September 27, 2020 /17th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 / 2nd Reading Philippians 21-13 / Gospel Matthew 21:23-32
Thy Will Be Done
Of all the petitions we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” may well be the most daring, the most radical, the most ambitious of all. In this beloved prayer we ask God to do many things for us: Give us this day our daily bread (provide for us, take care of us). Forgive us our trespasses (show us mercy, give us grace). Deliver us from evil (save and protect us). We ask God to bless us in a number of ways – and God does, faithfully. We are recipients of God’s goodness.
When we pray, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking God to change things in a major way – and to bring that change about in us and through us. This bold request asks God to do something quite amazing and transforming: to bring heaven to earth, to bring godliness to this ungodly world, to actively demonstrate God’s good and gracious will. It is a daring prayer because it makes of us more than passive recipients of God’s grace – it engages us as active instruments of God’s holy will.
We are well aware of the enormous gap between life on earth and life in heaven. This world is sinful and broken, divided by greed and resentment, troubled by injustice and inequality, plagued by disasters, both natural and man made. God’s will is variously unknown, ignored and openly contradicted. We know this all too well. So it is no small thing to ask God to bring about his will in such a troubled environment. And it is a tall order for us to be the instruments by means of which God answers such a prayer.
We might be inclined to stick with the petitions about God taking care of us – and just omit this one about somehow bringing heaven to earth. But remember we didn’t write this prayer. Jesus did. After all, it’s the Lord’s Prayer.
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I hear an echo of this prayer in our reading today from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Listen again to what Paul proposes: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” At first it might sound like Paul is suggesting something that contradicts what Paul teaches elsewhere. “Work out your own salvation” seems to suggest that we need to somehow save ourselves by our own good works. But Paul is not altering his conviction that we are saved by God’s grace and our faith in that grace. Paul is not saying that we need to work in order to earn our salvation. Instead he is pointing to the work you and I do because we have been blessed with the gift of salvation. Paul reminds us that the God who saves us is actively at work in our lives “enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You and I may be reluctant or unwilling, yet God gives us the desire and the energy to bring Christ’s compassion to the world.
Working out our salvation is putting God’s will into action, here and now on earth. You and I are called to get to work as agents of God’s grace – because God has blessed us with the gift of salvation. The good news of salvation is NOT: “You are saved by Jesus Christ, now just hang on, somehow try to survive life on earth, and then find lasting peace and joy in heaven.” Instead we are called to work out our salvation, that is, put our salvation to work, by serving as instruments of peace and joy on earth, here and now. Consider: week by week we pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God answers this prayer by enabling us “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God doesn’t want to wait for all of us to get to heaven – God aims to bring his heavenly will down to earth. And the way this can happen is through believers like you and me – which is where the work comes in.
God gathers those who are saved into communities of faith. Congregations like ours are meant to be colonies of heaven, here on earth. The church is meant to be a working model of gospel living – a community of believers who are intent on living not just for their own sake, but for the sake of Christ – who gave his life for them. The church is by no means perfect – it is composed of imperfect sinners. Nevertheless, we are sinners who are forgiven – who though we fall down and fall short, we keep getting up and trying to serve God’s will – not merely our own. The church is a laboratory for people striving to live in faith and hope and love. Despite our differences and shortcomings, we find our unity in Jesus. That unity can be a sign to the world of the steadfast love of God that saves and unites us all.
So how can we work out our salvation? By trying to live like Jesus. It’s as straightforward – and as challenging – as that. Paul sets the bar simply and directly. He says “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Think like Jesus. Act like Jesus. Paul summarizes the gospel like this: Christ freely became like us – giving up divine power, status and privilege, taking human form, being born, living and dying – in order that you and I might become like him, living lives that are shaped and transformed by the love of God.
You and I are to make it our life’s aim to become like Christ – because Christ was willing to become like us. Now clearly, no one becomes like Christ in a moment, overnight. It’s a matter of having a clear focus, a goal to aim for, a direction for our lives. We can live our days going our own way, or we can strive to go God’s way – to seek first the Kingdom of God (either moving closer or further away). Paul describes what such a life looks like:
It’s living together as God’s people with one mind, one heart – devoted to following Christ.
It’s setting aside selfish ambition, and being ambitious about serving others.
It’s looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.
It’s willingly giving up status and power for the sake of the world.
It’s trusting that God really is at work in us and through us.
Being blessed with salvation, we work out and live out what that means, day by day.
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We live in a world that is deeply divided, torn by conflict, warped by injustice. People are angry, confused and afraid – same as it ever was, only more so. Our hope is not in any political leader or party, not in the stock market or the economy, not in any human agenda. The world is not capable of saving itself. That’s why Jesus came: to bring the saving power of God’s gracious love. Surprising as it may seem – for all its imperfections and weaknesses – God has chosen the church (which is the Body of Christ) as the means by which salvation comes to this world. In our life together we can model the unity and harmony so desperately needed in our world. We can show that faith and hope and love endure, while lesser things all fade away. In the way you and I conduct our daily lives, people can catch a glimpse of God’s will being done on earth – as it is in heaven.
Thanks be to God.