Sermons That Work

Imitating Jesus Is Not Enough!, Proper 21 (A) – 2005

September 25, 2005

Repetition results in knowledge. But is that enough? For the last months Matthew’s Gospel has repeated the teachings of Jesus to us in different ways. Some of these teachings have been accompanied by miracles or repeated in parables. Jesus has been a good mentor and we often talk about imitating him. There are even signs like WWJD (what would Jesus do). But is that enough? Is that what the Gospel is calling us to do?

In the Gospel today, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the elders and chief priests are challenging his authority to teach there. But it is not just a simple challenge. It is a challenge wrought with suspicion that has a bad ending. In spite of the circumstances, Jesus is using this opportunity to teach us what we must do.

Did you ever have an elder answer your question with another question? You know, you are getting The Look. And you ask, “What?” They answer, “You know what!” Well, it would seem that Jesus is doing that now. Rather than answering the question posed by the elders and chief priests, he asks them a question. He tells them he will answer their question about his authority to teach in the temple (or anywhere else) if they answer his question.

The question is about John the Baptist. Jesus asks the elders and chief priests if John’s baptism was from (heaven) God or if it was of human origin. If they answer that John’s baptism was of divine origin then Jesus will ask them why they did not believe him to be a prophet. And if they answer that John’s baptism was of human origin, they will be in trouble with the crowds that have gathered to hear Jesus teach because the crowds do believe that John was a prophet and that his baptism did indeed have heavenly authority. So either way they decide to say, “I don’t know.” All you parents may be thinking that this scenario sounds familiar. It sounds like the answer we get from kids when they know they are in trouble. I bet things have not changed that much and Jesus knew what was going on.

Why do you think it was so hard for the elders and chief priests to believe in John the Baptist and his work? I think we might begin with what we know about John. The Gospels have told us that John was Jesus’ cousin, that John knew Jesus, and leapt in the womb when Elizabeth, his mother, and Mary first visited when they were both pregnant. We also know that John was not of the “usual” sort. He is described in Matthew 3: 4-5 in this way:

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

You might well wonder if John was not taken seriously because of the way he looked. There is certainly evidence in our own history that appearances have played a role in whether someone or their actions are considered to be of “heaven” or not. For instance, if we read the journals of Columbus, Las Casas, or the many other first visitors to the New World, or the accounts of the missionaries and explorers that followed, there is one common theme. People who were dressed in animal skins and ate the fruit and nuts of the land were definitely not considered to be of “heaven.” In fact, it appeared to the Europeans that they were badly in need of salvation. Was it any different for the chief priests and elders? They had a choice. They could either listen to the crowds who affirmed John’s call and knew him to be a prophet, or they could condemn him and categorize him in a way that would deny his call and his words of faith because they did not come from an acceptable source.

But Jesus does not come right out and say that. He asked them to answer another question after he had told them the parable of the two sons. Both sons had been asked by their father to go to work in the vineyard. The first son says he will not do it, but later changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but never does. Jesus asks which son is doing the will of his father. The elders and chief priests do not have any trouble with that question. They tell Jesus that the first son is doing the will of his father. Without knowing it they have helped Jesus to make the point. The first son, like the tax collectors and prostitutes, is transformed. They are doing their “Father’s” will.

We have another example of this in the Old Testament reading from Exodus. The Israelites are complaining once again about their circumstances. So far, God has brought them out of slavery, parted the Red Sea with Moses’ help, provided a daily supply of manna and doves for them to eat when they were hungry, and now they are despairing that there is no water and they fear they will die of thirst. They become angry with Moses because they can’t see God, even in all these miracles. Moses followed God’s instructions and struck the rock with his staff and water came forth. Another miracle. And, for the moment, the Israelites are quieted—but not transformed—by the great care from their “Father.” Their journey will continue until the day their hearts are broken open, transforming them to be the people God intended them to be.

The readings for today, as they do on most days, provide a road map for our journey. We hear repeatedly words of wisdom, examples of faith, and reflections of God’s love for us and for all creation. There are many examples of how we can imitate Jesus and become better people. But it is not that simple. The Gospel messages are not repeated only as patterns to imitate. Scripture conveys eyewitness accounts of hearts being broken open by faith.

Do you remember a time when your heart was broken?
Do you remember how you were before your heart was broken?
Can you remember how you were after your heart was broken?

It seems like a pretty sure bet that you were not the same person after your heart was broken. You might be thinking that this is not the same thing as what we read about in the scriptures. When you put yourself into the “shoes” of the Israelites and remember a time when you questioned God’s ability to provide for what you thought you needed; or the times when you let appearances influence your ability to see Jesus in another person; or how often you have missed being aware of a miracle because you were looking for something different. Then remember how your heart broke and you were transformed by God providing for your needs when you thought there was no chance; and the time Jesus spoke to you through prophetic words from an unlikely source; and the time that the sunset was so beautiful that you had to stop what you were doing and take it in as tears flowed.

If we are to do the will of God, we need to let our hearts be broken open and become a people transformed, forgiven, and renewed. God expects us to live in a way that reflects God’s love and the wonder of all creation. Jesus is a most precious gift. God sent him to show us as a living example of doing God’s will. But imitating the example is just that. Until we allow ourselves to be transformed, we will not be changed. We, the people of God, were meant to be transformed by all that Jesus did for us—and by all that God continues to do for us in our lives. The Israelites could have been transformed by the miracle of the water. The chief priests and elders of the temple might have been transformed by John or other unlikely suspects. The tax collectors and prostitutes were transformed. Repetition will result in knowledge from reading the teachings in the Gospels and maybe even from experiencing the everyday miracles of life, if we allow ourselves be transformed by them.

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Christopher Sikkema


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