Sunday, October 1st, 2023

The Way of Righteousness

Grace, mercy and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen. You woke up this morning and it’s October. You know it’s October because temperatures are cooling off a little bit. If that wasn’t enough to convince you, there’s about to be a whole lot more balloons in the air and tourist’s feet on the ground. You’ve seen the Halloween decorations out around homes, you’ve seen the candy out in the stores, you’ve seen the Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations out too, no doubt. This is your friendly reminder that Christmas music is only about a month away and so given our current cultural calendar thoughts of Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday might be nowhere near the front of your mind, but as we continue to walk through Matthew’s gospel that’s exactly where we are. The events of today’s gospel reading take place on Monday of Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday. That’s important for a few reasons. First, as you read the gospels it becomes very clear that the closer you get to the cross, the more direct and more intense the opposition to Jesus becomes. Their questions get more loaded, their attacks get more blatant, and that should make sense, and the crucifixion, it didn’t just happen out of the blue out of nowhere, it was a slow build to the execution of Jesus over the span of three years.  So, it makes sense that by the time you get to those days, right before it happened, the pressure building in the opposition has built up to the point of bursting and the fact it will burst on Thursday when they arrest Jesus, but it’s also significant because as the opposition to Jesus gets more direct his ministry takes on a tone of judgment not really seen to this point. We’ve seen glimpses of it. We saw it a little bit in the parable of the unforgiving servant when he says that anyone who doesn’t forgive with his heart will be thrown into the jailers by the heavenly Father. We saw glimpses of it in the parable of the workers in the vineyard which ended with the question “Look buddy, am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me. Are your eyes burdened by my generosity?” We’ve seen glimpses, but with the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, Jesus moves beyond mere glimpses. His first stop when he got off the donkey was at the temple and he didn’t go into the temple to worship and offer sacrifices, no he went in to flip over tables and to chase people out, proclaiming that God’s house is supposed to be a place of prayer and they had made it into a den of thieves. Strong language. And then after spending the night outside the city, on the way back into Jerusalem on Monday morning, Jesus stops by a fig tree that’s not bearing fruit, and he curses it. Says it will never bear fruit again. Kind of a visual parable to those who are paying attention, a warning to the chief priests and the leaders of the people that what happened to this fig tree, will also happen to them because they are not bearing the fruit that God expected from them. And after cursing the fig tree, Jesus once again goes back to the temple which is where today’s reading picks up. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to challenge Jesus publicly in the temple, for all the crowds to see. Jesus refuses to fall into their trap instead setting a trap of His own. The baptism of John, He asks, “From where did it come? Is it from heaven or is it from man?” Now if Jesus’ is opponents acknowledged that John’s baptism came from heaven, they would also be acknowledging that Jesus’ authority comes from heaven. Just follow the train of thought. John called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John baptized Jesus, an event accompanied by the voice of God from heaven and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. John said that Jesus was the greater one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. John very clearly confessed Jesus is the Christ, and so to acknowledge that the ministry of John is from heaven, is also to acknowledge that the one that John points us to must also be from heaven. But the opponents of Jesus clearly cannot choose that option, but neither can they choose the other, because if they say that John’s ministry is simply the work of a man, apart from the call or the authority of God, the people will riot. But notice the implication this is actually what they believe. They do believe that John and Jesus are just men, not sent from God. Their hesitation is not due to uncertainty. Their hesitation is due to fear. Fear that they might say the wrong thing and create a riot amongst the crowds. And Jesus knowing the unbelief that’s in their hearts tells them this parable. A man had two sons and he told the first son to go work in the vineyard and the son said “No”, but later changed his mind, and he went. He told the second son to go work in the vineyard and that son said “Yes”, but when the time came, he did not go. The meaning of the parable is so simple and straightforward and clear that even Jesus’ opponents are forced to acknowledge what he’s saying. The Gentiles, the sinners who are like the son who said he would not live according to the father’s will, are in fact entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees, and the scribes, and the chief priests, and the leaders of the people because they are like the son who promised to live out his father’s will but are not actually doing so. For John came in the way of righteousness, Jesus says, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did and even when you saw it Jesus says even when you saw how it changed their lives you still did not change your mind and believe John. So, Jesus makes clear two things that he wants his opponents, two things but he wants the crowds the temple, two things that he wants us to hear very clearly today. The first is simply that John and came in the way of righteousness but more importantly the way of righteousness is the way of repentance. It’s clear that John came in the way of righteousness and that means that John came