Matthew 21:23–32, Exodus 17:1–7
So, if you remember the Old Testament lesson Sharon read last Sunday, the Israelites, escaped from Egypt, were wandering in the wilderness, grumbling, at Moses. What’s the problem, people? Their problem was food. They were bellyaching because “they didn’t have any.” They were “starving.” “Why did you bring us out here in the wilderness without packing lunches?” Wah wah. So, God gave them Manna.
That was last week. This week, the people are protesting again. Now because there’s no “water” in the desert, and they’re “thirsty.” Give an Israelite a cookie. Now they want bread AND water. Wah, wah, wah.
Quick detail you might have missed. Moses informs God they’re picking up stones. They’re getting ready to stage a violent overthrow of their God-given leader. Poll numbers are bad and rocks are plentiful. Even Moses can see the writing on the wall. Forget a second term. He’s not even going to live through the first.
The Israelites are thirsting for change. Clearly, God’s chosen people have a problem with authority.
Meanwhile, over in the New Testament lesson, it’s getting close to Easter. Jesus has made his way to the Holy City of Jerusalem. They just had Palm Sunday. Now, Jesus has entered the sacred Temple. The house of his Father, God. Jesus is angry. And you won’t like Jesus when he’s angry. In a fit of green-eyed rage, he’s just overturned the tables of the moneychangers, chased them out with a whip. And then, writes Matthew:
…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?”
Clearly, the religious folk, religious leaders, have a problem with authority. Or, they think Jesus has a problem with it. Jesus does have a problem with authority, namely, theirs.
Again, authority issues.
Issues with Moses. Issues with Jesus. Issues of Jesus.
Who has authority over you? Over your life?
Do you have authority? How far does it go?
Do you willingly submit to this authority or that? Do you fearfully hand over your authority?
Or are you one of those people who resist authority at all costs?
And what does all this have to do with God? Those are some pretty important questions. It’s not surprising they come up a lot in the Bible.
Americans have a special relationship with authority. Safe to say, it’s complicated.
Look no further than our Founding Fathers for examples.
Folks like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, weren’t fans of authoritarian authority. Remember it was Thomas Jefferson who said:
‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
Don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ‘em
To which King George famously said,
When push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love
You’re on your own now.
These days, questions of authority pop up ‘round the clock.
Don’t question authority.
Question authority, but within limits.
These days, where you stand on authority, and on issues surrounding “The Authorities,” identifies you, classifies you, pins you to a place on the board of this kind or that kind.
Nobody wants to be pinned down. Unless they do it to themselves.
You can identify someone’s stance on authority by the markings on their ballcaps
and their masks.
The “invisible hand” of social media, and the news we choose, and what we wear, or refuse to wear, or the signs in our yard — all work to pin us down as followers of this authority figure, or that authority figure.
It’s not just national politics and electing a Messiah to deliver us from evil.
It’s local. It’s personal.
How we face authority, or hide from authorities, or treat authorities, or claim authority — it all pins us to the ground one way or another.
So, yes. Authority issues are of biblical importance. Always have been. Not just in times of crisis and change. We just see them close up and larger when lives are on the line. When we’re hungering, thirsting in the wilderness. When we’re confronted by people who would buy and sell our sacrifices for their own gain.
That was the situation for Moses. That was the situation for Jesus. Whose authority would they live under? Where would they stand, or fall?
Of course, you know what would Jesus do. We know what Moses would do. But the people? The religious faithful? The Israelites trying to be good and follow God. The chief priests and elders trying to uphold the sanctity of the Holy City, the Holy House of God? Where would their sense of authority, their beliefs about authority, where would they be pinned down?
What authority would the people follow, or choose, or have imposed upon them?
Welcome to 25AD. And welcome to 2020.
Welcome back to the questions Moses and Jesus dealt with.
What authority do you follow? Or choose? Or have imposed upon you?
When you’re at the bottom of the barrel, there’s nowhere to go but up.
The chief priests and the elders of the people who challenged the authority of Jesus had some issues. They didn’t recognize Jesus as the ultimate authority figure he was, so, obviously they were the Bad Guys, right?
As the teaching elder and moderator of session of this congregation, I’m not so sure I want to get all judgy. I’m sure they were just trying to follow their Presbyterian Book of Order. Which would make the priests and elders Good Guys, in my bubble. I wouldn’t want to confront Jesus, but I get where they’re coming from. I have certain responsibilities and obligations in my role, and I’m sure they had theirs. It’s time for Annual Performance Reviews. That sort of thing.
In some ways, I think their problem was a lack of perspective. These religious figures were big fish in a small pond. True, it was God’s pond. And it was their job to protect it from rebels and protesters who overturned tables and chased people with whips. From their perspective, they were justified in their suspicions.
Jesus didn’t appear all that godly. In fact, as the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians chapter 2:
…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
But before he went, Jesus had a point to make with the big fish. He says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Which doesn’t exactly say the priests and elders WEREN’T getting into heaven; but it does say they’re going to have to wait their turn. At the back of the line. Behind the long line of people they had put at the bottom of the social barrel.
When you’re the bottom of the barrel, there’s nowhere to look but up. See the faithful, up top, the ones who challenged the authority of Jesus? Those big fish had no idea who they were without the people down below. You can rise to power by standing on someone’s shoulders, or you can descend to power by kneeling on someone’s neck. Being a big fish in a shallow barrel requires you to maintain order, keep control, exercise your authority because, you know, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Who’s beneath your authority and who’s behind you in line? Jesus leaves them with that humbling thought. If they thought about it, at all.
So, how big is your pond? What authority do you have, and who is it over?
We believe Jesus had all authority in heaven and on earth. He probably could have used Jedi tricks to make people do things, but he didn’t. I disagree with people who say it’s because God so loves our free will and won’t do anything to jeopardize it. I think that’s giving us too much authority, giving us more credit than we deserve. I think it’s a question of Jesus’s authority, and whether Jesus chose to exercise it, or not. The greatest power is to have authority and to chose mercy. To choose forgiveness. To live in forgiveness.
God chose forgiveness for the people who WANTED to kill Moses. God gave them water, gave them daily bread, gave them the hope of a Promised Land. God also chose forgiveness for the people who DID kill Jesus. God chose mercy. God chose mercy, over justice. God chose freedom when they chose death. They nailed Jesus to a cross. And they pinned themselves to the side they chose. But pins don’t hold forever.
We pin ourselves down. We pin others down. We’re this, or we’re that. Those people are this, or that. We have that much authority. But our pins are very small, and our hands are weak. The mercy of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ is a life-giving force that opens the tombs, that unpins us from the deaths we choose.
Question authority. Question it. Challenge it. Demand that it answer for its actions. Rise up to authority of the Big Fish who think they own the little pond.
But question your own authority, too. Question whether you’re trying to pin down too much, or whether you’re removing the pins of death, and giving life.