Scriptures: Philippians 2:1-13 ~and~ Matthew 21:23-32
Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, made international news when he was quoted as saying he sometimes doubts the existence of God.
Here’s what was quoted in the press. When asked the question, “Do you ever doubt?” Archbishop Welby replied “Yes. I do.” He went on to say: “The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well but isn’t it time you did something [about a certain situation] – if you’re there’ – which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.” He added: “It’s not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.”
I don’t know about you but I find the Archbishop’s honesty refreshing. It’s good to know even the big guys have doubts from time to time. Because when you get down to it, we can’t prove scientifically that God exists. The scope of science is too limited for that discussion. And the limits on our own senses can lead us to doubt: we can’t see God, and most of the time we don’t physically hear God. So how can we be sure?
And what is faith really? If we begin to doubt God, where can we turn?
After skimming a number of comments on the Archbishop’s statement, I was attracted to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times written by Julia Baird. She wrote: “much of the reaction [to the Archbishop’s statement has been] predictably juvenile… But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human. […] Faith cannot block out darkness or doubt. […] Just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the presence of doubt.” She goes on to name many well-known Christians who have experienced doubt, including Mother Teresa, John Calvin, and C.S. Lewis.
I think ultimately where it comes to faith the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As John Wesley often said, it is not enough to know about God and religion – experience is essential to faith. Faith grows across the course of a lifetime, and not always at a predictable pace.
But having said that, when my faith is feeling a little shaky, one of the greatest arguments in support of the faith – that I have found – is to listen to the people who oppose Jesus. Listen to his enemies and consider the alternatives.
When the baby Jesus was presented in the temple – in Luke chapter 2 – the prophet Simeon took Jesus in his arms and one of the things he said was that this child would be “a sign that is spoken against, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” What people say about Jesus reveals their hearts. So as I listen to Jesus’ opponents, I ask myself: What are they really getting at? What are they really after?
Our scripture reading from Matthew this morning is an excellent illustration of this. As the scene opens we find Jesus sitting in the temple teaching. Most likely he would have been in the outer courts, sort of like on a porch with marble columns (as opposed to in the sanctuary) because this is where people would congregate.
As he is teaching the chief priests and elders (and some Pharisees as well, as we find out later) – dressed in their long robes, with the insignias of their respective offices – interrupt Jesus and ask him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
This of course is an attempt at intimidation. It’s like they’re asking him, “excuse me, who gave you permission to be here?” As a group they appear united; they represent the religious establishment; and from a purely human standpoint, they out-rank Jesus. They are educated; Jesus only has the basic education of the working class. They are ordained; Jesus is not. They have the approval of the Chief Priest; Jesus does not. They are… at least tolerated… by the Romans, in that ever-changing balance of power between religion and politics. Jesus on the other hand is nothing to Rome: a potential victim for a cross, nothing more. They are in power, Jesus is not. Or so it appears.
On top of that, this confrontation takes place in front of the people Jesus is teaching. So he’s also in a position where he might lose face.
With all this going on around him, Jesus is not the least bit rattled. He’s not intimidated by the religious leaders, and he’s not troubled about what his followers are thinking. He is, however, concerned with what he is always concerned with: communicating God’s truth and God’s love.
The high priests asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?” And the answer seems simple: “by God’s authority” would be the obvious reply. But Jesus doesn’t say that… because they’re baiting him, and Jesus isn’t fool enough to take the bait. If Jesus gives them the obvious answer they will argue with him. They will demand that he “prove it”. They will accuse him of blasphemy. They will try to drag him into a convoluted, esoteric, endless theological argument, argued on their terms and on their turf. As Paul will one day advise the young preacher Timothy (II Tim 2:14) “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”
Jesus knew this. So instead of giving them a straight answer, Jesus calmly looks them in the eye and answers with a question of his own. He says, “If you answer my question, I will answer yours.” Is he bargaining? No; Jesus is in control of the situation. Rather he is taking an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel one more time… even to people who are actively resisting it.
Jesus’ question is this: “John the Baptist – was his baptism from heaven, or from men?” In other words, did John’s teaching come from God or merely from human wisdom? Brilliant question! John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, of returning to God… but more than that, John was preparing the way for the Messiah. When people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered in Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Under John’s ministry all kinds of sinners – prostitutes and tax collectors – came for baptism, and came to God, and their lives were changed. And because of this the people held John in high honor. They knew where he was from.
