Work Forward

John McLarty

Audio Recording:

A better title might be: the vineyard waits.
Sermon manuscript for September 2, 2017

Jeremiah 7:1-7 and Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus told this parable: A man was having breakfast with his two sons. Dad told the older boy, “Son, go work in the vineyard today.” Astonishingly, this older son answered, “No, Dad, I won’t do it.” The son’s response was bold and rude. “No!”

Apparently without much ado, Dad turned to his younger son. “Son, I really you to work in the vineyard today. Will you do it?” Unlike his older brother, number two son promptly responded, “Sure, Dad. I’m on it. You can count on me.”

But this is not the end of the story.

After leaving the kitchen the older son changed his mind and headed out to the vineyard where he worked all day. Curiously, the younger son who had been so agreeable at breakfast, never stepped foot in the vineyard.

Buried in this simple story are two radical Christian convictions. The first: In the kingdom of heaven high-sounding religious or spiritual claims are worthless. Service is what counts.

This conviction was eloquently proclaimed by many of the Hebrew prophets. Our Old Testament reading comes from the Prophet Jeremiah. God ordered him to stand at the entrance of the temple and deliver this radical, combative message:

Listen up, all you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’s Temple is here. They chant, “This the temple of the Lord. This is the temple of the Lord. Don’t be fooled. I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever. “‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! [Jer 7:1-8 NLT paraphrased a bit]

In the eyes of God, religious and national identity are irrelevant. Sure these elements of identity have their place in our ordinary lives. We are glad we live here and not in Russia. We have a special loyalty to our country, the United States of America. We love our mountains and plains, our cities and our literature. We take special delight in Aaron Copelands Fanfare for the Common Man, imagining that that piece of music is especially American. We love our nation and we should.

But it is also vital to remember that before God all the particulars of nationality and religious identity are trivial. God does not favor one religion over another. God does not favor one nation over another. What matters is moral performance. This is the stern truth highlighted by these passages. God is not fooled by religious labels. We cannot sweet talk our past the keen judgment of God. God is watching.

Let’s remember that when Jeremiah stood at the entrance of the temple and said, “Don’t imagine that this temple buys you anything with God, he was speaking in a setting where nationality and religious identity were one. Like “Christian America” imagined by some people. The temple was the center of Jewish national and religious identity. And Jeremiah thundered against a false confidence that a connection with the temple bought favor with God.

This truth applies with special force in today’s political environment where many church leaders have “blessed” the president because they imagine he has a Christian identity. God does not care about supposed religious identity. God cares about moral performance. A “profession of faith” is worthless or worse than worthless if a person’s moral performance contradicts that profession of identity.

This truth applies to us in the church. When the denomination fails to contradict the worldly patterns of male dominance, the church’s “true church identity” will not blind the eyes of the heavenly Judge. God will not bless us for being Adventist if we use the power structures of the church to defend the prerogatives of men addicted to power.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that because we are the “true church” we get a pass on being honest and compassionate.

Jeremiah’s rebuke of Jewish national pride was underscored by his astonishing report that God had ordered him to stop praying for Israel. When Jeremiah was speaking the nation of Israel was surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The “good life” enjoyed by the nobility and priesthood and wealthy people was seriously threatened. Naturally, they wanted Jeremiah to pray for them, to pray that God would hold off the Babylonians. But God told Jeremiah to quit praying.

There was no point praying for mercy until the leaders of the nation began to practice mercy. There was no point in asking God to protect the good life of the one percent unless they used their power to make things better for the underprivileged and disadvantaged. Until those with wealth and status began using their power to make things materially better for families touched by bad luck and misfortune, God was not accepting prayers on behalf of the good life of Israel’s leaders.

Most of us are privileged. Most of us are enjoying the good life. Jeremiah’s warning speaks to us. Not “those other people.” Neither American citizenship nor Adventist or Christian identity put God in our debt. What matters is moral performance. It is a stern word. And it is true. If we are wise, we will pay attention.

This is one half of the story. It is an unavoidable truth.

There is also another truth written brightly into this story. Remember Jesus’ story. A man had two sons. He asked both sons to work in his vineyard. The younger son said, “I will” but did not actually do any work. But even though the older son had said, “I won’t,” he later changed his mind and spent the whole day working in the vineyard.

Jesus went on the apply this story.

“I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matthew 21:31-32

Jesus point here is simple and liberating: Our identity up to this point does not determine our future. We were scoundrels? Well, it’s not too late to start doing good. We said we did not give a rip about “those people?” We can start caring. We made a mess of things? We can start making beauty.

In the kingdom of heaven our history is less important than our future. Our heritage does not have to be our destiny. Today and tomorrow and through the coming week, we will have opportunity again to go work in God’s vineyard.

It doesn’t matter what we did last week. The week ahead of us beckons. God invites us to join him in his vineyard. Let’s show up.

That would be really good.