Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

In the 1730s—the same time this congregation was up and running—what later became the U.S. underwent the first of several religious revivals. Known as the Great Awakening, it was inspired by several itinerant preachers. Chief among them was a man by the name of George Whitefield, an Anglican minister from Great Britain. Enthusiastic and dramatic in his sermons, he became the model for nearly all evangelists who followed him. As one historian puts it: “[In open-air settings], he would shout the word of God, weep with sorrow, and tremble with passion…Colonists flocked by the thousands to hear him speak. ”[i]Not one to put down roots, he “declared the [entire] world [as] his ‘parish.’”[ii]

Although crowds throughout the colonies were captivated by him, it was usually the opposite with ministers who served in local churches. They were often upset with him, for he would stir up the people in their communities, who then became dissatisfied with the religious life they had known. In other words, the pastors didn’t take kindly to him invading their turf.[iii]

So, frequently they criticized him and his methods, but most of the time only after he had first dragged them out onto the carpet. For example, while still preaching in Britain, he vilified other Anglican ministers, calling them “lazy, non-spiritual, and pleasure seeking,” even labeling them as “persecutors of God.” At other times, he condemned entire groups, including Moravians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. He always seemed to enjoy a good fight, once admitting that “the more I am opposed, the more joy I feel.”[iv]

Now I want to say that in some ways Whitefield could actually be compared to Jesus. Again, in some ways. First, Jesus is, so to speak, an itinerant preacher, visiting towns throughout Galilee. Crowds begin appearing wherever he goes, eager to learn more about God and—in their lives—seek healing and forgiveness. At the same time, local Pharisees—like parish pastors--sometimes become upset with him. Contrary to the law, he heals the sick on the Sabbath. He also criticizes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy—for appearing pure on the “outside,” but in fact being unclean on the “inside”—in their hearts. When Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the confrontation intensifies. As he enters the city, the people spread branches, even their cloaks on the road. They hail him as the son of David. When some Pharisees plead with him to quiet them down, he answers, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones [themselves] would [begin] to shout…”

That’s not all. When he enters the courtyard of the Temple—filled with pilgrims—and sees the moneychangers selling doves and other animals for offerings, he has an absolute fit, overturning all their tables. Finally, he walks into the Temple. As a teacher—although without official credentials—he’s all set to take center stage and proclaim the word of God. But this time, not only before a crowd of commoners and Pharisees, but also the chief priests and elders of the Temple. They are the religious leaders of Israel, the latest in a line of priests going all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Talk about “invading the turf” of the most important “men of the cloth,” so to speak, who stand before him in their long, flowing robes adorned with the symbols of the faith.

·        Received with cheers at the city gate.

·        Making a scene in the courtyard.

·        Striding into the Temple itself—into the holiest place in all the land.

In some ways, George Whitefield had nothing on him.

So what do the chief priests and elders do? Certainly, they are thinking: “We are the keepers of the faith. We have been chosen, instructed, and received the laying on of hands. So they ask them, “Where does your authority come from, if you have any at all?” Not allowing them to box him into a corner, he comes up with a question of his own: “Well, what about John calling people to repent aneout in the wilderness, baptizing them at the River Jordan? What about his authority? Where did it come from? From heaven or men? ”Then and there he has them. If they say from men, the people, who regard John as a true prophet, will turn on the priests and elders. If they say his authority came from heaven, then why didn’t they listen to him? Why didn’t they believe him ?So all they can do is say, “We don’t know.  ”As one commentator writes: “…Jesus will continue to [remain in] the temple and…defend his authority to be there until [on his own terms] he is ready to leave...”[v] And before he does leave, he tells several parables, in which none of the traditional religious leaders is cast in a favorable light.

Although in his earthly life we may think of Jesus most often in his roles as a teacher and miracle worker, it’s important to remember he also stood in the line of the prophets. After all, John was a prophet and, in baptizing Jesus, acted as God’s instrument in blessing him, in commissioning him for his work. So just as the chief priests inherited the ministry of Aaron, the first priest of God’s people, Jesus himself carried on in the ministry of Moses, the first prophet of Israel. And of those two brothers, we know which one God chose to lead the slaves out of bondage and into the Promised Land.

