Sermon - 28th September 2014
Never a Closed Door
Scripture - Matthew 21:23-32
[An audio verion of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
I have given today’s sermon the title “Never A Closed Door”, for that is indeed the heart of the message in today’s Gospel reading. God never gives up on us. Ever. Today’s passage also includes some very big ideas, including authority and God’s open-door policy on salvation. Firstly, I would like us to reflect briefly on how we discern what is truthful.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me an email containing something his Twitter feed had picked up. It claims to be quote from God, the essence of which is one of closing doors. One of the great things about modern technology is that a quick electronic search will show that none of these words or phrases can be found in the Bible.
If you have ever been part of a Pentecostal church, you may have encountered people who claim to have the gift of prophecy from the Holy Spirit, and you might have experienced such people making a pronouncement, beginning with phrases like, “I feel the Lord is saying to us…” and so on.
Prophecy is something not exclusive to Pentecostal Protestant churches: Nostradamus is perhaps the most famous Catholic prophet; and in the Orthodox Church, St Seraphim of Vyritsa is said to have foreseen much of what happened in Russia in the 20th century.
Today, in the year 2014, anyone claiming to have fore-knowledge or to be hearing God is probably dismissed out of hand, somewhere on the scale between religious fanatic and mentally ill.
How do we measure validity? How do we define truth? The answer to these questions lie within our life experience. If I ask you to define a chair, you will think of a piece of furniture, usually with 4 legs, and on which we can sit and rest our back, and our experience confirms that. If I ask you to define an honest person, you will think of people in your experience who have always been truthful with you, or to whom you can entrust your thoughts, feelings and secrets, or even your possessions, in the understanding that they will keep those things safe.
But what about spiritual matters, claims that someone is speaking God’s words? How can we measure their validity? Here, there is no absolute definition, but we can begin our understanding by comparing the essence of the so-called prophetic message with the essence of what we know of God from the Bible.
And it is at this point that we introduce the notion of authority. In our lives, we constantly accept or reject information based our perceived authority of its source. For example, we are more likely to believe something reported by the BBC, compared to, say, The Sun newspaper. We are more likely to believe things we are told by our family, partner and friends than from those unknown to us. Even 20 years ago, the source of information and authority was the printed word, found in books and libraries; today, our primary source of information is the Internet. With the recent launch of Apple’s new iOS8, some people’s faith in the authority of information on the Internet was severely misplaced, when they believed that this new phone could be recharged using a microwave oven – with obvious, disastrous results! And, there is no way that any of us can be sure that these photos of broken phones are not hoaxes!
And so, back our Gospel text: the chief priests challenge Jesus’ authority. They want to know on whose authority He is in the Temple preaching. We perhaps need to take a step back and look at the position of this passage in the Gospel as a whole. On the previous day, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey; the crowds had cheered Him; and He had gone into the Temple and had driven out all those who had turned the Temple into a market-place, where believers were fleeced of their money. The crowd was on Jesus’ side; He had massive popular support; and the Jewish authorities were running scared.
In the Gospels, whenever Jesus’ encounters with the Jewish priests are reported, He always turns their questions around on them, aware that they are intent on tricking him. Jesus could have said that He was there on His own authority – after all, He is the Son of God! Instead, Jesus asks them a question about John the Baptist. The background is that John the Baptist called people to turn from sin, and John pointed to Jesus. The religious authorities knew they were in a lose-lose situation. In fear of losing their power by giving either answer, they give no answer, and with this, they lose their authority completely. After all, what are religious authorities for, except to speak definitively on spiritual matters.
The Gospel writer then continues with another 4½ chapters with Jesus’ final block of teaching, mainly teaching about salvation, Jesus’ forthcoming sacrifice and Jesus’ return at the End of the Age. And so, we come to the parable read to us in the second half of today’s reading.
The parable is a straightforward one: there are two sons, one who refused to work for his father, but then changed his mind and did so; and the second son, who said he would work, but did not.
I am sure all of us can remember times, when either as a child, teenager or adult – perhaps even as an employee, and those of you who are parents may have experienced this with your children – when both of these ways of behaving have been followed.
Even the Jewish priests answered correctly, when Jesus asked them, as to who the obedient son was: the first son. He might have been reluctant at first, but the son was ultimately obedient. Again, there is an aspect of authority here. The father is the authority figure, and the son is expected to follow his father’s request. There are many other similar parables in the Bible, perhaps the most well-known being the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
The passage ends referring back to John the Baptist who called people to turn from their wrong ways. Jesus mentions tax collectors and prostitutes, seen then as among the worst people in society, and our view of these people might be different today – tax collectors are civil servants, and society does not reject but seeks to support and help those out of a life of prostitution. How comfortable would we feel if those examples were substituted with murderers or political despots?
How comfortable do we feel with the notion that God would have forgiven Adolf Hitler, if he had repented? Another despot, the Panamanian drug lord, General Noriega, converted to Christianity in a US prison. How do we feel about that, given the innumerable lives drugs have ruined? Or maybe the child murderer, Mira Hindley, who repeatedly claimed her conversion to Catholicism?
If we take a step back from today’s Gospel reading and look over the whole theme of the Bible and God’s message to us within, what is it? It is a simple one: we are called to be reconciled with our Creator God. The Bible is filled with the same story, over and over again. Humankind strays from God, and God calls us back. After all, God gave us free-will to choose our path. Like the first son in the parable, who chose to turn back to the right way and do as the father had asked, God invites us again and again to come back.
Going to back to the so-called prophetic message my friend sent me, when I hold the essence of that message against what I know of God, God is a god of opening doors. To God, even death was not a closed door: that is one which He opened again in the Resurrection.
A couple of weeks ago, Lee preached about forgiveness and God’s call for us to give one another again and again – self-care notwithstanding, another example of God’s call to keep doors open. Last week, Andy preached about Jonah, and even though God’s own prophet had a ‘closed door attitude’, God did not, and God’s open door welcomed in the repentant citizens of Nineveh.
Deathbed conversions of those who have committed terrible crimes might not sit easily with us, but the reality is that even for them, God’s door remains open, just as it remains open to all of us.
God’s door is indeed open, but it requires us to choose. We have to choose to change direction so that we walk through the door. The religious word for that is ‘to repent’, to change direction from those ways we hurt others, ourselves and God.
God’s invitation to us is a simple one:
"All are welcome here. So come, those who have much faith and those who have little, those who have been here often and those who have not been for a long time, those who have followed and those who have failed. Come and meet our God.”