Figuring out who and what is proper authority is a difficult thing these days. People hold offices but then do not fulfill the duties of said office. Sometimes they even work contrary to those duties. This text starts out with the Priests confronting Jesus on the basis of authority. By the end of it, Jesus paints a clear picture of proper authority, what Jesus can work with, and what is owed to those who have the trappings of authority but whose hearts are hardened against its proper use.
This is not an easy thing. It calls for wisdom. And that wisdom is available by walking “in the way of righteousness”. Which should challenge us: whether we are a son who shames dad but tries to make it up, or one who saves face but isn’t that reliable. Christ can work with those. Both admit to the authority of the Father. What he can’t work with, are those who deny the proper authority of the Word.
The first Sunday after Christmas has what for me is a terrible text, The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Immediately after Christmas we get something that reminds us of the type of Kingdom, the type of King who has come. His Kingdom is not of this world while being firmly in it. This sermon is a reflection on that. (And I hope it is understandable. I had surgery on Friday afternoon, and so the pain killers were still working here. A nod to being in this kingdom while looking for that resurrection. The text is not quite as clean as I just don’t have my main hand, so I dictated and went rough.)
A quick note about this sermon. It is really a short one at the start, and then the rest. With NY State becoming an open infanticide state it was necessary to say something from the pulpit about this deep wrong. That is the short clear start.
The second part hopefully ties that in. The text is about the authoritative Word of Jesus. When He preached everyone recognized the impact of what he said. And that impact wasn’t really the healings or the exorcisms which were the signs and wonder. The impact was that His Word demanded a response. The text gives us three examples of responses. The sermon looks and them and how we respond in our lives.
The Sermon is for Palm/Passion Sunday, so the service starts out with those Hosannas and the Palm procession, it moves through Pilate’s palace, and ends at Golgotha and the tomb. There are a myriad of subjects possible, but the with Mark’s text what stood out to me this week was Pilate’s repeated pawing, “The King of the Jews”. He’s having perverse fun with the Chief Priests, and the crowds, and even with Jesus. He’s abusing his office for entertainment. The sermon compares it to an old cat and a mouse. The irony is that Pilate, the de facto king of the Jews, actually has the King of the Jews before him. And all throughout Jesus is nothing but truthful. The test is can we see that. Can we see the King not just in his purple, but also in His suffering? Old cats grow blind, all tyrants fall, but the King shall come when morning dawns. Can we see it?
Worship note: I’ve left in a verse or two of several of our hymns today. The hymns of Palm Sunday are such a big part of the experience.
We fade in with the choir processional – Hosanna
In between the split reading is No Tramp of Soldiers Marching Feet verse 2 (LSB 444)
At the conclusion of the readings is Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted verse 2 (LSB 451)
The conclusion is Ride On Ride On in Majesty (LSB 441)
All of these hymns in their fullness deal with seeing the King on the Throne which is the cross.
Texts on unclean spirits and demons are tough ones for sermons these days. You can completely spiritualize them, which is dishonest and drains them of all their power. As O’Connor said about the Eucharist, “if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” You can take a cessationist line, which could be possible, but ins’t really taught anywhere in the scripture. You could take a charismatic line, but unless you have an active exorcism ministry, that is a stretch. Or you can do what I attempted to do here. I’d invite you to listen. I think this is important stuff proclaimed in a faithful way that has Jesus at its center.
Worship Note: I have left in the record two musical parts. Our choir sang a wonderful little piece today and they were in great voice. That is between the Old Testament and Epistle lessons. I also left in the hymn after the sermon, LSB 583, God Has Spoken By His Prophets. As we were singing it this morning I was struck by how it artistically captured the core of the sermon.
The confrontation of Jesus with the chief priests and elders is the confrontation of the prophet with the stewards of the priest and king roles. It is a confrontation of authority. And the abiding question is how do we know when we’ve heard THE WORD of GOD?
The typical authority granted is of that priestly or kingly type. It comes with the office and the special garb of the office. The authority of the prophet is different. And we still long to hear that prophetic authority. The first part of the hard answer is that the prophetic authority is self-authenticating. You know it in your hearts and guts when you hear it. Our opening hymn was “Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding”. That is the part of the response. The second part of the hard answer is that THE WORD comes to us under the cross. It comes in power and can be crucified, the violent can bear it away. It is always “punching up” as it were. If it is not, it might be something you desperately want to be THE WORD, but you are fooling yourselves.
