Sunday, September 25, 2011

Who Will Hear and Obey?

Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32

     WHAT DO YOU THINK?  SUPPOSE you're the CEO of a multinational corporation, and you decide that methods and procedures at a certain branch office need to be radically transformed.  Whom do you think will be more responsive to the changes: the upper-level management types who pride themselves on their work ethic and devotion to the company, or the slackers in the cubicles who do whatever they can to avoid putting in a day's work?

    And suppose you don't communicate your wishes directly, but send a representative to announce and implement the changes.  Would that have any effect on how well the staff listens?  If the representative's credentials are all in order, should it matter?

    If this were just a tale of modern life, you might think that the leaders who acted all gung-ho about the company would be the first to get on board with the CEO's big plans.  And that if somebody in a suit just showed up one day and announced he was from the CEO and the whole product line was about to be revamped, people would be wise to question his authority.

    But of course, my analogy isn't just a tale of modern life.  We have read our passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and we know that when it comes to responsiveness to God's will, talk is cheap, and true faith and devotion are displayed in obedience.

    The chief priests and elders of the people should have known better than to treat Jesus the way they did.  They were the ones to whom God had committed the office of interceding for the people through the sacrifices and temple rituals, so they could be forgiven and blessed.  They had the responsibility of teaching the people the law of Moses, so they could keep the covenant the Lord had made with them back at Mount Sinai, and so live in prosperous, joyful communion with their God.

    But it often happens this way in companies, organizations, and families: The leadership at first identifies their interest with the organization.  They say, "what the organization wants, I want."  But gradually they get entrenched, they start feeling their own power, and they forget what it is they're there for.  Now it's "What I want, the organization should want.  And if it doesn't, I know best."  Never mind what the chief executive, the family patriarch, or whomever might say.

    This attitude isn't always defiant or deliberate.  When we get it into our heads that we know best, we're generally convinced we have the good of the group at heart, but it's really about the good of yours truly.  So when something comes along that truly is about the good of the group, we can't see it, we reject it, we refuse to obey it.

    God Almighty was doing something radically new and fresh in His Son Jesus Christ, only it isn't really new, it's what God has taught His people to expect one day, all along, as our passage from Isaiah testifies.  And it's the leadership elite, those who prided themselves on their devotion and faithfulness, who rebel against it and refuse to obey.  If they can question Jesus' credentials, they can ignore the obligations He lays on their lives.  So St. Matthew reports that a number of chief priests and teachers of the Law came to Jesus as He sat teaching in the Temple courts, and demanded, "By what authority are you doing these things?"

    What things?  Well, in the past day or so Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah by accepting the title of "Son of David" and refusing to shut up the children who are praising Him by that name.  He has overturned the tables of those who were buying and selling in the Temple and called the Temple "My house" as He was driving the merchants out.  He has ridden like a king into Jerusalem and allowed His disciples to render Him praised and worship with their palm branches, their garments laid down on the road, and their shouts of "Hosanna!"  It must have galled the Jewish leaders to see how Jesus took all of this in stride, as if it were His due. 

    And it wasn't just Jesus' behavior in the past day or two that irked them, it was His conduct the past three years.  How He taught the Scriptures as if He were their Author.  How He healed people and cast out demons and did all those miracles they couldn't deny.  Especially, how He went around talking as if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were His actual Father.  Who gave Jesus the authority to do all that?

    That really is the question, isn't it?  A lot of people show up even today claiming to be somebody, calling people to follow them, and on what basis should we?  If the chief priests and elders really are good stewards of the commonwealth of Israel, if they really do have the glory of God and the best interests of their fellow Jews at heart, it's right that they should investigate Jesus' credibility.  Is He really from God?

    But responsibility and good stewardship isn't really what motivates them, and Jesus knows it.  He turns the question back on them.  Answering a question with a question is a time-honored technique in debate.  It helps reveal the underlying assumptions of the person asking the original question.  So Jesus asks the Jewish leaders, "John's baptism-- where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?" 

    That gets us to the foundation of it, doesn't it?  John the Baptist said he was sent by God to announce the coming of the Christ who would bring in the kingdom of God.  People came to him at the Jordan River and were baptised by him to testify that they'd turned from their sins and were preparing to meet the King when He came.  So did John really baptise in the power and authority of the God of heaven?  Or was his activity just a sideshow dreamed up by John and his disciples for notoriety and profit?

