Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21A)
September 27, 2020
Text: Matt. 21:23-32
By what authority are You doing these things? Who gave You this authority? Just who do You think you are? That is ultimately the question the Chief Priests and elders are asking this morning. There is no question, Jesus has been teaching the people with authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:29), who would cite all the varying opinions of the rabbis, but couldn’t give a firm answer to save their life. And He acted with authority, healing diseases, cleansing lepers, casting out demons. He had authority over life and death, raising the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, His dear friend Lazarus. And He had the authority to forgive sins: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven… But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Rise, pick up your bed and go home” (Matt. 9:2, 6; ESV).
Now our Lord has come into Jerusalem to the exultant cries of the people: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9). “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey” (v. 5). He is riding in to set things right. He is riding in to die. And the people spread their cloaks before Him, in deference to His authority. He comes into the Temple like He owns them place. He drives out those buying and selling and overturns the tables of the money-changers. He upsets the whole system of righteousness by the Law, the big business of sacrifice. “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (v. 13). And now it is Tuesday of Holy Week, and here Jesus is in the Temple, teaching the people with authority, as though there were nothing wrong with the events of the previous two days, and the Chief Priests and elders want to know: Just who do You think you are?
For if Jesus has the authority to do these things, they do not have the authority. Jesus has authority over them. He’s a threat! He is a threat to their power. He is a threat to their way of life. He is the true High Priest, the Good Shepherd, the Pastor, the King. He is Messiah, the Son of God. So there is only one thing to do to mitigate this threat. Kill Him. Who do you think You are? We’ll show you the truth of it. You are nobody. You are nothing. Not before our authority and power. And to make this clear to all, we’ll crucify You.
And what about you? You understand, do you not, that as Jesus comes to you, He will drive out your own greed and lust and upset your own way of life, your whole system of self-righteousness? When Jesus comes to you to make you His Temple, He comes in like He owns the place, and He teaches you with authority and expects that His Word will transform you. It will break you down and be the death of you, that He may rebuild you in His own image and raise you to new life.
If Jesus has such authority, you do not. Jesus has authority over you. And Old Adam understands, He is a threat! He is a threat to Old Adam’s power. He is a threat to Old Adam’s way of life. He is the true High Priest who makes the sacrifice for your sins, to purchase you as His own, to live under Him in His Kingdom. He is your righteousness. Your own good works and sacrifices are not. He is your Good Shepherd, which means you are His sheep. He is your Pastor, and He insists that you hear His sermon. He is your King, the Messiah, the Son of your God.
What can you do to mitigate this threat? Well, you cannot crucify Him anew. That is over and done. The sacrifice is complete. But you can, as the Chief Priests and elders did, as did the Pharisees and the whole Jewish religious establishment, deny Him. Reject Him. Plug your ears to Him. Not allow His Word free course. In other words, refuse to repent and believe the Gospel.
The Chief Priests and elders rejected God’s preacher, St. John, and his baptism of repentance. While they feared the crowds, who considered John to be a prophet, they would not acknowledge John’s authority from heaven. So it is no surprise that, having rejected the preaching of God’s Word, they rejected the Word Himself as He came to them in the flesh.
Now, understand, these were the great religious men of their day. They were respected, revered as holy men. But they were like the son in Jesus’ parable who said he would go and work the field, be faithful, be obedient, but did not go. So it is with Old Adam when he poses as a pious Christian. He says all the right things pertaining to faithfulness. He positions himself as an upstanding citizen, perhaps even a regular Church-goer. He even does some really good stuff that puts a shimmer and shine on his reputation. But he will not hear this preaching of repentance. For that would mean the death of him. It would be to submit to an authority not his own. And he will not receive Jesus as his righteousness and life, for that would mean a whole new creation emerging and arising to live in his place.
The man who insists on living by his own authority, his own righteousness, his piety, and the illusion of autonomy… The man who will not hear John’s preaching of repentance or follow his bony finger pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world… That man will be shocked to see tax collectors and prostitutes entering the Kingdom of God before him. For real sinners know what they are. They know who they are and they know what they’ve done. There is no denying it. So they simply confess it. They make no claim to any authority of their own in spiritual matters. They’re just desperate to be saved. And John points them to the only One who can do it, and there He is, arms extended to receive them as His own and eat with them. He teaches them what it is to belong to Him, and He forgives their sins. And He has authority to do it. To that the miracles attest.
These tax collectors and prostitutes, these sinners, are like the son who says he will not go and work. After all, they went their own way. They broke the Commandments of God. They lived and unclean life. And that is sin, make no mistake about it. But that’s just it. They confess it as such. They don’t dress it up. They don’t try to excuse it. They hear and believe the preaching. Repent and behold the Lamb of God who takes away your sin. And they do. They run to Him. They follow Him. They go the way of faithfulness. They go out into the field. Which son did the will of his father? The one who went and did the work. Who does the will of our heavenly Father? The great religious men of the day? Or the tax collectors and prostitutes who repent and believe the Gospel? It is the repentant sinners!
The reality is, they are all sinners. There are no great religious men. There are only sinners who confess their sins, and sinners who deny their sins. It is better to confess them and run to Jesus for forgiveness, for that is the will of your Father in heaven. To deny your sins means death. To confess your sins, and hear and believe the forgiveness of your sins in Jesus, that means life.
This happens when the authority of Jesus takes possession of you in the preaching of His Word. It is a complete renovation. You are crucified with Christ. In Baptism, you die with Him. As He died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, you now die to your sins within yourself. Your whole way of life is turned upside down. It is Jesus in the Temple all over again. But so also, in Baptism, you are raised with Christ. You are His New Creation. The old has passed away. The new has come. He already gives you His life as He teaches you and feeds you with His Body and Blood. And there is the Promise of the resurrection of the body on that great Day.
And He has the authority to do it, because He is risen from the dead. That is the answer to the question posed by the religious leaders this morning. Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly in our text. No, the answer must wait for the great surprise ending of the Gospel. They crucify Him, dead and buried. But on the Third Day He rises from the dead! And if there is any doubt as to His authority, it is annihilated in that earth-shattering moment. Who do you think you are? I AM the Risen One, Jesus says. And “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? God did. I do these things by the authority my Father has given me. And I now bestow that authority upon my disciples, my Church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20). And these are now the marching orders for the holy Church, for you and I, beloved. Upset the whole world. Turn the whole thing on its head. Preach my Word. Take them captive with my Gospel. Do it with all my authority. For “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So we preach. So we believe. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.