First United Methodist Church
October 1st, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Who is in Charge? Is God Among Us or Not?
Do you remember the music group, Milli Vanilli? They were one of the hottest acts in music in 1989, and during one of their concerts a very odd thing happened. They were singing their big hit, “Girl You Know It’s True,” and the lead singer appeared to repeat one phrase, “Girl, you know it’s…” over and over again before running off the stage. Of course, it wasn’t the singer who was repeating the phrase, but the recording to which he had been lip-syncing that was skipping. When word got out about the incident, the band explained the need for lip-syncing from time to time, and the public was quick to forgive.
A few months later they received the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. But soon after, rumors began swirling about how often they lip-synced in concert. Finally, in November 1990, their producer sold them out, telling the world in a press conference that Rob And Fab, the two people we knew as Milli Vanilli, had not sung a single note in any concert or on their very popular album. The men we had seen on stage, receiving all the applause and awards, were dancers and models who had been lip-syncing to the voices of studio vocalists hired to record all the songs. Days later, Milli Vanilli’s Grammy was rescinded. Even though lip-syncing was, and still is, a common practice in concerts, this band fell from grace because they were not authentic. Concert goers do have a reasonable expectation that the people on the stage are the same people they listen to on the recordings.
When the religious leaders confront Jesus in today’s text, they hope to prove to the crowd that he is not authentic. He has gained a great many followers because he not only teaches a radically different understanding of the Scriptures, but he supports these teachings by responding to the needs of the community. The conversation that takes place in our gospel is both a trap and a discussion of authenticity – who has the authority to speak in God’s name? Their goal in this conversation wasn’t to get him involved in theological debate – they were smart enough to know that Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures was theologically correct, but the problem they had with him was that his popularity threatened the status quo as well as their leadership role in the community.
They had spent years establishing a peaceful existence among their Roman rulers, and as long as they didn’t antagonize them, they were allowed to practice their own religion, even though the Romans worshipped a number of Pagan Gods and didn’t appreciate the idea that there was one God who ruled everything. An itinerant preacher like Jesus – particularly one the people were beginning to think might be the Messiah – could cause a lot of problems for the Jewish leaders, since the belief was that the Messiah would free them from their captors and re-establish an independent Jewish nation. Jesus empowered the poor and the underprivileged, and all the leaders, Roman and Jewish, feared that they might lose their privileged status if Jesus’ followers were mobilized in a rebellion. And that is why, as the week in Jerusalem went on, the religious leaders became more and more desperate to eliminate him from the scene.
By questioning Jesus’ authority, the priests placed Jesus in a no-win situation. If he claimed his authority came from God, they would stone him as a blasphemer. If he claimed his authority came from man, they would stone him as a heretic. Unfortunately, the priest’s strategy caved in because Jesus chose not to answer their question directly. By asking them about John’s authority, he created a dilemma for the leaders. No matter how they answered, they would offend someone.
If they said John’s authority was from God, they would have to deal with the next question—“Then why didn’t you listen to him?” But, if they said he was not a prophet, they would turn the people against them, because the people were sure John was a prophet. Public opinion might be fickle, but it was also powerful. Rather than get themselves into trouble, they chose to appear ignorant and answered, “We don’t know.” This is many times a legitimate, even desirable, response, given the arrogant human tendency to claim a monopoly on truth. But here the answer was a dodge. “If you can’t say,” Jesus answered, “I won’t say either.” Then he apparently changed the subject.
At first it seems as though the parable and the previous conversation are not connected, but Jesus brings the trap full circle and the Jewish authorities realize that the parable is about them. He uses John’s teaching to make his point, since John’s authority was no longer in question. John’s power was seen in the results of his ministry. People who believed him – even those beyond salvation as defined by the religious authorities – were acknowledging the rule of God.
There's a wonderful truth here for all of us: it does not matter what you have done, where you have been, who you were before trusting Christ. If you will give your life to him—and walk the path of discipleship, which calls for embodied love in all of our actions—God has a special place reserved for you in his kingdom.
Both our Scriptures today remind us that God is not only in charge, but also among us. The Priests and the Pharisees had every reason to love and to trust God. They had read and told the story of the Exodus to generation after generation, and they knew without a doubt that God would provide and be there for them when things got too bad. Because the Romans allowed them to practice their religion in their occupied status, they wanted to maintain the status quo. They fear Jesus because they worry that his ministry will not only threaten their own authority, but also upset the Romans.
There are a couple of helpful lessons I think that we can learn from today’s passages. First of all, the story of the Exodus is really a story of God’s mercy. No matter how often the Israelites cried out, God responded to their needs. From their experience in the wilderness, the Israelites learned to put their faith in something they could not see in addition to following a leader that they weren’t sure that they could completely trust. From their vantage point, there was much uncertainty in their future. They must have felt very alone at times and wondered whether the Lord was truly with them, especially when faced with the hunger and thirst of their children. Over time, the Israelites developed a faith that was grounded in love and trusted that God would be with them as long as they were faithful.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is with us in a way that the Israelites could not fathom. Although I believe that God expected and deserved the faith and trust of Israel, it was not until the incarnation of Christ that humanity really understood what it means to experience God with us. I don’t think the Israelites complained anymore than we do in our everyday lives. The difference is that we aren’t struggling for our survival in the wilderness. Jesus offered us an experience with him that was grounded in unconditional love and mercy, and I think our greatest struggle is to accept that love in our lives so that the Holy Spirit can move us from our places of selfishness and fear to a place of awareness of God’s great mercy and provision.
When I lived in West Lafayette, I planted the tree on the left on Earth Day. The following Fall, it looked like this. While everyone was getting out their rakes and leaf blowers, I went outside and picked up my six leaves and told myself how grateful I was that I didn’t have to do as much work as everyone else. When I moved to Plymouth, there was not one, but three trees in my yard about the size of the one on the right. It took more than thirty seconds to clear the leaves from my lawn last year, but I also got to enjoy the benefits of having large trees in my yard – beauty, shade, wildlife, those kinds of things. It takes a lot more work to maintain this yard, but the joy I experience just by having it makes it all worth it. God gives us gifts like these sometimes, practical things, so that we can truly appreciate God’s loving presence, and recognize that sometimes the work that God calls us to is difficult and time consuming, but the benefits are well worth it.
Today’s readings remind us that God is present among us, and that Jesus makes a difference in the way we think and in the way we act. In other words, Christ wants us to be authentic in the way that we live out our faith. Being a Christian means embodying Christ’s love and teachings, so that they are a part of who we are and expressed in what we do. Knowing the words well enough to lip-sync isn’t enough. I used to have a friend who described discipleship in a very unique way. Using her words, it goes like this: “First you say the words, and then you do them, and after that, you live it!” Embodied faith is living faith. Let us pray:
Lord of hope and healing, you have heard the cries of our hearts. You know that we want to serve you, and yet when things get tough, we hesitate. We lack the courage and strength to work for you. You have reminded us that you will be continually with us and we need to place our trust in that fact. Your love will sustain and heal us. Your mercy and grace will give us courage and strength, joy and peace. As we have come before you this day, offering our prayers for those near and dear to us, let us remember that you constantly lift and carry us in your love. Bring us to the knowledge of your mercy and powerful love that will never leave us. Prepare us for ministry in areas of need and desolation. For we ask these things in Jesus’ Name. AMEN.