Proper 18 (A)
Sunday, September 5, 1999
Some Security System
Recently, I had an offer from a company dealing in home security systems virtually to give me a home security system. Leery of something “for free” and knowing if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, I declined their offer. I had good reasons. Financially, it wasn’t a good time for me. I had also had a job interview in another city. If I had moved, I would not have been if I was a good candidate for what they were offering.
Security systems are interesting things. How many people really pay attention to a car horn’s incessant honking in a parking lot when the car alarm is tripped? Sometimes, a security alarm warning sign tips off a prospective burglar that you have something in your house that is worth stealing. How many jurisdictions have grown weary of answering calls from false alarms and charging the person whose home they are called to unnecessarily?
Maybe what would work just as well is a good dog — whether it’s a German Shepherd or a Doberman Pinscher who can scare away someone with evil intent or a yip-yapping Cock-a-poo making enough noise to let you know something out of the ordinary is afoot.
The people of Ezekiel’s day didn’t know anything about motion sensors and silent alarms. They had a security system that looked out for the whole community rather than just their own personal belongings. It was simply the watchman on the wall. The watchman’s job was to warn the people in times of impending danger.
God told Ezekiel that his responsibility in speaking God’s words of warnings to Israel was to sound the alarm, like a watchman on the wall. If he warned the people about an imminent danger and they repented, they were spared. If he warned the people about an impending danger and they did not repent, their blood was on their own hands. However, if Ezekiel failed to give warning and someone was harmed, that was Ezekiel’s responsibility and he would be held accountable.
One of the ironic twists is that none other than God Himself is portrayed as the swordsman about whom Ezekiel must give warning. Difficult as that picture may be for some to accept, God indeed is God of judgment and wrath as well as the God of love.
The job Ezekiel had and the job today’s preacher has, as well, is to name God’s activity in the world so that His people may adjust and reprioritize their lives accordingly. The watchman has to be able to recognize those movements and noises out there that are a threat so that he may give his people warning about them. So he needs discernment. Once he sees the threat and determines that it is a threat, he needs to be decisive in speaking out against it. He needs to speak out whether anyone wants to hear it or not. That takes courage. He needs to have a good track record so that when he sounds the warning, he is taken seriously. That takes credibility.
He also needs humility because people do not look to him being on the wall so that they can be entertained or amused by him. He’s only there to give warning to imminent threats.
In case you haven’t noticed, the watchman’s job is like that of the preacher. The preacher’s job is to get a message from God and then to to declare it to God’s people with discernment, decisiveness, courage, credibility and humility. For the preacher to do anything less is to bring down the judgment of God upon himself.
Once the preacher has done that, he’s done his job.
The calling then turns from the prophetic to the pastoral. Once the people have been warned, he needs to respond with sensitivity to the anguished cry, “What shall we do?” The response, as always, is, “Repent.”
God doesn’t delight in wielding the sword of judgment or destroying a people for their sin. He’s told you what to do so that you may have life. The preacher gives the warning and then the listener decides what to do with it. Once you have been warned, you are accountable for your actions. Why would anyone, having been warned, choose death? (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 19 (A)
Sunday, September 12, 1998
The Debt of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a hot topic. Everyone has done something for which they need to be forgiven and has had something happen to them which they need to forgive. The person who withholds forgiveness does infinitely greater harm to himself than to the person he refuses to forgive.
The word forgiveness is used in several different contexts. I was relieved when I got a letter that told me that a potentially large student debt had been forgiven. I received money from a trust fund that had been set up in a local bank to assist medical and ministry students. As long as they stayed in those professions, the debt would be forgiven. If I had had to pay that debt back, it would have been manageable. Even still it was a relief to know that the debt had been forgiven.
Jesus tells a story about a man who owed an astronomical debt. It’s told in answer to the second dumb question that the disciples ask in a row. Earlier, the disciples had asked, “Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” Now Peter, who must have had athlete’s tongue from all the time his foot was in his mouth, asked, “How many times do I have to forgive?” The disciples viewed forgiveness as an act rather than an attitude.
Jesus told the story of the Unmerciful Servant to demonstrate that the disciples had it backward. As a king comes to settle accounts — a detail with eschatological implications — he finds a man who owes 10,000 talents. That debt is so large that it is beyond the ability of anyone to conceive. Someone has said that it would represent 100 million days’ wages. To put that in contemporary terms, if $30,000 would be an adequate figure for a modest salary, the man’s debt would be $12 billion. That may be no big deal for Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei but is beyond the ability of most everyone else to pay.
