hands and was walking from car to car gently tapping each car window. I watched for a while then went outside to see what was going on. 

I approached her and asked if I could help her and she just looked at me with a vacant stare and sort of hummed. “Hmmm hmmm hmmm.” 

I asked her if she was looking for someone and she just hummed again,” hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

I asked a couple of other questions and each time the same response – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

I suggested that we get out of the rain and took her by the elbow and led her inside to the church office. 

Once we were inside, Jean Jones, our church secretary, tried talking to the woman and asked a few questions and she too got the same reply – a soft humming. 

Several women from the church kitchen had been watching the scene in the parking lot and they had made their way to the office and they tried to help us learn the identity of the woman and asked questions and with each question came the same thing – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

Not knowing what else to do we called the Southside police precinct and they sent a community service officer to help. He asked a few questions and the same humming answer was the woman’s reply. He checked to see if anyone was reported missing from area nursing homes and came up empty. We were at a loss to know what to do next. 

Then Belon came lumbering into the office. We brought him up to speed and he asked the woman how she was doing and she began to hum – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” 

Belon’s face lit up – “Oh, you like to sing?” He bent down on one knee so he was level with the woman, and said, “Let’s sing then – and began. 

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”. – Come on Reg, Jean, sing with me – 

“That saved a wretch, like me,” we joined in. 

Then the woman began to sing with us “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” 

Belon took her small, wrinkled hands in his big oversized hand. He looked her straight in the eye and whispered softly, “Little mama, tell me your name.” 

“Mary Taylor,” she answered. 

Miz Taylor – do you know your address?” 

“1217 2nd Avenue, West — across from Rickwood Field.” 

Jean Jones had her steno pad and is furiously taking down every detail. 

Miz Taylor – do you know your phone number?” She recites it and Jean writes it down. 

Miz Taylor, would you like us to take you home?” 
“Oh yes, would you please?” 

Reggie continues, “A quick phone call confirmed all that she had told Belon. This frail, elderly woman who could not remember her name was soon reunited with her family.” 

One more time. One more attempt, God says. Maybe this time, it will work. We will be brought home. 

That’s love! Crazy love!

Who’s Got the Power? Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, “I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. 25  Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?”

They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” 27 Then they replied, “We don’t know.”

Jesus also said to them, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

29 “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

30 “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. 32 For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.

“What kind of authority do you have to do these things?” What things? What are they talking about? Rewind the story a few verses – to verse 12: 

 Matthew 21:12-17  

Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”  

     People who were blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them.  

     But when the chief priests and legal experts saw the amazing things he was doing and the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were angry. They said to Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” “Yes,” he answered. “Haven’t you ever read, From the mouths of babies and infants you’ve arranged praise for yourself? ” Then he left them and went out of the city to Bethany and spent the night there. 

Our passage for today comes on the day after the “Cleansing of the Temple.” The “these things” the Chief Priests and Elders are talking about is the “cleansing” and the healing Jesus did the day before. Their question was not a general “Who do you think you are?” But a specific “What do you mean coming in here and tearing the place up?” 

The authorities in the temple – the Chief Priests and the Elders, the Preacher and the Chairpeople of all the committees – ask Jesus where he got his authority. They’re implying he had none!  

Think of how many people in our lives claim authority on a daily basis. There are some that make such claims and we don’t even question it. We assume they know what they are talking about – most of the time. They have a form of authority – of power – to tell us what to do;  and, we do it – most of the time: 

  • Doctors 
  • Lawyers 
  • Teachers  
  • Police Officers 
  • Government Officials 

“By what authority” do they tell us what to do? They have gained authority by education or training, in the case of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and police. Some have had authority bestowed upon them – like government officials. A majority of us have said, “We give you the authority to make decisions for our city, state, or country” and elected them to office. Some of their authority is “heavier” than others. It carries the weight of law behind it. For others, we can choose to acquiesce to their authority or not – we don’t have to follow the treatment the doctor prescribes, for instance.  

 For every authority figure that bears their power honorably, there seems to be another who abuses that power. “Power corrupts,” it is said; some forget the humility needed to hold power effectively and soon believe that they are above the very laws that put them into their position. Some allow their training to breed a sense of superiority over the untrained. It seems that humans ability to mess things up is unlimited.  

 The same “Social Contract” which gives power and authority to our leaders was in place in Jesus’ day, too. When Jesus tore up the temple, he was protesting the abuse of power. He was saying the Chief Priests had broken their covenant with the people and with God. They had authority in name, but their actions destroyed the trust in which the people held them.  

 God had given them the authority to direct the people in acts of worship, they had used that authority to enact burdensome rules, and cheat those who trusted them. The place of worship had become a “den of thieves.” 

 Their positions said “authority”, but their actions said something else. 

 Jesus – through his protest of “cleansing” and his confrontation of authority – sought to remind us that actions matter. Just because someone holds a position of power, doesn’t mean they actually have, or have earned the authority. Authority is proven through actions. How else do we know if the people we put in power are worthy of the position? We have to see that worth displayed in their actions.  

 Jesus’ questions of the Chief Priests, and his parable are meant to say this very thing. You can’t just say you are “doing the will of your Father,” without “doing the will of your Father.”  

 We Christians, those who of us who claim the position of “Believer,” have been given power. It is not a power of superiority. It is not a power to lord over others. Ours is the somewhat ironic power to love and serve and give, power to heal and build up, power that is granted to us by God when we claim the position.  

 Was God right to trust us with such power? Our actions answer that question.  

 What do you think Jesus would do if he came into our “temple?” 

 Do our actions prove he was right to trust us like he does? 

 Or – have our actions earned a “cleansing,” a protest?   

 It is not enough to only say we will “work in the vineyard” then never actually work. If we do that, our power is a façade and already corrupted. We when claim the title “Christian,” our actions must prove the name.  

 

If so, we will have power. We will display God’s authority!