Expect and endure - Matthew 11:1-18
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Several years ago, Brother Andrew from the 'Open Doors' mission agency was at a meeting in Budapest, teaching a dozen or so Christian ministers from the Bible. At the time it was still under communist wraps and opposition to the Gospel was intense. As he was speaking in walked an old friend, a pastor who had recently been released from prison. Brother Andrew said that he immediately stopped teaching and knew it was time to listen. After a long pause the Romanian pastor said: "Andrew, are there any pastors in prison in Holland?' (He could equally have said 'Britain'). 'No' he replied.' 'Why not?' the pastor asked. Brother Andrew thought for a moment and said, 'I think it must be because we do not take advantage of the opportunities God gives us.' Then came the really difficult question: 'Andrew, what do you do with 2 Timothy 3: 12?' Brother Andrew opened his Bible and turning to the text read it aloud, "All who desire to lead a godly life will be persecuted." He closed the Bible slowly and said, "Brothers, please forgive me. We do nothing with that verse."
I guess it could also be said that many of us don't do that much with this verse either, Matthew 5:10: 'Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' This is the final beatitude which matches the other bookend in v3, for both promise the 'kingdom of heaven.' And so fundamental is persecution to living the kingdom life that Jesus goes on to elaborate this beatitude in a way he doesn't with any of the others-v11: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.' Why on earth should Jesus followers not only expect persecution but embrace it? Jesus gives two reasons: first, it carries with it a great reward and second, they are in good company- that of the prophets of God. And that this is not theoretical but actual is underscored by the observation that Jesus changes from speaking in the third person in verse 10 'Blessed are those who are persecuted' to the second person in verse 11, 'Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely says all kinds of evil against you because of me.' There are no 'maybes' or 'buts' about this if we are living the kingdom life, the life of righteousness- we will be positively hated for it so says Jesus.
And we know this is true because it happened just a few pages later in chapter 11. The last and greatest of the prophets John the Baptist- was put in prison and then beheaded. The greatest of them all Jesus the Son of God -was maligned and then crucified. Neither seemed to fit in with people's expectations and those who do not fit in have to be got rid of. So if you want the applause of men, then forget about being a Christian. But if you want the applause of heaven, then you can be nothing else.
Now in this episode we see what takes place when people 'falsely say all kinds of evil' against God's people because of Jesus. But we also see what the antidote is which enables us not only to expect it but endure it.
Now it seems that neither Jesus nor John could do right for doing wrong. Just take a look at v 18- 'John came neither eating nor drinking, the Son of man came eating and drinking.' You couldn't have two more contrasting lifestyles. John, well he was in the eccentric preacher tradition- the term 'odd ball' would have fit quite nicely, living a frugal existence, more or less a recluse. So what did folk say? 'He's obviously mad, he has a demon, after all normal peopled don't behave like that.' Jesus, on the other hand, was as gregarious as they come, he loved to party. So what did people do? They wrote him off as a drunk and a glutton. But that does not faze Jesus in the slightest. Far from this reflecting mature discernment it is nothing but juvenile discontentment as he points out in v 16, such folk are like whining, discontented children playing games in the school yard: 'To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' You suggest playing football, they want to play cricket. You suggest cricket, then you can bet they have turned up with hockey sticks. It's all a matter of heads we win, tails you lose when it comes to the herald of the Kingdom-John and the bearer of the Kingdom- Jesus. And we hear the same today don't we? when it comes to the citizens of the kingdom- Christians. 'Christians - oh they are far too serious; old fashioned, out of touch.' So what happens? You introduce some modern songs and instruments into the church service and you are dismissed as being 'happy clappy.' Not so much out of touch but out of your mind. You can't seem to win. And such snide treatment is part and parcel of living in persecution country. 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 insist that they witness to God's truth- and thereby demonstrating that God's ways are the best ways irrespective of what people think- v 19 'wisdom is proved right by her actions.' Even the pagan world will have a grudging respect for the good Christians bring in society.
