Sermon on 17th Sunday after Pentecost - Mathew 21:23-32
Jesus is done with the blame game. He is done with us finding excuses for our own denial of what it is God has done for us, what God does for us daily. He is done with the desires of human hearts to look for every possible explanation for evil and ugliness in the world besides sin itself. He is done with the thinking that one’s circumstances are the fault of culture, skin-tone, ancestral morality, or religiosity, rather than trusting in someone or something other than God. He is done with our attempts to justify ourselves and to prop ourselves up as authorities on the goodness of one or another.
He is done because he has done away with it all. With all the thinking that someone who stands for the national anthem is somehow more Christian, a higher form of human being, or just a better person, than someone who doesn’t. He’s done away with the assumption that a person is more holy because of the number of days they attend church a year, how often they give, how much they give, where they are members, who they hang out with, whether they are white, upper middle-class progressives.
He is done away with the stigma we have against mental illness, thinking that someone who suffers from such a malady is weak, frail, unwelcome. That those who struggle and fall are lesser human beings. Because it is the weak, the frail, the one’s in need of a physician that are sought out by the Great Physician, not the so-called healthy.
The worry is that all this doing away with stuff, all this changing means that somehow, in some way, Christ has an authority to break chains. To knock down idols. To remove pride and self-righteousness. To forgive sins. And if this authority, which has led to him entering the world as an exalted King when he comes riding on that donkey just before this text, a king who dies for his people, a king who clears temples of all the business and hierarchy we think belong, and constructs them into what they should be (prayer points), we are left wondering where that might leave me? If what I have done in this world, either good or bad, is cast aside when the name of Jesus is uttered, what’s the point?
The point is that excuses are gone. Excuses to avoid guilt or judgement. To blame others for our own failures, these are gone. To blame ourselves for the failures of our children, these are gone. To be lumped together with everyone else that looks just like us, and to be told that you are this type of person because of your skin color, education, tax-bracket, cultural affiliation – GONE!
Gone also though are the excuses to give yourself a pat on the back. To assume that because of my own innate goodness, I’m the cat’s pajamas. Because of all this good that I have done, it outweighs any possible evil I may have committed. Taking the scales of life we assume to exist and piling on all our goodness, all the people we have loved and fed and clothed and saved, over and against all the times we have trusted in something else than God for our own life and salvation. Thinking the scales will tip in our favor – that’s gone too. Because on one side of those scales is us, and the other Jesus. That’s it.
The Pharisees and religious leaders, so us, don’t like this idea of an authoritative Jesus. A Jesus who speaks and things happen, who heals, who gathers in the outcasts and sinners for a salvation that has nothing to do with my religious fervor or zeal. So we come to Jesus and say – Tell us by what authority you do these things, because we know we didn’t give it to you, Jesus.
Jesus, of course is going to teach. He wants them to answer their own question. The baptism of John, a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, was it from heaven or from man? The answer is in the question. If they answer correctly, from heaven, then they answer the question of Jesus’ authority. Something outside of them, and outside of you and I. Something that has come down to us, not us climbing up to it.
But there is danger in this. Danger in asserting that both John’s baptism and Christ’s presence are of the same origin. From heaven. From somewhere above us. From outside of us. That one greater than us now stands before us. Seeing him in manger and cross, hearing the words, but denying their authority because we might actually have to trust in something other than us.
It becomes, all of this, becomes an issue of faith. Of trust. Not of doings or beings, but of faith.
This comes with a story. 2 children. Children, an endearing term. Little child is closer than son. As your father I ask – Go work in my vineyard. One says Hell no! but regretted it, the parable says, and he goes. The other says yes, sir! Definitely, but doesn’t. Saw a dog. Had to finish that show on Netflix. Too cold outside. Yeah dad, whatever.
A questioning of authority. A lack of trust that there is a Father, a Mother, a Parent of Divine origin who calls with a word, and we say – Just a second. Or Yeah, whatever, then don’t.
But the word of Christ is one that will do its work. The call of the Gospel, the coming of His Kingdom, is unavoidable. It is something that will come to you. Will happen upon you. Philippians says - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. It is God who works, usually accompanied by a radical shift. A taking of us from where we think we should be and plopping us down in the place where he thinks we should be.
That is why in the Christian life we talk of death and resurrection. We talk of one dying to self and being made alive in Christ. All the things that make you “you”, die. The reputation? Dead in Jesus. The fear? Dead in Jesus. Lack of faith? Dead in Jesus. Sin of your past, present and future? Dead in Jesus.
Jesus speaks to the religious people to ask of John the Baptist, and says to them that their guilt, their sin, is unbelief. Not hearing the words. Saying - John comes in the way of righteousness. A way paved by righteousness. A righteousness found in something outside of us, namely waters of baptism. Of drowning of self. Repentance and faith that the one who says it is finished, who calls to you to say “Turn and live”, is actually a source of life for you after you die. Stepping down into the water of life. It enveloping you. Baptism being done to you. Dying and rising. Drowned in the mercy that is Jesus. Where all we thought we had on our resume was enough for God, making Jesus only some nice side bit, instead he becomes the bedrock of faith.
Jesus illustrates it most effectively with this one line “the Tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom ahead of you.” The ones openly sinful. The ones in the police blatter in the Park Rapids Enterprise. The ones you know by name. The sins and sinners that can be counted. Sin that is perceived, touched, known? Those sinners go ahead of the “righteous”. The ones that go first are the ones we think last because we make the kingdom out to be one of actions we do rather than actions of one outside of us. A kingdom outside of us.
We are such busy Christians. Such busy people. Making lifestyle or behavioral modification more important than anything, but the righteousness of one’s own, and the wickedness of one’s own can be one’s downfall. Too good for the kingdom, or too bad for the Kingdom. But then the Father calls to you, to move your gaze, to turn your eyes and feet and body from focusing on this sin, or this salvation over here, that we think is most sinful or most holy, and says - Turn to me and live! A salvation and life that comes out of a suffering and death for you. Because once our sinfulness and righteousness die in Jesus, we truly then live in him. Thanks be to God. Amen.