Hard Questions for Easy Answers

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 21:23-32.

OK class, it’s time for a pop quiz!  That means you have to close your books.  All of them.  I don’t want to see an open hymnal or Bible in this church for the next few minutes!  We’re going to see how much you know.

  1. What is the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer?
  2. Fill in the blank: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the _________.”
  3. What is the Fourth Commandment?
  4. “What is the chief end of man?” (wording from the 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism)

(See answers posted below)

We’re talking about questions today.  We’re asking lots of questions, we’re answering questions with more questions, we’re exploring all of these questions to see whether they can tell us something enlightening about ourselves, but the one thing we’re not doing today is getting a lot of straightforward and direct answers.

That’s not something we’re very used to in 21st century North America.  As products of the modern era, we like to have an answer for every question and a solution to every problem.  This works pretty well for us, most of the time.  Since the dawn of the modern age, humanity has developed capabilities undreamed of in previous periods of history.  We’ve eradicated diseases, traveled into space, and thanks to the internet, exponentially multiplied our capacity for distraction and procrastination.  But, in spite of all these benefits, the Law of Unintended Consequences still applies.  Our pursuit of easy answers and quick fixes has often led us to find better and more effective ways to manipulate and kill our fellow human beings.

One of my favorite examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences halting the drive for easy answers and quick fixes comes from about ten years ago.  TV infomercials were all atwitter about this new device that was supposed to help you lose weight.  It was a belt that fit around your stomach and would send electrical impulses to stimulate your abdominal muscles.  Theoretically, you could get six-pack abs while sitting on your couch and watching TV.  Sounds pretty great, right?  It’s the boldest claim I’ve heard since McDonald’s started offering “health food”!

Unfortunately, this fairy tale did not have a happy ending.  These devices were not FDA approved and several safety issues quickly arose.  First of all, the FTC determined that they have little or no muscle-building effect.  Second, several people were badly burned or electrocuted as the belts started to wear out from regular use.  Comedian Robin Williams commented that people should actually strap it to their heads and tell themselves, “I [zap] will not [zap] buy [zap] stupid [zap] junk [zap] for no [zap] reason [zap].”

Our obsession with easy answers and quick fixes will lead us to no end of insanity.  Thankfully, we are not alone in this.  God knows about this tendency in us and has shown us a way out of our own obsessive craziness and back into blessed sanity.

I’m about to tell the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, which took place in Jerusalem in 30AD, but I’m going to tell it in today’s terms:

Jesus blows into town like a hurricane one Sunday morning and visits the big old First Presbyterian Church downtown.  Entering the building before worship, Jesus goes into their bookstore/gift shop and tells the clerk to take an early lunch.  After she’s gone, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and starts taking all the merchandise off the shelves: Christian t-shirts, WWJD bracelets, greeting cards, posters, praise & worship CDs, and Christian Living bestsellers.  And he sets them out by the curb with a sign that says “FREE”, all the while muttering something under his breath about “house of prayer” and “den of thieves”.  Then he goes back in, pulls the cash register off the counter, and empties the money out on the floor of the fellowship hall.  Going back into the now-vacant shop, Jesus pushes all the racks and shelves back into a corner, sets a chair down in the middle of the room, and pulls a Bible out of the plastic shrink-wrap.

“We’re going to have a Bible study in here,” Jesus says, “Stick around, if you want.”

Well, people do stick around and the Bible study is a hit.  Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t bother to consult the pastor or get the approval of the session before starting it (not to mention his little “renovation” of the gift shop).  So the presbytery forms an emergency judicial commission to go down to First Church and regain control of the situation.

So they go down there and get right up in Jesus’ face.  “Listen,” they say, “We want some answers and we want them NOW.  What gives you the right to do all this?  Who died and made you God?”  (Which is an interesting question to ask Jesus.  I like to imagine he said, “Give me a week and I’ll tell you.”)  This visit from the denominational officials is the part of the story we read in this week’s gospel lesson.

Well, Jesus doesn’t give the religious leaders the answer they’re looking for, but he does ask some rather poignant questions.  He engages them in the Jewish art of pilpul, which is a way of getting at the truth through vigorous debate.  Rabbis would argue endlessly (and loudly) over a particular passage of the Torah.  To the outsider, this looked like pointless hair-splitting, but within the Jewish tradition, pilpul was a means to getting at the essence or heart of a matter.

In the west, we have a similar rhetorical device used today by philosophers and lawyers.  It’s called the Socratic Method.  Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, was famous for pestering his debate opponents with endless questions until they stormed off in frustration, unable to defend the inevitable contradiction in their thinking.  Like the rabbis who practiced pilpul, Socrates wasn’t so much interested in answering the question as much as getting at the very essence of a problem or person.

In this week’s gospel lesson, the religious leaders show up wanting answers and control, but Jesus doesn’t give it to them.  Instead, Jesus uses question on top of question in order to cut to heart of the matter.  He’s not particularly interested in hearing what they think about John the Baptist.  In fact, Jesus couldn’t care less about their answer to his question because their answer isn’t the point.  The point is in the question itself.  The question itself is enlightening.  It reveals who they are on the inside.  It exposes the fact that their obsession with their own agenda had completely blinded them to what God was doing right in front of them.  That’s the truth that Jesus is trying to get at.

When we read this story about Jesus interacting with these religious leaders in the first century, we get some insight into the way that God interacts with us in the twenty-first century.  We come to God looking for easy answers but God gives us hard questions instead.

I started our sermon this morning with a little theology pop quiz.  We talked about the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and Presbyterian tradition.  That’s all well and good.  But at the end of the day, those questions tell me a lot about what you know.  By themselves they don’t tell me very much at all about who you are.  And that’s what God is most interested in.

Are you the kind of person who walks through life, fixated on your own agenda, looking for easy answers and quick fixes?  Or are you the kind of person who can embrace the mystery of life with an open heart, even when it messes with your agenda and leaves you with more questions than answers?

For me, that’s what the journey of faith is all about: moving forward, taking risks, trusting that we’re not alone in this life, believing that all of this mess is going somewhere, even if we can’t see where that is just yet?  Will you trust with me?  Will you come with me on this journey?  I don’t exactly know where we’re going either, but I can promise you this: it’s going to be one heck of a ride!

Pop Quiz answers:

1.  Deliver us from evil

2.  Forgiveness of sins

3.  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

4.  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

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