That’s the insight of the story of the wilderness sojourn: whenever the presence of God becomes doubtful, the people of God will place their trust in something else: a golden calf, the staff of Moses, or the voice of Aaron. Only in retrospect can they look back at the unlikely event of their survival and say, with blessed assurance, “Yes, God was with us in the journey out of slavery and into freedom.”

Exodus 17:1–7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Matthew 21:23–32
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Who’s On First?

A colleague tells the story of a misadventure when she was four years old. She had accompanied her parents to the home of an elderly couple who were parishioners in the church her father served, and after dinner she grew bored. There were no other children there and after a few minutes of doodling with the crayons and paper they had provided her, she decided to go exploring the contents of their desk drawers instead of drawing.

In a large bottom drawer, she found a huge collection of keychains. Chains with simple silver keyrings; chains with pendants representing various states, cities, countries, and universities; chains with hearts, stars, rainbows, and animal charms. She fell in love with a gold chain that featured three tiny ice cream cones in bright, glittery colors — one chocolate, one strawberry, and one vanilla. Without giving it a second thought, she slipped the keychain into her pocket.
Debie’s parents didn’t discover what she had done until they got home and it was time to change for bed. When the keychain fell out of her dress pocket, the predictable parent-child conversation ensued: “Where did you get that?” “I found it.” “What do you mean, you found it? Where?” Etc.
Debie writes, “When it became clear to my parents that they had a little thief on their hands, my father told me that I had to call the couple immediately, say sorry, and return the chain the next morning. I said no. Specifically, I said no because I didn’t feel sorry. The parishioners had gazillions of keychains, they plainly didn’t care about them very much if they kept the chains jumbled together in a desk drawer, the ice cream keychain was meant to appeal to kids, and I was a kid. So why did I need to apologize?
“It didn’t take long for the situation to escalate into a full-on battle of the wills. My dad was determined to get an apology out of me, and I was just as determined not to say a word I didn’t mean. I’m guessing my father peered into my future that night and envisioned years of teen delinquency. For sure he was embarrassed that I — the supposedly perfect little preacher’s daughter — had stolen from his own church members.
I can’t remember now how long we battled it out. It felt like hours. In the end, my father — louder, stronger, and not as exhaustingly past his bedtime as I was — won. He called the couple and handed me the phone. I said a very petulant and unconvincing “sorry,” and the next morning, I returned the keychain.
I know that my father had the best intentions that night. But the lesson I ended up learning was not, I think, the lesson he hoped to teach. The lesson I learned is that confession and obedience are primarily about saying the right things — the formulaic things, the expected things, the pious, dutiful, “Christianese” things. For years afterwards, I failed to understand repentance as a multidimensional action — an engaged and ongoing action of the heart, mind, soul, and body. Just spout the words the grown-ups want to hear, I told myself as a kid, and they’ll leave you alone. Just talk like a good Christian, and you’ll be one.” (Debie Thomas,
When Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders, “Which of the sons did the will of the father?” or, in other words, ‘Which matters more, words or actions?” the answer is so obvious Jesus’ opponents must have thought it was a trap. Of course, the one who actually went out into the vineyard was the one who did the will of the father.

And, the elders and the chief priests in the temple would have seen themselves as a third child of the vintner, one not mentioned in the parable: a child who says, “Yes, father, I will go and work in the vineyard,” and then gets up and does it.

But, in the heat of the moment, they don’t think about proposing another alternative, they walk right into the trap Jesus has set for them.

I remember once watching a demonstration of Jujitsu. A tiny woman at the Hunt County Texas Fair faced off in a fighting arena with a very large man who surely had a very large motorcycle in the parking lot. He had supposedly volunteered from the audience, just some random guy who thought it sounded easy to remain standing for two minutes in the ring with a tiny woman as his opponent.

At first, he just stood there smiling, like “this is going to be easy—all I have to do is stand here.” I’m not sure what the woman said to him, but his face suddenly changed and he charged like a bull at a red cape. In no time, he was flat on his back.

Reading today’s gospel story of Jesus and the temple authorities reminds me of jujitsu.

The chief priests and elders, with all the authority of the religious institution, rush at Jesus with all they’ve got and find themselves flat on their backs, questioning everything they have always believed.

That’s the problem with Jesus’s authority. It is not derived from any standard or institution. If it were, we would need to worship that standard or institution instead of Christ. If Jesus had answered the question of the chief priests and elders, telling them that his authority is of divine origin, they would have easily refuted him based on the standard of the religious tradition and institutions. Since he had not been legitimized by the temple, he did not, in their minds, have the same authority they claimed for themselves – going back to Moses and the giving of the law.

If he had given them the real answer, that his authority is his own, it would have been unacceptable to his present audience. Before his death and resurrection, nobody had the ability to see yet, that Jesus needs no source for his authority other than himself. So, like a good Rabbi, Jesus answers a question with a question.

