Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:18; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“The LORD lifts up the humble; He casts the wicked to the ground.” Notice how the Psalmist says that almost as if it were self-evident: For God to exalt the humble, He must necessarily destroy the wicked. And, indeed that is the case. You see, only those who are low can be lifted up. Likewise, those who are high can only come down. The point here, however, is that, in truth, we are all of low estate. The LORD expects us to realize that, to confess that, and, therefore, to be humble, and not proud.
You’ve heard that pride goeth before a fall, even that the root of all sin is pride, and that the sin of Lucifer, the devil himself, was immense pride. Truly, even though there is no specific commandment against it, pride is a great, perhaps the greatest, sin. Indeed, pride is a transgression against the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” for the one who is prideful has made himself to be his god. The fulfillment of all the Commandments, and of the New Commandment our Lord Jesus has given us, is love: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as God has loved you in Jesus Christ. Pride is the exact opposite of love, for love is selfless and sacrificial, and pride is self-centered and self-serving. The prideful cannot love anyone except themselves – least of all God.
And, so it was that the chief priests and elders of the people demanded of Jesus to know by what authority He taught the things He taught, did the things He did, healed, forgave sins, and permitted the people to call Him by Messianic titles. They demanded to know by what authority He did those things because, well, they were the authority, or so they believed, and they knew that it didn’t come from them. However, though they questioned Jesus about authority, they weren’t really concerned about authority, but what they were concerned about was power. I thank the Rev. Dr. John Kleinig for teaching me the difference between authority and power. You see, we often make the mistake of using these two terms interchangeably and synonymously. Yet, there is a very significant difference between authority and power. Authority is always given by others, whereas power is always taken from others. Moreover, authority is given to one that it may be used on behalf of, and for the good of, those who give it, whereas power is taken from the people and is used to subdue them and is lorded over them. The chief priests and the elders were indeed given authority by God through the people to be used for the sake of, and for the good of, the people, but they had abused their authority and had instead taken power from the people and subdued them and lorded their power over them.
Jesus knew this, and he saw through their demand to know by what authority He acted. He knew that they were concerned, not with authority, but with losing their power over the people. After all, Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, even on the Sabbath. And, Jesus ate and drank and enjoyed fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and all manner of known and public sinners. Most recently, the things that angered the chief priests and the elders and wounded their pride was that Jesus accepted the Messianic titles the people proclaimed of Him when He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and that He cast out the money changers and the vendors of sacrificial animals from the temple. “How dare you!” they protested. “We are the ones who have authority to proclaim who’s the Messiah and who’s not! And, we are the ones who set the rules for what happens in the temple!” No, it was not authority that they were concerned about, but it was that they felt their power being challenged, even as they were losing influence over the people they were attempting to subdue by taking from them power and wielding it over and against them.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus did not take their bait. He would not play their petty and wrong-minded, wrong-spirited, and wrong-hearted game. Instead, Jesus asked them a question: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And, He had them – just like He always had them – caught between the rockiness of their hearts and the hard place of their pride. For, if they answered that John’s authority came from God, then they stood condemned, because they rejected John and the fact that the people listened to His teaching and believed in Him. However, if they answered that John’s authority came from men, or was no authority at all, then they feared the people who considered John a prophet of the LORD. And, there you have it; they were filled with fear. Why would those who had true authority from God through the people fear the very people they were given authority to serve? Were they not given authority to love the people and to serve the people with the gifts of God? Yes, indeed they were! But, they had long ago given up authority and, instead of loving and serving, they began to take and to accumulate for themselves power, and now they feared losing their power. The priests and the elders knew that Jesus had them, and so they lied to Him saying, “We do not know.” Therefore, Jesus answered them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
However, the truth is, they did know. They knew precisely where John’s authority came from, and they hated him for it. Likewise, they knew precisely where Jesus’ authority came from, and they hated Him for it as well. Moreover, they hated the people through whom, and for whom, they were given authority by God to serve. They hated the people and they despised them, and they took power from the people in order to subdue them and to bolster their own power, position, and pride. And, because they were prideful, they did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but they feared the people, they feared losing their power, and they feared being humbled before God and men.
Sadly, the same thing happens in our world today. Political leaders and magistrates receive authority from the people to be used for the good of the people, but they end up forsaking the authority given and instead taking power from the people to use against them. Yet, even more sadly still, this happens within Christ’s body, the Church, as well. How frequently are persons and committees in the Church, even pastors, given authority to use for the good of the Church, only to forsake that authority and take for themselves power which they now use to control and bolster their own power and pride? This, my dear brothers and sisters, is the work and the influence of our proud enemy the devil, and Satan tempts all of us to this selfish and self-serving abuse of authority that we would despise and hate each other, drive some away, and divide the rest, thus wounding and destroying the body of Christ, the Church.
The way to combat this is humility borne of repentance. Pride is the opposite of humility, and the prideful cannot be repentant, for there is, in their mind and heart, nothing to repent of. That is why pride goeth before a fall, because, from the heights of pride, there is nowhere to go but down. Jesus taught that you must not take the highest place at a banquet, lest someone higher than you be invited and you be demoted and humiliated in front of all as you take the lower place, but, rather, you must take the lowest place, that, by chance, you might be invited to move up higher. That is to say, in the Church, in the family of faith, we are each our brother’s servant. For, Jesus also teaches that, when you serve the least of these His brothers, you serve Him. “The LORD lifts up the humble; He casts the wicked to the ground.” Humble yourselves, therefore, that the LORD may exalt you in His way and in His time. For those who make themselves to be first will be last, and those who are last will be considered first.
This is what St. Paul teaches you saying, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Moreover, St. Paul says that you should do this “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the Word of Life.” You see, you too have been given authority by God to serve each other in this family of faith, the Church, and even more, those outside these walls, walking in the darkness of sin and death, that they may walk in the Light of Jesus’ Word and Truth to the glory of God.
And, that you may be forgiven, fed and nourished, strengthened, and equipped for this your calling, Jesus humbles Himself to serve you in His Holy Supper, and He invites you to humble yourselves by kneeling at this festal board and receive this mysterious and holy Sacrament. Do not succumb to Satan’s temptation to pride, saying “It’s never been done this way before,” or “By what authority?” You know by what authority, and if you don’t, you have the authority of the Word of God. Humble yourself, search His Word, then come eat, come drink, and live. For, as your Lord Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, so must you His disciples receive His gifts and serve others in love, with His love, to the glory of His most Holy Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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