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“Hardhat Zone”

Date: September 10, 2017 Speaker:

“Hardhat Zone”

Matthew 18:1-14

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 10, 2017

Pastor Mark Wiesenborn

St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas


     Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today’s message is based on the Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 18, where Jesus tells us:

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [vs. 3]


Dear friends in Christ, some years ago (while I was still working as a chemical engineer) I had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands on a two week business trip.  Halfway through that period, I joined two coworkers for a weekend of two days off driving to many of the best-known tourist attractions.  One of the most impressive places we saw in the city center of Delft was the “Oude Kerk” (or Old Church), which was founded around the year 1246.  The basilican-styled layout has a splendid interior with magnificent stained glass windows, a beautiful hand-carved wooden pulpit, and vaulted ceilings with a 250-foot-high bell tower.


Our tour guide made a great show of pointing upwards towards the tower of that building, telling us that it was leaning a full six feet out of plumb.  As we stood directly below, craning our necks and straining our eyes for any signs of cracks in the bricks and mortar, I found myself wondering if we were in danger from falling objects!  But refocusing my eyes on the steady stream of sightseers passing the rows of empty pews on that Sunday morning, I realized that this “Old Church” had already collapsed.  The building was still standing, but as a place of worship it was now nothing more than an impressive museum and a sad monument to the past.


Dear friends in Christ, we are “People Under Construction”.  During September we will continue to explore what it means to have a Jewish carpenter named Jesus Christ as our Lord.  Two weeks ago we were encouraged by the Apostle Paul to be transformed in the renewal of our Christian values, which are essential to a solid foundation of faith through knowledge, belief, and trust in God.  Last week we were then challenged to let our love be genuine, being renewed in Christian compassion through worship and fellowship and service as many members of the one Body of Christ.  Today we continue with a message on Christian accountability.  Here in St. Matthew Lutheran Church we are probably not in too much danger from falling objects over our heads.  But like Christians in old and new churches all over the world, we are in serious danger of people failing, and falling down in their faith!


So at the risk of seeming overly dramatic, I thought it might be appropriate and even necessary this morning to display some yellow CAUTION tape (which you see hanging around the edges of the pulpit).  If we pay close attention to all three of today’s Bible passages, the warnings are clear and they are consistent.  This morning, it could be that you are sitting in a Hard Hat Zone! (And for those who refuse to listen and learn, your pew could also be a Hard Headed Zone.)


In our Old Testament reading God declares to the prophet Ezekiel that he is a watchman for the people of Israel, saying: “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me… If you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn… that person shall die in his iniquity.


In our Epistle reading Paul explains the Lord’s purpose in commanding our obedience to every governing authority, who is “…God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”


And in the Gospel reading Jesus himself says: “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!  For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom temptation comes!


Being a Pastor in a Christian church would be a much easier job if we only paid attention to the parts of the Bible that keep us feeling good.  But as a “watchman” for this congregation, I must tell you that the stakes are high.  There are dire consequences to spending your life with a self-serving attitude – where your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin. The wages of sin is death. As Jesus warns us several times, lack of obedience to God can lead to “being thrown into eternal fire”.


That is why the carpenter King, Jesus of Nazareth, is trying to equip us with the armor of His Word.  He is offering “safety equipment” to protect us in a dangerous world.  Based on our Gospel lesson from Matthew 18, I will be talking about three vital aspects of Christian accountability: humility, holiness, and reconciliation.


For those who might think that how they live is nobody’s business, remember that wherever Jesus goes He is “being carefully watched”.  Some people are looking for an opportunity to discredit Him, but many others want to know if He himself is willing and able to live each day in the way that He has been teaching.


And at this point things get even more personal: people are watching you, and wondering if YOU can walk the Christian talk.  Our children and our neighbors, our best friends and our worst enemies want to know.  Some are hoping to see us fall, but others are desperately hoping that being a Christian actually makes a difference in this world.  What are they seeing, as they watch you carry on each day?


Jesus tells us that “whoever humbles himself like a child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Our human nature craves recognition and praise – and the process of seeking these things is exactly what leads us to be conformed to the world.  Paul says that we should instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds. When we go looking for friends in all the wrong places, we might also get farther and farther away from the solid foundation of our faith.  While we are savoring a misplaced sense of self-importance, others may notice that we are dangerously out of plumb and heading for a fall.  Christians who are unwilling to live with a spirit of humility may eventually find themselves being humiliated.


Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” [Philippians 2:5-7]


Jesus – who is the same yesterday and today and forever – promises that everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.  It may not be soon, and it may not even happen during your lifetime.  But at the end of this earthly existence, there can be no greater blessing than for your heavenly King to say to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your Master.” [Matthew 25:21&23]


This makes holiness, the second aspect of Christian accountability, easier for us to understand.  When we recognize that Jesus is teaching and guiding us to enter salvation “through the narrow door of faith”, we catch a glimpse of the precious and amazing grace of God.  There was a time many centuries ago when Christians gathered for worship in that “Old Church” in the village of Delft because they knew that God was their refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  [Psalm 46:1]  Even as devastating waves of disease and war broke over them, they trusted in the power of God and turned to Him for protection and hope.  This weekend, as residents of Florida are facing the hurricane winds and flooding of Hurricane Irma only two weeks after the devastation along the Texas coast from Hurricane Harvey, we see how much we all need that same protection.  And for the past sixteen years, the painfully descriptive numbers “9/11” have reminded us of how much our nation will always need that hope in the face of terrorism and violence.


In his book “Before God”, writer George Stroup observes that today many people no longer understand that our lives are lived “coram Deo”, or before the face of God.  As a result we forget that holiness is the essence of Christian practice.  Worshiping our King is something that we might fit into our busy schedules – as long as it does not interfere with other plans for OUR day off.  “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  As Martin Luther often asked, what does this mean?  A theologian named Karl Barth offers a way for us to practice holiness:

Gratitude is the precise creaturely counterpart to the grace of God.”


Stroup explains this farther by pointing to a Christian’s prayer life, when he says:

“If one wants to know what a person truly believes about God, it is not so much what he or she says about God as what he or she says to God.”


This is where Christian accountability becomes essential to Christ’s Project of Spiritual Renewal.  In Luther’s explanation of the second Article of the Apostle’s Creed, he says the purpose of believing in Jesus Christ as my Savior is so “that I may be His own, and live under him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”


Without Christian accountability, we are in serious danger of failing, and falling down in our faith!  People are watching.  It is not good enough to rationalize away a life of SIN by counting on forgiveness.  You open yourself up to perilous and self-destructive consequences by saying: “I know this is wrong, but I am not willing to do things God’s way.”  Christ reconciles us to the Father, so that we may share the ministry and the message of reconciliation with one another. [2nd Cor. 5:18-19]


We have to get this straight: Jesus suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, and it is a free gift – but that gift is only offered to REPENTANT sinners.  It is for people who are willing to humble themselves by confessing their sins, and who express holy gratitude for God’s grace through worship and prayer.


Reconciliation through offering and receiving forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult part of Christian accountability.  Let’s be brutally honest about something.  There is no “power differential” in holding someone’s failures and shortcomings over their head for days or weeks or years.  If anyone thinks this makes them superior, then there is no spirit of humility.  As we say every week in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  A steadfast refusal to forgive someone is nothing less than a willingness to not BE forgiven.  That can be spiritually deadly. That is embracing life in a Hard Hat Zone.  HEED THE WARNING when Jesus says: “…it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”


We have to be willing to die to this self-centered SIN, in order to be made alive in Christ. Jesus tells us to “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”  [John 5:14]  These are the Words of our Redeemer, spoken to us as the chosen people for whom He suffered, and died, and rose again.  Jesus was sacrificed before the face of God so that YOUR sins and MY sins might be forgiven!


As I reflect on the gentleness and strength of that Jewish carpenter, I think about some of the household projects that have sent me on trips to the lumber store.  I always want things to turn out “perfect”, so I go looking for only those clean and flawless pieces of wood – but what I sometimes find instead has been picked over and rejected by countless others before me.  When I am forced to work with wood that is warped or split or has knot holes, a good outcome seems pretty hopeless.  Those of you who work with people as leaders and teachers and administrators can surely understand that in a similar way you take what you get, and hope for the best.


None of us are clean and flawless people, nor do we need to pretend that we are.  That is because in the nail-scarred hands of the Master, all things are possible.  [Matthew 19:26] Great things, because of humility and holiness and reconciliation.  Christians are not perfect, but we have received forgiveness through the cross of Jesus Christ.  He selects us, and finishes us, and fits us together so that His power is made perfect in our weakness.  [2nd Corinthians 12:9].


Dear friends, our Christian accountability is made possible only by God’s grace, through faith in the same Jesus Christ who fills us with Christian values.  Out of humility and holy gratitude for His love, we bow our heads to pray…


     Gracious Lord, you are the architect and perfecter of our faith.  Because of SIN, we often fall short of your will for our lives.  Forgive us, protect us, and comfort us with the promise of your eternal glory.  May your Holy Spirit fill us with wisdom and strength to serve you, and may we reflect your great love to others who hope to see you working through us.  We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.  AMEN!
– Matthew 18:1-14


      1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,

6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”


7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!

8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

10 See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”


      11  12 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

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