Mark Twain said that what he found difficult about the Bible was not what he didn't understand. It was what he did understand.
Sometimes the Bible's teaching is just devastatingly simple. Here's a case in point, from the teaching of Jesus. It comes from Matthew 21.28-32. I'm going to ask you a question about this, so you need to concentrate.
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.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?
Now, so we can be clear about this, let's just have a vote on it. A bit of revision first. Two sons - both asked by their dad to go and do some work for him. The first says 'no' - but later he thinks better of it and goes and gets on with the work. The second says 'yes sir' - full of deference, full of outward respect - but he just carries on with what he's doing and never goes and does the father's work.
Which one did what his father wanted? That's what we're going to vote on. If you think the one who did what his father wanted was the second one - who said he would do the work but never did - then raise a hand high in the air. Not a terribly large vote.
If you think the one who did what his father wanted was the first one, who said 'no' to start with, but who later on went and did the work - then raise a hand in the air. Remarkable. Overwhelmingly in favour of that first one. That's just to make sure you're awake.
But, of course, it's not surprising at all. It's plain obvious. Even Jesus's enemies got the answer right.
"Which of the two did what his father wanted?" [asks Jesus]. "The first," they answered.
And the unspoken question, hanging heavy in the air between Jesus and these deadly enemies of his, is, 'Why don't you then?' Because this, of course, was not merely a little brain teazer to pass the time. It was about them. And lest we think we're off the hook and can happily watch them squirm - it's about us too.
I want to pinpoint three very direct lessons from this passage and parable. First, God wants us to do what he says. Secondly, God welcomes those who turn from their sins and follow Jesus. And thirdly, God shuts out those who won't turn from their sin and who don't follow Jesus.
First, GOD WANTS US TO DO WHAT HE SAYS
Let me say a few things about what's going on here.
This is the first of three confrontational parables directed against the Jewish religious leaders. There is a growing tension between Jesus and the religious establishment. Jesus is on the attack against them. There is a sustained build-up to his onslaught: the clearing out of the temple; the symbolic destruction of fig tree; these three parables; then the woes of chapter 23; and finally the prophecy of the destruction of the temple in chapter 24. Jesus is engaged in a fight to the death with the authorities. Take a look at verses 45-46:
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
'The vineyard' in this parable, like the fig-tree of Jesus' earlier enacted parable, is a recognised symbol of God's people. The theme of this whole section is the failure and rejection of what what we might call 'official' Israel. Jesus is teaching that the true Israel is now to be found in him and in those who follow him.
So this is a clear and simple story with an obvious point: what counts is not promise but performance.
If you look at verse 23 you'll see who Jesus is talking to at this point.
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.
And in our passage Jesus makes this sharp and uncomfortable contrast between the chief priests and elders and the tax collectors and prostitutes - those whom they most despised and regarded as furthest from the Kingdom of God.
The unlikely are accepted and the 'religious' are excluded.
So, with that background, the simple message of the parable is that God wants us to do what he says - not just say we'll do it and then ignore him. That's the first point.
Secondly, GOD WELCOMES THOSE WHO TURN FROM THEIR SIN AND FOLLOW JESUS
Here is a word of hope - for all who know themselves to be sinners in need of forgiveness.
Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you. For John came to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.'
The tax collectors and prostitutes are turning from their sin and following Jesus.
What are we to learn from that? J.C.Ryle puts it like this:
"It matters nothing what a man has been in times past. Does he repent, and come to Christ? Then old things are passed away, and all things are become new. - It matters nothing how high and self-confident a man's profession of religion may be. Does he really give up his sins? If not, his profession is abominable in God's sight, and he himself is still under the curse. - Let us take courage ourselves, if we have been great sinners hitherto: only let us repent and believe in Christ, and there is hope. Let us encourage others to repent; let us hold the door wide open to the very chief of sinners. Never will that word fail, 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1.9)"
There is a challenge here for our evangelism. Who do we expect God to save? The apparently religious are not at all more likely than those who are apparently - and may be actually - the worst of sinners. Never write anyone off.
