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I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Kingdom Economics 101: Process


Matthew 21:23-32  Kingdom Economics 101: Process

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Introduction
I think I was about ten years old when my mother took my sister and I to see the World’s Fair in New York City.  Though we lived less than thirty miles from the site of the fair, the trip into Queens was a big deal.  Mom wasn’t comfortable driving in cities, and these were congested roads that she had never been on before. 

We left early on a Wednesday morning because Mom rightly figured that the crowds would be lighter mid-week.  She drove down the Connecticut Turnpike, which did not yet bear an interstate number, and soon we crossed into New York.  We were welcomed by a sign announcing we were on the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway.   We paid the 40 cent toll, which my mother groused about, and continued until we reached the Bronx, where we switched over to the lower end of the Hutchinson River Parkway. 

The really interesting sign to my 10 year old brain was the one at the west end of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge.  I knew that was the name of the bridge, but the sign read, “Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority,” and I remember thinking the sign must be wrong.  It was years later, after the advent of the Internet, that I finally got the answer to the question that plagued me all the way to Flushing Meadows:  All of the processes of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge were being operated by an authority that wasn’t in the Bronx, nor was it located in Whitestone, Queens.  The authority that runs the toll booths, manages the traffic, paints the lines, repairs the road surface, maintains the girders – in short, the authority that is responsible for the entire 3,770 feet of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is located in an office building at number 2 Broadway, in lower Manhattan. 

But even that isn’t the end of the story of the authority that runs the bridge.  The Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority in fact is responsible for all the processes of seven bridges and two tunnels along the East River in New York.  But before you jump to the conclusion that a ten year old boy might – before you begin to think that the person in the office at #2 Broadway, New York must be a very, very powerful man indeed, you have to know that the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority is itself a division of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and they, in turn, are part of the city government of New York City.   

That might lead you to believe that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a very powerful person, particularly if you want to cross the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge.  If he is the ultimate authority behind the operating process of the bridge, then before you approach the toll booth, you’d better think about getting express written consent from Mayor Bloomberg. 

But we all know that Mayor Bloomberg himself is a man under authority.  He, and every department of the city he runs, receives his commission from the people of New York every fall when they are elected to their various posts.  So really, the authority that runs the processes of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is the voters of the City of New York.   And because that is the case, I have a suggestion for Mr. Bloomberg: be afraid of the authority that is over you.  Be very afraid indeed.

Let’s pray, and then let’s look at the Word of God. 

Series Review
These past couple of weeks we’ve been studying Kingdom Economics, and we’ve begun to see that the way the Kingdom of God operates is vastly different from how the kingdoms of this world operates.   The world’s economics operate on a strict system of payment.   And world religions, politics, and economics generally boil down to appeasement. 

Kingdom Economics tells us the price has already been paid and that you and I owe nothing.  We are not trying to appease an angry god.  We are deeply loved by a God whose greatest pleasure is relationship.  The world’s economics are based on personal profit, whether they state it in terms of self-interest or whether they state it in more seemingly noble terms.  In the world you are either trying to profit yourself or prevent another from profiting. 

Kingdom Economics says that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  In Kingdom Economics we win by losing.  The ultimate victory came wrapped in the ultimate defeat. 
Process and Authority
There is also a process in Kingdom Economics that we need to pay attention to.   If Jesus meant us to take the things he did and said as our marching orders and not simply as metaphor; if Jesus actually meant what he said and if Jesus actually expects us to do as he did, we have to ask the question, “How is that practical?”  If all the world around us is working one way, then either the way of Jesus is impossible here and will leave us no where other than frustrated, or else it is possible, but in order to actually live the processes of the Kingdom, we have to first come under a different authority. 

When we talk about the processes of the Kingdom we are talking about processes that only operate as they do beginning with the recognition of Kingdom Authority.  Just as the bridges of New York City couldn’t operate effectively if they were run by the City Housing Authority, the people of the Kingdom of God cannot live the process of the Kingdom if they live under the Authority of the kingdoms of this world.

Turn to Matthew 21, verse 23, if you’re not already there.  In the first paragraph Jesus addresses the question of Kingdom Authority: 

“23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

There are two things Jesus says about Kingdom Authority that we need to pay attention to.  First, Kingdom Authority is never by force or coercion.  When asked by what authority Jesus is doing what he does, Jesus immediately brings up John’s baptism.  When John went to the Jordan River to baptize, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.  People came in droves, not to follow John but to place themselves under the authority of God; their declaration as they went under the water was a voluntary turning from their own authority and from all other authorities they had placed themselves under, and a turning to the authority of God himself, the only one who could forgive sin.   They came voluntarily.   They came with abandon.  They came because in repentance there is true freedom. 

That’s why first John and then Jesus were so dangerous to the religious authorities of Israel and the secular authorities of the Empire.  Those authorities all operated on the principle that people need to be made to obey; that laws are the basis for that obedience, and if you don’t follow the laws the authority exists to punish you. 

Second, Kingdom Authority is never by fear.    The discussion the chief priests and elders had among themselves demonstrates how they were operating.  If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”  There is an old saying that politics is the art of the possible.  What they really mean when they say that is that politics is the art of doing anything the people will tolerate short of revolution.  The point at which politics fail every time is the point at which the people rise up and say “No, you cannot do that.”   I wasn’t just kidding when I said that Mayor Bloomberg needs to be afraid of the people who elected him.  The most effective politicians are the ones who are the most in touch with the people – the ones who are the most afraid of the people. 