You have to ask, “How did an ordinary manager with modest wages pile up such a debt?” Perhaps he had been an embezzler. Perhaps he had made some incredibly foolish investments. We don’t know because the story doesn’t say. The amount of the debt or the way the man got in debt is not important. What is important is that he owed more than the mind could possibly conceive of paying.
The only recourse the king had was to sell the man and his family into slavery. The price he could get for the man and his family would not even put a dent in the amount of the debt he owed. The man has an exaggerated view of his ability to meet his obligations and says, “If you let me go, I promise you, I’ll pay back every penny.” That’s a preposterous claim. How’s he going to get the money to pay back that kind of debt?
What makes us think we can pay back the debt we owe to God? Only the price paid by Jesus Himself and the grace of God can pay back that debt.
The king relents and not only sets the man free, he cancels the entire debt. Upon leaving the man sees someone who owed him some money. It’s not just a small amount. In today’s terms according to the scale we have used, it would come to about $12,000. That means our friend who has been forgiven the huge debt is $11,999,988,000 to the good. Instead of rejoicing in his forgiveness, he decides to shake down his debtor for every last penny. When the king finds out about it, he throws the man in jail until he pays back every last penny that he owes.
Forgiveness is an attitude, not an act. When we understand the tremendous debt that has been paid on our behalf by Jesus Christ, we will be set free from a mindset that has to account for every possible perceived slight that comes our way. Instead, from the storehouse of the infinite riches of God’s grace, we will live in the attitude of forgiveness, signifying that we are indeed children of God. (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 20 (A)
September 19, 1999
Advancing the Gospel
How do we help advance the gospel? What can we say, do, or live that will help get across the message of the gospel? Today’s text helps answer these questions.
I. Perspective on the Future (v. 21)
Someone with a sense of purpose will not dwell on problems and irritations. Paul had a sense of purpose so strong that nothing could stand in his way. So what if he was in prison? So what if people with mixed motives tried to use his difficulties to advance themselves? Did that matter? Paul states that his primary concern is to magnify Christ. What happened to him did not matter. All of the events surrounding Paul came together for Christ’s ultimate good.
We can have this confidence in the future. If we live longer we can serve Christ and enjoy the full benefits of His blessings. If we should die soon then we enter into His eternal glory and rest. Either way we win! To live is Him. To die is also Him. Our attitude about this can help advance the gospel.
II. A Reason to Serve (vv. 22-26)
All of us know the dilemma of being pulled in two directions at the same time. Much of life is a tug-of-war. Paul was not immune. In these verses we see some of the most intimate glimpses of Paul. He wanted to go on and live. No sane person wants to die. But he also knew that what awaited him was so good that even death could not frighten him. For his part he was ready to go.
Some people seem to think they are finished long before the Lord does. This lesson is a good antidote to that kind of poisonous thinking. How important it is to come to the conclusion like Paul did in verse 25: “I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.” The church needs what we have to teach and it needs the resources of accumulated wisdom.
Never, never give up! As we serve each other the gospel is advanced in the lives of people to come to know the joy of faith in Christ.
III. Worthy Conduct (1:27a)
Philippi was a Roman colony which made for some interesting dynamics. It was patriotic, suspicious of anyone not aligned to Caesar, and anti-Semitic (see Acts 16:20-21). Such a city could put great pressure on believers. Paul wrote to the church there and used a term that meant living out one’s citizenship. The word conduct is a word related to our word politics. That word is politeuo and it refers to membership in a society and the life-style demanded of all the members of that society.
That pattern of behavior is what the gospel demands. Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom and serve One greater than Caesar or the President of the United States. Let us determine to live as good citizens of the kingdom of God.
IV. Steadfastness (1:27b-28)
We are like letters being read by everyone. What are they seeing in our lives? Paul called his readers to a life of steadfastness. He wanted them to show unity of spirit and courage as they advanced the gospel in the face of opposition. He used an image in verse 27 to illustrate the call to unity and strength. He told the Philippians to “stand firm.” That is a metaphor of a soldier. Christians are not to retreat or cower before their enemy. Quietly, resolutely, and determinedly they are to stand their ground like a soldier in battle.
V. Suffering (vv. 29-30)
We do not accept Christ as our personal savior only to be handed everything on a silver platter. Once we have signed on with Christ we face new struggles and battles. In verses 29-30 Paul tells us clearly that living in Christ will bring trouble. In a statement difficult for some people to accept, Paul said Christians will suffer for Christ. What does that mean?
