No Easy Answers
By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | October 2, 2023
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Read Matthew 21:23 – 32
You have probably heard me share before that one of the things I do when I am preparing the sermon for Sunday mornings is to look back at sermons I have preached in the past that were based on the same text. It is interesting to consider what was going on in the world at that time and see how a particular passage of Scripture may have been applied in that context compared to what we are going through in the current day and time.
Now this passage from the Gospel of Matthew that calls for our attention this morning was the New Testament lesson I used for a sermon that I preached quite some time ago. At the beginning of that sermon, I told the story about one my patients who was in the dementia unit of a nursing home.
It was so long ago, that I honestly have no idea which one of my patients the story was actually about; however, whoever it was, they apparently had a habit of saying, “I feel fine, I’m just nutty.”
Now according to the story I shared in that sermon, the patient was watching the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The question asked was, “Where did President Theodore Roosevelt wear his pince-nez?” – A) on his head, B) on his belt, C) on his nose or D) on his waist.
When I was younger, I was an avid fan of Agatha Christie’s infamous character, Hercules Poirot, so, I knew that the pince-nez are worn on the nose. But before I could say anything, my patient said, “That has to do with glasses, doesn’t it?”
Now, the next question asked was, “General Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Custis, was the great-granddaughter of which First Lady?” I am not much of a history buff and I had no idea then, and still would have had no clue now what the correct answer would have been. But before the options were even put up on the screen, my patient said, “It was Washington.”
And sure enough, she was right. Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Had I been the one on that game show, I would have most likely lost… and yet, my patient who had dementia made it look so easy.
Reflecting back on that story made me chuckle… but it also put something into perspective that is focus of today’s sermon. Because unlike a TV game show, whether it is Jeopardy Champions, Wheel of Fortune or the $100,000 Pyramid… in real life there often are NO EASY ANSWERS.
So, as we shift our focus to the first part of our text for the morning, we find Jesus and the chief priests and the elders asking each other some questions. Questions for which there were NO EASY ANSWERS… and to a certain extent, that was by design.
Because, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” – They thought they were going to trap Him by asking what they believed to be a trick question.
If Jesus said that His authority came from God, they would use His answer to accuse Him of blasphemy. If, on the other hand, Jesus said that He was operating under His own authority, there was a possibility that the crowds could be persuaded that the Pharisees had greater authority than Jesus… because they were the chief priests and elders of the Temple… either way, they were poised and ready, waiting to say, “Gotcha!”
But it is safe to say that Jesus saw right through their ploy and knew exactly what they were up to. He knew that their motives were far from pure… and that they were just looking for a way to try to trip Him up and get Him to say something that they would then attempt to use against Him.
But rather than give them the satisfaction of being able to use His answers aas ammunition, Jesus fired back with a question of His own to the Pharisees.
Jesus told them, “First let me ask you a question. You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. About the baptism of John—who authorized it: heaven or humans?”
It would seem that Jesus knew about employing tactical questions of His own and the Pharisees found themselves caught in their own trap… having NO EASY ANSWERS… so, literally the only thing they could honestly say was, “We don’t know.”
If they had responded to Jesus that John’s baptism came from heaven, they would have to explain why they had failed to follow John and what they admitted was a heavenly directive.
If on the other hand, they said that John’s baptism came from men, they risked facing the wrath of the people who rightfully believed that John was a prophet. So, they took what seemed like the easy way out, they did not answer the question.
And in like manner, Jesus refused to answer the question they had posed to Him. NO EASY ANSWERS offered by anyone.
Now, Jesus and the Pharisees were not the only ones who had to grapple with some hard questions. And as we move on through the text, we find Jesus using yet another parable as a teaching tool for the crowd that was gathered in the Temple.
He told the story of a man who had two sons... the first son declared his defiance to his father’s command but in the end did the father’s bidding… and the second son who said he would do as the father wanted but, ultimately, did not do so.
Jesus posed the question to the crowd, “Which of the two did what the father wanted?”
On the surface, it seemed like a no brainer, and the crowd quickly responded, “The first one.” But that is when Jesus turned a mirror on those who were gathered.
The fact of the matter was that Jesus was using the parable to illustrate the way many of those gathered… some of them who were actually religious leaders… were simply paying lip service to the Word of God. They claimed that they wanted to do God’s will, but they constantly disobeyed God and were simply going through the motions.
They were not so unlike some of those people we see today who claim they are “good church folk” and declare they are committed to following the will of God… but they are missing the mark. They are clearly not following Jesus’ command to love one another and to show compassion to others…
Instead, they are creating commandments of their own… instituting practices, policies, and procedures that seek to exclude and marginalize the very people that Jesus came to see and to save.
Jesus warned the folks back then… and let me suggest that the same cautions apply to us today… Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before those religious hypocrites would.
