Christ doesn’t give up on anyone
A sermon preached on Matthew 21:28-32 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on October 11, 2020.
Our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone. This is a life-altering fact.
It is the last week of Jesus’ visible life on this earth. Before this week is done, he will be dead. On Friday. After enduring the torture of crucifixion, his cold body will be laid in a grave.
But today is Tuesday. On Thursday, the chief priests and elders who are standing before Jesus will do terrible things to Jesus. They will have him betrayed, arrested, abused, humiliated. And Jesus knows it. He knows it. But that won’t happen until Thursday. Today is Tuesday. And this astonishing thing is happening–Jesus is reaching out to them. He says, “…the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you…”. Not “in place of you” or “instead of you,” but “ahead of you.” Do you get what Jesus was telling them by that choice of words? He was telling them that the door was still open to them. Because our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone.
Not even you or me. Because while we might not be any better than these chief priests and elders, we are not any worse. And our Lord did not give up on them. Our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone. This is a life-altering fact.
Group 1—Not on those who have shameful sins in the past
And now there are two groups I must address. First group—you are people who have some obvious, shameful sins in your past. And about that, I must say something that I don’t want you to quote out of context. What I must say is this: if you have some obvious, shameful sins in your past, that is not all bad. If you have had jail time, abused prescription drugs, gotten drunk at a company Christmas party, used illegal drugs, said some horrible things to your mom or dad or friend, committed adultery, cheated on exams, lied under oath, committed tax fraud, done illegal hacking, used pornography, cyber-bullied, had an abortion, engaged in prostitution, done racist things, been guilty of poaching, had a homosexual affair, assaulted someone, gotten a DUI, betrayed a friend—if you have some obvious, shameful sins in your past, something wonderful can come from it. What you did was not wonderful, but something wonderful can come from it.
That wonderful thing is this: when you come clean with God and you admit the terrible things you did, no excuses, your ears will be ready, really ready, to hear the message of God’s generous forgiveness in Christ. And that message will find a home in your heart, the Holy Spirit will fast-track those words to your heart. And those words of forgiveness will be sweet. Doubly sweet because wherever you find God’s forgiveness, there you also find life and salvation. And you will know in a very personal way this life-altering fact–that our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone.
The other wonderful thing that will happen is that every time for the next 60 years, when you remember the obvious and shameful thing (s) you did in the past, all over again your ears will be ready, really ready, to hear the message of God’s generous forgiveness in Christ. So that instead of yawning when you hear the gospel that you know so well, you smile and nod and have that good feeling that comes as you think to yourself, “God is so good. So good to me.”
That is what happened with the obvious and shameful sinners of Jesus’ day, the tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus made this observation, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness (through repentance, as John was a preacher of repentance, Mark 1:4) and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.”
Our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone. This is a life-altering fact. And it altered the life of those tax collectors and prostitutes. They were like the first son in the parable, who, when the father asked him to go work in the vineyard, his first response was, “I will not!” That’s what the tax collectors and prostitutes said, “I will not handle money or my sexuality the way you command, God!” But how does the parable continue? … “later he changed his mind (he repented) and went.” The tax collectors and prostitutes changed how they lived. Because our Lord doesn’t give up on anyone. This is a life-altering fact. What parts of your life need to be altered, in light of this fact? For it is meant to be a life-altering fact.
Group 2—Not on those who have their act together or those who don’t have obvious, shameful sins in the past
Now I need to speak to Group 2. I need to speak to those here today who have gotten your act together, more or less. Maybe you did some obvious, shameful sins in the past, but now you’ve gotten your act together. You are gainfully employed, you’ve quit smoking pot, you don’t drink nearly as much as you used to, you’ve learned to count to 10 before reacting. You’ve gotten your act together. Or maybe, even better, you are one of those blessed people who do not have any obvious, shameful sins in your past. You were/are not a rebellious teenager. You viewed/view college as four years of growing not four years of partying. You have navigated adulthood without stumbling into any of the pitfalls. Group 2 is your group if you are a person who doesn’t have any obvious, shameful sins or you are a person who has gotten your act together, you are group two, and I need to speak to you for a few minutes.
Because you are in danger. The same danger the chief priests and elders of the people walked right in to. Because they were the kind of people who had their act together, too. They were very disciplined and kept their appetites in control, worked hard, loved their country. But what does Jesus compare them to? The second son in the parable. The one who, when his father (who, of course, represents God) asks him to work in his vineyard, gladly and respectfully says, “I will, sir!”
And, in point of fact, the chief priests and elders seriously tried to live according to God’s commandments. On the outside. Just like you and I do. And this is good. But what was not good was that on the inside, they violated the most basic commandment of all—love. They did not try to live by God’s commandments out of love. They did not love God with that intensity God asks of us, a love that takes all your heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 10:27-28). For if they had, they would have treated Jesus very differently than they did.
And they would have listened very differently to John the Baptizer’s message of repentance. Jesus hit them right between the eyes with this, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness (through repentance, as John was a preacher of repentance) 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 him.”
The reason they did not repent and believe is, as it says so starkly in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, because “…hearts that do not feel the wrath of God loathe consolation in their smugness.” (XII, #52, Kolb-Wengert Edition). That’s what Jesus means by the second son in the parable, the one who tells his father, “Yes, I will go work in the vineyard, sir!” but then doesn’t. You see, that’s what can happen to people who have their act together—they can do such a good job of having their act together that they feel less and less of a need for God’s generous forgiveness in Christ. Until finally for them being a “good Christian” does NOT mean daily repenting and daily being so grateful for God’s generous forgiveness in Christ, but rather for them being a “good Christian” means having a good work ethic, keeping your appetites in control, being patriotic. Just like the chief priests and elders.
But Jesus did not give up on them. On Tuesday, just two days before they would do horrible things to Jesus, he was still reaching out to them. This was supposed to be a life-altering thing. But it wasn’t for them. How about you? Because while our Lord does not give up on anyone, there is a limit. A time limit. Time’s up when you die. And for these chief priests and elders, their time has been up for almost 2000 years. And some, maybe most, maybe all of them have been suffering in hell since then. And that is a whole new world of pain. And it’s only just begun. May we never let that be how our story ends.
Because until our last breath, our Lord doesn’t give up on us. After all, the price of our forgiveness and salvation cost him dearly. So, he doesn’t give up on anyone. This is a life-altering fact. May it alter and move us, like the tax collectors and prostitutes, to daily repent and enjoy God’s generous forgiveness in Christ. May it alter and move us to be like the second son in the parable and say to God’s commandments, “yes, I will, sir!” and then to be like the first son in the parable and actually do it.
And one more thing. May it move us to actually speak to others about our Savior. For our Lord hasn’t given up on them, either. Amen.