Paul N. Walker Christ Church 9/27/20 Matt 21:23-27
“The Gospel According to a Bjorn Borg Tennis Racket”
I’m going to tip my hand right off the bat in this sermon. Usually, a preacher likes to let the tension build before the denouement of the gospel’s relief. But in this time of pandemic, there are enough guessing games out there without having to toss your Sunday sermon into the mix. Plus, let’s be honest, Zoom preaching and Zoom listening calls for its own rules.
I’m preaching on the first part of our gospel passage this morning. The authorities question Jesus’ authority with a trick question, which, in typical fashion, He doesn’t answer. But, I’ll give it a shot!
So – here it is – the point of the passage and the point of this sermon. Are you ready for it? Have you got yourself situated yet? Do I have your attention? Do you need to hit pause and go refill your coffee? Get the kids to settled down for just a few minutes? How about finish that text your sending?
Or if you “go to the 5 o’clock service” maybe you need to top off your glass of wine. I know how it is – I’m a church watcher too. So, in the words of Mrs. Lucas, an administrator at my high school who regularly came on the intercom system and whose odd voice we used to mock: “Is this thing on? May I have your attention, please?”
The dual points of passage and sermon are summed up in St. Augustine’s prayer to God: “Diffidam mihi, fidam in te.” Nothing like a little Latin to add some zing to your Sunday. But Just on the off chance your Latin is rusty, or you didn’t listen to a Latin pronunciation guide on the interweb like I did, here is the translation: “I will distrust myself, I will trust in You.”
That’s it. I will distrust myself, I will trust in You. We’ll now unpack the meaning of that via this gospel passage, but if that is all you remember, then the preacher will have done his job. Even if the fast forward button is tempting you to press it, but you remember this one thing, then you are golden. I will distrust myself, I will trust in You.
So, for all of you who are still hanging in there with me, back to the text. The setting of this confrontation in Matthew is Holy Week. After the triumphal entry, after the cleansing of the temple, but before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The powers that be are still out to kill Jesus and they use the same ploy that they did at the beginning of His ministry. They give Him baited questions in hopes of entrapping Him in a chargeable offense. “By what authority do you do these things?” Jesus’ authority is the narrative’s leitmotif of the Pharisees problem with the man from Nazareth.
Although the question is designed as a web to snare Him in, it is also a good question. Jesus just waltzed onto the scene teaching, correcting the old law, healing, water walking, bread multiplying, and criticizing the religious leaders up one side and down the other. And yet, they knew Him as the uncredentialed carpenter’s son from a town on the wrong side of the tracks! In other words – “Whoa now, fella! Who made you the boss of us?”
That’s the point. No one else gave Jesus authority to do as he did and say as he said. Jesus’ authority is not derivative, it’s organic. It comes from within Him, not from an outside source. As I said, this was an issue early on. When He forgave the sins of the paralytic at the beginning of his ministry, everyone got up in arms. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!!!” they said. “ONLY GOD CAN DO THAT!!!” they said. “Yes, I can,” He said. “And I just did,” He said. And He proved it by healing the man lickity split, right on the spot.
But very soon after that, Jesus just stopped proving anything to anybody. He also stopped answering questions. A search of the scripture will show you that Jesus only answers questions with questions of His own. And here’s something that you probably have already noticed – He still doesn’t really answer questions.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ask the questions though. Fire away. Why, Lord, is this pandemic happening? How long, O Lord, how long? Why is this happening to me? When will we see change happening in the world? Ask away, but don’t expect an answer. As He told the chief priests and the elders, “I will also ask you one question.” And the question that He asks us in answer to the questions we ask Him is the same question, the square one question, the only question that really matters and really helps address all our uncertainties. And the question He asks is this: “Will you trust me?”
Will you trust me? I will distrust myself, I will trust in you. As our friend Robert Capon says, “The Father’s will for you- his whole will, his entire plan of salvation – is that you believe in Jesus, nothing more. He has already forgiven you.” To those seriously invested in their own plans and authority, that kind of message seems irresponsible at best, and immoral at worst. That kind of abdication of personal responsibility will lead to no good. Again – where did He get the authority to forgive sins and invite total trust? Clearly, this message must be quashed and this man must be stopped.
Believe in Jesus – nothing more. Not the way of the industrious world, is it? When I was in 6th grade, I wanted a Bjorn Borg tennis racket. Borg was my tennis hero and I was convinced that I needed his racket to be successful on my tennis team. Instead of giving me the money to buy the racket, my parents did what all good parents do – they used the opportunity to instill a good protestant work ethic in me. They told me to go door to door with my lawn mower and ask our neighbors if they needed someone to cut their grass.
I did not like this idea. But then 2 things happened. As I was cutting our grass, a neighbor drove up to our yard, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey son. Want to make some money cutting my grass? You can use my mower.”
And then shortly after that I went on in close to shore fishing trip in Virginia Beach with my friend. One of those 50 person boats where everyone bottom fishes. My friend’s father put in a few bucks for me in the biggest fish caught pool. Lo and behold, I caught a 5- pound sea bass, which turned out to be the biggest fish! I went home with 150 bucks, a princely sum for a 1970’s 6th grader and more than enough to cover my Bjorn Borg tennis racket. Nice try, Mom and Dad!
Not a good lesson in the protestant work ethic, but a great lesson in the grace of God, in which protestants are supposed to believe. Jesus says it Himself: “This is the only work God wants from you: believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29) Or, one last time, I will distrust myself, I will trust in You.
In the end, the authorities won, at least in the short run. They killed Jesus. But, little did they know that His death was Jesus’ final answer to the world. “It is finished,” He said from the cross. And so it was. And so it is. And so it ever shall be.