So sometimes in the history of Israel and also in the history of the Church, we see, we feel the built-in tension between the authority of the priest  and that of the prophet. The first is based on an orderly system instituted by God, while the call of the other is sometimes unexpected— coming not along a well-worn path, but as a direct, immediate command from God. These two roles sometimes complement each another, and often they oppose each another.

As a prophet, then, Jesus is frequently a thorn in the side of the Pharisees—who by the way, are the middle-class laypeople of that day, place, and time. But the priests and elders see him even more as a threat—they who are the religious aristocracy, who have not only status, but also a good deal of land and wealth. They are afraid that, during the festival, he will stir the people to rise up against the Romans. And then there would be a real mess. In the role of prophet, Jesus can easily be seen as a rabble-rouser, even a bomb thrower of sorts. But we must remember that to him this is partly a means to an end. He will soon take on a completely different role. In obedience to his heavenly Father, he will become more strictly what we might call a servant leader. As Paul says to the Philippians,  not someone who acts from “selfish ambition or conceit…,but [looks] to the interests of others.” He who “[takes] the form of a slave…[who] humble[s] himself and [even becomes] obedient to the point of death…”

From time to time, we see in the world persons who truly are servant leaders, some of whom are so devoted, so selfless that they too risk the possibility of death—if not from enemies, maybe from overwork, from neglecting their own health and well-being. While a number of us have known servant leaders up close—unsung heroes—among us—one who comes to my mind plays that roleon the world stage. I am talking about Pope Francis, and the servant values he embodies even as he is, in the Catholic Church, the supreme authority. In these last several years, we have witnessed how he models for others—especially cardinals and bishops—the values of humility, simplicity, and charity.

What many of us may not know is he hasn’t always been that way.[vi] That’s true. Decades ago, as an up-and-coming administrator in the church in Argentina, he was known both as arrogant and authoritarian. Ultimately, the Vatican reassigned him—to a parish in a small town—far away from the center of power in the church of that nation. While there he had time to reflect on the kind of leader he had been and on the kind that God wanted him to become—to be of “the same mind [as] in Christ Jesus…”When returning to Buenos Aires and eventually becoming the Archbishop, he was known not for being privately chauffeured around the city, but for using public transportation to get from one place to another. People also noticed he spent a good deal of time visiting those who struggled in their daily lives out in the slums. Among other things, he made sure that priests baptized the babies of poor, unwed mothers just as they did for others.

And so, even as Pope, he has continued to lead a humble and simple life—getting around Vatican City in a small, modest car, and living in a guesthouse in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, eating regular meals in the dining room with others. That’s in marked contrast to some cardinals and bishops, whom he has called on the carpet for their lavish lifestyles. And it’s especially in contrast to the popes who ruled the church 500 years ago—when a young friar was teaching in a relatively unknown university in a backwoods town in northern Germany.

In this earthly life, Jesus was, among other things, a prophet who commanded a great deal of religious authority. But he was also humble and obedient to his heavenly Father, willingly “taking the form of a slave…”He was, in other words, the ultimate servant leader. And through that obedience, he is now the one that we, as Christians of every time and place, at whose name our “knees should bend,” and our “tongues should confess…as Jesus Christ…[our] Lord. ”To praise him, to proclaim him certainly doesn’t require that all or most or many of us need to be prophets or servant leaders. The important thing is—with great gratitude and a good measure of humility—we simply become and live as his servants.


[i] “The Great Awakening,” in http://www.ushistory.org/us/7b.asp.

 

[ii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Great_Awakening.

 

[iii] “George Whitefield,” in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Whitefield.

 

[iv] “George Whitefield,” in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Whitefield.

 

[v] Stanley Saunders, “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32,” in https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3394.

 

[vi] Paul Vallely, “Where Pope Francis Learned Humility,” The Atlantic (August 23, 2015).