Matthew 21:23-32 (a sermon for Back to Church Sunday)

Today, in many different countries around the world, thousands of Christian churches are observing ‘Back to Church Sunday’. The idea behind the day is simple: regular churchgoers invite friends, who are not normally in the habit of churchgoing, to come and join them for worship. It’s not meant to be a big song and dance, and we’re not meant to put on a show that’s hugely different from what we normally do on a Sunday. It’s simply an invitation for people who may be standing on the edge of the swimming pool to put their toe in and see if they like the temperature of the water. Some might decide they like it, and dive right in. Others might say, “No thanks”, and turn away instead.

But some may well ask, “Isn’t this really just about recruiting? Aren’t you just trying to get more people to come to church and put more money into the collection plate? After all, we’ve all heard the statistics about how church attendance is declining; isn’t this ‘Back to Church Sunday’ just a desperate attempt to reverse those statistics so that you won’t have to close down more struggling churches?”

That’s a fair question, and there’s actually an even bigger one behind it: what is it that we actually want to see happen in the lives of those we have invited to come to church with us today? Is it just about persuading more people to join us for services each week? Is it just about getting more volunteers to help out with our job roster, and more money to help us meet our budget? Or is it deeper than that? Is it in any way about God, and about Jesus, and about the enrichment and transformation of our daily lives?

To answer this question we need to think about the reading we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew, and I need to start by filling in some back story for you.

Today’s reading comes toward the end of the biography of Jesus that Matthew wrote. Jesus and his followers have made a pilgrimage from Galilee in the north, where most of them live, down to Jerusalem for the annual festival of Passover. We who know the whole story of Jesus know that this story is going to end a few days later with his death and resurrection, but of course most of those who are actual participants in the narrative don’t know that yet.

At this time of year, crowds of pilgrims were streaming into Jerusalem for the festival, but when Jesus and his followers arrived they did something unusual. One of the prophets of the Old Testament, Zechariah, has a passage in which he talks about Jerusalem’s king coming to the city in humility, riding on a donkey. And so Jesus took a donkey and rode it into the city; his followers waved palm branches and shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. The title ‘Son of David’ was another way of saying ‘The Messiah, the anointed one’ – that is, the king God had promised to send to set his people free.

When he arrived in the city Jesus went straight to the Temple. In the outer court he found the place full of merchants who were changing money and selling animals for sacrifices and so on. Jesus drove them all out, kicking over the tables and acting as if he owned the place. “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’”, he told them, “but you are making it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:19). Jesus then sat down in that very place; crowds of people surrounded him, and he taught them and healed the sick.

Now, how would you feel if you were one of the legitimate authorities in the temple, and this upstart with a funny accent had come charging into your domain and taken over the facility? To Jewish people it would have been clear that Jesus was acting as if he was the Messiah – the one God had sent to be the king who would set his people free. That would be a clear challenge to the existing authorities, and they didn’t like it.

And so, in today’s reading, the leaders come to Jesus and challenge him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (v.23). In other words, “Uh, remind us of who you are, exactly? Who made you the boss of the Temple? Which royal court were you born in? A manger in Bethlehem, you say?!!!”

Jesus’ reply sounds strange to us, as if he’s avoiding the question, but in fact it would have been crystal clear to the original hearers. “I’ll ask you a question first; if you can answer it, then I’ll answer your first question. Tell me – when John the Baptist came preaching about the Kingdom of heaven and baptizing people, where did he get his authority from? Was it from God, or was it just an idea he and his followers dreamed up out of their own heads?”

Now the leaders were in a tight spot. They were standing in the Temple surrounded by a mob who venerated John the Baptist as a true prophet of God. If they said what they really believed – “We think he was a fake” – the crowd would probably riot. If they lied and said, “Of course we believe he was a true prophet”, then they would be admitting that Jesus was also a true prophet, because, you see, it was John who had baptized Jesus! At that baptism, the Holy Spirit of God had filled Jesus, and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”.

Now some of you are sitting there in your pews listening to me impatiently and thinking, “This is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the question of Back to Church Sunday and what you want to see happen in our lives?” Well, the moment has arrived to answer that question!

Here’s the issue: ‘Who does this Jesus think he is?’ The chief priests and elders asked it because he rode into their city like a king, marched into their Temple, drove out the legitimate businesses they had licensed to be there, and took it over as his private classroom! But if you hang around a Christian church long enough, you might ask that same question for a different reason. You might notice that we call Jesus ‘Lord’, that we bow at his name, that we venerate his words over all the other words in the Bible. You might notice that we pray our prayers ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ and that on most Sundays we remember his death by enacting a ceremony with bread and wine as he told us to. And you might well ask, ‘Who do these people think Jesus is?”

The answer is, we think he’s God. We think that, in some mysterious way, the God who created everything that exists actually came to live among us as a human being on this planet. He was like an author writing himself into his own story, while at the same time continuing to exist outside the story as the supreme originator of the whole narrative.

Now you might find this an outrageous idea, and you may find it hard to understand how anyone could believe it. But what I want to say is this: this is one of the things we want to see happen in the lives of the people we’re trying to reach. We want to help people grapple with the question of who Jesus is. We want to help people look at the story of his life, the sort of person he was, the way he reached out to the poor and marginalized, the women and children, the lepers and the ones no one else had time for, the way he related to ordinary people, and the things he taught about what God was like and what life was all about.

