CALL TO WORSHIP
L: Becoming a baby,
A: Christ transformed all of us into his sisters and brothers.
L: Telling us stories we had forgotten,
A: God helps us to walk the paths of discipleship.
L: Becoming foolish in the world's eyes,
A: the Spirit teaches us all we need to find our way into the kingdom.
"By Who's Authority?" by Stewart Burrows
Woody Allen, a notorious atheist, once confessed in an interview, “It’s hard for me to enjoy anything because I’m aware how transient things are... Yes, there are times when you think, ‘My God, life is sweet, it’s nice,’ and thoughts of mortality are in abeyance. You know, watchingthe Marx Brothers or a Knicks game or listening to great jazz, you get a great feeling of ecstasy... But then it passes, and the dark reality of life starts to creep back in.” That’s the way life is for those who do not believe in a personal God who created the universe in love. It answers Kim’s question.
I say this as a backdrop to our scripture today. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are full of unbelief and in denial of the obvious. They steadfastly refused to believe in him no matter how much evidence there was. They ask Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” They denied that he was from God, much less that he was God. Jesus then said, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” It was a brilliant maneuver, because John had said that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that he was the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29-34). What more authority could you have? If they believed that John’s ministry and words were from heaven, there would be no question about his authority. But they did not.
They were caught in a bind. They wrangled among themselves saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ — we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They even admit that they did not believe John. Michael Ignatieff, in his book, The Needs of Strangers, says, “What a man does not want to believe, he can find a way to deny.” And that is the way it is, as we know. So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Why not? Because they had already been told and they would not believe it, and he knew they would not believe even if he told them again.
Then Jesus told a parable: “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Then Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Tax collectors and prostitutes were the lowest of sinners in Jesus’ day. Why did he say they would enter the kingdom ahead of these religious folks? He explained by saying, “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” So when these sinners believed John, repented and were baptized, they entered the kingdom of heaven — ahead of the Pharisees who did not believe John’s message and balked at it. The lowest of sinners believed and repented, but those who were steeped in the Scriptures did not believe. They claimed that they obeyed the Father and went into his field, but in reality they did not. Meanwhile, the sinners who at first rebelled against the Father, changed their minds, obeyed and did the Father’s bidding. They actually went into the vineyard before the religious leaders who were still standing outside the gate. It was a shocking reversal. Those who claimed to be following God appeared to be going into the vineyard, but they never went. Those who appeared to be far from God were now actually carrying out his will and doing his work. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky asked: “Can man be good without God?” And that really is the question. Being religious in not enough, as Jesus’ parable clearly points out. Believing the right things does not matter if you are not doing the right things. Being religious will not do it; you need to actually have God in your life. You can’t do it on your own.
Chuck Colson tells story after story of men in prison who had committed crimes, but who came to Christ and were thoroughly converted. No one would have guessed that some of these men would be devout followers of Christ one day. One such story was the account of a man named Danny. Danny had been a fighter, and he was in prison for murdering a man named John Gilbert. But someone gave him a Bible, and as he read it, he found himself being attracted to the Jesus he was reading about. Colson tells his story: “The more Danny felt drawn to Jesus, the more he saw himself in a new light. He was used to comparing himself to the guy on the next bar stool, and that way he usually didn’t look so bad. But when he compared himself to Jesus, he started to feel afraid. This man who never raised his fists scared him as nobody else ever had. He also read the passages about people being ‘cast into outer darkness,’ where there was ‘weeping’ and ‘gnashing of teeth.’ Danny knew something about darkness... Lying on his bunk at night, Danny began to review his whole life, horrified by the person he had become. He saw himself living for his next drink, his next coke party; he saw himself using women. His last girlfriend had been good to him, but he would have thrown her away for the next quarter ounce of coke. In fact, he probably had. That next Sunday, when the guard called out for people who wanted to be let out of their cells to attend chapel, Danny shouted, ‘Cell 16.’ But he sat like a stone through the service, hearing little. He was there to ask a question. Afterward, he approached Chaplain Bob Hansen and asked him if the passages he had read about outer darkness were really about hell. ‘Yes,’ said the chaplain. ‘Then I’m in big trouble,’ Danny said. ‘When you get back to your cell, get on your knees by your bunk,’ said the chaplain. ‘Confess your sins to God, and pray for Jesus Christ to come into your heart.’ Danny did just that. In his cell, he knelt, confessed that he was a sinner, and asked Christ to be his Lord. As he did, he kept remembering horrible things he had done, and the memories brought both pain and an eagerness to be forgiven. Talking to God seemed likecarrying on a conversation with someone he had missed all along without knowing it. He could almost hear God replying through a silence that echoed his sorrow and embraced it. Danny not only felt heard, he also felt understood, received. He slept that night. And every night afterward.”
Eventually, Danny was released from prison, got married and had five children. He then graduated from Wheaton College and was ordained. He went on to work with troubled kids in Boston, and then was offered a job as prison chaplain. He had been very far from the Father, but turned around and began to work in the Father’s vineyard.
There are many stories like Danny’s. And, conversely, there are many stories of religious leaders in our time whose lives are full of hypocrisy and lies. We have all read their stories and heard about their corruption and fall. What appears to be is not always what is. Those who appear to be working for God and living for him are not always the ones who are. Those who appear to be far from God are not always as far as they seem. Jesus’ words ring true: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).
Jesus warned: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). Sometimes it can all be pretense. Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mark 7:6-7). You see, this is the problem: We see this whole thing about God as a matter of keeping rules. What we fail to see is that God wants to have a relationship with us — even if we haven’t kept the rules. He will forgive us for not keeping the rules, but there is no forgiveness for not having a relationship with him. Forgiveness is only something that opens the way to coming to God and having a relationship with him. Those who see it as only a matter of keeping the rules do not enter the vineyard, because they can always find ways around the rules. But those who understand that it is a matter of loving the Father will not only enter the vineyard, they will do it joyfully. The Pharisees had reduced God to a set of rules so that they no longer saw him as a person. No wonder they could not accept Jesus for who he was. It was who Jesus was that gave him his authority.
C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity said, “Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable.” But he understood that was the result of a naturally inquisitive mind. He then went on to say, “...but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods where they get off, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.”
There will always be questions, and they are never to be feared, but neither are they to be invited to dinner and given a room to stay in. Sometimes it is good to doubt our doubts. It is even better to abandon ourselves to the truth of who Jesus is and what God has done for us through him. The world, and we are live in it, were created in love. You were born, not just to believe in God, but to love him and live in joyful relationship with him. This is the sum of life and faith.