Worship Sermon Sept. 27 2020
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 21:28-32 ~ Sun., Sept. 27, 2020
When Jesus tells a story it’s not to entertain. Jesus tells stories enlighten and edify. To get the fullest understanding of what Jesus is teaching, it is really helpful to understand the circumstances into which he was originally speaking. Jesus told the story we’re studying today on Tuesday of Holy Week. The people who were plotting his death – the political and religious leaders of Israel – were challenging Jesus’ authority to teach in the temple, demanding he verify his credentials. They pose an honest question, though these leaders weren’t interested in learning the truth. And Jesus knows it! It’s why he won’t answer their question until they honestly answer his: “Tell me where John’s [the Baptist] baptism came from, was it from God or was it from men?”
Jesus’ question isn’t that hard, especially since Jesus even supplies the only two possible answers an honest person could offer. So when these leaders put their heads together and come up with a third answer: “We don’t know,” they’re really revealing something profound about their own hearts. The truth is: they aren’t lacking information, they are deficient when it comes to honesty. Their “We don’t know,” isn’t an honest confession of their souls but deliberate dishonesty to hide their unbelieving hearts.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they also infect the soul with evil.” That’s what dishonesty does because dishonesty is an ingrained, inclination to habitually and intentionally misrepresent the truth. Such dishonesty is bad enough in that it deceives others. But do you know what makes dishonesty especially dangerous? Being dishonest with others is frequently the fruit of being untruthful with ourselves. We try to hide a bad motive cloaking it under a good one. We rationalize the wrong we do with reasons that make it sound like we were right!
In the form of self-deception, dishonesty presents the greatest obstacle to real and positive change because it prevents a person from finding and facing the truth about themselves. The underlying problem of dishonesty with ourselves isn’t that we can’t know these things, it’s that we’re not interested in looking and discovering the truth. What we want is to mask, hide, conceal, distort and otherwise manage and manipulate reality for ego’s self-preservation. What makes this even worse is we won’t admit that’s what we’re doing. We may not even know that’s what we are doing. This is the raw power of self-deception, rendering us totally blind to ourselves. This is precisely the condition of the religious and political leaders in those days, though, of course, they didn’t see it that way. In their eyes Jesus was the problem, he and his preaching and teaching had to go.
So how do you open the eyes of those who are blind to their own issues? Jesus does it by telling this story, a story about two boys and their dad. The first boy throws a temper tantrum when dad asks him to work in the family vineyard. Maybe you can imagine that son crossing his arms, stamping his feet, and protesting like an entitled little brat: “I don’t wanna go work in the vineyard! Why should I have to do that?!?” But later this son has a change of heart and he goes and does what dad had asked. Now when the father makes the same request of his second son, in stark contrast to the first son, this son is polite, respectful, and agreeable to dad’s request. Can you picture the smile on this son’s face and the eagerness in his eyes as he says, “I will, sir! Dad, I can’t wait to show you how much I love you by going to work in your vineyard today.” Though he made a bold and beautiful promise, he never followed through. Jesus wraps up his story with a question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
When the spotlight is shining on someone else’s life, these political and religious leaders answer Jesus quickly … and correctly! “The first.” Jesus asks his questions to turn the lights of God’s truth on in people’s hearts. In this case, Jesus uses their own analysis to tell them the hard but honest truth about themselves, a truth they were shocked to hear: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even after you saw this you did not repent and believe.”
How is this even possible? How can such brazen sinners like the tax collectors (who were legally allowed to extort fellow citizens to get from them more than they owed the government, keeping the excess for themselves) and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God at all? If such sinners even could enter, how could they be getting in, in front of these leaders who led such respectable lives? Jesus reveals how with his story. What Jesus is telling them is that while they could put on a good-looking show of being obedient children of God, there was one thing that persistently refused to believe and obey! What was that? The main message of John’s ministry: “Repent!” But they wouldn’t! Why not? Because they didn’t see any problem with their lives just as the second son didn’t see any problem with telling his father what he wanted to hear but having no intention of actually doing it. Jesus is teaching this truth: when fine-sounding words aren’t accompanied by heartfelt action, when beautiful promises don’t come from sincere hearts, such words dishonest, deceptive. Though the chief priests and the elders of the people can spot the problem in the second son, they stubbornly resist seeing that very issue in their own hearts.
What about you? Are you honest with yourself about your spiritual issues in the light of God’s Word? Are you ever like the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day: sharp at answering Jesus’ questions when they’re aimed at someone else’s life but deflective of Jesus’ questions when they’re aimed at your own heart? Where are you like the second son: good at giving the answers God wants to hear but resisting the kind of heart level changes God actually wants to make in you? Remember, Jesus isn’t exposing these leaders for hidiing illegal activity. He’s taking aim at a kind of dishonesty that is far more destructive to the soul. What is that kind of dishonesty? Insincerity! Where is that an issue for you? How are you like the chief priests and elders of the people, living a respectable life on the outside that that masks an insincere and unrepentant heart on the inside? How honest are you with yourself in identifying your issues in the light of God’s Word?
