On Friday night we had the opening service of our diocesan synod at All Saints’ Cathedral. Earlier in the evening in the foyer of the cathedral there was a lot of activity – registration tables, a light supper, some displays and information for delegates to take in. People were milling around, many of them rather smartly dressed, and as we got closer to the starting time some people in robes started to appear. There was the bishop, wearing her cope and mitre, obviously a rather important person. Eventually the service began with an opening procession into the cathedral – the choir, the leading clergy of the Diocese, followed by the bishop. In processions like this, the person who comes last is always the most important person, and in this case there was no doubt who was in charge!
Now – imagine that about half an hour before the service a well-known religious rebel comes into the cathedral foyer. He’s not ordained, has never been to any seminaries, doesn’t have any official position in the Diocese of Edmonton, but he’s got a name for clever teaching and spending time with the poor and needy. Imagine he sets up a display in the foyer with a microphone and starts addressing the people as they come in to register for synod. He just assumes he’s got the right to do this, even though he hasn’t asked permission beforehand. Pretty soon a huge crowd is gathering around because he’s a good speaker and he knows how to get their attention. Before long no one is paying any attention to anything else going on, and archdeacons and cathedral deans are looking nervously at their watches, wondering when he’s going to stop so that they can begin the opening service of Synod. And the question on the minds of all the people in authority is the natural one: Who does this guy think he is, waltzing in here like this and taking over our Synod service?
And that’s the question in the back of people’s minds in our gospel for today. We’re close to the end of Jesus’ ministry; the cross is only four days away. For months rumours about Jesus have been buzzing around. He’s a wonderful teacher who can hold the attention of an enormous crowd. He’s got the common touch; ordinary people love listening to him. He’s done hundreds of amazing miracles, healing sick people and even raising the dead. He’s broken all sorts of barriers, spending time with women and children and Roman soldiers and tax collectors and sinners.
So who does he think he is? A lot of people see him as a prophet, sent by God with a message for Israel at this point in her history, but some of the leaders see him as a false prophet, trying to make a name for himself and leading Israel astray. A true prophet wouldn’t be so soft on outcasts and sinners like Jesus is! Some people are even using the word ‘Messiah’ – the king like David who would set God’s people free from their enemies and establish God’s righteous kingdom on earth. But Jesus wasn’t behaving like a politician or a king; he wasn’t raising an army or proposing policies or leading a rebellion against the Romans. He himself used the term ‘Son of Man’ for himself – a very ambiguous phrase. It might just mean ‘human being’, but in the book of Daniel there’s a mysterious passage about ‘one like a Son of Man’ who comes before the throne of God and is rewarded with power and authority and an everlasting dominion over all the people on earth. Is that who Jesus thinks he is? And if it is, is he quite right in the head?
Then comes what we now call ‘Palm Sunday’. Jesus and his disciples are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover; they’ve been gathering a crowd as they’ve made the journey from the north, and when they get to Jerusalem Jesus stages a triumphal entry into the city right out of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah:
‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Zechariah 9:9).
So Jesus rides into the city on a donkey’s colt; his disciples cut palm branches and shout ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ A huge crowd gathers to greet him. Once he’s in the city he goes straight to the Temple and totally disrupts it; he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out all the buyers and sellers, quoting Jeremiah to them: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 20:13).
And for some reason the authorities do nothing. Maybe it’s the presence of the huge crowd; maybe they sense that if they try to oppose this popular young prophet, they might be taking their lives in their hands, even though there are Roman guards to back them up, just a stone’s throw away in the Fortress Antonia. The last thing they want is a riot in the temple courts; the Romans will not be pleased if that happens. So the leaders fume, and do nothing.
And now it’s Monday morning, and this insufferable young man is back in the Temple again! There’s already a crowd there, but the leaders can’t restrain themselves any longer. There he is, sitting down in the Temple courts with a huge crowd listening as he teaches them. He’s acting as if he owns the place! So the chief priests – the ones who really own the place! – march up to him and ask the question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23).
Now, you’ve been listening to Jesus for a while in this church. Tell me, how likely is he to give a direct answer to a direct question? Not very likely, right?
Except here, there’s method in his madness. You see, the question they really want to ask him is “Are you the Messiah?” If they can get him to say, ‘Yes’, then the Romans will be on board with their agenda right away, because ‘Messiah’ is a political word. The King who sets God’s people free and restores justice and righteousness to Israel is not a popular idea among the oppressors! Any would-be Messiah is deadly dangerous, and the Romans had a lot of practice in crucifying them without mercy.
