Sunday, September 28, 2008

Pentecost 20 Sermon -- Matthew 21:23-32 (LSB Proper 21A)

September 28, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

When [Jesus] entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching and said: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?”

“Who gave You this authority?” That question is posed to Jesus quite often in His ministry. Sometimes it’s asked in amazement of what Jesus says and teaches, like in the synagogue of Nazareth. Other times it’s asked in reaction to His actions, like when Jesus and His disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath to eat or when Jesus healed a demoniac. And the question is put to Jesus when He forgives the sins of a paralytic and sends him on his way.

The question “Who gave You this authority?” is meant to probe Jesus, to test Him against people’s preconceived notions about Him. When asked by the Pharisees or, as on this day, by the chief priests and elders, the question is asked in order to make an indictment against Jesus. What false claim will He make? Why does He teach in the Temple without permission? Who gave Him power over sin and death and demons? The questions are asked because Jesus is being accused of doing something wrong, accused of breaking the Divine Law.

That is the opinion that the chief priests and elders had of Jesus, just as they held the same opinion about John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of Christ. They believe that John was delusional or a crackpot and that Jesus is a fraud, even a false teacher. When Jesus heals the demoniac, the Pharisees called Him Beelzebub. When Jesus claims to come from God, the Jews call Him a Samaritan and even an illegitimate child. And when Jesus steps foot in the Temple, throwing out the moneychangers and teaching the crowds whose children call Him “the Son of David” and ask Him to save them, it is the last straw for the chief priests and elders. This Man has no right to do such things and is leading the people astray.

“Who gave You this authority?” That question asked of Jesus was answered by the Lord God months and years before this Holy Week incident in the Temple. It was answered when John baptized Jesus and the voice of the Eternal Father said: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It was answered when the Eternal Father revealed Jesus’ identity to Simon Peter who confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It was answered on the mountainside as Jesus was transfigured and again the Eternal Father spoke from heaven: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

And yet, Jesus is asked: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” The answer is that Jesus received this authority from heaven itself. It is the authority that He carries as the Son of God. It is the same authority that was delegated to John the Baptizer, so that he could prepare the people for Christ’s arrival; the same authority bestowed to Ezekiel to call Israel to repentance and salvation; the same authority granted to Paul and the other apostles to establish new assemblies and teach another generation of believers; the same authority that has been given here, so that you may hear the judgment of God against your sins, but also turn from them and receive forgiveness, life, and salvation from Christ.

It is an authority that challenges and threatens those who seek their own power and privilege. But for those who are called to believe it, the authority that Christ Jesus carries is of great value and comfort. In the dialogue with the chief priests and elders, Jesus points out people who did believe it. He uses John the Baptizer as a point of comparison: “The baptism of John, from where did it come: from heaven or from man?” His question focuses on faith: What did you believe about John’s identity and actions? The chief priests and elders believed nothing good about John. But “[the crowds] all hold that John was a prophet” and “the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” And from the other incidents involving Jesus, we see that they believed in Him, too.

So what does Jesus say about those people who believed that John carried divine authority? “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before [the chief priests and elders do].” Those who recognized the divine authority that John was given and repented of their sins that John spoke against and received baptism from John: they are the ones who have entry into “the kingdom of God.” They are saved by their faith.

And the same holds true for those who believe likewise about Jesus. However, true belief about Jesus is not simply that He was someone given divine authority, but that as the Son of God begotten of the Father before all worlds, He always had it. Christ has that divine authority as He goes to accomplish the will of His Father, just as He testifies: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. . . . For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the Last Day.”

Jesus speaks about doing His Father’s will, which He perfectly fulfills. But He also tells a story to the chief priests and elders about a father’s will for his two sons. When told by the father “to work in the vineyard,” the first son says to him: “I will not.” But Jesus says: “Afterwards, he changed his mind and went.” When told by the father the same thing, the second son says to him: “I go, sir.” But Jesus says: “He did not go.” One of the two sons got it right; one of them repented and fulfilled his father’s will for him. And so it was in Israel: one group got it right—those who once were disobedient, who didn’t want to obey the Eternal Father, but who heard John’s message and believed it and repented, who also recognized Jesus and His authority and associated with Him. These are the ones who receive eternal life by the forgiveness of their sins.

This is what Jesus desires for each of you. He has fulfilled His Father’s will and He still carries “all authority in heaven and earth.” He has established His Church and delegated His authority to it, so that it can proclaim the Law of God which condemns sins and sinners, as well as the Gospel that forgives and saves. He has sent His Holy Spirit into the world, so that you can hear that proclamation about Christ and believe in Him and turn from death to life. The words of the Lord God spoken through the prophet Ezekiel stand true even today: “When a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

This is exactly what “the tax collectors and prostitutes” experienced as they heard John preaching the message of repentance and salvation and “they believed him.” The same is true for each of you. But it isn’t a one-time, initial thing. It is ongoing. The turning takes place as you are first brought into faith (at conversion), but also every single time that the Law of God confronts you and your sinfulness and you repent and attach yourself to the righteousness of Christ by remembering your baptism, confessing sins, and receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. The turning and repentance is a way of going back to the authority of Jesus that the Church carries today, so that in these things it does you find salvation.

The same question that is asked of Jesus can be asked of us here: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” You can answer that question: It has come from the Lord God. “The word of life” that I hear comes from heaven. The power of the sacraments I receive comes from heaven. The forgiveness of sins given to me in the Church comes from heaven. Because here is the authority of the Lord God: here is His Law that convicts me of my sin, but here is His righteousness given to me, so that I may live. Here is “the encouragement of Christ, the comfort from love, the participation in the Spirit” that the apostle Paul handed down. Here is “the way of the Lord” that the prophet Ezekiel proclaims. Here are “the paths of the Lord [which] are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep His covenant and His testimonies,” as the Psalmist declares.

That is what the chief priests and elders missed, what they got wrong, what they refused to believe. But it need not be so with you. For you can be just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed rightly and were humbled and repented and were given entry into the kingdom of God. You have been given “a new heart and a new spirit” in your baptisms. You continue to be given the Lord God’s “covenant and testimonies” which were fulfilled in the blood of Christ “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The authority from heaven is in these things, the same authority that Christ carried and which He delegated to His Church.

As you believe it, so you shall “go into the kingdom of God before [the chief priests and elders do].” For that is the will of the Father which you obey as you “change your mind” and repent and turn back to Him like the first son in Christ’s story. It is the will of the Lord God who “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone” and who calls you “to turn and live.” Believe the Divine Law which condemns you and your sin, but believe even more the Divine Gospel which is even more authoritative that saves. Turn and live, believing the authority of Christ who has fulfilled His Father’s will for you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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