Happy New Year! In what is surely one of the most arbitrary rituals known to mankind, one second last night fell in 2016 and the very next second fell in 2017! A whole year changed over in the space of one second! And millions of people around the world stayed up to witness this temporal transformation.
I can count on one hand the years that I can recall staying up to actual midnight to greet the New Year. So for me, the transformation from 2016 to 2017 wasn’t even enough to pause my snoring. I woke up, as it were, in a new year, a new reality, completely unconscious while everything around me changed over.
That’s kind of what it’s like in the Gospel of Matthew watching the Jewish religious leaders interact with Jesus. It’s like they are sleeping through the most transformative events in history, completely unaware that the world has changed around them.
And Matthew wants us to know that he knows it. He wants us to see that there is a clear distinction between the old reality and the new reality. Jesus coming has changed everything and that includes how people relate to God and one another.
Israel was God’s people. They were the chosen ones. But instead of that status giving them humility and a willingness to share the good news of a relationship with God with others, they looked down their noses at everyone who wasn’t like them. God had given the law to help them demonstrate his love and holiness, but they had taken it and used it to demonstrate their own pride and self-righteousness. And if they didn’t wake up to the new reality of what God was doing in Christ, they were going to miss everything.
And I’m afraid that sometimes we do the same thing. We turn the corner of a New Year expecting it to bring change even as we keep on doing the same things we have always done. We make resolutions that don’t make it through January let alone December. We need to understand that if we want something different for our lives in 2017, we need to start doing something different with our lives in 2017. Instead of making 2017 resolutions that focus on ourselves, let’s start making resolutions that focus on loving God, loving others, and making disciples.
I’ve been walking through Matthew on Sunday mornings and as I’ve done so, taking large chunks of text at a time, I’ve begun to see that once we widen our field of vision, moving from words, to sentences, to verses, to chapters, to the big idea behind the whole book, things begin to make more sense when you zoom back in. And that’s helpful because in Matthew 21, we are introduced to a passage that can be troubling apart from the wider context.
Matthew 21:18-19 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
We read this story and think, “Man, Jesus, eat a Snickers! You’re not you when you’re hungry!” And it does seem strange that precious Jesus, meek and mild, would throw this little temper tantrum just because the fig tree didn’t have fruit on it right when Jesus wanted it to.
But Jesus didn’t do anything by accident. This wasn’t a fit of selfish anger at not getting any fruit: it was a living parable. In fact, it was a parable many years in the making. See, throughout the Old Testament, Israel had been associated with fig trees. (Figs were listed as one of the good fruits in the promised land, the blessing of God would be evident when every man of Israel was sitting under his own fig tree, and those in Israel who had faith in God were called good figs, while those who did not were called bad figs, etc.) So when Jesus curses the fig tree, he wasn’t mad at a tree, he was mad, symbolically, at a nation. The nation of Israel that had failed to produce the fruit God intended. And it wasn’t for lack of effort on God’s part: no, he had given centuries to Israel, years and years for them to produce the fruit the was proper for the people of God, and yet they continually failed. Why? Because they tried to do it on their own. They thought that God would be pleased if they worked harder, kept the Law more closely, gave more sacrifices next year. But God had told them what he wanted:
Hosea 6:6 “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
But it is easier to kill a lamb than to forgive a debtor. It is easier to give up your grain than it is to give up your desires. And so Israel failed.
But Jesus signaled to his disciples what would produce the fruit he desired: faith. Faith that led to service not self-righteousness.
Matthew 21:20-22 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
The way that Israel thought they would accomplish fruit production was through works of self-righteousness. But self-righteousness cannot produce the will of God. But Jesus signals here that the people of God were to accomplish the will of God through faith, working in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is the will of God? I’m glad you asked. People spend a lot of time trying to answer this question: what is the will of God for my life? Books are written, Bible studies are undertaken, all trying to answer this question. Let’s just stop.
Romans 8:28-30 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
1 Peter 2:15 “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
1 Thessalonians 4:3 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”
So, in 2017, the will of God for your life is that you would look more like Christ, that you would be sanctified, that you would be so committed to doing good, in faith, that people have no reason to speak evil of you.