    The leaders of the people already don't believe John baptised in the authority of God.  They didn't want to believe he baptised in the authority of God.  Believing that would mean believing that the Messiah was at hand.  It'd mean accepting that the Messiah God sent wasn't exactly the kind of Christ they'd envisioned or planned.  It'd mean falling down at Jesus' feet and admitting that they were totally wrong in their schemes for redeeming themselves by their own works.  Their stubborn hearts simply were not prepared to be changed like that.

    Jesus wants us to see the irony in this.  These men claimed to be submitted to the authority of heaven.  The common people thought they were the holiest people alive.  So their discussion among themselves shows how Jesus has boxed them into a corner.  If they truly are the godly ones, and they say John's baptism was from God, why didn't they believe John and repent?  But the fact is that they refuse say John came in the authority of God.  They'd much rather believe his whole ministry was a product of popular enthusiasm-- from men.  But they're not about to stand up like men and say so out loud, because it would outrage the common people.  These held that John the Baptist was a prophet, and wouldn't want his memory insulted.  So the leaders say to Jesus, "We don't know."

    Meaning, they refuse to say.  And Jesus gives them the answer they deserve: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."  John's divinely-granted credentials were right before their eyes all through his ministry, and they refused to believe and repent.  They do not now deserve that Jesus should declare His divine source of power and authority to them.

    Brothers and sisters, we like to think we'd do better than the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees who refused to accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.  We'd believe Him to be who He said He was.  And maybe we would.  But mere mental belief isn't enough.  As James the half-brother of Jesus says in his letter, true faith is demonstrated by action.

    Jesus tells a parable to show us this is true: A father has work that needs doing in the family vineyard.  He tells both his boys to get out there and get to work.  First kid says, "No, I'm not going!"  But then he changes his mind and goes and works. Second son says, "Oh, yes, Father, certainly, Father, anything you say, I'm here to do your will, nothing pleases me better!" But he continues to sit on his rear doing the 1st century equivalent of watching television or playing computer games.

    So who actually did the father's will?  The men who'd challenged Jesus are forced to say that it was the first kid who did what his father wanted.  You know, the openly rebellious one.  The slacker.  The goof-off.  The blatant sinner-- who repented, submitted to his father, and went and did what the father commanded.  No hypocritical lip-service, no extravagant claims of devotion followed up by self-seeking disregard of the father's wishes, just genuine repentance with suitable action to follow.

    Friends, don't underestimate what terrible sinners the tax collectors and the prostitutes were!  The tax collectors were traitors to their nation and the prostitutes were and are traitors to their own humanity.  But they were cut to the heart when John came preaching about the kingdom and the King who was coming, and they turned from their sins and were baptised.  God was radically transforming His people, the wonderful effects of it were right before the eyes of the priests and elders, and still they refused to repent and believe what John had to say.

    And now they were refusing to repent and believe what Jesus had to say.  Nothing He said or did, no prophecy He fulfilled could break through their insistence that they knew God's purposes better than God did Himself.

    And so, the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, and maybe instead of them.

    In the next two chapters Jesus will hammer home the guilt of the Jewish leadership, in shamefully failing to lead the people into the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.  Why is this necessary?  Why does Jesus have to be so harsh about it?

    Jesus must expose even the sin of those who claim to be the righteous and holy ones, so that every human being is shown to be guilty before God and in need of a savior.  As Paul says in Romans 3:19,

    Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

    Who will hear and obey?  Obviously, not those who consider themselves good enough in themselves.  But open sinners aren't capable of hearing and obeying, either.  Not of themselves, not when they're submerged in their sin.  They need the Holy Spirit operating in the power of the word preached, they need the washing of the baptism of Jesus Christ, better than the baptism of John, to apply His blood to their uncleanness and wash their sins away.

    And, brothers and sisters, so do we.  Do you think you have everything under control and don't need Jesus or His prophets to call you to repent?  Or, will you listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and daily humble yourself, repent of your sins, and follow Him?

    In Matthew chapter 21 we see Jesus in Jerusalem, headed for the cross.  That cross demonstrated once and for all how rebellious we are, how sinful, how apt to ignore the call of our heavenly Father, for it took the blood of the sinless Son of God to wash our sins away.  But the cross of Christ also makes it possible for us to hear, to repent, and to obey.  Not in our own strength, not in our own goodness, not in our pride, do we say, "Yes, Father, I will," and get up and work in His vineyard, but in His strength, goodness, and worthiness alone: to whom be all power and glory, in the unity of the Holy Trinity, now and forever.  Amen. 

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