Sunday, July 15, 2012

Christian Faithfulness (Matthew 23.23-28)

Sermon by:Robert Austell
July 15, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude (Handbell Quintet): "Melodic Prelude" (Bob Burroughs)
Song of Praise: "Lord Most High" (Harris/Sadler)
Song of Praise: "Holiness" (Underwood)
Song of Response: "Our Father, We Have Wandered" (Nichols)
Offering of Music: "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" (Michael Bedford)
Hymn of Sending: "Breathe on Me, Breath of God" (TRENTHAM)
Postlude: "Toccata in F Major" (Buxtehude)

"Christian Faithfulness: a fruit of the Spirit"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Matthew 23:23-28 

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**


What is a “faithful Christian?”  …be pondering that as we turn to today’s text.

Today we continue in our study of the fruit of the Spirit, those characteristics grown in those who trust and follow Jesus Christ, cultivated by the Holy Spirit for the sake of bearing witness to God in the world.  Though Galatians provides a list of these fruit, each week we are taking one of them and looking to the teaching and ministry of Jesus to better understand what each one looks like in our lives.

Today we look at FAITHFULNESS, and kind of do so in reverse, as we see Jesus really going after the scribes and Pharisees for their lack of faithfulness.  What I am hoping is that in his words about the absence and opposite of faithfulness, that we will understand better what faithfulness means and perhaps even share a bit of conviction with the scribes and Pharisees over the ways we may fall short.  In particular, Jesus sets off hypocrisy as the opposite of faithfulness, and as that is one of the charges most often leveled against Christians, it would be good for us all to heed Jesus’ words even as we try to cultivate the fruit of faithfulness. 

The Eight Woes: Blessing, Cursing, and Hypocrisy (vv. 13-39)

Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness falls within a longer passage containing eight “woes” spoken to the scribes and Pharisees.  I’d like to briefly say a word about those to set the context for what follows.

Woe is the opposite of blessing.  You may remember the sermon on the mount where Jesus kept saying, “Blessed are the so and so or blessed are you when…”  This is the opposite, really another way of saying “Cursed are you because…”  Blessing simply means being aligned with God’s will and thereby receiving the benefits of being exactly where God desires for you to be.  Woe or cursing is being out of line with God’s will.  In this case, significantly so, and Jesus is spelling it out for the scribes and Pharisees.

He lists eight woes, which I will simply list without further commentary.  Then we will focus on numbers five through seven, where faithfulness comes into play.

1.    Woe to you because you keep people from the Kingdom of God. (v. 13)
2.    Woe to you because you prey on widows and cover it with prayer. (v. 14)
3.    Woe to you because you convert people to your religion of rules. (v. 15)
4.    Woe to you for superstitious oaths. (v. 16-22)
5.    Woe to you for neglecting the ‘weighty’ matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness (vv. 23-24)
6.    Woe to you for not facing sin on the inside (vv. 25-26)
7.    Woe to you for not facing death on the inside (vv. 27-28)
8.    Woe to you for opposing the prophets (vv. 29-36)

Finally, after all these woes, Jesus goes on to lament Jerusalem in verses 37-39 because these so-called spiritual leaders are so leading God’s people astray.  As a whole, this longer passage is worth studying and contemplating in greater depth.  But, for today, we are going to focus in on just a part of it. 

Weighty Matters (v. 23)

I focus in on the fifth woe (vv. 23-24) because it is there that we see the word “faithfulness.”  So having heard the larger context, let me zero in on that specific and we’ll work our way back out a bit.

So far, with the first four woes, Jesus has just named problem practices and named why they are wrong.  But starting in verse 23, he starts using imagery to get his point across, and boy does he get vivid!  First, he names a practice of the scribes and Pharisees: literally straining out wine to remove small, unclean insects.  But then Jesus accuses them of “swallowing a camel.”  What’s his point?  It’s that they are being so particular about obeying the smallest requirements of the law; but they have missed the whole point of the Law – a camel-sized oversight.  Or said another way, if they truly believed keeping God’s Law was only about pre-occupation with things like straining their wine, then they had swallowed a lie the size of a camel.

So what was the point of the Law?  Jesus summarizes it well in verse 23: the “weightier provisions of the law [are] justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

Is faithfulness to God straining gnats out of wine to be holy?  Not at all, said Jesus; faithfulness is showing justice and mercy.  Sounds kind of Micah 6:8, if you are familiar with that.  (If not, check it out!)

What might this interacting look like for us?  When I said, “What is a faithful Christian?” at the beginning of the sermon, I wonder what came to your mind?

Is it having your name on the church rolls?  Or a certain amount of attendance at church?  Or giving to the church?

These are good things, but look what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees.  They tithed so scrupulously that they even gave a tenth of their spices!  Jesus doesn’t condemn that, but says, “You are missing the bigger picture.”

What’s the bigger picture?  What are the “weightier matters?”

Justice.  Mercy.  Faithfulness.

That’s one reason we talk so much about our neighbors out there.  How we treat them is one of the weightier matters of faith.  In fact, how we treat each other also falls under justice and mercy.  What does justice and mercy look like with our neighbors?  What does justice and mercy look like with your spouse, children, or parents?  What does justice and mercy look like towards friends? Enemies?

We talk about speaking with truth and love.  Justice and mercy are truth and love lived out.  Do you help those in need?  Do you have skills that God could use to help those around you?  Do you have a passion for God that can weave together good deeds with living faith? 

That is Jesus’ definition of faithfulness. 

The Insides Count (vv. 25-28)

And that’s not all.  Jesus continues with two even more vivid images.  He calls the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites and likens them to cups and dishes clean on the outside, but not on the inside.  They are full of sin, specifically “robbery and self-indulgence.” (v. 25)  And then one of the most memorable images of all scripture, he tells them they are “whitewashed tombs” – beautiful on the outside, but “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (v. 27)

Bad Pharisees, right?  But are you familiar with cleaning up on the outside to present a shiny, happy facade, while dying on the inside?  In the South we are familiar with a version of Christianity like that; God wants so much more for us all.  What Jesus is saying so pointedly is that being a faithful Christian is not about looking good, but about God cleaning us up from the inside out.  It means laying our internal sin before God to be made clean.  Even more drastically, it means God raising those dead bones to life… that’s the Easter promise to all who believe.

Let me say that another way.  If the answer to “What is a faithful Christian?” is dressing up on Sunday and brushing the kids’ hair and not swearing where the church folks can hear you, then Jesus has some words for us to hear.

Even the call to justice and mercy can fall into this.  If ALL our Christianity amounts to the weightier provisions of the Law – doing good, but we fail to see the sin and death inside of us, then we have missed the real Good News of Jesus.

It starts here [my heart] in surrender to God and leads outward to justice and mercy lived out.  It is only with God’s help and by God’s Holy Spirit, but that is work God gladly does in all who trust and believe.

And that work, as the Holy Spirit takes up residence and cleans house and bears witness, that is FAITHFULNESS, a true fruit of the Spirit.  Amen.

No comments: