Last Sunday was our first Sunday back in church. Unfortunately for those of you who stayed at home, the live feed was pretty disastrous. These technical difficulties, sadly, also meant that the recording of the service was damaged. So here is a copy of my Sunday sermon should you like to read it. We'll do our best to get it working for this Sunday. Thanks for being patient with us.
I got to be present when my uncle retired from the Air Force as a Full-Bird Colonel. It was a small celebration, but I got to know a little bit more about his life and career. Of course at these types of events, usually you only hear about the good things. So I was a bit surprise when in a phone call a few years later, Uncle Tim shared with me what life was like for him at the beginning of his career.
Apparently, he was a real hot-shot pilot when he was young. Think Top Gun, ok? Trim and tan, flat top haircut, driving around in a Corvette that he build himself. And every night the boys would be out at the bar having a good time, and up in the morning flying planes around the sky.
One night as they were driving his hot rod down a steep hill—his buddy was driving—and right at the bottom of the hill, my uncle reached over and pulled the emergency brake. And the car screeched and screamed down the road, almost getting them in a real accident.
Well the next day, as they were flying overhead, they noticed that they could actually see the tire marks on the pavement where they had pulled the e-brake. And so they decided that every night they would have a competition and see who could make the longest skid marks in the road by pulling the brake.
And they did all kinds of things like this, and always they were on the cusp of getting into real trouble. My uncle said he would push every boundary and skirt every rule he could. He would do maneuvers in his fighter jet that were technically legal but were incredibly dangerous (or so his C.O. thought) and certainly unexpected by the pilots that he was flying with. It turns out, my uncle was a total rebel.
What is it about rebellion that makes it so attractive? I mean, how many of you now have more respect for him now than when I started the story? I mean, I certainly did! But why is that? Why are we so attracted to the free-spirited, rebellious characters in tv shows and movies? Right? What is it about James Dean? Why do I want to be like James Dean?
I think the thing that we’re attracted to, ultimately, is the sense of freedom these characters provide. They make their own rules. They don’t care what other people think or say about them. They are pioneers and adventurers. When we look at them, we see freedom—a freedom that most of us feel we don’t have the courage to grasp for ourselves.
But of course the question is, is freedom really what they have? Or are we being fooled?
What is true freedom? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to live freely? Is it the hot-shot pilot, the risk-taker that’s really free? Is it the man or woman who lives by their own rules, not caring about what anyone else thinks? Is tree freedom found in rebellion against the rules?
Or maybe it’s the opposite! Maybe the truly free person is the one who follows all the rules and does all the right things. Is true freedom found in the security of a comfortable, well-planned life?
What is true freedom all about?
Well, the Bible presents us with a rather paradoxical answer to this question. True freedom is not found in living a life of security and safety, of following the rules of the road. But neither is it found in self-determination and autonomy, in rebellion against the rules. In fact, the Bible teaches us that true freedom is found only under the authority of Jesus Christ.
Our passage today comes from Mark’s Gospel. We have made our way to the end of chapter 11. Jesus has entered Jerusalem, and he the last thing we saw him do was clear the temple of all it’s money-changers and all the salesmen who were selling pigeons and other animals for the sacrifice.
Our passage picks up with a confrontation with the religious authorities about Jesus and about his authority. Here's how it reads:
And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (English Standard Version)
So the scribes and the elders and the priests come onto the scene. And these really represent the elite religious authority of the day. They weren’t just any old backwater preachers. These were the ones who ruled over the Jerusalem temple, the very dwelling place of God. So these would have been the sharpest of Jesus’ opponents. And they ask Jesus about his authority, about where he gets it from.
Now they know Jesus isn’t ordained. They know he’s not a priest (only descendants of Aaron could be priests anyways). And he’s no elder. He’s only 33 years old at this point.
So, really, in a way, they’re asking, Who do you think you are, that you can come into our temple and do these sorts of things? It’s really a rhetorical question because they know Jesus doesn’t have any of these credentials.
And their question reveals just what they think about authority, about the true root of authority. In their minds, true authority comes from having the right degrees and the right endorsements. It’s about having paid your dues and having earned your place. Now, generally speaking having gate keepers and groups of seasoned veterans approving people who serve in ministry roles is a good thing. It’s really the way that you prevent people who don’t have the proper character and skills from damaging the church and hurting the people of God. Of course it happens anyways. But many-a-church have been saved from self-proclaimed prophets because they lacked a seminary degree.
But the reality is, there’s a dark side to this system as well. Humble servants of God have been given true wisdom only to be dismissed for lacking the education. The credentials themselves, intended to protect the people of God sometimes bar God’s people from real leadership. And worse, they become points of pride for those who have the credentials and sit in the seats of power.
And in the case of the priests and scribes and elders of Jerusalem, it had become a way for them to maintain control over the temple courts, over religious instruction, and over the people. And they weren’t willing to give up that power for anything or anyone. And so when Jesus comes into the temple, they use that power to try to silence him.
And let me tell you, this is a real temptation for the rightly credentialed. When you have that degree in hand, and particularly when it comes from a prestigious school; when you’ve had the experience and you’ve worked at the big firm—it’s really easy to be dismissive of other people’s opinions, and it’s really easy to always think you’re right.
And of course the truth is, you may in fact be right — a lot of the time! But if it’s pride that’s driving you and or hunger for power, you can still get the whole business of authority very, very wrong. That’s why we read in Matthew Jesus saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3).
I have to confess that this is a personal weakness for me. I pride myself on having the right arguments, and in laying out the case. And just ask any of my elders, if I believe in something, I go to bat for it. (sorry, you guys.) But how much of the time, am I really not thinking about the people against whom I’m arguing or about how what I’m saying might effect them? How often do I care more about being right than about the person I’m trying to convince?
Perhaps I need to take the advice of scholar Barbara Johnson who wrote, “Never let a problem to be solved become more important that the person to be loved.” Guilty.
So pray for your leaders—whether it’s in the church or in government or in your business. And pray especially for the ones with the shiny degrees hanging on the walls. Pride of place is a real temptation.
But ultimately, what we’re seeing here is that, even though credentials can be and often are a good thing, they’re not really the thing that provides ultimate authority. Credentials are not the root of authority. But if that’s true, then what is?
That’s really the question that Jesus is asking when he makes his deal with the priests and scribes and elders. He says If you tell me where John’s authority comes from, I’ll tell you where my authority comes from.
But this really puts them in a bind. You see, John was held by the people to be a prophet of God. But John didn’t have any credentials either. So if they admit that John was a prophet, they’re essentially admitting that you don’t necessarily have to be credentialed to be an authoritative religious teacher. And that would mean giving up their hold on power.
More than that, John had endorsed the ministry of Jesus. He called him the Lamb of God and said, He who comes after me is greater than I, and my ministry will have to diminish so that his will increase. To recognize John’s authority is then tacitly recognize the authority of Jesus. So they can’t say approve of John’s ministry as having come from God. But they can’t deny John either. Because if they do that, then the crowds who believe in John will be in an uproar, and they’ll lose their power that way. And so of course, their response is simply not to answer at all.
And really what Jesus is doing is he’s unraveling their idea that true authority is in their hands, in the hands of the credentialing powers. Because the religious leaders are so wrapped up in this, they are unable to see what’s staring them in the face—that both Jesus’ ministry and John’s bear the marks of the Holy Spirit. Their criteria for ministry leadership actually excludes God, or at least the possibility that God can act outside of them and their work. (Can you see how profoundly arrogant that is?)
And that’s really what makes them incompetent to judge Jesus and his ministry, and it’s the reason why they won’t recognize John’s authority, and it’s the reason why Jesus will not answer their question. Because they are, in effect, unwilling to admit that true authority comes from God, they’re unable to comprehend Jesus.
And really that’s the root of true authority; that’s what we’ve been driving at. True authority comes from God first and God alone.
In fact, all other legitimate authorities are derivative of God, that is, they derive their authority from God. Another way to put it is, God is the ultimate authority. There is no authority higher than God.
The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? (Psalm 113, ESV)
But the religious leaders had lost sight of that because they were too focused on maintaining control. And that’s the really interesting thing here. The desire to maintain control is often what drives God out of the picture for us.
The Pharisees and scribes were the greatest rule-followers you would have ever encountered. They knew the Bible and all its 613 laws like the back of their hands.
And really they believed that if they could do all the right things and maintain all the rituals and live a righteous life, then they could determine their own future and their own welfare.
In fact, a lot of people have this idea. If I just follow the rules and do the right things, then my life will be a success. Or if I do the right things and follow all the rules, then I’m sure to be safe and secure. Rule-followers often follow the rules in order to maintain control over their lives. They want their lives to go a certain way, and they think if they play the game of life according to the rules, they can maintain control over their lives.
But what’s really interesting is that maintaining control is often what drives the rule breaker as well.
The rebel doesn’t like to rules because he feels like they put him in a cage, like he can’t really be himself. He wants to be able to control his own destiny, to control the terms. He doesn’t want anyone else telling him what to do. He wants to maintain control of his own life.
And it’s right here that freedom comes back into the picture. You see, what we believe is that true freedom comes from maintain control over our own lives. It’s just that some of us pursue control by following the rules while others pursue it by breaking them.
But the reality is, that’s not where true freedom is really found. True freedom doesn’t come from maintaining control of our lives. True freedom comes from living under the authority of Jesus Christ.
But how does that work? What do I mean? Let me tell you.
For the rule-follower, freedom comes from the release of the burden of the law.
There are two traps for the rule follower. The first is that, if you realize that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to get it right, you fall into despair. You see, if you think that salvation comes from following the rules but you’re not skilled enough, or smart enough, or disciplined enough…then you’ll live your whole life beating yourself up. You’ll slip into despair because you’ll never be a good enough wife, or a good enough mother. You’ll never be man enough or rich enough or successful enough. You’ll always be chasing “good enough” and it will always somehow be just out of reach. That’s the first trap.
But the second trap is much worse. The second trap is actually believing that you’ve made it. That you’ve gotten there. That you are good enough and have done enough. If you truly believe that, you’re walking down the road to pride.
