Friday, March 20, 2009

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-27 for Lent 4, "By what authority...?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The fourth question of our series on “Questions about Jesus they don’t want answered,” comes from Matthew chapter 21, the question of the chief priests and elders. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The chief priests and elders raise a question of authority, and Jesus answers a question with a question. Things were escalating to a confrontation as Jesus returned to teach in the Temple, after last week’s encounter, when the chief priests were angry that Jesus didn’t stop the children from praising Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Turning over the tables of money-changers and chasing the animals and merchants out of the Temple with a whip was 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 He was sent from God. 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 to popular among the priests either. When John first began baptizing in the wilderness, the Jews sent priests and Levites to question John 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?”

Proving once again that it doesn’t pay to dispute with God, Jesus’ question 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? Why didn’t you repent and turn from your evil works, and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah? Obviously they didn’t believe John’s message, and couldn’t give this answer without conceding their disbelief. 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 already had 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. What lay exposed in their heart was how they desired 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 stay neutral towards 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 Jesus is the very Son of Man, whom the prophet Daniel saw being given an everlasting dominion, an eternal kingdom and glory. Jesus is the Son of Man who holds authority in heaven and on 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. Accepting His authority may be difficult, 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 destroys the power that death holds over our lives. He is the one who has the power to cast out fear from our lives. Through His cross and resurrection, we receive all the benefits of His 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. And now may that peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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