Faithlife Sermons

What Matters

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Sermon Notes, Proper 18, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 All that matters 1 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? Ez 33:11 While we were on vacation, Peg and I attended a Sunday worship service in the RV park where we were camped. A devout Christian woman stood up to witness and said she thanked God that He would change his mind in answer to her prayers. She couldn't understand those who claimed God never changes his mind, because over her life God had reversed himself often when she fervently prayed for something to change. My initial reaction was "Oh my." But as I have thought about it since, I think she may speak for many who think that God in answering their prayer is God bending his will to theirs. But is this really what happens? Put another way, can God be unchangeable and responsive to us at the same time? It's a profoundly important question and our readings today from both Ezekiel and from Matthew speak to it. Ezekiel's message to the inhabitants of Jerusalem is that her days are numbered and God's judgement is about to fall. Their king, Jehoiakim, linked his fortunes to Egypt as an ally against the threat of Babylon. Ezekiel prophesized that this alliance is against God's will and both Jerusalem and Egypt will suffer God's wrath. And now the prophecy is about to become reality as Babylon gathers around Jerusalem and Egypt is powerless to stop her. Then God calls Ezekiel to speak to his besieged people. He casts Ezekiel as the watchman who blows the trumpet at the attack of the enemy. It is soon clear that God's concern is not militaristic, not to save Jerusalem from her oppressor, but spiritual: that Israel might be saved from her sins. Vs. 10: "And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: 'Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?'" Can God who proclaimed his intention to punish his people for their sins be the same God who will save them? The answer lies in vs. 11. "Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" God's intolerance of sin is unshakable. But so is his desire to save the sinner. These characteristics are not opposed one to another, but in harmony. He is the God of life and sin is the enemy of life. He is such an adherent of life that he will even use threat of death if need be to bring about the change of heart he desires. If God chooses to save Jerusalem from its enemy, he has not changed his mind about Jerusalem. His principle is life. It is Jerusalem whose mind must change. She must choose between life and death and God implores her, desperately implores her, to choose life. So to answer our question, God is both unchangeable in his opposition to sin and receptive to the repentance of the sinner. In fact, that is the desire of God's heart! If this sounds a bit familiar to us, it's because we affirm it when we confess our sins and receive absolution from God. In the words of the Daily Office, the Priest says to the confessing congregation, "Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, desires not the death of sinners, but that they may turn from their wickedness and live." Does God change his mind about us because we sincerely repent of our sins? No. We come alongside God who patiently waits for us. There's another place in our Anglican tradition where God's unchanging desire for life is expressed. Look to the 39 Articles found in the back of the BCP, page 778, Article 17. Of Predestination and Election "Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God..." So begins the explanation of what it means to be saved by grace. CS Lewis was asked if prayer changes God and he answered, No, prayer changes me. We're the ones who need realignment. We're the ones who need correction. Our God is predestined to life, eternally. Jesus brings the purpose of God into the world and makes it incarnate. We may think of God's unchangeable predestination to life as something high and mighty, an overriding principle we only see darkly through the mirror. But Jesus is God incarnate and God's purpose becomes real and present in him. As often happens, that results in a teachable moment for the disciples. In our reading today from Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples on how they should react when unrepented sin affects one of their own. Jesus gives a practical, step by step approach that begins with one-on-one counsel and ends with the collective spirit of the church striving to bring the sinner back into a life of grace. God's predestination to life underlies everything Jesus says. He does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he should turn back and live. Then Jesus says something remarkable and controversial. "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." Is Jesus giving the church authority to rewrite God's unchangeable principles? Thankfully, no. The church is blessed of God but not blessed to inerrancy. The church is yet made up of sinful souls who have been known to fail. We get it wrong. Many times we get it wrong. We need to be taught ourselves. David prays in Psalm 119: 33, 34 "Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, * and I shall keep it to the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; * indeed, I shall keep it with my whole heart." This is our prayer, to be better students, not to be the teacher. What then does Jesus mean? Many today see Jesus' words as reference to binding and loosing the demonic forces that may possess people. Jesus does give the church that authority, but it doesn't fit the context of Matthew's story at this point. Matthew's earliest readers would have understood Jesus' statement to be about human relationships, akin to contracts written between people for the settling of debts and grievances. It flows naturally from the earlier talk about restoration of relationships. Rev. Philip Bottomley from CMJ is helpful in explaining the Jewish idea of "halakha." "In the Jewish context, it is about permitting and not permitting. Jesus invites His Church to engage in the creation of halakha. That is, how you walk out your salvation in practical daily community life." You do the right thing. What Jesus adds to halakah is this: what you do matters far beyond what you may see. There are implications to our everyday actions that reach beyond the everyday world. It matters. We hear that word a lot these days. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. Much of our national debate on race is focused on just who matters. But precious little is being said on what it means to matter. We know what matters to God. As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? What matters to God is his people turning back to him and choosing life over death. Is that what we mean when we talk about lives that matter? If so, our prayer for those who hate us needs to change. If they matter they do so in this world and the next. Equality in this world. Adoption as children of God in the next. Justice in this world. Mercy in the next. Worth dying for in this world. Eternal life in the next. They need to matter to me just as they matter to Jesus. Paul says, "Let love be genuine." That's a good starting place. If love is genuine it is not about us but about the other person. It matters that I love my enemy. It matters that I love someone who seeks to destroy my world. Why? Because he matters to Jesus so much that he died for him. There's no nice ribbon tying up the end of this thread. Loving like Jesus loves is the hardest thing we will ever be asked to do. It is what our cross looks like in this broken world. Jesus says pick it up. Carry it all the way to heaven. It matters to God. Lord help it to matter to me. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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