I love church signs – or marquees, as they are more properly called. Mt. Pleasant Baptist advertises this on two lines: “Do you know what hell is?” And, underneath on the second line, the sign reads, “Come, hear our preacher.” A Presbyterian church sign makes this plea, “Lord, help us to be the people our dogs think we are.” And Madison Avenue Baptist makes this prediction: “The fact there’s a Highway to Hell but only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.”
In the 16th chapter of the gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, and the authorities – the top dogs, if you will – don’t like it at all. Seeing Jesus as a sign – as a threat – they confront His popularity and His authority, basically asking, “Who do you think you are?”
Jesus replies by telling the Parable of the Two Sons. It’s simple enough, unlike some of His longer parables. A man has two sons. He goes to the first one and asks him to get to work in the vineyard. And the son – like many sons when first ask to do something – said no. But then he eventually changed his plan – he had a change of heart – and he got to work.
The second son was also asked to do some vineyard work, and he said, “Yeah, put me in, coach. I’ll do it.” But he actually didn’t do the work. When it came to doing the work his dad asked him to do, he was all talk and zero follow-thru. We’ve all been like that before.
So, when Jesus asks the head honchoes of the Temple which son did the will of the father, it is not a hard riddle. These are bright temple executives – Ivy leaguers, okay? So, they rightly and quickly reply, “The first one.”
And that was all it took to light the fuse. Keep in mind that St. John the Baptist had come paving the way for Jesus, and many did hear and receive the message of kingdom inbreaking. Many did change their minds – many did repent from their old ways of thought and practice. But the so-called spiritual experts – the religious in crowd – refused to listen, doubling down on their pride of place.
So Jesus didn’t sugarcoat it. He said, “I promise you – I’m here to tell you – the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” Not only is this shocking in its own right, but Jesus told this to the chief priests and the elders, the very ones most certain of their own destiny and place in the religious landscape.
Imagine walking up to Chef Gordon Ramsey during the taping of an episode of “Master Chef” and proclaiming, “Just so you know, Gordon, the line cook at Waffle House on Clark Road will get a Michelin Star before you do this year.” Imagine telling Tom Brady – Mr. Arrogant himself, “Tom, there are pee wee players out there more deserving of the NFL hall of fame than you.”
Jesus said the very people who thought they had it together did not, and the very ones the Temple highbrows were certain didn’t have it together actually did – that tax collectors and harlots knew something – had listened to something eternally precious – had undergone a change of heart that the temple board of directors had failed to even consider as a motion.
And the reality behind this very troubling, and downright shocking, exchange can still change your life – can change my life – today. And it’s great news.
Whenever the topic is religiosity, at the end of the day, there are really only two types of people: the self-assured who believe they basically have it together – that on the day they arrive at the pearly gates they won’t need to register with security or enter the four digit code plus the pound key. They’ll just show up to trumpet fanfare, the gates will automatically open, and a big digital church sign will read “Congratulations. You did it!”
The words of the late evangelical Anglican bishop JC Ryle come to mind: “The real cure for self-righteousness is self-knowledge.” A church sign in front of the Jupiter Church of Christ is just as good. It reads, “Acting like you’re perfect is like dressing up for an X ray.”
In 1983, Paul Harvey, the late, great radio broadcaster, interviewed Billy Graham. You can watch the whole thing on You Tube. A friend sent it to me last week. At one point, Paul said to Billy, “Having known your mother, your father in law, your wife, I can’t help but think that Billy Graham would have been a pretty nice guy with or without religion. Isn’t this so?” Billy replied, “The purpose of Christ coming wasn’t to really make us nice guys. His coming was to redeem us, to forgive us so we can have eternal life, because this life is very brief and transitory. Where am I going to spend eternity? What is my future going to be? That’s decided by my relationship to [Jesus] Christ.”
So, there is another kind of religious person – someone who at the end of the day knows there’s not a chance in hell he or she will ever be worthy of heaven – that his or her thoughts and actions are dark, even sinister, deserving not of heaven but of hell. These persons know their savior, because they know their sin.
Have you seen the 80’s movie “Twins?” If you haven’t, don’t. It’s really a ridiculous movie starring Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I ran out of Netflix things about three months into COVID, so I’m re-watching weird 70’s and 80’s films.
The plot is about a scientific experiment to create a superhuman test tube baby. Well, the experiment, like many experiments, doesn’t go as planned. The scientists ended up getting one superhuman, Arnold, of course, but they also ended up with a surprise twin, Danny DeVito, who is not exactly what some cultures consider genetic dreaminess.
After Arnold is an adult, he learns he has a twin, they reunite, and eventually end up looking for their mother. Arnold, of course, has lived the perfect life he was created to live – this was Arnold of the 80’s, so he’s strong (hello steroids), he’s handsome, he’s intelligent, he makes good decisions, and so forth. DeVito, on the other hand, is a hot mess. He’s a two-bit con man who has to steal cars and sell them just to cover his gambling debts. He’s a misfit.
Nevertheless, when it’s time to reunite with their mother, Devito has a complete emotional breakdown in the parking lot of the nursing home, and he says this: “Because of my life, because of what I’ve done, she can’t love me.”
Nobody here today has to feel like that. St. Paul said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let me try it this way. I’m not actively seeking for my reputation around town to be anything close to that of a prostitute or a tax collector. I don’t want to be whispered about as a scoundrel around the supper table every night; nobody does.
But, and I mean this with all of my heart, if that’s what it takes for just one person to realize that the Kingdom of God is a gift of forgiveness offered to any and every one today, rather than a merit badge earned tomorrow, then so be it!
I think Kenny Rogers may have said it best: “Love will turn you around, turn you around.”
Oh yeah, one more word about church signs. We don’t have one along the bay, but if the City made us erect one as part of the new Bayfront Master Plan, this is what I hope it would read: “New sign. Old message: Jesus saves!”
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
17th Sunday after Pentecost
27 September 2020