Sermon from 27th Sep 2020

Matthew 21:23-32 (EHV)

23 When Jesus went into the temple courts, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him while he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus answered them, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer it, I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

They discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the crowd, since they all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

He said to them, “Then I will not tell you by what authority I do these things.”

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 He came to the second and said the same thing. The second son answered, ‘I will go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said to him, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Amen I tell you: The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. However, the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him. Even when you saw this, you did not change your mind and believe him.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may act rightly according to the authority of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

“By whose authority are you doing these things?”

“What gave you the right to do that?”

“Who says so?”

Have you ever heard these kinds of questions?

They’re questions of protest, accusation, and doubt, but they’re also words of rebellion. The person who usually asks these questions are challenging whether the other person has the right authority to do or say what they’re doing or saying. In a sense, it’s a basic question of who’s in control; who’s the boss right here, right now.

As Australians, we typically like to challenge every authority.

We like to disobey or question our parents, thinking we know better than them, after all, our parents aren’t young enough to know everything anymore! We like to see how much we can get away with at work, like attempting to fool our bosses by taking sickies on long weekends (unless of course we don’t trust anyone else and want to be self-employed). We flash our lights at oncoming traffic to ‘stick it’ to the police who may have a speed camera up ahead. We like to rubbish or lampoon our prime minister or our politicians. Basically, if anyone thinks they’re above us in any way, we’ll soon cut them down to size!

But when we do these things, we’re attempting to set ourselves up as our own authority, our own boss, or even our own little god who controls our own little world.

This isn’t a new issue. In our readings for today we see the typical human problem where humans challenge those in authority over them…and God’s response.

For example, in the first reading we hear the Israelites grumbling to, and about, their leader: Moses. There wasn’t enough water in the wilderness, and just like we do today, it’s never our fault – it’s always the leader’s fault, so he better fix the problem!

But Moses knows he’s only acting under the authority which God has given him, so therefore, whenever they complained to, or about, Moses, they were really complaining about God!

This means, whenever you complain about your parents, your boss, your prime minister, or your pastor, you’re really complaining about God who placed them in their position of authority in the first place. They don’t even have to be Christian for God to place them there, after all, even Jesus tells Pontius Pilate he recognises his authority to crucify him (or not) as it was given to him from above (Jn 19:10-11).

This means, whenever you challenge or question those whom God has placed in authority over you, you’re really challenging or questioning God’s authority, which brings us to the gospel reading for today.

What we didn’t hear is what happened before our reading. In this case, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey and overturned the marketing tables in the temple. The local authorities (such as the chief priests and elders) came to challenge Jesus by asking whose authority was he doing these things. In other words, “We’re the local authority, and we reckon you have no authority here, so you better come up with your authorised credentials quickly or you’re in big trouble!”

He, in turn, asked them a question about authority. He wanted them to answer by who’s authority had John the Baptist been baptising people? Was this authority from heaven (which meant it was authorised by God), or was it from humans (which meant it was false, unauthorised, illegitimate, and therefore possibly evil)?

Now, as the local authority experts, they had the choice to back John’s baptisms as authorised by God himself (and therefore give their theological and pastoral blessing to it). They could also reject his baptisms as false and against God’s will. Since they hadn’t acted on stopping John from baptising people earlier, you’d think they’d agree his baptisms were authorised by heaven (which many of the lay people believed it was), but they stopped short of saying this for one simple reason: fear!

Proverbs 29:25 says: ‘The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts the Lord is safe.’

The local authorities were afraid of the people and their opinions. They were also afraid of getting the answer wrong. In the end, they chose not to commit themselves one way or the other.

But, by not answering Jesus’ question, they gave up their authority to say what was of God and what wasn’t. In this way they had disqualified themselves from their position of authority. As disqualified leaders who lacked the courage to trust the work of God, Jesus wouldn’t entrust these incompetent people with the answer to their question.

Similarly, when you’re afraid of what people will think of you and your faith, this means you’re too afraid to listen to, and trust, God’s authority. When you’re afraid of people, you’ve decided that they’re bigger and more powerful than God.

When you’re afraid of what people say, or think, or do to you, the opinions of others become more important to you than anything God would say to you. This means you don’t let God have the final authority and the last word on a matter. You end up letting those who you’re afraid of have the last say.

So, instead of being secure in your identity as children of God who live under the authority and protection of the Creator of heaven and earth, you listen to the opinions of others and submit yourself under their false and illegitimate authority.

