The changeless Jesus - Matthew 12:1-21
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'The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man-and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church, and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think ye of Christ?...The Church's answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God `by whom all things were made'. His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be `like God'-he was God ... This is the dogma we find so dull this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero'.
The writer goes on:
'If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore--on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him `meek and mild', and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old. ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as `that fox'; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a `gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handyHe was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either...'
So writes Dorothy L Sayers, and of course she is absolutely right. You see, f we have faulty perceptions about Jesus then invariably we shall have faulty perceptions about God. And if we have wrong views about both, then that will be reflected in the way we live. For example, if we primarily think of God as one who is all demanding, a stern task master, whose main concern is with morality, then our religion will be hard and stern too, lacking any joy and exhibiting very little compassion. On the other hand, if Jesus is seen as being little more than a wise sage doling out the occasional good advice, then there is little incentive to take him seriously for today and Christianity can safely be consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Well, the same held true in Jesus own lifetime. There were then some people whop were so fixed in their views about what a Messiah should be, that when Jesus did not fit the bill they decided to get rid of him in the cruelest way imaginable. That was the reaction of the religious establishment. But then there were others so bowed down with the pain of living, crushed by the burden of man-made religion, who were more than delighted to accept him as they found him, full of tenderness and compassion, for it spelt their liberation and the beginning of a new way of life. And of course the same is true today. When you come to terms with who Jesus really is and what he came to do, then the effect is simply life transforming. And this morning we are looking at a passage which takes us to the very heart of Jesus character and the nature of his mission Matthew chapter 12. And I want us to look at this under three headings: a divine approval; a conflicting contrast and a universal mission.
First of all we have, a divine approval look at verse 15: 'Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.'
Now we have to take note of what has just been happening if we are to understand why Jesus acts in the way he does. You see, Jesus has just had a run in with the religious rulers because he had the gall to allow his disciples to eat corn picked from the fields as they travelled along the road, as well as heal a man with a shrivelled hand, both of which took place on the same day which was a Sabbath-the Jewish holy day. Now that was the most religiously incorrect thing Jesus could ever have done because it ran contrary to all that the Pharisees held dear, namely, keeping the rules. The result? v 14, they hatched a plot to kill him. And so Jesus withdrew. But he didn't pull back out of cowardice; but because of his divine character- v 17, 'This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah'. And what was that? Well, in chapter 42 of that prophecy which is being quoted here, we encounter a person simply known as the 'Lord's Servant.' In fact, at times the link between Yahweh- the LORD God and the servant is so close that the two are almost interchangeable- so what the LORD is saying and doing, the servant is saying and doing, and vice versa. And here in Matthew 12 the full identity of this 'servant' is now being revealed it is Jesus. All that Isaiah looked forward to has now arrived in the person and work of Jesus. So when God steps into human history in the person of this man, he does not strut and brag like human conquerors do, having to feed a fragile ego by basking in the limelight and enjoying the fawning adulation of admirers: Not at all. On the contrary, v 19, 'He will not quarrel or cry out (literally scream OUT), no one will hear his voice in the streets.' You see, the ministry of Jesus is not like the glitzy ministry of the American TV evangelist or the rabble rousing politician. It is a quiet and gentle ministry. It is peaceful and unobtrusive. He does not force his way into people's lives, instead he invites people to share in his life. And as such he receives the divine approval of his heavenly Father, 'Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight: I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the nations.' In other words, Jesus is behaving in a way which gladdens the heart of his Father, causing it to swell with a holy pride-'This is my Son and I am pleased with him.' You bet he is, for, he is acting exactly in accord with the enabling power of God's Holy Spirit. And this is not to draw undue attention to himself in that self advertising way some ministers think they should act with that 'Look at me am I not great? attitude. Jesus practices what he preaches in that he has that lovely 'beatitude attitude,' a discrete loving service to those in need- v 15. 'Many followed him and he healed their sick, warning them not to tell who he was.' Jesus is not into self-publicity but public service. Now could I ask whether this is your view of God? A God who is strong, yet sensitive? A God who is firm, but flexible? A God who is tough and yet tender? One whose greatness is shown in giving? Well, that is the God of the Bible. For that is the God with whom we come face to face in the person of Jesus.
And this leads us to our second point, a conflicting contrast. You see, the cry of the religious person is: 'What is lawful?' You see it there in verse 2 'Look, (say the Pharisees) Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.' And then again in v10 'They asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?' But the concern of Jesus however, is 'What is loving?' And that is shown in actions- feeding the hungry disciples, healing the man with a shrivelled hand. Not that any of this was to be set in opposition to God's law, rather it was a fulfilment of it, hence v7 'If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.' a quotation from the OT prophets -Hosea, who were seen to be the true interpreters of the law.
But the problem with the religious then, and many of the religious now, is legalism. Think for a moment of the characteristics of legalism. Legalism is rigid, uniform and mechanical-you don't even have to think about it, just disengage the mind and go through the motions. But the real problem with the legalist of course, is that he thinks that he doesn't need God. Legalism is the search for innocence, not forgiveness. 'I must be alright' says the legalist, 'for I have kept all the rules.' And so at the end of the day, legalism is all about self- explaining self, justifying self, exalting self, asserting self. Oh, the legalist is quite literally self-obsessed.
