The Christ who demands - Matthew 8:14-22

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 16th September 2001.

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One thing has been on our hearts and minds this past week and that is of course the terrible events in America. Nothing could have prepared us for the shocking scenes we have witnessed on our TV screens and read in the newspapers. It’s been described as the worst terrorist attack in American history, and some Americans have talked in terms of Pearl Harbour as being the next comparable event to this. President Bush called it an act of war and has vowed to punish those who were responsible for the act. Tony Blair said that mass terrorism is the new evil in our world, and it is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life. He said that the democracies of this world would have to fight together against this evil. And it is not just Americans who have been affected by the tragedy. Many people from all around the world have been affected. And each of us, even if we don’t know anyone directly involved, cannot help but be touched by what has happened.

And often in times like this, these terrible tragedies focus our minds in a way that perhaps nothing else can. They make us ask ourselves the question what is the most important thing in our lives. Such events certainly remind us for instance about the frailty of human institutions. The World Trade Centre was opened in 1970 as a symbol of capitalism. The building was an icon if you like of all that the western world aimed for. Money, power and success. The architect himself said that he built the towers as a symbol of humanity. And yet in one horrific hour we saw the whole lot come down. But far more seriously than the collapse of human institutions, this tragedy reminds us of the fragility of human life. No-one could have prepared themselves that Tuesday morning and yet many lives have been taken. And of course if life is that fragile, as Tuesday reminded us in a very powerful way, what hope is there? Is there any refuge that is safe? Is there any certainty in this life that we can cling on to?

And so we find ourselves driven to ask what is most important in life? Surely if life really is so fragile as it is, we must live our lives while we can living for the most important things. Should we live for money and power? Well that can all too easily be taken away. Should we live for health, enjoyment and fun? Well again it is all too easily snatched away. Yet when we look at the Bible we find that while life is fragile, yet we can live for something that will last. And that lasting thing is a person in whom we can find refuge and great comfort. Our lives do have meaning because they have been given to us by a loving God who created us for a purpose, to live in friendship with him. And we can know God personally through Jesus Christ his Son. That, the Bible claims, is the most important thing. That is where we should be building our lives, and that is where we can find refuge and hope in such a tragic and uncertain world.

So come with me to Matthew’s gospel where we find Jesus dealing with people who were hurt and broken, and see how he shows us what is most important in life and where we can find hope. And as we look at Jesus this morning, we’ll discover three things, three things to get our focus right and to show us where to look in an uncertain and often hopeless world.


1) Jesus’ Authority (vv 14-16)

2) Jesus’ Mission (v 17)

3) Jesus’ Demand (vv 18-22)

1) Jesus’ Authority (vv 14-17)

So first, then, Jesus’ authority, verses 14-17. And in these verses we see Jesus’ incredible authority to heal. Now already in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus healing people who are outcasts of Jewish society. In the first verses of the chapter Jesus healed a leper. Lepers were outcasts of society because of the horrific nature of their disease. Jesus touches the leper, which would be unheard of, and heals him instantly. Next in the chapter is a Roman centurion’s servant. Again, this centurion would have been an outcast because of his job. He was hated as an occupying force in the land. But again Jesus has mercy on him and heals his servant. And when we come to our passage, Jesus is again dealing with an outcast, a woman with a fever. Women had little or no rights in the Israel of Jesus’ day, but again Jesus is counter cultural. He breaks the society’s norms to show what God thinks. Now this woman happens to be Peter’s mother in law, and she has a fever, possibly malaria. She is laid out on the bed and is completely helpless. And like the leper, it was forbidden in Jewish law to touch people with fevers, because it would make you ritually unclean. But what does Jesus do? Verse 15: "He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him." It’s incredible isn’t it? As soon as Jesus touched her she was healed. As one writer puts it: "Jesus’ touch does not defile the healer but heals the defiled." She has been instantly healed.

Now let’s just think about that for one moment. Think about the last time you had a fever, perhaps a bad dose of ‘flu. The worst one I had, I was confined to bed for a week, and then for about two months afterwards I was not back to full strength. Two months, and only then did I get back to normal. And if it was malaria then it would be even worse. For some the disease stays with them for years, even a lifetime. How long does it take Peter’s mother in law to get better? As long as it took for Jesus to touch her. And notice the healing is immediate and fully effective. As soon as she was healed she got up and started to serve Jesus. It’s proof, if ever we needed it, that when Jesus heals, he heals completely and fully. She’s back to her normal self and immediately she starts to serve Jesus. Her first thought is to serve her saviour, as we’ll see a bit later on.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. One healing would be enough for one day we might think, but Jesus continues later that evening. Verse 16: "When evening came, many who were demon possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick." Again these are outcasts, and yet Jesus heals them. And how does he do it? "With a word", says Matthew. That is incredible authority isn’t it? How can anyone do it just like that? Both my parents are in the medical profession and I myself have worked in hospitals in the past, and part of my present job is to visit people in hospitals. And yet in all that time I have never seen a doctor do anything like this. Never have I seen a surgeon say to a man with appendicitis, be healed, and then the man walks out. It doesn’t happen. Doctors do not have that authority. It would be great if they did. The waiting lists would be cut in no time! But they can’t. They may have wonderful skills, and nowadays there are many great cures which heal quickly, but no-one has the authority to heal with a word, instantly and completely. But Jesus does. When he speaks disease and sickness is banished.

