I was walking out of a Supermarket not far from here a while back when a car drove swiftly into the car park and mounted the pavement at the entrance. This happened to be the place where I was standing at the time – so I quickly took evasive action. I was so stunned that when the driver of the car got out to head into the Supermarket I blurted out, 'You can't park there.' To which she said, 'Who says so? What gives you the right to say where I can or can't park?' (Her language may have been a little fruitier than that) And I have to say, that I'm not often lost for words – but I was stunned into silence. I had never seen Mohini Wood behave like this before!
No, no. Just kidding! If you don't know Mohini she's our pastoral worker here at church and is one of the loveliest people you'll ever meet. It wasn't anyone you'd know.
But I was lost for words because… well… what do you say to that? What authority do I have to police the Lidl's car park?
Have you ever been asked a question like that? Have you ever asked a question like that? And more to my point for this morning – Have you ever asked Jesus a question like that? Come on – don't be coy. I'm sure we all have.
And we'd not be the first people to do so – by a long shot! As it's the question being asked of Jesus as we dive into our series of Autumn sermons from Luke's gospel. It's there in Luke 20.2 – do you see it?
"One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 'Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.'"
'Who says so? What gives you the right…?'
And at first, glance that looks like a good question, doesn't it? If you're here just checking out the Christian claims for the first time – because you want to do a bit of pushing and prodding to see if there is anything in them. That's why a course we run here at St Joseph's called Christianity Explored starts like this: 'If you could ask God one question, what would it be?'
We've all got questions about God, haven't we? I mean some are more thought out than others. But I suspect we've all got questions. In fact, I hope we do. I hope none of us has come to the end of our curiosity and asking questions – as if we knew it all already.
So let's peel back a layer on this question Jesus is being asked here – as if it were an onion – and we will see it's not just a good question, but it's an understandable one too.
Do notice who is asking it, in verse 1? It's "...the chief priests and the scribes with the elders..." These folks are the religious leaders of the day. And do you see what provoked it? It's the incident at the end of chapter 19 – in verse 45: "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, 'It is written, "My house shall be a house of prayer", but you have made it a den of robbers.'" Jesus has just been on the rampage turning over the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons to those coming to offer sacrifice at the temple. He'd turned the place upside down! So you kind of understand why they say to him: "...by what authority do you do these things?"
Did the General Synod or the Church Council pass a motion and we missed it? Who gave you the right to do this? Did the Archbishop of Canterbury commission you? Of course not! In effect, it's the Archbishop and the General Synod – that are the ones who are asking the question!
You see – Jesus hasn't just come in and overturned the tables in the temple and walked out. This is the morning after the night before. And he's back! The temple staff are still clearing up the mess. There are bits of table to be put back together again. The odd pigeon is still fluttering around in the rafters. There might be a few loose coins under a chair if you're lucky. And while they're sweeping up – the clergy and the church council are scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to run the morning service. And Jesus is back.
That takes some nerve, doesn't it? The cheek of it! I mean look at verse 1 – Jesus is walking around the temple courts as if he owned the place! No wonder they front up to him saying: "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who is it that gave you this authority."
'What gives you the right?'
But let's dig a little deeper – peel off another layer from the onion – for what seems to be such a great question, such an understandable question… is actually a shocking question on these people's lips.
I loved the story that I came across in the news this week – about the group of tourists who were travelling through Iceland on a tour bus and stopped near a volcanic canyon. Soon, there was word of a missing passenger. So a search party was formed. But the search was called off at about 3am in the morning – when it became clear the missing woman was, in fact, part of the search party. Apparently she had changed clothes – so she didn't recognise the description of herself and joined in the search.
And folks, that made me think of these guys here in Luke 20 – they and all the Jewish people had been searching – they had been watching and waiting for the Messiah King promised in the Old Testament. Time and again God promised to send a Saviour who would come to live with his people and rescue them from their sin. And here he is right under their noses! This is the Messiah King that they've been looking for all along.
He backs it up by making the blind see and raising the dead and wowing the crowds not only with miracles but by teaching not as the Rabbis did – but with authority! That's what the gospels tell us about Jesus. He walks around as if he owns the place… because he does! All the evidence suggests that.
Yet the religious elite – the leaders of the search party if you like – they don't recognise him. All they can do when they meet him face to face is say, 'Who gave you the authority to do this?'
It's a shocking question when you're actually talking to God.
It makes me wonder. Do we think that moment will ever come for some of the church leaders in this country? Or in the world today? Will they look at the fractured remains of a church that they've poured their lives into leading and trying to hold together – and hear Jesus say, 'God isn't in this. He is appalled by this.' Can you think of what a horrific moment that will be?
Before the smugness creeps in and we're tempted to think: 'Ah, well we're St Joseph's and we've got it sorted.' That is just what these leaders thought. That they'd got it sorted. They thought they were the guardians of true faith – in a world full of pagan idols.
So do we ever ask ourselves, 'What would Jesus think of my religion?' Do we ever find ourselves looking around what we as a church and wondering what Jesus would think of it? Would he value what we most value about church… or would he turn them over and trample on them? What are the things you most value about church – is it what Jesus would? I don't know how to do it properly – but I know I must keep asking myself those sorts of questions. Because it would be awful to simply drift into this situation – never getting beyond the assumption, that of course Jesus would agree with ME! I don't want to wake up one day to a reality that finds myself asking him, 'What gives you the right?'
This is a shocking question.
And do you notice what Jesus did with it? Look at verse 3: "He answered them, 'I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?'" Do you see what Jesus does here? He answers their question with a question – Not like some slippery politician trying to duck the issue. No! John was the one who came claiming to proclaim the coming of the Messiah King. He had actually pointed Jesus out as God's saviour already saying, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" That's God's job, isn't it? Taking away the sin of the world. And John said, 'That's who Jesus is.'
