Text: Matthew 21:23-27
Date: Michaelmas + Pentecost XVII (Proper 21) 10/1/17
Last Friday celebrated St. Michael and All Angels Day introducing the final days of the season of Sundays after Pentecost. The appointed Gradual for these last weeks is from Psalm 91, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps 91:11). Beginning today the appointed Gospel readings therefore gradually move to consider the doctrine of the Last Things, the coming final judgment and the glorious deliverance of the Holy Church into the very courts and presence of God in paradise on the Last Day.
The Hymn of the Day serves to begin our preparation also for the Quincentennial or 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, Martin Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word.” This hymn was written by Luther against the two major threats to the Christian church at the time, namely the Roman Pope and the Muslim Turk whose armies were closing in on the German lands. In fact the original first stanza of the hymn mentions this directly in the words,
Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work
Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk
Who fain would tear from off Thy throne
Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.
These words of prayer for deliverance fit well not only when considering the Last Days and Final Judgment and the struggle of Martin Luther and the Reformation, but also the growing challenge of Jesus by the chief priests and elders of the people leading, of course, to our Lord’s own last days culminating in His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. With these things today we also meditate on the various difficulties, challenges, fears and frustrations in our own lives in our own time from the point of view of Luther’s hymn,
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
The opposition to Jesus has been growing. In Matthew 21 the Evangelist tells of our Lord entering Jerusalem for the final time, for the culmination of His earthly ministry, His crucifixion, death and resurrection thereby delivering the world from its slavery to sin and opening the door of eternal life by faith in Him. His violent cleansing of the Temple and final words of judgment will have set the stage for His enemies, the chief priests and elders of the people, finally to kill the Lord of Life, or in the words of Luther’s hymn, “to tear from off Thy throne Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.”
First, today, acting much like an appointed governmental Special Counsel the chief priests continue to try to catch Jesus in His words to investigate whether they can bring charges against Him. Today we hear them asking simply by what authority he “does these things.” What things? Well, certainly His cleansing of the temple and His reception of children’s praises on His entering Jerusalem crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Always wise to their evil intent, however, Jesus turns the table, “the art of the deal” being to ask them a question which, if they answer, He promises to answer them. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” The interrogators didn’t believe “from heaven” and, on the other hand, were afraid of the Baptist’s popularity with the people. I love their answer. Hedging their bets they said, “We don’t know.” So Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Well, shut my mouth! End of conversation.
If they only knew His authority and from whence it comes they may be led to life-saving repentance of their sin and faith in the Savior. You can reject God’s grace and salvation by your own pride and unbelief. That’s because His authority was and is an authority over the biggest spiritual issues of sin and grace, condemnation and forgiveness, life and death.
The people had already acknowledged Jesus’ great authority when, for instance, immediately after delivering His famous Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for,” St. Matthew tells us this, “he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).
Then again to a paralytic, lying on a bed, Jesus “said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’” When some (guess who?) some of the scribes muttered to themselves, “This man is blaspheming,” Jesus reached out to them asking, “which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” implying that from their point of view, from our point of view, it is of course easier to say the first because for the paralytic to rise and walk at a simple word of command would be immediate evidence whether Jesus were a fraud. “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—Jesus then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” Guess what? He did. Matthew tells us, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Mt 9:6-8).
Even to the head of the government, Pontius Pilate, before His crucifixion, when Jesus turned silent against the accusations of the Jews, Pilate said to Him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” And indeed Pilate did have that authority. But Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:10-11). A passage, by the way, it would be good for every one of our elected officials to remember and to contemplate for themselves.
Finally, at His Ascension into heaven that last thing Jesus said was the institution of the sacrament of Holy Baptism, saying, “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
It is by His authority alone, when He said to the apostles, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” and He breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:21-23), by His bestowal of the Office of the Keys to His apostolic ministers, that they have the consequent authority, “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ to forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Absolution, LSB 185).
It is by faith in the authority of His Word that, in the face of any and all opposition, challenge, or trial, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Blessings abound where’er He reigns:
The pris’ners leap, unloose their chains,
The weary find eternal rest,
And all who suffer want are blest.
Let ev’ry creature rise and bring
Honors peculiar to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud amen” (LSB 832).
 Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, Marilyn Kay Stulkin, ©1981 Fortress Press, 309.