So where does he get that authority from? Just who is he? Well there’s a clue in verse 20. There Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. And that was a title from the OT which was used of a man from heaven who had all God’s authority, and who we discover in the NT was God himself. And that is the staggering claim that comes again and again through the gospels. Jesus is no ordinary man. He is God in the flesh. And he comes to this earth and shows his staggering authority, revealing who he truly is. But if he is God in the flesh with all his divine authority, then why has he come?


2) Jesus’ Mission (v17)

Well that leads us on to our second discovery about Jesus, Jesus’ mission. And Matthew gives us the answer to the question why has Jesus come in verse 17: Talking about the healings that Jesus has performed, Matthew says: "This was to fulfil what was written in the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’" Now whenever Matthew, or any NT writer quotes the NT, it’s a good rule of thumb to think that the writer probably wants us to understand the quotation and the surrounding verses where it is from. And this quotation comes from Isaiah 53, a passage which prophesies Jesus’ death and resurrection. And that is the clue to help us understand why Matthew quotes this verse here. You see the sad fact is that sickness and disease is a symptom of a far more serious disease that afflicts us all, that of rebellion against God. When sin entered the world through man, then the whole world was affected, the created order as well. And so it means that sickness and death entered the world. It became part of our daily experience. But the fact is that sickness and death is not the norm. The norm, the beautiful world that God originally made was not afflicted with such evils. And Matthew is saying that in order to get rid of this most serious of disease, sin, and to get us back to normality, Jesus died on a cross in our place to take the punishment we deserved. And so his healing ministry was a pointer to the far more important healing he would achieve on the cross. It was there that he dealt with the disease behind everything. Sin was dealt with on the cross once for all. And in that sense Jesus bore our infirmities and carried our diseases. So it’s no surprise that Matthew quotes these verses here. As he saw men and women healed of their disease, he saw in Jesus someone who had the authority and power to deal with the worst sickness of all, and to heal that instantly, and to finish it off for good. We can be healed spiritually. We can have that sickness cured. We can be forgiven.

And the wonderful news is that one day even physical disease and sickness and even death itself will be no more. When Jesus returns he will bring to being the new earth and new heavens and John in his Revelation tells us that in that place, God will wipe every tear from our eyes, for there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. And it was achieved for us when Jesus, the great healer, died on the cross for you and me. That is something that will last forever. That is the most important thing. To be forgiven and right with God, free to enjoy him in his world for ever and ever where there is no pain, no bombs, no terrorists, no death. And so the only place where you and I can find hope and refuge in this world is in Christ and his work on the cross. It was Jesus who once said: "Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls." Surely that is our greatest need? Rest for our souls. And it’s found in Jesus.

One of the most amazing Christians that I knew when I was younger was a man called Sir Norman Anderson. He was a friend of the family and was a very well respected Christian leader and lawyer. His family life though was full of tragedy. His three children all died separately as young adults within a few years of each other in tragic circumstances, and his wife died before him of Alzheimer’s disease. And yet when asked once whether he was angry with God, he said no, and added that such suffering was a fact of living in a fallen world wrecked by sin. And he went on to say that his greatest hope was of heaven when he could meet his Saviour Jesus who died for him. That was the thing that gave him hope and strengthened him in difficult times. So where is your hope? What refuge do you have? What’s the most important thing? Well trust in Christ who came with all God’s authority to rescue us and give us that refuge and hope. For he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases. Jesus’ mission.