So actually this question is a revealing question. As it will tell us a lot about those who answer it. How they respond to John tells us exactly where they stand with God.
These religious leaders respond like professional snooker players. Now, bear with me! Have you ever played snooker? It's been a while but I used to play fairly regularly when I was a student. And if I ever potted a ball then it was a great shot! It didn't matter if the ball was just hanging over the jaws of the pocket – the only thought in my mind was to get the ball in. Just occasionally I would walk around the table chalking my cue and checking the angles – but that was only because I'd seen the professionals do it on telly. They do that because they're thinking about where they need to leave the white ball in three shots time – so that they could keep the break going. But that thought never crosses my mind! I know it is highly unlikely that there is going to be three shots time when I'm playing.
But when Jesus throws out his question – the religious types handle it like professional snooker players. They're thinking three shots ahead – do you see?
Look at them – in verse 5: "And they discussed it with one another, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven", he will say, "Why did you not believe him?"'" – 'We'll have egg on our face won't we? Because we didn't take his baptism. We didn't believe him, when he said Jesus was God's chosen one.' "But if we say, 'From man', all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet." – We will plummet in the popularity ratings. Whichever answer they give they're stuck.
Either way, they don't want to have to live with the consequences of they're answer. They could only see Jesus' question as a trap, couldn't they? Not as an opportunity to repent. It never occurred to them to humble themselves and say, 'Yes it was from heaven and we got it wrong.'
Of course if they had believed in John – it would have been easier to turn to Jesus. But each rejection makes it harder to take the next opportunity, doesn't it?
There is this idea that I can ignore God and go out and enjoy life and then turn to Christ when I'm ready or when it's more convenient for me – but it's built on a huge fallacy, isn't it? Each time I say 'no' to God – the rut goes deeper and it's harder for me to climb out of it. I look at the opportunity to turn to Christ… and wonder if it's a trap.
"So they answered Jesus…" – verse 7 – "…that they did not know..."
And their problem is not with the truth. They said 'pass'. Not because they were ignorant – but because they were cowardly. Jesus' question had revealed their hearts.
You see I can ask Jesus' questions and that's fine – but will you live with the answers? Or stubbornly refuse to go where the truth takes you?
"We don't know..." they answered, "We don't know..."
So Jesus says – verse 8: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
He's not daft, is he? He knows that the questioners' minds are already made up. I mean look back at the last 2 verses of chapter 19 – These people weren't just questioning him, they were trying to kill him!
So Jesus won't just answer questions for the sake of it. He is very patient with honest seekers. But Jesus can be very silent if I'm not willing to live with the consequences of his answers.
So in a few chapters' time, as he's on trial for his life – Pontus Pilate will send him to King Herod. And Herod literally peppers him with questions. But Jesus doesn't say a word. When I first read that I thought, 'Oh, come on Jesus! You could have at least given Herod a chance – and told him who you are and why you've come. What a missed opportunity to influence a King! What is wrong with you?'
But I'd missed what we already know of Herod in the gospels – Herod loved to listen to John the Baptist. He put him on to preach week after week. He loved to listen. But John kept telling him about his sin – He kept telling him that he shouldn't be married to his brother's wife. And Herod was never willing to do anything about it. He had refused to repent. So when Herod asked Jesus another set of questions just to amuse himself – Jesus wasn't going to play games. like he's some kind of show pony!
And folks, wouldn't it be an awful thing if we came to church or Midweek Group as a connoisseur – loving to roll the Bible's teaching around in our mouths like it's a fine wine. But going away every week deciding to do nothing. That's not an attitude that tends to get answers from Jesus. Because he knows that not everyone who asks a question wants an answer.
I remember when I was working with students a Dutch lad turned up with a friend one week at our weekly student Bible Study. He wasn't a Christian, but he was fascinated by Jesus and had loads and loads of questions about Christianity. So, I arranged to meet up with him – and week after week tried to answer his questions. Which wasn't easy on two accounts: Firstly, he was a lot smarter than me! Secondly, he was Dutch – so he therefore spoke better English than me! But week after week we persisted, until eventually he started going back around the same questions we'd already covered. So after a few weeks of this, I took a breath and said, 'Listen, if I could answer your questions to your satisfaction would you become a Christian?' Not because there wouldn't be any more questions to answer – but there does come a time doesn't there when all your previous questions have been answered. So it's fairly probable that someone will have an answer to the next one too.
'So if I can answer your questions to your satisfaction, will you become a Christian?' He said, 'You'll never be able to answer them to my satisfaction.' I said, 'You're probably right... but let's just suppose I did... would you become a Christian?' And I have to say, though his answer saddened me greatly I really appreciated his honesty – as he looked me in the eyes and said, 'No.' And he stopped asking questions, and I didn't get the chance to answer them again.
"We don't know," they said. And so Jesus said to them, "Neither will I answer your question."
It's a good question, an understandable one even – if you're looking into the Christian faith: 'What gives you the right? Why should I listen to Jesus?' And if that is you this morning – please do take away a Mark's Gospel and read it for yourself. Or talk to me about joining us on that Christianity Explored course which we're planning to start later in the month. We try really hard to make that a safe place where you can ask any questions you have about the Christian faith – no matter how silly or threatening or offensive you think it might be. You can pick up flyers for that, as well as the gospels on the display racks on your way out.
But folks, this is a shocking question – when these people, the people who should know better ask Jesus, 'What gives you the right?' So before we start asking Jesus questions, let's try that revealing question… 'Will you go… where his answer leads you? Or are we just playing games?'
God says to his people: "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart."
So let's take nothing for granted – and pray that that's you and me shall we?