Scripture - Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Philippians 2:1-13 (NRSV)
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the NPR news quiz “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” – it’s hosted by Peter Segal with Bill Kurtis and includes a celebrity panel – usually a collection of comedians and humorists – that provide a funny commentary on the week’s news while ordinary people call in to answer questions. The first game is “Who’s Bill This Time” where Bill Curtis reads a quote said that week and the first contestant has to guess who said it or what the quote is referring to. Most times it’s pretty easy to figure out from context what the quote refers to, but sometimes it’s a bit more challenging.
We live in an age when figuring out who actually said what can be pretty hard. Take a scroll through Facebook and note the blanket statements that encourage people to “COPY AND PASTE IF YOU AGREE!” (usually written in all caps). Or posts that attribute an author without citation. Or images with statements on them that are clearly meant to play to our emotions. I just took a quiz last night from the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub where you had to guess if the profile they showed you from Twitter or Instagram or Facebook was a real person or a Russian troll.
Or even – and this is the case if you’ve ever been a part of any community – you get the “many people are saying” or “I know of someone for whom” or “I heard from x that y person said z about whatever current controversy is flaring its head at the current moment.” There are rumors of every sort flying around the internet about everything from what mask-wearing *really* does to your lungs to who were the real violence inciters at the latest protest to people stockpiling supplies for post-Election Day and everything in between. It’s almost like you have to scrutinize everything you hear and read:
Who said it? What did it relate to? Did the speaker really mean it? Is it someone trying to cause more trouble? Is it truth or fiction or what was the person trying to do in saying what they did?
We live with the constant influx of all that information. Or misinformation. Or - who knows what it is.
In our text from the gospel of Matthew this morning, Jesus is in the Temple. It’s the day after he arrived in Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna and save us - the day we remember and celebrate as Palm Sunday. But what’s important to remember about this story is that upon his arrival, Jesus goes straight to the Temple to overturn the tables of the money changers and lenders - in an act that had nothing to do with the Jewish worship practices and everything to do with the fact that these people exchanging foreign currency for local coin were gouging people who had come to offer sacrifices, thus exploiting and harming the poor and preventing access to God. Jesus, in this act, opens the Temple to all and he sticks around to offer healing to the blind and lame who come to him. The chief priests and scribes were none too pleased about the crowds gathering to honor Jesus, and so he leaves and spends the night in Bethany.
But the next day he comes back. He comes back and goes right back into the Temple, which is where we find the exchange we heard read for us this morning - again with the chief priests. And boy, do they have a question for Jesus:
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Like - who told you you could come up in here and shake things up?
In traditional rabbinic fashion, Jesus answers them back with a question - a question that made the chief priests pause and gulp and realize, “well, if we say this, he’ll say that - and if we say that, other people will be mad, and we can’t risk that, so let’s just hedge our bets and say “We don’t know.” Does that kind of maneuvering sound familiar?
The chief priests wrestle with Jesus’s authority - and also with that of John the Baptist. Does it come from human origin or heavenly? Does John - and by proxy, Jesus - have authority because of the will of the masses, or is Jesus truly who he says he is - the Son of God? And if he is the Son of God, well, shoot -- what does that mean for how we live now?
Authority these days is under constant negotiation. We don’t know who to trust anymore - when the CDC publishes information and then withdraws it, when there’s the constant undercurrent of anything published by journalists as “fake”, when believing one thing gets labeled you as a sheeple and unable to think for yourself, when faith in our system of governance is crumbling by the hour, when facts and statistics are manipulated to support whatever argument anyone wants to make, when character assassination draws attention away from injustices in our system – the foundations of what made our society work are falling apart at the seems...and all these competing claims on who and what to believe are all fighting to hold sway in our lives.
And so perhaps the question for us as I think about our text this morning and about our current landscape isn’t so much about by whose authority Jesus is doing these things – but about whose influence holds authority with us? Who are we trying to please? Who are we ultimately serving? Both in our words…and in our actions.
Both Jesus - and his challengers - knew that God was the ultimate authority. There’s no question in that. And that’s no less true for us today, as we consider the influences in our own lives. God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s hopes and dreams should be at the forefront of our lives - and as we search for ground to cling to, as we search for resonances of truth in the world around us, the movement of God’s spirit should allow us to evaluate what is in line with what God wants for us and for the world - and what isn’t.
Of course, that isn’t to say that we disregard facts or science or deem what others are experiencing as invalid - what it does challenge us to do, however, is to bring God’s perspective as we seek to evaluate information, as we consider whether or not what we heard through the grapevine should carry weight within us, as we think about whether or not we should really reshare that picture on Facebook poking fun at the other side, as we look to respond to the world around us, as we look to serve one another in love, as we look to witness to God’s reign of peace and justice among us.
I think about the Philippians passage. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...Therefore, my beloved, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
For me, this is one of the metrics I use - this text from Philippians - as I look to allow God’s voice, God’s will, God’s hopes for me and the world to have more airspace in myself, to allow God’s influence to have more authority over me. Am I serving my own interest - or that of others? And when I think about others, I’m not just thinking about the people in my immediate life, most of whom look like me or behave like me, I’m also thinking about the others who Jesus would have stood with - the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the disregarded, the people that Jesus lifted up in his ministry. Am I patterning my actions and attitudes around Jesus, who had the highest privilege as being God incarnate and yet handed it over so that others - humanity - could be fully alive? Am I basing my decisions or responses to the world around me on my own fears and insecurities or am I acting in acknowledgement that it is God who is at work in my life - enabling me to will and work for the sake of God’s goodness and delight in God’s children?
Those are the kinds of things that I want to have more authority in my life, and when I look out in the world, being able to find places of care and compassion, places of radical love and hospitality, places where people sit together in the broken spaces, places where pride and privilege and power kneel to serve the lonely and the least - those places are of God, and that means being able to see God working even in the most desperate and difficult of circumstances...and perhaps that means also that I can consider what God might be trying to say instead of what else might be trying to get in the way.
Whose authority and influence matters? God’s. Who should we be trying to please? God yearns for us to live in ways that point to the kingdom Christ ushered in. Who should we be serving? Not ourselves or our own interests, but those of others. And if a few Temple tables are turned over in the process - well - God gives us the ability to be co-creators of the kingdom, to be witnesses of God’s justice and righteousness, to be a part of making a different world, which means that we will come up against values and systems that the world holds as authoritative.
But my encouragement for all of us is this - reading again the words of Paul in Philiipians, but this time from The Message:
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.