Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 21)
October 1, 2017
Text: Matt. 21:23-32
The question is one of authority. Who authorized Jesus to do and speak as He did? Who authorized Him to enter Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:10; ESV)? Who authorized Him to cleanse the Temple, driving out the merchants and the money changers, and calling the sacred precincts, “My House” (v. 13; emphasis added)? These are the events just prior to our text. Who authorized Jesus to criticize and rebuke the Pharisees and Scribes, the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people? Just who does this Jesus think He is, anyway? And it is an incredibly important question, that of authority. Because it makes all the difference between whether Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior… or a self-appointed, delusional (or fraudulent) maniac. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (v. 23). Jesus answers the Chief Priests and Elders with a similar question. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (v. 25). What authority did John have to preach and to baptize, to call the people to repentance, hear their confession of sin, and baptize them for forgiveness? Was John’s ministry from God, or from man? For if John’s ministry is from man, he is a counterfeit prophet. But if John’s ministry is from God, then you must believe him, including and especially his testimony about Jesus, that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). So the answer to both questions is one and the same. Jesus’ authority to do and speak as He does is the same as that of John. And despite the Jews’ inability to answer the question, the conclusion is inescapable. The authority is that of the living God, who made heaven and earth.
The question of authority is as important to you as it was to them. Because you follow the authority you believe to be legitimate. Unbelievers don’t think Jesus has divine authority. They believe His authority is from man. So they don’t follow Him. You Christians believe Jesus’ authority is from the Father in heaven, and from His own nature and essence as God in human flesh. So you believe His Word and you trust Him for the forgiveness of sins, salvation, daily help and assistance, and provision for your every need of body and soul. You trust Him because you believe He has authority to deliver these things. And so also you believe that He exercises authority in His Church through the ministry of the Word. So you believe the Absolution spoken by your pastor. You believe what he teaches and preaches. You believe what you hear from his mouth about water being a Baptism of rebirth and renewal, about bread and wine being Christ’s true Body and Blood. You believe it, not because you believe in the man under the robes, but because you believe in the Christ who sent him. You believe in the divine authority of the Words spoken in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus. The question of authority is vital. Because the forgiveness of your sins and your eternal salvation hang in the balance. This is a matter of eternal life and death.
The problem comes when we let our own authority trump that of Jesus. Of course, we have no real authority, but we think we do. And we think others do. We are so puffed up by our own perceived authority, power, prestige. We believe we are the judges of good and evil. We say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who would…” do this, that, or the other thing we disagree with or that doesn’t fit our definition of love. And so we make the same mistake Adam and Eve made in the Garden. You can just hear Eve saying to herself, “I just can’t believe in a God who would withhold from us fruit that is so pleasing to the eye, good for food, and able to make one wise.” And Adam saying, “I just can’t believe in a God who wouldn’t want me to make my wife happy by eating this food she has set before me. After all, it’s just a little bite, and how can God be so judgmental when my wife and I are acting out of love for one another?”
The reality is, though, Adam and Eve had no authority to take and eat. And the serpent had no authority to speak to them. And the authority Adam and Eve thought they possessed, was, in reality, slavery to demonic deception. Just as our own perceived authority is, in reality, that same slavery to deception. In other words, there is nothing autonomous, self-determining, about this. It’s all an illusion, a deception from the evil one. The reality is, too, that our perceived authority is beholden to the unbelieving world. We pander to the wise of this world, the elite, the influential powers, the culture, and we shape our opinions accordingly. We trust in the media. We worship our entertainers, even calling them idols. We believe our politicians can save us from ruin, disaster, and death. Because we trust their authority above that of Jesus! And most of all, we trust ourselves. Why is the authority of Jesus and His Word such a threat to us? Because it threatens our idols, and chiefly the idol of self. If Jesus has authority over me, I can no longer live for myself, for my own pleasure, power, and wealth. If Jesus is my King, He rules over me by His Word, and my every thought must be taken captive to Him. If Jesus is my Judge, I must confess I have no righteousness of my own, but only sin, rebellion, and death. If Jesus is my Savior, I must give up all thoughts of saving myself. I must admit that I have been deceived, that I am in slavery to the devil. I must admit that it takes the blood and death of God to free me from my chains. If Jesus has the authority, I do not. And if Jesus has the authority, I must die. I must daily die in repentance and confession of my sins. I must daily emerge and arise from the waters of my Baptism to live before God in the newness of life that is the life of Christ, under His authority, in His Kingdom, with His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness as my own.
