Monday, September 26, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-27, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "A Question of Authority"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s Gospel in Matthew 21, the chief priests and elders raise the question of authority. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were in a time and culture where authority commanded great power and respect, and the idea of “unauthorized activity” was a major source of contention. Questioning His authority, they wanted to silence Him unless He could justify His authority. Jesus’ teaching and other activities seemed to them to be “unauthorized”—without the proper authority.

Our present culture comes from a quite opposite position as them, and we’re more inclined to be suspicious or distrusting of authority. We’re surrounded by messages and attitudes like “Question authority” or even “Question Everything.” Bumper stickers proudly declare “I do what I like”—implying “don’t expect any consideration from me.” Or T-shirts that read: “Get your laws off my body”—suggesting that the government is overreaching when trying to limit abortion, for example. So along with all these attitudes and opinions about authority floating around, would anyone argue that there is a general trend of increasing respect and cooperation with authorities in society today? That people are generally growing more respectful and obedient toward law enforcement, the government, toward the church, schools, or parents? Or are we cynical and dismissive of authority? Of course some of the distrust and “questioning” is directed against corruption or misuse of authority.

Now the Bible does grant a much higher importance to authority than we might be accustomed to today, but unless it’s God’s authority being described—that authority is never unqualified or unlimited. We are to honor our father and mother, the fourth commandment teaches. We are to respect and obey government and other authorities placed over us. But our respect and obedience doesn’t extend to doing things against God’s will. If the government or any other authority were to command us to do something sinful, we must obey God rather than men. If the government or other authorities were to permit or allow something that is sinful, that doesn’t mean that we could sin in clear conscience just because it was legal. We have a higher authority to obey, that is God. His authority is over all, and commands our respect.

So when the chief priests and elders raise their question of authority, and Jesus answers a question with a question. The timing of this was Holy Week, the last week of His ministry, when things were escalating to a confrontation as Jesus returned to teach the final time in the Temple. Only shortly before this episode, on Palm Sunday, the chief priests rebuked Jesus because He didn’t stop the children from praising Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” That week Jesus had turn over the tables of money-changers and chased the animals and merchants out of the Temple with a whip—a pretty gutsy move—and they were demanding an explanation.

By what authority do you do this? Who do you think you are? Who gave you this authority? Did you take it for yourself or has someone given it to you? We’ve got a pretty-nicely oiled religious machine going here, and who do you think you are to throw a wrench into things? Are you telling us we don’t know how to worship God? They wanted some clear answers about Jesus’ authority. Their questions assumed that Jesus had no such authority to do these things, but that He had wrongfully taken the authority upon Himself. They were blind to the possibility that God sent Him. They failed to worship the One whose praise the children sang.

In a style common to Jewish debate, Jesus answers a question with a question. He promises to answer their question about His authority, if they can answer His. His question is about John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner. John was none too popular among the priests either. When John first began baptizing in the wilderness, he faced the same questions of authority from the priests and Levites about who he was and why he was baptizing. He answered that he was the “voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord;” quoting the prophet Isaiah (John 1:19-27). John also called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy. John had been another irritant to them. So Jesus’ question is, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Jesus proved what they should have learned long before: it doesn’t pay to dispute with God. Jesus’ own question of authority throws them into another pickle. Admit that John’s baptism came from heaven, and Jesus’ quick reply would be—then why didn’t you follow him? He was acting with God’s authority, so why didn’t you repent and turn from your evil works, and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah?

But obviously they didn’t believe John’s message, and couldn’t give this answer without admitting their unbelief. Alternatively, answering that John’s baptism was from men would put them in political hot water with the crowds. It was political suicide to tell the crowds that John was no prophet, and just spoke on his own authority as a man. The priests were in a tenuous political position as it was—trying to please the Jews who favored the Pharisees on the one hand, and the Romans who held the political authority on the other. Jesus’ question exposed their heart. They wanted to answer the question, not according to principle and what was true, but by what was safest to say or politically expedient.

Jesus had them cornered, with no way to escape to the right or the left, and instead of answering the question directly they chose to give the lame excuse for an answer that they didn’t know. Their hearts were already made up, and they didn’t believe that John’s baptism was from God any more than they believed Jesus’ authority was from God. But they wouldn’t even admit this answer, because they wanted to try to avoid the anger of the crowds. Fear prompted them to act in the safest way, instead of principle guiding them to say what is true regardless of the consequences. We may face similar challenges and tests of conviction. Will we allow fear to keep us from doing what is right or saying what is right? Or will we be driven to take the safest avenue to avoid trouble? Jesus pushed them to face the real question of His own authority—was it from heaven, or was it from man?