Christians view their suffering through the experience of Christ. Suffering is not just meaningless pain but it is a unifying and redemptive experience. The early apostles thought of suffering as a privilege.
How do we advance the gospel? By looking to the future, by answering the call to serve, by living in a manner worthy of the gospel, by being steadfast, and by suffering if necessary. (Don M. Aycock)
Proper 21 (A)
September 26, 1999
Called To Be Like Jesus
Many people have set themselves to the task of trying to live like Jesus. But that’s a tall order! How could we act like him? In this text, Paul gives us insight into Jesus’ mind and his action.
I. A Call to Oneness (2:1-2)
Up to this point Paul had called his readers to live in a worthy manner, to remain steadfast in the face of opposition, and to suffer for Christ. In 2:1-2 he called his readers to unity.
The church is not a cookie cutter that stamps out exact replicas with a master form. The church is an organization of persons who willingly enter into union for a greater cause. Paul wrote that believers are to be united in “love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
Unity of the church stands out as the central theme. These realities of Christians experience become the grounds by which believers overcome divisions in the fellowship and attain the harmony necessary to the church’s work.
II. A Call to Humility (2:3-4)
No self-centered person can be a loyal follower of Christ. Each member of the body of Christ is to look out after the interests of the other members of the body. Advancing my cause or party or program is pointless. The church exists to advance His cause.
These verses do not call for Christians to deny or disparage distinctive gifts. Instead they are a strong warning not to put ourselves and our gifts before others and their gifts. Christ calls us to recognize that God has many children, each beloved and special.
Nothing is more sad to see than a church battling internally. As an old African proverb says, “When elephants fight, the grass always loses.”
III. A Call to Follow Our Inspiration (v.5)
Many scholars think Philippians 2:5-11 is an ancient hymn that the early church sang to teach its members basic theology. And what theology it is. We look to the originator of their faith to find the proper attitude that will govern action. Looking to Jesus in the way indicated in verse 5 has been called the imitation of Christ. This imitation is not just doing certain things but also allowing Christ to be the model for thinking as well as acting.
Christ’s attitude, His moral temperament, way of thinking, and His humble, unselfish devotion are all included in the instruction of verse 5. Believers are to have those in the same way Christ had them. Jesus is thus the source and the inspiration of the attitudes that make us His. We can be inspired by His way of thinking through our fellowship with Him.
IV. A Call To Service (vv. 12-13)
The Greek verb translated “work out” means to bring to full completion and accomplishment. It was used to refer to completing an act that had already begun. The phrase “your own salvation” can refer both to a person’s individual salvation and also that of the whole community.
The “fear and trembling” in verse 12 is a good biblical image of respect and awe. God is the Creator and being in His presence in no small thing. Paul said that God is at work within us (v. 13). There are two aspects to this work. The first is that God is working with our will. He awakens and quickens our will to follow and serve Him. God never imposes Himself on us without our willing it. The second aspect of this is that once we are willing to serve God, He helps us act on our willingness. We are not just filled with good ideas and then left to our own devices on how to accomplish the tasks.
We are called to be like Jesus. Now let’s live out this challenge. (Don M. Aycock)
Proper 22 (A)
Sunday, October 3, 1999
A Theology of Frustration
The vineyard provides a frequent source of analogy for the writers of the Gospels. Matthew records the great parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20. The closest parallel to Isaiah 5:1-7 is found in Mark 12:1-12. The first miracle recorded by John is Jesus’ turning water into wine in John 2. Jesus calls himself the vine and the believer the branches in John 15. Vineyard imagery also occurs frequently in the Old Testament as well. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all make use of this imagery in their prophetic messages. Perhaps the most famous story concerning the vineyard is found in Isaiah 5:1-7.
Isaiah 5:1-7 is frequently referred to as the “Song of the Vineyard.” This text describes itself as a love-song written by someone who describes their lover’s care for their vineyard. This love song is exemplary of one that is well-prepared and orchestrated Hebrew poem or hymn. The song itself tells a parable about the vineyard, its caretaker, and a singer who serves as an arbitrator in the text.
The caretaker’s oversight of the preparation, planting, and nurture of the vineyard are the themes of verses one and two. The planter does all the things necessary to insure a good harvest. This includes clearing the land, planting choice vines, building a watchtower, and preparing for the harvest. Instead of yielding a desired product, if yielded an inferior product.