There is also a word of hope to us as we face up to the depth of our own sinfulness. Nothing we have thought or said or done puts us beyond the reach of the forgiveness Jesus offers - if we will turn away from our sin, turn to Jesus, and turn our lives over to him.
What causes us the deepest shame in our lives? You may be aware of areas of terrible sin in your life. Profound failures. Devastating disobedience. Well here is a word of hope. God welcomes those who turn from their sin and follow Jesus. Turn to him - and he will never turn you away.
Thirdly, GOD SHUTS OUT THOSE WHO WON'T TURN FROM THEIR SIN AND WHO DON'T FOLLOW JESUS
Here is a word of warning to the religious.
Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you. For John came 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.'
When Jesus says they're entering 'ahead of you', that should be read as meaning that they're entering instead of them, not merely before them. The attitudes of the sons are in the end totally opposite. In the parable of the tenants that follows this, the vineyard is removed from one group of tenants and given to another altogether. In verse 43 Jesus says:
'Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit.'
So the sense here is: 'the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God - and you do not.'
The leaders' failure was not only to do with their morality. It wasn't just their religious hypocrisy. Above all, they had failed to recognise and welcome what God was doing in the ministry of Jesus - even though the outcasts were responding to him. It was this that excluded them from the kingdom of God.
John the Baptist had called them to repentance - to change the way they lived. He had also pointed them to Jesus. If they had believed John, they would also have accepted Jesus. They did neither.
The religious leaders did not believe John's witness, even after seeing society's vilest sinners repenting and believing him and his message.
As we've seen, Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and the elders - the religious leaders of the day.
As I was preparing this I could not avoid seeing the application of this at four different levels in our own church and our own denomination. We must not duck this, distasteful as it may be, and I want to take a bit of time on this.
First, this is a warning that applies to the leaders of the Anglican communion worldwide.
Three weeks ago I watched over the internet part of a service taking place in the Anglican Diocese of New Hampshire in the USA. A man called Gene Robinson was being consecrated as the new bishop of the Diocese. I heard him recite the creed. I heard him promise that he would be faithful to the Scriptures. I heard him promise that he would exercise a Godly discipline over the members of the church and provide a Godly example of life. But this is a man who has unrepentantly left his wife and children and is in a self-confessed practising homosexual relationship. As people were greeting one another during the service, he publically embraced his male lover. Over 50 Anglican bishops took part in the consecration. All of these bishops teach that Gene Robinson's behaviour is not only acceptable but admirable and pleasing to God.
Thank God for those in the USA and other Anglican Provinces around the world who are standing against such developments. One American Anglican group has said this about these events:
Heresy has been held up as holy. Blasphemy has been redefined as blessing. The hope of the transforming love of Jesus Christ has been denied. Holy Scripture has been abandoned and sin celebrated over sanctification.
They are right. The Anglican church world-wide is dividing over this issue. We need to be aware of that because it will have consequences for us here in the future. What those will be we cannot yet fully see. Major Anglican provinces - representing the majority of Anglicans around the world - have declared themselves out of communion with all the bishops and dioceses that supported the consecration of Gene Robinson. This division is a right response to what is happening. We cannot do what God wants and at the same time remain united with those who teach the opposite.
At his consecration, Gene Robinson called for tolerance to be shown towards 'traditionalists'. Four days later a priest in his Diocese was thrown out of his parish because of his opposition to his new Bishop.
One of Gene Robinson's supporters is a bishop called John Spong. Despite his own consecration promises, Spong is an outspoken advocate of a wholesale rejection of all the main truths of the Christian faith including the divinity of Jesus, his death for our sins, his bodily resurrection, and even the existence of God. He is accepted by and acceptable to the liberals who support Gene Robinson. Many of them agree with him.