The incredible reality is that this Jesus, God in human flesh, the eternal Son of the Father, through whom all things were made and by whose Word of power all things are held together… this One who has authority over all things in heaven and on earth, submitted Himself to us, for us and for our salvation. He submitted Himself to the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people, submitted Himself to Pontius Pilate and the Roman Government, to the soldiers, the whips, the nails, and the wood. He who is without sin submitted Himself to our sin, bearing its burden. He who is the Life submitted Himself to our death. He who is the beloved of the Father submitted Himself to the Father’s wrath. For us. For you. For me. To bring our sin to justice. To cancel our debt to God. To render the full payment for our sin by His Blood.
But in submitting to this authority, He takes the authority captive. He seizes the authority of death by dying. He snatches away the authority of sin by drowning it in the water and blood flowing from His pierced side. He crushes the authority and the very head of the serpent by taking the serpent’s venom into Himself. All of that false authority is at an end in Christ. He has taken the authority for Himself. He is risen from the dead. And He leads a host of captives in His train. The tax collectors and prostitutes go marching into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 21:31). For they believe the preaching of John. They repent. They recognize the authority of the preaching. They believe the authority of Christ who forgives their sins and calls them out of captivity to new life in Himself. And so you. You hear the preaching of repentance. You believe it has divine authority. So you repent. You repent of your idolatry. You repent of your self-determination. You repent of following after every false authority. You confess your sins. And now you listen only for the voice of Jesus. You take every thought captive to Him. For His is the voice of forgiveness. His is the voice of salvation. His is the voice of life.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given by God to our Lord Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20). It is on that authority that Jesus commands His Church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. We are gathered by His authority into one holy Christian and apostolic Church. And He is with us always to the very end of the age. The question of authority has been answered decisively in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He is the Word of the Father. And with all the authority of Almighty God, He bespeaks you righteous. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 22)
October 8, 2017
Text: Matt. 21:33-46
In the Old Testament, God planted the Vineyard of His people, Israel. With them He established His covenant. He made them His own. Not because they were a big nation, or a strong nation, or even a holy nation prior to His call, but by grace, because God’s love does not find its object already loveable, but it creates its object out of that which is unlovable. They were His people, because He declared it so. And He was their own, their God, a God for them and not against them, who released them from their bondage in Egypt, brought them through the wilderness by way of the Red Sea, gave them His Word, His commandment, and the blood of His sacrifices to cover their sins. He dwelt with them in the Tabernacle, seated upon the mercy seat, enthroned between the cherubim. He went with them and led them through the wilderness, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He saved them from their enemies with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He brought them through the Jordan and into the Promised Land. He drove out the nations before them and settled them in a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where every man enjoyed his inheritance, possessed his own plot and his own vine and fig tree. It was a holy dream that puts the American dream to shame. And it all pointed to something even bigger. From this nation would come the One, the Promised Messiah, who would save Israel and all people from their sins.
Yes, through Abraham’s children, through Israel, through the Promised Seed, the Savior, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God expanded His covenant, expanded the walls of His Vineyard, to include people from every nation, tribe, people, and language. In the New Testament, Israel is the Holy Christian Church. She is the Vineyard. And here you are, seated comfortably in the pew, planted firmly in the Vineyard. By grace. God has made you His own. Not because you deserved it. Not because you merited it. But because God is good. And He is your God, a God for you and not against you, who has released you from your bondage to sin and death and brought you through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism, given you His Word and Gospel and the blood of the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for your forgiveness and life. He dwells with you here, in the Vineyard, in His Word and holy Sacraments. Jesus dwells with you here, on the altar, enthroned between the candles. He leads you through the wilderness of this fallen world into the Promised Land of Heaven and the Resurrection of the dead! In this Vineyard, Christ is the Vine, you are the branches. As long as you abide in Him, you bear much fruit, but apart from Him, you can do nothing (John 15:5). The Kingdom is yours, beloved. And here you are in the Vineyard to drink wine with the Master, His true blood, poured out for you.
