St. John Lutheran Church, Laurel, Montana
Where You Finish – Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:4-11
It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish. The sinners and prostitutes obviously started badly, but hearing the message of John the Baptist, they repent of their sinfulness and trust in the coming promise of God that John announced. The chief priests and elders of the
people, on the other hand, seem to have made a good beginning. After all, religion was the center of their lives. They even serve as authorities, publicly demonstrating their Godliness. But, they reject the repentance, and the promise, that John the Baptist preached. They refuse to believe his message, even though an examination of the Scriptures would teach them John’s message was true. They reject John and his message, and so were, according to Jesus, setting themselves outside God’s favor. The chief priests and the elders are the second son, who said he would go and work in his father’s vineyard, but in the end refused, finishing badly, outside the favor of the father.
Where you finish is an appropriate question as I come to you today speaking of our Lutheran mission in Spain, a country with a long Christian history, a land with many visible signs of the Church, but a place where the true center of Christian life, repentance for sin and faith in the promise of Jesus Christ, is rare. The same problem plagued the Church in Luther’s day. Indeed in every day and age our natural human tendency is to make Christianity about human authority, or outward appearance, or popular approval. We want to make Christianity about anything, anything but repentance for sin and faith in Christ. We resist simply receiving the true faith from God’s Word, as God presents it, because God’s truth makes the sinner in each of us very uncomfortable.
Martin Luther was God’s unlikely instrument to bring repentance and faith back to the center in 16th century Europe, and the world. But sadly, the power of the Roman Church, and especially of the Spanish Inquisition, meant that the Good News rediscovered by Luther did not receive much of a hearing in Spain. The Reformation had a tiny beginning in Spain, but was crushed and driven out by the Grand Inquisitor. Many evangelical reform minded Christians were burned at the stake in Spain during the 1500s.
But the story in Spain is not finished. That is to say, God is not finished with Spain. Today we, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of Argentina, are working together to try again, returning to Spain with the message of repentance for sin, and faith in Christ alone, who is our righteousness before God the Father. I have accepted a call to join this work, to be a Church Planter in Seville, Spain.
Of course, going to Spain as Christian missionaries is a bit tricky, because most people would say that Spain has historically been a “Christian” nation. Spaniards might well take offense at Lutherans suggesting there is something deficient in their faith, much like the Chief Priests and Elders took offense at Jesus. The setting of our Gospel this morning is Holy Week, the days between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His arrest and crucifixion on Good Friday. The day before our reading for this morning, Jesus had ridden the donkey into Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Then He drove out the money changers from the Temple, and proceeded to heal the lame and the blind.
Feeling threatened by Jesus, the priests and elders, the religious authorities, confront Jesus, demanding to know by what authority He acted. As a condition of revealing His own authority, Jesus very cagily asks them to say what they think of John the Baptist’s authority, where did it come from? Jesus’ condition shuts down their questioning. On the one hand the chief priests and elders do not want to acknowledge that John the Baptist had any real authority from God. But on the other they are afraid to disparage John before the crowds, who loved John the Baptist and held that he was a prophet sent by God.
Upon their refusal to answer, Jesus presses the point, telling the story of the two sons, in order to point out the sinful hypocrisy of the chief priests and elders. The first son is initially rebellious, but later turns to the way of the father. The second son is outwardly compliant, but in the end refuses the father’s will. Jesus then praises the repentance and faith of prostitutes and other obvious sinners, who like the first son, started badly, but finished believing in John the Baptist’s message. Then Jesus rejects the pride and self-righteousness of the religious elite, who pretended to care about God’s Word, but finished by rejecting His messenger. It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish.
Jesus’ verbal assault enrages the priests and elders. If you read on in Matthew 21, you will discover Jesus continues piling on, very pointedly revealing their sins, and promising that God would reject the scribes and priests and elders, because of their refusal to believe in Him. They don’t like this very much. Indeed, it drives them to seek Jesus’ death.
Do you ever find yourself behaving like the chief priests and elders? Are you attracted by feel good preachers who never really point out your sins, but instead spend all their time encouraging you to believe in yourself? Do you get tired of having your sins pointed out? Of confessing “I, a poor miserable sinner?” I know I get tired of being reminded that I am holding out on God, again, guilty of being selfish and unloving to my family, again, caught up in the idols of money and ease and self-satisfaction, again. It is a painful thing, to face this most difficult truth.