I imagine at this point Jesus has the entire crowd’s full attention. You can imagine the silence hanging in the air. Because the chief priests and the Pharisees are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t admit John the Baptist was a servant of God; if they do Jesus will ask, “why didn’t you believe him?” But if they say John’s authority was merely human, the people know better. The religious leaders would lose credibility.
So they answer with a lie. They say, “We don’t know.”
In John chapter eight Jesus has an interesting discussion with these same men about their not being sons of God but rather being sons of the Father of Lies. For now, though, Jesus simply answers, “Neither will I tell you where my authority comes from.”
Is this a tit-for-tat answer? No. Jesus just doesn’t waste time trying to have a conversation with people who refuse to be honest with him.
However, Jesus is also God’s son, and as God’s son, he loves the chief priests and the Pharisees enough to point them in the direction of God’s kingdom. So he continues and in v. 28 tells a parable of a man with two sons. The man owns a vineyard, and he tells his sons to go out and work in the vineyard. (Side note #1: In Jesus’ parables the ‘vineyard’ represents the nation of Israel.) The first son says “no” but later on he changes his mind and goes. The second son says “Yes sir!” but doesn’t go. Jesus asks, “Which son did what the father wanted?”
The high priests and Pharisees answer “the first son,” to which Jesus replies, “the tax collectors and sinners are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” Why? “Because John taught the truth and you didn’t believe him. What’s more, when you saw that John’s ministry caused tax collectors and sinners to turn their lives around you still didn’t believe.”
Side note #2: When Jesus talks about belief he is not talking about intellectual agreement. Faith is something that brings about a change in how people live. Belief without action is not really faith.
The thing is, whether they wanted to admit it or not, the high priests and Pharisees knew who Jesus was. They knew he was the Messiah. But the arrival of the Messiah meant that their work as intermediaries between God and humanity was completed.
There’s a great illustration of this kind of phenomenon in the movie Lord of the Rings. In the final movie of the trilogy, The Return of the King, we meet Denethor, the last Steward of the city of Gondor. Denethor was descended from a long line of Stewards who had ruled Gondor in place of the King for many generations. And now, at a time when prophecies of the return of the true king looked like they might be coming true, Denethor decides he has no need for a king. He and his ancestors, the Stewards, had ruled Gondor for hundreds of years, and they didn’t need anyone’s help. And who was this upstart that people were saying was the real king?
In the movie Denethor ends up committing suicide rather than confront that question. In Jesus’ story the high priests and Pharisees have something worse in mind. So in Matt 21:33, which is next week’s reading, Jesus will tell another parable. This parable is also about a vineyard. A man owns a vineyard and goes away on a trip and leases the vineyard to tenants to take care of it. When harvest time comes he sends servants to collect the crops, but the tenants beat the servants and throw them out. Finally he sends his son, saying “they will respect him” – but the tenants say to each other, “this is the heir! Let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.” In Jesus’ parable, instead of suicide, the evil stewards choose murder. They knew who they were dealing with. They knew.
What’s more, remember the original question the high priests asked? “By what authority do you do these things?” Isn’t that just another way of asking, “Did God really say…?” Which is the question the serpent asks in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” He’s keeping something from you. He knows that if you eat it you will be like God, knowing good from evil. “Did God really say…?” That’s always the question deceivers ask, human or otherwise.
So there can be no doubt the leaders of the temple and the Pharisees knew who Jesus was. In fact a number of them actually became believers. Nicodemus was one. Saul, who later became Paul, was another. And there were others.
So when times of doubt come, it may help to reflect on the fact that Jesus’ enemies knew. They were sure. If they were willing to go so far as to as to commit murder in order to put an end to a man who was changing peoples’ lives for the better, healing the sick and giving sight to the blind and raising the dead… a man who was God’s promised Messiah – none of which these eyewitnesses denied – isn’t that a pretty convincing argument in favor of the faith?
In the words of the Pharisee Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, in Acts 5:38, “if this teaching… is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [it].”
And 2000 years ago that’s exactly what happened.
Lord when we are honest we have to confess sometimes we wonder where You are or how it is that You are. Thank you that the words and actions of Your enemies only help to prove Your point. In our moments of uncertainty, strengthen our hearts and spirits with Your words and Your presence. In the name of the one who taught with Your authority, AMEN.