Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (September 28, 2008)
“Submitting to Authority” (Matthew 21:23-27)
There’s a podcast I listen to called “The God Whisperers.” It’s hosted by two Lutheran pastors in Southern California. The name of their show is, I presume, a take-off of the movie “The Horse Whisperer,” the story of a man who has a special ability to tame particularly unruly horses.
Each installment of “The God Whisperers” begins with a woman’s voice that says: “Our God has been so wild lately. He doesn’t seem to listen. He doesn’t obey my commands. And we can’t even bribe him with treats.” And then a man’s voice chimes in: “He’s gotten so out of hand, he may even have to be put down.”
When it comes right down to it, God is not a “tame” God. You can’t manipulate him. You dare not boss him around, expecting him to do something for you simply because you asked. You can’t bribe him with your prayers or your good works. God is not moved by works done to merit his favor.
Things got out of hand for the religious authorities in Jesus’ day. First, Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with a crowd following him shouting, “Hosanna! [Save us now!] Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They were acclaiming him as the long-awaited Messiah.
Next, Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling. He made quite a ruckus, overturning tables and chairs. He declared, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
Besides all this, Jesus had stirred up the whole country by healing people, casting out demons, and raising people from the dead. And it was the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead that was the last straw. The religious leaders gathered and decided to find a way to kill Jesus. “He’s gotten so out of hand, he may even have to be put down.”
In order to find a way to catch Jesus in his words, they confronted him. They wanted to find some way to discredit his authority among his followers. And so they asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
But Jesus responds in a way that discredited their authority. He asked them a question in return ... and promised to answer their question if they answered his correctly. And this was the question: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from men.”
Now here was the problem the leaders faced. If they said, “From heaven,” then Jesus would say, “Then why didn’t you believe John, since he pointed to me as the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world?” Their other option would be to say that John’s baptism was from men, that is, it was a man-made thing and had no authority from God. But that would have ruined their reputation among the people, since the crowds rightly considered John to be a prophet.
The fact that Jesus refused to answer them was devastating. Here was God in the flesh standing before them, and they refused to submit to his authority.
But you and I are no different. We squirm when we are under authority. We squirm when God’s authoritative Word reveals something in our life where we have fallen short of God’s holy will.
Men, do you squirm when you hear that it is the primary job of men to be the spiritual leaders in the church and in the home? Women, do you squirm when you hear these words of Holy Scripture, Wives, submit to your husbands as unto the Lord? (Eph 5:22) Children, do you grumble and complain when your parents tell you to clean up your room? Do you pout and huff and puff when your teacher at school has given you a homework assignment you don’t like?
We don’t like to be told what we can or can’t do or how we should or should not behave. This attitude began back in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God. They rebelled against him when they disobeyed his command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to be masters of their own fates. They wanted to be free from God’s authority. And instead of being free to choose as they please, they brought bondage to sin and death into the world. And that’s why to this day, we still sinfully squirm when we know we should instead submit to authority.
There has to be authority…in the world, in the family, in the church. If not, chaos reigns. If we do not submit to authority, God will “cast the wicked to the ground,” as we sang in today’s Introit.
The chief priests and the Pharisees were unwilling to answer Jesus’ question. They were unwilling to acknowledge the authority that John the Baptist had to baptize and to call people to repentance. And so Jesus was unwilling to answer their question about his own authority. His words and works made it clear that he was the Savior. They should have known this from the Scriptures which foretold the words and works of the promised Savior. But they misunderstood that revelation. They rejected John the Baptist, who pointed people to Jesus. And so Jesus would not reveal to them where his own authority came from. They asked the question, and he left them hanging.
Jesus left them hanging. And they left him hanging on a cross. He had gotten so out of hand that they had to put him down. But that was the very means by which our Lord earned for us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus submitted to the authorities who arrested him and sent him to his execution. But in so doing, he was really submitting to his Father’s authority, who planned this from the foundation of the world. Jesus was indeed the Lamb of God who bore the sins of all people at the cross, suffering God’s wrath for our sin, so that we would not be left hanging in our sinful condition, but so that we could go free and forgiven.
Moreover, it wasn’t as if Jesus was dragged kicking and screaming to his death. God the Father didn’t force him to do any of it. But our Savior did so willingly. No one takes [my life] from me, Jesus said in John 10, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." (John 10:18) During his earthly ministry, Jesus had all authority as God. Still, he willingly submitted to his Father’s authority. Following his resurrection and ascension, St. Paul writes that God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church. (Eph 1:22) All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.
Jesus once said to a paralyzed man, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He also prayed in his High Priestly Prayer, “Father…you have given [me] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Our Lord Jesus still has that same authority today, and that authority is spoken through his Church ... God’s “mouth-house” as Luther called it. We hear God’s Law, and we are humbled and convinced that we are sinners. And then, we hear the Gospel, which lifts us up and declares us righteous. “The Lord lifts up the humble,” the Psalmist said (Psalm 147:6). “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3) When you were baptized, your sins were truly forgiven. When you hear that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, your sins are truly forgiven. When you eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist and believe the words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” your sins are truly forgiven. When you hear the word of absolution spoken to you, your sins are truly forgiven. That’s authoritative. You can count on it. It’s real. Believe it. Receive it. Receive the eternal life that Jesus has earned for you.
Now, with God the Holy Spirit working in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure, (Phil. 2:13) we can humbly submit to God’s authority. We can submit to all the authorities that God has placed over us, knowing that he has established a certain order for the good of the Church, for the good of the world, and for the good of our families. And we can live as St. Paul urged the Philippians: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4) That goes for not only those who submit to authority, but also for those who are in positions of authority. God’s type of authority is not about throwing your weight around. It’s an authority of service.
That’s the way Jesus lived. That’s the reason Jesus died. That’s the type of love Jesus has for you. Although he carried – and still carries – all authority in the universe, he considered your eternal salvation more significant than his own ease and pleasure. He looked out for your interests, and set aside his own. He came to serve you with his love and to forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.