Monday of Holy Week, a Sermon on Luke 20:1-19

“By what authority?” (Luke 20v1-19)

One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!”
But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realised that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

“By what authority?”

There seems to be deep seated resistance to God among human beings. I am aware of it in myself. For me, becoming a Christian essentially required me to surrender my soul to God and I was very resistant to doing so. And even now, I am aware of my heart’s natural resistance to letting him in – to certain situations, or certain parts of my life.
It seems to be an innate feature of human experience, as common as grief, suffering and death – and not unconnected with all three. We are interested in the idea of God, so long as it remains purely theoretical. But we are deeply resistant to the idea of God becoming personal, of having a relationship with us or (perhaps most of all) of letting him into our lives.
We often point to those who have conversion experiences as slightly mad, as though they’ve gone off the rails and lost perspective. And yet the unanimous testimony of those who have had such experiences is that a personal relationship with God drives out the madness, puts us back on the rails and restores perspective, so much so that we saw our former, unbelieving selves as blind and lost. It’s a story I can testify to in my own life. Coming to Christ rescued me from a life of terrible depression and gloom. It has given me a perspective on life I never had before, it has been a light to my path and has rescued me over and over again, from my own idiocy, from my selfishness, and from bad decisions which (for some unaccountable reason) seemed like a good idea at the time! Moreover, it has given me a path to live by which has never failed to lead me into a rich, fulfilled and happy way of life.

That is the sort of fruit God brings forth in human beings when he dwells with them deeply, not in a temple made of stone, but in the temple made of flesh. As we discovered yesterday, when Jesus overturned the Temple made of stone, what he wants most from humanity is to dwell with us – for us to discover his love and to learn to return it, so that his love unknown might be deeply known. But we instinctively keep him out.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard was told against the Jewish authorities, but it applies equally to us all. The vineyard is an ancient symbol for Israel, for God’s people. When handed over to God it brings forth fruit – notably wine, the symbol of joy. But we have taken it over for ourselves. We are no longer letting God in. When God speaks to us, we turn away his prophets, with increasing violence. And when at last he sends his son in love and peace, we kill him in the hope of finally having the vineyard to ourselves. But in doing so, we bring a terrible harvest on ourselves, not by God’s will, but by our own.

And yet, ironically when we try to keep God out, to maintain control of our own lives, we fall prey to the forces of this world that seek to manipulate and control us: you can be my friend if you do this, if you don’t do that, if you buy this product, if you hold this opinion, if, if, if… In the godless world, love is an abstract concept which is held perpetually out of our reach, never to be grasped.

But Jesus shows us his love by giving himself entirely for us. It is a love unknown, the passion of God expressed unconditionally, long before we respond and with no guarantee that we will ever do so. That is how we know he is of divine origin, not just of human origin. When we stop treating him as an abstract concept and let him in, come to know him personally, we experience God as pure, unconditional love, powerfully gentle, endlessly kind and profoundly life-giving.

It is a love utterly focussed on our wellbeing, at the same time wonderfully honest and yet hope-filled. It is a love that allows us to face the truth about ourselves without condemnation, but in the assurance of unwavering love. I’ve often said that I know when God corrects me, because when others point out my faults, or when I blame myself, there is always a feeling of condemnation and rejection. But when God shows me my faults, it is wrapped in a love that assures me that my faults can be…will be…have already been overcome and I need not carry the burden of them around anymore.

To experience God is to experience an unknown love that bears an authority we have never before encountered, because it is not of human origin; a love that wants nothing from us but our presence; a love that will not manipulate or control us, but which wins us utterly, heart, body and soul, so our surrender becomes a freewill decision of unbridled joy, like someone finally accepting a proposal of marriage.

Such a love transforms us into generous, living beings, able to look in love at one another, prepared to have our hearts broken for love, able to weep over Jerusalem, and passionate for the world, because God has replaced our hearts of stone with a heart of flesh.

This is love unprecedented, but it need not be love unknown. We can know it and to be known by it – all we need do is end the resistance and surrender to love’s authority.

Poem: love bade me welcome

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?’

Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
My dear, then I will serve.’
You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.