But we also want to help people come to terms with some of the things Jesus said about himself: the way he assumed he had authority to forgive sins, for instance, or the way he claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of hundreds of years ago, or his claim that he and God the Father were one, and if you had seen him you had seen the Father.

How do we make all this fit together? What do we do with a man who lives such an attractive and godly life – who says such wise and powerful things – and yet seems to have this fundamental megalomania about his own identity? What if the answer is that his claims – his direct and indirect claims – are true? What if God has come among us to show us the way and to save us from ourselves? Well, then, I’m sure you’d agree that if that is who Jesus is, it would be important for us to listen to him, and to follow him.

You might say, “Well, I’m not there yet. I’m prepared to consider the question, though, so what’s the next step for me?” Well, let’s read on in the gospel text for today.

Even though the religious leaders took the safe way out and refused to answer Jesus’ question, Jesus wouldn’t let the matter rest. He told a story to make a point (if you start looking into Jesus you will find that this is something he does quite often!). In this story, a man told his two sons to go and work in his vineyard. The first said, “I don’t think so”, but later on he changed his mind and went. The second said, “Sure!” but then did nothing about it. “Which of the two did the will of his Father?” Jesus asked. The answer was obvious and the leaders couldn’t avoid it: it was the first.

Jesus’ reply was devastating:

“Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (vv.31-32).

To the surprise of the chief priests and the elders, Jesus had them pegged as the ones who said they would work in the vineyard, but then didn’t! But when John had preached his message, hundreds of so-called ‘sinners’ had listened, and believed, and changed their lives. They were like the son who at first had refused to work in the vineyard, but had then repented and done what his father asked.

This is what Jesus wants – he wants people not just to think or talk about doing the will of his Father in heaven, but to actually roll their sleeves up and get busy doing it. And if we ask “What is the will of the Father in heaven?” Jesus is not shy about answering our question. The big picture is that we are to love God with everything in us and love our neighbour as ourselves. The detailed picture involves not accumulating lots of luxuries, but living simply and giving to the poor instead. It involves forgiving those who sin against us and learning to love not only our friends but also our enemies. It involves keeping our promises and being a person of our word – looking out for people in trouble and helping them – living to please God instead of trying to be popular with everyone else – and so on, and so on.

You see, coming to church is the easy part! We’d love to think that some of you who are our guests today would come back and join us on a regular basis, but that’s only the beginning. What we’re really about is helping people figure out who Jesus is, and then helping them to follow Jesus by learning to do the will of the Father in their daily lives.

So let me close with a suggestion. I make this suggestion not just to our guests, but to our regular members too, because I’ve learned over the years that regular churchgoers aren’t always as sure about Jesus as I’d like to think they are!

Here’s my suggestion. Maybe you’re not sure you believe in God. Maybe you believe in God but you’ve always thought Jesus is just a human being, not the Son of God or anything like that. Now today you’ve heard me say that it really matters who we think Jesus is, and this has got you wondering whether or not there’s more to Jesus than you thought.

I suggest you do two things. First, pray to God for help. Maybe you’re not even sure God is there; that’s fine. A prayer something like this would be good.

“God, I’m not even sure whether or not you exist, and if you do, I’m not sure whether Jesus is your Son – whatever that means – or if he’s just an ordinary religious leader, or if he’s a charlatan or a lunatic or something worse. But I really want to know. So I’m going to try to find out, and I want you to make it clear to me. Please help me to know whether or not you are real and whether or not Jesus is your Son. Amen”.

The actual words aren’t important – God knows what’s on your heart – but something like this will do the trick.

Here’s the second thing. There are four biographies of Jesus in the Bible – the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. John is a bit harder to understand, but the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are very accessible. Pick one of them – it doesn’t matter which one – and commit yourself to reading from it every day. But here’s the catch. I can guarantee you that on some days, in the passage you read, there will be some command of Jesus that jumps off the page and hits you between the eyes. If that happens, stop reading right away, think about what it would mean for you to obey that command, and then ask God to help you obey it.

Does that sound radical? I believe that anyone who starts making a serious attempt to actually put the teaching of Jesus into practice will sooner or later discover for themselves that Jesus is in fact who Christians say he is – the Son of God. And on the other hand, I think that people who are only willing to study Jesus on an intellectual level – or who are only willing to become churchgoers, and nothing more – will not be in a position to receive any sort of revelation from God about who Jesus is. They’ll be like the son who said he would go and work in the vineyard, but then didn’t.

So this is what we want to see happen. We don’t just want more people to come to our church, although we’d be glad if that happened. We want more people, in and outside the church, to understand who Jesus is, and to commit themselves to doing the will of the Father as Jesus has explained it to us. We believe that’s how God is changing the world, one life at a time. That’s what Christianity is all about, and that’s what Back to Church Sunday is all about too.

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4 thoughts on “Matthew 21:23-32 (a sermon for Back to Church Sunday)

  1. Peter

    Dear Cousin Tim

    If nothing else, as a former employee of the Australian Taxation Office I’m pleased that we’ll get taken to the front of the queue! Best wishes from Melbourne, Australia

  2. Anney

    Dear Cousin Tim – I’m your cousin Peter’s life companion, love your writing and I’m with you on most of what you have written here ….. the exception is the kinda ‘mainstream Christian’ notions about sin …. I love the notion of changing the world ‘one life at at time’ … and in a way the ‘All That Is’ – is just one big ‘something’ anyway.

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