But what is particularly moving here is that Jesus does not only have to defend his actions against an unbelieving crowd but also justify his ministry to a doubting friend- John.
So what is John's 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?' Just think about that for a moment. Had the Bible been written by a Public Relations agency that verse would have been missed out wouldn't it? It is not good PR to have one of your cabinet ministers questioning publicly the Prime Minister. But fortunately for us the Bible wasn't written by spin doctors but people inspired by an eternal God who knew that from time to time his disciples would be persecuted and at the very least cast into the dungeon of doubt.
Well, John is in a literal dungeon, suffocating in the fortress of Machaerus located in the burning mountains by the Red Sea. Emotionally and physically, he was drained and I would be surprised if he was not also exhausted spiritually. There is the metaphorical dungeon too. Because we are a unity, when we get run down physically, the emotions and the spirits also tend to plummet don't they? Well, so it is here. 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 lives in judgment. He will come, said John, with a winnowing fork in his hand to sort out the spiritual chaff from the real grain. And John identified his cousin as the Christ, the one who was to come. But now it seems that he is not so sure. Jesus appears to be doing very little in the axe wielding department-so John begins to wonder whether he has 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 and try and get it resolved.
And so, although the circumstances may change, 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. Such questions come readily to the lips of Christians who in doing a good deed suffer evil results. 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?' 'Just why are the righteous persecuted?' Surely you must have asked questions like those at some time in your life? If not you soon will.
Well, Jesus whilst not directly answering those questions does so indirectly and in so doing lifts the eyes of his followers above the circumstances to get a glimpse of the one who is the Lord over the circumstances -v4, '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 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 v 6 Jesus says 'Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me' Now 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- God's 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 shouldn't 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 couldn't 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 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 love now. But Jesus wants to gently reassure him that God's plan is right on track and is being worked out although perhaps not quite as John had come to expect. And is that not the message we need to hear when it appears that it is Satan's kingdom and not God's which seem to be making headway in the world? Appearances can be deceptive. I guess that had you been standing there at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday you would not have taken that much comfort from what you could see. The culmination of the world's persecution of God's people and so God himself had in many ways reached its zenith on that hill. But that did not mean that God's plan was being thwarted, on the contrary it was being remarkably fulfilled. And so it has always been the case. 1800 years ago at a time of immense persecution an early Christian leader called Tertullian writing to one of his persecutors said this: 'We Christians multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.' But this does not mean that God will not act in judgement, in one sense he is already doing that as he gives up a society to the consequences of rejecting his people and his ways. The Herod who eventually killed John also suffered God's judgement.-Acts 12:23- he was struck down dead. But the final judgement is yet to come and it is this Jesus who will execute it and the suffering people of God are to take some comfort from that fact. Not that they are seeking vengeance but that they are desiring justice.
But just in case the crowd decide to chime in with a put down of John and so add to his pain, Jesus turns on them in v7: '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 wasn't 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 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 upon 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 astonishing thing Jesus is saying here? He is claiming that John the Baptist is greater than Nebuchadnezzar, more exalted than Alexander the great, more honoured than even Caesar. Jesus is actually saying that all the Bible characters up to this point are as nothing compared to John - Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, King David and Solomon. How come? Was it that John had more faith than any of these-not 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, God's one and only Son and that privilege made him the greatest human being ever to be born up to this point in time. As the new Elijah he prepared the way for, and pointed to, Christ.
Isn't 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, but he did so from a distance and through a glass darkly, but John could do it close up and with perfect clarity, saying, 'This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.' Now do you see what God's 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? Hardly. 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 God's 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. 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 but your names will be remembered where it matters the most-in the kingdom of heaven. I don't 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 and especially when we are treated like the dregs. Not so says Jesus, if you know me you are infinitely precious in my sight and don't let anyone put you down as they tried to do with my cousin John. Sure, the world will oppose you as they opposed John, but like him you are still a vital part of my purposes for the world and remember I have been there too and overcome.
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