This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 21:28-32
Purpose: To challenge listeners regarding the scope and source of Jesus’ authority and Lordship.
Today we are going to read a parable from Jesus about two sons. Before we get into that text, let’s look at what spurred Jesus to tell that story.
The story takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life before he was crucified. At the beginning of the week Jesus entered into Jerusalem – the holy city of Israel – on the back of a donkey. This act of Jesus is the announcement of his kingship. As a victorious king rides into the city after a battle to the acclamation of the people, Jesus rides into the city to the shouts of “Hosanna.” Immediately upon entering the city, Jesus heads to the temple. In the temple he finds merchants and money changers selling their wares instead of allowing people to worship. In a holy rage Jesus overturns tables and tells the temple leaders that the temple will be destroyed and he will rebuild it in three days. The people didn’t yet realize it, but Jesus was talking about himself: dying and rising three days later. The next day, Jesus comes back to the temple courts and begins to teach again.
While Jesus is teaching, the chief priests and elders – the leaders of the temple and of Jewish society – approach him and ask, “Why should we listen to you? By what authority do you say and do these things?” Jesus, ever the teacher, responds to their question with a question of his own: “Before I answer, let me ask you a question. If you answer me, I’ll answer you.” And so he asks, “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
With this question Jesus shows his wit and genius. You may recall that the temple leaders had been opposed to John baptizing people. You may also recall that John was not overly kind with the temple leaders and teachers of the law, calling them broods of vipers, liars and cheats. With this question about John’s baptism, Jesus pokes a wound in the pride of the temple leaders – and they know it. The leaders discussed Jesus’ question and quickly come to the conclusion that they are between a rock and a hard place. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ Jesus will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe it?’ challenging our authority as the mediator’s of heaven to the people. If we say, ‘From men’ then all these people who follow Jesus or John will get angry and mob us because they believe John was a prophet…”
In the end, the temple leaders would neither concede nor even answer. “We don’t know,” they say. To which Jesus responds, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
He then tells them the following parable. (If not done beforehand, read Matthew 21:28-32)
This exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders is about authority and the perception of authority. According to the scribes and Pharisees, John and Jesus didn’t have any authority – at least, any human authority. Neither had gone to seminary or law school; neither had been ordained or licensed to teach. If Jesus and John have any claim to authority it must come from outside, it must come from heaven, because it sure can’t be sourced on earth – not like the Pharisees authority, not like the teachers of the law and the temple officials.
At first blush in this story, it may seem that Jesus is being flippant or dismissive. But when we think a little deeper we see that Jesus knows it is no use talking to people who have already made up their minds about him. They were not trying to find out the truth, they weren’t even seeking information about Jesus, their minds were made up. “This guy is trouble. He is a problem to our authority and status in society.” What the teachers of the law really wanted was to trap Jesus and find an excuse to arrest him. Their minds were made up long before they asked their question about authority.
This often happens in our culture too. You have heard it said that we live in a post-modern, post-Christian culture. There has been a resurgence of religion – or perhaps, ‘spirituality’ – in our day, but, almost without fail, this happens to the exclusion of Christianity. People have already made up their minds about what it means to be Christian and who Jesus is. It happens all the time in coffee shops around the city. There you sit, reading a “Christian” book, perhaps you’re reading something like, The Reason for God or The Gospel as Center or The Gospel in a Pluralist Society; people around you see the cover and ask – sometimes barely hiding their sarcasm – “So, you believe in Jesus?” or “Are you a Christian? Do you believe the Bible is true?” Nine times out of ten they don’t want a real conversation; they want to point out intellectual fallacies, to argue about the rationality of faith, or most often, they want to dismiss Jesus because of their experience with Christians – all of whom are, according to them, hypocrites.
You see, it seems that most people in our society have made up their minds about Jesus and have dismissed him out of hand without ever really knowing him; without ever really genuinely asking about him. To people in our culture Jesus is either a crazy person or simply a good person who taught generic morals. Many people will say that Jesus was a good teacher, but they will vehemently deny that he is anything more. In short, they won’t give him any authority.