The caretaker exhorts the men of Jerusalem and Judah to arbitrate between the vineyard and the caretaker in verses three and four. The caretaker confesses frustration over the plight of the vineyard. Was there more that could have been done? Why has it not produced a useful crop?
The vineyard is left to its own demise as the caretaker determines to remove care by disregarding its needs in verses four through six. The vineyard is doomed to destruction due to its inability to bear choice fruit. Hoeing, pruning, and needed moisture are denied the vineyard. It is left to fend for itself becoming overrun with weeds and thorns.
The parable is explained in verse seven. The caretaker is God who has cleared the land of its inhabitants, the Canaanites. God has planted the nation of Israel as a tender vineyard waiting to enjoy the fruits of the labor. The vineyard of Israel, however, yields only bad grapes in the form of evil kings and wickedness in the land. The poem concludes with a clever use of word play. God expected mishpat “justice,” but received mispach “bloodshed.” God longed for tsedeqah “righteousness,” but received tse’aqah “a cry of distress.”
This parable could be renamed the “Theology of Frustration.” What was begun with great expectation has ultimately ended in failure. The caretaker is frustrated over the loss. Sometimes we find ourselves needing to start over. Relationships disintegrate, jobs end in forced termination, or tasks ultimately end as failures. Sometimes we are forced to scrap everything and start again. It is frustrating to look at years of work realizing that it has come to an end. It is disappointing to realize that so much time has been wasted. This was the case in the Song of the Vineyard. The planter had done everything the correct way, yet it failed. This song also calls us to evaluate our own lives. Do we produce the fruit for which God has prepared us as his people?
The “Theology of Frustration” is evidenced in the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus knew He must die to bring about the salvation of the world. His work pointed toward a date of destruction at Calvary. By all worldly measurements He failed. Yet, God used this failure to accomplish the redemption of the world. Many of us today need to stop trying to “care” for ourselves as vineyards, and allow God to prune, hoe, and nourish us as only God can. (H. Wayne Ballard, Jr.)
Proper 23 (A)
Sunday, October 10, 1999
How can anyone rejoice when in prison? How can one be meek and kind in the face of aggression? Yet, this is exactly what the Apostle Paul models. He even exhorts fellow believers to live accordingly in the conclusion of his letter to the church at Philippi. Paul has much to say concerning the Christian life as he wraps up this prison epistle. As part of his conclusion, Paul offers eight keys to Be-ing a Christian.
Be firm. Paul encourages the Philippian believers to stand firm in the Lord (vs. 1). Verse one serves as a transition between the call to press forward in chapter three, and the concluding remarks in chapter four. The believers are to hold to the teachings Paul has handed down to them. They are not to be led astray from the life he has taught or modeled.
Be friends. Paul addresses a serious matter of disunity within the Philippian church in verses two and three. Two women, Euodia and Syntyche, have reached an apparent impasse over something within the fellowship. The cause for the impasse is not mentioned. My Greek professor in seminary jokingly suggested it may have been a fight over the menu for the Wednesday evening supper. Who knows? What we do know is that Paul mobilized the forces of the Philippian fellowship to address this issue. Paul knew that a fighting church is not the church of Jesus Christ. Paul encourages the local congregation to help these women sort through this issue.
Be full of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice” (NRSV). Verse four is an often quoted and remembered verse from the Philippian correspondence. We often fail to remember Paul gave this admonition while under some form of incarceration. Paul actually gave praise to God in the midst of a dire situation.
Be considerate. Paul’s view of the Christian life in verse five envisions someone who is kind and gentle. Christians are to be considerate of others. Jesus gave us the example of putting the needs of others before our own. Paul states we are to follow this example because “the Lord is near.” This can refer to the immanence of Jesus Christ in the Spirit, or it can refer to the immanent return of Jesus Christ. Either way, the Christian is to model gentle behavior.
Be confident. Confidence is the opposite of worry or fret. Verse six calls the follower of Christ to avoid worry and be confident in the Lord. Confidence comes as the result of prayer. The prayer described by Paul includes both petition and thanksgiving. It also calls us to have faith that God is able to work in all situations.
Be confined in God’s peace. Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to rest upon the peace God brings in verse seven. Jesus told his followers in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (NRSV). Paul speaks of a peace beyond understanding. In a world of turmoil Jesus Christ offers peace.
Be a right thinker. In verse eight, Paul lists several things the believer is to ponder. The bottom line is that right thinking produces right living. Paul echoes the author of Proverbs 23:7 “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (KJV). Paul calls the believer to fill one’s mind with the thoughts that are pleasing to God.
