Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have nearly come full circle in the Gospel of Matthew. Early in the Gospel, in chapter 4, John the Baptizer was arrested and Jesus withdrew from Judah into Galilee to bring the light of God to a people lost in darkness. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the [reign] of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 4:17, ESV). As we have followed Jesus these many weeks by the testimony of His servant Matthew, we have come back to Judah, to the Holy City, Jerusalem, and salvation is nearer than when we first believed: the reign of God in Jesus has come near to people, and the coronation of the King is at hand. Lines are being drawn. The chief priests and the elders of the people ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23, ESV) Which side of the line are you on, Jesus? By whose authority do You teach? By whose authority do You cleanse the temple and restore it as a house of prayer? By whose authority do You allow children to praise You as the Messiah? By whose authority do You cause fruitless fig trees to wither? It is the same question they have already asked, a request for a sign from heaven. To that request, Jesus said that no sign would be given but the sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:4). If you don’t know what the sign of Jonah is, I’ll give you a hint: find out how many days Jonah was in the belly of the great fish. Here, Jesus makes the chief priests and elders answer their own question: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:25, ESV). See: the answer to that question is the same as the answer to the question about Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ authority comes from the same place as John’s baptism for repentance. John’s baptism came from heaven. He called sinners to repentance and pointed them to their Savior: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Jesus’ authority to teach and to perform miracles-the authority to lay down His life and take it up again-is also from heaven. If you want to see where and how God reigns, look at the One who has come from the Father in heaven. John, who pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus, who is the Messiah, have a single message: repent and be forgiven; the reign of God has come near to you.
And that message is the reign of God in action. Where repentance and forgiveness are happening, you can be sure that there God is reigning in Jesus Christ. If there is no repentance, then there cannot be forgiveness, and there are people who have not yet been gathered under His merciful rule. God never stops being King of kings and Lord of lords, but where sinners remain dead in their sin, they remain outside of His kingdom. They remain, like the chief priests and the elders, unbelieving. And unbelief, like belief, is never generic. Belief and unbelief always have an object: the One to whom faith clings, or the one whom unbelief denies. And the unbelief of the chief priests and the elders is unbelief in God because it is unbelief in Jesus. God’s merciful reign is nowhere else and in no one else than Jesus. The thing about the chief priests and the elders, and all the people who did not believe in Jesus, is that they heard and saw what He had been doing. They heard Him teach as one who took for granted the authority of His own teaching. They heard the children crying out, praising Him with joyous abandon, as children will do. They saw Him healing the sick in the temple, and what better place to heal people than in God’s House? They saw Him overturning tables and scattering coins across the temple courtyard, so that prayer would once again be the reason for the temple’s existence. And the unbelievers built up the walls around their hearts, petrified the already hardened stones in their chests, and they kept asking questions to which they didn’t want to know the answers. We do that, don’t we? We keep asking questions because we don’t like the answers we’ve already gotten. We keep hoping that this time the answer will change. We show that unbelief still clings to our flesh, because we have seen and heard Jesus doing the things that He came to do. Jesus is here in this place to forgive sins. Have we ceased to be amazed that God Almighty is in our midst? We’ve seen it, in bread and wine, in Body and Blood. We’ve heard it, “I forgive you all your sins.” But we keep asking the same unbelieving questions. We wonder, do I really have to be here? And Jesus answers with a question, “Where am I to forgive your sins?” We ask, does it matter if we only have some of His gifts each week? And Jesus answers with a question, “Do you not need all the forgiveness you can get, a stronger faith, a more fervent love?” We think, why would I need to have a pastor put his hands on my head and tell me, “I forgive you all your sins”? And Jesus answers with a question, “Why have I put this man in this place?” See: the answers to Jesus’ questions are the same as the answers to your questions. Jesus is here to forgive your sins; where else is there to be? He alone has the words of eternal life; to whom, then, shall we go? And you can never have too much forgiveness, too strong a faith, too fervent a love for your neighbor. Why deprive yourself and others of any of the gifts of the Lord? He is ready and willing to do what He has promised. And it is your Lord and mine who has put me here; not to be a good organizer, not to win members and influence the powerful, not to grow a megachurch, and not to make money, live a comfortable life, and teach you how to do the same. No, I am here for one reason and one reason only, and that is because Jesus Christ Himself chooses to use sinful, weak, and prideful men as His hands and mouth so that you, His sinful, weak, and prideful people will be forgiven and made holy. In the full authority of the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Son comes to you and does the things that He always does. “See, the Lamb, so long expected,/Comes with pardon down from heav’n./Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,/One and all to be forgiv’n; So, when next He comes in glory/And the world is wrapped in fear,/He will shield us with His mercy/And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345, sts. 3-4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/25/08