But giving yourself over to the authority of Jesus actually frees you from both of these traps.
You see, because none of us could live the perfect life that we were supposed to, Jesus lived it for us. And through our faith in his life lived for us, we receive his perfect record just as much as he receives our sinful record, and then pays for it on the cross. When your faith is in Jesus, you come to see that you no longer have to fulfill the law. You no longer have to bear the burden of living up to a standard that you haven’t ever reached and simply cannot reach because of your sin. The good news of Jesus is that you no longer have to.
And what that does is it protects you from pride because you know that you can’t live up to the law; you’re not good enough on your own. But it protects you from despair as well, because you are so loved in Jesus that Christ did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself. In Jesus, the rule-follower finds true freedom in release from the burdens of the law.
Now for the rebel, the rule breaker, the one who has thrown off the law in the first place—true freedom in Jesus comes from becoming who you were made to be.
What the rebellious heart doesn’t realize is that the illusion of control over their choices in fact leads them further and further away from their humanity. It doesn’t lead them to freedom, but instead into the slavery of their inhumanity.
You see, when you decide that you will choose for yourself, when you make yourself the ultimate authority, you’re actually living against the grain of what you were created to be. You’re living against your humanity.
Maybe you’ve read CS Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce. The novel is in fact an allegory for heaven and hell as one man’s dream takes him on a kind of tour of each. And in the center is the holy city and God’s presence. But the further out you go away from the city, outside its walls, the fewer and fewer people you encounter. And what the man in the dream notices is that the further away from the city he gets, the more lonely and miserable people are. And really what he sees is that they are by varying degrees shadows of people, somehow less than human, no longer human.
And what he eventually realizes is that these are the people who are in hell. But they’re not their because someone placed them there. They are actually there by choice. They’ve chosen to live outside the city of God.
And really it’s a picture of God eventually saying to rebellious man, Thy will be done. In other words, God gives them over to their rebellion and allows the process to complete itself. He gives them over to their autonomy and self direction. He lets them take control of their own lives without him. And eventually even the image of God is destroyed from them, and they are in fact human no longer. Paul describes this in Romans 1 when he says again and again, “and God gave them up to their sinful ways.”
And that’s really what rebellion leads to. Even though it feels like you are the one who gets to maintain control of your own life, what you’re really doing is destroying the very thing that makes you human. You’re not gaining your freedom; but eroding it. But to live under the free banner of Jesus is become increasingly who you were created to be.
When you submit yourself to the authority of Jesus and you ask him to show you how he wants you to live—that is, when you follow him and live by his word—you become more of who you really are. You gain the freedom of being truly you.
And it’s there that you finally begin to see that freedom is not about doing what you want, but is instead about serving others. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:13-14, ESV)
Actually, this was the thing that got to my Uncle Tim. One day, he gets pulled into his CO’s office for a talking to. But this time, it wasn’t like the other lectures. He wasn’t being threatened, his CO wasn’t trying to intimidate him or anything like that. Instead, he said, "Take a look around you. You don’t even realize that you’re a leader among the pilots."
He said, "What you don’t understand is that, all these boys, they’re following your example. And let me tell you what’s gonna happen. One day, one of these guys is going to try to do what you do, but they’re not gonna be the caliber of pilot that you are, and they’re gonna get themselves killed or their gonna get somebody else killed. And you’re going to be to blame because they were looking at you; they were following your lead."
Well, Tim was dismissive of the conversation at first, but that night when he went out to the bar, he looked around at all the guys with him, and for the first time he could see it. He could see that he really was their leader. He really was the guy that was driving all of this. All of these guys were looking to him to as their model. And that's when he knew that his CO was right.
He began to see that true freedom was not about doing what he wanted, but about serving others. This was one of the first real steps on his journey to meeting Christ, and find the fullness of that freedom.
But of course, none of this is an intellectual exercise.
The Pharisees didn’t refuse to answer because they weren’t smart enough. Jesus represented a threat to them. He represented a loss of power, a loss of control. Indeed, “Beneath intellectual objections [to the faith] lie many personal fears. …[To] grant that Jesus is the Son of God [is to] know that [your] entire life would have to change.” (Tim Keller, Mark Bible Study, 153)
The real threat we face from the authority of Jesus is that it means we will have to give up control. No longer can we maintain control over our lives through following the rules and chasing the elusive “good enough.” Likewise, we can’t maintain control of our lives by doing whatever we want to.
To find true freedom, we have to face our fears and give up control over our lives to Jesus. And the only way that we can do that is if we learn to trust Jesus enough to follow him. And the only way that we can know that he’s trustworthy is to look at the cross.
When we look at Jesus, we see someone who was willing to give up control over his life so that we could have true freedom. When we look at Jesus we see someone who lived a perfect life for us because he knew we couldn't do it ourselves. When we look at Jesus we see a king who gave away his regal prerogatives for the sake of the lowliest of servants. When we look at the cross we see the innocent dying for the guilty. That's how we know we can trust him. We know we can trust him because he was willing to die for us. Only when we believe that will we be willing to give up control.
But it’s precisely here that we find our true freedom.