as a part of God’s plan to restore creation. God had a plan. God had a plan to forgive sins, to undo the power of death, to fulfill the promise he made to Adam and Eve in the garden that he would send one who would crush the serpent’s head. God had a plan to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham that through his descendants all the nations of earth would be blessed. God had a plan to fulfill the countless prophecies, the sacrificial system. God had a plan that he had been implementing since the moment of the fall, putting all the pieces in place and when the time was right, the time had fully come, God sent his son as the climax in fulfillment of that plan. The plan that would bring God’s righteousness to creation is a gift and John was part of that plan to restore righteousness. Jesus even told John it was fitting for John to baptize him in order that they might fulfill all righteousness. John had a place in God’s plan. But his place was to preach repentance. His place was to point people to Jesus. That’s what Jesus means when he says that John came in the way of righteousness. He came preaching repentance. The chief priests and the rulers of the people did not believe him and even when they saw the way repentance changed the lives that did listen to John, they harden their hearts against John and against the one to whom John pointed. That’s what Jesus wants his opponents to see, and that’s the message to us today too. The way of righteousness is the way of repentance. That was John’s message. Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.  The good son in the parable is the one who repents, turns his back on his former way of life, his former choice, and does the will of his father. And the tax collectors and the prostitutes are held up as examples, because of their repentance, because they left behind the sin of their old lives to follow Jesus instead. Jesus even tells his opponents that this change ought to have inspired such a change in their own lives. Repentance is all over this text. The ministry of Jesus began with John telling people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Now at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he curses the fig tree for not seeing that fruit, and tells a parable about repentance. The way of righteousness is the way of repentance. John was sent to prepare it. Jesus was sent to fulfill it. And now we are called to live in it. We’re in October, so reformation is on the horizon. The banners are up in the narthex. The very first of Martin Luther ‘s 95 theses says “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said repent, he willed that the entire life of the believer be one of repentance.” Our Lord calls us to a life of repentance, a life shaped by his law and his gospel. As he did with the tax collectors and prostitutes and Matthew’s gospel, our Lord calls out to us in our sin today and he calls us out of a life of greed, to turn our back on a life of manipulation. He calls us to abandon pride and self-righteousness. He calls us to give up self-indulgence, to give up immorality, calls us to repentance. And his very words that call us, are what put to death in us that which is sinful.  His words that show us our sin, fill us with contrition, a recognition for our sin being what it is and the consequences for it. A contrition that knows not only have I sinned against God, but I deserve punishment for it. Are the ways of the Lord really unjust, oh Israel when he punishes us for our sin? That’s what we deserve. We deserve punishment. We deserve abandonment. We deserve death, and yet our Lord comes to us with his Word of law to show us this reality and to work contrition and repentance in our hearts and in our lives. But he doesn’t stop there because true repentance doesn’t stop there. True repentance doesn’t stop at the terror of God’s judgment. True repentance also trusts in the deliverance of Jesus. This parable takes place during Holy Week and true repentance always remembers and trusts what happened at the end of Holy Week, believes that what happened on that cross happened for me, and for my salvation, and it happened for you. On that cross, the wrath of God was satisfied. On that cross my sin is forgiven and so is yours. Sin forgiven by the entire life death and resurrection of Jesus. Faith that trusts that when Jesus cries out “It is finished” He meant it. That is the truth. This is the life our Lord has given us in his church. Not a life of chasing our own righteousness. A life of repentance, rejoicing in the righteousness that God gives to me as a gift, and a life of living in that righteousness through repentance. Not some one-time event that just marks the beginning of our Christian life. Repentance isn’t some tedious listing of all the sins I have committed, all the sins I can remember. Repentance is an outlook. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of looking at the world. It’s a way of looking at myself, it’s a way of looking at God, who He is, what he expects from me, because ultimately, he expects me to listen to him, and to trust him. And he provides for me the very things he expects. He calls me to listen, so he proclaims to me his Word through the voice of his church. He calls me to trust, so through that very same word He gives me his spirit to create and sustain that faith in my heart. And He does the same for you. In that listening, He creates contrition and faith and works a life of repentance in us. Through that same word He works repentance in my life, with the sorrow over my sin and the trust in His forgiveness. This is life in our Lord’s church. This is the way of righteousness. We hear God’s law, and believe what it says. We hear God’s gospel; we trust it’s promises. It really is that simple. So as we continue to follow Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew, thanks be to God for this gift of repentance. Thanks be to God for the reconciliation He brings to us. Thanks be to God for the way of righteousness, and may you continue to guide us in that way all of our days in this life and into the life to come. In Jesus name, Amen.