Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20, Philippians 3 & Matthew 21:33–46
For those of you watching the service who may not know, I have 3 adult children – a daughter and twin sons – from my first marriage. Earlier this week I was telling my new wife a story about when my twins were young boys, probably around five years of age.
The house we lived in at the time had a built-in outdoor barbecue, and by climbing on to the top of the bricks around the barbecue, the boys were able to reach the wooden beams of a pergola which ran between the roof at the back of the house and the garage. From there, they were able to cross the beams of the pergola on to the lower section of the roof of the house, and then climb up on to the higher section of the roof.
Like most young boys of their age, they had no fear (or perhaps better put had no sense!), and they were very adventurous. They also liked to ignore their mother, so when she told them not to climb up on the roof, they went ahead and did the complete opposite. I was at work during the day, and when I came home I would be confronted by a very angry wife who demanded that I stop the boys from getting on the roof.
Naturally I began talking to them calmly and rationally, as I explained to them the danger associated with what they doing. And naturally, they paid no attention to anything that I told them, and they continued to climb up on the roof. My calm and rational talking soon turned into angry threats that I would smack them if they kept doing it. I am fully aware that smacking a child is now frowned upon as a method for disciplining a child, but in this case I thought a smack on the backside was better than them falling off the roof and either becoming quadriplegics, or worse than that, killing themselves.
Needless to say, even the smacking didn’t stop them from continuing to climb on the roof. At my wits end, I resorted to a psychological threat to try and stop them. I told them they would be sent away from home if they kept doing it. But guess what; that didn’t stop them!! So I had to carry through on my threat! Coming home from work one night after they had again been up on the roof that day, I put them in the car, and told them I was going to drive them to a home for naughty children. As you might imagine, they became very distraught at this prospect, and they cried and promised not to ever climb on the roof again. And they never did. Mind you, I still carry the guilt of that threat, and their emotional response, with me to this very day!!
The point of my story, is that the only way I could get my boys to do what their mother and I were asking them to do, which was ultimately for their own good, was to put the fear of God into them, much like the situation we read about in today’s story from the Book of Exodus. Just like my boys, the people of Israel had continued to ignore God’s instructions to them, which had been communicated by Moses. So now, God addresses the Israelites directly, handing down the Ten Commandments to them. And we hear that the people “witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance”. Moses told the people that God had come to put the fear of Him in them so they would stop sinning. Unfortunately, unlike my boys, this fear did not prevent the Israelites from doing what was wrong in God’s sight, and from turning away from Him. The books of the Old Testament that come after Exodus, especially those of the prophets, tell us that the Israelites repeatedly turned away from God and did what wrong in His sight.
The very first Christians were Israelites, or more specifically Jews, who followed Jesus believing him to be the Jewish Messiah. And as Jews, they would have been taught that in order for them to be saved and reconciled to God, they needed to obey and fulfil the individual commands of the law which had been given to the ancient Israelites by Moses.
It is to these people that the Apostle Paul writes in today’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians. As Paul went from place to place proclaiming the gospel and teaching about Jesus, he was followed by teachers of the Jewish law who sought to undo his teaching by challenging the claims he made about Jesus, and by insisting that the people observe the commandments of the law. One of the most important commandments, was that all Jewish males be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. Circumcision was an outward and visible sign that a Jewish male was one of God’s chosen people.
In today’s passage, Paul specifically targets these teachers of the Jewish law, whom he refers to in very derogatory terms as dogs, evil workers and mutilaters of the flesh (the last being an obvious reference to circumcision). He argues that he himself knows more about the law than anyone: he was circumcised on the eighth day, he was one of God’s chosen people, an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin, and more than that he was a Pharisee; a teacher and protector of the law, and he had persecuted Christians because Christian teaching challenged aspects of the law. But despite being ‘perfect’ under the law, he argued that the sense of satisfaction he felt then, didn’t come close to the feeling that he now enjoyed in knowing and following Jesus. And he calls on the Christians in Philippi to ignore these teachers of the Jewish law, and to follow the example of his own life that he has set for them.
Paul’s teaching is centred on the fact that God revealed Himself to humanity in the person of Jesus, and that by His grace alone (through the death and resurrection of Jesus) ALL of humanity, not just the people of Israel, are reconciled to God if they believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We hear echoes of this in today’s gospel passage when, in another ‘veiled swipe’ at the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus tells the chief priests and leaders of the people the ‘Parable of the Wicked Tenants’.
This parable is basically a snapshot of the history of God’s relationship with humanity. The landowner is God, and the vineyard that he plants represents the people of Israel. The tenants are the religious leaders of Israel, and the landowner’s slaves are the prophets of Israel. The landowner’s son is Jesus himself, and the other tenants to whom the vineyard will be leased represent the mixed community of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.
The clear message of the parable is that the Jewish religious leaders have failed God and failed the people of Israel by leading the people away from God rather than to God. Jesus has been sent by God to bring people back to God. By the grace of God alone, ALL people, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, are reconciled to God, and will share in the gift of eternal life.