And you see the effects of legalism here in this passage. First, legalism turns my opinion into your burden. The Pharisees opinion was that it was better for the man to remain infirm than to be healed. So he can keep his burden so as not to upset their opinion. Secondly, legalism turns my opinion into your boundary. Your opposing opinion not only makes me question your right to have fellowship with me but your salvation. The disciples must be beyond the pale because they were not part of their group. But thirdly legalism turns my opinion into your obligation. 'You had better toe the party line or you are out hence them getting rid of Jesus. That is legalism. If you want to keep in with the group then just do, don't ask. But Jesus did ask and that is what made him uncomfortable. And it has to be said that the suffocating curse of legalism with its fear-induced conformity is very much alive and kicking today and is no respecter of churchmanship. And so the questions are raised which turn opinions into burdens, boundaries and obligations: Adult baptism or infant baptism- for or against? The answer you give to that will determine your inclusion or exclusion in some circles. Ordination by bishops or non-bishops-for or against? That certainly will be a measure of whether your ministry is kosher or not with some people. Why, I even heard of one church where you were only deemed fit for leadership if you wore a tie! But the effect is always the same- to demote others and exalt self. That is the way of legalism.
But that is not the way of Jesus.
Just look at verse 20 which is one of the most sublime and moving descriptions of Jesus in the entire Bible: 'A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.' At the time of Christ reeds were used for all sorts of things. A shepherd would often make a flute- like instrument out of a reed and play soft, gentle music on it. But if it became split or bruised it would no longer make music and the shepherd would throw it away. When a lamp burned down to the end of the wick, it would only smoulder without making any light and so it would be snuffed out. Now can you see who this imagery applies to? It is to people, people who are bruised and broken. People who the world and legalistic religion would consider beyond repair -damaged goods only to be discarded as useless.
Tell me; is there anything more frail than a bruised reed? There it is by the water's edge. It was once strong, slender and sturdy, now it is bowed and bent. And that may well be a picture of you if the truth be known. You can remember a time when you were strong and upright. That is until something happened. You were bruised -by harsh words, a friend's anger, a spouse's betrayal, a religion's rigidity. And so you were wounded. Bent ever so slightly, but you feel you could easily break any time. Is that you?
Let me ask: is there anything more close to death than a smouldering wick? Once a flame passionate and glowing, now merely flicker and steadily failing. Not yet cold, but no longer hot. That perhaps is a perfect description of the way you feel about your faith. You remember how once you shone so brightly, your light blazing a trail for others to follow. But then came the cold wind. Someone said your ideas were stupid, that your zeal was too embarrassing. The harsh wind of criticism seemed relentless. Oh, you stood up to it for a time, but you felt so isolated, so alone, you turned around looking for some support and found none, leaving you feeling as if you were one pinch away from total extinction. Perhaps that is you?
If so, then see how Jesus will deal with you as he dealt with the people he encountered in this Gospel. The bullied disciples, he defends. The put upon man with his wizened hand he restores. That's Jesus. He doesn't despise our infirmities, he deals with them. At the point when we feel we can no longer go on, that is exactly the point at which Jesus quietly comes alongside as we feel the touch of his Spirit and hear the voice of his Word-he will not break us or snuff us out, that is not his way. The bruised reed he will bind, the smouldering wick he will fan into a flame. I tell you, there is not one person here this morning who for all their appearance on the outside has not felt some bruising on the inside. And if you feel like that now then don't despair and certainly don't give up. Jesus hasn't changed-his character and purpose remain the same so come to him.
Which brings us to our final heading- a universal mission vv 20-21: 'A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out until he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.' In other words, this work of Jesus will continue beyond the Jewish people in his own time to embrace non-Jews in our time, right up to the time he returns again.
So let me finish by telling you about Rita Armstrong and her experience of the one who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick' and the way Christ sometimes uses his people to be channels of his love.
Rita's nerves suffered quite severely as a child when she was subject to air raids during the war. When leaving school she struggled with acute depression. But it wasn't until 1974 that she was actually diagnosed as having manic-depression and was given medication. It was then she was introduced to an Edinburgh doctor called Winifred Rushforth, who although 95 was still going strong. This is how Rita takes up her story: 'Winifred believed in each one of her patients and helped us to believe in ourselves. My bruised and battered personality was bathed in her loving acceptance. She was never shocked. She never told us what we ought to do. She did not tell us- she showed that God loved us. By now my children had grown up and were leaving home. One afternoon, as I sat in a rare moment of peace meditating on God's greatness and power, I thought back to the blitz, and then scanned through the centuries to Calvary, and back still further to the beginning of everything. And only God was there. Then I contemplated my future, the time when my life would finally be wound up. And God would still be there. I felt very insignificant against such a backcloth and my petty problems paled pathetically. Then I remembered the childlike faith with which I had given my life to God, confident that Jesus loved me. And Jesus cannot change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Suddenly a light shone. Realisation dawned and a great joy overwhelmed me. Something I must have been told many times became real. I started singing. What I was singing was quite simply this: 'I matter to God.'
The bruised reed and the smouldering wick. Society knows exactly what to do with you. The world will break you off. Society will snuff you out: but not Jesus. Here the words again and allow God's Holy Spirit to etch them in your heart: A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. Let us pray.
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