This was more than just a matter of indecision…they were chief priest and elders of the people—leaders! If anyone was responsible, they were—to distinguish between true and false prophets, between true and false teaching. But they surrendered their authority and responsibility to the people by their unwillingness to take a stance on John’s authority and ultimately Jesus’ authority. The warning for us is not to get caught in the same cowardice of not facing the truth—even when it’s uncomfortable. We are responsible and accountable to the truth. Trying to be “safe” by being indecisive about Jesus just isn’t an option. There is no neutral position of “I don’t know.” Jesus won’t allow us to sit on the fence about Him. His authority is either from God or from men. There’s no two ways about it.

How do we answer the question about Jesus’ authority? Do we clearly and with the conviction of faith confess that Jesus’ authority is divine? Or do we try to hedge our bets about the authority of Jesus and His Word, and choose the easy-to-swallow parts and the parts that fit with what we think, while rejecting the more difficult teachings? Do we pick and choose what we accept on His authority? If we answer that His authority is divine, from our Father in heaven, then we aren’t free to build halfway-houses, and try to take some of God’s Word and leave the rest. Instead we are to be truth-tellers, to be people of conviction. If all Jesus asked of the priests was that they go along with what they already accepted and agreed with, then they would’ve had no problem following Him. But He calls them and us to a full declaration of His authority and to submit to God’s Word in every way.

This is a radical commitment and has big implications for our lives. It means giving up our indecision and fear of the world. But what kind of authority are we submitting to? Certainly not a corrupt or abusive authority; like the kind that creates so much distrust and suspicion in our world. Rather Jesus’ authority is exercised in justice and peace, now and forever (Isaiah 9:7). Jesus rules as the very Son of Man, whom the prophet Daniel saw being given an everlasting dominion, an eternal kingdom and glory (Dan. 7:14). Jesus is the Son of Man whose authority extends over heaven and earth, and all powers, dominions, and nations will serve Him. To submit to the authority of Jesus and to trust in Him as our Savior is to be under the authority of the one who commands the stars and the heavens, who rules over every nation, who has the power over life and death. The One who has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mt. 9:6). The One who has the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again, as He did when He died on the cross for our sins and rose again (John 10:18). The One who has authority over all unclean spirits (Mk. 3:15). His authority is an authority of justice and righteousness.

Jesus is the One who has the authority, given by His Father, to exercise judgment over the whole world (John 5:27). Yet now He exercises that authority not for our condemnation, but rather that we and the world would believe in Him, be spared the judgment of our sins, and find instead His salvation (John. 3:17; 5:24). And when the last day comes, Jesus will acknowledge us before the heavenly Father if we acknowledged Him; or deny us before the Father if we denied Him (Matt. 10:32-33). Jesus exercises a great an awesome authority over us and all creation, but He is the gracious and compassionate God who exercises it for our good.

Accepting His authority may be difficult, especially as it means turning from your sins; but far better to stand on God’s side, and have His power and authority exercised for you and your protection; for your very salvation—than to stand opposed to God’s authority. As subjects in His everlasting kingdom, He exercises His authority to destroy sin for us. He forgave it from the cross. He gives us His Spirit to wage battle against the power of sin in our lives. He destroys the power that death holds over our lives. He gives us a living hope and faith that shatters death’s grip on us, because Jesus shattered death’s grip on Him. He is the one who has the power to cast out fear from our lives, because He gives us a courage and confidence that only He can supply because He has defeated our greatest enemies of sin, death, and the devil. Through His cross and resurrection, we receive all the blessings of His authority and rule: forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. To trust in Jesus is to have God on our side! Of whom, then, shall we be afraid? Truly, for those who believe, Christ’s authority and rule brings blessing and peace.

Now may that peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1. What is the difference between the attitudes about authority that the Jews of Jesus’ time held, and the attitudes about authority that many people hold today? What examples do you see today of disrespect or disobedience toward authorities?

2. How does the Bible command our respect and obedience to the authorities God has established? Ex. 20:12; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17. How does it limit their authority? Acts 5:27-29; Ps. 2:10-12; Lk 1:51-52; Eph. 6:9 Who has unlimited authority? Mt. 28:18

3. What recent events where the chief priests and elders challenging Jesus about in particular? Read Matt. 21:1-17

4. Where did John the Baptist’s authority come from? John 1:19-27 Why were the priests unwilling to admit it? What should they have done if they recognized his teaching was from God? Mt. 3:7-12

5. When have you found it easier to avoid the truth than to face it? Why is there no “sitting on the fence” when it comes to the question of Jesus’ authority? Matt. 10:32-33.

6. What is the nature of Jesus’ authority, when we submit to it? Isaiah 9:7; Dan. 7:14; Matt. 9:6; John 10:18; Mark. 3:15

7. How does Jesus exercise His authority concerning our judgment and salvation? John 5:27; 5:24; 3:17. Who will one day have to acknowledge Jesus’ authority? Phil. 2:9-11. How is His authority used in our lives for our repentance, our instruction, our comfort and our good?

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