In the parable, the Master of the House is God the Father. The fruit He seeks is mercy and forgiveness and love for your neighbor, fruit that blossoms out of faith in the Master. The tenants are the religious leaders, the chief priests and Pharisees. The servants are the prophets. And that is something worth thinking about. The priests (i.e. the Sadducees) and the Pharisees (i.e. the rabbis), do not act like the servants God has called them to be. They act like tenants whose only ambition is to make money and live in luxury. So God sends His servants, the prophets. He sends them to preach. He sends them to call the people, including the clergy, back to faithfulness, to produce good fruit in keeping with their status as the children of God, the fruit of mercy, the fruit of love. But what do they do, these worthless tenants? They persecute the servants of the living God. They beat one, kill another, and stone yet another. They saw Isaiah in two. They cart Jeremiah off to Egypt and kill him there. They murder Zechariah the son of Berechiah between the altar and the sanctuary. Yet God, in an act of unimaginable grace, sends even more servants than the first. He keeps sending His prophets, keeps sending His Word. Still, the people do not listen. They plug their ears, kill the prophets, and stone those sent to them. It’s enough to make one weep. But God does not give up. In an act of mercy beyond all telling, to make the tenants His own once again, He sends not a servant, but His Son. “They will respect my son,” He says (Matt. 21:37; ESV). And what do they do? Well, you know the story. It is the foundational story of the holy Christian Church, and that upon which the whole destiny of the world hangs. They throw Him out of the Vineyard, outside the walls of Jerusalem. They nail Him to a tree and lift Him up between two criminals and leave Him there to die, accursed, writhing in agony, heaving for every breath that gives Him no relief, but keeps Him alive all the longer to suffer. The stone has been rejected by the builders. The Master’s Son has been abused and murdered. His own people have rejected their Messiah.
Therefore, what will the Master do to those wicked tenants? That is the question, and we all have a stake in it, for we are all, according to the flesh, the wicked tenants who nailed our Lord Jesus to the cross by our sins. We all have failed to produce the fruits of repentance and faith, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We all have failed to hear and heed the Word of the Lord, proclaimed by His prophets, to hold the Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. And we… we put Him there on the wood. We did it. We don’t get to use the old excuse that we’re innocent by virtue of not yet being born. It is just as much our sin that nails the Lord as it was the Jews and the Romans. What will He do to us? How is God toward us now that we have crucified His Son?
He does not do what human justice demands. The beautiful thing is, our gracious Father in heaven uses that very death of His Son on the cross, not as a reason to throw us out and put us all to a miserable death, but to save us. The incomprehensible mystery of the Gospel is this: The Father sends His Son for this purpose, that He bear our iniquity and suffer and die as payment for our sin. And that in His death, we receive the inheritance, the Vineyard, the very Kingdom of God. The tenants were right in this respect: In killing the Son, the inheritance is ours. And the stone the builders rejected? It has become the cornerstone, the chief stone in the building of the Holy Christian Church. For Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. This is the Day that the LORD has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Your sins are forgiven. Your debt is paid in full. The Vineyard is yours. And you reign with the Son of God in the Kingdom of His Father.
Unless, of course, you don’t want this indescribable gift. He will not force you. This is the issue with the Jews, the chief priests, the Pharisees, the scribes. Even after they crucified the Lord of glory, God sent His servants. He sent the Apostles and Evangelists. To this very moment He sends His pastors. There is still room for repentance and faith. But the time is short. For Jerusalem, the time was up in the year A+D 70. By then the Gospel had been preached. They had Jesus Himself for three years, preaching and healing and casting out demons, not to mention raising the dead. They had all the signs that accompanied His death: the darkness, the earthquake, the tearing of the curtain, and the bodies of the saints popping out of their graves alive! And they had the eyewitness accounts of His own bodily resurrection from the dead. What more did they need? The Apostles preached, and the Apostles died. James, at the very least, died at the hands of the Jews. Stephen was stoned to death with the future St. Paul standing by, nodding his approval. And Paul goes to Rome where he will eventually be martyred because of the accusations of the Jews. At some point, God gives unbelievers what they want. He forsakes them. He will not force Himself on them as a Father. But He is the only true God, and if they will not have Him in His mercy, they will have Him in His wrath. Jerusalem serves as the warning. In A+D 70 the Romans lay siege. They sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple. Let this be a solemn warning for all who persist in rejection of Jesus. There is a hell. What happened to Jerusalem will happen to you outside of Christ.
But you who are in Christ, baptized into Christ, who live and dwell in Christ, and Christ in you, you who believe the preaching of God’s servants… Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Yours is the Vineyard. And you are not tenants. You are sons. Yes, even you daughters, you are sons in this sense: You are the heir. You get the inheritance. With Jesus Christ, who died, and who is risen from the dead. And here we are, beloved, gathered into the Vineyard where the Holy Spirit has planted us, and the Father spreads His Table before us, where the Son Himself serves up a Feast, His Body, His Blood, vintage wine and the Bread of Life. Yes, this is the Lord’s doing, this Feast of resurrection joy. And it is marvelous in our eyes. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.