In response to the chief priests and elders who were more afraid of people than of God, Jesus went on to teach these disqualified authorities through a parable of two sons – one who said ‘no’, but later obeyed his father’s authority, and the other who said ‘yes’, but then rebelled.

He compared these two sons with two groups of people – the ‘tax-collectors and prostitutes’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, and the ‘chief priests and elders of the law’ who won’t.

One group lived rebellious lives but ended up believing in John’s and Jesus’ ministry of repentance and faith. These rebellious people repented and trusted God and his authority. They acted in accord with their faith and submitted themselves under the reign and authority of God. They were received into the kingdom of heaven.

On the other hand, the other group did and said all the right things on the surface in order to please the people around them. They seemed righteous in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them. But they trusted the illegitimate authority of popularity and self-righteousness. Their faith didn’t lead to repentance because they had become their own boss who decided good and evil for themselves. This meant they had rejected God’s reign and authority. Because they submitted to the wrong authority (because their own self-righteous ministry wasn’t of God), they wouldn’t enter the kingdom.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

As a called and ordained servant of the Word the pastor forgives you all your sins. In the stead of, and by the command of, Christ, the pastor forgives you as Christ’s personal and authorised ambassador.

Of course, you could believe your own opinions or thoughts which might want to challenge those words. You could believe those around you, who keep on reminding you of your failures or mistakes or regrets. You could believe your own fears which might doubt the words of forgiveness. Or you could trust that when Jesus says you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven. Jesus has the divine authority to forgive you and has passed on this heavenly privilege to his church, which is enacted through its authorised servants.

Similarly, whenever a person is baptised in accordance with Christ’s authorised command, that person is baptised with the authority of Jesus Christ Jesus himself. While you may see a pastor do this, they’re acting under the authority of Jesus. This means Jesus himself is the One who washes and claims each person as his own through these holy waters.

Likewise, every parent and godparent promises to use their God-given authority to teach a baptised person about God, and we as a congregation promise to help them with this heavenly task through our own witness and prayer. We pray each baptised person will continue to trust God has authority to do as he has promised through his word.

The authorised pastor also repeats the same words of Christ himself at the Lord’s Supper. Here again God’s word does what it says so that the bread and wine you eat and drink is also the very body and blood of Christ himself given for you for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith.

Of course, you could believe your own opinions about this meal and think it only a symbolic or spiritual re-enactment. On the other hand, you could trust Jesus has authority to do as he says. He gives you his very own body and blood for you, which means heaven itself, in all its fullness, touches you here.

You see, it’s not just by whose authority we’re doing all these things, but how this authority is enacted.

In the reading from Philippians this morning we hear how Jesus didn’t use his authority to lord it over you and me, but he emptied himself and became a suffering servant to do his Father’s will.

He trusted and obeyed his Father’s authority by enduring the cruel cross and dying for you and me. You could say he’s unlike the sons in the parable. He never changed his mind – his answer has always been, and always will be, a ‘yes’ for you – both in intention and in action.

Jesus Christ always exercises his heavenly rule and authority according to the upside-down ways of God’s kingdom for you and me. He comes as a servant for our sake. He serves us by forgiving us, washing us clean, adopting us as his brothers and sisters, feeding us with his own body and blood, teaching us his ways, and blessing us in order that we may also serve as his own authorised humble servants wherever he’s placed us.

He’s also given us the authority to serve – to faithfully serve as a child, a parent, a citizen, or a boss – all under the authority of God. Like Christ himself, we don’t use this authority to rule or bully or belittle those around us, but to serve humbly in such a way we don’t think ourselves as better than any others. In fact, we serve as if the people we serve are better than us. Because we’re united with the suffering Servant, we don’t look for ways to serve our own interests, but we’re to always serve the interest of others.

This means, instead of thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ you may instead think ‘How may I best serve you today?’

Don’t be like those who grumble about those in authority above them, or like those who seek to deceive out of fear, but let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’ as you submit yourself under the authority of God to serve each other in humbleness and grace.

Don’t fear what anyone else thinks of you. Don’t submit to the illegitimate authorities of popularity or self-righteousness. Trust in the authority of God who loves you, forgives you, and wants you to live with him forever. Trust he has authority to keep all his promises for you.

By whose authority will you do these things?

Well, what do you think?

Because it’s only the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, which will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sermon from 20th Sep 2020

Matthew 20:1-16 (EHV) 

1 Jesus said: “Indeed the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing to pay the workers a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. He also went out about the third hour and saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace. To these he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is right.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. When he went out about the eleventh hour, he found others standing unemployed. He said to them, ‘Why have you stood here all day unemployed?’

