Saint Paul's Lutheran Church

By What Authority?

In Jesus’ Name. Amen. “What gives you the right?” It’s a question that is often asked in many different situations. It is a defensive question and is most frequently treated as a rhetorical question, the answer is assumed. The answer is, “You don’t have the right!” This is said when we are trying to protect our rights and who has the right to impinge on our rights? How dare anyone even think of doing this! And by nature, we are in tune to our rights. But what are those rights? Our imagination can get excited at this point and we don’t necessarily start thinking of the U.S. Constitution and Amendments. We like to have lots and lots of rights. In this way, we take care of what is really going on. We just don’t want to say it. It might not sound good (mostly because it isn’t good), but let’s say it out loud so that we all know exactly what is really going on: we want to do whatever we want to do.

We want total and complete “rights” to do whatever we want. And this of course is not good at all, but is idolatry. It is the most rudimentary sin. It is the cardinal sin. It is the sin that the devil put before our first parents in the garden. We want to be like God. Remember, all people are religious; all people believe in and trust and love a god. The question is “which one?” The god that I am now describing is the god of self. This is the god we love…the god that tries to convince us that we can do whatever we want.

This is the reason that even while we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year 2017, we should understand how times have changed. The Word of the Lord never changes, but it’s proper application must always be carefully considered. 500 years ago, when the church was predominant as a social institution and when life spans were relatively short, the burning question in Luther’s day was “how can I find a gracious God?” or simply, “how can I attain heaven?”

This isn’t the question anymore. In our day and age, people expect to live a long life (but unless we have already attained it, we should never assume we will). The popular way, however, is that as-long as we are alive, we live to be self-serving; to get all we can out of life…for ourselves. Such a life is without love, since a life turned inward can never truly extend itself outward and true love forsakes self and lives for the other. And the life without love is the life without faith; and the life without faith is the life without God; and the life without God is the life without true life. It is the life that ends in death and in separation from God. 

In addition to longer life-spans, the Church is no longer a predominant institution. The Christian Church across all denominations is in sharp decline. The world – even with all its unchanging sins – is also different and those old sins find new expressions. As a result, the old concern isn’t the current concern. The current concern is expressed through different questions: questions about ourselves. “How can I be relevant?” “How can I be important?” “How can I stand out?” “How do I find meaning in my life?” For this reason, we invest more than ever before on symbols. Our clothing, our make-up, our jewelry, our cars, our achievements, our resume’s, our careers…they cry out, “Look! I’ve made something of myself! My life is not irrelevant.”

And to maintain this posture is to hold onto our rights, our freedom to invent and reinvent ourselves so that others will take notice and say, “Wow, look at her! Impressive! Look at him!”

But if anyone gets in our way, watch out: “What gives you the right? What authority is this you claim? And where did it come from?” We ask, because we do not want anyone to mess around with our claim to do what we want. Because we are sold on the idea that “My life belongs to ME so I should be able to do whatever I want.”

The problem though is that your life and my life don’t belong to us. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price (1st Corinthians 6:19b-20a).” You belong to the One who created you. You belong to the One who saved you. You belong to the One who causes you to breath and move around today. For us to say that our lives belong to us is one of the most blind and ignorant and rebellious things we could ever say. It is a ludicrous claim. It is a ridiculous assertion and it denies God. And yet, in sin, we are pig-headed enough to keep saying it. But most people around in our world today are saying it too. We start to think that it’s true, but it’s not the way we were designed.

Living for self is like getting caught up in gluttony. We think something is good so we eat it and because we like it, we eat some more and some more and some more…and what happens? We get sick. You were not designed to live for self, but if you do, you will get more and more and more, sick. You will wake up one day and wonder how your life got so out of control…it is because you are not your own!

We are not our own authority. And someone else has greater rights that we do. And that someone else just happens to love us even more than we love ourselves. That someone else is Jesus Christ.

But our sin resists Him. The One who should evoke our great joy, and cause our arms to open wide, and cause our legs and feet to jump with elation and cry out: “Rescue me! Save me! Hosanna! Save me now! And how I rejoice that you come for this sinner! Thank you, Lord Jesus! Praise you, dear Savior! Praise you for you have all rights! You have all authority! And now I am safe in your loving arms, and my life has meaning not for my attempts to assert myself; to make something of myself; but it has meaning because you love me. Your grace has filled me with life and purpose: you’ve made me your own; you’ve made me your child. Your love gives me all that I need. You bought me at a price, by your very own powerful blood that has wiped away my sin!”

