Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 18:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Authorities do not enjoy a privileged status these days. Authorities of all kinds have been discredited: in the church, in the government, in business. It seems like just about every day there’s another news item about someone in some position of authority who has abused that authority. We’ve pretty much accepted the slogan of the 1960s, “Question authority.” We don’t trust people just because they’re in positions of authority.
Well, what kind of authority would you accept? On what authority would you accept that something is true? Perhaps it would be someone you know, someone whose life you have seen, who has integrity, whose actions line up with his or her talk. We might not accept what anyone tells us simply because they occupy a position of authority—and I’m not sure how good that is for public life—but we might accept what someone says based on what they’ve done and what their lives are like.
The chief priest and the elders of the people come to Jesus asking a question about His authority, or who gave Him authority to do the things that He does—probably things like turning over tables and driving out sellers and money-changers from the Temple. And maybe they heard about what happens just before this, when Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers and dies. By what authority do You do these things, and who gave You this authority?
I wonder what authority they would accept? What would be the authority by which they would accept what Jesus does and says? There are basically only two authorities, those of people and those of God. These are representatives of God, so presumably they would accept Jesus on the authority of God. They ask the question, and Jesus asks them a question in return. But the answer to Jesus’ question is the answer to their question: Jesus gets His authority from the same place John got his. So where did his authority come from? Where did John’s baptism come from?
That sounds like the question the Pharisees asked John in the Gospel of John: why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, or Elijah, or one of the prophets? In other words, if you don’t have their authority, why are you baptizing? John said, I’m not the Christ, I’m not Elijah, and I’m not one of the prophets. I am the Voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of Yahweh. John’s authority comes from the Word of God, as the fulfillment of the Word God spoke through the prophet Isaiah.
So, chief priests and elders of the people, from where does John’s baptism comes from, God or people? Those are the two possible authorities, and they know what it will mean to answer one or the other. If we say “from heaven,” they think, then He will say, Why didn’t you believe him? Because if those who are supposed to represent God, who have authority from God among His people, don’t believe God when He sends them a messenger, then they cease to have any authority. Their authority exists only so long as they do the things God has given them to do.
But if we say “from people,” we fear the people because they hold that John was a prophet. Jesus had already talked about that, when He asked, What did you go out into the desert to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the voice who is sent to make straight the way for God to fulfill all righteousness in and for His creation. They know what either answer will mean, and so they say, We don’t know. And Jesus says, then I won’t tell you where I get My authority either. Because it’s the same as where John got his.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, which is why we heard verses 28-32 this morning as well. He goes on to ask them another question based on a short parable about a father and two sons. The father asks the first son to go work in his vineyard—Jesus likes parables about working in vineyards—and the first son says, I don’t want to. But then he changes his mind and goes and works. The father asks the second son to go and work, and he says, I will, but then he doesn’t. Which of these did the will of the father?
The answer is neither! The first son said no to his father, and the second didn’t go work. The will of the father is both saying yes and working. It’s good that the first son changed his mind, and it’s good that the second son said yes to his father. But neither do the full will of the father. The leaders of Israel answer that the first son did the will of the father, and it is good that that son went and worked. But Jesus knows their hearts. And the will of the Father is finally condensed down to one thing: believing Him. Jesus says, John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him. And then you saw prostitutes and tax collectors believing him, and after that you still didn’t change your mind and believe him. They’re not on the side of the first son or the second son. They don’t believe, and they don’t repent of their unbelief, even now.
And all of this is about whether Jesus has authority from God or not. Maybe we won’t accept anything because of the authorities. Very few people are going to believe Jesus based on the authority of the church, or the authority of pastors. Authorities do not enjoy any kind of privileged status these days. But maybe we would accept a word based on the authority of one whose life we know and see and who does what He says and says what He does.
And that is precisely the authority we have Jesus on. When the centurion came to Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant, the centurion said he didn’t need Jesus to come to his house in order to do the healing. He said, I have authority, and when I say something, people do it. In other words, he recognizes that Jesus has authority over sickness and health, life and death. If Jesus says a word, by His own authority, the man’s servant will be healed. And He does, and he is.
In the next chapter, people bring a paralytic to Jesus. The first words Jesus says to the man are not stand up and walk. The first words are, Your sins are forgiven. But you can’t see sins being forgiven. Someone might say that, and nothing might actually happen. But Jesus says, In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins—stand up and walk. And the man does. Forgiveness is not only a spiritual reality, it is an entire reality, body and soul. Forgiveness and healing. Jesus has authority.
Every other authority will fail you in one way or another. Either the authority itself will prove to be empty, or the people who occupy those positions of authority will fail in larger or smaller ways. But the authority that Jesus claims is either actual or it is not. Either He has authority over life and death, sin and forgiveness, or He does not. There is no in-between. There is no “we do not know.” There is no standing on the sidelines, objective and observing, standing apart without making a judgment. Not to make a judgment is to make a judgment. To say “I don’t know” is, in the end, to say No, I do not believe.
But the Jesus who claims this authority is not just another authority figure in a word of failed authority figures. He is the one who is risen from the dead, who comes to fulfill all God’s righteousness. When He was baptized by John, John said, I should be baptized by You. But Jesus said, Let it be so for now; it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness. And John, who came in the way of that righteousness, did baptize Him. And then Jesus, after His resurrection, said to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. In that same authority, make disciples by baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” The authority is the authority of the Triune God or it is nothing at all.
The crucified and risen Lord has come to walk on the straight way prepared for Him. He walks it to the cross and through death to the resurrection. He makes a way of righteousness for you and for all people, on which there is no evil or sin or death. There are only those who have believed Him, and by that authority walk in His righteousness. And this authority is in His word when He speaks, just as when He told the man to get up and walk. If He says you are forgiven, you are. If He says you belong to Him, you do. If He says that this is His Body and Blood, it is. If He says get up and walk on the way of righteousness now and in the resurrection, that is the way that John proclaimed and it leads to eternal life.
And those who walk in that way will see Him as He is, risen and ascended and exalted, over every power and authority in this world or in any other, until all things are put under His feet and God is all in all. That you may know that the Son of Man is the Son of God, who has authority to forgive sins, He was raised from the dead and lives eternally. So will all those who belong to Him, prostitutes, tax collectors, pastors and life-long Lutherans, and all the other sinners besides.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/25/20