Vicar's Sermon - 30th September 2017
Well, they are really rolling out the big guns now aren’t they?
Today’s gospel reading. Let’s dive straight in. ‘When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching…’ They’ve not done this before. They have sent scribes to interrogate him. They have dealt with him through their proxies – the Herodians and the Pharisees – but now he is on their ground and they cannot ignore him.
The context is that we are now in Holy Week. Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem. The temperature is rising and, because we have read the story, we know how this is all going to end. But for now, Jesus is in the temple courts teaching and, with a swish of gowns and a fair degree of pomp and ceremony the Chief priest no less, followed by the elders of the people – THE establishment- make their way across the temple courts to confront him. ‘Who do you think you are?’ is the unspoken question. It’s couched in different terms ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’
Jesus responds with a different question. A question about John the Baptist. But behind his words about John there is an unspoken question that he asks of everyone: ourselves included ‘who do you say that I am?’ He’d asked that question of his disciples weeks before and Peter, you might remember, confesses him as the Messiah, the Christ. But now the chief priest, the elders and all his hearers have to decide too. What do we make of him. Who is he?
Authority. The word contains the word ‘author’, someone who creates something. ‘Where does what you are doing find its origin, its source?’, is the question being asked. The authority of the Chief priests and elders is bound up in layer upon layer of interpretation of scripture – of one Rabbi refuting another, or one teacher building upon the argument of another. Their authority is like a book you get out of the library where the footnotes at the back of the book take up more space than the original thought at the front. You can’t see the wood for the trees in the way they speak and act. The author (God Himself) is lost in their tangle of interpretations and meanings.
But there is worse: their authority has been handed over to the political powers of the day. They fear the people, they are afraid of the crowd (that’s what it says later on). These chief priests and elders are held in place not because their authority is recognised by the people they serve but by their political manoeuvring and by brute force as they dance around the Roman occupiers - and they have the gall to ask Jesus to produce his CV and letters of recommendation!
And what an answer he gives them. Ostensibly it is about John the Baptist but it’s actually about God and what God is up to in His world. For the thing is, most of Judaism at this point in history believed that prophecy had come to an end. The Lord had left His temple centuries ago in the Book of Ezekiel and despite the people’s return from exile in Babylon, despite the temple’s rebuilding, things were not right. The prophetic word had dried up. God was silent…not just silent, but seemingly absent and it had been like this for centuries.
And then Jesus came on the scene and we all have questions to answer: Does God work in history…or is He just an idea to keep us from fearing the darkness of human existence? Does God still speak…and if He does, how can we hear Him? Can He be known? Those are the questions behind this discussion about John the Baptist: is he a prophet? Has God broken His silence? Has He started to speak again? Is God on the move? Is there a new thing happening?
Do you see? The answer about John must point us to Jesus and who He is! Because John proclaimed himself to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. John had said that after him must come one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John had said that he must decrease and He must increase. If John is a prophet then who is Jesus?
‘By what authority do you do these things?’ Jesus points his questioners to the evidence of changed lives to show that a new thing is happening with His ministry. Tax collectors, prostitutes – these are entering the Kingdom of heaven NOW. Ask yourself, he suggests, what is causing the change in these people’s lives if not the work of God within them? The people who have welcomed Jesus are responding to a generosity, an affirmation, a welcome, a healing, a forgiveness that they have not known or seen before. Jesus shows it in his life but he declares it be wholly at one with the nature of God His Father. Heaven has come near in his humanity. Jesus’ authority comes direct from God and His work within and through Him.
And the tragedy is that the religious leaders stand looking in at what is happening from a position of ignorance and judgement outside the kingdom. The outcasts, those who have been morally beyond the pale have found the Kingdom of God – they are experiencing it now (note that, not waiting till they die to enter in) whereas the elders are like the brother who says all the right things but doesn’t do what his Father asks of him.
It’s a neat little parable, we understand what it is saying, but notice the details. Neither brother is banging on their Father’s door to offer him their help, to be involved in His work. That’s telling isn’t it? There’s a challenge for us. How much do we want to part of what God wants to do in this town? How much do we want to be involved in His work? Does it even cross our minds that He wants us to work alongside Him? No, neither brother offers their help unbidden. But then notice, the father goes to each of them with His request. He lowers himself. In that middle eastern society his sons should have been offering themselves for work instead of waiting for their father to call. But no, he has to lower himself to seeking their help. If we were to push this thought we would be talking about ‘grace’. If we push it further we are into the realms of our epistle reading this morning from Philippians chapter 2: the ‘self emptying’ of Christ. God, in Christ, lowering himself to come to us, to engage us in his work of reconciling all things to himself.
The good news is that it’s never too late. The first son initially throws his father’s request back in his face – who does this boy think he is to so blatantly disobey his father? – but he changes his mind and obeys. The second son does the opposite: he lies to his father, he says all the right things but does nothing. Both boys manage to insult their father in their dealings with him (he will carry that shame) but at least the one changes his ways and obeys (there’s a definition of repentance isn’t there?). He changes his ways and obeys: there is still time, it’s never too late, and I wonder whether there are areas of our lives where the door has been firmly shut in our father’s face and needs to be opened.
There is time…but it is running out. By the end of the week, this Holy Week, the Father’s offer to enter the kingdom will have been made and the chief priests and elders will have made their choices. God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. He speaks still. Today is the day to hear His voice. Today is the day to respond. Now is the time to change our ways and believe in Him.