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Tales With a Twist: The Story Of Two Sons

Matthew 21:28-32

One Sunday, a minister was preaching and as his sermon unfolded, a baby began to cry. The crying became louder and louder. Finally, the young mother got up to take her child to the nursery. As she did, the minister stopped his sermon and called out to her: “Your baby is not disturbing me”, whereupon she turned around and called back: “Well, maybe not, but you sure are disturbing him!”

Well, my guess is that oft times the listeners of Jesus felt exactly the same way because He disturbed them—oh did He ever! Now understand, please, that not every story or parable that Jesus told was disturbing, but I think it is worthy of note that everyone of the many stories and parables Jesus told, which Matthew chose to place in his Gospel, every single one of those, was disturbing. There is good reason for that. You see, Matthew was writing his Gospel primarily for his Jewish sisters and brothers and he was frustrated that they were not being very receptive to Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah of God. And so he quite deliberately selected among Jesus’ stories, the ones which were most urgent in their message, and most unsettling in their outcome. You see, he deliberately selected the stories of Jesus which were the most jolting because he wanted to use them as shock treatment in order to force his fellow Jews to focus upon their relationship with Jesus Christ.

That’s exactly what was happening in the story included in Matthew we are looking at right now. Jesus, as He told the story, said: “A man had a vineyard. He approached his two sons and asked them to go and work in that vineyard. One son said, ‘Yes, I will go’, but then he didn’t go. The other son said, ‘No, I’m not going to go work in the vineyards’, but then later, he changed his mind and he went.” Pithy little story, but it packs a powerful punch. But remember that when Jesus told that story, He was standing in the courts of the temple, surrounded by the leading religious authorities of the day. And when He told that story, He then said to the chief priests and the elders: “Which of the two sons did the will of the father?” And they immediately responded: “The one who said no, but then went.” And Jesus said: “That’s right. But you, on the other hand, are like the son who said yes and then didn’t go. You are religious leaders, you speak religiously correct language, but your words do not match your lives. You talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk. And all around you are people whom you regard as the outcasts of society. People like tax collectors and prostitutes, and these people are the ones who are accepting me in faith and they are following the life I called them to live. And I tell you this, they are going to get to heaven before you do.” I want to tell you something, those words were as explosive as if Jesus had simply dropped a bomb right in their midst. In fact, a little later in this passage it says that they were so disturbed that they wanted to arrest Jesus on the spot.

It is worth our remembering one of the basic principles of Jesus’ parable, that the parables have about them a timeless quality. They are intended as much for us as for those who heard them originally. And so this parable puts to us a very basic question: Which of the two sons do we most resemble? You see, this parable is not about chief priests and elders, it’s about you and me. It’s not about a contrast between Christians and Jews, it’s about the contrast between what we say and what we do. And therefore, the bottom line for us to see today is simply this: Which of those two sons do we most resemble?

Well, the lesson that we learn from one of the sons is that it is easier to say “yes” and then not go.

You remember that the father approached the two sons, asked them to go to work and one of them very quickly said: “Yes, I will go”, but then he never did. That is both a parable and a problem and we see it all the time. It’s so easy for us to say “yes” to the Lord but then not do what the Lord wants us to do. What is it that keeps our promise and our performance separate? Frankly, I think it is separate simply because it’s just easy—easy to say “yes” and then not go.Did you ever hear the story about Hilda, who spent all of her life living out in the sticks, in the country? She finally visited a big city when she was 70 years of age, and there she met her good friend, Anna, in the lobby of a swank hotel. And there, Hilda was confronted with something she had never seen before—an elevator. She stood, watching in amazement as those shiny brass doors slid back and revealed a little compartment lined with mirrors. She watched in fascination as an elderly gentleman in his 80’s shuffled slowly into that elevator and then she watched the doors close. And then she saw the numbers up above…2, 3, 4, 5…4, 3, 2, 1…the doors opened and out stepped a magnificent young man who looked like a movie star. She was ecstatic! She clapped her hands and she said to Anna: “I’m going to get my husband and bring him and put him in that magic box.” But you see, the reality is, my beloved, there is no magic box when it comes to making changes in your life and in mine. If we want change in our lives, it’s going to take effort—heavy, heavy effort. And it’s going to take all of the strength that God has given us. There is nothing easy about it at all.

Fred Speakmann was a preacher whom I greatly admired. In his book entitled Love is Something You Do, he tells about a man who was a part of his childhood when he was growing up in a small town. This fellow’s name, at least as far as the townspeople knew, was “Old Governor Campbell “—that’s what everybody called him. Fred Speakmann said: “He was the chief among the village bums in our hometown. He was very much a fixture around the courthouse. He hung out there every day, and he was always greeting the people who would come and go from the courthouse. Old Governor Campbell was always trying to sponge a quarter off of them, because you see, one quarter meant that he would eat lunch that day and two quarters meant that he could get drunk for supper.” Well, back in those days, popular in small towns in America were what were called “tent revivals”, and every year when the tent revival would come to Fred Speakmann’s little hometown, Old Governor Campbell would walk down the sawdust aisle in order to “get religion” and it would take for awhile. For awhile after the revival, he would appear with his face neatly shaved, hair carefully trimmed and combed, his clothes pressed, looking wonderful. And that would last for awhile. Then, gradually, he would slip back into his old ways. It was a town joke. Old Governor Campbell would get converted at every revival. And the people used to laugh and say: “You know, the preachers are always trying to convert all these people—people like Old Governor Campbell, and look at him. There he is, stiff as a billy goat again.” Fred Speakmann, writing years later, said: “I wish I had known enough in those days to be able to say to my fellow townspeople: ‘You are so wrong. The trouble is not with religion. The trouble is with you. You are laughing at this old derelict because you do not believe that people can be changed. And consequently, your tragedy is greater than his. His problem is not that he got converted at every revival. His problem is the same as yours and mine—it’s that he never got converted enough.'”