3) Jesus’ Demand (vv 18-22)

But then lastly there is Jesus’ demand. The interesting thing about Jesus’ next move after this evening of healing is that he does not pander to the crowd. So we read in verse 18: "When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake." Jesus was never interested in playing to the crowd. In the gospel we often find him withdrawing for some time and space at times when we might have been tempted to milk the enthusiasm. But he doesn’t want the crowds to detract him from his main purpose which is to tell people about the kingdom of God and how to enter it. Healing is a signpost to who he is but not the be all and end all of his ministry. So he withdraws. And it must have raised the question in some minds, "Well am I going to follow Jesus now he’s leaving or shall I quit?" And that’s what happens in the next few verses. Two men come to him and intend in some way to follow him, but Jesus detects in both some problems. And the point that we will see from both these men is that if we want to follow Jesus and accept his rescue for us, if we want to come to him to find rest, then there will be a cost involved. In this life following him will not be easy. And the two men represent too mistakes.


a) Don’t be too quick to promise- That was the mistake of the first man. He’s a scribe, a teacher of the law, part of a group often opposed to Jesus, but here it seems open to the possibility of following Jesus, although probably only as a distant admirer. Verse 19: "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." Well we can applaud the enthusiasm. And yet Jesus tempers his enthusiasm with cold realism, verse 20: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Maybe this scribe thought it would be a matter of prestige following Jesus, the great rabbi, the famous teacher. Maybe he could put it on his CV a little later up the career ladder as someone who has experienced the more radical elements of the Jewish religion. Maybe he really did like what Jesus was saying. And yet Jesus is clear. "Following me is not a bed of roses. It’s hard and tough. You’ve got to be prepared to have difficulties, you’ve got be prepared to put your neck on the line, you’ve got to go where I go, sometimes places which are not pleasant. You’ve got to give your all. Yes there will be times of great joy, but there will also be times of great hardship because you follow me. Have you thought about it?" he’s saying. And he’d say the same to us. Don’t be too quick to promise when you’ve not given thought to the consequences. One writer puts it like this: "Little has done more to harm the Christian church than the practice of filling its ranks with every volunteer who is willing to make a little profession, talk fluently of experience, but display little of perseverance." Remember Peter. "I’ll die with you Lord," he said. And yet just a few days later, he would betray his Lord. Jesus wants disciples who have thought about the cost and are willing to pay it. Don’t be too quick to promise.


b) Don’t be too slow to perform- But also don’t be too slow to perform. That was the mistake of the second man. Matthew calls him a disciple. That’s probably not referring to one of the twelve, but rather seems to be a loose term for someone who wanted to be attached to Jesus in some way. Now at first his response looks fair enough. Verse 21: "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Surely there can be nothing wrong with that? After all, it does say ‘honour your father and mother’ in the Bible and this would be part of that. But Jesus’ words are very startling aren’t they? Verse 22: "Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead." What does Jesus mean? Well the proverb Jesus utters probably means something like: "Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead." In other words, let others get on and do that for you. But that doesn’t water down the challenge. The challenge Jesus is laying down to this man, and to us, is don’t let anything, not even family ties, get in the way of allowing you to follow me. He’s saying that he is so important that he has absolute priority over our lives. He’ll say a similar thing in chapter 10, where he says: Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." Very strong words. Now of course he’s not saying hate your father and mother and dishonour them. Of course not. In fact, you can imagine that Jesus would allow a disciple of his to go a parent’s funeral. But the challenge remains clear. It’s all or nothing. Follow me above everything else. Don’t be slow to perform.

And what right does Jesus have to say these things? Well it’s only because he has the authority of God himself that he can demand such things of us. And after all, he has carried our infirmities and diseases for us on the cross. What demand could possibly be too high for us to pay after all he has done for us. The wonderful thing is that we are saved by grace, there is nothing we can do to gain his love for us. And yet there is everything we can do as we seek to live for him. William Carey was one man who took Jesus seriously and was not slow to perform. He is known as the founder of modern missions, and was a missionary in India from 1793 to 1834, almost forty years. He never went home on furlough, and he translated the entire Bible into six different languages, and parts of the Bible into twenty nine other languages. And yet all that remains on his tombstone is this: "William Carey: A wretched, poor and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall." You see Carey knew that Christ was his only hope and refuge and yet he gave his all to his service. He counted the cost and then was willing to pay it.

Few of us I guess will do what Carey did, and yet all of us need to listen again to this challenge Jesus gives us this morning. Are we slow to perform in putting Christ first in our lives? Are there things holding us back from giving all to him? Maybe a relationship, maybe a fear of upsetting parents, maybe a love of our wealth holding us back from giving sacrificially, maybe a fear of being looked down on by others holding us back from telling others. Follow me, says Jesus. And don’t look back.

That’s Jesus’ demand.

Well what do you think is most important? Events such as this week make us think don’t they? Well Jesus has shown us what is most important. He’s shown us his authority in his healings, he’s shown us his mission to rescue us and to give us a refuge and hope, and he’s shown us his demand, the call to follow him despite the cost. What’s most important for you? As the hymn writer says: "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand."



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