But we must be aware of our constant threat and we are not to get on our high horse to look down upon the chief priests and elders of the people that are mentioned in today’s holy gospel in Matthew 21:23-27. We are like they were. They were like we are.

They loved their positions. They loved themselves. And because they loved themselves, they hated God. That’s the way it works. If our love is turned inward, then it cannot go outward. Once God is rejected, then immorality takes over.

They came with the worst of intentions. They waited for a break while Jesus was teaching in the court of the Gentiles in the temple. They came up to Him and questioned His authority. They were questioning God’s authority: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority (verse 23)?” They are asking what kind of authority He claims to have; and this will tell them what gives Him the right to claim that He is the Messiah, to interfere with the business of the temple, and to refuse to silence what His disciples are saying about Him. In all of this, Jesus was threatening their authority, their rights, and their power. “How dare you! Who do you think you are! What gives you the right?!”

Jesus loved them just as the Lord loves all sinners. His reply is ingenious. On the one hand, the Lord Jesus had been telling them for the past three years who He was and what authority was His. The scene here in Matthew 21 is Tuesday of Holy Week. He would be crucified in just a few days, but way back when the Lord’s ministry first began years before, it was demanded of Him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things [like cleansing out the temple with a whip]?” And the Lord Jesus said, “Destroy this temple [referring to His body], and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:18-19).”

But they wanted more. They wanted Him to be clearer so that they could attack Him with more venom. The Lord didn’t shy away. He answered them by asking them a question, a custom practiced in rabbinical debate. In His question, however, there was an answer. He says at verse 24, “I too will ask you something, which if you tell me, I too will tell you.” But Jesus’ question reminds them of John the Baptist who pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)!

They knew that John was from heaven; and they also knew that Jesus was too, but again their unbelief made them immoral. They knew the people believed that John was a true prophet. If they openly denied John’s heavenly call, they would be in trouble with the people, so they lied: “We do not know.” But they did know. They knew that God has the right and the power that goes with the right. They knew God’s right and power was given to John in His prophetic ministry; and they knew that God’s right and power was in Christ. They knew, but they denied it anyway.

And just a few days later, they finally had their wish fulfilled: Jesus’ answer was pointedly clear. Finally, the high priest would demand on the night of His betrayal just two days later, “I adjure you by the Living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:63-64).”

With that super-clear answer, He was condemned and then these same leaders from Matthew 21 are mentioned again at the Lord’s dying recorded in Matthew 27, and there they mocked Him as He was dying (verse 41).  

And this is the amazing testimony of the love of Christ. He had the right, authority, and power to condemn us. It was what we deserved (we still deserve), but He did not and He does not. Instead, even with all the right, and authority, and power to come down from the cross rather than to die, He chose to stay.

And this was how He used His rights. He chose the right to obey the Father; He chose the right to save us from our sin. He chose the power and authority to counter our rejection of Him with the blotting out of our sin. This is how Jesus used His rights. He used the rights of the Savior of the world so that with His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). He chose the right to exert His power to take those turned inward for death to be granted faith by His Word to look outward and see the Lord of Life. With such a gift, we are led by the Spirit of God to a new life. Christians hear God’s Word from 2nd Corinthians 5:15: “and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” This is your calling: don’t live for yourself anymore; live for God and in so doing by God’s grace, you will live a life of love. There is nothing better. Not even close.

I saw this in a short video sent to me via social media this past week: It was a mother reading a Bible story to her little baby. It was a mom who had given up her rights. She wasn’t living for herself, but for her baby. She read God’s revelation about Jesus with great clarity and joyful expression. The little baby looked on with attention captured (wide-eyed and at least apparently listening). And the mom went on serving her baby. I saw this and considered it a snapshot of the life that Jesus has won for us. It is a life that breaks away from our rights; that gives forgiveness for all the times we have judged God; that gives faith to respond to His call to serve and to love.

“What gives you the right?” It is a question that has lost its appeal. We have something greater than rights. We have the love of Christ and in Him God’s authority that says, “Your sins are forgiven in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Read More