The Christ who excels - Matthew 11:1-19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Here is an article taken from a church newspaper which makes the point that whether you call him Vicar, pastor or minister, it is still a tough job: If he visits his flock he is nosy, if he doesnt, hes a snob. If he preaches longer than ten minutes, its too long. If he preaches less than ten minutes he cant have prepared his sermon. If he runs a car, he is worldly, if he doesnt he is always late for appointments. If he tells a joke, hes flippant. If he doesnt, hes far too serious. If he starts the service on time, his watch must be fast. If hes a minute late hes keeping the congregation waiting. If he takes a holiday, hes never in the parish. If he doesnt, hes a stick in the mud. If he has the church painted hes extravagant. If he doesnt, the church is shabby. If hes young, hes inexperienced. If hes getting old, he ought to retire. But... when he dies, theres never been anyone quite like him. It does seem that when it comes to Gospel ministry you just cant win, or at least you cant please all of the people all of the time. And of course there is nothing new in that. In fact it was a situation which Jesus had to face with his congregations as we see in Matthew 11. Both he and his cousin, John the Baptist just couldnt seem to do right for doing wrong. Just take a look at v 18. You couldnt have two more contrasting lifestyles. John, well he was in the eccentric preacher vain- a bit of an oddity really, living a frugal existence, more or less a recluse. So what did folk say- hes obviously mad, he has a demon, normal peopled dont behave like that. Jesus on the other hand was as gregarious as they come, he loved to party, even have a drink. So what did people do? They wrote him off as a drunk and glutton. As Jesus points out in v 18, such folk are like whining ,discontented children playing games in the market place, they are never satisfied. You suggest playing football, they want to play cricket. You suggest cricket, then you can bet they have turned up with hockey sticks. Its all a matter of heads we win, tails you lose- Jesus. And we hear the same today dont we? Christians - oh they are far too serious. Old fashioned and dry. So what happens? You introduce some modern songs and instruments into the service and then you are dismissed as being happy clappy. You cant seem to win. The fact is, as with Jesus himself and the greatest prophet of all, John the Baptist, the followers of Christ must refuse point blank to dance to the worlds tune and insist that they witness to Gods truth- and thereby demonstrating that Gods ways are the best ways irrespective of what people think- v 19 wisdom is proved right by her actions. And what is particularly moving here, is that Jesus is not only having to defend his actions against an unbelieving crowd but also justify his ministry to a doubting friend- John.
So what is the problem? We are told in v 2 When John (the Baptist) heard was Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else? Now what is that all about? Well, John is in prison, suffocating in the fortress of Machaerus in the burning mountains by the Red Sea. Emotionally and physically, he was drained and I would not be surprised if he was not also exhausted spiritually , because we are a unity, when we get run down physically, the emotions and the spirits tend to plummet too dont they? John has already publicly testified that God was going to send his King, anointed one-the Christ- who would lay his axe to the root of the trees of our life in judgement. He will come, said John, with a winnowing fork in his hand to sort out the spiritual chaff from the real grain. And Jesus, said John is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who was to come. But now he is not so sure. Jesus seems to be doing very little in the axe wielding department-so had John simply made a mistake? But instead of letting the doubt fester, he sends his disciples to Jesus to get the answer. And that is always the best thing to do with doubt-not ignore it, but confront it- try and get it resolved.
So how does Jesus reply? v 4 Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight ,the lame walk ,those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is being preached to the poor. Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is giving a summary of his ministry in the words of OT prophecy, especially Isaiah chapters 35 and 61, which read in this way, Is 35: 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a dear and the mute tongue shout for joy. Similarly Is 61: 1 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. In other words he is saying to John, through his envoy disciples: Look Cousin, you know the prophetic Scriptures, so just reflect on my ministry for a moment and you will see that I am fulfilling them. But what Jesus leaves out in both of these prophesies are the words of judgement such as these: Is 35:4 Your God will come with vengeance and divine retribution. Is 61: 2 to proclaim the year of the Lords favour and the day of vengeance of our God. And then in v 6 Jesus says Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me What is Jesus getting at?
Well, it is something like this: John, you can see by my ministry, through the preaching and the miracles, that they are the fulfilment of Scripture. Yes I am the Christ promised which you rightly saw when you baptised me in the Jordan river-you started well- hang in there cousin, blessed is the man who does not fall away on my account. And while it is understandable as you lay locked away in the stifling heat of prison that you want to see justice executed and carried out quickly- Gods vengeance, well, that part of the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled-in the future, but not just yet. So yes, I can see why you doubt - but hold on, you were right all along.
Now we shouldnt be too hard upon John and we must try and see things from his point of view. You see, John the Baptist lived the other side of the cross and resurrection. Like the rest of Jesus disciples he couldnt quite fathom out how Jesus could both be the triumphant victor of God and the suffering servant, you had to be either one or the other. He was thinking, if Jesus is the one sent by God ,and the evidence certainly seems to point that way, then why am I left languishing in prison? Why doesnt he do something? Boot out the blighters that are giving us so much grief and establish Gods kingdom of peace and love now. But Jesus wants to gently reassure him, that Gods plan is right on track and is being worked out although perhaps not quite as John had come to expect.
And you know there is a lesson for us there. We may well often find ourselves in situations where we are prone to doubt. Things are not quite working out as we had hoped , one of our family members is struck down with an illness and, to be quite frank, we wonder what on earth God is doing. But the problem lies not so much with God but with us, our limited understanding of Scripture and how it applies. Again we come back to the lesson we have heard from Matthew time and time again, God is looking for faith-simple obedient trust, to keep on even when we might not see the complete picture-the bigger picture.