“Why is that?” you may ask.
Because the sinners… the tax collectors and prostitutes… they understood and accepted their need for repentance… and they believed in what John said as he pointed them to Jesus… the true path of righteousness… unlike those who thought they already had all the answers and did not need to repent of anything.
So, what is the lesson for us today? What can we take from this text?
The answer might surprise you because on the face of it… it is fairly simple and straightforward … although it may not always be easy.
This passage in Matthew lays a foundation for us that is built on accepting the authority of Jesus Christ and doing what God commands.
Unfortunately, the world would have us to believe that… far from being the inspired Word of God… the Bible is nothing but a book of fairy tales and cute stories that have little or no relevance to our lives today… and sadly, there are even some so-called church leaders who have gone so far as to say that the words of Jesus are nothing more than liberal talking points (see Evangelicals Are Now Rejecting 'Liberal' Teachings of Jesus (newsweek.com)).
And coupled with those who would have us doubt the authority of God’s Word, we are constantly being bombarded with images created by advertising executives who would have us believe that we should simply march to the beat of our own drum and follow any path we choose.
Nike has been telling us for years to “Just do it” while Apple has encouraged us to “Think different.” And we have been told that we are in “Good hands” with Allstate while LG tells us that “Life’s Good” and Burger King suggests we ought to “Have it your way.”
And we can’t forget that whole movement that encouraged us to “Keep calm and carry on” which seemed to correlate well with McDonald’s assurance that we deserve a break today.
But the Word of God has much more significance and substance than a group of catch phrases and jingles.
Although Johnson’s Baby Shampoo may have promised no more tears, it is God who promises in Revelation 21 that He will wipe every tear from our eyes and that there will be no more death or mourning, or crying, or pain.
L’Oreal Paris might have told us to use their products because we’re worth it… but the word of God tells us in 2 Thessalonians 1 (4-5) that it is perseverance and faith during persecutions and trials that is the real evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and that is what will make us worthy of the kingdom of God… not simply using a bunch of cosmetic goods.
The fact of the matter is that slogans and catchy sayings can never take the place of reading, knowing, understanding, and living out God’s Word. Because as easy as advertisers and Hollywood moguls want us to believe life can be… in reality life is full of hard questions… many of which come with NO EASY ANSWERS.
Take for example, Jesus teaching that if anyone wanted to be His disciple, they had to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24).
What does that mean for us, those who call ourselves disciples in this present day and age? How do we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him?
See what I mean about hard questions with NO EASY ANSWERS…
Back in the days when Matthew wrote His gospel, taking up one’s cross was probably a literal reference to the fact that condemned criminals who were being crucified for their crimes had to carry their own crosses through the streets to the place where they would be executed.
And when we read about the moments leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, He too was made to carry His own cross… until seemingly because He was too weakened from the beatings He endured… He fell beneath the weight of it. It was then that Jesus’ cross was picked up and Simon of Cyrene was commanded by the Roman soldiers to carry it.
To be honest, I used to struggle with this image of Christ being “too weak” to carry His own cross. After all, if Jesus tells us to take up our cross, how is it that He could not carry His own?
But, some time ago, I read something that put things in a different light for me.
The Scriptures tell us that Simon of Cyrene was compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross. In Luke’s Gospel, it says that they “seized” Simon while Mark and Matthew both say they “forced” Simon to carry the cross.
No matter which version we read, it does not appear that Simon voluntarily carried Jesus’ cross.
However, in carrying that cross, Simon was in a position to share the weight of Christ’s burden and share in Christ’s mission. And so as disciples, as followers of Christ, perhaps we, too, are being compelled to carry the cross and share in Christ’s burden and mission in the world today.
But how can we possibly share in Christ’s burden and mission? The questions just keep coming…
Well, the good news is that Jesus has already given us the answer. Matthew 11 starting at verse 28 says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The burdens of this life may be too much for us to bear on our own… but Jesus offers us rest from our burdens that comes when we accept His unconditional love and the gift of a peace that surpasses all understanding.
It doesn’t mean that everything from here on out will be peaches and cream, but sharing our burdens with Christ promises to lighten the load.
And that takes us to the question of what is the mission that we are to carry out?
The answer to that question can also be found readily in Jesus’ words which are found at the end of Matthew’s gospel:
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’It all comes back to accepting Jesus’ authority and doing what He commands.
And Jesus’ commands for us as His disciples are for us to love God and the people of God… even as we follow Him and follow His example by going out and making more disciples… teaching them to follow Him as well.
And let me just say this… although following Jesus and doing as He commands may not always be the easy thing to do… it beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely worth it.
So, I want to leave you with a simple question to which I believe there is an easy answer. Are you willing to follow Jesus and do as He commands?
If you answer is yes, then I want to invite you to stand and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: Here I Am, Lord #452. Back