Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

17th Sunday of trinity

St Barbara’s; 01.10.2023

Rev Jeremy Bevan

Looking down, not up, and saying ‘yes’ to God

Comparing ourselves with others makes us unhappy and often distorts reality. If you were in church last Sunday, and those words sound familiar – great. They introduced a key point from Victoria’s sermon last week on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

It’s a point that’s resonated with me this week, as it’s also at the heart of Jesus’ encounter in the temple with the chief priests and the elders of the people in today’s gospel reading. At first glance, their question to Jesus seems fair: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”. After all, it’s not every day ‘the Son of David’ (as the crowd called Jesus) rides into town on a donkey, and then expels the temple merchants. It’s not every day a country boy from Galilee, with a CV not quite up to establishment expectations, stands up to teach in the Westminster Abbey of his day. Who, or what, gives him the right?

But where, I wonder, does the question come from? It’s not disinterested. No: it comes from a place of rivalry, of competitiveness. If the priests and elders can put this upstart Jesus down, that will burst his bubble and establish them still more firmly as the ones with true, legitimate power, the right to determine what’s what, who’s in with God and who’s out.

It would be easy for Jesus to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and dispute with them from the same place of rivalry. But as our Philippians reading made clear, Jesus takes a different path. He’s not interested in competing for the kind of power the priests and elders wield. Instead, he seeks in all humility to bring God’s love to the world, to be a window onto God for the world to look through – if it chooses. So he invites them to reflect – not about himself or the authority under which he acts, but about John, baptising in the wilderness. His questioners know the answer they ought to give. But admitting that God sent John would expose their lack of response to God, and they’d risk losing face. How easy it is for society’s competitive values to shape us far more than we allow God to shape us. To be so fearful of letting go of what gives us status – or puts us one up on the next person – that we condemn ourselves to stagnate, failing to rise to the challenge of what God is doing, sometimes right in front of our noses.

So Jesus goes on to expose the effects of this ‘dog eat dog’ view of the world with a story. A very simple story, with a rather obvious point it’s hard to disagree with: keep your word, do what you said you were going to do, follow through on your convictions. Again, the priests and the elders know which of the two sons they’re meant to approve: the one who, in the end, did as his father asked. Jesus’s story is almost a plea to his questioners to notice how the way they see the world shrinks the space they have to respond freely to God. John laid out a roadmap that they, of all people, with their hunger for righteousness, ought to have managed to read. And yet others heard the father’s call and responded. And not just ‘others’, but the very last people the priests and elders expected to respond. People like that first son in the story, who seemingly refused God, yet changed their minds and in the
end responded to the divine call. And I hear Jesus, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, hinting, “Who knows? Perhaps they’re taking places you chief priests and elders thought your piety had reserved for you?” We all view the world from somewhere. May it not be a place with a blind spot that prevents us seeing God at work in others.

Many years ago, as a young health and safety inspector, I had a car accident on my way to a factory visit. A much larger car failed to stop at a roundabout, and hit my small Mini Metro from behind. I suffered whiplash, a very stiff neck, which severely reduced my ability to see what was behind me. Being young and stubborn, I carried on working. Perhaps inevitably, I had another accident a week later. I reversed into a crash barrier in a different factory car park, this time merely suffering acute embarrassment, as this high-performing factory took such accidents very seriously. There’s clearly a blind spot in the priests and elders’ view of the world a stubborn, stiff-necked approach. How can we be sure that’s not our problem, too? There’s a clue, I think, in Paul’s words in Philippians chapter 2, and we could sum it up like this: “If you want to see what God is like and where God is at work, look down, not up.”

In the ancient world, people thought of the gods as like very important humans – only more so. The Roman empire took that view to its logical end point, and declared its emperors gods when they died. For the church in Philippi, the most Roman of Roman colonies, founded by and for Roman army veterans, Paul paints a very different picture of what God is like that helps explain why the chief priests and elders missed the point of John’s ministry, and maybe that of Jesus’ ministry too. Jesus was in the form of God, he says, but took that as a cue to live humbly, and in the end to be humbled by the so-called powers that be. Because of that choice to walk the path of humility, God highly exalted him. It’s all too easy
to overlook a God who speaks through a stammering slave like Moses, works through a migrant like Ruth, or cooperates with an unmarried teenage mother like Mary. But the Bible is in a way one long account of God’s preference for doing that rather than strutting about like a VIP. Indeed, we might well state the opening words of that poem in Philippians 2 like this: “It’s because he was in the form of God that Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something to be exploited or grasped at.” God is not bound by our expectations. As God says to Moses: “I will be who I will be”, perhaps even “I will be where I will be.”

Look down, not up, to see what God is like. Be ready to see what God can do. Who God can work with. Be ready to move on with the God of tax collectors and prostitutes. Ready to join in with those who say “yes”, however unexpectedly, to whatever our God might be calling us to be and to do, wherever that may be.