“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“He told them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last group and ending with the first.’

“When those who were hired around the eleventh hour came, they each received a denarius. 10 When those who were hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But they each received a denarius too. 11 After they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner: 12 ‘Those who were last worked one hour, and you made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not make an agreement with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last one hired the same as I also gave to you. 15 Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 In the same way, the last will be first, and the first, last.”

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may repent of our pride, arrogance and greed, but also rejoice in your abundant and undeserving grace, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s just not fair!

It’s not fair some people seem to have everything, including money, lots of shiny cars and gadgets, popularity, beauty, talents, friends, and a full head of hair, while some people don’t. It’s not fair some people live full and healthy lives despite their best attempts to ruin themselves, while others go to great lengths to look after themselves and their health, but still end up with cancer, Dementia, Parkinson’s, and other insidious diseases.

It’s not fair when the young die tragically, while older people who long to go to their eternal home hang around to watch their family and friends go before them.  It’s not fair when natural disasters like storms, floods, fires and earthquakes strike at the innocent. It’s not fair when evil people seem to profit from their crimes, while the innocent suffer at their hands or are criticised for doing the right thing.

It’s not fair when a largely pagan society wants to redefine marriage in such a way it restricts a child’s right to having mums and dads as parents. It’s not fair innocent babies are aborted from life before they have a chance to bless their parent’s lives. It’s not fair when some are born with disabilities or genetic disorders.

Even in church it’s not fair. Why don’t people recognise or thank you for your hard work? Why do they seem to take your hard work for granted? Why do people seem to avoid you and don’t want to listen to your pain? Why are you criticised for your efforts when all you wanted to do was help? Why don’t some of your loved ones have faith in Jesus like you do? And it’s also not fair when Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last!

It’s just not fair!

Talking about what’s not fair, Jesus uses an unfair picture to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like.

He says his kingdom is like a householder going out at 6am in the morning to find some workers to work in his vineyards. They agree to work for him for an average (if not above average) day’s pay. This same householder also goes out at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and even at 5pm to get more workers. Each time he agrees to pay them what’s right, without specifying the amount.

Then at 6pm he tells his foreman to pay them their wages, starting with the ones who were hired last. Remarkably and very generously, he gave all of them all a full day’s wage, no matter how long they worked.

Now for all those who didn’t work a full day, this wasn’t fair, but the unfairness worked in their favour! They weren’t going to complain because the owner has given them more than their fair share. They didn’t deserve this payment, but the owner decided to be generous toward them. They could thank the landowner for his unfairness.

But seeing the owner’s generosity, the first workers (who started at 6am) expected to receive more than the others, even though they had earlier agreed with the owner to work for exactly the same amount everyone else had just received. Therefore, when they received the same amount as the others, they grumbled about it, saying they worked much harder and longer in the burning sun than anyone else, so why should they receive the same? It’s not fair!

Then the owner reminded them he hasn’t done them wrong. He gave them what they had agreed to. No injustice had been done. He just wanted to give everyone else the same amount, and isn’t it his right to do what he wants with his own things? He then asked them if they’re jealous because of his generosity. Or, literally, he asks them if their eyes are evil because his eyes are good?

And here Jesus puts his finger on our human problem.

Our monstrous eyes of jealousy have decided what’s right and good and fair, at least what is right and good and fair for ourselves. Those same eyes also want to define what’s wrong or evil or unfair, especially when we perceive we’re the ones who have been treated unjustly. Because our eyes are jealous of someone else, we demand to see justice done in our favour, even if this means the other person will be treated unfairly.

But, when we say things are unfair, the focus has shifted away from the generous giver to the jealous eyes of the individual. This means we want to decide good and evil for ourselves, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We want to be the judges of right and wrong. We want to be in a position over and above everyone else.

What’s more, when we say it’s unfair, it’s no longer about God and his generosity, but it’s all about us and the way we see things! We’re jealous of God’s generosity toward others, so we end up judging God as unfair. But when we want to tell God what to do, or tell God what’s fair or not fair, we’ve just rejected God’s generosity and set ourselves up as our own god who thinks we have the authority to judge the Creator of heaven and earth.

Not only this, but because every god must have their own religion, we end up making our own self-made religion based upon good works and deserving.

It normally works this way: if you do good, then as god, I think you should be rewarded, but if you do evil, then I, as god, declare you should be punished.

