Monday, September 26, 2011

LSB Proper 21A Sermon -- Matthew 21:23-32

September 25, 2011 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?’”

When someone performs an act that another person disagrees with, it usually brings response. There are questions raised: “Who gave you the right to do that? Who made you king? Who put you in charge?” These are questions rooted in disapproval. They are questions of rebuke. They are meant to force the acting individual to stop, to put an end to his actions.

The chief priests and elders want to put an end to Jesus and His actions. They disapprove of His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem the day before. They disagree with what the crowds believed about Jesus, that He was a prophet and the promised Messiah. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, a radical act of judgment, had rankled them. Then the next day, Jesus was standing in the temple and teaching the people. Just who gave Jesus the right to do that? Who had put Him in charge? So the question is posed to Jesus: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?”

Their question is a legitimate one to ask. The drastic actions that Jesus had done do need a foundation of authority. Jesus knows that. In fact, He had mentioned His authority in previous encounters with leaders and rulers. In the past, Jesus had spoken of His heavenly Father, of His charge to seek the lost, of His being a prophet, of His Messianic identity. The question of authority had already been answered: the problem was that the chief priests and elders did not believe what Jesus had said. But this was not the first time that they had refused to heed a messenger sent by the Lord.

So when confronted by the chief priests and elders with a question of authority, Jesus responds by asking them a question on the same topic: “I will also ask you one question, and if you tell Me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” Jesus takes the minds of the chief priests and elders several years back in time. “Remember John,” Jesus is saying, “Think about him and his actions. He went in the wilderness preaching repentance and baptizing. All people from Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear him and confessed their sins. By what authority did he do such things?” The question that Jesus poses is similar to the one asked of Him. It has to do with whether the chief priests and elders receive the Lord’s prophets, even a forerunner of the Messiah.

The discussion that ensues shows that the chief priests and elders understood the point of Jesus’ question: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They know how either answer will convict them. Jesus’ question was meant to bring the chief priests and elders to repentance, to change their belief, so that they could receive Him as the Messiah. But their response shows that they would not have the Lord’s words change their hearts and minds: “So they answered, ‘We do not know.’” They punt on the question. They will not answer. They plead ignorance, though they had a very specific opinion about John the Baptizer.

What is found in the chief priests and the elders is the obstinacy that impenitence creates in sinners. They will not have anyone correct them. They will not allow the Lord’s words to change their hearts and minds. Even when people who carry the Lord’s authority come in their midst and speak, they will not listen. They are certain, dead certain, that they are right. But actually, they are completely incorrect. Their obstinacy causes them to miss out on what the Lord wants for them, as Jesus’ statement of judgment points out: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”

But this is not the first time such an incident had taken place among the chief priests and rulers of Israel. Their forefathers had done the same. You heard how the Lord addressed them through the prophet Ezekiel: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.’” The belief of the ancient Israelites was that the Lord was unjustly punishing them—that they were suffering because of the guilt of their forefathers’ sins. So what does the Lord say to them? He answers their accusations: “Hear now, O house of Israel: Is My way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness that 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 had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

Yet, that response is not the only thing that the Lord says. He puts forward the way of forgiveness and life that comes after repentance and turning: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn and live.” But would the people listen? Would they receive what the Lord offers them? Would they hear His words spoken authoritatively by the prophet?

The Scripture record shows that many refused to hear and turn. The Lord’s words just bounced off their hardened hearts and minds, bringing no benefit to them. Yet, there were others who did heed what the Lord said, who did believe His righteous judgment and trust His merciful promise. They did repent. They did receive a new way of life. They did have a new heart and new spirit created in them by the words that the Lord spoke. Throughout time, sinners have heard the convicting judgment that the Lord has spoken, but have also received the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation that He graciously gives. Even what the tax collectors and prostitutes did in the day of John the Baptizer was not a new phenomenon, but has occurred throughout the history of mankind and continues today.

This incident in Jerusalem’s temple puts forward the same two possibilities for you. That is what Jesus describes with His parable: “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.” The first son represents those who have the repentance and turning to life take place in them, but the second son represents those who hear the Lord’s word but have no effect happen in them.

You can be like the chief priests and elders who did not receive the Lord’s words, who did not recognize the authority that He bestows to those He calls to speak. That will cause you to miss out on what He desires to give you. What Jesus says about such people stands true even now: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Such is the fate of those who might promise faithfulness to the Father’s will, but who do not actually have it. That is what the obstinacy of impenitence and unbelief brings. Pleading ignorance will not excuse it.

What Jesus desires for you is to be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, to be like the first son who started in disobedience but was led to righteousness. Countless times you have said to the Father in heaven: “I will not obey You. I will not heed Your command. I will not follow Your will for my life.” Even if you have not verbally spoken such things, your actions have proclaimed such a message. That is when the Lord’s words of judgment are spoken through His servants: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” As you hear such words and are led to believe that the Lord’s statement is applicable to you, that you really have broken His Law and His judgment is justly spoken against you, then the response created is to receive the forgiveness and life that He offers.

But where is that forgiveness and life found? It is found where the Lord puts His authority, where He places the benefits that Jesus’ death and resurrection have accomplished—in the preaching of the Gospel, in the baptism that brings spiritual renewal and rebirth, in the absolution of sins, in the eating and drinking in remembrance of what Jesus, the promised Messiah, has done. That is what the Church does, as the Lord authorizes. But if that authority is not seen, not believed, not recognized, then the reaction will be like the chief priests and elders: there will be rejection of what the Lord offers, a rejection that leads to everlasting death.

So even today the question is directed to you: “Why will you die? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” The fate of the chief priests and elders is not meant for you. No, Jesus wishes to dole out forgiveness, life, and salvation to you this morning and all days. From this pulpit, your sins are put in front of you; the Lord’s Law speaks against them. Do you believe that authoritative statement? Your actions say that you do, for you have already declared your sinfulness and your desire for forgiveness. You have received that message of judgment and recognized it to be true. You have said to the Lord, like the psalmist did: “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions.”

From this pulpit, salvation is also put in front of you; the Lord’s Gospel says that because of Jesus’ work, you are forgiven, you are declared righteous, you are made part of God’s kingdom. Do you believe that authoritative statement? If so, then say to the Lord: “Remember Your mercy and Your steadfast love; for they have been from of old.” Count yourselves among the tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus welcomed as they turned to Him and lived. Then go from here “as children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” On that day, you will be welcomed as those who were given a new heart and spirit, who did the will of the Father, who have been taught the way of life and led in it. For that is what Jesus desires for you and what He works to accomplish.

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

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