For anyone who spends any amount of time listening to our national conversation (if we can call it that), whether tuning into more traditional forms of media or wading into the facebook/twittersphere –where there is nothing hidden that won’t be revealed–it should be painfully obvious that we, as a people, have a hard time with authority. Not just with obeying authority, an issue that we have always wrestled with. We also have a very difficult time discerning authority, knowing how to recognize authority, and ascribing authority to all the wrong things and people. Thus, we allow our actions and words, the practices we embrace and the stories we tell, to be shaped by this confusion. Recent debates over flags and anthems, standing and kneeling, free speech and censorship, demonstrate that we don’t even have a common language for discussing these matters, let alone common convictions about what God’s people should do when confronted by competing, and sometimes mutually exclusive, claims to authority. We argue endlessly over who is in charge, when deep down inside we all want to be in charge.
This week’s texts speak from different moments in the life of the people of God, but demonstrate a consistent answer to the question of authority: Who’s in charge? God is, God was, and God always will be. As Ezekiel reminds us, in the face of our challenges to divine authority, the LORD God says, “All lives are mine.”
The book of Exodus, of course, narrates the daily struggle the children of Israel faced during their time in the wilderness, a struggle to surrender their stubbornness to the God who had delivered them from Egypt for his purposes. When God refers to Israel, at various points in the story of their forty-year wandering, as a “stiff-necked people,” he was talking about the kind of obstinacy that we so often exhibit, whether we are tantrum-prone toddlers trying to get our way or older, supposedly wiser curmudgeons set in our ways.
Here, as in several other episodes, the Israelites’ rebellion, their unwillingness to acknowledge that God is in charge, is manifest in grumbling, doubting, complaining against Moses and–by extension—complaining against the God who called Moses to lead. When they charge Moses with bringing them into the desert to kill them, they aren’t just questioning Moses’ leadership, but God’s power as well. When Moses asks the Israelites, “Why do you test the Lord?” it is not just a question for that moment, but for so many other moments in their life—and ours—as well. And when God demonstrates his authority, not just over the people but over the challenges they face, by bringing water from a rock, that spring from which the Israelites drank was a testimony to God’s command over the things that threaten to destroy us.
God knows, Moses knows, and we know that even a statement this definitive will not put the question to rest. We will continue to wrestle with God’s authority in our lives, we will continue to push back against the claims that he makes on us, and we will continue to question his ability to save us, and we will continue to doubt his purposes for us.
In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus faces the same kind of complaining that Moses faced in the wilderness, as the chief priests and elders of the people—authority figures in their own right—challenge his recent demonstrations of authority. From the triumphal entry to the cleansing of the temple to the miracles he was performing on the Sabbath and other days in the name of God, they want to know who gave Jesus the mandate to do such things.
When Jesus responds to their question with another question, he forces his challengers to confront the reality that, for all their pretensions to authority, they are unwilling even to stand on their own convictions, for fear that the people will turn against them. He is illustrating that these chief priests and elders stand not in the place of Moses, speaking on God’s authority to a stubborn and unbelieving people, but on the side of the complainers, the grumblers, those who refuse to see God’s power manifest in the work of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
Real authority, Jesus is implying, the kind of authority that comes from heaven and the kind of authority that gives power to his miraculous works and his prophetic teaching, is not a matter of talk but of power. Acknowledging this authority is not a matter of lip service but of obedience. As usual, Jesus’ enemies are silenced. They don’t know how to make sense of this authority, and are likely scared of the implications would be if they ever did come to terms with the claim that God has made on their lives, what obedience to this God, who makes his word known through the words and deeds of a Nazarene, might demand of them.
They are not alone. We will always struggle with the nature of God’s authority, precisely because we will always struggle with a proper understanding of what authority looks like. But God is consistent in demonstrating for us what it means to be in charge. In the wilderness, God’s anger burns against the stubborn Israelites, but he provides water when they need it. In exile, God is unflinching in his proclamation that he holds the lives of the people in his hands, but he also is unwavering in his declaration that he refuses to find pleasure even in the death of the wicked. Authority looks like justice, but also like mercy. It looks like the power to punish, but also to sustain. It looks like glory, but also like humility.
It is fitting, then, that Paul’s hymn recounting the exaltation of Christ is also a hymn about the humility of Christ. It reminds us that God, in his authority, in his unquestioned and unimpeachable power, is always a God willing to pour out his life on our behalf. Trusting in this God means surrendering to him our anxieties about our time in the wilderness. Obedience to him means being willing to lay down our lives for those who cry out. In doing these things, we find his authority at work in us, empowering us and emboldening us to greater things, for his glory. Power, in the biblical narrative, is not about using our authority to make people do what we want, or about using our position to belittle our enemies. It is about giving of ourselves so that others might flourish. It is about taking up the cross so that others might find life.