And if you’re going to see the will of God accomplished in your life in 2017, you need to pay attention to what Jesus says in Matthew 21-22:
Seek truth more than self-preservation
Matthew 22:23-27 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
The religious leaders wanted to trip Jesus up. They wanted him to claim that his authority was from God so they could accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus turns the tables and asks the same question, but of John the Baptist’s ministry. Why? Because John’s ministry was all about pointing to Jesus. If the religious leaders answered “from heaven” then they were answering their own question about Jesus’ authority as well. But if they answered “from man” then the crowd would have rejected them for that stance as well as for their stance on Jesus’ ministry. So, instead of seeking the truth, they sought self-preservation and said, “We don’t know.” And in that, they sowed the seeds for their destruction, because everyone who rejects the truth of Jesus Christ will be destroyed.
How about with us? Will 2017 be a year in which we seek to save ourselves? Or will it be a year in which we seek the truth of Jesus?
Strive for the right actions not the right words
Matthew 22:28-32 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
Even the Jewish leaders get this one: saying you’ll do something and not doing it is always inferior to refusing to do something, repenting, and doing it after all. But their lives didn’t back up the truth of their answer. The Pharisees had developed a unique talent for saying all the right things and doing all the wrong ones. They would commit their possessions to God, but only so that they didn’t have to provide for their parents. They would claim to be seekers of truth, but when he showed up, they rejected him.
Instead, the people who said the wrong things, tax collectors who declared Caesar to be Lord, prostitutes who hawked the bodies God had given them as property for sale; people who had rebelled against God and his word, were now repenting of their sin and trusting in Jesus. And in repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus, they were living lives that cared about the poor, that served the weak, that fed the hungry. They were doing all the things that the Pharisees talked about doing but never did. And they weren’t doing them because they were such good people, they were tax collectors and prostitutes. No, they were doing these good things because they believed the truth of who Jesus was and the reality of the kingdom that he proclaimed.
So, in 2017, will we be like the Pharisees and say all the right things? Or will we be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, well aware of our sin, but striving to please the Lord by doing the things he commands, things like loving God, loving others, and making disciples?
Submit to Jesus instead of trying to succeed without him
Matthew 22:33-46 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
J Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Jesus reminds the leaders that by rejecting (and soon, killing him) they were merely being consistent with how Israel had treated God’s prophets throughout history. God established Israel to be a light to the nations, to demonstrate the fruit, as it were, of God’s cultivation. But they failed to produce the expected result. So God sent them prophets to call for it. One by one, Israel rejected them. So God sent his son, we just celebrated this at Christmas, and here they are rejecting him.
But their rejection of the son would actually be the catalyst to establish the kingdom of heaven. By rejecting Jesus, the leaders of Israel would fulfill the prophecies about the kingdom, to the joy of those who see the Lord’s work, and to the destruction of those who miss it. Israel’s problem wasn’t that they weren’t trying to do good things, it was that they were trying to do them apart from God’s plan. Jesus is the fulfillment of that plan.
As we enter a new year, my prayer is that we will not be like the religious leaders who tried to do good things apart from Christ, but that we would only be content so long as Christ is doing good things through us.
See who Christ is making you to be rather than who you are today
Matthew 22:1-10 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
The leaders of Israel thought they were the honored guests at God’s table. But Jesus challenges that thinking by saying that they lost their place at the table by rejecting God’s summons. God had indeed prepared a feast, but they had failed to come. So now, Jesus says, God will fill it with whoever will come, bad or good. And the wedding hall was filled!
And that phrase, “both bad and good,” is the best possible news for us in 2017. Because it reminds us that God’s invitation is not predicated on how good we are, it’s predicated on how good he is. He invites all to come and everyone who comes is welcomed in. And in this new year, I pray that you understand that God doesn’t need your resolutions, he doesn’t need you to try harder, no, he is already inviting you to come, to sit with him and to feast. To enjoy the blessing of the wedding of the son. The invitation is free and wide, “come and be filled.”
But the invitation is not enough: the question is, how will you respond?
Stop pretending and start submitting
Matthew 22:11-14 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Here, I think Jesus is extending his warning of the fig tree, the warning of the parables, that Israel has been rejected, to those of us in the church. I believe that in this man standing with no wedding garment, we are meant to see that it is possible to come to church, it is possible to walk an aisle, it is possible to pray a prayer, and to not truly belong in the kingdom. Are you pretending to be a part of the kingdom? Then nothing you do in 2017 is going to matter for the kingdom. Not until you stop pretending and start submitting to the Lord.
Only then can 2017 be your best year ever.
Only then can you truly be a new you in the New Year.
Happy New Year!