Reward and punishment: isn’t this the way we treat each other? Isn’t this the way we expect to be treated, even by God? Isn’t this why we’re so jealous and discontent with what happens to us or those around us? After all, isn’t this the basis of every other religion on earth, except for Christianity?

This means we’re always going to be challenged by the rules of God’s kingdom because God doesn’t work on deserving or what’s fair. He doesn’t work on our own self-imposed judgements of right and wrong, or our religion of reward and punishment. God works by grace and not by demands.

The grace of God can be quite challenging because God doesn’t work on a deserving basis. God works on a grace system, and grace ignores all the normal rules of reward and punishment.

In Jesus’ parable, the workers who didn’t work the whole day didn’t deserve the full day’s wage, but that’s the point! Grace is unfair, and always will be, because it’s undeserving!

The ones who get upset with God’s grace are often those who think God works (or should work) on a reward system. They’re the ones who are usually proud of their own goodness (or at least their own perception of goodness). So, it’s the proud, who have striven so hard to be one of the firsts in God’s sight, who often get upset because they find God doesn’t work on a reward system, but on a grace system. The grace system makes the first ones last and the last ones first. It’s unfair. It’s undeserving. But that’s what grace is!

So, if God wants to bless someone else, what’s it to you? God can bless whom he wants to bless. He can be gracious and generous with his own things. He can even forgive the worst of sinners because he’s gracious and merciful. It’s not up to you to say what he does with his own gifts. It’s not up to you who should or should not be forgiven. He doesn’t have to answer to you. He hasn’t broken any promises to you.

He still loves you and has provided you with everything you need, like food and clothing, home and family, work and income, strengths, abilities, and senses. He’s already forgiven you and given you the heavenly inheritance of his eternal kingdom. Even if you’re struggling with a life of unfairness and sickness and difficulties here on earth, God still loves you. He still wants you to live with him forever. Your struggles don’t change God’s promises to you.

So, let’s face it – God is unfair! It’s just not fair he sent his own dearly loved Son into this cruel and heartless world to suffer at the hands of sinful, selfish, and jealous humans. It’s not fair that in response to his wise teachings and miraculous healings they would criticise him, beat him, spit on him, and cruelly kill him on a cross set aside for the worst of criminals.

It’s not fair Jesus rescued you when you were lost and sentenced to death. It’s not fair he would shed his innocent blood to pay for your sins. It’s not fair he would receive the punishment you deserve. It’s not fair he would forgive you all your sins. It’s not fair he would do any of this for jealous and arrogant people who often want to set themselves up as their own god.

It’s not fair Jesus would accept you as God’s own precious child even before you could ever deserve it. It’s unfair you would receive all the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection, without earning this right. It’s unfair you would receive eternal life as a free and undeserving gift. It’s not fair that, no matter what time of the day you began life in his kingdom, the gift is still the same!

Even today, it’s not fair Jesus would give you his holy body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. You’ve sinned time and again, but he keeps accepting you at his banquet table. It’s not fair, but God’s grace is always unfair!

And then God asks you to be unfair to others by asking you to also forgive those who sin against you. They don’t deserve it either. They’ll probably hurt you again. It’s unfair, but forgiveness is always unfair! Forgiveness is always a costly gift which can never be earned or deserved.

The unfairness of God lets criminals go free while the innocent One dies. No one here deserves Jesus’ death, and no one here deserves Jesus’ life, but ‘deservings’ go nothing to do with it! All of us equally receive the generous and undeserving gift of eternal life with Jesus in heaven! It’s not fair, but thank God it’s not fair!

Whenever you’re tempted to grumble or complain about life not being fair, look to Jesus on the cross and see the greatest unfairness in the world. But on that same cross you’ll also see the greatest and most generous justice and grace of God.

The grace of God is purposely unfair. On the cross the first One became one of the last ones in order that the last ones like you and me would become like the first One.

No, life and faith isn’t about deserving. It’s just not fair, but remember grace has never been fair – to the glory and praise of God!

May the grace and peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sermon from 13th Sep 2020

Matthew 18:21-35 (EHV)

21 Then Peter came up and asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you as many as seventy-seven times.[a] 23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle them, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[b] was brought to him. 25 Because the man was not able to pay the debt, his master ordered that he be sold, along with his wife, children, and all that he owned to repay the debt.

26 “Then the servant fell down on his knees in front of him, saying, ‘Master, be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’ 27 The master of that servant had pity on him, released him, and forgave him the debt.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii.[c] He grabbed him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’

29 “So his fellow servant fell down and begged him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ 30 But he refused. Instead he went off and threw the man into prison until he could pay back what he owed.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were very distressed. They went and reported to their master everything that had taken place.

