Matthew 21:23-27 / Proper 21A / 25 September 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The question of authority is on the table here this morning, and the religious leaders have put it there. The chief priests and elders of the people, the guardians and stewards of the religious institutions and traditions of Israel were challenging Jesus’ authority. Who did He think He was? Riding into Jerusalem like some kind of Messiah? Turning over the tables of the money changers and calling the temple “His house.” “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Literally, a haven for terrorists. Who did this Jesus think He was, walking around the temple and teaching the people as though He owned the place? As though this really was “His house”?
It’s a matter of authority. “By what authority are you doing these things.” We need to understand the question before we can understand the answer. The key word is “authority.” We tend to think of “authority” in terms of power. The power to do this or that. And that’s true, but there more to it than that. Authority is a matter of permission, permission granted by another to do certain things. So the president of the United States is authorized by the people to be the chief executive officer of the nation. Or a judge sitting on the judicial bench has permitted to judge cases. To have authority is to have permission from someone greater to say and do certain things. When I forgive sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, I do so in the stead of our Lord Jesus Christ and by His authority. His permission. It’s OK with Him. He approves of it, delights in it, recognizes it and stands behind it. It is permitted.
We would be outraged, and rightly so, if someone simply assumed authority without having received it. Without being duly authorized. When the authorities knock at your door, they have to present evidence in the form of a badge and legal papers that they have the authority to search your house. Someone just doesn’t decide to be president one day. Or mayor of the city. Or head of the city council. Or pastor of a congregation. It is granted, permitted, authorized. That’s what call and ordination are all about. That’s why we don’t just stand anyone up here on Sunday morning even if they could do a creditable job, or even a better job. If you decided to enforce the law and presented yourself as having the authority of a police office, no matter how great the need or how good a job you were doing, you would be promptly arrested for impersonating an officer. You don’t have the authority to do this.
All of this lies behind the question of the temple authorities. By what authority, do you Jesus, come in here and stir up all sorts of trouble? Who authorized you? Who sent you? And it’s a very good question, because Jesus claims the kind of authority no one one dare claim for himself. The people were amazed at the words of Jesus, because He taught as one who had authority in himself, someone who didn’t need to reference another, unlike their own teachers or the temple authorities who questioned him. Jesus actually had the audacity to stand up before a crowd of people and say, “You have heard it said by the teachers of old, but I say to you.” No one dared speak this way. And no one dared turn over the tables of the money changers and sacrifice sellers or criticize what was going on in the temple.
Jesus’ own words and works gave witness to His authority. He told them as much. If you don’t believe His words then look at His works. Healing the sick, casting out demons, stilling storms, walking on water, casting out demons, raising the dead. These are not run of the mill good works. These are the works that God does, and only one who is authorized by God can do these kinds of things. The miracles of Jesus are His badge of authority.
His words and works were well known. There was no one walking around Jerusalem who hadn’t heard about Jesus, least of all the religious leaders. This is chapter 21 in Matthew’s gospel. This is holy week, the week Jesus enters Jerusalem one last time to die and rise. This is the late season, nearing the playoff, it’s not the preseason warm up. The cards have all been laid on the table since John’s baptism, where Jesus was visibly and audibly approved by the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
The religious authorities would have none of that. They refused John’s baptism, and understand why. John was calling them to repent of their religion. Baptism was for proselyted, for newbies coming into the faith, not for lifers. It was an insult to their authority. Who did John think he was? And that’s precisely the point of Jesus’ question: The baptism of John. Where did it come from? Until Jesus got an answer for that question, there would be no answer from Him.
You can’t debate unbelief. You can only corner it. Box it in with nowhere to go. You can’t reason someone into believing, nor can you logically convince someone that Jesus is the One to trust. Nor can you answer every question that unbelief and denial throws in your face, because there is no end to the questions. Jesus doesn’t answer their question but backs them into an extremely uncomfortable corner.
That’s also how it’s going to be with us when we approach God with our endless questions looking for some trap, some loophole, some way to negate and neutralize this Jesus. He’ll box you into a corner every time with no way out except to deal with Jesus. No one come to the Father except through Jesus. No one receives the Spirit except by Jesus. You can talk about God all you want, but Jesus is where the action is.
From where did the baptism of John come? Great question! Notice how Jesus has them cornered. There’s no neutral ground, no safe way to answer this question. And they knew it. If they said, “It’s from heaven,” they knew exactly what the next question was going to be. “Well, if it’s from heaven, why didn’t you believe him? Why did you refuse his baptism, if it came from heaven?” And they would be left in a puddle of their own unbelief.
They were also shrewd and tactical. They were aware that John was incredibly popular and that the people revered John as a prophet sent from God. So if they said that John’s baptism was from men, the crowds would turn on them. So they went that soft, beige, say-nothing way of political correctness. They went agnostic. “We don’t know.” That’s what the word “agnostic” means – don’t know. John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming Messiah and the dawning of the kingdom of God and the best the religious leaders can come up with is “we don’t know.”
The same might be asked today of Holy Baptism. Is it from God or from men? Is it my God’s mandate and authority or is it from men? Is it, as some say, an outward sign to show that you are a Christian, a way to actualize your commitment to God? Or is it the power of God for salvation? Is it the washing of rebirth and renewal, the means by which the death and life of Jesus come to you? But “we don’t know” is just not going to cut it.
Unbelief is incredibly stubborn and it’s not a self-healing condition. It’s unreasonably resistant, which is why we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him. He must come to us, engage us, deal with us by Word and Spirit, baptize us, forgive us, feed us. He must break down those walls of skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, our darkened thinking, our stunted imaginations, our unwillingness to go beyond the realm of what we can see or comprehend. That you believe at all is a gift of God’s undeserved goodness.
You and I are prone to the same sort of questioning. I’m not talking here about the normal questions of faith, questions borne out of genuine curiosity and a desire to learn more. I’m talking about the questions that challenge God and who He is. The question that challenges Jesus’ authority in His Church and in our lives, when you and I think we know better than the Lord how to save us and how to deal with us. When we become our own lords and work our way through the faith “cafeteria style,” picking and choosing the parts we like and leaving behind the parts we don’t. When we preface our statements with the words “God can’t…” or “Jesus wouldn’t…” or “Jesus couldn’t….”
It’s time for a repentance, a turning back, a return to the font of Baptism, to the word of forgiveness, to the Supper of Jesus’ body and blood. You won’t get the answer to every question of your curiosity. You won’t have every intellectual itch scratched or every doubt addressed. But you will know this for a certain fact: Jesus Christ died for you, rose for you, reigns for you lording His death and life over your sin and death. And that nothing in this life can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God has laid His baptismal claim on you. He has justified you in Jesus, His Son, whom He sent with divine authority to be your Savior and to take away the sin of the world.
“Why will you die, O house of Israel,” says the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God, so turn and live. Trust the Lord of your Baptism and you will live. He is authorized by the Father to save you, and He has done it. Trust Him.
In the name of Jesus,