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Quitting for Jesus

Matthew 21:23-32

September 28, 2014

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Vince Lombardi, the great pro football coach of the 1960s, had a saying about giving up: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” These are stirring words especially when your team is down a touchdown and there’s only 2 minutes left on the game clock. But is Lombardi right?

Throughout history, winners have quit one thing and moved onto another. Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea where he began his ministry. Simon Peter and Andrew quit fishing and followed Jesus. Saul quit persecuting Christians and became an apostle.

And in our modern times, we see quitters like Abraham Lincoln quit being an owner of a general store and entered politics. Julia Childs quit being a CIA intelligence officer and became a world famous cook. Harrison Ford quit being a professional carpenter when he was offered a part in a little movie called Star Wars. Grandma Moses quit selling potato chips and began painting at age 80.

When I reflected on my years in ministry, I quit pursuing a little suburban church in Massachusetts and came to FCBC in 1975. And then as many of you may say, “I quit in 1978” and I spent the next 20 ½ years in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. And finally, I quit my denominational job and became your pastor in 1998.

Clearly, quitters sometimes win, when they discover the upside of giving up. I can testify that I personally have experienced the upside of quitting for Jesus. For every time I have left one ministry for another, I have been blessed beyond words because Jesus was there.

The Parable

Nothing in Jesus’ parables is ever quite that straightforward. I could have preached from this parable the argument that Jesus encountered with the religious authorities. Continuing from last Sunday’s sermon, I could have emphasized that God welcomes more people into his Kingdom like the tax collectors and prostitutes and that they would enter the Kingdom before the religious leaders. But for today, I was caught on what the two sons’ responses were to their father.

The parable is a man with a couple of sons who are needed in his vineyard. This father goes to the first and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son doesn’t want to alter his plans, so he answers, “I will not.”

But later he changes his mind, quits what he is doing and goes out to work.

The father goes to the second son, makes the same request, and the second son answers, “Sure!” In his enthusiastic response, he seems to be the real winner. But he fails to go out and work in the vineyard.

So, Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Which one is the real winner?

“The first,” answer the chief priests and the elders. They grasp that the son who quits what he is doing and goes out to work in the vineyard is the real winner. Discovering exactly what you need to do is the upside of giving up.

Jesus went on and said, “Truly I tell you the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.”

“What?” complained the chief priests and the elders, “People like that can’t be winners.”

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,” explains Jesus, “but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” These folks saw the truth of what John was saying, and they quit what they were doing and discovered what they needed to do.

Jesus turned to the chief priests and elders and said, “Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” The priests and elders were so sure that they were winners that they did not see the need to quit what they were doing, change their minds and believe him.

Often it is the quitters, the ones willing to change, who lead the way into the kingdom of God.

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Change of Minds

In verses 29 and 32, Jesus used the phrase having a “change of mind.” It also can be interpreted as a “change of heart.” I wonder how many of us need to have a “change of heart” from how we see ourselves today to become someone we are yet to be. What might we need to quit doing in order to become that new person God desires us to be for his sake and glory?

Generally, the word, “change” scares us. Quitting a job to go to a new one is scary. Quitting the illegal practice of skimming the tax collection for your own benefits and becoming finally an honest changed person is scary. Leaving behind a night job when there’s job security and changing to be morally upright is scary. But that is exactly what happened to Zacchaeus, the tax collector and the Samaritan woman at the well.

We are always fearful of change when it is wrapped up in God’s gracious invitation to follow Jesus. None of us think that we are the ones saying, “yes” to God but failing to follow through.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher tells a parable of call and response not unlike Jesus’ parable of the two sons sent into the vineyard.

            Imagine a make believe country populated by ducks and geese. In this country is a barnyard full of geese. Into this barnyard flies a wild goose, a preacher. He is eloquent. He is charismatic and engaging. He tells the geese in the barnyard that they were given wings to fly. God intends for them to soar. Their forbears flew across the great skies above, sometimes so thick they hide the sun. He has seen the world outside the barnyard. It is a wide and beautiful world, there is freedom in that world and unimaginable joy.

            The geese think he is a wonderful preacher. They nod, say AMEN, applaud this preaching goose. Yet there is one thing they do not do—they do not fly. The barnyard walls are high and secure and the corn is plentiful, so they go back to their familiar ways.