So what they really want Jesus to say - in public, with hundreds of witnesses – is “You ask me by what authority I’m doing this? Well, duh! Can’t you see? I’m the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king of Israel. God has sent me to set his people free. And you know what, I just happen to be a descendant of the royal house of David, so that’s a nice piece of serendipity, isn’t it?”
But Jesus is too smart by far to do that. He knows there’s a cross ahead for him, but not yet; he’s got a few more things he wants to say and do first, so he’s not about to deliver himself into their hands.
And so he says, “Let me ask you a question in return. When John the Baptist was baptizing people – was that just something he made up out of his own head, or was it God’s work? Was his baptism from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
I can imagine the chief priests and elders looking around nervously at the crowd. John the Baptist had been a very popular figure, and most of the common people saw him as a true prophet of God. But he had been arrested and executed by King Herod Antipas, who was in bed with the Romans, and this had left a very bad taste in most people’s mouths. For the chief priests and elders to denounce John as a false prophet in front of that whole crowd might have been to sign their own death warrant. Jerusalem crowds could be very volatile, and who know whether Jesus would stir them up or not?
So answering their question with this question was a very smart move on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t just arbitrary. He had a personal connection with John the Baptist. If you remember back at the beginning of the gospel story, Jesus had joined the crowd around John at the Jordan River, and had gone down into the water himself to be baptized. And do you remember what happened when he came up out of the water? Yes, the Holy Spirit came down and rested on him, ‘anointing’ him with God’s power and authority for his ministry. The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. So if Jesus truly is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, then John the Baptist is the one through whom the anointing came. So if the chief priests and elders could not recognize the authority of John – if they couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he might have been speaking for God - then they were unlikely to be able to recognize the authority of Jesus either.
But there’s another piece of evidence Jesus is ready to point to, and so he tells the little story of the two sons. Their father goes to the first son and says “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “No way!” the young man replies – but later on he changes his mind and goes. The father then goes to his second son. “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “Sure!” the young man replies – but does nothing about it. His obedience is all words, not actions.
“You guys are like that second son”, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders. “John the Baptist came to you in righteousness with a challenge from God – to repent – but you ignored him. But these tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and they turned from their sins and turned to God because of his preaching. They’re like that first son, the one who refused to obey but later changed his mind and went. And that’s how we know that John’s ministry was from God: he touched the lives of people and brought transformation”.
And this is where this parable hits home for us today, isn’t it?
After all, we believe in Jesus. We’re pretty sure we’ve got the right answer to that question “By what authority are you doing these things?” We know who he is! In our epistle for today Paul says,
‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).
By what authority is he doing these things? By the authority of God! We know that in Jesus God has come among us in a unique and powerful way. When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of God through him. This is what we Christians believe. In a few moments we’ll stand up together and announce it yet again: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord”.
And we’ve heard his word of grace. Remember, ‘grace’ is the Bible word for God’s unconditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. We’re not disqualified from it because our skin’s the wrong colour or we were born in the wrong country. This ‘amazing grace’ comes even to ‘a wretch like me’ – even though I fall far short of God’s plan for me. I might not look outwardly like one of those tax collectors and prostitutes, but there are lots of less visible ways that I haven’t loved God with all my heart and my neighbour as myself.
But that’s okay. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What we’ve done - or failed to do - in the past does not disqualify us from receiving God’s invitation. God starts with everyone right where they are. “Come to me”, he says, and that invitation goes out to everyone.
But we do have to come. We can’t just sit there and say, “Isn’t it wonderful? God sent Jesus to call us back to him! He’s the real Messiah, you know!” – and then do nothing about it!
This is particularly important for those of us here who have made baptismal promises – and most of us here have made those promises, either at our own baptisms or someone else’s. In those promises we committed ourselves to turning away from sin and evil. We said we would turn to Jesus, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and follow him as our Lord. In other words, his teaching and example would be the pattern for our lives, and we would commit ourselves to learning to follow that pattern – always knowing that when we failed, his forgiving love would be ready there to catch us.
But here’s the danger for liturgical Christians like us: these words on the page can be – well, just words on the page. We can say them with our lips, but not believe them in our hearts or live them out in our lives. And if we do that, they’re not really worth anything.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about people who try to follow Jesus and fail – we all do that. I’m talking about people who mouth words with their lips but have no intention of practising them. People who stand for the gospel reading on Sunday and say ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ when they hear the words of Jesus, but then go out on Monday with a knowing smile and say to themselves “Well, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t really work in the business world, does it?” Or, “I’ll get to it one day – but today is not that day!”
Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? Who is the wise man who builds his house on the rock? Just the one who hears the words of Jesus, or recites them? No: the one “who hears these words of mine and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24). May God give us grace today to do that.