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Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:1-13
Good morning, church. May I begin this morning by asking you a question? Have you ever had your authority questioned? Maybe it was at work or in your position as the leader of an organization, a committee or a ministry. They may have said something like “Who gave you the right to make such a decision?” or “What qualifies you to be the leader of this organization or ministry?” How did you feel when that happened? It probably didn’t feel very good, right? Your pride might have been hurt and you may have even felt a little indignant that people would question your authority like that. So rude!
Well, that is on an individual level. But what about us as a church? Have we experienced what it’s like to have our authority questioned? Yes, countless times. Some churches or Christians may think we are a “twisted” church because of our inclusive beliefs. So radical! Some may even question the authority of this church and that of our pastors and leaders, saying what we are teaching is wrong. How do you feel about that? Indignant perhaps? Maybe a little angry at the unfair and ignorant comments? For some of us, maybe even a little confused because we’re not completely sure that what we believe is right?
So what gives us the true sense of authority as a church? What gives us the personal sense of authority and certainty as a Christian who just happens to be different from other mainstream Christians? How do we respond when people around us question our authority as a church and a Christian? Our lectionary passage today gives us a glimpse at the best example of someone in the Bible who just happened to be very different from the mainstream religious teachers and leaders of his time. In fact, they questioned his authority too because of his unorthodox beliefs and ministry. He was just too inclusive and radical for them and they didn’t like it.
Matthew 21:23-32 (NLT)
The Authority of Jesus Challenged
23 When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to him. They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?”
24 “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. 25 “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”
They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. 26 But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” 27 So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”
And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.
28 “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.
31 “Which of the two obeyed his father?”
They replied, “The first.”
Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.
Jesus had his authority questioned time and time again. That’s because what he did and said was often different and even the complete opposite of what the religious establishments were doing and saying at that time. Does that sound familiar? J And this particular Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 occurred just after Jesus had chased the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, if you remember what Miak preached about last week. Both types of businesses needed the approval of religious authorities to operate in the temple. They provided a necessary service. Only temple currency could be used in the temple, so foreign currency had to be converted to temple currency, usually at outrageous rates of exchange. Animals that were offered for sacrifice had to be free of blemishes as determined by the temple authorities. Both of these services evolved into profitable enterprises, so it is not surprising that the chief priests and elders were upset at what Jesus did. They wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what he did.
When they asked Jesus that quesiton, they were basically asking, “Which famous rabbi did you study with? Are you recognized by the Sanhedrin to make such big decisions and carry out such radical actions?”
· It was an attempt to embarrass Jesus, especially in front of the crowds.
· If He admitted that He had no credentials, the people could be expected to lose respect for Him (which was exactly what the priests wanted, because it was fear of the people that held the priests back from getting rid of Jesus).
· On the other hand, if he considered Himself authorized to do such things without endorsement from the people higher up, wouldn’t he be implying that he has the same rights and position as God? Then they could accuse him of blasphemous behavior.
So Jesus, being so much cleverer than all of them, shot back with a question: “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?” Now, that was kinda a trick question for the priests and elders.
· That’s because John’s ministry was mainly about announcing that the Messiah was about to come and that he was preparing the way.
· John was the first to publicly teach that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 3:11-12; John 1:26-29). That was something that ran counter against what the priests and leaders believed.
But they were afraid that the crowds would mob them if they said John’s authority was not from heaven and merely human because the crowds believed John was a prophet. So the best reply they had for Jesus after much discussion was, “We don’t know.” So Jesus replied by telling them the story of the two sons and if they understood the meaning of that parable, they would know that even the least in their society, the most despised recognized Jesus’ authority and believed. Unfortunately, it was those who thought they were so wise and knowledgeable that wetre unable to or refused to see the truth.
The word “authority” is a strong word. It’s filled with meaning. When we hear the word “authority” there’s a certain force about that word. There may be even a certain intimidation about that word. The word “authority” denotes permission. It denotes privilege. It denotes power. It denotes rule, control, influence. When someone has authority, that means they’re on top of other people. They have responsibility beyond the norm. They are able to determine things, to decide things, to render judgments, to wield certain rights and privileges.
But there is one who has authority that surpasses all other authorities. In Matthew chapter 28 verse 18, Jesus said this, “All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” All authority is given unto me. That is an amazing claim to privilege. That is an amazing claim to power, to permission, to right. And Jesus demonstrated that very well in His ministry. For example, when He had concluded the Sermon on the Mount, it says in Matthew 7:28, “The people were astonished at his doctrine for he taught them as one having authority.” You see, he taught with authority. In their particular culture, that meant he quoted nobody, he footnoted nothing. He didn’t say he had received this truth from some eminent rabbi. The words Jesus addresses to the people immediately give access to the will of the God and to the truth about themselves. He just spoke with authority.
How do we know when someone speaks with true authority?
Yesterday, I was listening to someone share about what they felt was their God-moment during Amplify. It was interesting to hear what he shared and one of the things he mentioned was that there was something about Bishop Yvette Flunder when she went up on the pulpit to speak. He said there was a sense of authority when she was preaching and one could feel the power of the Holy Spirit.