The problem is however, you just can’t have it both ways. Imagine what you would think if a person approached you on the street, possibly malnourished and unshaven, marched right up to you and declared, “I am forever!” This same person, spitting on his hands says, “Let me touch you and you will be healed.” This person, standing on a park bench across from the Mosque somewhere in town boldly declares, “I am God.” What would you think? Most of us would turn cheek and run – all of us would likely consider the person crazy. C.S. Lewis, Christian intellect and author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, says, while discussing the same point, “Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.”1 And yet, Lewis goes on to note, this is exactly what Jesus did. What’s more, this potential lunatic only seeks to increase his status as deranged when he says that he will forgive sins. This is important to note, and yet modern readers will likely miss the preposterous nature of the claim. As Lewis comments, “We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money?”2 As if he is the one against whom the offence is chiefly committed?
Here we have a man, who many modern people are apt to say is a good moral teacher but will not give any more authority to; and yet, this same man claimed to be God and able to do miracles and forgive sins. How are these ideas reconcilable? With Lewis, there are really only three things we might be able to say of a person who makes these types of claims:
- His claims are false and he knew it, in which case Jesus would be a liar. Since his claims concerning himself are central to his teaching and if it is true that Jesus was lying we can hardly say that he is a good moral teacher.
- His claims are false and he didn’t know it, in which case Jesus would be a lunatic. If Jesus believed his claims about himself and they proved to be false he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg”3 and surely we cannot consider such a person a good moral teacher.
- His claims are true and he knew it, in which case Jesus would rightly be Lord.
So there is really only three ways to look at Jesus,
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising [sic] nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.4
There can only be three possible answers to the question: “Who is Jesus?” He is either a lunatic, or a liar, or the Lord.
If, as it only makes sense, Jesus is Lord and therefore has an authority beyond himself from heaven, he must be listened to; he must be taken seriously. There are really only two ways of responding to Jesus when it comes down to it: 1) you dismiss him out rightly (and take your chances with what that means) or 2) you acknowledge him as Lord and trying to live your life in a manner that reflects that.
This actually, is the point of the parable that Jesus tells after his exchange with the chief priests and elders. In the story, a father approaches his sons and asks them to go to work in the vineyard. When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, "Forget it, Pop! I've got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!" But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man's conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. "You got it, Dad! I'm on my way!" The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard.
"Which son would you rather have?" Jesus asks. "Who really did what his father wanted?" The answer is obvious, so the chief priests give it, but the meaning of it all was a little less clear, so Jesus spells it out for them – in effect, answering their earlier question about authority. John the Baptist really had come from God and, as such, he really did tell people what God wanted them to do. The people who looked like lowlifes and spiritual losers--the folks who had, by all outward appearances, said "No" to God--they ended up coming around to God's message after all. They admitted their sins, let John baptize them, and so did what God wanted in the end.
But there were others in Israel who had for so long been saying "Yes" to God outwardly yet ultimately didn't follow through. They looked like fine and upstanding sons of God. They dressed right. Said all the right things. Made all the right promises. But when push came to shove (as surely it did when John the Baptist confronted everyone with his fiery message of repentance), these same folks turned away from God. Their former “Yes” was undercut by their having said “No” at what turned out to be the pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation.
People who realize the truth about Jesus will repent – will admit that they have lived life flippantly, without purpose, unity or a joy that lasts – and after repenting, will long to obey God and acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus. It doesn’t matter that at some other point in their lives they turned away from God. God wants obedience now. In contrast, the Jewish leaders were hypocritical in that they talked the talk but never walked the walk.
Here’s the question for us today: Are we like the second son or the first son? Do we give a yes to God with our lips, but flatly deny him with our lifestyle? Or will we recognize that once we disobeyed, but now we want to obey? The leaders whom Jesus addressed had been giving the responsibility to reveal God to all people – poor, widowed, weak, Jewish and not. And yet, by trumping their own agenda over God’s they functionally rejected his (and Jesus’) authority.
All too often, this can happen in our lives too. We can be so set on our own agenda, our own ideas about right and wrong, that we harden our hearts against what Jesus wants for us. As Jesus pronounces judgment on Israel in the temple incident and in the cursing of the fig tree, and as he affirms his Lordship and authority from heaven in our parable, we must look at our own lives. How much of what we do and say is simply religious ritual and self-serving hypocrisy, a form of self-aggrandizement at the expense of those we think “lesser” than ourselves? And how much of what we do in the everyday routines of life is lived in the conscious presence of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ?
