Authority and Obedience – Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

It was the week we now call “Holy Week.” The palm branches from a couple of days before were still withering on the roadside. The money changers from yesterday’s uproar in the Temple were setting up their tables outside the courtyard, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, in case that angry lunatic Jesus came back. Cleaning up the mess he left behind had taken hours, and they weren’t used to doing that much manual labor in one day! The withered fig tree was already on the compost pile, and Jesus was gathering his followers for another lesson about living in the Kingdom of God. He knew his time was short. Every word must count. The Temple was still the best place to teach his disciples, even though he knew the rulers and priests did not appreciate the lessons he offered. Since he’d been twelve years old, talking with the rabbis in this very place, his questions and ideas had disturbed the leaders of the Temple. He was a threat to them, and they were becoming a very real threat to him. But no other place would do, so Jesus led his disciples up from Bethany, straight to the Temple in Jerusalem.

When he entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32)

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. No matter how carefully they worded their questions, he always escaped their traps. No matter how much time they spent looking for an excuse to arrest him, he could slip through their fingers in an instant, with just a word or two. It was infuriating! And it was frightening. The leaders who had ruled the Jerusalem Temple for so long enjoyed their power. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could. This Jesus could easily turn the people away from the Temple, away from the control of the high priests and the scribes. He taught with authority, but who had authorized him? Certainly not the Temple leaders! Just who did he think he was?

The issue of “authority” is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Back in chapter 7, Jesus “astounds” the crowds who hear him teaching as one who has authority, not like the scribes they were used to hearing (7:29). In fact, the lesson Jesus was teaching back there in chapter seven was about bearing good fruit, doing the will of God instead of just giving it lip service. The lesson back there was very much like this one, at the end of Jesus’ ministry.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” Jesus says. “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. … “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:15-26)

In chapter nine, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven –which makes the scribes a little uncomfortable. Jesus tells them,

“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Matthew 9:4-8)

Authority and obedience have been tied together since Jesus began his ministry, and Jesus will connect them again after his resurrection, when he gives his disciples the Great Commission, telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19).

Theologian David Lose reminds us that “there’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given.” This is the difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority.
In either case, authority is given. True authority cannot be taken.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly:

“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.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

Christ received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself. Christ’s authority also comes from those who call him Lord, who seek to do his will.

Which brings us back to the parable Jesus uses to teach this lesson on authority. As he describes two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The Temple leaders relax a bit. This isn’t a trick question, after all. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

Then Jesus looks at these priests and elders, and they suddenly know they’ve been had once again. I imagine the look Jesus gave them was a lot like the look King David got from the prophet Nathan, after he had sinned with Bathsheba. Do you remember the story Nathan told David? “What would you do to a man who had a whole flock of sheep, but took his poor neighbor’s only lamb to prepare a feast for a visitor?” “Of course, he must be punished,” David answers. “You are the man,” Nathan tells him. King David realizes he’s been caught. Just like King David, the Temple leaders now gathered around Jesus realize they are on the wrong side of the equation.

You see, they weren’t able to answer the question Jesus had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.” What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” Then Jesus uses the parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God. Knowing this puts us in the hot seat too: How do we respond to Christ’s authority?

It’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to. What are you doing – not just saying – to show you’re a follower of Jesus?

During my last semester of seminary, I had to write a mission statement for myself. It’s a couple years old now, but reading through it the other day made me realize that the time I put into crafting that mission statement was well spent. It helped me concentrate on what God is calling me to do and be, and it reminds me that, no matter how many “God words” I toss into my conversations with others, what really matters is what I do as a follower of Jesus Christ, to invite others into a life of following Jesus. Let me share part of it with you:

When I entered seminary, I had no “ministry goal.” I hated hearing the question, “What do you want to do with your degree?” For one thing I thought it arrogant to assume what I wanted had anything to do with responding to God’s call on my life. But I also hated being asked that question because I simply did not have an answer. My call came gradually over time, as I discovered gifts I didn’t know I had until I tried to use them. Even before those gifts began to fully develop, they were evidence to others – and finally to me – that God has a plan to use me in ministry.

So, this is what I know:
I am called to serve Christ and his Church as a pastor: preaching, teaching, making disciples and baptizing them into church fellowship, leading worship, and caring for the needs of a local congregation as it seeks to serve Christ and worship God. My goal as a pastor is to encourage mature faith among those under my care, teaching them to develop meaningful friendships with non-Christians for evangelism, to reach out in love to meet the needs of others in mission, and to grow in faith, as followers of Christ, through spiritual practices, especially the study of Scripture and prayer.

Through pastoral care, I seek to promote restoration and reconciliation among those who have suffered brokenness and pain. Through teaching and by example, I seek to encourage Christ-like living among those I serve, recognizing that it is not me, but Christ in me, who overcomes sin and reconciles us to God through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Through preaching and fellowship, I seek to share the Good News that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8), and that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter 3:9). Through the administration of the sacraments of baptism and communion, I seek to remind believers of Christ’s commands to his Church, and our connection to the great cloud of witnesses who participate with us in the Kingdom of God. Through the observance of Christian marriage and burial, I seek to remind both young and old of the covenant promises of God, and his steadfast love for each of us.

My mission, my calling, is to lead others to believe in Jesus Christ so that they may become devoted disciples of Jesus, growing in spiritual maturity and giftedness, and participating fully in Christ’s body, the church. I am called to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

So how about you? What is your personal ministry statement? What is God calling you toward? It may seem like I repeat that question often, but I’m going to keep asking it, because if we can’t articulate our mission as individuals, how can we say what God’s call is for our church? How can we reach new people who need the grace that Christ offers? How can we renew this congregation through deeper discipleship? How can we offer healing to the broken world around us?

Several weeks ago, you had an opportunity to discover your spiritual gifts. Some of you took advantage of that opportunity, and you may have discovered that the gifts God gave you for ministry, are things you already enjoy doing. This week, you will have an opportunity to commit to using those gifts in the coming year, as you develop them in service and discipleship. If you receive the Friday Five from First e-mail, you will find a special link in Friday’s message. Clicking on that link will take you to an online survey, where you can indicate the ways you might be willing to participate in our ministry here. Go ahead and check everything that interests you. Don’t be shy! This is not a commitment to do everything you mark on the form! It’s a way to tell us what interests you, where your giftedness lies, what you think God is calling you toward. Next Sunday, we will have a couple of laptops available after worship, so you can complete the survey right here at church if you want to. It only takes a few minutes. If you aren’t comfortable around computers, we can enlist some tech-savvy young person to enter your answers for you, or you can complete the old-fashioned pencil and paper version. The goal is to get as many of you as possible thinking about ways you can grow in your own faith, as a member of Christ’s body.

However we serve, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that counts. So, let us renew our own commitment to be faithful followers of Jesus, so that our witness draws the attention of people who need reaching. Let us renew our determination to grow in friendship with God, to make new friends with whom we can share a life of faith, and to heal the broken world that cries at our doorstep. Then let us rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.

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