1) People just know! People recognize true authority when they can see and feel God’s heart in and through you.
People instinctively recognized Jesus’ authority. It wasn’t backed by extensive theological training or many certificates. It was something more powerful yet intangible. They could sense it. Something only has true authority when people sense that it comes from God and not from human beings. That’s why knowing God’s heart is important. Connecting with God’s mind and intention is important. Only when something comes from God through us as vessels does it have true authority. People can sense through their spirits whether something has authority. It was true of the people in Jesus’s time. It is true now.
2) People understand true authority and experience its full impact when it is infused by an attitude of humility.
To infuse is to fill, pervade, permate, saturate, inspire our every thought and action.
The second lectionary passage this week highlights this very important point about Jesus. He is the one in whom authority meets humility. That’s why we can’t read the first lectionary passage without reading the second. What is true authority? True authority is preceded by deep humility. One doesn’t exist without the other.
Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2 Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.
3 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. 4 Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.
Deep humility precedes great authority. Often, we humans believe that in order to have authority, we need to push ourselves forward and to boss others around. True authority is born out of a deep humility and it is not something that needs to be flaunted. It is just there. Visible and felt without a need to shout it out. In fact, if you have to keep asserting your authority with people, it means you don’t really have it in their eyes. Jesus had an authority that was felt and sensed by all who came into contact with Him.
His authority came with great humility.
Authority, for human beings, often means possession, power, dominion and success. Instead for God authority means service, humility and love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash his disciples’ feet (cf. Jn 13:5), who seeks our true good, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great that he gives his life, because he is Love.
In the same way, no matter what it is that we are called to do, no matter how talented or gifted we are, we need to learn to walk in true humility and obedience to the will of God to be able to be faithful with the little given us in order that one day, we might be proven to have the character to be able to handle the authority that comes with greater things.
So please let me ask you:
1) How can people see and feel God’s heart in and through you?
Whether you are a leader in church, whether you preach on this pulpit, lead worship, take care of a cell group, serve on the board or council, sing, play or do AV in the worship team, whether you welcome people at the door, wash the communion cups, serve in a Dirty Hands project, participate in a worship service, engage with people both inside and outside the church, how can people see and feel God’s heart in and through you?
How do you cultivate a deeper knowing of God’s heart in your own life? How do you grow more and more to be of one mind with Christ? Is it in spending time with God in prayer, reading and contemplation? Is it in spending quality time with brothers and sisters so we learn how to express God’s heart and love to one another? Is it in serving those who are downtrodden and ostracized so they can perhaps catch a glimpse of God’s heart and love for them in and through you?
2) How can we learn to be of one mind with Christ and grow in our attitude of humility?
Can I ask you how does God teach you humility in your life? This morning, I was reflecting about how God teaches me humility in my own life. And I realized that it was in the hardest moments, the most chaotic moments, the heartbreaking moments that I learnt to see myself and others in a different light. I realized that somehow without the difficult moments, I think it would have been hard for God to change and challenge my thinking and my heart. Because I’m stubborn, I guess. And I’m proud and I think I already know a lot. And I think I’ve experienced a lot. So God had to use the difficult moments to get my attention and knock some sense into me. You know, Bishop Flunder said something in her first keynote message at Amplify. She was talking about the difference between monuments and movements. And she said God often brings about change through chaos. That sometimes there is a difficult and messy birthing process but true transformation takes place from there. And there is no going back. And what she said really left an impact because I was reminded that all the chaotic moments that God has allowed or placed in my life was for me. For my growth. For me to learn to be of one mind with Christ just a little bit more. God was using those moments to humble me, to enable me to see beyond my own limited understandings and to deepen my empathy and compassion for others.
And change through chaos doesn’t just occur in our individual lives. It is occuring right here and now..in our church, in the Christian world, in our communities. What do you think God is trying to do with our lives and our church? What change do you think God is trying to bring about in and through you and me? And it all begins with humility. True authority is preceded by deep humility.
So how does God help you learn humility in your life? Sure, God often uses the difficult times to challenge and change us but you know one very important secret ingredient that is essential in this whole process? Our hearts need to be tender and willing to learn and grow from the pain and chaos. You see, human beings have the tendency to close up, to withdraw, to avoid when we are faced with a painful or difficult situation. Sometimes we run away, sometimes we shut our emotions into a box and push it to the back of our minds, hoping that we don’t ever have to deal with them. Sometimes our hearts become bitter, skeptical and hardened. And we realize that we have lost a certain openness and tenderness in our hearts towards God and people.
Today, I’m not asking you to let down your guard and dig out all your old emotions. What I’m asking you to do is to perhaps reflect on the state of your heart at this present moment. Is a part of your heart closed towards God because of some hurt or resentment that you have been unable to let go? How can we become people of one mind with Christ in humility? How can people sense true authority in our lives? When they see and feel God’s heart in and through us, and when our lives, our actions and our attitudes are infused with humility.
“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”
When people sense true authority in us as Christians and as a church, things start to move. Radical things start to happen. Are you ready to learn and grow in humility, are you ready to let God’s heart be evident in and through you? Are you ready to rock your world?
Let us pray.