Sunday, September 28, 2014

You're Not the Boss of Me: Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:1-13

While I did not have to preach at my own ordination this afternoon, I did still have the joy of preaching at my sweet little Liberty Presbyterian Church in the morning.  This morning's texts are Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13.


It’s funny how attached we become to places. We associate them with good or bad memories and they become in our minds good or bad places as a result. Church buildings are especially like that. Our memories and experiences in church become attached to a particular sanctuary or Sunday school room. Forever, this sanctuary will in my mind be associated with all sorts of wonderful ministry firsts. I’ve only been here a short while and I already have started to store up beautiful and holy associations with this room. I can only imagine how strongly those of you who have been here for years must feel that.
This is our holy place – our retreat into the presence of God.
Stop and soak that in for just a moment.
Imagine if someone came charging into the sanctuary right now and started throwing things around!
Communionware tossed on the floor and shattered!
The piano bench flung off to the side!
Hymnals everywhere!
I can almost see the bulletins fluttering dramatically to the floor as the dust settles and everyone stares in quiet disbelief at the kook who just came in and disturbed our holy place.
And after all that. . . the table tossing kook walks up the pulpit and starts preaching.
Set that in Jerusalem in around the year 33, and you’ve got what has just happened when our passage from Matthew starts this morning. Jesus has just caused total mayhem in the outer courts of the temple – throwing tables and yelling and such, and then he just strides right into the inner courts and starts teaching.
Most of what Jesus does and says while he’s teaching irritates the priests and elders and this is certainly not an exception. “Who’s authority are you acting under?!!!” they demand to know. They want to know who to blame for this. Who does this Jesus guy think he is?
And Jesus refuses to tell them.
I love that. He gives them the clue that his authority comes from wherever John’s baptism was based and they realize they are trapped. So they play dumb. Where I would probably say, “Ha ha! You’re not the boss of me!” Jesus just says, “OK, then I’m not answering the question.”
            Through parable, he then tells them that they are like a child telling their parent they’ll do something and then not doing it. They are talking a pretty talk and they are pretending they have the rules all figured out, but they are just putting on a show. There is more to it than knowing what to say. There is more to it than just knowing how to react in the moment. It’s about what’s on the inside.
            As we’ve been journeying through Matthew this summer, we’ve seen some strange stories. We’ve heard Jesus say some pretty off the wall things. We’ve been confronted with some hard truths about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus says that we find the Kingdom of Heaven in unexpected places, so start looking at the things and people we might normally overlook. He has told us to keep focus and stop letting things distract us. Jesus says that breaking our culture’s social codes is sometimes necessary in order to live out the Christian life of faith. We took a little side-trail into Romans one week where the Apostle told us that we are to love all fully and truly. Jesus tells us to address the sins of our brothers and sisters with grace and gentleness and he tells us that we are to forgive and forgive and . . . forgive again.
            Surely. . . this is alot of information to process. How on earth are we to remember all of this when we are going about our daily business trying to do as Jesus did and taught? When we look down at our WWJD bracelet, will we remember all of these guidelines he is offering? Jesus did many many things and he taught many many things. And Jesus taught these things through strange and sometimes hard to read stories. It would all be so much easier if he’d left us with some sort of clever pneumonic memory trick.
            It can be easy to take all of this stuff and turn it into the same sort of rules that the priests and elders were following. There are a couple books out there now that are pretty interesting to read. One is called “A Year of Biblical Living” and one is called “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” They have a similar premise. In the first, the author spends a year trying to follow every rule in the entire Bible. In the other, the author does the same, but focuses on that which applies to women specifically. In the end, they both realize that it’s just not helpful or even possible to approach the Bible in this way. Jesus isn’t just someone to imitate. He’s not just the one human who got it right. Oh, Jesus is fully human, but Jesus is also God. And God didn’t come to earth to just live a good life and show us how it’s done. It’s not just about doing what God says to do because God’s the boss and God says so.
            In Philippians 2, Paul says that we should be united in mission, loving, humble. He says we should value others above ourselves. It sounds a little bit like more rules for living, but he goes on to say it’s a mindset. It’s the mindset of the son from the parable in Matthew who even through he said no, in his heart knew the right thing and did it rather than the one who just said what he thought his father wanted to see.
            “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Paul says.
            He releases us from focus on external obedience and tells us, “Oh no, brothers and sisters. It comes from the inside out. Focus on Jesus and WHO HE IS and the rest will begin, slowly but surely in some of our cases, to fall into place.”
            John Calvin – I wouldn’t be a very good Presbyterian if I didn’t quote good old Calvin from time to time - says that the law is like a mirror. It’s how we know what’s going on in the inside. If we have the Spirit of God living in us, we begin to reflect Jesus. When we focus on the external – that which is on the outside of us – it’s impossible to mimic perfectly - Just like when the kids were playing the mime game. But when you look at the mirror and focus on the reflection of Christ in yourself. . . you focus on what is oozing out from the inside. . . that’s much easier!
            “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Says our brother Paul. Focus on that reflection and the inner changes. It is God who works in you to God’s good purpose. It’s not you working for God’s good purpose. It is God’s work within through the Holy Spirit because of our unity to God in our unity to Christ. God’s work within is what changes our will and helps us to act accordingly.
Verses 6-11 of this Philippians passage are often referred to as “the Christ Hymn.” Scholars can’t decide if Paul wrote it or if it was a hymn the early church knew and used regularly that he was just quoting. Either way, it’s a great overarching picture of what Jesus looked like. It’s a wonderful piece of scripture to hold up as our mirror. 
            I’ve always been fascinated by monks. Weird, I know, but true. I love reading their sometimes strange and often life-bendingly deep sayings and stories. There is one in particular that makes me think of this passage in Philippians.
He (one of the monks) also said, ‘Humility and the fear of God surpass all the other virtues.’ ‘The gateway is humility: our predecessors suffered much and therefore entered heaven joyfully.’[1]
            It seems odd at first read to associate humility with suffering. But Paul does the same thing here in Philippians. The humility of Jesus led to death on the cross. That’s how humble he is. This is not just the sort of humility that looks down and quietly says “thank you” when it’s complimented on something. This is the sort of humility that empties itself of everything even remotely self-serving and in total obedience and sharing in the will of the Father in Heaven, dies so that humanity can be redeemed.
All for us, my dear brothers and sisters. All for us. And that is why we now praise him to the highest heights! The name of Jesus be praised! Let every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! As we sing out the songs of praise in the rest of our service this morning, let us sing, asking that we be instrument for God’s use. Let us sing, reflecting Jesus rather than simply mimicking him. Let us fulfill his good purpose. Let us sing with the knowledge of the hugeness of what Jesus did for us. Let every tongue sing with the power of the Holy Spirit that the humble Savior Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

[1] Ward, Benedicta (2003-03-27). The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 2734-2736). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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