Sermon for Monday of Holy Week – Year A

This sermon was preached on Holy Monday 2011 (18/4/11)
Matthew 21.23-32

This year in Holy Week we’re following the journey Jesus takes from Palm Sunday morning to the cross of Good Friday. We’re looking at what happens to change the music of “Hosanna in the highest” into the discordant noise of “crucify him”.

Today we witness just one of the controversial confrontations.

Jesus has this week with religious leaders – on this occasion it’s chief priests and elders who, with teachers of the law, form the body known as the Sanhedrin, responsible for maintaining order in both civil and religious affairs. They come to Jesus with a question about what or whose authority he has to speak and act as he does.

This is an issue that has been raised before when Pharisees once suggested that it was only by the authority of Beelzebul, ruler of demons, that Jesus cast out demons.

Now, in Jerusalem, the question has a new focus and urgency. Jesus, in clearing the temple of commercial trade has acted as if he has authority over the temple. In other words he is acting as if he believes he has an authority that would belong only to the Messiah, God’s anointed one. The question they’re really asking Jesus is “do you think you are the Messiah?”

We can imagine the scene immediately after the question is asked. Chief priests maybe looking self-satisfied – they’ve got him with this one! The crowd silent, sensing drama, waiting to see how this untrained rabbi is going to answer powerful figures on their home ground. True to the pattern of rabbinic methods of teaching Jesus answers the question with another question: was John’s baptism from heaven or was it human in origin?

Now the questioners have a problem: the lives, teaching and ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus are so closely intertwined that they cannot be unconnected. To believe that John was indeed the prophet preparing the way for Jesus, the Lord, is also to believe that Jesus is the one who is to come – Messiah. It was when Jesus was baptized by John that he was anointed with the Holy Spirit and therefore given God’s authority.

Priestly self-satisfaction fades away to be replaced by embarrassed red faces. Because however they reply they’re going to look, at best, foolish or, at worst, wickedly disobedient to God’s call. So they duck out of answering with a pathetic “we don’t know”.

Jesus comes back at them saying in that case he isn’t going to answer their question either.

His questioners are silenced and probably wishing they were anywhere but here, in an area open to the whole public including Gentiles. But their discomfort is about to be increased. Jesus now tells the parable of the two sons who respond differently to their father’s command (it doesn’t sound like a polite request).

The question he poses at the end of the story has a very clear right answer – no room for ducking out of this one.

The son who does the father’s will
is the one who initially said “no”
but thought better of it.
The word “yes” from the other son
meant nothing when it wasn’t followed up by action.

In case there is any doubt in their minds Jesus then spells it out for the chief priests and elders.

“John’s baptism was from God and un-religious people
like prostitutes and tax collectors recognized that and chose to turn their lives around. You couldn’t recognize God’s saving work even when you saw it in action among such people. Therefore you are going to find yourselves further away from the kingdom of God than these people who to you are unclean sinners.”

The tension in Jerusalem is mounting. Jesus has so far:

claimed an authority over the Temple that could only belong to the Messiah;
made the religious leaders look foolish in public;
accused them of not following God’s commands and lined himself up with prostitutes and tax collectors who are apparently to enter God’s kingdom ahead of priests and other religious dignitaries.

We are a step nearer to the final showdown.

And Holy Week is perhaps a time for us once again to reflect on how much authority we allow God to have in our lives. And how we respond to that authority when it asks of us something different from, or more than, we were expecting.

Yes, I can forgive my friends and family when they make me angry or hurt me, but do I really have to forgive the person at work who harms me through jealousy or malice?

Yes, I can talk about being a Christian with sympathetic listeners, but do I really have to speak up for my faith when people ridicule or reject me?

We only have to think of Jesus in Gethsemane, pleading with God to take away what’s about to happen to know the answer to our questions. Accepting God’s authority in our lives can lead to the cross. Uncomfortable as it may be, most of us would, I think, admit there are many occasions when what we do or say, “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault”, contradicts our professed intention of doing God’s will.

But we are promised that if we have the courage to stand before God just as we are, spiritually naked with no pretence or pride to cover us up, we can be forgiven for what is in our past, cleansed and healed for today and strengthened and guided for our future.

We are Easter people. Although we are walking the way of the cross we are also on the road that leads beyond death to life eternal in the kingdom of God.

Today, this week we can choose again to accept God’s authority in our lives, to say “yes” to him and with his help walk the way of life.

Let’s pray:

God of our salvation,
help us to turn away from those habits
which harm our bodies and poison our minds
and to choose again your gift of life,
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(Collect for third Sunday before Lent. Common Worship)