Vicar’s sermon: Matthew 21.23-32

In the 1950’s GPs up and down the country were able to prescribe a drug to pregnant women which would help alleviate nausea during pregnancy. The drug did what it was meant to do…but it also had side effects, and the result was the thalidomide affair that saw many children born with birth defects. When a person in authority gets it wrong the results can be catastrophic: literally ‘life or death’ for some.
On Friday, Kim and I travelled down to Manchester to see Richard collect his OU degree. For us ‘country mice’ it was strange to be in the ‘big city’ with its high-rise buildings, but I couldn’t help but notice (as we travelled into Manchester city centre on the tram) that some of the buildings, over a certain height, no longer had their cladding on them. I may be wrong but I wondered whether this was because they had been clad with the same material used on the Grenfell Tower in London. People thought they were safe in Grenfell but 74 people died as a result of the fire and (six years on) the inquests and enquiries are still trying to work out who in authority, knew what and when about this cladding material and why it was used. What people in authority do and say really matters.
Closer to home, within the life of our church and the Church of God worldwide, we have been battered again and again by news of safeguarding failures and scandals. In one sense this should not surprise us. Nationally, IICSA (which stands for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) has been investigating any number of institutions and organisations and has been reporting on them all. The church has been just one of those institutions and sits alongside sports groups, residential settings, health care, schools, the armed forces and so on – all of which have covered up abuse and which have been rightly condemned for doing so. Documents held by our diocesan authroities stretching back many years have been submitted to the inquiry and past cases of abuse within the church brought to light. People in authority and people with authority have not just made mistakes but have, at times colluded with abusers by ignoring their actions. One might hope that as historic cases are uncovered and some resolution achieved, we might move forward more confidently: certainly, as many of you will know, ‘safeguarding’ is everyone’s concern and anyone in ‘authority’ within the church must now be DBS checked and undergo training.
So when the chief priests and the elders approached Jesus in the temple and asked him by what authority he was acting and ‘who gave him that authority?’ they were asking important questions. Yes, we know that Jesus was viewed with great suspicion by those whose position he threatened or questioned. We also know that some amongst this group wanted him ‘dealt with’ (killed) – they saw him as a menace. But even if we put these more extreme reactions aside theirs was a reasonable question.
Jesus didn’t fit into the regular mould for leadership in Israel. He wasn’t born into the right family. He hadn’t had the education that perhaps the scribes enjoyed. He was just a preacher from Galilee…and yet so much more than a preacher. He had something about him that attracted the crowds. He healed people. Some who met him would never forget the day he spoke to them. He was, to be honest, one of the most dangerous people around. Why? Because he was charismatic, he had a star quality that swept everything before him….and haven’t our newspapers this last couple of weeks highlighted just how dangerous that ‘star quality’ can be in people who want to break the mould. It makes them almost ‘untouchable’. This is why institutions have processes in place to validate people’s credentials. You know that your doctor is licensed to practice. You can check whether your solicitor knows what she is talking about…or your accountant has his qualifications. Our schools have qualified teachers, we assess them, we vet them, we check them, so important is the role we give them. Within the church of England we have processes and procedures to discern someone’s vocation: these are really extensive and (most of the time) we like to think we get it right as the Bishop shares something of his authority with those with his licence. Sometimes we might think we have too many rules and regulations but you can’t just turn up and demand to lead a service or preach – the discernment process assesses both your gifts and abilities but also your faith and your character….and it is good to know that the new assessment criteria are actually helping to make the church more diverse with people from many different backgrounds being called.
But the chief priests and elders knew that Jesus was a threat. They also knew that they had to make a ‘call’ about him. In addition, they knew that if they made the wrong call the stakes were incredibly high for the nation. To endorse a false prophet, as far as they were concerned, was tantamount to apostasy – the result would be national disaster as written in Deuteronomy 13. But God had also promised to raise up a ‘prophet like Moses’ in Deuteronomy 18 and failure to heed his words would leave them accountable too.
So this exchange has a question behind the presenting question. The real question being asked of Jesus is ‘who are you?’. John the Baptist, you might remember had also asked Jesus that question earlier in the gospel. John had been arrested but he got word to Jesus, asking ‘are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’ Jesus’ answer was given in code: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the poor have good news brought to them’. This is a ‘Yes’, a clear ‘Yes’. Everything Jesus was doing fitted the description of what would take place when God’s Kingdom came near but Jesus would have been foolish to actually announce himself as the Messiah because it would result in Him being arrested by Herod just as John had been. But the bible references in Isaiah are very clear: Jesus was doing just what Israel expected God to do when He visited his people.
We are left to make our own minds up about Jesus, just as the chief priests and elders were. We, like they, want him to answer a simple question. Perhaps you hear this exchange and groan inwardly at what seems to be a typical ‘politicians answer’. Perhaps, if you heard it on the TV you would be shouting at the screen ‘Just answer the question’. But Jesus is not going to answer the question. He can’t. He, like many a politician being interviewed, cannot offer any hostages to fortune. The moment he declares Himself is the moment the whole ‘kingdom’ project might collapse. By leaving people, guessing he preserves room for manoeuvre in this last week of his life. He is, after all, in the temple now. This exchange takes place after Palm Sunday, after the crowd have shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ – clear in their own minds that He truly is the Messiah. We are left with the same question that vexed the people’s leaders: ‘Who is Jesus?’
Which begs more questions, because how does anyone ‘receive’ authority? Authority is a tricky thing. Exams, qualifications, tests might get you so far, they may provide you with a career, even the opportunity to exercise power over people’s lives for those whose aim might be power rather than service. But we know that for a Prime Minister or a government, or a police officer, a doctor or a teacher, in our relationships with those who outwardly might have authority over us, that ‘authority’ can slip away – it can disappear very quickly from an individual or an organisation quite easily. Authority is something given as well as something taken or achieved: authority involves recognition – by a professional body perhaps…or by the crowd streaming into Jerusalem…or by a person stood at the font declaring ‘I submit to Christ’.
So how can we know if someone is who they claim to be? How can we know if they can deliver the goods? How can we know where to place our trust? The normal rules apply: We hear what a person says. We see what they do. We compare their words and their deeds and then we assess whether this person is trustworthy. We see the fruit of their actions. We consider and struggle…and then we must make a decision that involves a step of faith as we entrust ourselves to them.
We do this all the time: as we make our vows in marriage, as we invest our money, as we sign the document put before us before an operation, or leave our children or grandchildren at the school door. But this decision, this decision about Jesus is the biggest decision anyone can ever make. I don’t think I know a single soul that has had regrets for making it.

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