32 “Then his master called him in and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you begged me to. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay back everything he owed.

35 “This is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

Footnotes

  1. Or seventy times seven
  2. Ten thousand talents was an enormous amount equal to sixty million days’ wages. Each talent was worth six thousand denarii. A denarius was one day’s wage.
  3. This was one hundred days’ wages, since one denarius was equal to one day’s wage.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may forgive each other in the same we have been forgiven by you, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’d like you to imagine or recall a time when someone hurt you.

It could be a bully who picked on you at school. It might be a friend who let you down. It might be someone who embarrassed you or lied about you in front of others. It could be a husband or wife who broke your trust. It could be a child who rejected you or what you taught him or her. It might be a fellow Christian who acted in a such way toward you that you wonder if they’re a Christian at all. It might be a terrifying experience of physical, emotional or spiritual abuse from someone who was once close to you, which has deeply scarred you.

Perhaps you still know this person and they remain part of your life. It could also be that you want nothing to do with them and have dismissed them from your life.

As you think about this person who has hurt you so deeply, how do you respond when you hear the question: “How many times must I forgive my brother or sister when they sin against me?”

Now, you may still be angry with them and figure they don’t deserve your forgiveness.

And it’s true! They don’t deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness is never deserved. If anyone deserved forgiveness, they wouldn’t need to be forgiven. Forgiveness always costs the giver and not the receiver. Forgiveness therefore is always undeserved and unfair.

It could also be that you haven’t forgiven them because they haven’t repented or said sorry yet. You might be waiting for them to show some kind of sorrow over their words and actions first before you might ever consider forgiving them. You might be waiting for a long time! But do people really have to repent before you’re able to forgive them?

On the other hand, you might reckon you’ve already forgiven the other person. You’re over it. It’s all behind you. You’ve moved on in your life. But have you really?

If you still think about or dwell on what happened, you might not have forgiven them yet.

If you still talk to other people about what this particular person has done to you, you might not have forgiven them yet.

If you still hold this incident against the other person which continues to hinder your relationship with them, you might not have forgiven them yet.

In a world which teaches revenge, restitution, retaliation, retribution, and reprisal, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness really challenge us! We figure someone has to pay! Someone always has to pay, and it’s not going to be me! We reckon those who hurt us have to make up for everything they’ve done to us, and if they don’t, then we’re going to hold it against them until they do so. We might even consider withholding our forgiveness places us in a powerful position over against the other person. But does it really? Is unforgiveness instead the poison we drink hoping the other person will die?

And, what if they never repent? What if they’re never sorry for what they’ve done? Will you and I continue to be scared of them or angry with them? Will we ever truly be at peace?

More than all this, what about that last statement by Jesus who, just after describing the imprisoning and torture of the unforgiving servant, said that this “is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart”?

Sometimes it’s not about how many times you and I might be able to forgive someone. I might be that we struggle to forgive the other person the first time they hurt us!

So today Jesus tackles the human problem of how we often want to limit, or withhold, our forgiveness. We often refer to this as the ‘Parable of the unforgiving (or unmerciful) servant.’

Firstly, as we listen to Jesus, we soon figure it’s not about how many times we might be expected to forgive. Whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, or whether Jesus is undoing the figure of revenge mentioned by Lamech in Genesis 4:27, it’s not really about the number. It’s not about keeping a tally of how many times you and I might need to forgive someone before we finally get to that magical number when we can stop forgiving someone. There should be no limit to our forgiveness.

To make the point it’s not really about numbers, Jesus uses an illustration with astronomical numbers which are almost impossible to comprehend.

For example, one of the king’s servants had amassed an impossible debt of 10,000 talents.

Now, since we don’t normally use a talent as a unit of currency in Australia, we need to translate this a little.

In this case it helps to understand in Jesus’ day, 1 day’s average wage for a worker was 1 denarius. 1 talent was worth 6,000 denarii. This means, 10,000 talents would be worth 60,000,000 days wages. Remembering most people only work for around 50 years (which equates to around 15,600 days if you worked a six-day working week), this meant this servant had amounted enough debt which would take almost 4,000 lifetimes to ever repay!

In other words, the debt is impossible to ever repay! Even if the king really were to sell the servant, his wife, and his children, the debt still couldn’t be repaid. He’s not just undeserving, but he’s been careless, irresponsible, and reckless to rack up such an impossible debt which could never be repaid.