But, when I’m forced by God, working through His Word and His preachers, forced to confess my sins and my sinfulness, it is a good thing. Because it’s true. True for me, and true for you. It’s true, and necessary. Knowing and confessing my sinful inability to meet God’s standard is not yet salvation, but it is a necessary precursor, an irreplaceable preparation. The sinners and prostitutes confessed and repented of their sins, for the joy of the promise. But the pride of the priests and elders caused them to reject John and his message. Humility is right and necessary for us sinners.
Christians do well then to proclaim the truth of human sinfulness with great personal humility. After all, Jesus does it with great humility. Now, you could argue He is kind of hard on the priests and elders, but consider for a minute who He is. Jesus is Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Every breath his enemies ever took was a gift from Jesus, and yet they attack and despise Him. Jesus could have rightly responded to the priests and elders by utterly destroying them. But He doesn’t. Instead, Jesus loves the Chief Priests and Elders, just like He loves the tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus loves them all, even though they are all sinners. Yes, loving them means He must speak some painful truths to them. But He speaks this on His way to the Cross, where He will make their pain His own, where He will love them, and the whole world, unto death.
Indeed, Jesus speaks in this way to the Chief Priests and elders in order to bring on His Cross. And there, on a pile of stones called Golgotha, bleeding on a Roman Cross, Jesus finished His work by profoundly humbling Himself. More than He did when He became a human being, even more than He did when He lived a simple life of poverty, Jesus humbled Himself, by dying for sinners, for prostitutes, for chief priests and elders, and for you and me.
Humility is key to Jesus’ great work of salvation, and so it is also key for us, who trust in His salvation. Whether one is serving as a missionary in Spain, or seeking to witness to your neighbors in Laurel, humility is indispensable. Humility is important on a human level, to prevent people from thinking you are self-righteous, “Holier than Thou.” Even more, humility is important because humility is so central to the story of Christ.
The mission of God requires humility in God’s people, and, it also, requires knowing how to finish. We should be humble, but we need also to finish well, to be bold to speak the truth at the right time, to dare even to speak of the Cross. Because there, on the Cross, we discover the finish. The sin of both sons is damnable, the first son who refused and the second son who lied, promising but then refusing. The sin of both is damnable, because sin is rebellion against God. The sin of both sons is damnable. But the sin of both sons is covered, washed away, atoned for, by Jesus, on His Cross. There on the Cross, you have already finished well, for there, Jesus declared, “It is finished,” for you.
My wife Shelee and I are here today to tell you about God’s exciting work in Spain, to encourage you with this Good News. And we are also here to ask you to do more in your Father’s vineyard, specifically to consider partnering with the people of Spain by financially supporting us. But before you decide, before you even consider partnering with the Lutherans in Spain, we need to be clear. Working in the vineyard is important, each of us playing our part in God’s mission is vital. God desires and commands it of His sons and daughters. But your place in the family vineyard does not depend on your work in the family vineyard. Rather, your ability to work depends on you first being brought into the family. And this work is the Work that Jesus has finished, for you. In Christ, the Father favors you, forever and ever. This Gospel, this good news, that “it is finished,” is what the Mission of God is all about proclaiming. And so first and foremost, hear God’s Good News for you. The “it” of your salvation is finished.
This “It is finished” Good News is what pastors and congregations together tend in the vineyard of God. The stewardship that God has given to His Church is not about money. Let me repeat, stewardship is not about money; rather stewardship is about the Gospel. Our treasure to invest in the world is not gold or silver, but rather the precious blood of Jesus which covers all sin, your sin, my sin, the sin of prostitutes, chief priests, and elders. So, to be a good steward, first, be filled with the Gospel, as you are doing today. Hear, say, sing, pray and eat the Good News that Christ has finished the work of salvation for you. This is how God prepares you to be useful in His Mission, by filling you up with His Gospel.
Then, as you are filled to overflowing with the joy of God’s love, remember that this congregation is your first mission concern. As you rejoice in your salvation and all the blessings God has showered on you, support the work of St. John. Then, go beyond, remembering that God’s Church is universal. As God gives you ability, support His mission with your prayers and talents and gifts for work beyond St. John. Like the work in Spain. Or Papua New Guinea. Or Sri Lanka. As you are connected and support the Mission of God with your prayers and your money, you will receive joy, the joy of knowing and participating in God’s ongoing work around the world.
As we are gathered together today to receive God’s Gospel gifts and also consider the work that grows and continues around the world, I can think of no better way to ‘finish’ than to hear again from St. Paul: Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, and did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, nevertheless made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on
earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ
is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.