A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
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?”
What’s going on in this story? This event takes place during that time we remember as Holy Week, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday. He has knocked over the tables of the money changers in the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The following day, he’s back teaching in the temple when this confrontation takes place. The chief priests and elders were like religious and civil authorities of any time and place—they wanted to keep things quiet and cover up anything wrong, or disturbing, or contradictory in places where they seek to maintain control. That’s why Jesus brings up John the Baptist when he’s questioned.
John had appeared out in the wilderness of Judea a few years previous. He was very much in the tradition of the prophets, like Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. They were about uncovering wrongs and disturbing people who were all about protecting their comfort and influence, rather than following the challenging way of God. Prophets often performed physical signs to emphasize God’s word—Jeremiah wore a yoke to symbolize the oppression that Babylon would bring, for instance. So John the Baptist went out into the desert by the River Jordan, the traditional boundary and entry into the land of Israel, and there he had people repent of their sins and be washed in the waters of that river as a sign of repentance from their sins—from their denial of how they were a part of the evil of their time, of exploiting others, and being part of the death-dealing and self-serving corruption that arose during the dynasty of Herod—the rulers of Judea that served at the behest of the occupying Roman empire. John was arrested and later executed for publicly calling out Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for his immorality and corruption. All four Gospels connect John’s arrest with the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching.
I once heard someone describe John’s preaching as “weak tea” because all that John said in his preaching was to do things that people were legally obligated to do and to live with compassion—things like don’t coerce others, bully them or take bribes. We mostly like our religion to be bigger, more flashy, doing things wholesale with lots of fireworks—I guess that would be stronger tea than John offered. Thing is: John meant it. The way people live their everyday lives makes a difference. God does not demand much—no grand show, no championships in ascetical practice, just living justly and compassionately. John the Baptist had no time to be fashionable or political. He lived the life of the prophet and that meant that he wasn’t about to coddle injustice or dishonesty. So they killed him.
These elders and chief priests knew all about John the Baptist. These were political guys; they knew that John spoke the truth and it was exactly the kind of trouble they needed to cover up. Jesus knew and he was notifying them—the truth was not going away. God was not going to stop calling people to justice and compassion. They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Because they couldn’t think of any other answer to make this issue disappear. The authority of both Jesus and John the Baptist was truth, the truth of God’s love and justice, and like so many, these authorities needed to deflect the conversation away from that.
So as they paused, as they weren’t sure what to do, Jesus began to tell a little story. We know those kids. At least those of us who have had teenagers know them. Heck, I’ve been those kids, both of them. If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I’m the one that promises to do everything and then, hours later, is still flipping through Facebook or doing whatever else than the chores I’d promised. Lots of people like to pose as the really righteous, or the really religious or the one who will get things done. But the focus of Jesus’ story is on that other kid, the one who didn’t cooperate at first, who did not appear to be the righteous one. But he had a conscience, he was able to turn, to repent, and to be generous and drop his self-serving choices. That’s the truth that God requires of us, to be able to turn, and to give, not to protect our reputation and privilege, but to humbly do the will of God.
“John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”
The Kingdom of God can be built even from those that are most despised, and even those we respect the least—what is required is to turn away from anxiety about our own standing and success, and to follow the truth of God.
Paul is saying the same thing in this marvelous passage that was read this morning from his letter to the Philippians:
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
That doesn’t mean Paul is saying we should want to be regarded as the most humble, religious or generous people around. What Paul is saying is look out for the interests of others. Our life in Christ is focused on the well-being of somebody besides ourselves. It’s also not important to focus on the times we failed to do that – now is the time to look out for the good of others: the weak, the poor, those who are disrespected by others, especially by those who watch out for their own reputations and perquisites. Paul continues:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, 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.
Notice that this obedience that resulted in death on the cross, was this very teaching that we hear today. Being a Christian is simple, and requires nothing fancy, just the humility to follow Jesus on his path along with all those who are able to turn and give up their fear.
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 shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.