In desperation he asks the king for patience so he could repay the debt. Remembering the impossibility of repaying this ridiculous financial debt, the request for patience would seem futile and pointless.

Note, there’s no hint of sorrow over the huge debt. No repentance. No change of heart, which becomes even more obvious later. There’s absolutely no reasonable reason the king should do anything except let the servant receive what he deserves for this prodigal debt.

Therefore, when the king forgives and wipes clean the impossible debt, this seems extremely bizarre. The king cancels the servant’s debt for no reason except for his own compassion. The king is compassionate and gracious, slow to get angry and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. There are also no strings attached to this extraordinary act of forgiven debt.

So, it seems this reckless and irresponsible servant gets off scott free! He now has no debt and is free to start again. You’d think this would be a life-changing day for him!

But, no sooner does he go outside, that this freely forgiven servant comes across another servant who owed him 100 denarii – that’s only about 3 months wages. This debt could easily be repaid if the original servant was patient.

And that’s all the second servant asks for – patience. He doesn’t ask for his debt to be cancelled. He promises to repay what he owes, just not right now.

But the original servant, who has been forgiven 4,000 lifetimes of debt wants his 3 months debt paid back right away. He’s not even willing to be patient. He throws the second servant into prison in order that he would repay the debt. Although, how on earth a person is supposed to repay a debt from prison is indeed puzzling!

It just so happens other fellow servants witnessed what happened and reported the original servant’s cruel and unjust behaviour to the king.

In this case, while the king hadn’t attached any strings to his forgiveness to the original servant, he did expect the servant who had received mercy to be merciful to others. The king expected his compassionate act of mercy would rub off on the servant, but it didn’t. The servant’s heart remained selfish and self-seeking. Because the servant wasn’t merciful, he’s handed over to tortuous prison guards in order that his once-forgiven debt would be fully repaid.

And then Jesus says those words to you and me, as Christians who have received the forgiveness and mercy of God, that when we struggle to forgive those around us: “This is what my heavenly Father will also do to you unless each one of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

You could argue the forgiveness of the King was without condition, but it wasn’t without consequences.

Similarly, loving and forgiving your brothers and sisters in Christ isn’t a condition you have to live up to in order to gain God’s grace or mercy. God has already been gracious and merciful to you long before you ever asked for it. Instead, your forgiveness toward those around you is the after-effect and consequence of a believing heart. While a Christian can’t win or earn God’s forgiveness, you can lose it when you refuse to extend the same grace and compassion to your brothers or sisters in Christ.

When you’re struggling to forgive those around you, arguing they need to have a change of heart before you can ever forgive them, Jesus challenges you to consider it’s not the other person’s heart that needs changing. To forgive someone else from your heart means your own heart is the one which needs to be changed first. And the only way your own heart can be changed is to realise the huge debt you’ve already been forgiven by Jesus Christ.

So, hear again the good news of Jesus Christ!

While you were still sinners, Christ died for you.

He didn’t die for you because you’re good people, but because you’ve racked up a huge debt. You see, the wages, or the debt of sin, is death.

Every time you feared, loved, or trusted in something or someone else apart from God, the debt was increased. Every time you neglected to pray to God, or give him thanks, you added to the debt. Every time you angered or dishonoured your parents or teachers or whinged about our parliamentarians, you added to the debt. Every time you told a lie about your neighbour or passed on some gossip unchecked, you increased the debt. Every time you wanted to gain something or someone for yourself because you weren’t content with what God already provided you, the debt got larger.

Despite all this, Jesus paid the full price of that debt of sin through his death. It is finished. Completed. Fully paid for.

He also didn’t suffer and die because you were sorry. In fact, most of the time you may be unaware of how much you offend the people around you. You’re probably also unaware of the depths of your offences toward God. If he had to wait for any of you to be sorry for how you hurt each other or the way you hurt God, Jesus would still be waiting. So, while you were his unrepentant enemies, he died for you and me. Gladly. Willingly. Graciously. Undeservedly.

When you’re struggling to forgive someone, you don’t look for the other person to change. They’re probably not going to anyway. It could be that mercy is the only thing which can change their heart too.

Instead, when you’re struggling to forgive, look to Jesus Christ and what he did for you. He forgave you from his gracious and merciful heart. When your own heart realises and trusts the grace and mercy of Christ, you’ll be more willing to forgive from your heart. Not because you have to, but because your heart has been transformed by God’s grace and mercy.

