The servant's credibility - Luke 7:18-35
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Here is an article taken from a church newspaper which makes the point that the Vicar is in a no win situation: ‘If he visits his flock he is nosey, if he doesn’t, he’s a snob. If he preaches longer than ten minutes, he’s too long. If he preaches less than ten minutes he can’t have prepared his sermon. If he runs a car, he is worldly, if he doesn’t he is always late for appointments. If he tells a joke, he’s flippant. If he doesn’t, he’s far too serious. If he starts the service on time, his watch must be fast. If he’s a minute late he’s keeping the congregation waiting. If he takes a holiday, he’s never in the parish. If he doesn’t, he’s a stick in the mud. If he has the church painted, he’s extravagant. If he doesn’t, the church is shabby. If he’s young, he’s inexperienced. If he’s getting old, he ought to retire. But... when he dies, there’s never been anyone quite like him.’ It does seem that when it comes to Gospel ministry you can’t please all of the people all of the time and so there is no point in trying. And of course there is nothing new in that. Indeed, it was a situation in which Jesus found himself in Luke 7. In fact, it was not restricted to Jesus, because his cousin John the Baptist had to face it too, for as far as their critics were concerned neither could do right for doing wrong. Just take a look at v 33, ‘For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard,’ a friend of tax collectors and “sinners”. You couldn’t have two more contrasting lifestyles. On the one hand there is John who falls in the eccentric preacher category- living a frugal existence, more or less a recluse out in the desert, of the ‘fire and brimstone’ school. Now you might have expected the religious authorities to welcome that- after all the Pharisees were the self-appointed guardians of the moral law. But no, according to verse 30, they refused to be baptized because they were too good in their on eyes to think that such teaching applied to them! So what did they say? - ‘He’s obviously mad, he has a demon. And so effectively they silence him. Jesus, on the other hand, was as gregarious as they come, he loved people and extended to them God’s fellowship and as a sign of that he would party with them. And some folk thought that it was wonderful- God actually loved them- v29, God was doing the right thing. But not according to the Pharisees, they thought that good people don’t associate with bad people, unless deep down they are bad too -so they concluded Jesus must be bad - ‘a drunk and glutton’. John is mad; Jesus is bad- so both can conveniently be ignored. But as Jesus points out in v 18, the religious elite are simply inconsistent, they are like whining children playing games in the market place, they are never satisfied and keep changing the rules of the game to suit themselves: ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not cry.’ You turn up expecting to play football, you can bet your bottom dollar they want to play cricket. It’s all a matter of heads we win, tails you lose-Jesus. And we hear the same today don’t we? ‘The church is too old fashioned’. So what happens? Modern songs and instruments are introduce into the service and then dismissed as being ‘happy clappy.’ So the charge of being ‘out of touch’ is changed to being ‘out of your mind’. You can’t 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 world’s tune and rather insist that they witness to God’s truth- however unpalatable it may be, thereby demonstrating that God’s ways are the best ways irrespective of what people think- v 35 ‘wisdom is proved right by her children.’ God’s genuine offspring, the fruit of the Gospel have changed lives and like it or not that is very difficult to argue with. There is the story of a Christian who prior to his conversion had wasted most of his money on drink, to the detriment of his health and family who often had to go short on food. And one day he was being ribbed by some work colleagues, ‘You don’t believe in all that miracle stuff do you?’ “Have you ever seen water turned into wine?’ they taunted. ‘No’ he replied, ‘But I have seen beer turned into bread’. That’s what Christ can do.
But what is particularly moving here is that Jesus in the first instance does not only have to defend his ministry against an unbelieving crowd but to a doubting friend- John the Baptiser.
So what is the problem? We are told in v 18, ‘John’s [that is, the Baptist] disciples told him about all these things (the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising of the widow of Nain’s son from the dead). Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ And just to underscore just how serious this question is, Luke has it repeated in verse 20.
Now what is that all about? Well, you have to understand that John is in prison. John is suffocating in the burning heat of the fortress of Machaerus situated in mountains by the Dead Sea. Emotionally and physically, he was drained and I would not be surprised if he was not also exhausted spiritually. We have already seen in Luke 3 that John had publically testified that God was going to send his King, his anointed one-the Christ- who would lay his axe to the root of the trees of our lives in judgment. ‘He will come’, said John, ‘with a winnowing fork in his hand to sort out the spiritual chaff from the genuine grain’. And Jesus, he claimed is that Christ-the one ‘who was to come’. But now it seems that he is not so sure. Why? Well, perhaps it is because Jesus seems to be doing very little in the axe wielding department-so John begins to wonder whether he has simply made a mistake. He was questioning Jesus’ credibility.
And while the circumstances may have changed, the questions haven’t. They are asked from time to time by the faithful who suffer at the hands of the faithless. They are raised by those who in following the Lord Jesus Christ take two steps forward and then seem to have their feet knocked right out from underneath them. That is when the questions start pouring like rain: ‘If God is so good, why do I hurt so bad?’ ‘If God is really there, why am I stuck here?’ You must have asked questions like those at some time in your life? If not, you soon will
So how does Jesus reply? Verse 22, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is 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 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 judgment such as these: Is 35:4 ‘Your God will come with vengeance and divine retribution.’ Is 61: 2 ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God.’ And then in v23 Jesus says ‘Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’ What is Jesus getting at?
