Monday, September 29, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew 21:23-27
Pentecost 20
“Good and Bad Questions”

The question was this, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, “Jesus, who do you think you are? Where do you get off making a mess of our temple, overturning tables and chasing away our merchants? And just what gives you the right to criticize us, the powers that be? We are the chief priests, the elders of the people! Don't you know who we are?” A lot of questions tied up in this question, “By what authority...?”

Now, when Jesus matches wits with the Jewish leaders – it's never a fair fight. Whether they are trying to trap him with a question about taxes, or about marriage in heaven, or some other funny business, these so-called wise men are perpetually rebuked, defeated, and made to look foolish by the simple country preacher.

They can't even answer a simple question about John the Baptist without a huddle and conference, and even then, the answer is, “we don't know”. They really thought they knew the answer. They just didn't want to say. They were afraid of the crowds that followed Jesus, and would simply find another time, when the crowds were gone. They would get this Jesus yet, or so they thought.

But why the challenge in the first place? Why didn't they believe in Jesus? Why didn't they recognize his authority? Why didn't they listen to his preaching and teaching?

And why don't we (at least, not all the time)? These are good questions, aren't they? In our reading from Phillipians today, Paul warns them not to grumble or question. So are all questions bad? How about the rhetorical one's I'm asking now? Today – the question of questions, and questioning. I think we'll all agree, there are good questions and bad questions.

The bad questions are the questions of rebellion and sin. They are the questions that challenge rightful authority – and are really a challenge to God. This is the kind of question the Jews asked of Jesus. “By what authority....?” they asked, but it was less a question and more an attack, an assertion that he doesn't, in fact, have the authority to do what he does. They thought they were the ones in charge, but that had misused their authority. They ignored John's call to repentance, and they had no use for the good news of Jesus. They weren't interested in the truth, as much as in their own power and prestige, their own precious places of honor.

Jesus turns it around on them. He questions them, and thus exerts, rather than explains his authority. “I'll ask the questions, here” he says, and puts a tough one to them.

When it comes to our questioning, there are certainly good and bad questions. There are simple questions of information - “what's for dinner?”. There are questions of life-long importance, “will you marry me?” And then there are the questions of faith. “What must I do to be saved?” “Can God love even me?” “Do you believe this?”

The Jews ask Jesus a question which is really a challenge, a question of rebellion. Jesus asks them a question of faith. Did they believe in John or not? They took it as a political question, and gave a political answer, looking foolish in the process. But what Matthew reveals is their lack of faith in John's authority, and in Jesus' authority.

Do we trust Jesus' authority? Now there's a question. Our sinful nature sure acts like we are our own authority. We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, according to the convenience of the moment, the pleasures at hand. Then we rationalize away our sins and faults and failings and blame others, blame situations, sometimes even blame God himself. But when the question is posed to us by God's law.... when we hear Jesus saying “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind.... Love your neighbor as yourself”. And when we ask ourselves how we measure up... then we go into a huddle, like the Pharisees. And what will our answer be?

We must answer honestly. We have failed our Lord. We don't love God or man as we ought. We have no good answer for our sin.

And the questions we ask, lacking faith in God, also are without excuse. Now, mind you, it's not that any question is bad. Certainly God's people have questioned, wondered, and sought answers from God. And when done in faith, such questioning is good and proper. Think of the 12 year old boy, Jesus, who questioned the elders at the temple. And they were amazed with his growing wisdom and stature. Or when we ask questions for learning, “what does this mean?” in our catechism... And even those questions of repentance, “Will you forgive me, O Lord?”. These are all good questions.

But when Paul says not to grumble and question, this is a different thing. This kind of questioning challenges and doubts God. It places our own wisdom above his. This is the questioning of pride, which seeks to make God answer to us, which puts God to the test. We are in no place to judge him, and yet we so often forget our place.

So how does God answer? To the bad questions – sometimes he does not answer. Like Jesus, “neither will I answer you”. Some questions don't deserve an answer, because they are not really questions but challenges. And God is not subject to us. Other bad questions get answers we might not like to hear. Questions of doubt and rebellion might be met with stern rebuke, or harsh words of law.

But those good questions – God answers them with Good News. His word is a treasure trove of answers for questions of faith.

Q: “Who then, can be saved?”
A: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

Q: What will happen when I die?
A: Fear not. Christ is risen, and we too shall rise.

Q: Will God hold my sins against me?
A: Your sins are forgiven. Now go and sin no more.

Q: Does God really love me? A: For God so loved the world he sent his only Son.

All good questions, and the answers are good news. For when we come to God through Christ, in repentance and faith, we always find our answer. And that answer is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners like me.

“By what authority do you do these things?” they asked. Bad question. “Jesus, what word do you have for me today?” A good question. Hear today his word of forgiveness and love. And believe it, for his sake. In his name, Amen.

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