Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 25, 2011
What do you do when God demands the impossible of you? You simply do it. It’s as simple as that, you do it. Simple, however, isn’t to say that it’s easy. But it is very possible. What God demands of you is impossible for you to carry out. But the very God who demands the impossible of you is the very God who makes it possible for you to carry out.
You might wonder why He goes through the trouble in the first place. If He is going to make it possible for you to accomplish what He demands of you why does He bother to demand it of you? Well, God doesn’t do things for no reason. And He doesn’t do them for no good reason. There’s not only a reason but a good reason.
The reason is that He loves you. You know how that goes. It’s like when the parent tells the child, “I’m disciplining you or punishing you or demanding things of you because I love you.” To the child it seems like the kind of love he or she doesn’t need, thank you very much. How about if you show me a little less love. Children can’t understand how parents seeming to make their life difficult is actually one of the ways their parents love and care for them. If there’s no discipline the child will grow up thinking things are fine and dandy even without honoring and obeying his parents. If there’s no punishment the child will grow up thinking that there are no consequences to her behavior, no matter how wrong are harmful it is. Without demands placed on a child he will grow up thinking that he is the one who calls the shots and will sooner or later be rudely awakened.
See, this is love. When parents see beyond the moment and discipline their child in the present. When they know the big picture and execute punishment in the meantime. When they see things in perspective and make demands on their child even as they do far more of giving and providing for their child.
Now I suppose if your child never disobeyed and freely helped out around the house and gave all due honor to you you wouldn’t have to worry about things like discipline or punishment or demands. But anyone who has raised children or babysat or sat in the park watching the playground or been in McDonald’s at lunch time is very aware that children’s proclivities don’t naturally flow from the Fourth Commandment.
Love doesn’t express itself in a vacuum but in reality. It doesn’t see others for who they should be but for who they are. The reality is that we are sinners. The fact is that in the same way children defy the Fourth Commandment we all defy the First Commandment. God knows this. And He loves us. His love moves Him to care for us in a way that will truly be good for us.
And so He disciplines. He punishes. He makes demands. If we react as children so often do to their parents it’s because we don’t see that He is loving us and caring for us and doing what is best for us. If we want to have a relationship with God where we don’t have to worry about His demands then we don’t want a truly loving relationship with Him. We want to be like the spoiled brat who is calling the shots but who is really cutting off any possibility of being in a dynamic loving relationship with those in his life.
The question for you, then, is: will you hear the demands God makes of you and gladly hear them, as hard as they are to hear? Will you humbly see that the demands He makes on you are laid down out of love and for your good? Will you submit to the demands of God or try to go around them or ignore them or resist them?
If you see them for the loving work of God that they are you will see something else. It is something that is not a demand at all. It is something that is as impossible for you to bring about as it is for you to accomplish the demands of God by your own effort. But it is something that you will see that is good that it is impossible by you. Because what is impossible for you is possible for God. And it’s not just that it’s possible. It’s not just that there’s some magical or even mystical way that it is possible for Him. He is God, of course, and by His sheer power He can do anything. But when it comes to His demands of the Law on you it’s not His power that is at work.
It’s that He actually satisfies the demands of the Law Himself. He does it in Christ. Jesus Himself is that perfect child. In the Gospel reading Jesus told a parable of two sons. The first one, well, he wasn’t a very good boy, was he? “Son, go into the field and work.” “Sorry Pops, no go.” Serious Fourth Commandment issues there. And the second son? What a good boy he was. “Yes, sir, I will go into the field as that is your wish.”
And everything would have been all neat and tidy if that’s how the parable ended. The second boy was such a good boy. He responds in obedience and goes into the field to do what he said he would do. The problem was, he didn’t. He said he would but then didn’t. It looks like the Fourth Commandment issues were just as serious with the second son.
And what about that second son? The one who originally was having this kind of problem. The one who defiantly told his father that he wouldn’t do as he was commanded. I suppose the father could have grounded him. Or taken away his TV privileges. Or whatever might get through to him that when Dad tells you to do something you do it. The thing is, even though he told his dad there was no way he was going into that field to work, he ended up going. He ended up being the one who actually did what his father had commanded him to do.
And while Jesus tells the religious leaders exactly what’s going on here, that it’s not just a story about two boys, one who ended up being obedient and the other one who ended up disobeying, but rather an assessment of where they stood in the sight of the Heavenly Father, we cannot help but see in this story something else. Something that is more important than those religious leaders getting blasted out of the water, which is always fun to see, isn’t it? Something more important than that. Something that speaks to us and where we stand before our Heavenly Father.
It’s not just that the religious leaders didn’t actually do what their Heavenly Father commanded whereas the tax collectors and prostitutes did. It’s clear that they were every bit as much sinners as they were and vice versa. Nobody gets into heaven because they’re obedient. The reason the tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into heaven was because of Christ. The reason the religious leaders weren’t getting in was because they rejected Christ. Christ was and is the Son who is obedient to the Heavenly Father. He was and is the one who says “Yes” to the Father and then does what the Father asks of Him.
While Paul in the Epistle reading makes a point to exult in the exaltation of Christ, the glory of Christ is first and foremost shown in His humbling Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. That God became a man is not something God wants to hide. It’s not something He’s ashamed of. That Jesus suffered and died isn’t something that needs to be swept into a corner. Jesus humbling Himself to become a servant isn’t something that God would just as soon we could all get past. The glory of God is in the humility and the suffering and the death. The glory of God is in doing what was necessary for salvation.
When it comes to God demanding of you it’s not in order that you may be saved. Or in order that He will then love you. Even as Jesus made the point that the tax collectors and prostitutes weren’t saved because of their obedience, He also made the point that they believed the message John the Baptist proclaimed. Namely, the Gospel. But as it was also pointed out, it wasn’t just that they did the right thing and the religious leaders didn’t. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the one who has done all things well. And if the ones who aren’t worthy are the ones actually believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then we might be better able to see how what is happening here is as Paul exhorted, to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
This doesn’t really sound like salvation by grace. But if we see it for what it is we will see that it is what comes after being saved by grace. And if we further see that it is God who is the one who accomplishes in us what is impossible for us to do then we will see what we need to see all along, and that is what Paul says right after the bit about working out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
This is the paradoxical and amazing nature of God. Demanding of us the very thing that we need to do even while knowing we cannot do it, but in His grace accomplishing it in His Son. For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. And if it was His good pleasure to send His Son in humility to suffer and die on behalf of the world and then to exalt Him and bestow on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, it certainly is His good pleasure to bring about in you the impossible: that your tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.