This is what Jesus commends the first son for with his parable! Jesus isn’t praising the boy for being honest with his dad about how much he didn’t want to work in the vineyard, resisting and rejecting his father’s request. Jesus isn’t commending this son’s rebellion.
He is commending this son’s repentance. He is revealing where real righteousness comes from. This son, instead of denying his issues. (“I never acted like that toward dad.”) or deflecting his responsibility, (“Well, dad didn’t ask me very nicely. No one else’s dad makes them do stuff like this.”), this son honestly owns what he did. Our translation says this son “changed his mind.” Literally Jesus says this son “regretted” how he treated his father. That means in his heart he was honest with himself and before God with what he had done. It bothered him deeply, sincerely. This wasn’t sorrow over getting caught or the sorrow that comes from facing consequences. This is the sorrow from realizing he hurt his dad. Preachers like to call this “contrition,” sorrow that genuinely recognizes sin’s evil and feels terrible for perpetrating such evil against God and others. But in his heart of hearts, this son isn’t just convicted of his sin, he is also convinced of his father’s love. Though he had treated dad dismissively and disrespectfully, even defiantly, he knows his father’s heart. He knows his father loves him unconditionally and that though he has sinned against his father, he is fully confident that he can return to his father and his father will receive him back, immediately, wholeheartedly, joyfully! Trusting that truth, this son experiences, not only a change of mind, but an honest change in his heart.
The honesty of that change shows out in the real change in his behavior! The first son isn’t just going through the motions when it comes to his father’s will! This isn’t outward compliance. This son does what is right from a heart that is now right with his father!
What is it that brings that kind of heart-level change into people’s lives? It’s not what, but whom! Jesus does! He was bringing about that heart-level change in the hearts of the tax collectors and prostitutes. They were experiencing the kind of dramatic changes that comes from being honest with themselves in light of Jesus’ words, turning through Jesus back to Heavenly Father. It’s that very same change Jesus seeks to work in the hearts of the chief priests and the elders of the people too. Listen carefully to Jesus’ exact words, Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. Jesus said, “They’re entering ahead of you... not... instead of you!” Do you notice the difference? Do you catch what that means?
Jesus loves people, all people, even the people who are plotting his demise, to take the time and make the effort to tell them a story that has the power to change their hearts and bring about honest change in their lives! What amazing love Jesus has for people, even those who are so opposed to him they’re scheming to get rid of him, permanently, by crucifying him! It’s so crucial we see this because even though this story is confrontational, Jesus purpose isn’t condemnation but transformation! Jesus honestly wants even his worst enemies to have a change of heart and enter into his kingdom. But there is only one way in for all sinners, whether they realize they’re sinners or think they’re just fine the way they are. The way in to the kingdom is the way of repentance. That is the only way that produces the righteousness that God honestly desires!
This is what Jesus continues to do to this very day as he calls out to people through this story. He calls out to those who openly reject the Father’s will, like the first son, as well as to those who respond positively though insincerely to the Father’s call, like the second son. That means Jesus is speaking this story real people, like you and me. That means it doesn’t matter what baggage you bring with you. What matters is that you’re honest about that baggage you have. I know how tough that can be. It’s so much easier to see the problems in everyone else than it is to own the issues inside of me. But no real change will come without first facing an honest inventory of your own heart. It’s only in seeing and sensing where we are wrong in our attitude toward our Heavenly Father that we will welcome the help of our Heavenly Brother. This is the way of repentance, the way that opens our eyes to see Jesus and what he does as something he does for us. Every time you look in the gospels and see Jesus doing that will of God—every single time you see Jesus not only saying, “I will, Father”, but also actually doing it, remember and rejoice that he is doing that for you, in your place, as your perfect substitute. And when Jesus obeyed his Father from the heart and willingly went to the cross, this is why John pointed people, people just like you, urging: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus paid for your faults in full, even your defiance and disobedience toward God as well as your insincere words and actions! Yes, Jesus has done everything necessary, not only to relieve your guilt, but also to give you a new heart.
That’s also why Jesus tells this story. He tells this story to invigorate you when it comes to the issues in your heart. It’s not a question of whether you have issues, the question is: what will you do with them? Let’s be real: repentance is hard! It makes us uncomfortable because we feel weak, defenseless, vulnerable, and exposed. But it’s also why repentance is so healing! True repentance takes great humility, but contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a sign of weakness. It takes extraordinary strength. That too is why Jesus tells this story: to give you the strength of his Spirit to help you face the issues of your heart with wide open honesty, trusting in the unconditional love of Heavenly Father and the unlimited forgiveness of our Heavenly Brother, that gives you the strength and the trust to let go of your own sinful wants for this life and embrace what your Heavenly Father wants for you, living it out with wholehearted obedience and devotion. Jesus work that spirit, that new heart, in each of us, every day! Amen.