Here’s where the jujitsu comes in. When he asks about the authority of John the Baptist, Jesus reveals the source of the authority of the chief priests and elders: They can only say things that the crowd will approve; therefore, their authority derives from the people, not from God.

The parable of the two sons, on its surface, may seem to indicate that Jesus prefers works over faith. Faith and works, and which one will get us into the kingdom of heaven, however, is not the question in front of him. The question is authority. The question is not just where it comes from, but how we respond to it.

Do we give Jesus’ authority verbal assent, and then live our lives as though we have never heard the call to follow him? Do we accept the underlying values of our society, that life is short and we better gather as much pleasure, experience, and toys as we can? Or, do we see the vineyard of this world as a place where we can give of ourselves, following the Crucified One?

The question Jesus poses is essentially the same question posed by the thirsty Israelites in the wilderness: Is the Lord among us or not?

I have to admit that I have spent most of my life reading the story of the Israelites in the wilderness with some condescension. “Those silly Israelites. Of course the Lord was with you. Parting of the Red Sea, Pillar of fire, column of smoke, quails in the evening and manna in the morning. What more evidence do you need?”

But I find myself reading of the wilderness journey this time through with a bit more sympathy and understanding. There can be all kinds of signs of God’s presence, but when you are dying of thirst, you have to wonder: what is going on here? What could God possibly be up to? Why do we have to go through this wilderness for so long?

Nancy and I spent a few days with our four grandchildren this week. While the price of the pandemic paid by adults has been ever before us, we saw and heard this week the price the world’s children are paying through this wilderness journey.

The technology that makes online education possible is surely a gift, but for children who long for the face-to-face interaction with their friends and teachers, the tears and frustration with a frozen screen or an access code that is wrong by one digit or a screen full of faces all talking at once—it’s enough to break your heart. I don’t know how much teachers in my grandchildren’s school earn, but I know it’s not enough for what they’re going through these days.

I was glad to lend a hand to the six-year-old boys with the technology when they needed it, but we were awfully glad when it was time for P.E. and we could turn off the tablets and go running and walking and stretching and throwing a football.

And so I have been thinking how the story of the wilderness journey as told in Exodus is mostly about the experience of the grown-ups. But here, we get a glimpse into the pain the Israelites feel when they see the suffering of their children.

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

So, in answer to the question, “Is the Lord with us or not?” there are plenty of people in our own day who see the answer as simple and straightforward, “No.” The God of Israel does not live up to the standards of any “God hypothesis,” a set of postulates some contemporary atheists use to discredit the idea of theism. The irony, of course, is that such a way of approaching the whole question of God’s existence turns those postulates into a pantheon of gods.

That’s the insight of the story of the wilderness sojourn: whenever the presence of God becomes doubtful, the people of God will place their trust in something else: a golden calf, the staff of Moses, or the voice of Aaron. Only in retrospect can they look back at the unlikely event of their survival and say, with blessed assurance, “Yes, God was with us in the journey out of slavery and into freedom.”

That’s one reason we can’t be too hard on the chief priests and elders in the gospel story today: they do not have the advantage of hindsight. They have not yet witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we put ourselves in their place, or in the place of the grumbling Israelites in the desert, we can understand the need to grumble when things don’t go our way.

Why isn’t this over already? If God is leading us, why does the mainline church continue to slip from its place of prestige in our culture? If God is leading us, why has our nation descended into this muddy swamp of partisan conflict? Why can’t we all get along?

It comes as some surprise to me when some young Presbyterian right out of seminary says to me, “I think these are wonderful times. There is so much going on, so many important decisions to make, so much potential just waiting to be tapped.” When I hear such a thing, I wonder what planet they’re living on.

But then, I think about the baptismal font in the Belmont Abby College chapel in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a huge granite stone with just a shallow indentation in it to hold baptismal water. The stone was once a trading block upon which slaves were auctioned off.

The inscription says, “Upon this rock, [people] once were sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, [people] become free children of God."

The transformative power of God, from slave block to baptismal font, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, shines through this powerful symbol.

Following Christ as the ultimate authority over us does not usually come from a long process of comparison shopping. Deciding to give of ourselves as Christ gave himself for us comes to us not as an alternative among many, but, finally, as a gift; a recognition that God is among us, calling us into the future.

Jesus doesn’t tell us anything about the thought process of the son who said “No” to his father and then went to work in the vineyard.

Jesus just says he changed his mind. Like the tax collectors and prostitutes who followed John the Baptist and received a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin: they changed their minds. They once followed the path of least resistance, but then got up and took another path. Somehow, the authority of the father prevailed.

It strikes me as significant that Jesus does not say to the chief priests and the elders that the prostitutes and the tax collectors will enter the kingdom of heaven and you will be left behind. Instead, he says, they will go in before you. There’s clearly some challenge to the social status assumptions, but there’s something else, too.

Even those of us who have said “Yes,” to God but followed the devices of our own hearts, or the lesser claims of this world, we have not been left behind. God still calls. Christ still calls, “Come, follow me.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.