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“Make Christians GREAT Again”

June 25 2017 Matthew 23:1-12


Today as we welcome new members to our congregation, I’d like to look at the theme that’s close to what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ. How can we truly “Make Christians GREAT Again”? Note I did not say, as has been the battle cry in a recent presidential election campaign south of the border, “Make AMERICA Great Again” – no, instead, how can we make CHRISTIANS great again? And not in the sense of elevating Christianity in social or political power above other religions a la Christendom or Emperor Constantine making it the state religion; no, how can we get back to the essence of Christianity, what Christians are to be truly like in their Christ-likeness?

      Speaking of presidents – Anthony Zurcher, a journalist at the BBC wrote the following about Donald Trump’s response to recent victories by the Republican party in congressional special elections...

“There have been four congressional special elections this year where Democrats and Republicans have gone head-to-head, and the Democrats have been "not first" in all of them. That prompted Donald Trump to take a Twitter victory lap on Tuesday night.

‘Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O!’ he wrote.‘All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0'.

[journalist Zurcher continues] “The president's math is a bit off, of course. He's probably counting the Georgia primary, in which Mr Ossoff finished first, as a "win" and ignoring a California congressional election where no Republicans made it to the final round of balloting...”

             I found a couple of parts of that interesting in view of today’s Gospel lesson. First, the phrase “taking a Twitter victory lap” – like wanting to show off, boast of one’s accomplishment. Second, the fact that the president’s math was “a bit off” – reality did not actually match up with what was claimed.

             As we look at Jesus’ criticism of some hyper-religionists in His day, we see a similar tendency to vaunt oneself and to fail to connect behaviour with speech. We’ll find that real Christians operate differently.


The Lord Jesus begins by acknowledging the validity of much of the religious leaders’ spoken content, inasmuch as it was founded on the truth of God’s revealed word. Matthew 23:2f - “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” The scribes or teachers were the authorized successors of Moses in terms of their role; it’s like they had what we might equate to the “chair of philosophy” or “chair of English” at a modern university. They were the acknowledged experts in explaining and interpreting the sacred texts. That was good and right.

             However there was one problem. Their own behaviour didn’t match up with what they taught. V3 continues: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Here we have our first classic religious downfall listed in this passage: HYPOCRISY – saying one thing but doing another. There are other words for it: being INCONSISTENT – not GENUINE – FLAKY. If there’s something that our younger generation is looking for in terms of legitimate spirituality, it’s a faith community where people are truly GENUINE, not hokey, deceptive, two-faced.

             Myron Augsburger comments: “The people were to avoid following the practice of the leaders who failed to interface word and deed.” That’s another way of putting: failing to “interface word and deed”. As the Life Application Bible puts it, “We must make sure that our actions match our beliefs.”

             At our Emmanuel Bible College Board of Governors meeting June 17th, our Annual Report noted this quirk of some students: “Spiritual Needs: It is apparent that students now frequently come with a sense of entitlement and a compartmentalizing of their lives that results in a disconnect between professed belief and action. This may bear a relationship to changing generational characteristics.” Do you hear the gap there? “a compartmentalizing of their lives that results in a disconnect between professed belief and action” – are we guilty of that too? Compartmentalizing so what I hear on Sunday is over here in this box, but what I do Friday nights with the boys is over here in this other box, and I’m trying very hard to keep them separate?

             A second trap that it’s all too easy to fall into is making things BURDENSOME. Jesus says of the Pharisees and their ilk in V4, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” This speaks to our tendency to be LEGALISTIC. When you know what’s right and wrong, it’s easy to come along to someone who doesn’t know the Bible very well and ‘lower the boom’ on them morally – “Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that!” Probably the better you know your Bible, the more easy it is to be legalistic, because you have more ‘ammunition’, more shoulds and shouldn’ts.

             In the Pharisees’ case, an additional dimension here was that tons of human tradition and commentary had built up over the centuries around the law of Moses, so they didn’t just expect people to abide by what the Bible actually said, but by all the commentary that had been laid on around it. For example, back in Matthew 15, Jesus criticizes their custom of allowing a person not to help their father or mother if they declare the material gift they might have used to help them ‘devoted to God’. Jesus analyzes this sly move in 15:6, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” Their tradition they invented created a way around the Biblical injunction to “honour your father and your mother”.

             Next time we’re tempted to burden someone by laying on them some moral principle in a legalistic fashion, we should stop and double-check whether that’s even our role, and whether the principle is actually truly scriptural. Paul reminds the church in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” To come across in a self-appointed judging manner can be very burdensome and irksome.

             The story told about former Huron Chapel pastor Jim Carne bears repeating here. Pastor Carne was travelling home one Sunday afternoon when he saw a man out working to repair the roof of his house. A legalistic approach would have been to tell the man off for working on Sunday. Instead the pastor got out of his car, rolled up his sleeves, and started helping the man with his repair task.