So let me tell you about Bishop Stanway. He was a man greatly used by god to multiply and strengthen churches through East Africa. In Tanzania alone he was responsible for establishing more than 20 dioceses. He was then truck down with Parkinson's disease, so much so he could no longer talk. He communicated by writing, practically illegible notes, on a pad of paper. One day he was visited by a Christian friend who asked him how he was coping. After all he had led such an active life- a bit of a John the Baptist really, now he seemed to be shunted to the sidelines. How did he reply? He could have said, I don't understand. I am angry. Why has God done this to me when I have done so much for him? But he didnt. He wrote on his pad , There is no future in frustration. In other words he lived with eternitys perspective before him. He took Jesus words seriously, Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.
But then Jesus turns to the crowds in v 7 with a challenge: What did you expect to see in John the Baptist when he was out preaching in the desert? Apparently there were some in the crowd who at one time revered John, but now had entertained doubts of their own. If he was so great a religious reformer then why was he locked away in prison? Why this whinging? Maybe he wasnt such a great one after all. Well, Jesus puts paid to those sorts of thoughts straight away in v 7. What did you see when John was at the height of his powers. Some sort of flexible reed blown here and there, one who was always on the lookout for a compromise forever nailing his colours firmly to the fence? Or was it someone always on the lookout for comfort- wanting the easy life-dressed in fine clothes? Hardly, then he would have been in a palace not the wilderness. No, what you got was what you saw- a prophet. In fact more than a prophet, for he was the one who was the object of prophecy itself, as we see in Malachi -the forerunner of God-the new Elijah (v 10, 13). And so rather than looking down your noses at him now he has hit hard times, you should be looking up to him, for- v11 Among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Do you realise what an amazing thing Jesus is saying here? He is claiming that John the Baptist, this old fashioned preacher from Hicksville, is greater than Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the great, even Caesar himself. That all the Bible characters up to this point are as nothing compared to John - Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, even King David and Solomon. How come? Was it that John had more faith than any of these-hardly from what we have been hearing. No, it is simply the fact that unlike any of these, John alone had the inestimable privilege of being able to publicly testify to Jesus as the Christ, Gods one and only Son and that privilege made him the greatest human being ever to be born up to this point in time.
Isnt that staggering ? John who never performed a miracle. Who never wrote a book. Who never, as far as we know, had a vision of God as did, say, Isaiah, is nonetheless called by Jesus the greatest because he could physically point to Jesus and say This is the one whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. Sure the prophet Isaiah testified about the coming of Jesus as the suffering servant, as did King David as in the prophetic Psalm 22- but they did so from a distance and implicitly, but John could do it personally and explicitly in the flesh, saying which no one else could , This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now do you see what Gods criterion for greatness is- not wealth, not intelligence, not ability to perform miracles, even, but simply and profoundly being able to single Jesus out and say Follow him, surrender to him, he is your rightful King-love him.
But that is not the end of it, the best is yet to come for Jesus goes on to say: And yet, he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Do you know who Jesus is talking about? He is talking about you and me, if we are Christians. Following the flow of the argument Jesus is actually saying that the least person in the kingdom of heaven, the one who stands this side of the cross and resurrection is greater than Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist. Why? Are we more spiritual than they, more holy. Well, I certainly am not. But we are greater than any of them in this vital respect- we can point to Jesus with far greater clarity and conviction than any of them and explain who he is and what he came to do. When one of our 8 year old Explorers, says to one of her friends in the school playground ,Do you know that Jesus is my Lord and friend and died for me so that I can go to heaven- she is doing a far greater job than John the Baptist ever did-because she can say it with greater certainty and with far more evidence to back up the claims than John was able. That means as far as Gods estimation is concerned, Mrs Smith chatting with her neighbour and living out the Christian life, and young Darren Smith talking to his mates over a cup of coffee at the college cafeteria about Christ , is participating in a greatness that even Tony Blair and President Bush are not participating in for all their globe trotting- for they are involved in building a kingdom which will last for ever. How long will these fellows last? Two to three terms? What effect will their politicking have ,important though that is? Two or three generations? But if you are a Christian just going about your normal work in testifying to the King of the Universe- your name may not mean much now to the powers that be, the movers and shakers, the thought formers in our society. You may no even become a celebrity which seems to be the one thing everyone want to be-pop idols- but as you witness to you friends, your children and grandchildren, your names will be remembered where it matters the most-in the kingdom of heaven. I dont know about you but I need to hear that and constantly be reminded of that for it is so easy for Christians to feel as if we are nobodies , relegated to the margins of our secular society. Not so says Jesus, if you know me, you are very much a somebody-infinitely precious in my sight and dont let anyone put you down as they tried to do with my cousin John.
So let me end by telling you about Bill Armstrong. Bill was a big name in the American Senate. He was very much a mover and shaker. But where did he demonstrate true greatness? Not in the halls of power in Washington, but in a hospital ward when he visited his friend Jack Swigart who laying dying of cancer. This was the man who had piloted the ill fated Apollo 13 capsule. This night Bill leant over to his friend and whispered, Jack, God loves you. I love you. You are surrounded by friends who are praying for you. The only response was Jacks tortured and uneven breathing. Bill pulled the chair closer to the bed ,opened his Bible and began to read- psalms pointing to Jesus- Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd.. Time passed, Psalm 150, Bill began and then his skin prickled. Jacks ragged breath had stopped. He then called for help. Then as he watched the nurse examining Jack, he knew his Christian friend was dead. Some of Bills colleagues would have considered such visits a waste of time, why bother, get on with your career, running government, shaping the nation. But Bill did what was absolutely right, he showed he was a Christian and what really mattered, holding his friends hand as he stepped into heaven-for as Jesus said Wisdom is proved right by her actions.
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