Be a participant and not a spectator. The recipients of Paul’s letter were challenged to get out of the stands and participate in the Christian life in verse nine. Paul boldly challenges them to model the life he has lived before them. How many of us could say to a new convert, “live as I live”? It is a call to become a participant in the struggle called the ongoing Christian life.
Paul concludes this brief section by uttering a promise. When we do these simple eight things the peace of God will be with us. We need to remember that none of us can walk the Christian journey alone. God is there to guide and strengthen each one when we call upon him. (H. Wayne Ballard, Jr.)
Proper 24 (A)
Sunday October 17, 1999
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Vital signs prove one is alive. Without them you’re dead! Paul wrote about vital signs that indicate a living faith. Without these vital signs our faith may be terminally ill.
Vital Sign #1
A learning, growing faith is vital sign number one. The Thessalonian believers lived under hostile pressure from people around them. They had to apply themselves to their faith to keep it going and growing. As an athlete applies himself to staying in physical shape, so also the Thessalonians applied themselves to their faith. As one applies herself to the task of mastering a musical instrument so also these Thessalonians applied themselves to their faith to master it.
A vital faith applies itself to the task of learning and growing. How do you develop this vital sign in your life? You take advantage of the opportuni-ties of fellowship and learning. You read the Scriptures. You pray. When facing a decision you seek God’s guidance. You grow your faith outside as well as inside the walls of the church. There is another vital sign which shows our faith is alive and growing.
Vital Sign #2
A vital faith applies itself to the task of learning and growing. A vital faith is a working faith. Paul gave thanks for the Thessalonians’ labor of love. Their working faith was seen in the way they cared for one another in a hostile environment. They worked hard to spread the gospel in a city largely hostile to them and their message. When these people came to Christ former friends now became enemies. They worked hard to support one another in a hostile environment.
How do we live this vital sign? We become committed to living our faith together as brothers and sisters in Christ. We care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. That care is as simple as sending a card during a difficult time. It is getting involved in a small group. It is offering a listening ear to another who needs to talk. This vital sign is present in your life when you work at supporting your brothers and sisters in Christ. There is yet another vital sign.
Vital Sign #3
A vital faith applies itself to learning and growing. A vital faith is a working faith. A vital faith is an enduring faith that perseveres. The Thessalonians understood perseverance. They had two options. They could choose to persevere, or they could choose to quit. They chose to persevere.
What gave them the resolve to persevere? The hope of Jesus Christ. These believers knew there was more to life than difficulties. These believers knew their persecuted life was temporary while their everlasting life was forever. The hope of Christ allowed them to persevere. That is how it works in our life. No matter what happens in this life there is always the hope of Christ. Life can take your possessions. It can take your health. It can give you a lousy job. It can bring hardship into your marriage. Life can never take Jesus away from you. Everything in this life is temporary. Good or bad it is temporary. Christ is forever. We must allow that hope to encourage us to persevere.
So then, a vital faith applies itself to the task of learning and growing. A vital faith is a working faith. A vital faith is an enduring faith that perseveres. Cultivate these signs in your faith and live them well for God’s glory! Make these vital signs a part of your life! (Tim McQuade)
Proper 25 (A)
Sunday, October 24, 1999
It’s Both Or Nothing
When you think of salt you expect pepper. If you have nachos you must have cheese. Jesus identified two commandments that go together. You must love God with everything you are, and your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus Quizzed The Pharisees
Jesus quizzed the Pharisees, whose Son is the Messiah? To their answer Jesus replied, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls Him Lord? For he says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” If then David calls Him ‘Lord,’ how can He be His son?'”
Jesus question trapped the Pharisees in three ways. First, the Pharisees’ answer revealed their shallow expectation. The Messiah would merely be a human leader. Jesus said the Messiah was far more than a human descendant of David. He was the Son of God!
Second, the Pharisees’ showed they were enemies of Jesus, God’s Messiah. The Pharisees opposed the Messiah Himself, God’s Anointed One.
Third, in opposing Jesus they broke the greatest commandment. They neither loved God nor their neighbor.
The Two Most Important Things
The Pharisees put forward their best man against Jesus. A lawyer was an expert in the Old Testament law. There was probably no one among the Pharisees better equipped to stump Jesus.
Which one of the commands is most important? Of 613 commandments in the Old Testament Law which was the most important? “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” That is, God expects His people to love Him with everything they have and everything they are. God expects a deep devotion that includes everything that person is.
