The following sermon was preached by Kurt K. Hendel, Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, September 29, 2008.
Matthew 21: 23-32
Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps. 25:1-9; Phil. 2:1-13; Mt. 21:23-32
Our Scriptures are wonderfully rich resources for us. They are marvelously diverse. Their meaning can really never be exhausted, and they speak to us in surprising and nurturing ways whenever they address us. It must also be admitted that while we appreciate their message, there are times when that message challenges and perhaps even troubles us. That does not mean that we can simply ignore Scripture. Especially at such times, we must faithfully recall that God's wisdom too often strikes us as foolishness and that God's ways are not necessarily our ways. We must also remember that God's word to us is always intended to be life-giving and life-enhancing. The lessons for this week focus on God's commands and expectations, on God's justice, on obedience and disobedience, on humility and repentance. They are, therefore, filled with a variety of challenging but crucial themes which directly impact God's relationship with us and our relationship with God and with one another.
We may not like or appreciate it, but Scripture makes it very clear that our God does give us specific commands-not just counsels or suggestions but commands-and expects our obedience. All of the pericopes for this week affirm that fact. God expects obedience because God is just. God also threatens judgment and punishment because our disobedience fails to let God be God, seeks to usurp God's place, harms the divine-human relationship and also damages our relationships with one another and the rest of creation.
However, God's justice, or righteousness, is not only manifest in God's very nature, in God's commands, in God's just expectations and in God's judgments. It also manifests itself in God's gracious saving and justifying acts on our behalf, and this is radical good news. God not only expects us to be righteous, but God actually grants us righteousness and declares us to be righteous, not because of our obedience but because of Christ's obedience. The second lesson from Philippians reminds us that Jesus modeled a radically different attitude toward obedience than we tend to manifest. One of the primary reasons why we struggle with the notion of obedience is because we are inclined to follow our own will rather than respect or submit to the will of another, even when that Other is God. After all, we know what is best for us; what we want and do not want; what gives us pleasure and what we dislike; what interests us and what does not. At least, we think that we know. It is true that we should be wary of uncritical and unflinching obedience of human beings since they, like we, are too often fallible, unjust, unreasonable and downright foolish. However, obedience of God is a radically different matter, and Jesus models divine obedience for us. The epistle to the Philippians notes that Jesus emptied himself of his divine majesty, took on human flesh, became a servant and was obedient, even to the point of ascending the cross. Through this ministry of reconciliation, Christ fulfilled God's just expectations for our sake, obeyed God's will because we could not do so on our own, suffered the punishment of disobedience in our place and so fulfilled all righteousness. Faithful, radical obedience was, therefore, God's way of redeeming humanity and the whole creation. Christ's obedience puts God's expectations and our obedience into an entirely different light. After all, Christ's obedience is now ours. His righteousness is graciously granted to us. God now sees us in the light of Christ's redemptive acts and welcomes us as God's holy people.
It is appropriate to say, then, that our obedience has already been accomplished. Nevertheless, within the context of faithful living, here and now, obedience is also still expected of us as God's people. However, this obedience is now a radically different matter than we so often envision it to be because it is an expression of faith. Faith, that gracious gift of God through which God grants us Christ's very own righteousness in what Luther envisions as a "happy exchange," is now also the divine power within us that inspires us to love God, to strive to do God's will, to seek righteousness. For the believer, obedience is never a grudging response to the expectations of a frightening and threatening God, but it is a faithful expression of love and service. Luther emphasizes that fact when he asserts in his catechisms that we obey God's commandments because we fear-not in the sense of fright but in the sense of respect-and love God. Jesus does not tell us in the Gospel why the first son initially challenged and then obeyed the father's command and will. Perhaps the son disobeyed because he was headstrong. Perhaps he struggled with the whole notion of authority. Perhaps he was a teenager who quite naturally sought to express his independence over against parental authority. Perhaps he was simply lazy or had more important things to do, at least from his perspective. These are all possible explanations because they ring so true in light of our own experience-our own behavior. We also do not know why that son ultimately decided to obey. Perhaps he was only thinking of himself and feared the consequences of his disobedience. I prefer another explanation, however, namely, that the son loved and respected his father, recognized the legitimacy of the command and decided to honor and please his father by doing his bidding. I prefer that option because the first son is then a model for believers in our relationship with God.
It is important to note that obeying God is beneficial to us spiritually but also emotionally and practically. The Hebrew understanding of Torah emphasizes this point. The Law was given to God's people so that they might know and do God's will and thus live life as God envisions it. God's Law was, therefore, a gift that fosters life rather than a series of burdensome obligations. The ancient people of God understood this though they, like us, also disobeyed God's commands and followed their own priorities and desires rather than God's. Of course, when they did, they compromised their own life and damaged their relationship with God. That is true for us as well. If we are truly honest with ourselves we know full well that God's expectations of us are not unjust. They are not oppressive or detrimental. They are not even unreasonable. Rather, when we live as God envisions human life and as God encourages us to live, we and all those whose lives we touch are better off than when we do not.
Thus, loving God and doing God's will do not only reflect a positive relationship with God but they also enhance our relationships with one another and with the rest of God's creation. That becomes readily apparent when we consider the blessings of living in a manner consistent with God's commandments. Of course, as people of faith it is important to remind ourselves that we do so not because we must or because we seek to become righteous and acceptable in God's eyes through our obedience. That is simply not possible, and we are already righteous and acceptable because of Christ. Rather, we obey God's commands freely and joyfully because the Holy Spirit and our faith inspire us to do so. And so it is that when we strive to live a life that reflects God's will, we honor God and God's holy name. We respect and show our love for those who do so much to make our earthly existence a blessed one, our parents, our immediate and extended families, those who have authority over us and exercise that authority in wholesome ways. We value life in all its varied expressions and seek to be agents of life in our world. We nurture our relationships, particularly with our spouses and children, and respect the intimate relationships of others. We appreciate what we have, rejoice with others who are also blessed with sufficient resources and share our bounty with those who do not have enough. We respect others and defend them when they are slandered or disrespected in other ways. We become advocates of those who need our advocacy, and we walk with those who welcome our companionship. These are obviously just a few examples of the beneficial effects of obeying God's will, and I trust that you can add many more. The point that I have been trying to make is a simple but crucial one. For people of faith, obedience of God's will is not a burden. Rather, it is a joyful exercise of faith and a grateful expression of love for God and for those whose lives we are privileged to touch. Of course, our lives are enriched in innumerable ways as we pursue such a life of obedience, and we imitate Christ, the One who makes our life possible in the first place.
All of this is wonderful good news, dear people of God. The Christian life is not a series of rebellions against God. It is not a persistent failure to do God's will. It is not one act of disobedience after another. It is not an uncompromising quest for what we consider to be freedom, because freedom-divine freedom-is already ours. Nor does the Christian life consist of fearful or reluctant obedience of a God who is viewed as unjust, unreasonable and capricious and who finds joy and satisfaction in the punishment of the disobedient sinner. Rather, the Christian life is a faithful journey, which will include detours and potholes, but which ultimately reflects God's loving presence and which strives to obey God's will as a manifestation of love inspired by faith. May it be so for all of us. Amen.