John Spong has recently visited this Diocese of Newcastle to teach his views. Every month the Diocese sends a bulletin to all the clergy. In this month's edition another visit of John Spong is being advertised. He will be leading what is called a 'spirituality workshop'.
God shuts out those who won't turn from their sin and who don't follow Jesus.
Secondly, this is a warning that applies to the leaders of the Church of England.
The outward acceptance of biblical Christian faith going hand in hand with a wholesale rejection of it is not just an issue for other countries, or just the Episcopal Church of the USA.
Earlier this year an attempt was made by the Bishop of Oxford to appoint as a bishop in his Diocese a man who openly and unrepentantly admits a practising homosexual relationship in the past and who campaigns for the acceptance of such relationships within the church and its leadership as good and Godly. The Archbishop of Canterbury was consulted about it and did not oppose the appointment. The Bishop of Newcastle publically supported his appointment. In doing so he is being consistent with his previously publically stated view that practising homosexual relationships can sometimes be acceptable. But that is a view that is contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible. It is a rejection of God's word, despite a promised commitment to it. That is the reason that we have long been unable to accept his spiritual authority and oversight as far as this church is concerned. The appointment in the diocese of Oxford did not go through only because of a ground-swell of objection from this country and, more importantly, from major Anglican provinces around the world.
Christian Research last year conducted a survey of the beliefs of the clergy of the Church of England. It's been published under the title: 'Believe It Or Not: what Church of England Clergy actually believe'. It was a wide-reaching and representative survey. One in five of all clergy completed the questionnaires. Here are some of the main findings.
These are percentages of those who definitely and confidently believe various central truths of the gospel.
Only 82 % believe confidently in God the Father.
Only 77% believe that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world.
Only 77% believe God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all equally God.
Only 66% - two thirds - believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead.
Only 56% believe that Jesus is the only way by which we can be saved.
Only 51% believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.
The survey also looked at ethical views on a number of key issues. One was whether practising homosexuals should be accepted for ordination - in other words that people in a practising homosexual relationship should be permitted to lead Church of England parishes. The proportion of all clergy who supported the ordination of practising homosexuals was 31%.
I quote from the report published by Christian Research for the Anglican think-tank Cost of Conscience, who commissioned the research.
This survey has finally exposed what many Anglicans of various traditions have long suspected: the existence side-by-side of two separate churches under the cloak of Anglicanism.
One of these is essentially credally orthodox and committed to the historic faith and apostolic mission of the Church; the other is wrapped in the garments of Christian language, but has only the most tenuous grasp of the central teachings of the faith.
None of the liberal groups (of which the latter largely consists) was able to muster even 25% of their membership confident in the Virgin Birth, or the uniqueness of Christ in salvation . The best of them managed no more than a third who have confidence in the bodily resurrection [of Jesus].
This is a warning that applies to the leaders of the Church of England. God shuts out those who won't turn from their sin and who don't follow Jesus.
Thirdly, this is a warning that applies to the leaders of this church - JPC.
All of us who have leadership responsibility in this church need to look to our own lives as well. We are not exempt from the warnings Jesus gives. We are not immune to the spiritual disease to which others have fallen prey. We too can start saying one thing, and believing and doing another. It may be that we are conscious of areas of our lives where that is already the case. We dare not compromise with sin or harbour any rejection of Jesus in our hearts. If we go down that road, we who lead this church will also be shut out of the Kingdom.
Fourthly, this is a warning that applies to each one of us.
You don't have to be a leader to be capable of hypocrisy. Not one of us can afford to point the finger at others unless at the same time we are pointing several fingers back at ourselves. Daily and hourly we need to renew our repentance and faith. We need to turn to Jesus, and keep our minds and hearts fixed on him as our Lord and as our Saviour. Then and only then can we rejoice with those tax-collectors and prostitutes who heard the call of Jesus, and responded, and were welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.