Sunday, September 25, 2011
Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 25, 2011)
“The Authority of Jesus” (Matthew 21:23-32)
We all like to think we are authorities on one subject or another. To a certain extent, this may be true. We all have our areas of expertise. Maybe it’s cooking. Maybe it’s hunting or fishing. Maybe it’s playing a musical instrument. Maybe it’s a sport. Maybe it’s an academic subject, like history, geography, or math. In your own particular realm, you can speak with some measure of authority.
On the other hand, nobody likes a know-it-all. This is a person who has something to say about everything and offers their opinion in every conversation. They’re not always the loveable know-it-all, like good ol’ Cliff Clavin, the postal worker on the TV show Cheers. Cliff would sit at the bar with his pal Norm and interject absurd trivia into conversations, such as, “It’s a little known fact that the smartest animal is a pig. Scientists say if pigs had thumbs and a language, they could be trained to do simple manual labor. They give you 20-30 years of loyal service and then at their retirement dinner you can eat them.” Those present would roll their eyes, but it was all in good fun. Cliff wasn’t annoying. He was amusing. But annoying know-it-alls are another matter altogether.
We don’t like it when people question our authority. When people doubt what we are saying is true, we get aggravated with them. If we are absolutely certain we are correct, we have a hard time moving on and just letting go and not letting it bother us.
The chief priests and the elders of Israel found themselves in this situation in today’s Gospel reading. They had a problem with Jesus. He was usurping their authority. And so they questioned his.
This all happened right after Palm Sunday, just a few days before his trial and crucifixion. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The crowds hailed him, crying out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us, now!” They called him the “Son of David.” That was a term reserved for the Messiah. They said that he is “the Prophet Jesus.” This is the great One promised to Moses, to whom the Lord said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you … And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18).
This was also right after Jesus cleansed the temple, driving out those who were buying and selling, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Jesus said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). “My house,” he quotes from the book of Isaiah. Was Jesus alluding to the fact that, as Yahweh, he was the one who should be worshiped in that house … in that temple? That he was the one who had been present there in the Holy of Holies between the cherubim on the mercy seat on the ark of atonement?
The chief priests and the elders resented all this. They were the ones who held authority over the people. They were the ones who were in charge of the temple. They were the ones who were the so-called experts, in charge of interpreting Scripture. And so they questioned him: “Who gave you this authority?”
We know where the authority of Jesus comes from. His authority comes from God the Father and his own divine authority as the Son of God. In John 8:28, during another dispute with the Jewish leaders, Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). Notice where Jesus says we will know him: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man.” When we see Jesus on the cross, that’s when we know who he is … the Crucified Savior of the world. That’s when we truly know God … in his loving act of giving up his life for the life of the world. And after his resurrection and ascension, Jesus declared to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
We know where his authority comes from. Perhaps the chief priests and elders did, too. They saw his miracles. They saw him receive the adoration of the crowds. Jesus made no attempt to silence them. He was not trying to hide his identity as the Messiah. In fact, in this Holy Week conflict with the chief priests and elders, it almost seems as if Jesus was purposely saying things he knew would rile them up, daring them to arrest him, daring them to crucify him … for that was his divine destiny. He was no helpless pawn. He was totally in control, acting with divine authority.
Jesus responds to their question with another question about John the Baptist. This was a case similar to his own. The people held John to be a prophet. So if the chief priests and elders say that John’s authority was from heaven, they have to acknowledge the same about Jesus, because John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. On the other hand, if they say that John’s authority was from man, then they would be in danger of being stoned by the people. So what do they do? They wimp out. In their self-righteous indignation, they refuse to answer the question and instead say, “We don’t know.” As a result, Jesus refuses to answer their question, even though they probably already knew the true answer. They challenged his authority because he was a threat to their own.
Do you and I ever challenge the authority of Jesus? Sure we do. We challenge our Lord’s authority every time we question what God is doing in our life. We think that we are being treated unfairly. We have lived a good life (so we think), so why do bad things still happen to us? We cry out with the people quoted in today’s reading from Ezekiel, “The way of the Lord is not just” (Ezek. 18:25).
We challenge our Lord’s authority whenever we question the need to repent of our sins. We can be so self-righteous. We see the speck in our brother’s eye but we miss the log in our own. We become really good at making excuses for what we have done.
We must give up all our self-righteous claims to being authoritative, all our claims to being right at the expense of hurting others, and recognize and receive the authority of Jesus to do his work in our lives and hearts … to do his healing, forgiving work in our midst.
A good place to start is by praying again the collect assigned for today: “Almighty God, You exalted Your Son to the place of all honor and authority. Enlighten our minds by Your Holy Spirit that, confessing Jesus as Lord, we may be led into all truth.” In and of ourselves, we cannot submit to Christ’s authority. Left to our own devices, we will kick and fight and squirm against it. But the Holy Spirit comes to us through God’s Holy Word and enlightens our minds with the light of Christ. He renews our faith in Jesus as the Savior who paid the price for our sins at the cross. The Holy Spirit empowers our confession of Jesus as Lord and leads us into all truth. He lights our way as we study and learn the Scriptures, growing in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18) … “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Now, we can repent of the ways in which we have been like the second son in our Lord’s parable. We can repent of the ways in which we have said, “I go, sir” but then acted otherwise. We can turn away from acting like the so-called religious people of the day who were acting as though they were faithful sons, but really had no intention of acting upon God’s Word in their life. Do we hear God’s Word but then leave here with no intention of making any changes in our lives? Or do we listen attentively and ask the Holy Spirit to help us amend our lives and put into practice what we have heard … forgiving, showing mercy, serving one another, working in God’s vineyard?
That’s what the first son in the parable did when the father sent him to work in the vineyard. Even though initially he said “I will not,” he finally “changed his mind and went.” That son stands for all who truly repent of their sins and trust in Jesus … and in his authority as the Messiah, the One who acted as if he had no authority at all and instead “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).
Jesus has the authority to receive sinners – scandalous tax collectors, salacious prostitutes – and bring them into the kingdom of God, his Holy Church. Jesus has the authority to receive all kinds of sinners – people like you and me – and to bring us into the kingdom of God in the baptismal waters of forgiveness and to feed us his body and blood in his Holy Supper. And he gives this great and awesome privilege to his Church: to call ministers to stand before you in his stead and by his command, and authoritatively announce, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”