When John was baptizing at the Jordan he received all who came to him, except the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  He saw them coming and said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” 

John saw them as politicians who were coming, not because they wanted to repent, but because they wanted to retain their positions and they saw this as a good political move.  They were coming out of fear.  All the people were coming for baptism – the people regarded John as a prophet – therefore we should go for baptism because it will look good to the people.  

If you are under the authority of this world you need to be afraid.  You need to be very afraid. 

Jesus goes on to tell them a parable about two sons and their reactions when asked to go out and work in the family vineyard.   Notice that in the story it is not a King who demands that his subjects work the vineyard as an act of obedience.  Notice that in the story it is not a Priest demanding an act of worship to placate a god.  It is a father asking his sons to help support the family as an act of love.  The Authority of the Kingdom is an authority of Family, and authority in the family is passed from parent to child.  A slave has no option – he must work for the master of the house.    But a child, because he or she is the heir, already has the authority within him, and so cannot be forced to work.  He also must not work out of fear, or the whole family system is sick and ultimately falls apart.  The child who works has realized his relationship to his father is more important than his comfort.  The child who works has realized his relationship to his father is more important than his own will.  He didn’t want to go, but because he loved his father, he went anyway.

The Authority of the Kingdom is also an authority of Fruit.  It is no accident that the story Jesus constructed shows a family that owns a vineyard.  The processes of the Kingdom: a father asking his children to work in the vineyard; the children of the Kingdom tending the vineyard under the authority of the father; the vineyard producing good fruit in its season is all critical to us grasping how Kingdom process works.  Jesus could have cast the father as a fisherman or a hunter.  But in the Kingdom of God nothing has to die in order that I might live.  He could have cast the father as a businessman.  But in the Kingdom of God no one has to lose in order that I might win.  The process of Kingdom Authority is the process of a Father imparting authority from generation to generation.  And the purpose of the process is in the fruit. 

That’s why Jesus said, in John 15:8, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”  And that’s why Jesus’ parting words to his disciples were about Kingdom Authority.  In Matthew 28:18-20 – the final verses of Matthew’s gospel – Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  This is not a new law being laid down for us by a King.  The Great Commission is family authority being passed on from Father to Son to Sons. 

There’s a problem with accepting this kind of authority, an authority that is not by force, an authority that is not by fear, an authority that is an authority of family.  With this kind of authority comes responsibility.   Take a quick look, if you can get there without losing your place in Matthew, at Ezekiel 18, the passage Jama read for us earlier.   Look at how it begins.  In Ezekiel 18:1 he makes this really challenging statement:  “The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”

I’m sure at least some of you raised your eyebrow as Ezekiel went on to explain the problem with the proverb.  And let’s get this right: Ezekiel is not focusing on any specific death here.  He’s very clear about that at the end of the passage.  This is not God threatening us if we don’t obey because God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.  In fact, quite the opposite, this is God holding out to us the pleasure of responsibility.   The proverb is based on the old idea that, in a family, the sins and responsibilities of the father are passed on to the children.  If your father left a massive debt when he died, as his heir, the debt is yours now and you must pay it.  The fathers ate sour grapes (notice again the vineyard illustration), and so the children’s teeth are set on edge. 

What Ezekiel is telling us, and what Jesus affirmed in everything he did and said is that the responsibility for your sin is yours, not your parents.  We are not victims who are doomed to act as we do because our First Parents sinned in the garden.  Each and every one of us would have made the same choice.  That’s the point of Ezekiel 18.  Presented with the forbidden fruit in our own private Eden, every man and woman, boy and girl on the planet would forsake an eternity of fellowship with a loving God in order to have one selfish taste.   And God told Adam and Eve in the garden, “On the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” 

The son in Matthew 21 who told his dad that he would work and then didn’t go into the vineyard chose the way of death.  It didn’t make him any less a son.  It didn’t mean that the father didn’t love him any more.  But in an agrarian society, a person who will not work will not eat, and a person who will not eat has set himself on a track to die. 

It is not my parent’s fault that I am a sinner.  I am a sinner because I choose to sin. 

Now I have to insert a word here, just to make sure no one walks away this morning misunderstanding: I am not saying that when an authority over you abuses his position of authority you are not a victim.  Our mass media culture has done one thing right.  It has brought to light the abuse of power.  But power and authority are two different things.  Power IS the abuse of authority.  I know that there are some in this room right now who have suffered abuse at some point in your lives at the hands of someone who should have been your protector.   That was an abuse of authority, and what you are suffering today is the result of their sin, not yours.  You were not responsible for what was done to you.  That’s in a whole other category from what we’ve been talking about this morning. 

But when family authority is rightly exercised, when Kingdom Authority is rightly passed on, there is no abuse of power.  Rather, Kingdom Authority is never about force, Kingdom Authority is never about fear, and the processes of Kingdom Authority are the processes of a loving, safe, secure family that labors together to bear fruit.

At the end of the parable Jesus says to the chief priests and elders who were in his audience, “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”  The way of righteousness is the process of  Kingdom Economics.  That’s why the most unlikely people are the ones who tend to “get it” first.  Jesus isn’t saying that a priest or an elder can’t ever be part of the Kingdom of God.  He’s simply saying that people in need who realize they are in need without ever being shown their need are much more well-prepared to accept the invitation of the Kingdom than are those who believe they have already arrived. 

You may not have been a tax collector or a prostitute.   But Jesus is inviting you to see yourself rightly, maybe for the first time in your life.  The way of righteousness is not about how good you are, it is about how good God is.  The way of righteousness is not about you paying the toll so you can cross the Bridge.  The way of righteousness is not about you getting anything – not even heaven – as profit for your loss.  The way of righteousness is about you seeing how good God is and running first into your father’s arms and then running out into the vineyard in joyful love because that’s where you experience your relationship with him the best.

Amen

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