God wants us to fly. God wants us to soar. God wants us to respond to his invitation by changing our hearts and quitting what we might be doing that don’t comply with his plan and will for us.

Jesus’ point is that the first son is the one doing the will of the Father—the one who at first said “no” but later “changed his mind,” quit what he was doing and did right as the Father requested.

Jesus’ question is also a question to us: “Which of you does the will of God? Which of you is willing to change?”

This is the Gospel. To enter God’s story, to become a part of God’s plan, Jesus calls us to a “changed mind,” a new way of thinking, a new way of believing. And out of that comes a new way of doing, a new way of living. There are other words for “changed minds” in the Bible, words not often used in our secular society: “repentance, turning aside, turning around.” Today, we are calling it “quitting for Jesus.”

It is about what we really do that matters. The crowds around Jesus witnessed that it is indeed the “tax collectors, prostitutes” and other notorious sinners who were responding to the Good News. Saying “no” at first but doing “yes” in the end—repenting, turning, changing, quitting.

The parable is about our responses to God’s gracious invitation to become part of the kingdom work in God’s vineyard. God wants us to say “yes” and really mean it. God wants our “yeses” to be real “yeses” and our “noes” to be repented of.

Knowing When to Quit

How do we discover what we might need to quit doing in order to benefit from the upside of giving up? Christians throughout history have wrestled with the question of what God wants them to do. Let me share with you what Saint Ignatius Loyola, a 16th century spiritual director advised.

Ignatius first asks us to clarify the goal of our life—to have a loving relationship with God. With this goal in mind, we can make a number of choices about how we will achieve this goal, and every choice should move us a little closer to God. We might quit working for someone and start you own business or go back to school or get married or change jobs. The important thing is to begin with the goal in mind: to follow Christ into an even deeper and more loving relationship with God.

Read Related Sermon  Earth, Wind, and Fire

Do you need to ask this question of yourself? Is your life’s goal is to have a closer relationship with the Lord? If it isn’t right now and you are pursuing more status, more power and control, more wealth, more material happiness, perhaps the goal to have a closer relationship with God is your priority right now.

Once this goal is clarified in your heart, you can begin to make decisions of the things that have complicated your life. Here is when you figure out how to stop avoiding what God wants you to do, and how to start working in God’s vineyard. If you find yourself trying to decide between two options, list the pros and the cons, side by side on a sheet of paper. Ask your friends what they think. Set aside time for prayer, talk to God about your decision, and see if you are given greater clarity about your choice. Ignatius believed that “we can discern the right choice by attending to the inner movements of our spirit.”

I think that is what happened to the tax collectors and prostitutes when Jesus confronted their life choices. They became aware of the bad choices that they were making and had a “change of mind,” repented, turned around, and believed. While at the same time, the priests and the elders because of their position of comfort didn’t want to clarify their goals for life. They wanted to keep what they already had and consequently, Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter into heaven before they would.

Sometimes, we have to live with a sense of restlessness as God pushes us in a new direction. Other times, we feel peaceful about a decision but then discover that our serenity is really laziness in disguise. Ignatius wants us to continue examining our decisions and make choices that increase the feelings of faith, hope and love within ourselves.

The upside of quitting is that it puts us in a position to change our lives for the better. If we feel that we’re avoiding what God wants us to do, we need to stop what we are doing, clarify goals and define what it means to have a loving relationship with God. We should figure out what changes need to be made in order to start using our time and talents as workers in God’s vineyard. We ought to pay attention to the inner movements of our spirit and make choices that will increase our faith, hope and love.

Contrary to what Vince Lombardi said, the good news is that by quitting, we might in fact, be winners. Quitting for Jesus, moving into a more loving relationship with God will always make you a winner.

Let us pray.

Loving and forgiving God, lead us to choose to live our lives according to your will and plan for us. Be merciful to us when we can easily come up with our own excuses of not obeying your commandments. But grant us the wisdom and the courage to discern for ourselves that the goal in life is to have a closer walk with you. If we need to stop doing something to have a relationship with you, Lord, let that be. If we need to quit doing something so that we may have the vision and insight to begin to live our lives in obedience in you, let that be. And fortify us, O God with your mighty word in Jesus Christ to know that the Kingdom of heaven is for everyone. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

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