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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-27

October 1, 2023

Do you know that some people ask questions because they have no desire to learn? It’s true. Some people, out of pure stubbornness, will ask questions, and in our Gospel reading today, this is precisely what is going on.

The Pharisees are questioning Jesus’ authority. No, they’re not questioning His preaching; they’re not questioning Jesus’ theology but they’re questioning His authority to open His mouth at all. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

They’re asking Jesus about His membership card. In other words, “Jesus, what rabbi do you follow; who did you learn from; who made you into a teacher?” They want to know the commentary or the Rabbinical writings Jesus studies and quotes. And we get a sense of this business of authority when we read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 through 7. Jesus preaches this long sermon, and at the end the crowds of people listening say what? They say, “he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”

See, the Pharisees who believed in a resurrection from the dead and a life after death, they didn’t mind so much Jesus preaching about heaven and eternal life, but they weren’t all that comfortable with His preaching about repentance and salvation through faith in Him. They’ve tried to attack His preaching and they failed miserably, so now they’re attacking His authority, His right to be a rabbi and a teacher.

What the Pharisees and religious leaders want, and what they’ve wanted from the start, is a Jesus who plays by their rules, a preacher, a Rabbi they can control. And think about it. Watch the news, turn on Fox, turn on CNN or whatever it is you like to watch, and take notice of how it works. The reporter asks questions, right? Why? Because the reporter wants to be in control of the conversation and draw out of the person being asked a certain reply. The one who asks questions is in control of the conversation. And if he’s good at asking questions and rhetoric, he can spin those questions in such a way that the person answering is backed into a corner and that’s when the person asking questions wins the game.

But when it comes to Jesus and His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and final return, we ought not want to be a reporter. See, we don’t want to be those pharisees who try and control God and attempt to make God submit to our desires and wants. Through Jeremiah the Lord asks, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Clay in the hands of God is formed just as God wants it formed, but rebellious, stubborn clay will not submit to the hand of the Lord and instead invites destruction.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus spins it all around; He takes control of the situation. He says, “Let me ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Why does Jesus do this? Why doesn’t He just answer the question? Because Jesus is the boss, right, and He will not be manipulated by stubborn people. Instead, He will do what He can to save stubborn people, even if it means turning the tables and getting the Pharisees to think about their actions and choices in life. He will try to mold the clay.

He asks them, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” This question reveals their hypocrisy, see? Because if they say it’s from God, then they’ll have to explain why they rejected John the Baptizer and why they’re rejecting Jesus. If they say it’s from men, they’ll most certainly lose the respect and love of the people because the people listened to John and believed his message. If they say John’s baptism was from God, then they’re also confessing Jesus to be the Christ, the savior of the world because that’s what John preached. If they say John’s baptism was from men, then they are denying Jesus the Christ.

Jesus…cares for these pharisees and He calls them and invites them to confess Him. He tries to mold them into people of repentance and faith.

But they don’t. Instead, because of their stubbornness, they say, “We don’t know.” The work of salvation is not tarnished by human opinions, and Jesus walks away fully the Savior and only days away from the cross.

So, what do we learn from this interaction, other than the fact that questions asked with bad motives are done to control others and are of no help?

Well, let me ask you questions? Does the ability to believe in Jesus and receive His gifts of salvation and eternal life come from people or society, or does it come from God? Let me ask another? Does your freedom to worship God come from an Amendment written by men, or does it come from God? One final question. Do your beliefs about God, the theology and teachings which you believe and confess, do they come from men or from God?

I ask these questions with pure motives because I want you to consider them and to learn the truth.

Now these questions all have to do with the First Commandment. What is the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods,” right? And what does the commandment mean? It means that we should fear, love, and trust God above all things.

See, the pharisees in our Gospel today wanted the people to trust them, their words, their ideas. They would insist that their words were from the Lord, but Jesus makes the opposite quite clear. Their words were not from the Lord but were from men.

And this is the whole point of the text. The Pharisees ran around teaching in the synagogues and basing their teaching on the writings of other rabbis and other teachers; they quoted rabbis and other teachers all the time. Jesus’ teaching was God’s teaching because Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh. Jesus has all authority – the authority of heaven and earth – and He alone has authority over salvation and damnation. He alone has authority to forgive sins.

And what does Jesus do with this great and eternal authority? He bestows it to His church. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” says the Lord, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to believe all I have commanded you.” “I give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you let loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” In other words, “forgive sins and don’t forgive sins; use my authority which I bestow upon you to draw sinners to repentance and faith.” He also bestows His authority in the Lord’s Supper when He says, “do this.” In other words, “church, continue to feed my people this holy meal until I return.”

Authority is bestowed, power is taken. Jesus bestows upon us great authority, but it doesn’t mean that He’s no longer our boss, our king, our God. We are to use this authority as He instructs. Otherwise, it’s power grabbing and there’s plenty of power grabbing to go around, isn’t there?

When we abuse the Sacraments of our Lord and use them in ways not intended or teach them in ways not intended – according to the opinions of men and not the Word of God – we are power grabbing; we are trying to control the conversation. When we abuse the Word of our Lord and use it, interpret it in ways not intended and teach it to others in ways not intended – according to the opinions of men – we are power grabbing; we are trying to control God’s voice and tongue. This is precisely what the Pharisees did – control – control the people by controlling the message.