If we strive to do the latter, our lives will flow from one worshipful experience of God’s grace in Jesus to another. Recognizing Jesus’ authority in this life – his Lordship over all that is – means that we allow him to be God of our lives in all that we do and say. When we live life this way, whether in the super market or as a McDonald’s manager, on the highway or hockey rink, with our neighbors or with our nieces and nephews, with our spouse or how we manage the house; we live in such a way that worships God and gives adoration, praise, and glory to Jesus – simply by being alive. And all this comes out of a recognition of Jesus’ authority and what he has done for us.
Simply put, this is the mission of those in the Church: to recognize the authority of Jesus in such a way that all the people we meet will want to know him. Peter says to a group of churches in regions throughout modern day Turkey, “Live such good lives [in the world] that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12) Recognizing Jesus’ authority in our lives and churches will make us into people who others see and want to be like; who others see and in seeing, see Jesus. It’s only when we don’t let this truth sink all the way down – when we trump our ideas of authority over Jesus’ ideas – that we become hypocrites and power grabbers like the Pharisees. A true understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done for us makes us into all-of-life-worshipers. That’s what Paul intends when he says, “… this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:1b-2) As those who profess the authority and lordship of Jesus, we worship him by rightly orienting our thinking and doing in a manner consistent with who he is.
And yet, there is a hard realization here: we simply don’t always live this way. It seems that more often than not, even professed Christians struggle with giving Jesus absolute authority; let alone the unbelieving world around us. But here too is the great truth of why Jesus is given absolute authority: because he lived the life we should have lived but can never do; and because he died the death that rightly belongs to each one of us as a result of our sin. Jesus came to earth and “made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a [slave], being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” It is because of this truth that Jesus is given all authority and named as Lord. The Apostle Paul continues, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Phil. 2:7-11)
The great truth about Jesus’ authority is that it is given to him because of his life, death, and resurrection. Because of his life, death, and resurrection, we can find forgiveness for our failings. Because of his life, death, and resurrection, we can have life in the face of death. Because of his life, death and resurrection, we – though dead in our sins – can be raised into new life; a life that proclaims the authority and Lordship of Jesus by his grace. A type of life that, “after seeing this, leads to repentance and belief.”
Prayer of Response
Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belongs all authority, glory, honor, and praise in our lives, may you – and you alone – reign on the throne of our hearts. Transform our hearts and minds that we might worship you, exalt you, bow before you, and confess that you are Jesus Christ the Lord. Our Lord. Amen.
Order of Worship
THE JOURNEY IN
Call to Worship: Psalm 9:1-2
*Prayer for God’s Greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours, in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen”
“Come, All Who Fear the Lord God” PsH#240
“All Glory, Laud and Honor” PsH#375
THE JOURNEY OF CONFESSION
Prayer of Confession
Lord, you said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
Forgive us our lukewarm love and our disobedience.
Lord, you said, “You may ask for anything in my name.”
Forgive us when we think we need to solve
our own problems.
Lord, you said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
We confess that our lives are often consumed
by worry and anxiety.
Lord, you said, “If you remain in me and I in you,
you will bear much fruit.”
Forgive us our barren lives, Lord.
Lord, you said, “You must testify, for you have been with me.”
We confess, Lord, that we have been too often silent.
Lord, you said, “Love each other as I have loved you.”
In this and in so many other ways,
we confess our failures and shortcomings.
Hymn of Confession: “Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us” PsH#258
Assurance of Pardon
Hear the good news!
Who is in a position to condemn?
and Christ died for us,
Christ rose for us,
Christ reigns in power for us,
Christ prays for us.
Anyone who is in Christ
is a new creation.
The old life has gone;
a new life has begun.
Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace.
Thanks be to God.
Since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace
in which we stand;
and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)
Thanks be to God.
There is now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
Thanks be to God.
*Hymn: “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” PsH#264
INTO THE WORD
Prayer of Illumination
Scripture: Matthew 21:28-32
Reader: This is the Word of the Lord
Congregation: Thanks be to God!
Message: “The Authority of Jesus”
THE JOURNEY OUT
*Song of Response: “Rejoice, the Lord is King” PsH#408
Prayers of the People
Offerings for God
*Prayer for God’s blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
*Closing Song: “Lord Dismiss Us with Your Blessing” PsH#320
(Alternate: Sing! ANC 268, Here I Am, Lord)
1C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” in The Complete C.S. Lewis: Signature Classics, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2002), 50.
2C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” 50.
3C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” 50.
4C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” 51. Emphasis added.