             A third thing Jesus pointed out as a habit of the Pharisees was that they LACKED EMPATHY. These religious experts didn’t seem to care when they dished out moral requirements. 23:4 again, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Do we as Christians reflect Jesus’ love and caring and compassion for people? Are we genuinely disposed to want to help them with their problems? As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Very true in evangelism. Build a relationship so they know you truly care when you get around to telling them about Jesus.

             Be willing to lift a finger to help someone with their burden. Caring pays off, both in building empathy and compassion within us, and in other ways. The Genessee River runs through Rochester, New York, between steep and crooked banks. A man who lived in New York had just arrived by train from a long business trip. He was anxious to get home to see his wife and children. He was hurrying along the streets, with a bright vision of home on his mind, when he noticed on the bank of the river a lot of excited people. "What's going on?" he shouted. Someone replied, "A boy is in the water, and apparently can't swim!" "Why doesn't someone save him?" he asked. No one reacted, and in an instant, he threw down his briefcase, pulled off his coat, and dove into the river. He grasped the boy in his arms, struggled with him to the shore, and as he wiped the water from his dripping face and brushed back his hair, he exclaimed, "My, God, it is my son!" He had plunged in for the sake of saving another son and saved his own.

             He was rewarded for caring – for being willing to get involved, for lifting a finger to help someone in distress.

             A fourth critique Jesus makes of the Pharisees is that they were full of VANITY. We live in the age of the “selfie”, we like to look good in public and have a profile picture on social media others will envy. But life is about more than our love to be made much of.

             Jesus says in Mt 23:5-7, “Everything they do is done for men to see...” That’s vanity, exalting oneself, being out for one’s self-glory. This plays out in at least 3 areas, as Jesus continues: first, in FASHION – “They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long...” Phylacteries were little boxes with verses written on parchment; but it wasn’t enough to take Moses’ teaching literally and actually wear these boxes on your forehead and left arm, the trick to look more religious than the next guy was to make them big and the bands wide that wrapped around your arm.

             Also in terms of VISIBILITY: v6 “they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues...” Who doesn’t feel honoured and important when the host gives you the best seat in the house? Commentator FF Bruce calls this “an insatiable hunger for prominence.” Recall our opening example of President Trump not being able to resist taking “a Twitter victory lap.” “HEY! Look at me! Aren’t I just the greatest?!”

             Jesus warns in 23:12, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled...” Bill Cosby for a long time was highly exalted as a comedian and actor, known as “America’s father” – yet if claims of dozens of women are true, that exalted status went to his head to the point of drugging women in order to render them immobile so he could sexually assault them. Such shame.

             A third area in which vanity reigns is that of ACKNOWLEDGMENT (or recognition). Jesus notes in V7, “they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’” There were 3 variants back in that day, in order of increasing importance: Rab; Rabbi “My master”; and Rabboni “My great teacher”.

             Today it might be “The Rev”! (reflected in some clergy licence plates I’ve seen) Or “Doctor of Divinity”. Pastor Van Leeuwen here in town completed his Doctor of Ministry degree so can rightfully be called “Doctor Van Leeuwen” – but he said this week he’s told his congregation they can call him that, but if they do, each time they have to pay him $3! He’s got the right attitude, not loving acknowledgment.


In vv8-10, Jesus helps us get off our high horse by reminding us Who is truly great. The new faith community He forms is to constantly remember God’s greatness and worthiness of being exalted. That dramatically levels the playing field for everyone else. Vv8f “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Jesus may be overstating things to make His point, because the apostle Paul refers to ‘teachers’ in the New Testament and himself as the ‘father’ of the church at Corinth (1Cor 4:15). The main point Jesus is getting at is God’s greatness and worthiness to be glorified, and our relative equality with each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.


So, to summarize: real greatness does not come from the tactics tried by the Pharisees – hypocrisy, laying burdens on people, not caring, or focusing on your own self-glory. Jesus tells us where the secret to true greatness lies in Vv 11-12: “The greatest among you will be your servant.For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Hear that? Two parts. First, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Elsewhere in Luke 22:27 Jesus expressed the same principle a little differently: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” And Paul in his great hymn about the nature of Jesus in Philippians 2:7 says He “but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...”

             Do you want to become a truly great Christian? Learn how to serve well. The Greek root word ‘diakonos’ (from which we get ‘deacon’) means one who runs errands. (Not very glorious, huh?!) So a great Christian is one who arrives on the scene and asks, “How can I help?”

             The second aspect to True Greatness Jesus mentions here is HUMILITY. V12 “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The Greek root means “to abase, to bring low.” Love’s limbo – “How low can you go?” A truly great Christian is one who arrives on the scene asking, “What needs to be done?” and is willing to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and pitch in, not caring if the task requires putting themselves in a most humble posture, whether behind the scenes and out of the limelight, or assisting those such as refugees or the poor or the disabled who may be of low esteem in the eyes of popular culture.

             Today our congregation is blessed by having two women joining us who want to become GREAT Christians by pitching in, taking membership vows, being ready to SERVE and to help in all HUMILITY. Let’s take a few minutes now to hear Jeannie’s and Julie’s stories, how Jesus has brought them to give their lives serving Him in this way...[NEW MEMBERS’ TESTIMONIES]