In this sermon, based on Matthew 21:23-32, I explore the notion of authority. Jesus’ authority is challenged and he responds with a parable about obedience. This leads us to think about how we recognize authority and how we respond to it.
You can listen to the sermon here:
You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
If you have ever watched me in the final moments right before worship starts, you know that I am a pacer…when nervous energy starts in I have the tendency to just keep moving…and particularly, I pace…a lot.
I also have the tendency to get up and walk around when I’m thinking about something…sermons for instance…and this week was a perfect example. As I was trying to get my brain into sermon mode Friday afternoon, I was walking around…and as I walked I realized that I was also doing something with my hands…(hold up whistle, step out and start twirling it).
Yes I have a whistle…yes, I twirl it. (pause) But as I was doing, just that, I got to thinking about other people that have whistles…the refs at my son’s football games…teachers when they are out with the children at recess…lifeguards overseeing the safety of swimmers…and as a self-professed fine arts guy, one that I greatly appreciate…drum majors.
And thinking about drum majors reminded me of being at the football game here in Underwood just last week for the Homecoming game…as well as quite a few other home games over the past year…and something unique that I’ve only ever seen from the marching band right here in town.
At the beginning of halftime, the band marches across the field from the backside…each coming to their assigned starting position…and the drum major turns away from the band…facing up towards the crowd and the announcers box. The announcer asks if the band is ready…which the drum major acknowledges with a salute…and we hear the announcement “The field is yours.” With that brief exchange, control…or perhaps it would be better to say…authority over the field and what happens on it…transfers over to the drum major. (pause)
It’s the notion of authority that brings us into the gospel lesson for today. We find ourselves in Jerusalem…Jesus has finally made it…and upon arriving, he has gone into the temple…and Jesus does not like what he finds…and just before today’s lesson…just before our story picks up for today…Jesus has had a divine temper tantrum…losing his cool and going off on the merchants and money changers…clearing things out in the event known as the cleansing of the temple. (pause)
And as our story picks up today…the chief priests and the elders of the people confront Jesus…wanting to know just what he’s up to…why he’s justified in his actions…for what reason or purpose he feels the need to upset the status quo…or perhaps more specifically, why he’s challenging the way things work here…on their turf…where they are supposed to be in charge…in short…they question…his authority. (pause)
Now, in Jesus day, teachers…or rabbis as they are called…receive their authority from their own teacher…who in turn had received it from their teacher…and so…proper authority to teach or issue commands as Jesus has done should be backed up with two-fold…or perhaps two-name…credentials…but as we all know…Jesus tends to buck the status quo doesn’t he? And the “regular way” of doing things just doesn’t tend to apply in matters that catch his interest.
And instead of quickly snapping to the “right answer” to appease human standards…Jesus answers the challenge in his normal way…by posing a question right back at them…You question my authority? Well how about this…who gave John his authority? God…or humanity…whad’a ya think boys?
And rather than cause any sort of commotion, we see the priests decide among themselves to try and maintain the peace by walking the middle ground…by giving the easy answer…they don’t want to recognize John as having had divine authority, because he made them look bad…and yet they don’t want to deny him, because the crowds backed him and the priests don’t want to lose the favor of the people…and so they shrug their shoulders and say “we don’t know.” (pause) And Jesus responds by refusing to name the source of his authority…which of course we recognize to be the same as John…divine…but that’s getting ahead of ourselves just a touch.
And within the story, Jesus decides to explain things in yet another normal “Jesus fashion”…with a story…But admittedly, at first glance…this parable seems oddly disconnected from the present situation…Jesus is asked about authority…and he responds with a story about obedience.
A man had 2 sons…he told them both to go get to work…one said no, but then changed his mind and did it…and the other said okay…and then totally blew it off…which one was obedient to the father? (pause). Perhaps Jesus is actually asking us “which is more important? Being honest but eventually listening…or paying lip service and not following through?” (pause) But if we limit this parable in this nature…if we try to sum it up that easily…I think we miss the point…and if we stop here then perhaps we all walk out of worship today with nothing more than moral guidance and the notion that we just need to shape up and follow orders…or worse yet the idea that we can chose to walk the “right path” and earn our way into salvation…and if we do that we truly miss the connection to just what Jesus is really talking about.
Because remember, Jesus is addressing the notion of authority…where it comes from. (pause) Now perhaps it goes without saying that the religious leaders recognize that Jesus does, in fact…have authority…but what they can’t figure out is where it comes from…he doesn’t have the right 2-fold rabbi deferred credentials…and by their established human standards…they find themselves confused.
But think about authority for a bit…think about how you recognize it…who carries it…and how we respond to it. If I asked the question of which direction authority flows, what would you say…at least of the top of your head? That authority flows downhill…that it stems from the top? I don’t think you’re wrong to think that…for certainly there is evidence that this is true…all we have to do is take a look at the structure of the military to see that…but when we stop and think about it…perhaps we also begin to realize that authority is granted from the bottom up as well…because if the proposed authority fails to inspire or persuade those it is trying to influence…then is the authority really there? (pause)
In short…we grant authority to those that seek to exert it…whether we realize it or not…true authority is followed…it is respected, perhaps even earned…but most importantly…authority…is bestowed…it is given…and much like faith…it is never self-generated.
And so we see that the flow of authority…or perhaps the power within it…flows back and forth between individuals…those with the proposed authority…and those following it. (pause)
But you know what? As I stand here talking about this today…I’m struck by how much it seems to resemble a motivational speech…or perhaps a keynote address at a business leadership conference…and that is not what we need to be talking about…and so how do we begin to switch our minds over to matters of faith…I mean, just what does the question of authority have to do with us here in worship today? (pause)
And the answer is this…if authority really is a two way street…and we grant authority to those who are attempting to influence us…then the question really becomes who are we gonna listen to? (pause)
Because there are a lot of different thing flying around these days…notions and ideas that try to persuade us one way or another…things that try to make us think one way or another…things that make us try to feel one way or another…and all too often, that message…that feeling that blares in our day to day lives is the flat out lie that you…just…aren’t…good enough.
Whether its subtle advertisements that let you know that you’re life will only be complete if you lose 15 pounds…or if you have this new flashy phone…we are constantly bombarded…and it seems like we always have that little whisper in the back of our mind that calls us “worthless.” (pause)
But…we also have a God that loves us so much…that cares for us so much…that desires to be in relationship with us so much…because we are of worth…and he tells us so…he tells us that we are loved…that we are accepted…that we are…of worth…regardless of our inadequacies. (pause)
And so today, I pose you this question…which voice are you going to grant the authority to? The sly one in the back of your mind that whispers the lie that no one cares about you…that you are worthless? (Pause) Or are you going to grant the authority to the voice that says my beloved child…I love you…and there is nothing that I will not do to show you that? (pause)
We hear in the story today, that the tax collectors and the prositutes…those who were socially outside the fence…those who were considered “unacceptable” in the eyes of the religious elite…they were the ones who recognized the need to listen to that second voice…that voice that told them despite their flaws…despite their failings…that they are loved…that they are accepted…and that their minds are changed. (pause) A better way to say this…at least according to the original language…is that they turned away…that’s what it means to repent…to turn away from the sin…but its also important to note that its passive here…they are turned away by something else…by the loving voice of God, who loves them enough to forgive their sin…just as he loves you enough.
And rest assured…he loves you enough…and so today, I’ll leave you with the question one more time…there are two different voices trying to take authority over you…one that says you are without worth…and one that loves you so much that you are priceless and worth any cost…so which voice are you going to listen to? Amen.