Thank God for the Third Son!

(This devotion, in a slightly modified form, was preached in the chapel of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary on Monday, October 2, 2017.  The video of that chapel service can be found here.)

“If looks could kill….”   We all know what that phrase means.  When a husband thinks it’s funny to tell an embarrassing story about his wife when they are out together with friends, and he’s clueless as he goes on even though she is shooting increasingly angry looks across the table, we think: “if looks could kill.”

But of course, mere looks can’t kill, can they?  Well, actually, they can.  No, I’m not talking about a Marvel-comics-like super-hero ability akin to Superman’s x-ray vision.   I’m talking spiritually.  Looks – mere appearances – can kill.

If I begin to think God wants us to look good on the outside while ignoring the more important matters of our hearts, then looks can easily kill!

If I became enamored with wearing my white alb and liturgically appropriate stole to speak fine sounding words, but forget that those words were first intended to kill and give life to my heart, then looks can kill.

If I begin to think that being a pastor is all about wowing sheep in my care with how acute is my biblical knowledge and how astute are my answers to all their toughest questions, and begin to forget that the beating heart of the ministry is the Spirit using that knowledge not to puff me up but to transform my heart and life by his gospel, then looks can kill.

If I know all the ways to make Jehovah’s Witnesses look foolish for their butchering of Scripture, and if I can catch that LGBT defender in circular reasoning, but I am losing my eagerness to have the Spirit show me the foolishness of my heart and the emptiness of my circular defenses for my sins, then looks can kill.

But if you wonder just how real an “if looks can kill” problem can be among leaders in God’s church, then I present as exhibit A next Sunday’s gospel from Matthew 21!  There in the temple courts stood the chief priests and elders of the people whose lives looked good compared to the undesirables often hanging around Jesus. But looks were killing them.

They had just finished trying to trap Jesus by asking by what authority he was teaching.  And then, when Jesus put a question to them about John’s ministry, they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to speak an honest answer!

So, Jesus told them a parable.  In it we find a father with two sons.  He asks the first son to work in his vineyard.  With a defiant “No!” that first son refuses. That didn’t look so good – and in fact it wasn’t.  But that son underwent a change of mind, and he went.

Then there was the other son.  When his father asked him to work in the vineyard, he answers politely and promptly: “I will sir!”  Ah…the father’s good boy!  So, he appears, but he doesn’t go…ever!  His prompt politeness masked the same defiant heart as the first son, except it was worse:  Jesus speaks of no change of mind!

As Jesus finishes, he invites the chief priests and elders to speak their own condemnation…and then adds his own!  “‘Which of the two did what his father wanted?’  ‘The first,’ they answered.’I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  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.”   With those words Jesus essentially answered their original question:  he speaks with his Father’s authority – “I tell you the truth…” – about the Father’s kingdom.  Then, he answers the question the leaders refused to answer: outing them as rejecters of John’s message as merely human! Thereby Jesus confirms those leaders’ place in the parable.  Like that second son, the feigned “Yes’s” of the chief priests and elders were empty words that masked unbelieving hearts.  And even when those leaders saw the tax collectors and prostitutes – who had indeed spoken defiant “No’s!” to God – moved by the message of John and Jesus to turn in repentance, yet those leaders still refused that change of heart!  For all their fine robes and impressive appearances as the leaders of the people, their looks were killing them!

My brothers, it is a sobering reality that few show more stubborn and impenitent hearts in both Old and New Testament than the religious leaders – those who often looked most pious among the people.  If we think we would never follow such a path, then we are already 2/3 of the way down that same path!  Then looks are in danger of killing us!

One of the many things I miss from my parish ministry days is the teaching of Bible information class.  And it is not only for the reason you might think.  Yes, it was a delight to see the Spirit turn on the light in the heart of someone whose life had been a loud “no” to the gospel!  But there was often another blessing for me – one a bit more sobering.  Often, in their newfound joy of salvation, the conscience of those new to the faith would be especially captive to the Word of God.  That often led them to be especially cautious about some areas of Christian life in which I was beginning to be in danger of speaking a fine ‘Yes” with my mouth but a “No” with my life.  God used such “tax collectors and prostitutes” to open my eyes to places where looks were wanting to kill me!

So, thank God for the patient Father who longs to win to the joy of forgiveness those who have openly spoken their defiant “no’s!” and to win them also to the joyful fruit of “yes’s” with their hearts and lives.  But from my spot in the kingdom, I thank God especially for a patient Father who works – even at times through the life and lip witness of former “tax collectors and prostitutes” – to lead me to repentance when my “Yes’s” are in danger of becoming mere looks that leave out heart and life.

And then I thank God that he has made this all possible by the third son of the parable!  The third son? Yes, the Father’s Son who was speaking the parable!  The third son is the perfectly obedient Son made flesh.  He not only spoke his delighted “Yes’s” in whatever direction his Father pointed him but also backed up every “Yes” by his delighted action – even when that Father pointed to cross and hell and grave in my place!  It is that record of this “third son” that the Father gave me as my own already in the water of my baptism!

And something wonderful happens the more I ponder the gracious glory of that third Son whose “yes” really meant “yes.”  This is what I learn not only to say but to live: “I will Father!”