Words or Ways?


Sermon for September 27th, 2020


Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32


Words are such important and powerful things. We use words to identify and make sense of the world around us. We use words to describe ourselves and shape our own identities. We use words to communicate with each other.

Everyday my life is filled with words. Sacred words, profane words, four-letter words, I use a healthy dose of each every day. There are the words of the Bible, words that may sound strange and unfamiliar or words that may echo with grace and dignity. There are the mundane words of everyday speech. There are the words that are spoken to us over the television or over the radio; there are the words we read on the internet and in the newspapers. There are the words we use to tell our children that we love them; there are the words we use when someone cuts us off in traffic; and there are the words we use to tell God our innermost wants, fears and regrets. Our lives are filled with words, and there is no sense in pretending that words don’t matter. Words do matter and they matter very much. 

Some preachers preach like they get paid by the word; I do hope I’m not one of them. When I write and when I speak, I do agonize over using the right word, but I don’t want to be one of those people that always uses a 50 cent word when a 25 cent word will do just fine. Words can be abused and misused. And words may not always mean what you think they mean. 

We use a lot of words in our worship here every week. There are the words of our prayers, thank you Thomas Cranmer, there are the words of the Creed, thank you early church councils, and there is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. As people of the book, we believe that one of the ways that our God communicates with us is through words: throughout the ages God inspires prophets and apostles to share his word with his people, and what does God’s word say on this fine Sunday morning?

I am going to judge according to your ways.

Ways not words. That is how God says that he is going to judge his people, according to their ways. That is the word or the message that God gave to Ezekiel: tell my people that I am going to judge them according to their ways. 

We have these words, these sacred words, words that are important and words that we believe are divinely inspired, and what do these words tell us? They tell us that there is something even more important than words: actions. Our actions, our ways, that is how God is going to judge us, by our actions. Words are important because they guide and influence our actions, but at the end it is the actions that really count. 

I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you, according to your ways.

You know we, I think rightly, make a big deal about the words of scripture, and even more so about the words of Jesus in the mass. So the gospels, which are our primary source for the words of Jesus, are given a special book, which is given special reverence, everyone stands to hear it read, we use different responses, etc. The words of Jesus and his teachings matter a lot to us. Those words should guide our thoughts and, more importantly, our actions. And We believe that they are more than the words of a clever teacher; we believe they are the words of God incarnate. But here is a little observation: the oldest books that we have in the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul, but if you are looking for Jesus’s teachings, if you are looking for the words of Jesus, you won’t find them there. Paul almost never talks about what Jesus said; Paul talks about what he did. Paul talks about Jesus’s words when he talks about him taking the bread and the wine at his last supper and saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” but beyond that Paul is primarily concerned with telling the Churches what Jesus did. What did Jesus’s actions accomplish in this world? How should our actions be shaped by Jesus’s actions? That is the question that Paul is always asking…and answering. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God 

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave, 

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself 

and became obedient to the point of death– 

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name 

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend, 

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

to the glory of God the Father.

Actions, actions, actions…this is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus’s life was about: God acting in this world. God humbling himself; God emptying himself. These are God’s ways, these are the ways of Jesus Christ, and according to Paul, these should be our ways as well. And that, after all, is how God says he will judge us, according to our ways. Tongues should confess, yes, but knees should bend first. It’s not that our words don’t matter; it’s just that our actions matter more. And Jesus, when he did use words, usually used them to remind us of just how important our actions are.

Just look at the story Jesus tells this morning. Two brothers, one of them responds to his father with the right words, and the other responds with the right actions. Which one of the two did the will of the father? The one with the right actions. It’s not that the words aren’t important; it’s just that the actions matter more. Jesus says “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father.” He who does the will.

Words are important. Words have power. Words have meaning and authority. But in the end, what does the Word say? That we shall be judged according to our ways, not our words.