May God comfort you with the forgiveness which is yours through faith in the words and work of Jesus Christ, who has cleansed and adopted you as God’s own children through baptism, and who offers his own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sin. And by God’s grace, may the forgiveness of Christ help you to forgive those who have hurt you.

And then may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sermon from 6th Sep 2020

Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV)

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may care for the ‘little ones’ in our midst, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is usually one of the very few Scripture passages quoted in our Congregational Constitutions and By-Laws. It often forms the basis of a detailed three-stage process describing church discipline.

Although the By-Laws say all church discipline is to be done ‘in an evangelical manner’ (which means it’s to be done in accordance with the gospel) and that it should be done with the purpose of gaining a member, it seems to encourage us to admonish, or tell off, everyone who does the wrong thing.

Since the church is full of sinful saints, it would seem we’d have a full-time job if we had to tell each other off every time we feel upset by what people say and do! If we ever attempted to rebuke each other every time someone did something wrong, we shouldn’t be surprised people no longer want to be part of our fellowship!

So, does Jesus really wants us to tell each other off every time we feel hurt by each other? Have we misunderstood what he’s saying here, or have we gone about it in the wrong way?

Well, it would serve us well to understand what Jesus says here is only part of his conversation with his disciples. To better understand the context he was speaking into, we need to go back to the beginning of the chapter.

This is where we hear the disciples were wondering who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

In other words, who is more important? Who is more worthy? Who is more valuable? Whose rights should be more prominent in God’s kingdom?

This question in itself shows our inherent human nature which is selfish and self-centred. We want to be merited for our righteous behaviour, and we judge each other based on merit. This question is all about me and where I stand over against the pecking order of the rest of the people of God.

My pride might figure I follow Jesus more nearly, love him more dearly, and see him more clearly than everyone else, and I want to be recognised for this. Surely I’m more important, more prominent, more admirable, more righteous, and more holy than those sinners next to me, aren’t I Jesus? Surely I’ve earned a spot closer to Jesus based on my own efforts and good intentions?

But Jesus turns this type of thinking upside down.

In response he invites a toddler to stand in the middle of the disciples. Now, a very young child, while valuable to his or her parents, normally contributes nothing of value to society. They are powerless, uneducated, unskilled, naïve, and defenceless. Despite their best efforts to convince us the world should revolve around them, they have no right to rule or have a position higher than anyone else.

Yet Jesus says: “Unless you turn and become like a toddler, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3-4).

Now, Jesus isn’t asking his disciples to be childish. He’s asking us to be childlike. He’s turning our world upside down by telling us only the childlike actually get into the kingdom of heaven. The childlike have no authority or power or greatness about them. You see, it’s not about being great or important or valuable or more righteous in God’s kingdom, but about being humble. It’s about being ‘little ones’ in the kingdom.

At this point it’s helpful for us to consider how Jesus, who we consider worthy of praise and honour, humbled himself and emptied himself of his greatness for you and me. He didn’t come to be served, but came to serve all the ‘little ones’ who we would often shun, or look down on, or ostracise, or reject; the ones whom the Pharisees and teachers of the Law criticised and condemned. Jesus welcomed ‘little’ sinners at his table so they may receive his feast of forgiveness. He died for sinners so they may be forgiven and free to live in his kingdom.

Those who puff themselves up and want to be great in the kingdom are challenged by what Jesus says and does, but those who are ‘little’ in the eyes of the world, who are humble and childlike, see him as their Saviour.

As if this wasn’t challenging enough for all of us who want to be seen as good or right or worthy or important or great, Jesus likens himself to a ‘little one.’ Therefore, when you receive a ‘little one’ in Jesus’ name, you also receive Jesus. Of course, this also begs us to ask the question how we can receive Jesus if we can’t receive ‘little ones’ in our midst.

In fact, anyone who might cause a ‘little one’ who believes in Jesus to sin, well, it’s better for them to drown in the sea with a millstone around their neck, or to have their offending part of the body which caused a ‘little one’ to sin to be cut off.

We’re not to despise or look down on the ‘little ones’ (or those we think ‘little’ of) in our fellowship. Instead, like a shepherd who cares so deeply for his ‘little ones’ that he would leave ninety nine sheep to rescue one of his ‘little ones’, we too should be deeply concerned that any ‘little ones’ might perish because they were led to sin by those who considered themselves great in the kingdom of heaven.

For this reason, you could argue a Christian community is to be measured by how they treat their most insignificant, unworthy, useless, and sinful, ‘little ones’.

Then, knowing we humans often judge each other (and ourselves) based on merit and worthiness (or the lack of it), which too often affects the faith of the ‘little ones’ in our midst, Jesus gives us a way to reconcile and win back the recalcitrant sinner.