Well, he is saying something like this: ‘John, your own disciples can testify to my ministry that through the preaching and the miracles, Scripture is being fulfilled. Yes, I am the Christ promised which you rightly saw when you baptised me in the Jordan River- you started well. Don’t give up now - ‘blessed is the man who does not fall away on my account.’ And while it is quite understandable that as you lie locked away in the stifling heat of prison that you want to see justice carried out- and soon- God’s ‘vengeance’- well, that part of the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled but not just yet.’
Now we shouldn’t be too hard upon John and we must try and see things from his point of view. You see, John lived the other side of the cross and resurrection. Like the rest of Jesus disciples he couldn’t quite fathom out how Jesus could be both the triumphant King of Psalm 2 and the suffering servant of Isaiah- you had to be either one or the other. He was thinking that 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 doesn’t he do something? Boot out the blighters that are giving us so much grief and establish God’s kingdom of peace and justice now. If he can raise the dead why can’t he remove the wicked? But Jesus wants to gently reassure him (and us) that God’s plan is right on track and is being worked out although perhaps not quite as John had come to expect.
Now, here’s a thought: Do you remember how after Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, Luke records that ‘the devil left him until an opportune time’? In the desert the devil was trying to get Jesus to turn away from his God-given task of being the Suffering-Servant King of Isaiah, in order to be simply the conquering King of Psalm 2. When you think about it, unwittingly John is tempting Jesus in the same way. He longs for the King of Psalm 2 who will break his enemies into pieces, and so one could have understood the tug on Jesus’ heart as he thinks about the appalling predicament of his own cousin to enact vengeance there and then and so be the Psalm 2 Messiah. But Jesus resisted.
There may be a lesson in this for us. We may find ourselves in situations where we are prone to doubt, when things are not quite working out as we had hoped. Maybe 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 and our limited understanding of Scripture and how it applies.
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 do you think he replied? I guess 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 didn’t. Instead he wrote on his pad, ‘There is no future in frustration.’ In other words he lived with eternity’s 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 24 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 were entertaining doubts of their own. For if he was so great a religious reformer then why this whinging-has he gone soft? Well, Jesus puts paid to those sorts of thoughts straight away, ‘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, nailing his colours firmly to the fence? Or was it someone concerned with personal comfort- dressed in fine clothes? Hardly! 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 (3:1) -the forerunner of God himself. And so rather than looking down your noses at him now he has hit hard times, you should be looking up to him, for- v28 ‘Among those born of women, there is no one greater than John.’
Do you realise what an amazing thing it is that Jesus is saying here? Jesus is claiming that John the Baptist, this old fashioned preacher from ‘up North’, is greater than Alexander the Great and even Caesar himself. He is saying that all the Bible characters up to this point are as nothing compared to John. How come? Was it that John had more faith than any of them? Certainly not from what we have been hearing. No, it is simply that unlike Abraham, Moses or Isaiah, John alone had the inestimable privilege of being able to publically testify to Jesus as the Christ, God’s one and only Son. It was that privilege which made him the greatest human being ever to have been born up to this point in time.
John who never performed a miracle, who never wrote a book, who never, as far as we know, had a vision of God, is nonetheless called by Jesus the greatest human because he could physically point to Jesus and say ‘This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Now do you see what God’s measure of true greatness is? It is not wealth, it is not intelligence, it is not the ability to perform miracles, it is simply being able to single Jesus out and say ‘Follow him, he is your rightful King.’
But that is not the end of it or even the best of it because Jesus goes on to say: ‘Yet, the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ Who is Jesus talking about? He is talking about you and me- Christians. Following the flow of the argument Jesus is actually saying that the least person in the kingdom of God, the one who stands this side of the cross and resurrection, is greater than Abraham, Moses, David, or John the Baptist. Why? Is it that we more spiritual than they? Not really. But we are greater than any of them in this vital respect- we can point to Jesus with far greater clarity and conviction and explain who he is and what he came to do because we have the full story in the Bible. 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 to. That means as far as God’s estimation is concerned, Mrs Smith chatting with her neighbour about Christ and living out the Christian life is participating in a kind of greatness in that they are involved in a kingdom which will last for ever.
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 Jack’s tortured and uneven breathing. Bill pulled the chair closer to the bed, opened his Bible and began to read psalms which pointed to Jesus- Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd….’ As time passed, Jack’s ragged breathing stopped and Bill called for help. Then as he watched the nurse examining Jack, he knew his Christian friend was dead. Some of Bill’s colleagues would have considered such visits a complete waste of time. ‘Why bother, get on with your career, running government, shaping the nation.’ But Bill did what was right; he showed he was a Christian and what really mattered- holding his friends hand as he took that great step from this world to the next. For, as Jesus said ‘Wisdom is proved right by her children.’
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