Where Do We Get Our Identity From?

Sunday the 5th of November 2017

Matthew 23:1-12

This morning I am going to preach on the Gospel reading for today, from Matthew chapter 23. In this reading, Jesus is speaking to the crowds and also to his disciples, where he gives a very strong warning to avoid behaving like the Pharisees.

Jesus says that the Pharisees were the ones who were in the seat of Moses. What this means is that they were the ones who, in the synagogues every Sabbath day, read out God’s Word from the scrolls to the gathered people. More particularly, they would have read from the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible. At this point, this was all they did; they read God’s Word. So, when Jesus says, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you…”, he means they were to do what the Pharisees were saying directly from God’s Word. But as far as the Pharisees’ actions after reading from God’s Word, well, this is a different story.

The problem that the Pharisees had was nothing to do with their devoutness. They were very devout people, very committed, very diligent towards God and his laws. This was a good thing; no, the real problem was that in their actions they revealed where their hearts were. These people were guilty of pride and arrogance, due to the fact that their identity was in their comparing themselves to others. They acted and they believed wholeheartedly that because of their devoutness they were more elite, spiritual, more favoured by God, than other people.

In comparing themselves to everyone else, they were quick to point out the sins of others, whilst dumbing down or ignoring their own sin before God. They pushed the law so hard that others’ sins were exposed, but they looked really good compared to others. Their attitudes and their hearts were concerned about themselves and how they looked in front of others, not in how they really were before God. Jesus says, “Everything they do is done for people to see…”

One of the common things that non-believers say about Christians is that we are a bunch of hypocrites. We say one thing and do another. Now it is my opinion that this can be used by them as an excuse, but at the same time, we need to pay attention to their accusation. The sin of the Pharisees is the temptation of us all. We like to be acknowledged for everything we do for the church and other people of the church. We like to be thanked for what we do. We like our hard work not to go unnoticed. It is good that we do all of these things and that we give things, show our appreciation and the like. But what happens when we do these things so that we receive these responses? In other words, what are our motives for doing what we do?

Are we members of this church because of what we get out of it, what the church does for us. Or are we here to worship our God and to serve others. Do we look around and see the sins of other people, and yet think to ourselves, “I’m okay with God, look at all I do for him.”

The Pharisees were a group of people that were highly respected by the society that they lived in. They were admired, looked up to, and many tried to emulate them, be like them. They were considered to be role models in their communities. And yet Jesus says: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

The thing about Jesus is that he has no time for status. Every one of us is equal in God’s eyes. Every single one of us is guilty of sinning against God and others in our lives. Every single one of us needs to receive God’s grace and his mercy to us through Jesus. There are no favourites in God’s kingdom. There are no spiritually elite people, there are no people who are more highly favoured by God than others as his children. Yet the temptation is to think that there are. Often people can think of themselves as being more important to God and to the church than they are, but also people can be put up on a pedestal by others, who hold them in greater reverence than they deserve. But we are not defined as people of Jesus by our status in the church; if we let this happen we are in great danger, which is what Jesus is warning us about in this reading. Rather, our status, who we are as people, needs to be found in Jesus and what he has done for us.

The problem is that when we become so focused upon comparing ourselves to others, we lose focus on and stop listening to God. The more we do this the more our relationship with God erodes over time, where we no longer seek to please him, but please other people. Other people’s opinions of us become more important than God.

Jesus says, “11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These words of Jesus would have been highly offensive to the Pharisees, because Jesus was calling them out, exposing their real motives and telling them that there will be consequences. We can fool others, but we cannot fool God.

This is the issue that many are tempted with as church life becomes all about them; then they begin to think of themselves more than they do of God himself. So Jesus warns us by saying, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” Jesus is the one who leads, teaches and instructs us as his followers and he did this in a very real way.

Jesus, in his life and his actions, lived out the way of life that we are to imitate. He humbled himself in the eyes of his heavenly Father. Jesus took on the lowly road to life on a cross for us. Jesus is the one who washes his disciples’ feet and then tells his disciples, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:12-15).

Jesus is the one who became the biggest servant of all, in giving up his very life for us so that we may have life. He is the one who comes to us to serve us with his grace and his mercy and his forgiveness. He is the one who teaches us what it is to live a Godly life. If we forget these words from Jesus, then we are likely to fall back into the path of the Pharisees, making our walk with God all about our own sense of self before others.

Jesus made the point that what God said in his Word is true and that they were to follow it. But when it comes to the actions of believers, unless our behaviour lines up with his Word, then we must be wary of falling into the same trap as the Pharisees did. Jesus is warning people that we need to be grounded in who we are before God, particularly through Jesus, but also that we as his followers have an attitude of humility. Knowing that all of us are in the same boat, we are all guilty of sin just like any other person around us. We are no better than any of our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus, and we are all dependent upon his grace and mercy.

But this is the good news for us. We are gathered here today because of what Jesus has done and is doing in us. We are gathered here today because of his saving work on the cross for us. We are gathered here today because we are included in his family through Jesus. We are gathered here today not because we deserve to be blessed by God, but because we come to receive from him his grace and his mercy to us which he continually offers us.

My encouragement to you today from this Gospel reading is to remember who you are and that your identity as a Christian is found only in Jesus, not in what you do. I also encourage you all to be mindful that the same grace that is being offered to you is offered to all the body of Christ who are his children. Finally, I encourage you to rest in his grace to you and receive the peace and forgiveness that Jesus comes to give you in your life. Rely on Jesus only, not on yourselves.