We pause to ponder Tuesday of Holy Week. Specifically, we look at how the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders challenged Jesus after He threw the money changers out of the temple: “Who gave you authority to do this?” You heard this last week in the passion history from Mark 11:
“They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’ Jesus replied, ‘I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!’ They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “From men”….’ (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’”
I didn’t choose these words simply because they include the word Baptism and that happens to be the portion of the catechism we’re considering during Lent. I chose them because in this discussion of Baptism, Jesus gets to the point, as He always does. Later, this same day of Holy Week, Jesus responds to the Sadducees’ question about resurrection by asking them, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
This is the point and problem people usually have with Baptism. They don’t know the Scriptures, or, if they do, they don’t know the power of God to accomplish what His Word declares. To reinforce this point, Jesus spends this day engaging His opponents with the Word and power of God.
He tells the parable of the wicked servants, which sets the Pharisees teeth on edge, “Because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.”
He responds to the taxation question with a Scriptural point, in essence saying, “Don’t you understand the fourth commandment?”
To the Sadducees’ resurrection question, a question meant to mock believing in a bodily resurrection, Jesus says, “You haven’t paid attention. God doesn’t say, ‘He was the God of Abraham,’ He says, ‘I am the God of Abraham.’ Abraham lives!’”
That teacher of the law asks, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” And Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, “Love God with all your heart,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And the teacher says, “Well said!”
In the temple courts teaching, knowing that His enemies have more tricks and traps up their sleeves, Jesus shows His mastery over Scripture and exposes their ignorance by giving them a poser from Psalm 110: “How can David’s Son be David’s Lord?” And Matthew tells us, “No one could say a word in reply.”
And then there is that widow’s offering. Two pennies. All she had. And it was more than the thousands of dollars being casually, but oh so carefully so as to be seen, deposited into the temple coffers. She loved God with all her heart. They loved themselves.
Why re-rehearse Mark 12, you ask? Didn’t we just listen to this? Yes, you did. But again, notice Jesus’ method. He always goes to the Scriptures and the power of God. Which returns us to our text, Mark 11:27-33, and John’s Baptism: “From heaven or men?”
The question should be simple, as with Baptism today. John knew about Baptism, and so do we, because he got it from God. In John 1, the Baptist tells us that God the Father sent him to Baptize. We have our own word from God: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So clear is that word that Luther chose it to explain why we baptize. Baptism comes from heaven.
But for these opponents of Jesus, it wasn’t so easy. Now, remember who they are. They are the chief priests, the teachers of the law, the elders of the Jewish people. If anyone knows the Scriptures, they do. They are the pastors, the teachers, the religious lawyers, the religious authorities. If anyone can judge a prophet’s message, they can. If anyone should know what is of God and what is of men, they do. And did you catch it? They do. They know very well that John’s Baptism is from God.
Thus Jesus demands a simple answer. He demands “yes” or “no,” “from heaven” or “from men.” In this case God’s Word speaks without equivocation, without double-speak, without jargon.
Which is why the Jewish leaders huddle up. They know they can’t just answer. They show us their hearts. They now commit the sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus warned them about in Mark 3, actively working against the Holy Spirit. It’s in their words, “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ then he’ll ask why didn’t we believe? If we say ‘from men,’ then the people will overthrow us, because they believe in John.” They look for political spin. They see that they have no leg to stand on. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.
So, they say, “We don’t know.” They hide behind agnosticism. That works fine if you’re talking about God’s hidden will or Jesus making bread and wine be body and blood, or just how the Holy Trinity works, but in this case, fence-sitting doesn’t work. They can’t have their cake and eat it too.
People try to do the same with Baptism. They’ll baptize, because you can’t get around God’s command. But they’ll deny God’s power in Baptism: “Baptism doesn’t forgive sins. It doesn’t give new birth. It’s not for infants and babies.” With their mouth they say, “From heaven”; with their hands they say, “From men.”
Watch out for this same error among us. Thankfully, I have only encountered one instance in my ministry of a family who thought Baptism was just some act, or worse, some medical miracle that would cure illness. Yet that doesn’t mean we aren’t also ignorant of God’s Word and the power of God at various times and in various ways. We have the same sinful nature Jesus’ opponents had. We like to say “I don’t know” at convenient moments when we know very well that God’s Word speaks against us, but we’d still rather go forward with our own plans – our sins!
But we have to go back to the original question: “By what authority do you do this?” Jesus heard this question a lot. When He cleansed the temple the first time, recorded in John 2, the crowds asked the same thing. In John 5, when He talked about His relationship with the Father He had to have a similar discussion. The Pharisees and Sadducees asked for miraculous proofs constantly. “By what authority do you do this?” We like to do the same: “Who is Jesus to tell me what to do? I’ll baptize when I want to baptize. I’ll think what I want to think about it. I’ll listen to God when I feel like it about this or that. I have free will after all.”
In this instance, Jesus answered tit for tat. “You don’t know? Then I won’t tell you.” And you could add for Jesus, under His breath, “Idiots.” Oh, they knew.
In John 5, Jesus said, “John talks about me. My miracles talk about me. The Father talks about me. The Scriptures talk about me. But you refuse to listen.” There’s no room for agnosticism with God’s Word around. In Matthew 28, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” There’s no missing where the power is with God’s Word around. The Word of God says so. The Word made flesh, God with us, says so.
Thus we can sing confidently the words of our hymns tonight: “Into the sacred flood of your most precious blood my soul I cast!” We can sing about a fountain filled with blood, Immanuel’s blood, “And sinners who are washed therein lose ev’ry guilty stain!” We can sing about his precious blood that “shall never lose its pow’r.” And boldly we can say to sin and Satan and death, “I am baptized into Christ!” To sing all this, God forces us to admit our will is free only to sin, bound, in other words. God forces us to admit our own willful agnosticism, our need to be washed, flooded, drowned. And God does. God’s flood covers our own willful agnosticisms about God’s Word and His power, covers it with Christ’s holy, precious blood, His innocent suffering and death, for me, along with is equally for me resurrection, His rising up from the flood of my sins into eternal life! In Baptism God’s Spirit ends my agnosticism!
We don’t have to schwaffle. We don’t have to huddle up and find the perfect political answer. By faith, we know the Word of God and the power of God. Schwaffling only damns us to hell and many others with us who we take down in our own damned indecision and rebellion against the Holy Spirit. No wonder Jesus said anyone who causes one of these little ones to sin ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea.
No, we have it on good authority, God’s authority, speaking in His Word through apostles and prophets, and through His Word, His Son now come among us. This Baptism isn’t just plain water, it’s water used by God’s command and connected with God’s Word. God says “Do this,” and He also says what it does. He says it’s from heaven to get us to heaven, because this water, God’s water, gives us Jesus, by His authority, by His command, by His love, to make us God’s disciple, God’s follower, and we gladly say, God’s own child. By God’s Word and God’s authority. Amen.