Back in 1517 when Luther presented his 95 Theses, he was calling out the Roman papacy for precisely the same thing. They were controlling the people by controlling the message. The people were ignorant of the Word of God because they had no access to the Scripture; they simply believed what they were told by the priests and bishops and thought it would save them.

Power is taken; authority is bestowed. Jesus did not need the approval of men, of rabbis, of teachers of the law to speak because His authority to preach and teach was from His heavenly Father.

Today God’s church has the same authority. It’s been bestowed upon us. We have no need to submit to the opinions of men and we have no need to grab power for ourselves. We have the Scripture; there are more Bibles in this building than there were in the entire nation state of Germany during Luther’s time! There are more Bibles in this building than there were copies of the Torah in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time on earth. That’s amazing! God’s Word, right here for all of us to read and understand and believe.

And yet, what do we so often do? We don’t read the Bible, do we? Or if we do, we read it alongside some pithy 3rd party interpretation which has nothing to do with God but is just opinions of men.

God calls us to use His authority carefully and respectfully and reverently and not to abuse this authority because as quickly as it has been given, it can be taken away. We are the clay; we are not the potter. We are His workmanship; we are not the Creator. God has given us great freedom to worship Him and believe in Christ our redeemer. Let us use this authority respectfully, honorably, and by His grace, let us learn to bring our beliefs – what we confess and what we have learned from Christ – to others in our community.

And here’s the thing. God did not give the authority to grow His church, to share the Gospel, to draw sinners to repentance, He did not bestow this authority merely to pastors and say to rest of the Church, “you can sit and watch and then complain when the church doesn’t grow.” No, God gave the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, to His CHURCH, to every man, woman, and child who is baptized in His name and living under His authority as an heir of His kingdom. He has bestowed this authority to YOU! To you. You have the authority to speak up, to defend the faith, to share the Gospel, to call sinners to repentance, to invite them to church.

But to use this authority reverently and respectfully and honorably, you need to get over your own opinions and reservations, you must learn to stop being a filter for God’s Word or a stumbling block in the way of the lost.

Here’s what I’m trying to say…Neither you nor I have the authority to change God’s Word, to change the Scripture when we think it’s inconvenient or uninviting or uncomfortable.

And don’t get me wrong, our society and our modern philosophy of “church” is all about abusing authority, changing the Word of God when it becomes inconvenient.

Luther writes concerning the first commandment: “[That upon] which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

What IS your god? If your god is “growing the church as quickly as you can,” then you will change whatever you can to appease your god even if it means abusing the authority given by the one true God who is forever praised. If your god is “making everyone in church feel welcome and comfortable,” then what will you compromise for your god? If your god is sin and living like the world, then how far will you go to appease your god? If your god is your own puffed-up shadow where you’re always looking to yourself for truth, then how far will you go to appease your own shadow; how disobedient will you be to the one true God in order to make yourself important?

The one true God calls us to use the authority He has bestowed honorably and respectfully. False gods will always call you to compromise for them and change for them and be a sellout for them. As a pastor, I am under the authority of God and His Word. There are things I just can’t do and things I just can’t let you do. And as people who are also under the authority of God, you ought not expect or demand any differently from me. You should never seek or be open to abusing the authority you’ve been given but to regard it as sacred and to use it as you’ve been taught.

So, what have we learned today about authority? We learned that there is a difference between authority bestowed and power taken. We learned that the Pharisees wielded power over the people and abused the authority given them by God. We learned that Jesus has received all authority of heaven and earth from His Father and He uses His authority to save sinners like you and me from hell by choosing to give His life to the powers of evil men, but then rising again and triumphantly crushing evil under His heel.

We learned that we, God’s holy Church, have received authority to confess His name and speak His Gospel to the world, to our neighborhood, to our families, to our friends, but that we must not abuse this authority by filling our words with human opinions or by filtering the message through deceptive ideas, but to instead confess His word plainly, faithfully, fully, and with zeal.

But we also learn one more thing. God has set us apart, called us by name, chosen us, and made us His holy people. He has filled us with good and abundant works of faith and given us the freedom to use these works for others. He has made us as Jesus before the world. No, we’re not perfect, not like our Lord Christ, but it doesn’t matter. We are His servants, His witnesses, and if you want to see this church grow, then it is as simple a thing as inviting people to church. No walls, no human limits or opinions, no deceptions. Invite them. Tell them what we believe. Tell them that we celebrate and use historic liturgies and hymns sung by Christians for centuries. Tell them we have the Sacraments as given by our Lord and that we hold them in high esteem. Tell them we have the Scripture and the boldest and brazenest confession of faith of any church in the world, hands down. Don’t be ashamed of what, in Christ, God has given you; don’t get caught up in man’s opinions about what is and isn’t inviting and loving and affirming, but celebrate Christ and His Word and embrace it and rejoice because His Word and promises have saved you and brought you near to God, and there are still so many who, like you, must be snatched from the fire.

If you are constantly second-guessing what we believe and how we practice our beliefs, then how do you expect anyone to take you seriously, to see you as a person of authority? But, if you embrace the great authority given you by God and you do not abuse it, but faithfully use it to serve your neighbor and draw sinners to Christ, then you are doing the work of the Lord.

Christ Jesus your Lord did not bend to those who sought power and control, but He turned the tables on them by showing them their hypocrisy and irreverent power grabbing. He did this because He is the boss; He’s in charge, and He has bestowed great authority to His whole church to be used for His name and glory, to confess His Gospel to the world and bring sinners to repentance. Amen.