So, Jesus says to you and me, as people who no longer want to be the greatest but who are ‘little ones,’ that when a brother or sister in Christ sins against us, we should…go.

But this isn’t what we always practice. Many times, we don’t want to go. We want to excuse someone’s behaviour. “That’s just who they are” or “You just have to get used to so-and-so” we might say. We might make out it wasn’t that bad after all and deny the way their sin affects the ‘little ones’ in the community. But, if we’re really concerned for the ‘little ones,’ we need to go, but we go in humbleness and with a readiness to forgive the repentant sinner.

Connected to the ‘go’ is that we approach them one on one and in private.

Again, this isn’t what we practice. We often want to tell everyone else what they’ve done through our careless talk, before checking to see if we misunderstood them in the first place. Before you know it, we’ve publicly shamed and humiliated them behind their back. Through our unchecked gossip, we’ve put them on trial without the possibility of repentance or a proper defence. This isn’t the way to win people over to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation!

But, even if we were to see them privately, what are we to do, and how are we to do it?

Well, we’re to ‘go and tell him his fault’ or ‘tell him what he did wrong,’ but in such a way that we patiently and lovingly bring the person to the point they realise their own sin.

This is important. You see, we’re often spiritually blind to our own sin, so a ‘he said/she said’ argument of right and wrong won’t always convince someone what they did was wrong, especially in today’s world where the rights of the individual have become more important than the rights of the community.

In this case we prepare carefully and prayerfully so that we may have the courage and perseverance to help them see themselves, their words, their actions, and their intentions, in the light of God’s Word. Let God be the one to change their heart. Once they realise their sin, we’re to forgive the repentant sinner.

It could be ninety percent of our troubled relationships can be dealt with in this manner, without the need for our sins to be made public. The ‘little ones’ will reconcile with those who have sinned against them and the community of faith will continue to experience love and unity and harmony as a powerful witness to the forgiveness of Christ.

However, some will have trouble seeing or admitting their own sinful behaviour.

In this case, we’re to get some of our friends and gang up on them!

No!

When you need to bring others along in an effort to gain back your brother or sister in Christ, you seek objective and spiritually mature people who will carefully investigate the situation (and perhaps also check your own misunderstandings or bias), but most importantly, people who will bear witness to what Christ has done for themselves, and him (or her), and for you. They may have the gifts to communicate more effectively, ask the right questions, and have the wisdom to explore solutions you haven’t thought of yet. These spiritually mature people will seek every opportunity to regain those who have sinned against the ‘little ones.’

Of course, if a heard-hearted person, who professes to be a Christian, refuses to repent, forgive, or be reconciled after repeated appeals, Jesus then commands us to treat him or her like a non-Christian. Of course, like all pagans, tax-collectors and sinners, this person shouldn’t be shunned or written off, but now is in need of our evangelism.

Throughout the whole process, the intention is to forgive and restore the repentant sinner – for their sake, for the sake of the ‘little ones,’ and for the sake of the Christian community.

You see, Jesus is deeply concerned for all of us – for all the ‘little ones’ who humbly look to him for mercy, forgiveness and peace. Through baptism and faith, he has grafted us into his own body and he feeds us with his own body and blood at his Holy Supper. He raises up the humble and gives us a place in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus also knows people hurt us and that we in turn hurt others. This hurtful behaviour affects the fellowship of believers, affects our unity in the body of Christ, and affects our witness of faith and love and peace. He has given us a wise process to reconcile strained relationships and restore unity and peace in a troubled community.

Where the rest of the world judges each of us on the basis of our worthiness and usefulness (and also looks down on those who are of little value), living in God’s kingdom involves humbleness and respect. We value and love those who many consider to be useless, unworthy, and undeserving. We love and serve them because Jesus suffered and died for all people, no matter how lowly they may be. We also don’t want to lead people into temptation or despair because of the way they’ve been treated, so we have the courage to reveal how sin affects our fellowship. We’re also ready to forgive the repentant sinner so that he or she may experience reconciliation and restoration where possible.

While we have these words from Christ referred to in our Constitutions and By-Laws, let’s never take them out of context. Let’s always be humble and childlike as we live out our faith in Jesus Christ so that we never think of ourselves too highly. Let’s always love the ‘little ones’ so much we may never lead them into temptation or despair because of their experience of sin. Let’s be ready to forgive the repentant sinner and seek to maintain our unity in the body of Christ.

In this way, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.