Children Behave…OR ELSE!

Heritage Presbyterian Church

September 22, 2019
15th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture readings – Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1 & Luke 16:1-13

Throughout the month of September, I have been preaching a sermon series called “Children Behave.”  It is a message that hopefully speaks words of instruction to all the children of God…because I am certainly not only speaking to the children.

So far, we have explored being inclusive of everyone, remembering to act as the good kind of Christians in all situations, and controlling what we say.  Today’s message turns the whole message around and looks at the consequences. 

The great “OR ELSE” is what I’m talking about today.

In virtually every passage of the four Gospels, Jesus gives instructions to believers on how to live, how to treat one another, how to honor God, how to be the kinds of people that can truly call themselves “children of God.”  In all of them, Jesus seemed to focus most of his instruction on the actions.

Jesus rarely discussed the consequences if those actions were not followed, honored, or even attempted half-heartedly.

Think for a moment about the Sermon on the Mount, also known as the Beatitudes…one of Jesus’ most famous messages.  What is the pattern of his sermon? 

“Blessed are those who…” followed by “…for theirs is…”

The instruction followed by the blessing from God.  Nowhere in it does Jesus warn what will happen to those specific folks if they do not follow the instruction.

We don’t hear, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.  Cursed are those who make war for theirs is the fiery pit for all of eternity.”

We do get an abbreviated version of this in Luke’s Gospel in which Luke follows the blessings with what are called “the woes.”  Luke follows the beatitudes with the woes such as, “But woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”  In these few verses, Jesus is indicating that consequences await any who fail to follow his instructions.

Pretty unsettling when you consider that the Son of God hit the instructions time and time again…but seemed to almost avoid the consequences.

Perhaps this is because believers have always known the consequences for not following the instructions from the Lord.

In today’s reading from Jeremiah, we hear the prophet weeping and mourning for the people of God.  He was their prophet for forty years, through years of the last five kings of Judah.  He told them and told them what was coming, the consequences that were heading their way.  Yet the people paid no attention to him.  It staggers the imagination because it was widely accepted that Jeremiah was a prophet from God, and yet…    they ignored him.  Why?

Could it be that they thought they had the consequences covered because of their rituals and belief in God’s ultimate protection – no matter what?

Could it be that they actually believed the same God who had saved Moses and the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s army would show up at the last second and turn their enemies away?

Could it be that they believed the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out so that meant God loved them the better?

Whatever the reason, they were like a spoiled child who has never had to face consequences of any negative action.  Unfortunately, they had to learn the hard way by losing their wonderful country, their magnificent Temple, and everything that mattered to them.

After they were marched in chains to Babylon, THEN the consequences became clear to them.  THEN they understood the “or else” that was always there…but rarely considered.

When consequences arise and smack us in the face, that is when many of us finally get it.  That is when we understand that the wrong things we have done can lead to events and situations of our own doing that we just don’t like.  These are also the times when many of us begin to ask questions like, “God, why is this happening to me?  What did I do to deserve this?”

Ask any teenager who has been grounded for a week about consequences.  This is especially true if that teenage has just obtained a driver’s license.

Ask any man who didn’t watch his diet for years, despite warnings from his wife and doctor.  Then one day that same man feels tightness in his chest and his breathing becomes difficult.  I once heard a man say on the way into major heart surgery, “Goodbye butter.  Goodbye steak.  Goodbye ice cream.”  Yes, he got it – but notice where he was at the time!

Ask any student who panicked on a major test and tried to cheat – and was caught.  Now that same student faces a failing grade in that class, disciplinary action from the school, and who-knows-what at home when the parents find out.

Negative actions eventually lead to negative consequences. 

Believers know this, but they are not always completely comfortable with those consequences – because we all know they could happen to any of us.  We are a LOTS more comfortable with consequences that happen to other people.

If believers accept responsibility for our actions and are truly repentant, then any believer is still within God’s mercy – even if consequences are going to happen.  I always think of people who go to prison when I think of this.  I hope and pray that they accept the consequences and turn to God.  Certainly, LOTS of them seem to become believers in prison – I can only imagine how being in prison would affect one’s belief.  So I always hope that is true.

But all of this leads to a question:

How are we to navigate our way through this world, with all its temptations, all its evil, and all its possible consequences without turning away from God?  In other words, how to do we all avoid the terrible “or else” that we all know can happen?

It starts with something odd that Jesus said in the parable from today’s readings.

The story of the dishonest manager has always troubled those in the church.  The story seems to show Jesus complimenting the dishonest manager for his method of dealing with the consequences he faced. 

In the story, the manager has been caught by his boss and is in big trouble.  As he considers the consequences of his actions, he realizes that he could still make a terrible situation better.  He calls in all his boss’ customers and cuts their losses.  By saving them money, he makes many friends that he can turn to when he is kicked out.  His boss finds out about this – and compliments him for his cleverness! 

Is this really Jesus speaking?

Meanwhile, any of us who get caught doing something like this in our jobs would not only be fired and publicly shamed, but also sent to jail.  And it would probably make the six o’clock news.

So…why is Jesus doing this?  What in the world is the point of this parable?  Where is the “or else” that we just know is supposed to happen here?

It is vitally important to notice that after Jesus tells the story, he notes the manager’s cleverness, NOT his actions.  We also get no evidence that the manager got to keep his job because he figured out a way to make a bunch of new friends at the expense of his boss.  In other words, believers, the “or else” still happened here: do your job honestly OR ELSE you will be fired.

Then Jesus tells the children of God that we must learn from all kinds of people in this world; and some of them are more clever than we are.  In learning from them, be careful to avoid the consequences that they face through their actions.

We must be as smart as serpents – and as gentle as doves.  This is a pretty tough path to walk.

This is why it usually takes a community of believers in order for all of us to be safe.  Asking others who are believers like you what to do in a certain situation might be a great thing to do – especially if you are making an important decision.

But perhaps…just perhaps there are others in our midst who are NOT believers but they are more shrewd than we are.  I know of several.  Two of them I would trust their advice in certain matters much more quickly than I would trust my own counsel.  This is because they know what they are talking about when it comes to their own expertise.  It has nothing to do with their lack of faith.  They know how I am, and I know how they are.  But we are still friends and I still ask their advice. 

I’ll bet you have a few friends like that too…folks that you respect, perhaps even love, who are not believers but you still trust their advice and opinions.  What’s wrong with listening to them?  Not much, as far as I can tell.

Besides…if we treat these folks with the same respect and love as we do everyone else, isn’t that something of what Jesus would want us to do?  “Let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven” is what Scripture tells us. 

Today, Jesus just tells us to be careful in the world.

So actions can have consequences.
Negative actions can have negative consequences.
Jesus tells us to be clever and to learn from the world.
Jesus commanded us to love one another.
Do what you’re supposed to, children of God, or else…

Got it?