This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 26, 1999. The Scriptures were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Philippians 2: 1 – 13, and Matthew 21: 23 – 32.
At some point in time when you were in school, there came a day when you had to take a test that you would have just as soon not taken. Maybe it wasn’t the test itself but rather a few questions that you weren’t prepared to answer.
I have a cartoon that I often gave my students at the time of the final exam (see “Final Exam”; added on 23 May 2010). In it a student reads the exam and interprets what he is reading as the first questions.
The student responds, “Name? What name? Name who? Name what?!?! Oh, my name.”
Obviously, this student is well prepared for the exam in question.
Taking tests is something we quickly learn to do, especially when we realize that our success in the course or whatever is causing us to take the exam is dependent on our passing that exam. Some tests we, in fact, want to pass. Many of us can remember the elation we felt, or that our children did, when we or they passed the driver’s test and got our driver’s license.
Of course, not all our exams bring such joy. Need you be reminded about that geometry test you took several years ago?
Testing is what the scriptures today are about. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again testing Moses, Aaron, and in the end, God. As we heard in the reading, the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water and saying how much better life was in the old days back in Egypt. It seems like every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they tested the patience of Moses and the patience of God. First, it was the Egyptian army chasing them; then it was the lack of food; then as we heard in today’s reading, it was the lack of water. But with each crisis, God showed them that they, the Israelites, had nothing to fear. Yet, they seemingly could not trust God and were continually testing him with their demands. No wonder, Moses seemed so frustrated.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is how patient God is. There are times, I am sure, that we think is God is testing us. Surely, there were those Israelites who felt God was testing them on the plains of the wilderness.
But it is we who test God by our pushing him to do more than He plans on doing. We are not privy to His plans and it is presumptions of us to think we can understand it. When we test God, such as the Israelites were doing, or as the Pharisees tried to test Jesus in the New Testament reading, we are trying to redefine our relationship with God in our own terms, a task that is always doomed to fail.
In the New Testament reading, the Pharisees are beginning the campaign of getting Jesus to say that He is the Son of God. If they can do this, they can then have him arrested for blasphemy. But Jesus was well aware of their plans and is not about to play their game. But He does say that He will answer one of their questions if they can answer one of his.
Since the Pharisees are incapable of answering his question, Jesus will not answer their question. My friend and former pastor, John Praetorius, was a lawyer before he was a pastor. He once noted that a good lawyer never asks a question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. It would seem that the Pharisees and scribes didn’t remember that particular piece of knowledge.
The final exam that I refer to in the title of this sermon is a two-part question. Question one is the one that the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about. Who shall get into heaven? It doesn’t matter how much you know or how “good” you have been. What matters is whether or not you will follow Jesus.
The second part of the exam is really interesting. Because without the first part, the second part is meaningless but answering the second part is no guarantee of getting into heaven. But the second part of this exam question is just as important for life here on earth. And more importantly, it has a lot to do with why we are United Methodists. In the second part of this “final” exam, you have to answer a very simple question. Having coming to Christ, what are you going to do then?
What being an United Methodist is all about is something a lot of people don’t understand. It is accepted that no matter how hard we try, we must realize that we are not perfect. But, having coming to Christ, we must do everything we can to improve our life. The order in which this is done is very important because trying to do good works does nothing if we don’t first have Christ in our hearts.
This distinction about what the church is and what the church should do is not a new one but one that we will be hearing about during the political campaigns of the coming year. Some insist that the role of the church is solely to save souls while others say that the church is called to work in order that God’s kingdom comes here to earth. Those who hold to the first view feel that problems of the economy, social strife, and political differences will take care of themselves once individuals know Christ. But those of the second view feel that the problems of economy and society are much greater and cannot be solved simply by individuals and that the church must take a much larger role. For the United Methodist Church and its predecessors, there is truth in both arguments.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was to get into heaven. The Lord’s Prayer included petitions for both an earthly kingdom of righteousness and individual forgiving hearts and lives. But Jesus also repeatedly said that God had called him, just as Isaiah had been called, to bring relief to the poor, release to the prisoners, and liberty to the oppressed.
Just as Jesus commissioned his disciples to share the gospels with individuals and baptize them, He also identified his mission on earth with the great reforming prophets such as Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah –
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. (Luke 4: 18)
But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Matthew 9: 13)
Wesley, in beginning the Methodist Revival, was concerned not only about bringing people to Christ. After all, his charge to Methodist preachers in America was “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” But he also felt that individuals alone could not meet the needs of society’s poor and oppressed. It was through the early Methodist societies in 1740 that the first job training programs were started. In 1746, Methodists, through Wesley, created a health care facility for the poor and working class in London. Wesley also started what we would call a credit union to help keep people from being thrown into debtor’s prison.
The General Rules that Wesley wrote are very much like what Paul wrote in the Epistle reading for today and elsewhere.
- Doing no harm, avoiding evil, especially that which is most generally practiced.
- Doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.
- Attending upon all the ordinances of God.
There are two questions on one’s final exam. Jesus said to his disciples, he says to us today, “Come, follow me.” This is an easy question to answer and can be done at any time. But if we wait, there is no guarantee that we will get the chance to give any type of answer. It is better to answer that question now, in the affirmative.
The second question comes from God. It is the same question that God asked Isaiah in a time of Israel’s past when it seemed that society had forgotten who God was. Having coming to Christ, what shall you do next? God is asking who can he send to do his work in this world.