When we hear the prophet the most likely response is repentance. That is the goal of THE WORD – Repent and believe. The Kingdom is here. A contrasting honest response would simply be to have the courage of your convictions. Sit in the seat of the priest or the king and deny that the prophet has any authority. It is at least a courageous honesty response. The worst response is “we don’t know”. Did you hear the Word? “We don’t know”. Stop it. You know. You just don’t like the decision is forces. True repentance or true rebellion. We want it both ways. The safe authority with the romance of the prophet.
Recording Note: You might notice during the sermon a shift in sound direction. For some reason I think the pulpit mic cut out. The altar mic picked it up fine, but it will sound more ambient. I also had to amplify the line just a smidge. We had some great hymns, like the opener mentioned, but I didn’t include any in the recording because it was one of those days where the recording just didn’t sound as good as live. Come to church, a much better experience.
The text for the first Sunday in Advent is usually Palm Sunday. The theme is the Advent of the King. There are multiple ways that Advent invites us to ponder the Kingship of Jesus. We can reflect on the first advent in a holy longing for the second advent. The first time in grace and humility, the second in judgement and power. We could reflect on the King as stand-in for His people. In this case the King on the way to the cross and our penitential need. That is Advent as a penitential season. The Isaiah text which is just as much the sermon text of the day invites a third meditation, Advent as the dawning and growing of the light. What this sermon attempts to do is think about what it means to have a King. It posits a couple of forms of human kingship – modern and ancient. It then contrasts those with the Biblical picture of the Kingship of Jesus. It concludes with the encouragement as the natural light grows shorter, to let they spiritual light brighten. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Worship notes: The other voice you hear is our Seminarian Tim Bayer. He was in town for Thanksgiving and it is always great to be able to include him in the service. Since the break is a short one, he and his wonderful voice handled the liturgy for us. I’ve left in two hymns. At the start LSB 343, Prepare the Royal Highway. At the end LSB 331, The Advent of Our King. Both carry the Kingship theme and explore it is ways similar to the sermon. I love the hymns of Advent. I’ll often try to work some of them in during the year itself because the season itself is made to short. The other reason is that the themes of advent are so deep and worthy of reflection.
All of Chapter 20 in Luke is Jesus teaching on proper authority. It is set in the conflict between Jesus and the Temple, and this text is the parable that Jesus uses as the loadstone of the entire teaching. You find true north in regards to authority by pondering this parable.
It happens to be a fortuitous text as the political season moves in strange ways this year. It also comes up at the same time as a situation I have been pondering simmers. This sermon attempts to think through the text and those situations. What it emerges with I hope is a picture of what authoritative leadership looks like. In this world authoritative leadership looks like the cross.
I don’t bring it up in the sermon itself, but Luther once attempted to talk about the marks of the church, how you would find it. His biggest mark was the cross. You will know you’ve found the church when what you are looking at bears the cross. It is only that type of authority and leadership – a leadership that is directed toward God and neighbor willing to bear the burden – that is truly fruitful.
I hope that this is helpful in your meditation. Also, I want to add a note about the recording. This is a re-recording after the fact, because the recording at the time something went wrong. Which is a shame, because the choir sounded wonderful, and we sang one of my top-5 hymns. LSB 423, Jesus Refuge of the Weary. The words are by the original Bonfire of the Vanities Girolamo Savonarola. The author is a cautionary tale. He rose is acclaim and fortune castigating a corrupt authority. He was later hung and burned at the same time. I believe the text of the hymn comes from his prison meditations. It might not be true, but I hear the confession of a man who got lost but came to see the cross anew. A historical support for the limits I attempt to point out in the sermon.
Authority is one of those words that, depending upon your context, can be a dirty word today. That is truly a shame because it used to be something that was exercised with wisdom. Those with authority knew they also had accountability. Those with it respected where it came from and its proper use. They knew authority came in multiple forms – hierarchical and moral – and that you couldn’t last long with the first if you didn’t respect and preserve the second. Authority was always a grant, a gift, a grace. It was never something that you earned. If you took it you were a usurper.
This sermon has a simple movement:
1) Our current trouble with authority
2) Authority abused by the chief priests and elders of the people and proper authority in Jesus
3) Jesus’ grant of his authority to his people in discipleship
It traces a deep vein in the Gospel according to Matthew of the sources and uses of proper authority.