Jesus described a devotion that is upward to God and is lived outward towards other people. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament Law and Prophets hang upon these two commandments: Love God with everything you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself!
Doing the Two Most Important Things
Think about the first commandment. What does it mean for you to love God with everything you’ve got and everything you are? It means you love the Lord more than anything else and everything else in your life. How do you know you are loving God with everything you’ve got?
Consider two things. First look at your calendar. You spend your time on things you love doing. Do you love God with everything you’ve got, even your time? Do you spend time growing your faith and devotion to Him?
Second look at your checkbook. Not only do you spend time on those things you love. You spend money on things you love. It could be clothes, entertainment, hobbies or leisure items. You spend money on things you love most. This week see where you spend your time and money. Jesus expects His people to love Him with everything they’ve got and everything they are. He’ll accept nothing less.
We must love God with everything. We must also love and our neighbors as ourselves. You love your neighbor as yourself when you treat them the way you want to be treated. You treat others with the same respect and consideration you expect others to give you. You love God with everything you’ve got, and others as yourself. Remember, these two hang together like nachos and cheese, like salt and pepper. (Tim McQuade)
Proper 26 (A)
Sunday, October 31, 1999
I recently read a submission to Preaching magazine which used the phrase, “pejorative times.” It’s not unusual in an atmosphere of bitter partisan division for pejoratives to get thrown around. One pejorative that no one likes to be called is hypocrite.
I take this very seriously. I have drafted a personal mission statement and as a part of that, I say, “I want it to be said of me, ‘He practices what he preaches. He loves God and loves people.'” I would like it to be said of me, “When he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. If he tells you it’s going to rain ping-pong balls, get some paddles and get ready to play a game.” With such concern for personal integrity, it is very disturbing when someone accuses me of hypocrisy — or worse, points out some real instance of hypocrisy in my life.
Hypocrisy strikes such a raw nerve because it is antithetical to what Christianity is supposed to be all about. True Christianity is about authenticity — an authentic relationship with God, authentic relationships within the redeemed community, and the authentic godly character. Hypocrisy is offensive because it pretends to be authentic.
Jesus first deals with the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law. He says, in effect, “Respect the office even if you don’t respect the person.” The failure of someone to live up to what they are teaching doesn’t make the teaching itself any less valid. The teachers of the law may have been hypocritical and only in it to call attention to themselves, but they are on the seat of Moses. In spite of their hypocrisy, insofar as their teaching squares with the Word of God, it is to be obeyed.
Jesus is like an elder telling a child, “Do as they say, not as they do.” The Pharisees had an annoying little habit of interpreting the law in such a way as to make their lives easier while heaping up burden upon burden on the common, ordinary people. The Pharisees would make it their point to make huge phylacteries and have long prayer tassels to call attention to themselves.
Jesus says, “Don’t do what you do to be seen.” Another paraphrase of that would be to say, “Don’t tell me you’re holy. Show me you’re holy.” The phylacteries were worn to interpret Scripture literally in binding the Shema to their arms and foreheads. If you’re really a holy person, you can’t have a little, unobtrusive phylactery. You need the biggest one to tie to your forehead.
The prayer tassels (Numbers 15) were for the purpose of reminding the Jewish people to whom they belonged. If you want to remind yourself that you belong to God, you will have tassels there that you will know about. If you want to let everyone else know that you belong to God, you’ll make the prayer tassels as long and as big as possible.
Along with that, they’ll glory in as many impressive titles as people want to give them. If your motivation is to hear “Rev. Dr. Smith, that was such a wonderful sermon, you’re such a wonderful man of God. We’re so blessed to have you in our church!” you would make a good Pharisee.
The last lesson we learn from Jesus in this teaching is use whatever authority you have to serve. It’s great to be called Rabbi, or “my teacher” and have people acknowledge that your teaching has authority to change lives. It’s also beneficial, at times, to be able to lean on someone else’s authority. You get out of some tough thinking that way. What Jesus says is “You shouldn’t be anyone else’s authority because they need to be looking to Me as their authority. Neither should you be looking to anyone else as your authority because you should be looking to Me as your authority.”
Instead of looking to be someone else’s authority, look to be a servant. In serving others, your God-given desire for true greatness will be satisfied. (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon briefs for this issue are written by: Don Aycock, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Palatka, FL; Wayne Ballard, Associate Professor, Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC; Mark A. Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN; Tim McQuade, Pastor, Highland Presbyterian Church, New Castle, PA
Proper 18 (A)