Sermon - Matthew 21: 23-32

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Charles Campbell, professor of homiletics at Duke University, offers this great commentary about having a conversation with Jesus. He writes:

A few years ago, while channel surfing, I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” As soon as Dr. Phil spoke, I remember thinking, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow him. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.”

Dr. Campbell’s point in telling this story is that conversations with Jesus are dangerous conversations. They are very dangerous because Jesus is always going to twist and turn your thinking, leave your head spinning and leave you feeling confounded. Jesus is always going to be moving us beyond the safety of our preconceived notions, perspectives and ideas about God. And, quite honestly, when one of these dangerous conversations takes place, the participants will rarely leave the encounter singing a hymn like, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus!”

As we encounter Jesus today, it is the final week of his life. Just one day earlier, he had entered Jerusalem accompanied by shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David,” as people were proclaiming him king. He then went to the temple and literally turned the tables, knocking them over as he drove out the money changers. He called the temple a ”den of robbers.” It had been an eventful day, to say the least. Things are becoming intense and there is growing, even violent controversy between Jesus and the temple leadership. So, it is the morning of the next day, and he has returned to the temple. As he enters, he is confronted by the chief priests and elders of the people who try to trap him with a question about authority. They think they are the ones who are in charge and they have ultimate authority at the temple. So, they demand to know, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Believing they have control and are in charge, they are ready to challenge whatever Jesus says.

Well, the chief priests and elders discover that challenging Jesus results in some very dangerous conversation. What they are not prepared for is hearing that Jesus’ authority comes not from another human being but from heaven. Jesus avoids the trap and figuratively turns the tables on the religious leaders with a thorny question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin.” This is a very dangerous question because, in making a commitment about John’s authority, the religious leaders would also make a commitment about John’s witness to Jesus – and thus Jesus’ authority.

Oh yes, the tables have really been turned and the interviewee has now become the interviewer! Jesus outwits the religious leaders, places the question back on them and unmasks their deepest priorities and concerns. You see, the religious leaders are not really interested in Jesus’ true identity or in discovering how God would have them respond to Jesus. No, what they are really interested in is maintaining their privilege, power and control and they want to keep the current order intact. They want to keep Jesus in their tidy little box or have nothing to do with him.

Yes, this was a dangerous conversation indeed! The religious leaders are left speechless and the interview appears to have ended. But, Jesus does not stop. He knows they are off balance and confounded and so, he tells them a story – one of his favorite teaching tools. He tells of two sons. When the father directs the first son to go and work in the vineyard, the mouthy and rebellious son emphatically answers, “I will not go.” But then, he changes his mind and goes anyway. The second son, who appears dutiful and obedient, answers that he will go, but then he does not. When Jesus asks his questioners which of the sons did the will of his father, they say, “The first.”

Again, this is a very dangerous conversation, indeed! According to this parable, those who are seemingly “in the know” are not the ones who are doing the will of God. Wow! The tables are again turned. You see, Jesus’ stories and questions are seldom about right answers; rather, they are about calling his followers and his hearers to be transformed. The question really is not about what is the will of God. It is about the deeper question of who belongs in God’s realm or kingdom. And, through this exchange and his questions, Jesus convicts the scribes and elders of their lack of belief, and finally asserts that the despised, faithful tax collectors and prostitutes will enter heaven before they will. Talk about dangerous conversation! This whole exchange begins with the “in the know” religious leaders authoritatively questioning Jesus, and it ends up with a pronouncement that they will follow reviled tax collectors and shunned prostitutes into heaven.

Yes, conversations with Jesus are dangerous conversations! Jesus is not interested in simply talking with us about the meaning of life. He is always confronting us with the issue of his identity and the call to faith in him. Again today, Jesus is really asking the central question of the gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” And, Jesus is not about small talk or beating around the bush. Jesus wants our very lives, and he is going to do whatever it takes, even going to the extreme measure of ultimately dying on a cross, to unmask our deadly priorities and call us to faith in him.

Yes, conversations with Jesus are dangerous, indeed. We do not begin by interviewing Jesus, but by believing in him, trusting in his authority and following him to the places where he goes. And, in the process, our world is always going to be turned upside down and inside out, our heads left spinning and our tongues stammering. We discover that the privileged – which I dare say are people like most of us, people who are type A take charge people – the privileged are not leading this parade. We discover that no matter how much we think we are in control and in charge, whether it be our own lives, the circles in which we function and live, or even the community of faith, we are not. It is God alone who is in charge. And, we discover that it is the despised prostitutes, the loathed tax collectors, the reviled “others” of this world, and the most vulnerable of the world that are leading this parade as we follow Jesus. And, we like the privileged religious leaders, are always going to discover that our preconceived notions and perceptions of who Jesus is will always be shattered. Jesus will never be captured or controlled or fit into our little boxes. He is always going to disrupt the ways in which righteousness and privilege and piety and power try to control and manage. Jesus will always elude our grasp so that we may be grasped by him and by God’s immeasurable grace and boundless love for all. And, when we are grasped by God’s grace, the tables have truly been turned. Then, we can truly celebrate a love that is indiscriminate, boundless in mercy, and life-giving for all.

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