Mark this down. The genius of Christianity is that it consists of a whole lifetime of fresh starts. You and I were meant to be converted at every revival, or maybe we were meant to be converted every single Sunday. You see, it is when we face ourselves honestly that we say, “I shouldn’t be the way I am.” And at that very moment God moves in to say, “But you don’t have to stay the way you are.” And that’s why no one can make a commitment to Jesus Christ for you. People can tell you all about Him. People can give you convincing materials about Him.People can plead with you and reason with you about him, but no one can make that commitment to Him for you. And mouthing the words is not enough. If you want your talk and your walk to go together, then you have to take the step of faith yourself. That’s why every time I preach in this pulpit, I extend the invitation to you to make a bold, decisive, life-changing, death-defying, death-defeating commitment to Jesus Christ. No one else can make it for you. And simply saying the words is not enough. One of the two sons said “yes”, but then didn’t go.

Now the lesson we learn from the other son is that it’s better to say “no” and then go.

In the parable, the father asked the two sons to go and work. But this son said, “No, I am not going to work in the vineyards.” But then, and notice this, please, then as the story says, “later he changed his mind and went.” There was a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of direction in his life. That’s the meaning of true repentance. Jesus is saying that refusal followed by repentance is better than promise followed by disobedience. All that matters is the willingness to change. Change mind, change heart, change direction in life. Remember Jesus said that there were all of these people who, as far as society was concerned were outcasts. And they were coming to Christ and they were following him in their lives. That is stated for us all so that we will know that there is no one who is hopeless before God. It doesn’t matter what you have in your past. If you come to Jesus Christ, you will have a new future. The invitation is extended to all—all kinds and classes of people; all people of moral characters. It’s extended to all. The only thing that is required is the willingness to change. To change your mind. To change your heart. To change your direction. To change the way you are living your life every day. Jesus says: Sometimes people say “no”, but then they go. And theirs is the kingdom.

Bill Quick is a Methodist preacher. He grew up in a home where Christ was not known. When he was a young man, he was invited by some of his friends one weekend to attend a Methodist Youth Fellowship retreat. He went, and there, Bill Quick made a commitment to Jesus Christ and not only that, but he committed himself to become a minister. It took him a whole week to muster up enough courage to tell his parents what he had done. It was the following Saturday night at the dinner table, and he finally mustered up all of his courage and he told them that something had happened at the retreat the weekend before. His mother immediately snapped: “What did you do wrong?” He assured them that it was nothing like that. He said instead: “I’ve made the decision to follow Christ in my life and I’m going to become a minister.” His father exploded in rage, yelled at him, stormed away from the table, and from that point on had little or nothing to say to his son. In fact, the father-son relationship disintegrated almost completely over the subsequent years. But Bill Quick went on to college, and then he went on to seminary and was ordained as a minister. Then he was invited to come back and preach in the little Methodist church in his hometown. On the Saturday before, as he drove into town, he went out to the family farm. He found his father out in the fields repairing the fences. He went to his father and he said: “I’d like to invite you to come to the service tomorrow. I know that you won’t have anything to do with the church, but I’d at least like for you to see what I am doing with my life.” The father flatly refused. The next day, one can only imagine what it must have felt like when Bill Quick stood up in the pulpit of that little church in his hometown, and as he began his sermon he noticed that his father slipped in the back door of the church and sat down on the very last pew. And one cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like at the end of the sermon when Bill Quick invited anyone who was led to do so to come and kneel at the altar and commit their life to Jesus Christ. Only one person came, but that one person was his father. One of the sons said “no” and then went.

So…

I am always discovering fascinating things about this Bible of ours. It is absolutely incredible. Just the other day I discovered that the term NASA, which in our time means National Aeronautic and Space Administration—that term NASA is actually as old as Moses. It was used at the time of Moses. And ironically enough, in a sense, the meaning of the word has never really changed. You see, in the Old Testament we are told that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and issued the call of God to the people, they immediately cried out: “Nasa V’nishna”; nasa, “we will do it”; v’nishna, “we will pour everything we have into it”. When God spoke through Moses to the people, they cried out in response, “Nasa—we will do it!” My beloved, do you understand that it is not enough for us to simply talk about following Jesus? We must do it! Christianity is not a spectator sport. If you want to gain the victory, then you’ve got to get into the game. If you want to experience all of the lovely, lifting, lilting melodies of the faith, then you’ve got to sing the song. You can’t just mouth the words, and you can’t let someone else sing it for you. You’ve got to sing it for yourself. If you want to know all of the glory and the joy and the power of the Christian faith, you’ve got to sing the song yourself. You’ve got to sing “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”

Once there were two sons. Which of the two do you most resemble?

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